Elections in Guatemala – Former Comedian Becomes President

The rise of political outsiders and the ‘politics of anti-politics’ is a recurring feature of the Latin American political landscape. On Sunday, Guatemala elected an archetypical political outsider as president. Jimmy Morales of the Frente de Convergencia Nacional (FCN-Nación) won the second-round run-off election with 67 per cent of the popular vote. His opponent, Sandra Torres of the left-leaning Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza (UNE), the former first lady and wife of Álvaro Colom, who she divorced in 2011 to ensure her candidacy was eligible for these elections (spouses of former presidents are constitutionally barred from running for the office), with only 33 per cent of the popular vote, was forced to concede defeat early.

Jimmy Morales, a self-descried ‘common man’ with no prior political experience, has spent the last fourteen years starring in a popular TV comedy series with his brother. Morales, a social conservative, released a manifesto that was only six pages long. This means his policy preferences remain something of a mystery and given his party, the FCN, have only 11 of 158 seats in the house, it will be very difficult for him to govern effectively.

Morales’ election to the highest political office in the land perhaps marks the apogee in the evolution of political outsiderism in Latin America. He joins the ranks of former amateur candidates across Latin America who previously ran for political office for established parties, including Álvaro Noboa (PRE) in Ecuador and Mauricio Funes (FMLN) in El Salvador.[1] His victory comes in the wake of the resignation of current incumbent, Otto Pérez Molina, over allegations of corruption. Molina has been accused of involvement in a scheme, know as La Linea, that allowed businesses to evade paying custom charges in return for generous kickbacks. Molina is now housed in Matamoros prison awaiting trial. His resignation follows months of protests, which slowly eroded Molina’s support.

During the campaign Morales railed against the existing political elites and widespread political corruption and his campaign slogan was ‘neither corrupt nor a thief’. Morales is not just an outsider – his lack of policy specifics and his ‘anti-politics’ message, highly critical of the political establishment, also echoes many of the populists across the region. But his message clearly appealed to a Guatemalan public that is hungry for political change.

Of course, given Morales’ lack of political experience, and given his party’s very weak position in Congress, it remains to be seen whether they will actually get the change they want. This is one to watch. Conflict seems inevitable as this case has all the ingredients of Linz’s causal chain.

[1] For an institutional argument for the rise of political outsiders, see Miguel Carreras, 2012. “The Rise of Political Outsiders in Latin America, 1980-2010: an Institutionalist Perspective.” Comparative Political Studies.

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