Presidental Ambitions Of Latin America's First Ladies Is Anything But Progress

Op-Ed: Examples abound of Latin American first ladies trying to succeed their husbands as president. That’s not a good thing. “Family presidencies” represent a step backward for a region whose executive branches already have too much power.

A memorial poster featuring Presidents Nestor and Cristina Kirchner
A memorial poster featuring Presidents Nestor and Cristina Kirchner

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.

Read more from AméricaEconomía in Spanish

Photo - Alex E. Proimos

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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