Last Laugh

Guatemala Elections: Send in the Clown?

Guatemalans managed the impossible by forcing the resignation of their corrupt president. Now they want to elect a professional clown. What gives?

09.08.15 9:10 PM ET

Last week, Guatemala’s Congress stripped President Otto Perez Molina of immunity, opening the door for his prosecution. It was an unprecedented victory for a country (and a region) beset by corruption. Perez Molina himself didn’t think he was in any kind of danger, probably counting not only on his executive exemption from indictment but on the foul solidarity of his party’s congressmen, who had backed him before. Just a few days before his political demise, Perez Molina declared, in that nonchalant way so characteristic of politicians who have benefited from years of impunity, that he was “completely calm.”

His serenity didn’t last long.

Accused of taking part in an elaborate customs scheme known as “La Linea” (in which officials received bribes in exchange for favorable terms on import duties), Perez Molina now faces considerable jail time.

This remarkable outcome is the product of a joint investigation between Guatemalan authorities and the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, a UN-backed commission established eight years ago precisely with the intention of fighting corruption and dismantling the ties between criminal organizations and Guatemalan politicians.

The commission’s work, independent and courageous, led to a civic uproar that eventually landed Perez Molina in an impossible situation. Unanimously repudiated by Congress and the Guatemalan street, he had no choice but to resign. In a matter of hours, Perez Molina found himself sitting in a court of law, still wearing a dapper navy-blue suit and a striking red tie, listening to over six hours of wiretapped recordings that seem to directly implicate him in La Linea’s kickback structure. He no longer remained serene or even poised. “I’m very sad over everything I’m going through right now,” he said, slightly disoriented.

Outside the courthouse, people didn’t share their former president’s unhappiness. Guatemalans waved white-and-blue flags while chanting a familiar slogan: “Sí se pudo, sí se pudo”, “Yes we could, yes we could.” Fireworks went off on the streets, people hugged policemen, drivers honked their horns as if their chapines had won the soccer World Cup. And in the middle of the crowd, a banner read “Nuevo Estado Ya”: a new state, now.

Unfortunately for Guatemalans, the transition between the executive of Perez Molina (and his vice president, Roxana Baldetti, who also resigned under similar accusations) and that much-heralded “Nuevo Estado” will not be an easy one.

A couple of days after Perez Molina’s resignation, the country went to the polls to elect its next president. For months before Perez Molina’s implosion, the favorites to succeed the embattled president seemed to be Manuel Baldizón and Sandra Torres.

Baldizón, a businessman and politician who lost to Perez Molina in 2011, had led the polls for months and was expected to emerge on top during Sunday’s election. Torres, a controversial and histrionic first lady to ex-President Alvaro Colom, appeared poised to join Baldizón in a runoff.

The choice between a former candidate and a former first lady seemed unappealing even before Perez Molina’s ouster and most observers predicted low voter turnouts.

What happened was, to say the least, completely different. Guatemalans went to the polls in droves (upwards of 70 percent turnout) and showed exactly what they meant when talking about a renewal of the Guatemalan state. First place went not to Baldizón or Torres but to Jimmy Morales, a former comedian with absolutely no political experience. With 24 percent of the vote, Morales now awaits a contender between the two former favorites, both of whom sit just under 20 percent.

Rarely has an election turned so quickly from business as usual into a complete repudiation of the establishment. But even if the outcome makes for great drama, it might not translate into the kind of change Guatemalans hope for.

In an interview just hours after results were announced, Morales acknowledged his lack of experience in the political sphere. “They say I have no experience in public office,” Morales said. “And they’re right!”

Still, the former comedian, a folksy performer and prolific filmmaker alongside his brother, insists that being an improbable outsider is actually an asset: “I can’t deny many people voted for me out of revenge against our ruling political class. To deny that or say that people voted for me because of my capacity would be arrogant,” he said. As to whether or not he’s offended by those who question his background, Morales has an answer at the ready for that as well. “I’m not offended at all,” he told the Mexican newspaper El Universal: “I’d rather be an honest clown than a corrupt politician.”

Latin America’s populist history might still get the last laugh.