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Guatemala's Upcoming Elections: What's Next?

By Ana Davila

The people of Guatemala have successfully overthrown a corrupt regime that threatened the integrity of the public institutions and the rule of law. As civil society prepares for a second round of elections, uncertainty is in the air, and the media, political parties, lobbies, and private sector all have an interest in influencing the atypical process taking place in the country.

World Policy Journal consulted a panel of experts for their insights regarding the prospects of the political process and possible outcomes in Guatemala. 

Otto Pérez Molina and his entire cabinet were removed from power mere days before Election Day in Guatemala. Today, Molina and former Vice President Roxana Baldetti are in jail on charges of corruption and fraud; however this is only the first step toward a potential democratic revolution. 

What needs to happen now to guarantee a positive and sustainable change in politics?
Our experts agree on the immediate need for efficient political and electoral reforms capable of combating corruption, increasing transparency in the party financing system, and diversifying power in Congress. Civil society played an unprecedented role in pressuring the political class to approve a series of reforms earlier this year under Molina’s mandate. However, the recent events have reinvigorated a general desire for more efficient and drastic reforms.

Javier Brolo, Sociopolitical Researcher, Asociación de Investigación y Estudios Sociales (ASIES):  
“Guatemala immediately requires political reforms that strengthen the legitimacy and credibility of the political system and that are capable of guaranteeing judicial independence and efficiency. Specifically, the decision making processes within political parties needs to be democratized, campaign financing must be monitored, and hiring processes must be regulated to avoid corruption and ‘clientelism.’”

Francisco José Lemus Miranda, Professor, University of San Carlos of Guatemala:
“Both economic and political spheres should be tackled at the same time in order to make substantial changes in Guatemala’s development. In the economic sphere, Guatemala needs to devote resources and human capital to the transformation and modernization of its productive structure, focusing on the agro-exports sector. In terms of politics, Guatemala needs a real reform to its political and electoral system that is true to the values of a participatory democracy. In this sense, we need a reform of the state in a broad and comprehensive sense.”

Hugo Novales, Sociopolitical Researcher, ASIES:
“There is a widespread consensus on the need to implement a series of institutional reforms that include legislative reforms in terms of transparency and accountability, bureaucracy, public service, electoral regime, and party system. In ASIES we have identified two key aspects that must be included in the electoral reform: Modification to the official appointing candidates, and reform to the party financing regime in order to individualize accountability and make each candidate responsible of his or her financing. It is also fundamental to rule on appropriate regulation of campaigns in the media. The Supreme Electoral Tribunal presented a proposal of electoral reform that included any important topics. However, out of these two key elements, only the modifications to the financing regime were included in the initiative currently under discussion in the Congress. While this is not enough, it does represent an important step in the right direction.”

Running for the second round of elections on Oct. 25 are former First Lady Sandra Torres from the National Unity for Hope (UNE) and Jimmy Morales from the National Convergence Front (FCN), who is a popular television comedian with scarce political experience who won the majority of the votes in the first round. Morales, the “outsider,” is gaining popularity and support by advertising himself as a civilian who is “neither corrupt nor a thief.”

What does the leadership of an “outsider” represent for Guatemalan politics? Is this phenomenon part of the trend of “showbizification” of Latin American politics?
While Morales is a celebrity, he is supported by his anti-politics status of “outsider,” rather than by his fame. Our experts agree that his case does not fall under the Latin American trend of celebrities in power.

Javier Brolo, Sociopolitical Researcher, ASIES:
“While Jimmy Morales has benefited from his status of public figure, it has been his status of “outsider” which has positioned him as a legitimate political contender. Morales’ leadership can only be explained in the context of a drastic rejection of traditional politics, and an increasingly personality-based democratic culture in Guatemala. In this sense, the case of Morales is nothing like the trend of celebrities rising to power in Mexico, Brazil or Colombia.”

Rachel M. McCleary, Senior Research Fellow, Harvard University:
“The Guatemalan voter is fed up with the corruption of the political parties and the politicians. Morales is a reaction against this. His being a TV personality meant that he already had a public persona and could garner support. In other words, he did not take the predicted and normal career path to becoming a candidate for the presidency. Sandra Torres, on the other hand, has been developing her political career through normal channels.” 

Juan Pablo Piras, Researcher, ASIES:
“Jimmy Morales is nothing like the typical Latin American case in which a celebrity becomes a politician. This is a special case, almost impossible to replicate. Morales has experience in business administration and a background in theology. Additionally, he attended the school of strategic studies of the army, but this is the side of him that remains unknown by the public.The involvement of outsiders in politics speaks well of the democratic process in Guatemala. However, the lack of experience pose inevitable challenges for these figures.” 

