Guatemala's presidential divorce of convenience

When Alvaro Colom was elected president here in 2007, it was voters like Olga Choc Rodriguez that gave him the edge.

An unemployed indigenous Mayan with a child whose belly she has trouble keeping full, Ms. Choc believed Mr. Colom – a left-of-center candidate – would combat endemic poverty.

Four years later, she seems a natural fit to vote for Colom’s successor in the National Unity of Hope (UNE) party, Sandra Torres.

“I think the president has good programs for the poor, ones that help us, like this one,” she says, waiting outside one of the scores of food pantries the Colom administration opened. She says she eats there with her 7-year-old daughter regularly.

“Sandra would have the same projects,” she says, pausing to think, “but she’s divorced.”

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For American voters, who have become accustomed to political sex scandals and moral improprieties far graver than divorce (if it even rises to impropriety), Ms. Torres’s peccadillo may seem tame. But Guatemala is not the US’s cultural equivalent. Nor is Torres the average candidate. She’s the former first lady.

Torres divorced Colom to skirt a constitutional provision banning family members of sitting president from running for the following election. The controversy that followed, a series of smaller scandals and a political climate dominated by the question over how the country should combat a crippling crime wave, has turned the would-be first female president of Guatemala into a long shot. As the Sept. 11 first round approaches, her opponent, a former military general with a checkered past, is pulling away, according to recent polls.

'Divorce for her country'

Guatemala’s Constitution, which also prevents Colom from running for a consecutive term, prohibits family members from running to prevent family dynasties. In an emotional address in April, Torres said, “I am divorcing my husband, but marrying the people. … I am not going to be the first or last woman who decides to get a divorce, but I am the only one to divorce for her country.”

The divorce was scandalous in a country where churches big and small, Catholic and evangelical, sit on every street of every city and village. The powerful Catholic Bishops’ Conference said the institution of marriage was not negotiable.

The perhaps more powerful association that represents big business owners, CACIF, was less charitable. “These actions illustrate the decline of moral values of society,” the group said in a statement. “How can we expect to restore Guatemala’s moral and fundamental values if its presidential pair send a message like this?”

A political bulldog with Tammy Faye Baker eyes, Torres has defended her decision to end the civil marriage.

But the divorce was followed by a series of scandals, including a legal effort by her own sister to invalidate Torres’ candidacy.

“The divorce has been a distraction that she has not really been able to overcome,” says Guillermo Méndez, a professor at Guatemala’s Francisco Marroquín University and founder of the Institute for Services to the Nation, which is trying to inform voters on candidate positions. “Her campaign has not recovered enough for her to be able to deliver her message.”

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Torres is pursuing a strategy that mirrors the one that put her ex-husband in office. He was the first president to lose the important Guatemala City vote and still win the presidency, thanks to the support of poor, rural voters.

Early on, Torres took charge of the Colom administration’s marquee antipoverty project, aimed at the same population. The program includes food pantries and cash payments of $40 a month to families that send their children to school and for vaccines regularly.

Opponents accuse her of “using [the program] to buy the First Lady a political support base for her presidential aspirations,” the US Embassy wrote in a cable in 2009, more than a year before she declared her intentions.

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The program reached 814,625 families in 2010, but “those family, who are poor and mostly indigenous can recognize when someone is trying to take advantage of them for political purposes,” says Mónica Leonardo, a professor at Guatemala’s University of the Isthmus and a lawyer with the Pro Justice Movement. “More importantly, her discourse has been left-leaning and people, even if they are poor, are not going to buy the left-wing rhetoric in this election.”

A mano dura alternative

In recent polls, she’s trailed her opponent – former military general Otto Pérez Molina – by as few as 7 points and as many as 30 points. Although the polls have historically been unreliable here, they are unanimously against her.

“She ran without considering the consequences. I don’t think she listened when people said she didn’t have a chance to win,” says Sandino Asturias, director of the liberal Center for Guatemalan Studies. “Maybe her ego made the decision.”

Mr. Pérez, runner-up to Colom in the previous election, campaigns as a mano dura candidate, meaning he’d take a hard-handed approach to drugs, arms, and human trafficking, and gang violence.

“We don’t want the violence and insecurity found in Guatemala. There will be 25,000 murders under this government, 25,000 families who lost [someone] ... and this government doesn’t care,” Pérez’s campaign told the Monitor in a statement.

Pérez came up through the military ranks during Guatemala’s 36-year-long civil war in which 200,000 people were killed, 93 percent by the military, a truth commission found. Pérez commanded a military unit in the western department of Quiche, where more than 300 massacres took place. He also directed a feared military intelligence agency. The war ended in 1996 with the signing of peace accords between rebel forces and the government. Pérez represented the military in the peace accords negotiations.

As the first round vote nears (a run-off will held in November unless a candidate wins the majority), Pérez has focused less on the drastic measures for which he was once known – like an antigang bill that would have imprisoned gang members even if they had not committed a crime.

“You see him moderating his approach now. His mano dura approach is being framed as just complying with existing laws,” Ms. Leonardo says. “I think he realizes that he has to appear more moderate. … Unless something drastic happens, he’s going to win this election.”

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