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The Funny Face of Democracy

By Ana Davila

Democracy is a wonderful thing when it successfully places the power to elect government officials in the hands of the majority. But what happens when the majority is tired of corruption and profoundly disappointed with the political class? When many Latin American countries are faced with this choice, celebrities are chosen to govern; case in point, Guatemala.

In a series of unprecedented events, the people of Guatemala led an inspiring campaign of social protest that forced Otto Perez Molina to resign from the presidency and face trial for diverse charges of corruption and illicit associations. However, the political battle in Guatemala is far from being over, and the next big question to ask is: Who will run the country now?

The first round of elections in Guatemala were held on Sept. 6 with a historic turnout of 70.38 percent, but no winner. The leading candidate, Jimmy Morales, took 24 percent of the vote and appeared most likely to become the next president of Guatemala. Morales’ emblema has been the fact that he is a civilian, not a politician.

In fact, Morales is more than a regular man, he is a popular television comedian with barely two years of political experience. Instead of being ashamed of his almost nonexistent political trajectory, Morales has managed to play this card well. Under the slogan “neither corrupt, nor a thief,” Morales sells his political inexperience as a valuable asset and people are buying it.

However, Morales is hardly the first popular icon to run for office in the region. In the last years, Latin America has seen a rise in celebrities who have found success in politics. Species of popular entertainers from comedians like Morales, or soap opera stars, soccer players, and even professional clowns run the show of politics in diverse countries in the region.

In Mexico, the 2015 intermediate elections became the debut stage of an unmatched number of celebrities. The famous football player Cuauhtemoc Blanco is currently serving as mayor of Cuernavaca, while Carmen Salinas, a renowned actress and cabaret producer, is now the country’s most controversial legislator. Meanwhile farther South, Brazilian football player Romario de Souza is now a Brazilian congressman, and his peer Hugo de Leon ran for vice president in 2009. To the North in Colombia, several former beauty queens such as Martha Liliana Ruiz and Vanessa Mendoza now hold seats in the Columbian congress, and in Argentina, models, comedians, and even a famous chef competed in the last elections.

At first glance, Jimmy Morales appears to be just another celebrity seeking a post in office by capitalizing on his nationwide fan club. However, according to Hugo Novales and Juan Pablo Pira, researchers at ASIES, an influential think tank in Guatemala, Morales’ case goes beyond the trend of the farandulización, or “showbiz-ization,” of Latin American politics. The revolution taking place in Guatemala and the atypical political developments since April have allowed this candidate to become the ultimate anti-politics icon, as Novales explains. Unlike the cases of Mexico, Ecuador, and Colombia, television has played a secondary role in Guatemalan process, while social media and an increasingly informed and engaged youth are taking the lead in revolutionizing democracy.

But no man can run a country alone, and in Morales’ case, this should be the electorate’s greatest concern. The people that Morales will choose to surround himself with will dictate the fate of the country. As Dinorah Azpuru, Professor at Wichita University, explains, “the danger of the so-called 'outsiders' is that they are more likely to be influenced by certain groups of people who look after their groups’ interests.”

In the case of Morales, this is already a visible trend; his party was founded by members of AVEMILGUA, a Guatemalan military veteran association, and Morales is known to have close ties to military and political figures involved in the 1980s genocide. “In this sense, Jimmy Morales does not represent a fresh face, but one that is all too familiar in Guatemala,” Susanne Jonas, author of The Battle For Guatemala: Rebels, Death Squads, and U.S. Power, concludes.

Thus, Morales can not entirely exempt his candidacy from the Guatemala’s corrupt political environment so soon. “The fact that Morales lacks corruption charges does not guarantee accountability. On the contrary, his lack of experience will make him reach out to characters that do have this experience, and who are likely to have a corruption background,” Gabrielle Duarte of ASIES notes. This means that ultimately, a benevolent character who appears to be the lead man in the show is, in fact, only part of a complex ensemble.

Nevertheless, Guatemalans are tired of corruption and have lost faith in the political class. Seldom in recent history has an electorate been more inclined to take a public and strong stand against political parties and the traditional ruling political elite behind them. However, the electorate must look beyond the celebrity glow and be reminded that, as Rachel M. McCleary, Senior Research Fellow at Harvard warns, “candidates, such as Mr. Morales, are usually beholden to no one but their cartel of funders and backers, lacking commitment to public service, which is what the voters are yearning for.”

Democracy has given the Guatemalan people the power to elect a new government, and they might choose charisma over experience. This could pose serious risks for the country in the long run. Whatever the outcome of the second round of elections is, it is important to continue the ongoing process of democratization in the country.

As Pira explains, “The ideal is to fortify the instances that made change possible. If we continue to strengthen the institutions, it is possible for Guatemala to become a stable democracy in the near future.”

*****

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Ana Davila is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.

[Photo courtesy of the official Jimmy Morales Facebook page]

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