Right-wing candidate Alejandro Giammattei won Guatemala’s presidential election Sunday, beating former first lady Sandra Torres by a double-digit margin. Turnout was low in the runoff — a sign of voter apathy and disillusionment toward the government, experts say.
Giammattei, 63, will replace outgoing president Jimmy Morales at a time when the Central American country finds itself embroiled in corruption scandals and questions over a new immigration deal with the United States. Giammattei will take office in January.
Here’s what you need to know about the president-elect:
He has run for president four times for four different parties
Sunday marked Giammattei’s fourth bid for Guatemala’s presidency and his first victory. Each time, he has run under the banner of a different party. This cycle, he ran as the leader of the right-wing party Vamos.
Giammattei has staked out conservative positions on law enforcement and social issues, billing himself as a law-and-order candidate and a staunch opponent of same-sex marriage and abortion, according to the BBC.
Guatemala experts said Giammattei’s easy victory Sunday — he held a 16-point lead over Torres — probably reflects voter disengagement and the unpopularity of his rival rather than widespread enthusiasm about his candidacy.
Forty-two percent of registered voters cast ballots in the final race of a contentious election season in which many popular candidates were disqualified. Even though Torres won the first round, she was widely disliked among Guatemalans who perceived her to be corrupt, according to Harvard professor and Latin America historian Kirsten Weld.
“I think the fact that he was able to squeak through in this election despite having lost in his first round really owes a lot to the high abstention rate, the chaos and anarchy of this election process … and Guatemalans’ sense of really having a set of terrible options,” she said of Giammattei.
He has been prosecuted in connection with extrajudicial executions
Giammattei has never held political office — a fact that makes him a “bit of an unknown quantity,” Weld said, despite his numerous presidential runs. Though he was trained as a doctor, he is most famous for running Guatemala’s prison system.
Giammattei was appointed prisons director in 2006. While in that role, he oversaw an operation to wrest control of the Pavón prison from inmates, the BBC reported. Seven inmates were killed during security raids, and an international tribunal in Guatemala prosecuted Giammattei for his alleged involvement in extrajudicial executions. He spent 10 months in pretrial detention, according to the BBC, before he was acquitted.
Throughout his campaign, Giammattei pointed to his experience directing prisons to bolster his tough-on-crime image. The Guatemalan government has long struggled to contain the drug trafficking and gang violence that has plagued the country and spurred migration.
“Really what distinguished him as a candidate was his emphasis on cracking down on the security situation,” Weld said. “For folks especially living in cities and in border regions where everyday crime is an unavoidable part of everyday life, you can see why somebody saying ‘I’m going to do something about crime’ would be an appealing message."
He plans to modify the recent U.S.-Guatemala migration deal
Giammattei will take office six months after Guatemala agreed to become a “safe third country” in a highly unpopular immigration deal with the Trump administration. The deal, which Morales’s government signed with the Department of Homeland Security last month, would force migrants from Honduras and El Salvador hoping to seek asylum in the United States to apply for asylum in Guatemala first.
Morales agreed to the pact under pressure from President Trump, who threatened to slap tariffs on Guatemala’s exports and tax remittances if Morales did not agree to his demands. In doing so, Morales bucked Guatemala’s Constitutional Court, which has since issued an injunction preventing the deal’s implementation.
As court proceedings continue, Giammattei may find himself dealing with a constitutional crisis provoked by his predecessor. Meanwhile, public opposition to the deal remains high. A recent poll by a Guatemalan newspaper found that 80 percent of respondents opposed the country accepting asylum seekers, according to Reuters.
Ahead of the election, both Torres and Giammattei voiced skepticism about the asylum deal. In an interview with Reuters after his victory, Giammattei said the accord “is not right for the country.” He said he hopes to seek improvements to the deal.
“I hope that during this transition the doors will open to get more information so we can see what, from a diplomatic point of view, we can do to remove from this deal the things that are not right for us, or how we can come to an agreement with the United States,” he told Reuters.
U.S. Border Patrol Chief Carla Provost described Giammattei’s election as a “concern” in an interview Monday on Fox News.
“We need both Mexico and Guatemala to continue doing what they’re doing,” she added.
Giammattei will find himself facing pressure from all sides, according to Edward Murphy, a history professor and Latin America expert at Michigan State University.
Giammattei ran against the deal in a “nationalist response” to the Trump administration, Murphy said. But he can’t risk provoking Trump’s ire, he said, since Guatemala still receives aid from the United States and retaliatory sanctions would deal a blow to the economy.
Murphy said he expects Giammattei will accept the deal with a few modifications.
He has pledged to build an ‘economic wall’ and tackle corruption
Giammattei has not made clear exactly how he hopes to modify the immigration deal. But he has floated a number of proposals aimed at curbing migration, promising to build an “economic wall” by creating jobs in Guatemala.
“We will focus on the construction of a different Guatemala,” Giammattei said Sunday.
He also pledged during the campaign to fight corruption, although he has opposed a U.N.-backed commission that worked to prosecute elites accused of corruption and wrongdoing. That panel was the group that prosecuted — and later acquitted — Giammattei for presiding over alleged extrajudicial killings.
Corruption in Guatemala has been endemic, but judicial restructuring and a political opening that began about a decade ago appeared to be making strides toward checking it, Weld said. But she said backsliding under Morales, who ended the international anti-corruption commission’s mandate earlier this year, has undone many of those gains.
Weld said Giammattei’s victory “signals continuity rather than change.”
“The incoming president is very much cut from the same cloth as Jimmy Morales was,” she said.
Giammattei was expected to announce his cabinet Monday. He’ll take office Jan. 14.