Jimmy, the President-elect who doesn't go out on a limb and yet pulls it off without a hitch
Ten hours before vote counting credited him as the next President of Guatemala, the candidate of the National Convergence Front–Nation political party (FCN-Nación for its Spanish initials), James "Jimmy" Morales, appeared—for the first time since the campaign started—with his wife, Patricia Marroquín, and their three children (he would later explain that "for safety reasons" his family had been out of the country during the campaign.) The still presidential candidate, wearing a pair of jeans and a shirt of the Guatemalan soccer team, endeared himself to a crowd of followers and supporters who cheered him as he arrived to the polling station: bravos, applause, firecrackers, kisses, hugs; a shower of flashes and a swarm of frantic journalists surrounded him, trying to get a statement, a scoop, an announcement.
But no way. Morales kept on avoiding questions from the journalists, about what his government would be like, just as he did over the course of the campaign. "What commitments will you have if you become President?", asked a journalist minutes after the candidate had cast his vote at the polling station located in the municipality of Mixco. "The same commitment that is being demanded (by Guatemalans) from the authorities", the candidate responded ambiguously. "Why do you want to be President?", asked another journalist. "To serve my nation", responded the candidate, elusive, confused. He told a third journalist that "in due time" he will make public his financial statement, which he declares beforehand to be "no more than GTQ 5 million [~USD 650,000]." He is a middle-class man, he claims.
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Ten hours later, now as the winner of the elections, Jimmy Morales arrived at the operational hub of the Supreme Electoral Court (TSE, for its Spanish initials), dressed in a blue suit, white shirt, and light-blue tie - the outfit that has become the uniform of the last four Presidents of this country. Even though the official data had not been released, the results were bubbling over with triumph as he arrived at Parque de la Industria ("Industry Park") to hold his first press conference as President-elect of the Republic of Guatemala. He arrived already escorted by agents of the Quick Action Group (GAR, for its Spanish initials), in a four-by-four motorcade. Joining him was his wife, Patricia, who nervously smiled with the natural shyness of a novice in political matters, as she avoided journalists requesting an interview. Again: applause, bravos, congratulations, hugs, kisses, and more applause: "glory be to God!” some of them shouted; again, the swarm of journalists, flashes, selfies, questions, the pilgrimage from one booth to another, giving interviews to the media. And, again, a speech - only this time he reads it. And, again, it is full of generalities, vague announcements, and catch phrases appealing and thanking God.
The debut of Jimmy Morales as President-elect was the introduction of a new politician to the public: an unshaped, unknown, and inexperienced politician; the offspring of a new kind of politics, the kind in which the leader doesn't go out on a limb and yet pulls it off without a hitch. His first message was symbolic. The composition of the group that joined him as he addressed the press tells us about the powers that are coming along into Government: to his right, next to his wife, Patricia, Colonel Edgar Justino Ovalle Maldonado, founder of the FCN party, and the most visible face of the military surrounding him. Ovalle was elected to Congress last September, as was Flor de María Chajón, a faithful friend, financial backer of his campaign, and collaborator since the beginning of his TV show Moralejas; she is the producer who made him famous as a comedian, and the founder of the Civic Committee Nación. To his left, Jafeth Cabrera, his running mate, in charge of playing the role of political operator. Sammy, (Nito, on the TV show), Samuel, his brother and adviser, smiles contentedly as he observes standing about a meter away.
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Jimmy Morales has a hard time being clear and straightforward when explaining what will be the priorities of his Administration, naming those that will make up his Cabinet, or outlining the public policies he will endorse from the Executive. "Through God we shall do valiantly", he says abstractly, without giving any details as to what, how, when, and with what. It is difficult to know if he does it out of naivety or audacity.
Without any further details, he explains that the priorities of his Administration will be: "medicines for hospitals, fighting chronic malnutrition, quality education at schools, support for producers, safety, and zero tolerance for corruption." His work team, the most important officials of his administration—Ministers, Deputy Ministers, Directors—will be selected calmly, slowly, leisurely, from among the suggestions made by pro-corporate think tanks, such as the Foundation for the Development of Guatemala (FUNDESA) or the National Economic Research Center (CIEN), not from within members of his political party, because there is no choice there. He assures that on the first or second week of December he will make public the names of the chosen ones. Jointly with Cabrera, he will analyze the thousand curricula he has received from professionals offering him their services. The only names he has already determined are Carlos Martínez and Erasmo Beltetón, who started working right away. They are the lawyers he has entrusted with the coordination of the Government transition from Alejandro Maldonado to him.
Given that his first year of Government will depend upon the income and expenditure budget of the State for 2016, he states that, before Congress approves it on November 30, his Economy and Finance teams—the members of which are still unknown—will go to Congress to "put the priorities and needs of our country on the table." Morales was very careful not to use the word "negotiation" when talking about budget approval, but he insisted they "do not have any strings attached" to any of the political parties currently represented at Congress, and he says it is up to him and his team to decide the amounts and targets of the State funds for next year. Hours before, Jafeth Cabrera had told Plaza Pública that budget negotiation "cannot be delegated" and that it should be "the President and the Vice-President" who should lead this process.
