Former comedian, now politician, Jimmy Morales is the next the president of Guatemala. Multiple questions loom before he takes office on January 14th, 2016. Debate the politics if you like, but Morales and the team behind him successfully parlayed the tectonic shifts of the “Guatemalan Spring” to their advantage. Sensing the change, the Morales campaign rode the twin waves of first-round momentum and anti-governmental disgust to a landslide win this past weekend.
To be sure, Morales was not the candidate picked by the anti-corruption movement, nor was he directly aligned with the protest groups that brought down President Otto Perez Molina. But he was the candidate who was able to best exploit the Guatemalan Spring’s anti-establishment movement. His campaign slogan (“not corrupt nor a thief”) was a brilliantly timed choice of political phrase-making that appealed to the mood of the voters.
Various reports have highlighted how some Guatemalans were unhappy with the choices presented to them in the run-off on October 25—Morales and the former first lady Sandra Torres. Neither presented much of a choice for voters looking for a politician with policymaking experience.
Now, with a mobilized civil society and a politically inexperienced president with little support in Congress, the political ground in Guatemala is as unstable as Santa Catarina Pineal—the site of the tragic mudslides in September. Some experts (see Chris Sabatini’s recent interview with Manfredo Marroquin of Guatemala’s chapter of Transparency International) are already predicting Morales may not finish his term. Morales and his team of handlers are already aware of this: his first statement after winning on Sunday carefully acknowledged the impact of the country’s protest movement on the election and the country and framed his administration as one that will make anti-corruption measures a top priority.
But as political experts argue, winning an electoral campaign and governing are two different skills. On the stump, Morales used techniques that seemed to come from the Ronald Reagan political playbook: wrapping his fundamentalist Christianity and conservative views in a humble demeanor and often relying of the quick quip to keep conversations light. During the campaign Morales smartly deflected questions about who would be in his cabinet.
When he does announce the make-up of his cabinet, Morales will finally tip his hand as to how many of his infamous military supporters, the founders of his political party the National Convergence Front (FCN), he will include in his government. Morales will need to do more than just choose a few people with anti-corruption and human rights credentials; he will also need to choose technocrats and politicians with experience working on legislation and legislative compromise. The FCN has very few seats in the Guatemalan Congress and finding ways to work with a variety of parties to create legislative majorities around Morales’ priorities will be essential. That’s not an easy skill to acquire for a political neophyte.
Who will the new president pick to aid him in these ambitious missions and what policies will the administration pursue to make promises of a cleaner Guatemala a reality?
Another issue to watch is Morales’ support for CICIG (the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala), the United Nations-backed organization that empowered the anti-corruption investigations in Guatemala and the institution credited with unearthing the information that fueled the country’s protest movement. Integral to this will be Morales’ relationship with Attorney General Thelma Aldana as she seeks to build a stronger and more independent prosecutor’s office for a justice system still learning the ins and outs of the rule of law.
Linked to this, will Morales be willing to support human rights cases against the military? Will his support from former members of the military establishment— including some individuals accused of human rights violations—mean that the future government will trim its sail regarding cases of human rights abuses by the military?
On the campaign trail, Morales skillfully deflected pointed questions about his specific plans, but the president elect will face difficult, real choices once in office. Asked to name potential cabinet members, Morales promised answers eventually but remained vague. Asked to discuss the influence of his military backers, Morales deflected by saying the military is woven into many Guatemalan parties, not only his own. Asked to give specific details about his vision for the country, Morales would always fall back on his campaign slogan and say details would come if he won. But once he is president, he won’t be able to hide behind the slogan, or the defense that he’s learning the ropes of government. The Guatemalan people are expecting more than vague promises and politicians beholden to the military.
After many years of waiting for real democracy, the protests of the Guatemalan Spring show Guatemalans no longer have patience for business as usual. They’ve put the President-elect on notice: he’d best be putting substance behind his one-liners and develop a serious, detailed policy to address impunity if he intends to truly capture Guatemala’s democratic moment and stay in office.