GUATEMALA CITY — Jimmy Morales, an actor who quit television comedy to run for office, promising to stamp out corruption, won a landslide victory in Guatemala’s presidential election on Sunday.
With 100 percent of ballots counted, Morales, of the National Convergence Front (FCN-Nación) party, had 67 percent of the vote, compared with 33 percent for his rival, former first lady Sandra Torres, of the National Union of Hope (UNE) party. This is the largest margin of victory in a Guatemalan presidential election since the country returned to democratic rule in 1985 after three decades of authoritarian military leadership.
The outcome tallies with the result predicted by Costa Rican polling firm Prodatos and published by daily Prensa Libre on October 21, which gave Morales 68 percent of the votes and Torres 32 percent.
Initially, voter turnout was low, but it gradually gathered pace before the polling stations closed at 5 p.m. Still, according to preliminary results, only about 56 of registered voters cast ballots, a significantly lower turnout than in the first round of voting on September 6, in which 71 percent of those registered voted.
Morales’ landslide victory came six months after former President Otto Pérez Molina, his former vice president Roxana Baldetti and a cohort of top government officials were accused of coordinating a massive customs fraud scandal known as “La Línea.” In a separate scandal, Edgar Barquín, vice presidential candidate for the Líder party, which had been predicted to win the first round, was accused of money laundering during his time as president of the Bank of Guatemala.
The magnitude of these scandals prompted an unprecedented wave of protests which forced former President Pérez Molina to step down on September 1. The high level of civic engagement rolled over into record-high turnout during the first round of voting. But by the time the second round took place, the momentum generated by the protests had died down and been replaced by deep apathy and disaffection with the two finalists.
Among those who decided to stay at home was 40-year-old self-defense instructor Jorge Mario Marroquín, who said it was the first time he hadn’t voted since he turned 18.
“Even though I live less than a block away from the polling station, I decided it was a waste of time,” he told The Tico Times. “People are fed up with politics as usual. I was really happy when I saw people outside Congress demanding Otto Pérez Molina’s impeachment but my hopes were crushed after the first round [of voting]. The debates were a joke and voting for the least worst candidate is not a solution.”
A real outsider?
With the slogan “neither corrupt nor a thief,” Morales exploited voters’ rejection of the political establishment in the wake of the customs fraud scandal, portraying himself as an unblemished outsider. Many voters were seduced.
“Jimmy doesn’t have a tainted past,” 33-year-old student Ruby Hernández told The Tico Times. “Personally, I feel I can trust him.”
But Morales’ critics say his backers are anything but outsiders. Morales’ party, FCN-Nación, was founded by military hardliners from the Association of Military Veterans of Guatemala (AVEMILGUA), which has been deeply involved in national politics for decades. Following the administration of retired army general Pérez Molina, Morales’ critics argue that he represents the same line of thinking and will bring along a similar cadre of former-military advisors.
Morales’ critics also say his pledge to clean up Guatemalan politics rings hollow, as his proposed cabinet includes individuals with tainted track records. Among them is Jorge Luis Donado Vivar, mentioned as a likely candidate for Interior Minister. Vivar unsuccessfully attempted to run for attorney general last year but was struck from the candidates’ list after it was found he plagiarized his proposals.
Morales’ proposed cabinet also includes figures who played a key role in the administration of disgraced former president Pérez Molina, such as businessman and Congressman Emmanuel Seidner, who crafted the government strategy of Pérez Molina’s Patriotic Party (PP).
Guatemala’s new vice-president is Jafeth Cabrera, former dean of the public University of San Carlos.
Morales’ pledge not to seek alliances with other parties also sounds unrealistic given the fact that the FCN only won 11 out of 158 congressional seats, although the balance of forces in the legislature could change in the coming months as many Líder and PP deputies are expected to defect to the FCN party, a common practice in Guatemalan politics known as transfuguismo.
No clear policies
Critics of Morales say he gave scant details of his plan for the presidency while on the campaign trail. “He (Morales) doesn’t appear to have a coherent governing plan or to be a statesman who can effectively lead the country after the governance crisis it has recently experienced,” political analyst Anabella Rivera, of the NGO Demos’ electoral observation mission, told The Tico Times.
But the president-elect has offered hints of his intentions.
Morales, who describes himself as “a Christian nationalist,” is socially conservative. Throughout the campaign he advocated for reinstating the death penalty, which is on the books in Guatemala but hasn’t been used for more than a decade. Morales also publicly opposes gay marriage, contends that genocide was not committed against the Mayan population during Guatemala’s armed conflict, and says corruption is the result of parents’ failure to educate their children.
Some of his more radical proposals include forcing schoolteachers to wear GPS devices to monitor their whereabouts, and giving every Guatemalan child a smartphone.
Morales has said Guatemala’s current 1 percent royalty on mining of gold, silver and other precious metals is “an injustice” without specifying what he would do to change it.
Although his economic policies are unclear, the private sector lobby, CACIF, surprisingly praised Morales as a candidate who offers “concrete solutions for specific problems.” Morales said on the campaign trail that he’d wait until the 2016 budget is approved to determine how he would finance a projected deficit of 1.9 percent of GDP.
During a televised debate a week before the election, Morales’ opponent, Torres, attacked him for planning to scrap a program that provides fertilizer to rural farmers and to limit the scope of social welfare programs, such as the cash transfer program Mi Bono Seguro, inherited by the Pérez Molina administration from predecessor Álvaro Colom, Torres’ husband. Critics say scaling back social welfare programs could exacerbate conflict in rural areas.
Morales will take office on Jan. 14, 2016.