Full-fledged right-wing populism came to Guatemala when Jimmy Morales won the presidency in the fall of 2015, running under the banner of The National Convergence Front. His administration eventually became the focal point of a United Nations-backed anti-corruption investigation. Whether his successor, President Alejandro Giammattei, will be able to offer any realistic solutions to Guatemala’s chronic corruption issues remains unknown. Only time will tell if he opts to follow the steps of previous administrations or takes a more difficult, innovative approach to tackling the country’s problems.
Located in Central America, Guatemala, officially the Republic of Guatemala, is a country with a long history of political instability, civil war, and foreign interference, especially throughout the Cold War. Guatemala has a multi-party system with a relatively large number of parties in the country’s Parliament. However, none of these parties are traditionally well-established; rather they are small, newly formed, and thus unstable. As Guatemalans are routinely introduced to a slew of new political parties before each election, no political party has won the presidency more than once.
The 2019 general elections created perhaps one of the most diverse parliaments in the world, as a total of 160 candidates from eighteen different political parties secured seats in the legislative body. Of these, the National Unity of Hope (Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza, UNE) became the largest party after winning some 17 percent of the popular vote. Founded in 2002, the UNE is a left-wing party that champions social programs, investments for the poor, and political transparency (Daniel & Rosenberg, 2007).
Although relatively new to the political scene, the UNE initially secured 17 percent of the popular vote in the 2003 election. This number then rose to 22.8 percent in the 2007 election, in which its presidential candidate Álvaro Colom was elected president in the second round of voting. Colom became the country’s first left-wing president in over five decades. Colom’s presidential campaign was heavily dominated by populist sentiments that directly appealed to the poor and marginalized through pledges to tackle poverty, reduce crime, remove corrupt police and judges, and create job opportunities (Daniel & Rosenberg, 2007).
Full-fledged right-wing populism came to Guatemala when Jimmy Morales, a comedian, evangelical Christian, and local TV actor, won the presidency in the fall of 2015 under the banner of The National Convergence Front (Frente de Convergencia Nacional, FCN–Nación). Campaigning on the populist slogan, “not corrupt nor a thief,” Morales’ employed strong anti-establishment rhetoric, vowing to eradicate corruption at all levels of government (Althoff, 2019).
To that end, he successfully portrayed himself as an outsider candidate who would fight to correct the past wrongdoings in favour of the true people of the country. This was relatively easy, as he had little or no connection with the traditional political class or with the political establishment. His strong emphasis on corruption was a clear reference to the corruption scandals involving former president Otto Pérez Molina, who was jailed in September 2015 (Romo & Botelho, 2015). Following his victory, he was quick to address that he’d received a mandate to “clean up the corruption that has eaten at this country” (Montes, 2015).
Throughout his campaign, Morales also spoke out against the legalization of abortion and same-sex marriage, capitalizing on the necessity of protecting the traditional family structure: “Guatemala and our government believe in life and in the family based on the marriage of a man and a woman” (Info Catolica, 2018). It should however be noted that his campaign’s main focus remained around more urgent issues, such as health, education, and unemployment.
Although he won the presidency on an anti-corruption platform, his administration later became the focal point of a United Nations-backed anti-corruption investigation. The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) launched an investigation against Morales and his inner circle, including his son and his brother over allegations of illegal campaign financing in 2015. In response, Morales claimed that the investigation was a slow-motion coup against his administration (The Conversation, 2019). He accused the CICIG members of overstepping their mandate and thus decided not to extend the CICIG’s mandate in Guatemala. In September 2018, CICIG investigators were denied entry to Guatemala (The Guardian, 2018). When Morales handed over the presidency to Vamos’ Alejandro Giammattei after the 2019 election, he was immediately sworn in as a member of the Central American Parliament (Parlacen), regaining immunity from prosecution.
In the 2019 election, right-wing candidate Giammattei won the presidential runoff election against former First Lady Sandra Torres. Ideologically similar to the former president Morales, Giammattei campaigned on similar platforms such as eradicating corruption, an opposition to gay marriage, alleviating poverty and hunger, and making social investments for the poor. Whether the Giammattei administration will be able to offer any realistic solutions to these chronic issues remains unknown. Only time will tell if he opts to follow the steps of previous administrations or takes a more difficult, innovative approach to tackling the country’s problems.
December 17, 2020.
— (2018). “Alarm as Guatemala bans head of UN anti-corruption body from country.” The Guardian. September 5, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/sep/05/guatemala-cicig-ivan-velasquez-jimmy-morales-ban (accessed on December 16, 2020).
— (2018). “Jimmy Morales: Guatemala cree en la vida y en la familia basada en el matrimonio de hombre y mujer.” InfoCatolica. September 1, 2018. https://www.infocatolica.com/?t=noticia&cod=33020 (accessed on December 16, 2020).
— (2019). “Guatemala in crisis after president bans corruption investigation into his government.” The Conversation. January 15, 2019. https://theconversation.com/guatemala-in-crisis-after-president-bans-corruption-investigation-into-his-government-109864 (accessed on December 16, 2020).
Althoff, Andrea. (2019). “Right-Wing Populism and Evangelicalism in Guatemala: the Presidency of Jimmy Morales.” International Journal of Latin American Religions. 3/2, December 2019.
Daniel, Frank Jack & Mica Rosenberg. (2007). “Centre-leftist beats general in Guatemala election.” Reuters. November 4, 2007. https://www.reuters.com/article/idUKN0421522320071105?edition-redirect=ca (accessed on December 16, 2020).
Montes, Juan. (2015). “Jimmy Morales Wins Guatemalan Presidential Election in Landslide.” The Wall Street Journal. October 26, 2015. https://www.wsj.com/articles/guatemalans-begin-voting-in-presidential-election-1445798537 (accessed on December 16, 2020).
Romo, Rafael & Greg Botelho. (2015). “Otto Pérez Molina out as Guatemala’s President, ordered to jail.” CNN World. September 3, 2015. Http://www.cnn.com/2015/09/03/americas/guatemala-president-arrest-warrant/index.html (accessed on December 16, 2020).