Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

GUATEMALA: First Lady’s Divorce Fails to Secure Presidential Bid

Danilo Valladares

GUATEMALA CITY, Aug 9 2011 (IPS) - The decision by the Constitutional Court of Guatemala to bar Sandra Torres, the former wife of President Álvaro Colom, from running in the Sept. 11 elections strengthens the national justice system, according to activists and analysts.

The Constitutional Court upheld a Supreme Court verdict that ruled she was ineligible to stand in the elections because of her relationship with the president. Torres divorced her husband shortly after announcing that she would be the candidate for a coalition made up of the centre-left ruling National Union for Hope party and the centre-right Great National Alliance.

Constitutional Court president Alejandro Maldonado explained that the resolution was based on article 186 of the constitution, which bars family members of the president from running for the office of chief executive.

In late July, the Supreme Court ruled that since Torres divorced Colom in April, she was his wife during most of his term.

Some 200 supporters of Torres were waiting outside the courthouse when the Constitutional Court verdict was announced late Monday.

Torres has played an active role as first lady, coordinating the social programmes run by the Social Cohesion Council and taking part in cabinet meetings. She still wears her wedding ring and, according to opponents, she is living at the presidential residence.

“The ruling sets a legal precedent and upholds the Supreme Court and civil registry resolutions,” Renzo Rosal, at the Rafael Landívar Jesuit university, told IPS. (The civil registry had also objected to Torres’ registration as a presidential candidate.)

Rosal said the verdict “reinvigorates the country’s justice system, which has been accused of biased decisions.”

Guatemala’s justice system is notoriously weak. According to the U.N.-sponsored International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), established in 2006, a shocking 98 percent of crimes go unsolved and unpunished in this impoverished Central American country.

The Constitutional Court decision dealt a severe blow to Torres, who is in second place in the polls, with 17 percent ratings, behind retired general Otto Pérez Molina of the rightwing Patriot Party, who has 40 percent support.

The 51-year-old Torres’ decision to divorce her husband made international headlines and drew a wave of criticism and legal action from those who said she was merely trying to get around the constitutional ban on nepotism.

She has now exhausted her appeals, and the Constitutional Court ruling has put an end to the long drawn out legal battle and the uncertainty surrounding the presidential race.

“The Court verdict upholds the constitutional order that clearly establishes the impediments that apply to those who want to run for the presidency,” Carmen Aída Ibarra, an activist with the Pro Justice Movement, told IPS.

A ruling in favour of Torres “would have undermined the legitimacy of the Constitutional Court and would have sent a message that the institutional order had been weakened,” she added.

For many, the episode brought to mind the case of retired general Efraín Ríos Montt, who registered as a presidential candidate in 2003 although article 186 of the constitution expressly barred him from doing so for leading a military coup in 1982 and governing as dictator for 16 months.

But the far-right Ríos Montt, who is accused of massive crimes against humanity during the 1960-1996 counterinsurgency war against leftwing guerrillas, urged his followers to take to the streets, and groups of masked supporters armed with machetes and clubs stormed Guatemala City to pressure the courts to allow him to be a candidate.

After the rioting, the Constitutional Court overturned the Supreme Court decision that had banned him from running in the elections, on the argument that article 186 was approved in 1985 and could not be applied retroactively. But in the end, Ríos Montt only took 11 percent of the vote, putting him in a distant third place.

Torres, meanwhile, has waged a heavy media campaign, while her supporters – many of them poor mothers who have benefited from the government’s social programmes – have held peaceful mass demonstrations to urge the courts to allow her to participate in the elections.

But Torres refuses to give up. On Aug. 5, the alliance of parties that backed her candidacy sued the Guatemalan state in the Central American Court of Justice, the highest court of the Central American Integration System (SICA), arguing that it had been “excluded from the electoral race.”

The president of the Central American Court, Francisco Darío Lobo, reported that the lawsuit had been admitted and that the authorities in Guatemala had 10 days to respond.

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