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First spouses: what happens when accountability goes awry

Allegations that Peru's First Lady, Nadine Heredia, is interfering in policy-making has sparked broader discussions in that country about her role in politics. While President Ollanta Humala and his wife enjoyed high approval ratings following his inauguration in 2011, their popularity has since declined.

Earlier this year Peruvian lawmakers initially refused to approve a new cabinet with some complaining of Heredia’s perceived political meddling.

While not unique to Peru, this issue outlines the potential danger when the spouses of heads of state lack accountability. This is particularly so when a “first spouse” is involved in a more visible and political capacity.

In the case of Heredia, our chapter in Peru has expressed concern that she is in a sort of “limbo”, accountable to neither congress nor the electorate. This concern has since caught the attention of the President’s office, which claims it wants to work with our chapter in improving Heredia’s accountability.

As first spouses are not democratically elected and cannot be dismissed, the power of this position can be easily abused. Mechanisms do exist to hold relatives of politicians to account: some countries extend their asset declaration regimes of politicians to cover spouses; while countries like Albania require politicians, their spouses and children to declare any conflicts of interest. However, not all countries have such mechanisms. Many first spouses are often free from the usual constraints that are enforced on office-holders.

While the extent to which a first spouse can get involved in policy-making is open to much debate, it’s clear that the right accountability structures must be in place regardless. Without accountability, the growing role of first spouses stands to be threatened by real and perceived nepotism, conflicts of interest and abuse of power. History has witnessed several prominent cases:

Côte d’Ivoire: Simone Gbagbo

The former first lady of Côte d'Ivoire, Simone Gbagbo, was the first woman to be indicted by the International Criminal Court in a rare case, the media noted, of an individual outside formal government structures being held personally responsible for a regime’s actions. She is alleged to have been involved in the post-election turmoil of November 2010 – in her husband Laurent Gbagbo’s last-ditch attempt to hold onto power – and is being charged with crimes against humanity.

While Simone Gbagbo held no official position in government, she was nonetheless seen as part of the president’s inner circle, actively involved in planning the brutal attacks on her husband's political opponents. Gbagbo and her husband have also been charged with economic crimes in Côte d'Ivoire, stemming from alleged embezzlement and theft of public funds during the spate of violence.

Egypt: Suzanne Thabet Mubarak

In June 2011, public prosecutors investigated the former first lady Suzanne Thabet Mubarak, wife of ousted president Hosni Mubarak, for profiteering and abuse of position.

According to the plaintiff who filed the complaint with the public prosecutor’s office, the former first lady ordered the minister of housing and urban communities at the time to assign all projects to people related to her.

During this period, Suzanne Thabet and her husband were also facing charges of illicit enrichment and misappropriation of public funds. Following detainment and interrogation by the illicit gains authority, she was released after handing over assets to the state.

Philippines: Imelda Marcos

The late former president Ferdinand Marcos and his wife, Imelda Marcos, faced a raft of corruption charges after Ferdinand’s dictatorial regime crumbled and the couple fled the country in 1986. For many years the Philippine government has been trying to recover some of the US$10 billion it claims was embezzled during the regime, but prosecutors say this has been difficult as much of the wealth is believed to be in secret bank accounts abroad.

There have been a staggering 901 charges brought against Imelda Marcos (whose husband died in 1989), ranging from racketeering, to tax fraud, to embezzlement, to illegal transfers of wealth abroad. However, most of the cases have been dismissed for lack of evidence and the few convictions overturned. In 2011, however, a Philippine court ordered her to repay the government almost US$280,000 for funds stolen by her husband during his regime.

Switzerland: Hans W. Kopp

Hans W. Kopp was the husband of Elisabeth Kopp, the first woman elected to the Swiss Federal Council in 1984, who served briefly as vice president of the Confederation in 1989. The case brought against her husband is argued to have led to Elisabeth Kopp resigning from her position.

Hans Kopp was a Zurich lawyer who sat on the board of several companies and was accused of involvement in a multinational money-laundering operation. The crisis came to a head when Elisabeth Kopp was accused of tipping off her husband that one of the companies he was involved in was about to be implicated in the investigation.

Shortly thereafter, Hans Kopp gave up his position at the company, but the case was dropped and no charges were filed. However, years later in 1991, Hans Kopp was convicted of fraud and falsification of documents relating to his role in a different company. In 1992 he was also convicted of tax evasion and was forced to pay back taxes.

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