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Send in the clowns

Send in the clowns

IN one of his films, the Guatemalan comic actor Jimmy Morales portrayed a bumbling cowboy who is accidentally elevated to his nation’s presidency. Sunday’s presidential election in that country could be seen, to an extent, as an instance of life imitating art.

Morales emerged as the unexpected frontrunner in that poll, albeit with less than a quarter of the popular vote. His fantasy may not be translated into reality, but he’ll decidedly be a contender when Guatemalans vote again in a run-off election on Oct 25.

There is, frankly, much to be said for comedians being catapulted into power. In any number of countries, they would make an entertaining alternative to the incumbents. They may not be the ideal answer to any given nation’s problems, but that’s also true of all too many ‘dedicated’ politicians. Not to mention soldiers.

The Guatemalan election attracted international interest primarily on account of its fascinating backdrop. President Otto Perez Molina, a former general, resigned last week after parliament rescinded his immunity from corruption charges amid a relentless series of popular protests. He now sits in prison, awaiting charges relating to a customs fraud scheme.

That’s a pretty extraordinary development in a country that, unlike some of its Latin American neighbours, is yet to emerge from the darkness into which it was thrust more than 60 years ago by a CIA-sponsored coup. Back in 1954, among the witnesses to the military overthrow of the progressive, popularly elected government of Jacobo Arbenz was a restless young Argentine medic called Ernesto Guevara.

It is interesting, too, that if Molina’s case goes to trial, it will be competing for legal attention against courtroom proceedings involving Efrain Rios Montt, a military dictator from the early 1980s who faces charges of genocide against indigenous people relating to a ‘counter-insurgency’ onslaught that enjoyed the backing of the Reagan administration.

It’s significant, though, that whereas it has taken more than 30 years for charges to be brought against Montt — who has lately been found eligible to stand trial but not to face sentencing — the process has been considerably quicker in the case of Molina.

A similar fate does not so far appear to be on the cards for another ruler, half a world away, who is also being dogged by charges of corruption. Accusations of personal gain against Malaysia’s prime minister, Najib Razak, have certainly struck a popular chord, as lately witnessed by huge protests against him in Kuala Lumpur, but he has shown few signs of budging.

Intriguingly, the anti-Razak drive has lately been bolstered by the physical presence of his predecessor, Mahathir Mohamad, at large-scale popular protests in the nation’s capital. The 90-year-old Mahathir, who ruled Malaysia with something of an iron fist (occasionally slipping on a velvet glove) for 22 years until 2003, wasn’t exactly an exemplary democrat, but he didn’t stray into the realm of personal enrichment as blatantly as Najib, and his participation in the protests has been welcomed, among others, by his former deputy Anwar Ibrahim.

It was under Mahathir that Anwar, once the heir presumptive, was initially sidelined on the basis of widely disbelieved charges of sexual indiscretion. His persecution helped to propel him into the role of opposition leader, and he was acquitted of the charges before being re-convicted and sentenced to five years in prison.

Anwar remains one of the icons of the Bersih (‘clean’) movement, and last week he welcomed Mahathir’s involvement in the movement against Razak.

The corruption charges, which led Razak to sack some of his closest aides because they questioned his integrity, are only the tip of the iceberg, however. Many of the reforms that Razak promised on first coming to power have not come to pass. And, alongside economic woes blamed on poor governance, the authorities embarrassed Malaysia last year in their confused and frequently contradictory response to the sad fate of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which remains a mystery notwithstanding the recent location of some debris a long distance from the designated flight path.

The tragedy was compounded by the downing of a second passenger airliner over Ukraine. On top of that, economic woes have steadily been piling up, exacerbated by an unpopular goods and services tax. It has been noted that there weren’t many Malays among the recent protesters, but reinforcing an ethnic divide hardly redounds to the credit of the Razak administration.

The chances of Razak, like Molina, being made to answer the charges against him in a court of law do not look good for the time being, barring the overthrow of a political structure whereby Malaysia’s fortunes have been guided effectively by the same party since 1957.

There is arguably much that Asia could learn from Latin America in terms of reforming modes of governance. It has grounds, though, for claiming precedence in electing clowns to office, and Malaysia is by no means the foremost offender in this respect.

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Published in Dawn, September 9th, 2015

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