Guatemalan election: When ‘not corrupt, not a crook’ is enough to make you president

Guatemala's President-elect Jimmy Morales, a former comedian, gives an interview in Guatemala City, Nov. 3, 2015. The 46-year-old Morales, who is to assume the presidency Jan. 14 and has never held political office. (Credit: AP Photo/Luis Soto)

Amid violence, crippling poverty and widespread corruption, exasperated voters in Guatemala have run out of patience for politicians, instead electing 46-year-old TV comedian Jimmy Morales as president.

The president-elect won the Oct. 25 election in a landslide victory against former first lady Sandra Torres with 67.4 percent of the vote, according to CNN, marking the biggest margin of victory in Guatemala’s presidential elections since 1999. This election was also Guatemala’s ninth since returning to democracy in 1996.

Morales described his victory in a BBC news report as a “brave vote, a vote full of hope, a vote which wants to put an end to corruption.”

Corruption was indeed the focus of the high-stake election. Public distrust in the government increased dramatically after the United Nations led a recent investigation into allegations of a multimillion-dollar customs racket, which led to former president Otto Perez’s resignation and arrest in September. The allegations also brought down the vice president and several others, although all have denied charges.

Campaigning with the center-right National Convergence Front (FCN) party and riding on a wave of public fury, the comedian-turned-politician capitalized on his image as a political outsider to gain trust from frustrated voters.

“As president I received a mandate, and the mandate of the people of Guatemala is to fight against the corruption that is consuming us,” Morales said in a televised message after his victory.

The anti-government angle Morales took in his campaign paid off; his slogan, “not corrupt, not a crook,” was exactly what Guatemalans wanted to hear.

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His critics say his lack of experience makes him unfit to hold office in a country whose citizens leave in droves to escape pervasive poverty and violence. They are also quick to remind voters that their president-elect once played a character in blackface as well as a Japanese prisoner of war, and that his campaign manifesto, according to the BBC, is a mere six pages long.

To voters, it remains unclear how Morales will combat gang violence or stem the flow of Guatemalans who are fleeing the country. Income inequality in Guatemala is another issue waiting to be addressed, ranking among the worst economic disparities in Latin America with almost half of children suffering from chronic malnourishment, according to the New York Times.

Morales has so far appeared indifferent to such criticism, making promises to fight corruption by increasing transparency in government decisions and to close the loopholes that make it easy for political parties to receive illegal financing from private entities. Voters empathize with his humble background, reportedly selling bananas and used clothes on the streets as a child, according to a profile by Reuters, and they trust his vows to break down Guatemala’s system of corruption.

This scenario sounds all too familiar to anyone following the 2016 U.S. presidential race. Although Guatemalan and U.S. voters are concerned with very different issues, the political environments – as well as voters’ sentiments – are remarkably similar.

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Like the frustrated voters in Guatemala, many in the United States are fed up with ineffective, ‘normal’ politicians and are seeking significant changes. For political outsiders in the Republican party, outlandish and unconventional candidates like Donald Trump have a certain appeal. Some have drawn comparisons between the two – Morales was dubbed the “Donald Trump of Guatemala,” according to the Washington Post.

Whether he’s like Trump or not, Morales himself described his candidacy in a Breitbart news report as “just part of the anti-corruption movement” that is surfacing in countries worldwide. In the U.S. election, none of the current three GOP candidates topping the polls – Trump, Carly Fiorina and Ben Carson – has held political office, and yet a significant proportion of voters favor these unconventional candidates over former first lady and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Meanwhile, self-described democratic socialist Bernie Sanders consistently ranks second after Clinton in Democratic polls, according to data from Real Clear Politics, making the political outsider trend even more striking.

The consequences of Morales’s election go beyond Guatemala. This surprise election also serves as a wake-up call to politicians in neighboring Central American countries dealing with these same issues, and as something for people in the U.S. to seriously consider as we approach our own presidential election.

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About Author

Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com