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Presidential hopeful Sandra Torres pitches experience as Guatemala seeks change


By Brendan O’Boyle

(Reuters) – Sandra Torres is pitching her two decades as a leading figure in Guatemalan politics as she tries to woo disenchanted voters ahead of a presidential runoff on Sunday and avoid a third straight election loss.

Opinion polls show Torres losing by double digits to Bernardo Arevalo, a reformist candidate whose rise on an anti-corruption platform has shaken the establishment in Central America’s largest country.

Torres, 67, says her experience will be vital to combat a poverty rate of more than 55%, which has made Guatemala the region’s top source of migration to the United States and one of the world’s worst countries for child malnutrition.

“Every four years it’s the same. Candidates appear with no experience,” she said in a debate on Monday. “Making promises is easy but getting things done is different.”

As first lady to late President Alvaro Colom between 2008 and 2011, Torres championed a welfare program that helped her and her National Unity of Hope (UNE) party establish a strong presence in rural communities.

Torres, who hails from a poor town in Guatemala’s Peten region, has promised to expand the social safety net if elected.

But while her party’s last government did reduce poverty, Torres’ efforts have also drawn criticism for being “clientelistic,” said Will Freeman, a fellow for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“Today many Guatemalans regard her social programs as not really geared toward lifting people out of poverty for good.”

Torres has eyed the presidency since 2011, when she divorced her husband in a failed attempt to dodge a constitutional ban on close relatives of the incumbent president running for the office.

In two subsequent presidential bids in 2015 and 2019, she made it through to the second round but lost at the final hurdle.

In 2019, she was accused of campaign finance irregularities, which she denied, and spent four months in prison. The case was closed in 2022 for lack of evidence, but a CID Gallup poll in July found that 54% of respondents considered Torres “corrupt” and a “liar.” That contrasted sharply with views on Arevalo.

Torres has sought new allies as she seeks to reverse her election losses, analysts said.

The historically center-left figure has moved to the right on social issues – for example, campaigning to keep same-sex marriage and abortion illegal in the conservative country and choosing an evangelical pastor as her running mate.

Still, the perception of Torres as being a continuation of the status quo could present a challenge with establishment-averse voters, of whom nearly one in four cast spoiled or blank ballots in June’s first-round vote.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Boyle, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

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