Guatemala City – One of the top contenders for president in Guatemala‘s June 16 general elections cannot run for office, the country’s highest court ruled Monday.
A longtime politician who served four terms in Congress, Zury Rios had been in second place in most recent polls. But the Constitution bars the right-wing Valor party presidential candidate from running, the Constitutional Court ruled in a 4-3 split decision.
Guatemala’s constitution prohibits anyone who came to power by coup or force from running for president, and the same ban extends to their blood relatives up to the fourth degree of consanguinity. Rios is the daughter of former dictator General Efrain Rios Montt, who seized power in a military coup.
“The norm is to preserve democratic order,” Constitutional Court secretary Martin Guzman said Monday evening at a press conference announcing the decision.
The court ruling orders the electoral tribunal to revoke Rios’s candidacy within 24 hours.
Rios Montt was head of state from March 1982 to August 1983, at the height of atrocities during the 36-year civil war between the army and leftist guerrilla forces that left 200,000 people dead.
A UN-backed truth commission concluded the army was responsible for the vast majority of the more than 600 documented massacres, and most of the victims were indigenous Maya civilians.
In 2013, Rios Montt was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity for his role in the massacres of 1,771 Maya Ixil civilians. The conviction was vacated and he died before his partial retrial concluded last year, but the tribunal again concluded the state committed genocide during Rios Montt’s time in power.
Rios never wavered in her support for her father and was a key figure in the right-wing and military backlash against his prosecution.
Genocide survivors celebrated Monday’s court ruling against Rios.
“In memory of the thousands of campesinos (farmers) and indigenous people massacred by ex-dictator J Efrain Rios Montt, we respectfully salute the decision of the Constitutional Court to deny the registration of Zury Rios [as a candidate],” the Association for Justice and Reconciliation (AJR), an organisation of genocide and massacre survivors, tweeted Monday.
“We’re thrilled,” AJR president Edwin Canil told Al Jazeera. “For many of the communities in which we have a presence, the participation of Zury Rios was of great concern.”
“[Rios] in the presidency would have been a huge step backwards,” he said.
Others view the extension of the constitutional ban on relatives as unfair and the ruling as arbitrary. Rios participated as a presidential candidate in the 2015 elections amid conflicting court rulings, and has argued that barring her would violate civic and political rights enshrined in international conventions.
“It is not just a matter of my participation and my right to be elected. It is also a matter of the rights of citizens [to elect],” Rios said at a public hearing on the case last month.
Guatemala’s constitution recognises the prevalence of human rights and international law, but the articles establishing presidential eligibility are among the core articles of the document. They are not open to interpretation and can only altered through a National Constitutional Assembly, notes Oswaldo Samayoa, a constitutional law professor.
“The ruling is not a limitation of [Rios’s] rights. It is a safeguard of constitutionality,” Samayoa told Al Jazeera.
In an interview last week with Guatemalan media outlets Prensa Libre and Guatevision, Rios alluded to only respecting a “lawful” Constitutional Court ruling. Her response raises the spectre of 2003’s “Black Thursday” in Guatemala City, when Rios Montt supporters armed with machetes and guns rioted after a court ruled against his presidential candidacy.
“In this case, [Rios] is a citizen with every right to disagree with the court,” said Samayoa.
“I think the candidates facing legal challenges should respect the rulings, express their disagreement if they wish to, but at no point should they call for or provoke any incident that could threaten the life or security of people, or of institutions and constitutional order,” he said.
A campaign spokesman for Rios was not immediately available for comment.
Other top contenders may be barred
Rios is not the only top contender whose eligibility ended up before the Constitutional Court. On Wednesday, the court is expected to rule on the eligibility of Semilla candidate Thelma Aldana and on whether UNE candidate Sandra Torres, leading in the polls, can be prosecuted for corruption.
A former attorney general renowned for taking on high-level government corruption, Aldana faces an arrest warrant for an alleged corruption case. The judge on the case is now under investigation for accepting bribes in exchange for issuing the warrant.
Longtime politician and former first lady Sandra Torres is implicated in a case involving alleged illegal campaign financing in the last elections, in which she came in second place. As a candidate, she has immunity from prosecution, but it can be stripped by the Constitutional Court.
Corruption and even drug cartel scandals have plagued other candidates. Ruling FCN party candidate Estuardo Galdamez is now accused of corruption. UCN candidate Mario Estrada was arrested last month in the United States, where he has been charged with drug and weapons charges for allegedly meeting with drug traffickers to seek campaign financing and arrange assassinations of political rivals.
Aldana, Torres, Estrada and Galdamez have all denied any wrongdoing.
With more than 20 presidential candidates in the running, it is unlikely anyone will obtain an outright majority in the June 16 general elections. If necessary, a second-round runoff election for president will be held on August 11.
The president-elect will take office in January 2020 for a four-year term.