“She’s not the vice president; she’s the co-president,” he said about Rosario Murillo. He was utterly right, but still he didn’t have a good idea of how accurate his prophesy was. The prophet was not Daniel Ortega in late October 2021, but Agustín Jarquín in 2016, during the electoral campaign that raised her to the second office of the country.
Five years later, President Ortega came to confirm it: as of October 25 2021, compañera Rosario is co-president. The media, both Nicaraguan and prestigious international newspapers, rushed to denounce Daniel Ortega’s maneuver. The complaint was based on an undoubted fact: something doesn’t sound good when a president invents institutions of the first political order outside the Constitution. But “something doesn’t sound good” is not enough. And that is what most op-eds published in recent days were limited to. What’s really behind that announcement? What does that co-presidency mean, and how does it differ from the vice-presidency?
Co-president is a kind of update of the traditional association to the throne. That is, the monarch gradually incorporates his heir to the tasks of reign. But the power ultimately remains in the hands of the incumbent, who can modulate these delegations and, in principle, the heir must abide by the decisions of the former. In other words, the asymmetry of power, both formal and real, is maintained in favor of the incumbent.
The association to the throne may or may not be institutionalized. For example, in Spain, during the five-year period 2009-2014, King Juan Carlos was increasingly incorporating his son Felipe into the responsibilities of the Crown. This occurred without a formal institution called “Association to the throne,” but with the utmost respect for formal institutions. Here is a first key: the behavior of political actors can allow an informal institution to strengthen formal institutions. Or quite the opposite: as we see in Nicaragua, an informal institution can mean the liquidation of formal institutions.
The example of Spain is particularly useful to compare and understand, because it comes from the Spanish-speaking universe and the recent past. In other words, it is relatively close to the Nicaraguan case. But the invention is actually ancient: we can trace the association to the throne at least as far back as Ancient Greece. Thus, in an institutional sense, Ortega does not invent anything. The problem is that he does invent something at the meta-institutional level. The association to the throne in presidential systems already existed: it is called vice-presidency. Therefore, Ortega re-invents an existing figure; but the method for its creation is informal. More serious still, instead of replacing the existing figure, he places it side by side, both co-existing. And even more serious, the figure created by Ortega has no constitutional support; it is not born of an agreement between political forces that represent the entire nation; it does not originate in a debate weighing the advantages and disadvantages of the new position. We can say, ultimately, that it does not have the least democratic legitimacy or the least anchorage in the rule of law.
Now, if Ortega decided to take this step, there is probably a goal to it. Therefore, let us try to find in the association to the throne the logic behind this type of mechanism. That association used to be deployed for two purposes. Firstly, it helped the heir getting used to the Crown’s tasks; secondly, the population (today we would say the citizenship) got to know the future king, theretofore mostly unknown. That is, he was acquiring legitimacy. Now, in the case of Rosario Murillo, she is vice-president and wife of the president; therefore, it is probable that she is well aware of the tasks of the Executive. Regarding the second objective, Ortega himself stated during the speech in which he named her co-president: “Every day she is communicating with our people, making known everything that is being done for the benefit of Nicaraguan families.” It can be inferred from this that the people know her well. Therefore, if she already knows the tasks of government and the citizens already know her, what is the point of making her co-president? Perhaps the co-presidency is something substantially new?
Although Ortega hinted otherwise, it is clear that president and co-president are not two equals. In the face of dissent, it is the president who has the final word. In summary: the co-presidency is a position that coexists with the President within the Executive; that has less formal and real power than the president; that performs tasks delegated by the chief executive; and whose power and executive capacity will be directly proportional to the confidence that the president has in her.
What is the vice-presidency? It is a position that coexists with the president within the Executive; that has less formal and real power than the president; that performs tasks delegated by the chief executive; and whose power and executive capacity will be directly proportional to the confidence that the president has in her.
(After Argentina’s Cristina Fernández’s invention of the vice-presidency with more real power than the president, we may not be able to take for granted that the president always has greater power than the vice-president. But this does not seem to be the case in Nicaragua. It does not even seem to be the case that have equal powers — Ortega clearly predominates. So let’s move on with the analysis).
Can we say, then, that co-presidency and vice-presidency are the same? Yes and no. From the two previous paragraphs we can infer what they have in common, which is mostly everything. But there is a radical difference between them: while the vice-presidency is a real position, the co-presidency is virtual. For instance, imagine that Ortega wanted to remove the vice-president: he cannot. The Constitution does not house this possibility. Imagine instead that he wants to displace the co-chair: done! Desiring it, announcing it and materializing it are one and the same thing.
Since the position does not exist formally, it cannot be assigned a budget, an office, a team. But in the specific case of Murillo, the deception is interesting, since vice-president and co-president coincide in the same person. Thus, it can be claimed that certain functions, titles or budgets have been assigned to the co-president, when in fact they have been assigned to the vice-president. That coincidence in the same person partially hides the trick — at least from the eyes that are willing to be scammed. However, what would happen if the tradition of appointing a co-president is established, and in the future there are a vice-president and a co-president that do not coincide in the same person?
One fact appears straightforward — Ortega’s maneuver liquidates the vice-presidency and Nicaraguan institutions in general. Its unsaid message is: this same person, with the same functions, has little political value if she only holds the title of vice-president; that is why a more important office needed to be created. And also: the position of vice-president, backed by the Constitution, by history and by the popular vote, has less value than a position magically invented by the word of the president.
The Capetian France added to the association to the throne a second mechanism: the anticipated consecration, by which the heir crowned in advance received the title of rex junior. Taking into account the reminiscences of the Nicaraguan regime with an absolute monarchy, Ortega could have been more generous with his partner: more than co-president, Rosario Murillo deserves the investiture of regina junior.