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President of Honduras is a former first lady. Expect to see more former first ladies running for office.

Research explores this growing trend in Latin America

- December 9, 2021

Xiomara Castro was recently elected president of Honduras with nearly 51 percent of the vote, ending 12 years of rule by the conservative National Party. The election of the leftist candidate of the Liberty and Refoundation (“Libre”) party garnered international attention, as Castro became the first woman elected to lead her country (and the seventh female president in Latin America).

Castro is also a former first lady, married to former president Manuel Zelaya, and became politically active when she led the protests of the coup against her husband in 2009. Zelaya founded the Libre party in 2011, and Castro represented the party running for the presidency in 2013 and 2021, and the vice presidency in 2017.

Our research suggests Castro is part of a growing trend in presidential systems: former first ladies successfully competing for national office. As is often the case with these candidates, academics, analysts and the media have described Castro as a mere delegate of her husband. But how independent is Castro — and will she advance women’s issues in the country with the highest rate of femicides in Latin America? We’ve studied the political behavior of first ladies and the answers seem … tricky.

Honduras voted for change. Can Xiomara Castro, the president-elect, deliver?

We looked at the careers of 90 former first ladies

Our research shows first ladies can have great influence as members of the political elite. We studied the careers of the 90 Latin American former first ladies who were eligible to become candidates for congress, the presidency or the vice presidency between 1999 and 2016. Twenty of them collectively ran 26 times for national office.

We found that analysts and the media, as well as rival politicians, commonly described these candidates as surrogates of an outgoing or former male president. Critics implied that these women lacked independence. Interestingly, former first ladies were enormously successful, winning election 73 percent of the time, while a minority had a notable political career before moving into the presidential residence.

In a forthcoming paper, we argue that women who had previously been elected to political office tended to use the role of first lady as a platform to enhance their careers. As politicians, they were more likely to run again for office, and to do so as soon as they left the executive branch. After analyzing these 90 former first ladies, we found strong support for our argument: Our data suggests that the predicted probability that first ladies with previous experience as elected politicians will run for office is 70 percent, and there is an 86 percent chance that they will compete for congress, the presidency or the vice presidency the first opportunity they have.

Castro had little previous political experience, however, so our research does not allow us to expect her to act with much political independence. She became a presidential candidate in 2013 when Zelaya was constitutionally forbidden from running for office. Zelaya actively participated in Castro’s campaign at the time, contributing to the image of her being a political surrogate.

In 2021, the indications are strong that her presidency may herald a political dynasty of sorts. To downplay Zelaya’s active involvement, one of their children, Héctor, served as Castro’s campaign coordinator for the 2021 election. Meanwhile, Zelaya continued leading the party and is expected to become her main presidential adviser. In addition, Castro’s daughter Hortensia and Zelaya’s brother, Carlón, will support Castro as deputies. Some analysts see the family perhaps joining the tradition of ruling political families in the region, like the Ortegas, in power in Nicaragua since 2007.

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Will Castro focus on women’s issues?

To be sure, a former first lady who has not held elected office before may deploy an unexpected leadership, especially if we consider her gender and ideology. For example, contrary to her husband’s presidency, Castro has a progressive agenda on women’s issues.

Political scientist Catherine Reyes-Housholder has shown that a female president won’t necessarily advance a pro-women agenda. However, Castro’s government program has a chapter dedicated to gender issues. She proposes to partially legalize abortion in a country where abortion is forbidden and wants to create shelters for female victims of domestic violence, develop projects to improve women’s economic status and provide comprehensive care for migrant women.

These proposals are in line with Castro’s initiatives as first lady. For example, she founded the Coalition of First Ladies and Women Leaders of Latin America on Women and AIDS in 2006 to mobilize resources to care for women and people with HIV.

Expect to see more former first ladies on the ballot

The election of former first ladies to national office is a growing trend in Latin America. The pool of potential candidates keeps expanding and there’s a clear trend: 15 of the 26 candidacies we studied occurred in the last six years of our sample.

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Since 2016, five former first ladies have aimed for the presidency. And some have become vice presidents, including Cristina Fernández in Argentina in 2019, Margarita Cedeño — who lost reelection as vice president of the Dominican Republic in 2020 — and Rosario Murillo, reelected as vice president in Nicaragua’s nondemocratic 2021 general elections.

And it’s not just a Latin American trend. In the United States, Hillary Clinton became the first former first lady to run for the Senate (in 2001), a presidential primary (2008) and the presidency (2016). Former first lady Michelle Obama has faced pressure to run for office. In Asia, former first lady of South Korea Park Geun-hye became president in 2013. In Africa, former first ladies have competed for the legislature in Uganda and the presidency in Ghana and South Africa.

Even if some of these candidates do not explicitly promote women’s issues, their political successes should help to balance the gender disparity in political power and, through their engagement in the public debate, encourage more women to run for office.

For now, Xiomara Castro is the only female head of government in Latin America. And she has an agenda to improve women’s lives in one of the poorest countries in the world — and one with high levels of gender-based violence.

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Ignacio Arana Araya is an assistant teaching professor at Carnegie Mellon University, where he studies how the personality traits and other individual differences of heads of government affect executive governance. He also studies executive-legislative relations, informal institutions, gender and politics and judicial politics.

Carolina Guerrero Valencia is a research associate at the GIGA Institute for Latin American Studies in Germany. Her research focuses on first ladies, elites, the executive branch, executive-legislative relations and women in politics in Latin America.