On Sunday, Alejandro Giammattei—Guatemala’s conservative 63-year old “eternal candidate”—was elected president in a second-round vote with 57.8 percent of votes. With voter turnout at an abysmal 43 percent (down from 62 percent in the first-round vote held on June 16th), the election was marked by discontent with the country’s political establishment that grew under the disastrous presidency of Jimmy Morales (2015-2020). As it fades into Guatemala’s history, the Morales government will be remembered for recurrent constitutional crises and a public confrontation with the United Nations backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG)—and none of the anti-corruption reforms the former comedian promised during his campaign.
Now, Giammattei, who in the past has never held elected office, will hope to succeed where all of his predecessors have failed. Giammattei will have to provide solutions for the country’s most pressing problems, including a poverty rate that borders on 60 percent and contributed to the country’s migrant crisis. Unfortunately, Giammattei’s presidency seems to offer more politics as usual in the Central American nation of 17 million—leaving much-needed reform out of the near future.
Giammattei, a doctor by training, was not in the frontline of Guatemalan politics until recently. Although he received 17.2 percent of votes in the first-round vote of 2007 (falling just 200,000 votes short of passing on to the run-off), his second and third presidential bids in 2011 and 2015, respectively, were mostly unsuccessful—in both instances securing less than 7 percent of votes. The president-elect’s breakthrough finally came in this year’s election cycle and only materialized after serious election meddling from Guatemala’s Constitutional Court (CC).
Earlier this year, the CC ruled against the candidacies of the two leading presidential contenders: the conservative Zury Ríos and the anti-corruption champion, Thelma Aldana. The former was barred from running for being the daughter of a former dictator; the latter was banned after local prosecutors launched a questionable investigation that forced her to flee the country. The CC rulings paved the way for Giammattei and Sandra Torres, an unpopular former first lady running on the platform of the center-left National Unity of Hope (or Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza, UNE), to stand out in a ballot that listed 19 mostly unknown presidential hopefuls. The election resulted in Torres and Giammattei passing on to the second-round vote with 22.1 percent and 12.1 percent of votes, respectively.
The run-off vote, in turn, forced Guatemalans to choose a lesser evil. While Torres did win a plurality of votes in the first-round, her unpopularity and poor judgment on the campaign trail undermined her chances of becoming president. Torres’ decision to abstain from participating in a debate organized by the Association of Managers of Guatemala (or Asociación de Gerentes de Guatemala, AGG) was seen as arrogant and provided Giammattei—who was already securing the direct or implicit support of his first-round rivals—with a much-needed platform to shed light on his campaign promises. The outcome was an hour-and-a-half exchange between journalists and Giammattei, who was free to criticize Torres without any rebuttals. An empty podium with the logo of her UNE party represented the former first lady, sending the wrong message to the swing voters she desperately needed to become president.
However, Giammattei’s presidency is off to a rocky start. For starters, the president elect’s agenda is on a collision course with U.S. President Donald Trump’s plans to make the country a “Safe Third Country,” which would eventually require Central American migrants and refugees to seek entry to the U.S. in Guatemala first. Although sitting president Morales signed the agreement (notwithstanding a ruling of the CC that established it needed to be approved by congress), Giammattei is set to change it, having already stated that the country is not prepared to take-in migrants on a massive scale. In this case, he’s correct; most migrants from the Northern Triangle of Central America are Guatemalan.
The incoming president’s ability to challenge the Trump administration, however, is conditioned on a second crucial factor: a weak mandate that will surely constrain his ability to reach agreements with the opposition. Not only was Giammattei chosen in an election marked by low voter turnout, but also his newly created party, VAMOS, will only count with 11 percent of seats in the country’s 160-member unicameral legislature. The president elect will lead a minority government that will force him to negotiate with the other 18 political parties that are represented in congress—including the 52 seats (or 32.5 percent) of Torres’ UNE party.
At times, elections bring a much-needed breath of change and renewal to some democracies. In others, however, they result in recurrent stagnation—or even worse. While Guatemala has to move past the incompetent Morales presidency, Giammattei’s plans to “reconstruct” the country seem to fall short and appear to echo the empty promises politicians have made to Guatemalan voters time after time.
Lucas Perelló is a PhD candidate in Politics at The New School for Social Research. You can follow him on Twitter @lucasperello