By Louisa Reynolds
Comedian Jimmy Morales secured a surprising victory in the Guatemalan elections on Sept. 6, after he managed to portray himself as a political outsider in the midst of a deep political crisis that has led to widespread rejection of the political establishment.
With 100 percent of the ballots counted, Morales won 24 percent of the vote, while the second place was a tight race between UNE (National Unity of Hope) candidate Sandra Torres, with 19.8 percent and Manuel Baldizón, of the Lider (Renewed Democratic Liberty) party with 19.4 percent. Since none of the candidates secured more than 50 percent of the vote, Morales and Torres will face off on Oct. 25.
The extremely close race for the second place between Torres, former first lady to Álvaro Colom (2008-2012) and Baldizón, a right-wing populist, is likely to lead to a partial recount.
Over the past 17 years, Morales has become a well-known face on Guatemalan television. With a thick moustache, cowboy boots and hat, Jimmy and Sammy Morales play the roles of “Nito and Neto” in the comedy sketch “Moralejas” (Morals).
The characters embodied by the two brothers exploit the stereotype of the eastern Guatemala cowboy that has become engrained in the country’s popular culture.
In their latest movie, released in 2007, Nito and Neto run for office in a parody of Guatemalan politicians’ demagoguery and corruption. As if their on-screen role had presaged what the future had in store for them, Jimmy Morales, who plays “Neto,” could really become the country’s next president.
A protest vote
Baldizón, who promised to re-instate the death penalty and impose a flat tax, was the favorite to win the elections. But five months before the general elections, a series of scandals uncovered by the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a United Nations funded investigatory body, shook up the political scene.
The storm began on Apr. 16, when CICIG revealed that top government officials were involved in a huge customs fraud network known as “La Línea” (The Line), including President Otto Pérez Molina and Vice President Roxana Baldetti.
In a dramatic sequence of events, thousands of Guatemalans took to the streets week after week demanding Pérez Molina’s and Baldetti’s resignation. Two women went as far as going on hunger strike outside Guatemala City’s cathedral and a man mock crucified himself outside the national palace.
On May 8, Baldetti was forced to step down and was charged with corruption. The protests continued, most of Pérez Molina’s cabinet members resigned, leaving his government in a state of disarray, and the business elite, which had previously supported Pérez Molina, made a quick U-turn and joined the voices demanding that he should step down.
An attempt to impeach Pérez Molina in Congress floundered in the middle of August after his party, the Patriot Party (PP), secured an alliance with Lider and the minimum number of votes required to strip the president of his prosecutorial immunity was not reached. Guatemalans were enraged by Lider’s collusion with the PP and protestors burnt effigies of Baldizón during anti-corruption protests. Baldizón’s campaign slogan “Le Toca” (It’s his turn) was morphed into “No te toca Baldizón” (It’s not your turn, Baldizón) and went viral on social media.
Then CICIG uncovered another major corruption scandal. This time, it was Baldizón’s running mate, Edgar Barquín, who was tainted. Barquín, a former president of Guatemala’s central bank, is accused of involvement in laundering US$937 million — proceeds from drug trafficking activities — that was later used to finance the presidential campaign of the Lider and GANA (Grand National Alliance) parties in 2011. Several of Lider’s congressional candidates, including Edgar Barquín’s brother, Manuel, were also allegedly involved.
The scandal, known as the “Politics and Money Laundering” case, sealed Baldizón’s fate. While his popularity plummeted, Morales, who was running with the minuscule and underfunded FCN (National Convergence Front) party, was rising steadily.
A poll published by Contrapoder magazine and Canal Antigua TV channel in June showed 35 percent of those surveyed would vote for Baldizón. He was trailed by Torres, with 12.9 percent and Morales, with 10.4 percent.
The next poll, published on Aug. 10 by Prensa Libre newspaper, showed the number of respondents willing to vote for Baldizón had fallen to 24.9 percent. And Morales had managed to overtake Torres and was now in second place with 16.2 percent. Torres lagged behind with 14.7 percent.
A week before the elections, a recording in which Baldizón urged his mayoral candidates to mortgage their properties and cars to shuttle voters to the polls and said his party would use votes to “kick his opponents’ asses,” was leaked to the press. Angry protestors took to the streets with banners urging voters to reject “Baldinarco.”
On Sept. 1, Congress stripped Pérez Molina of his prosecutorial immunity so that he could be investigated for corruption charges. Shortly after a criminal court issued a warrant for his arrest, he resigned. He was replaced by Vice President Alejandro Maldonado Aguirre who will lead the country until January 14, 2016, when the new president is sworn in.
Morales is no “outsider”
The last poll, published by Prensa Libre 48 hours before the elections, revealed a dramatic shift: 25 percent of those surveyed said they would vote for Morales, who displaced Baldizón as the frontrunner in the race, 22.9 percent said they would vote for Baldizón, and 18.4 percent opted for Torres. With Morales as the surprise winner of the first round, Prensa Libre’s prediction proved to be correct.
“Voters identified him [Morales] as an anti-systemic candidate who could embody their discontent with the traditional political establishment,” says political analist Edgar Gutiérrez to Latinamerica Press.
But Guatemala heads for the second round, Morales has come under greater scrutiny and for many voters the fact that the FCN party was founded by right-wing army veterans has set alarm bells ringing.
Morales has described himself as a “Christian nationalist” and at times his discourse veers towards the far-right. He denies that genocide was perpetrated against Guatemala’s indigenous population during the armed conflict and he advocates re-instating the death penalty.
“What stands out about Jimmy Morales is the contradiction in adopting a discourse in which you portray yourself as anti-systemic whilst running for a very conservative party,” says political analyst Javier Brolo to Latinamerica Press.
Critics have also warned that the FCN lacks a coherent set of policy proposals and that the private sector appears all too eager to fill that void, creating a military-business alliance that looks startlingly similar to Pérez Molina’s PP.
“The party is like an empty shell. Since Morales doesn’t have a shadow cabinet behind him, the business elite will try to fill that void; it’s a similar alliance to the one that was made with Pérez Molina,” says Sandino Asturias, director of the Center for Guatemalan Studies (CEG), to Latinamerica Press.