Conservative comedian Jimmy Morales leads former First Lady Sandra Torres after the first round of presidential elections (c) https://www.flickr.com/photos/tim_ellis/ https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/ Amended for size, blur added
Guatemala: joker in the pack holds cards in election run-off
Guatemala has dodged the bullet of a ‘gangster President’, but will those remaining in the contest be willing and able to heal a country tearing itself apart?
Guatemala has been gripped by protests for months. Angry crowds, desperate for change, filled Guatemala City’s public spaces demanding the resignation of the outgoing President Otto Molina after proof emerged of his complicity in extended and lucrative customs fraud. The exposure of the sitting President as an actual criminal in a country blighted by a culture of criminality and impunity was the last straw for many, and Molina was driven from office months before the end of his tenure, and then arrested as his immunity from prosecution vanished along with his grip on power.
On September 6, the people of Guatemala rejected business as usual. By spurning the candidature of Manuel Baldizon, the disgraced Otto Molina’s chosen successor, Guatemala avoided a Presidency reportedly funded by the narcotics trade but left themselves in uncharted territory. The two remaining candidates are, literally, a joker, and a former First Lady who had to divorce her husband just to get a chance to run for the Presidency.
The comedian (no, really), Jimmy Morales, stands for some encouraging things – his mother claims he told her “I want to become president precisely because I’m not a thief,” which as another TV comedian, John Oliver, pointed out, makes a nice change in Guatemala. The problem with Morales is that both in his comedy and his nascent political career he hasn’t exactly given the best signals of progressive intent. While he may indeed not be corrupt or a thief, as his slogan goes, he is reviled by some members of Guatemala’s indigenous communities as a racist for his former comedy routines. Human rights activist Andrea Ixchíu says “as a comedian, he always makes fun of indigenous people, our customs and the way we speak.” As Andrea points out, Morales also has the support of Guatemala’s military, an odd qualification for someone seen by voters as “anti-establishment.” Indeed Morales’ unique form of political subversion is to be ultra conservative. He supports the death penalty and current ban on abortion, and – perhaps linked to his apparent bad attitude towards indigenous people but also highly indicative of how he intends to reward his backers – has already denied that genocide was committed by the army against the Ixil Mayan group during the Guatemalan civil war, a crime so blatant that former President Rios Montt was actually convicted of responsibility for it by Guatemalan courts before some technical shenanigans from the establishment overturned the conviction.
Trade unionists, another group which suffered immense loss at the hands of the authorities and their paramilitary allies during the period of military rule, will be understandably cynical of his commitment to justice should he win.
Sandra Torres certainly should not be held responsible for her ex-husband’s profoundly unconvincing record as Guatemala’s President. Álvaro Colom, who ‘ran’ Guatemala between 2008 and 2012, failed to achieve much of note during his time in power, and despite promising to end impunity and promote the well-being of impoverished ordinary Guatemalans, did very little of either. The shockingly high rate of murders of trade unionists certainly continued unabated during his time in office. Perhaps the best thing that can be said about him is the quality of his enemies, suggesting that some vested interests at least viewed him as a threat. In one bizarre bid to destabilise the President, mysterious forces tried to fit him up for murder when a lawyer recorded a YouTube video claiming Colom’s responsibility in the event of his death, and then arranged for his own assassination.
Torres, who tried to run to succeed her husband in 2011 and was blocked by the country’s Constitutional Court, certainly has a much more encouraging track record than her comedic opponent, with a role as head of Guatemala’s social cohesion council and responsibility for delivering a popular poverty relief programme during Colom’s rule. Indeed, there is an argument to say she was the first political leader since the civil war to think about the poor, and her approach – akin to food banks, it admittedly addressed only some symptoms of poverty and nothing of the cause – has not been forgotten by those it helped. This provides much more cause for hope than Morales’ backing from elderly generals with something to hide. Indeed, if the worst insult that can be thrown at her is “radical populist” then compared to the conservative Morales and shadily-funded Baldizon she is certainly the most promising of the bunch, and might yet be something more. Certainly the previous opposition of the Constitutional Court, which allowed Montt to escape justice and destroyed the career of the crusading Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz, can be seen as a huge compliment.
For the moment, however, the joker in the pack is holding more of the cards. Jimmy Morales secured almost 24% of the vote, with Sandra Torres only narrowly pipping Balzidon to second place by a margin of fewer than 5,000 votes. However, the participating electorate was 5,388,107 and with 3,254,724 people not having supported either of the run-off candidates that’s a huge pool of floating voters to vie for. While Balzidon’s funding may have been shady, his political support came from ordinary Guatemalans, and there has to be a good chance that his support at least will migrate to Torres in greater numbers than to the former indigenous-Guatemalan-baiting comedian.
What this will mean for Guatemala’s trade unions and its recently invigorated civil society will eventually become clear. With attacks on human rights defenders having risen far faster than the overall crime rate over the last few years, the country is desperate for new leadership and meaningful change. At least, with the protest crowds having tasted victory in bringing down one President, there’s a chance that the new President will be compelled to to seek the favour of ordinary people for ongoing support, instead of just the usual financial and military backers.
The run-off will take on October 25.