Comedian-in-Chief?

Guatemalan presidential candidate Jimmy Morales. Photo credit: EFE

Parts of this blog post were translated from a recent submission to Spanish online newspaper Mundiario

The corruption scandal that shook Guatemala to its core and resulted in the downfall of its president, Otto Pérez Molina, has taken an extraordinary electoral twist: TV comedian and host Jimmy Morales – a political newbie – won almost 25% of the vote in the presidential election, slightly ahead of runner-up and former first lady Sandra Torres and millionaire Manuel Baldizon. Because presidential elections in Guatemala require candidates to reach a specific threshold to win outright (50% of the vote), Morales will face-off on October 25th against Torres, who won just under 20% of the vote. Of a voting population of 7.5 million citizens, about 5.3 million showed up at the polls, which tallies up to just under 71% voter turnout – the highest since 1984.

Morales is known for portraying a country bumpkin who nearly becomes president running on vacuous promises only to drop out and return to the countryside. Some outlets might have given the impression that his real-life presidential campaign is somewhat similar because he has not been forthright or clear on what are his policy plans, other than to promise that he will not make his fellow citizens cry as president (yes, he did say that). But the “throw the bums out” attitude that Guatemalans have shown since the scandal was uncovered last April does not indicate that they would consider Morales’ lack of policy candor, and perhaps not even his lack of political experience, a deal-breaker. In that sense, his story is not different from that of Alberto Fujimori in Peru or Hugo Chávez in Venezuela – two political-novices-turned-heads-of-state who ran on not being part of the political establishment. Neither is this the first time that TV personalities ran successfully for office: Talk show host and network owner Ricardo Belmont won the mayoralty of Lima, Peru in 1990 and was reelected four years later. Indeed, strange things happen when voters are mad as hell and are not going to take it anymore; for a Guatemalan analyst, what they did was to vote for a “phenomenon” that is nothing but a “hollow shell, with no solid party structure.” Of course, a prior phenomenon with no solid party structure (Fujimori) won the Peruvian presidency in 1990. If Morales wins, whether he will inaugurate an era of “politics of anti-politics” (as Fujimori did) or think that the whole structure is too plagued by corruption to be salvaged or even govern with is unknown at this point. Whether he will be implicated in a new corruption scandal, directly or indirectly, is another matter.

Meanwhile, the disgraced former president spent Election Day in jail, his day in court still pending. That he will have such a day is a bright spot in the less-than-stellar reputation of Latin American rule of law. We have to recognize it as such because Latin Americans think that the justice system in their countries does not prosecute and punish the guilty as diligently as it should. In Guatemala itself, according to Vanderbilt University’s AmericasBarometer 2014, 44% of citizens trust the judicial system and another 42% do so with courts. And it is that judicial system and those courts which will put Pérez Molina on trial for corruption. Democracy in Latin America (or anywhere) is more than just the rule of law, but if citizens evaluate democracy on the basis of the performance of its institutions, a fair trial where the proper responsibilities are placed – as well as the most profound citizen acceptance of the verdict, even if it results in the acquittal of Pérez Molina – would be a big step toward the consolidation of rule of law (and, consequently, democracy itself) in a country that saw coups, military dictatorships, guerrillas, open civil conflict, and even the genocide of its indigenous population.

Finally, events in Guatemala are unfolding a few years after Latinobarómetro 2013 revealed that Guatemalans do not consider corruption as a truly serious problem in comparison with citizen security (a legitimately dire situation as it is). Latin Americans as a whole agree with that sentiment. The problem, however, is that according to those pollsters, recognizing that corruption exists is the first step toward combatting it, because doing the opposite weakens any effort on the matter. If the story behind Pérez Molina’s downfall helps Guatemalans to reach that first transparency once and for all (and judging from the street demonstrations, they might have reached it), the effort of those who uncovered this scandal – the UN-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala – would not be in vain. Just voting for an outsider promising to be different from “those people” will not do a whole lot on its own. Not without an independent press and transparency NGOs that do not hesitate in naming and shaming the bad apples in public service. Not without avenues for citizens to demand accountability to the government when it breaches public trust. Not without the political will to uphold the law through ethics commissions, ombudspersons, or other internal accountability mechanisms – a will that includes providing them with clear and stable mandates, the proper staffing, and the necessary funding. And certainly not without a massive and unwavering rejection to the culture of discretion and cronyism that stills permeates in Latin America and is fertile ground for every corruption scheme. As the head of the Guatemalan chapter of Transparency International told the British Guardian, “without major political reform, elections will just be about choosing the next group of thieves.”

Guatemala and Latin America deserve no less.

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