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Guatemala's presidential divorce of convenience

Sandra Torres, Guatemala's former first lady and presidential hopeful, divorced her husband to avoid a legal bar to her candidacy. But it may have turned the country's devout public against her.

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Guatemala's presidential candidate Sandra Torres, of the National Unity for Hope political party, waves to supporters in Guatemala City, on Sunday, May 8. Torres and Guatemala's President Alvaro Colom have filed for divorce after an eight-year-marriage to clear the way for the first lady to run for the presidency.

Moises Castillo/AP

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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.”

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.

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