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Guatemala just elected a comedian with zero political experience to be president

Jimmy Morales, Guatemala's next president.
Jimmy Morales, Guatemala's next president.
(Rodrigo Arangua/AFP/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

This Sunday, Guatemala held the final round of its presidential election. Jimmy Morales, a television comedian with no political experience and no real policy platform, won with 70 percent. Just six months ago, Morales was commanding less than 1 percent in polls.

Morales's simple campaign slogan — "not corrupt, not a thief" — really cuts to the heart of his victory. The election was in large part a backlash to Guatemala's deeply entrenched corruption and crime problem, issues brought to the fore after President Otto Pérez Molina was indicted on corruption charges in early September. Morales represented, as one Guatemalan citizen put it, "the least worst option" in a country whose political class is terminally corrupted.

The big question now is whether Guatemala's Stephen Colbert, as he's been called, actually has what it takes to be president.

Why Guatemala elected a comedian

An anti-corruption protest in Guatemala
An anti-corruption protest in Guatemala in August. As you can see, it's not small.
(Johan Ordonez/AFP/Getty Images)

Guatemala is one of Latin America's poorer countries. It's also a haven for drug traffickers and has the world's fifth-highest homicide rate (per UN data). But it's very, very hard for the country to make progress on these issues when its leaders routinely collude with cartels and steal from public funds.

"A series of corrupt presidents have left the Guatemalan institutions — and particularly its judiciary — broken, corrupted and dependent on the executive," Manfredo Marroquín, the head of Transparency International Guatemala, told scholar Christopher Sabatini for the site Latin America Goes Global. Marroquín calls addressing this corruption "the greatest challenge in Guatemala today."

It's so bad, in fact, that the UN stepped in to help deal with it. In 2007, it established the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, an investigative organization aimed at prosecuting corrupt Guatemalan officials. Against all odds, the Commission has had some real success. In April, it uncovered a customs bribery scam called La Línea, which involved agents taking bribes at the border and sending kickbacks to the very top of the government. The revelations mobilized a massive protest movement against corruption, with weekly protests demanding that President Molina resign.

Popular anger over corruption fueled Morales's once-quixotic candidacy. Perhaps his chief opponent was Sandra Torres de Colom, a former first lady and hence an inherently establishmentarian figure. That made it very difficult for Torres de Colom to capitalize on the anti-corruption sentiment. The total outsider, Morales, was the candidate least likely to be tainted by scandal.

Before the campaign, Morales was well-known as a television comedian. In his most famous political sketch, he played a Guatemalan cowboy who — irony alert — becomes the country's president.

Morales parlayed his high name recognition to become a public face of the anti-corruption protests, using social media and other platforms favored by the demonstrators to ally himself with the cause.

In late August, just days before the election's first round of voting on September 6, Guatemalan officials arrested the country's vice president as part of its La Línea investigation — and publicly named President Molina the head of the scam. An arrest warrant for Molina was issued on September 2, and he was forced to resign.

After Molina's resignation, the change wave became unstoppable. Morales won the first round of voting on September 6, but not by an outright majority, requiring a runoff against the second-place Torres de Colom. That vote took place this Sunday, and Morales beat the former first lady in a landslide.

After his inauguration in January, Jimmy Morales will officially have gone from comedian to president.

Morales's challenge as Guatemala's president

jimmy morales
Jimmy Morales during his victory speech.
(Johan Ordonez/AFP/Getty Images)

Morales's campaign promise was very simple: Root out corruption. But no one has a clear sense for how he's going to do that — or, really, what else he'll end up getting done.

"Morales has not articulated a program of government, and many of his backers are unknown," Donald Planty, the former US ambassador to Latin America, explains in Latin America Advisor. "His platform is essentially devoid of issues," Ben Raderstorf and Haley Florsheim write at the Dialogue's blog.

According to the BBC, Morales is an evangelical Christian who opposes same-sex marriage, abortion, and legalized drugs. The BBC also notes some wackier policy ideas, including "the tagging of teachers with a GPS device to ensure they attend classes and giving each Guatemalan child a smartphone."

Morales's TV show focused on running characters, often ones portrayed as being stupid. The content of the show has been criticized for its portrayals of women and LGBTQ Guatemalans. One of his running characters is a black man played by Morales in blackface.

First and foremost, Morales needs to deliver on his anti-corruption promises. That'll be even harder than it seems: His party only holds a minority of seats in parliament, meaning the new president will be facing a fairly hostile legislature. To make matters worse, Morales may not have many allies he can rely on.

"He’s very smart, but he’s had to assemble a team of people to help him get this far," Transparency International's Marroquín told Latin America Goes Global. He went on:

He’s included some military officers—not just any military officers, but military officers with ties to some of the worst abuses of the past [during Guatemala's 1960-1996 civil war]. In part, he didn’t know all of the details of the people he was involving. He’s never been in politics before so he just grabbed the people he could.

And that's the tricky thing about a system as corrupt as Guatemala's: In order to get things done, even the purest of outsiders may need to work with folks with pretty dirty hands. Whether Morales can do that without sinking to their level entirely remains to be seen.

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