Guatemala: new president’s first few weeks in power

Last month, on October 25, Jimmy Morales won the Guatemalan presidential elections in a landslide victory. The new president, whose slogan was “not corrupt, not a thief”, strategically campaigned on an anti-corruption platform, earning himself 67.4% of the votes.

Morales’ contender, Sandra Torres of the UNE party, lost with just 32.6% of the vote share. Despite being popular with the country’s rural poor, the UNE is being investigated for illegal campaign financing from 2007, and Torres herself is under investigation by Guatemala’s electoral authority. The Mexican drug cartel, the Zetas, also allege that they donated the UNE money.

Fatigued by the corruption of the political classes, Guatemalans have taken a chance on the former comedian Morales despite his political inexperience. Some analysts, political commentators and Guatemalans, however, are not convinced that Morales will bring the change the country desperately needs.

Although the self-styled outsider is a departure from the usual elite candidates, he is supported by some of the old guard – his backers include conservative military members who have been linked to war crimes committed during the country’s civil war.  Anita Issacs, professor of Latin American politics at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, warned The Economist that “retired generals could soon be pulling the government’s strings” – a suggestion the president flatly rejects.

There is also the issue of Morales’ comedy. During his sketches, he was known to don blackface and allegedly make sexist, racist and homophobic jokes, an issue which could prove to be problematic in a country which struggles with deep-seated racism, sexism and homophobia, and where half of the population is indigenous. Human rights activist Andrea Ixchíu told PRI that “In his TV shows, as a comedian, he always makes fun of indigenous people, our customs and the way we speak. So I personally don’t like him”.  

The new president’s policies have included some unusual plans such as tagging teacher with GPS and handing out smartphones to poor students. Two after he won the election (October 27) Morales told Yahoo news that starting with a pilot of 45 schools, telephone companies would donate phones in exchange for painting their brand logos on designated school and government walls.  Although the president’s plan might prove popular with its young recipients, it does little to address the serious problems of education in Guatemala – according to one report, 14% of all indigenous girls do not attend primary school.

Morales’ may have won a landslide victory, but only 55% of the eligible population voted. (This hardly reflects overwhelming national support.) He also looks certain to be challenged when putting policies through Congress, his party having only attained 11 out of 158 seats. Some commentators have suggested that Morales could even face being ousted by mass protests if he fails to live up to the high expectations he himself has set.

It is early days and remains to be seen how, and if, Morales can grapple with some of the country’s most pressing problems, and whether or not further political unrest will ensue if he fails.


Categories: Guatemala, Presidential Elections

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