Threats to Democracy in Guatemala are No Joke

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, September 8, 2015


The biggest news in the first round of the presidential election in Guatemala, held on September 6 was that, despite the recent corruption scandal that forced the resignation of the outgoing president three days earlier, the election was nonetheless held. Whoever wins the runoff on October 25 faces a colossal challenge ahead. Guatemalans distrust their politicians and believe corruption is widespread. Since no candidate will command majority support in the unicameral Congress, compromise will be necessary to lead the country out of its political crisis. As the frontrunner is a former television personality and comedian who campaigned on an anti-establishment platform and who will have few allies in Congress, it is worth remembering that that challenges to democratic consolidation in the impoverished Central American nation are no joke.


After several weeks resisting protests demanding his resignation amid a bribery scandal involving the customs office, president Otto Pérez Molina finally agreed to resign when Congress stripped him of his immunity three days before the election. Pérez Molina was immediately arrested on charges of corruption and now awaits trials in prison. Vice-President Alejandro Maldonado was quickly sworn in. He was appointed veep in May, when Pérez Molina’s running-mate, Roxana Baldetti, was forced to resign as a result of the biggest scandal in Guatemalan recent democratic history. A 79-year old former constitutional tribunal judge, Maldonado will lead a caretaker government until the new president takes office in January, 2016.


The presidential election was held despite calls by many civil society organizations demanding that political reform — including term limits and anti-corruption measures — be passed before the election. Delaying the election to ban many incumbents from seeking re-election was a popular demand. Yet Congress decided to abide by the electoral calendar and, at the same time, take advantage of a proportional representation system that makes it easier for party leaders to secure re-election even with low electoral support.


The results showed the limitations of democratic procedures under political party systems marked by popular mistrust, discontent and insufficient accountability. Almost 70 percent of eligible voters turned out to polls. Despite having 14 candidates to choose from, one in every seven voters cast blank or null votes in the presidential contest. Among the rest, there was no clear winner.


Former television personality Jimmy Morales came first with 23.9 percent of the vote. With more than 95 percent of votes counted, the second place is too close to call. Former first lady and leader of leftwing party UNE Sandra Torres received 19.7 percent while Manuel Baldizón (LIDER), a party with close ties to some people involved in the corruption scandal, mustered 19.6 percent. Less than 2,000 votes separate the two candidates. A recount is likely. Guatemalans will have to wait for several days to know the name of Morales opponent.


Morales remains a puzzle. His anticorruption platform did well with voters, but his personal style and lack of specifics raise questions about what he will do if elected. Since his National Convergence Front (FCN) will have less than 15 seats in the 158-member unicameral legislature, if he wins, Morales will have to reach out to some of the many parties that have won seats under the permissive proportional representation system. If he faces Sandra Torres in the runoff, Morales will turn his campaign to attract impoverished rural voters in areas where rightwing candidates normally dominate electoral politics with patronage. If Morales ends up running against Baldizón, the former comedian will go after the urban and more educated voters who want a president who can combat corruption. Since Morales has campaigned on an ambiguous and ideologically flexible anticorruption message and he has been short of specifics, he seems equally comfortable running against a leftist or a rightist. After all, his campaign has been more about what he claims to stand against (corruption) than what he stands for. Given that as president he will have to bargain with a fragmented legislature, Morales will have to use the same client-based practices that he has denounced as a candidate.


Despite the difficult situation, the election was held without major irregularities. Guatemalans went to the polls to vote for a president, a vice-president, 158 legislators, 20 members of the Central American Parliament and local authorities for the 338 municipalities. Democratic institutions are undoubtedly weak and politicians are mistrusted. Guatemalans are disappointed with the way democracy works in their country, but they are still betting on elections as the only way in which democracy can be saved.


Whoever wins the presidency on October 25 - and it looks as if Morales has the advantage - will find a country where 75 percent of the people live in poverty, corruption is rampant and the political elite has failed to live up to the expectations and the difficult challenges the country faces. In his television career, Jimmy Morales might have earned the respect of Guatemalans playing the role of a clown, but the challenges democracy faces in the country are no joke.