SANTIAGO – This may go down in history as the year of the first lady, at least in Latin America, where the wives of presidents – once just figureheads – have tepped to the fore with political aspirations of their own.
In Argentina, former first lady and current President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner scored a landslide victory this past October in her bid for reelection. Fernández de Kirchner’s husband, former President Nestor Kirchner (2003-2007), died in late 2010 of a heart attack.
But “Crisitina K” is by no means the only president’s wife to make a push for power in 2011. Guatemala’s Sandra Torres de Colom made a show of divorcing her husband, President Álvaro Colom, in order to run as his successor. The divorce was necessary to sidestep Guatemala’s electoral laws, which don’t allow presidents to be succeeded by their spouses. Wisely, the Guatemalan courts ended up blocking Torres de Colom from running anyway.
In the Dominican Republic, Margarita Cedeño de Fernández, the wife of President Lionel Fernández, flirted for a long time with the idea of throwing her hat in the ring for the 2012 presidential election. In the end she chose against it, but she did accept the idea of running as a vice presidential candidate.
In Honduras, Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, the wife of deposed President Manuel Zelaya (2006-2009), found a way to get around the law that prevents her husband from running again: presenting herself as a candidate instead. And In Peru, political analysts are starting to pay close attention to Nadine Heredia, the wife of the recently elected president, Ollanta Humala.
Women of course deserve access to the same social and political roles as men. But the current Latin American trend of first ladies trying to follow their husbands into office isn’t about that. Rather, it reflects an underlying problem involving the direction in which Latin America’s presidential systems are heading.
The weakening of political parties and their inability to perform their basic function, which is to promote leaders, means that business people, actors, journalists and family members end up winning control of governments. In the case of family members, this opens the door to an ever present danger, which is the expansion of presidential authority. Unlike her rival candidates, a first lady has preferential access to the media and the levers of power. She can also demand the loyalty of the bureaucratic apparatus.
This signals a step backward for a region where presidents already have more power than the first constitutional kings had in their day. To accept as “normal” that first ladies run for president is to open the door to family presidencies. That, in turn, would mark a major regression for a region that has just passed the 200-year mark since it ceased being reigned by monarchies.
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Photo - Alex E. Proimos