Sandra Torres provides Latin American perspective at Women in Politics event.
By James Irwin
The night her husband, Álvaro Colom, won the 2007 Guatemalan presidential election, Sandra Torres was still counting votes.
“Sandra, we won,” he said.
She shook her head.
“I’m not going to miss any votes,” she said. “There are still votes to count.”
Today, Ms. Torres is counting votes—and courting them—for her own campaign. The former first lady of Guatemala is a leading candidate in the country’s 2015 presidential race. Ms. Torres is currently polling in second place in a crowded field of 15 candidates vying to lead Guatemala from 2016 to 2020. The large field likely points to a split vote and a runoff election between the two top vote getters.
On Wednesday, the presidential hopeful was in Washington, where she met with students and faculty members of the George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management at a “Women in Politics” event.
“The school is about political management and affecting campaigns,” GSPM adjunct professor David Rehr said. “We wanted to bring people in here from around the world who are campaigning to give perspective on what works, what doesn’t, how they form their coalitions and increase voter turnout. That way, our students find out more about the strategy and how it works in a particular country.”
Wednesday's crowd included students, members of the university faculty and Ms. Torres' campaign team. The Guatemalan election is scheduled for Sept. 13, 2015.
Ms. Torres divorced her husband in 2011 in an attempt to circumvent the country’s ban on close relatives of the president running for office and later was blocked from running in that election by the constitutional court. On Wednesday she spoke of her path to politics—“I came from a political family but I wasn’t sure about it, so I went into business first”—her strategy as a candidate in a crowded field— “get to the runoff”—and how she was a different type of first lady than her predecessors.
Ms. Torres helped run her husband’s campaign and shaped policy during his presidency, including expansive and controversial social programs that raised the living standards of the Guatemalan poor by providing them access to health and education. She turned down many trips to foreign countries to stay home, where she felt she was needed.
“I was a campaign manager in Álvaro's campaigns but had to keep a low profile because I was his wife,” she said. “I wasn’t a conventional first lady, and I was criticized for that, for instead being a woman who wanted to change the country.”
Politics, Ms. Torres said, is very different in Guatemala. There are many parties, and candidates switch parties often or form their own—the National Unity of Hope party, of which Ms. Torres is a founder and member, has only been around since 2002. But there are similarities as well, especially regarding strategy, Dr. Rehr said. Ms. Torres knows the demographics of her supporters—women, rural-based and younger voters. And she has a plan.
Mauricio Garcia, second from right, is a second-year GSPM student and a communications consultant with the Torres campaign. He helped organize her D.C. trip, including the event at GW. "The idea is that GSPM students can have a different perspective on politics, other than the American system," he said.
“You need that,” Dr. Rehr said. “Her plan is: Get to the runoff. If you get to the runoff your odds dramatically increase. She also knows that she has to reduce her margin of loss in urban areas. Meeting her, learning about the culture and how she’s positioning herself now to appeal to constituencies are important lessons for our students to learn.”
One of those students, Mauricio Garcia, is learning that firsthand. The second-year GSPM student is a communications consultant for the Torres campaign. He helped organize her trip to D.C., where she has been meeting with members of Congress, the World Bank and the Organization of American States. On Wednesday, Mr. Garcia also doubled as Ms. Torres’ translator.
“In class, we talk about American politics a lot,” he said. “I thought it would be different and beneficial for some of us to listen to a different perspective. The political management school is focused on applied politics—on how you negotiate, persuade people and win votes. That sets GSPM apart from other programs.”