The 2016 Budget Bill sent to Congress by Otto Perez Molina's Administration amounts to GTQ 72.4 billion (~USD 9.4 billion)—GTQ 2 billion [~USD 260 million] more than the 2015 budget—from which 64% is intended to cover operating expenses, 18% to invest, and 17% to pay debt. According to the projections on which the Bill is based, the budget would be financed with the GTQ 53 billion [~USD 6.8 billion] expected to be collected from tax revenue (GTQ 37.2 billion [~USD 4.8 billion] from direct tax and GTQ 15.8 billion [~USD 2 billion] from foreign trade), plus GTQ 19.4 billion [~USD 2.5 billion] from debt: selling Treasury bonds and international loans.
But in or out of Congress, there is no one who would support such initiative, and the next rulers are aware of this. "What they (congressmen) want to approve is the GTQ 53 billion" [~USD 6.8 billion], says Cabrera. Even though he considers that such budget would create a "yawning gap", he suggests that they would not worry if Congress were to approve it. "If we were able to make this project (the campaign) move forward with only GTQ 1.8 million [~USD 230,000], we believe we can restore a tight budget and prioritize lines of action as important as health, education, and economic recovery... We want to show the people of Guatemala that the Government can operate on a low budget."
To fight corruption—the endemic problem of the Guatemalan government that has taken to prison former Presidents Alfonso Portillo and Otto Pérez Molina along with their Vice-Presidents, Francisco Reyes López and Roxana Baldetti, respectively—once again Jimmy Morales resorts to empty, simple, abstract concepts that do not give a useful insight into concrete actions to be taken. The example: "if the head sets the example, there is a greater probability and a moral solvency to demand from middle- and lower-ranking officials that things be done free from corruption"; law enforcement: "there is a legal framework, which must be complied with"; accountability: "the government needs to be accountable to the people, who should learn through the media who is doing what, how is it being done, and why." With a smile on his face, he said that those "are the three proposals" to root out corruption.
And then, another confusing message: his political party, FCN-Nación, "will not accept defector congressmen." Only the eleven congressmen who won seats in the elections last September will remain. But, he rectified: "I would like to give congressmen the benefit of the doubt in this new model of Guatemalan politics." "What new model of politics do you mean, Mr. President-elect?" There was no possibility of asking him. "We (his government, his party) are going to honor the agreements and respect the institutions. Congress is an institution that must be respected and must earn that respect."
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Seen through the eyes of the experienced and of the realpolitik, an uphill struggle looms in Jimmy Morales' immediate future, too hard and serious to be taken with the casualness and lightness with which he expresses and presents himself to the press. The President-elect will have less that two months to show his political negotiation skills, independence, and commitment; first to the members of his party and groups that joined his project during the election campaign, then to opposition parties and powerful groups orbiting around the State.
Former Vice-President Eduardo Stein (2004-2008) identifies "at least four groups that, in the absence of a strong political party" have surrounded Jimmy Morales: former officials of San Carlos University that are coming along with Jafeth Cabrera; the leaders of fundamentalist evangelical churches; business chambers represented by FUNDESA; and the retired military, founders of the FCN party who, although not visible, continue to control and lead the party.
"It remains to be seen what path he decides to take. The difficult part of the road will be the conformation of a solid, honest, and capable team. These four groups (surrounding him), plus others that will join along the way, are not exactly sources of technocrats, but merely lobby groups", Stein points out, with political, ideological, economic, or religious interests.
Political analyst, Renzo Rosal, observes that if the President-elect does not manage to distance himself from the particular interests of the groups surrounding him, "he will be worn down almost immediately", his share of power will be limited, and even if his intentions are good, they will be nothing more than that: intentions impossible to be turned into concrete actions.
The other "great weakness" Rosal identifies in the elected leaders is "their lack of political operators" capable of negotiating with opposing parties at Congress. "The eleven congressmen conforming the FCN-Nación bloc will not be able to play that role, because they are newcomers and they do not know nor understand what must be done." The main threat, he adds, is that "despair catches up with them" and they end up "recruiting" people from the old politics they were so critical about, congressmen who are "blackmailing experts" to pass laws in exchange for projects and checks.
Both Stein and Rosal agree that the Guatemalan people will be paying close attention to the first actions and decisions taken by Jimmy Morales and Jafeth Cabrera, even before they take office. "It remains to be seen if they are able to break down the extortive scheme of Congress, or if they will end up subordinated to the corrupt interests of (congressmen from political parties) Patriota, Lider, and the dissidents", says Rosal. "We will see how they handle issues with (congressmen from) Lider, since they are the majority party, and how they conform a team of people of acknowledged reputation, honesty, and integrity, as the very first proof of a clear intention to fight corruption", adds Stein.
Although he does not have his own realistic government plan, adds the former Vice-President, "the road map of what he has to do has been sufficiently drawn up; he cannot miss the most urgent topics he must address first." In other words: "the what is clear... what is still unclear is the how and with what."
Last Saturday, Some of the Guatemalans who, fed up with corruption and the political system took over Central Square] between April and September this year, have also sent a message to the candidate that would win the elections: #EstoApenasEmpieza [this is just the beginning]. On January 14, "we will be back at the Square to send a clear message to the next President, congressmen, and other officials: we, the citizens, are becoming more and better organized, and we are going to be watching." That will be the welcome for Jimmy and Jafeth.
* Angélica Medinilla and Bill Barreto also contributed to this report.
**Translated by Andrea Maldonado
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