 

 

What could be the dangers of electing “outsiders” in Guatemala? 
Our experts discuss the high risk of co-option, the disadvantages of running for a party with small presence in Congress, and the importance of selecting the right cabinet.

Aníbal Pérez Liñán, Director of Graduate Studies—Deptartment of Political Science, University of Pittsburgh.
“Celebrities may enter politics because they are co-opted by the parties, or they may enter politics campaigning against all parties. The second situation creates a potential danger. If inexperienced celebrities come to power without party support in Congress, and they interpret their popular support as a mandate to confront traditional politicians, the stage is set for an institutional confrontation that usually compromises democratic governance.”

Rachel M. McCleary, Senior Research Fellow, Harvard University:
“An inexperienced candidate vying for the presidency is negative for any country.Populist candidates, such as Morales, are beholden to no one but their cartel of funders and backers. This is troubling, as is their lack of professional experience in government, and lack of commitment to public service, which is what the voters are yearning for in the wake of corruption scandals.”

Dinorah Azpuru, Associate Professor—Political Science Department, Wichita State University:
“As in any country in the world, 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 group interest. In other words, instead of seeking the common good, outsiders are more likely to be influenced by the wrong people. In addition, outsiders often lack inside experience that a strong party structure can provide them with. In Guatemala, there is not a single strong political party structure, but in the case of this elections, UNE has more cadres and structure throughout the country.”

Susanne Jonas, Author, “The Battle For Guatemala: Rebels, Death Squads, and U.S. Power”:
“Jimmy Morales, while not a long-time politician himself, is being supported by the most retrograde, right-wing political forces in Guatemala, the association of retired military officers (AVEMILGUA) and others of that stripe. They would undoubtedly be influential advisers if he were to win the run-off election. In that sense, he does not represent a "fresh face," but one that is all too familiar in Guatemala, and could drag Guatemala backward, or attempt to do so. This is being amply documented in Guatemalan news and web sources, to which I'm sure you have access.”

 

Traditionally, TV has been a key actor in political processes in Latin America. However, the recent events in Guatemala have been attributed to the increasing use of the Internet and social media. 

What will be the role of the media in the elections?
Social media is gaining relevance, and the protests and social movements that have taken place in Guatemala this year are proof of it. Civil society, especially youth, are becoming increasingly engaged, our experts argue.

Dinorah Azpuru, Associate Professor - Political Science Department, Wichita State University:
“The intensity of the coverage of the media about the corruption issues has made people more interested in politics, and for that reason Guatemala had the largest turnout since the democratic opening. In particular, social media played a key role in the downfall of the President and the Vice President, and in the loss of Baldizón in the first round of elections. It is yet to be seen what the actual impact is on the second round of the elections, not only of social media, but of the rest of the media outlets.”

Aníbal Pérez Liñán, Director of Graduate Studies—Deptartment of Political Science, University of Pittsburgh.
“The issue is not so much that the electronic media have ‘strong’ effects on public opinion because they frame the national issues or prime the audiences on certain topics. Some of that influence is going on, of course, but the emergence of cable, the Internet, and community radio has multiplied the number of sources and messages that people can access. The main issue is that the electronic media has changed the relationship between parties and citizens, making party identities more fluid and personalities more important. People who watch television news are usually more interested in politics than those who do not follow the news, but TV news is more about interesting characters and less about parties and their platforms.”

 

With so many elements at play, it is time to ask: 

Who could become the next President of Guatemala? 
It is hard to tell. Both Susana Torres and Jimmy Morales have important advantages and disadvantages. The next weeks leading to the most intense elections in Guatemala will be critical. Our experts comment.

Hugo Novales, Sociopolitical Researcher, ASIES:
“It is hard to tell. Jimmy Morales represents the “anti-politics”, a critique to the political class. However, Morales lacks a coherent program of government and his party has a minor participation in Congress. This could make Morales’ eventual government very weak and vulnerable to co-option by external actors. On the other hand, Sandra Torres is supported by a strong political party. UNE has been around longer than the average political party in Guatemala, and has participated in more elections than any other. In fact, UNE has four consecutive elections with favorable results. Torres has experience in public administration, a party that can provide her a good team, and an elaborate project. However, there are suspicions of corruption [surrounding] UNE, and the party has recruited leaders who have been accused of corruption. It will be an interesting election.”

Francisco José Lemus Miranda, Professor, University of San Carlos of Guatemala: “Under the present circumstances, the outcome is uncertain. Actually, there are no accurate preference polls, experts have many possible scenarios, and it seems like circumstances change every day. Jimmy Morales was the ‘punishing’ vote in the first round of elections that succeeded in eliminating Baldizón from the race, but this may not be the case in the second round.”
 

*****

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Ana Davila is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.

[Photos courtesy of UnivisionBloomberg, La Tribuna, and Notisistema]

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