The vice president – coup leader on the government payroll

In many countries in Latin America, the vice president is the only one to benefit from the resignation of the president. This could be the source of the political instability in these countries.

VICE PRESIDENT TURNED PRESIDENT: When President Hugo Chávez died of cancer earlier this year, a new presidential election had to be held before Vice President Nicolás Maduro could legally assume the presidency. He had only been appointed by the president and not elected by popular vote. Photo:

Many Latin American countries have a presidential government based on multi-party coalitions.


– I am seeking to find out whether the office of vice president in such governments is a source of political stability or instability, says Leiv Marsteinstredet, Associate Professor of Latin American Area Studies, University of Oslo.


– The vice president is the only government member who is not appointed by the president, but elected by popular vote like the president. If the president resigns in mid-term, the vice president is the only one to benefit, since this will allow him to assume the office of president, he explains.


Divided loyalty


This has given rise to a number of myths.


– In Argentina, it is said that the vice president is the only coup leader on the government payroll. To find out how much truth there is in this statement, I have reviewed the history of 80 of the 137 vice presidents in office from the late 1980s until today. It’s interesting to note that 30 of these vice presidents belonged to a different party than the president.


Before an election, a group of parties agree on whose party will provide the presidential and the vice-presidential candidates. Both are entered on the same ballot and both are elected at the same time. In Marsteinstredet’s opinion, this could lead to conflicting loyalties if a crisis occurs. The vice president will face a dilemma: should he remain loyal to the president and the government or to his own party? Frequently, the government’s interests will conflict with those of the party to which the vice president belongs.


– In such a case, the vice president can choose to remain loyal to his party. A recent example is provided by the deposing of President Fernando Lugo in Paraguay in June 2012. There, Vice President Federico Franco represented the Liberal Party, the largest party in the coalition. When the party found it opportune to depose the president, Federico Franco was fully in on the plan, and participated in staging the resignation of his own president, who was held to be responsible for a skirmish in which six police officers and eleven farmers were killed during a land occupation. Thereby, the vice president was able to assume the office of president and remain there until a new presidential election later the same year.


Opposing his own president


In Argentina, the vice president is also chairman of the Senate.


– In 2008, this created a major problem for President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Her government had submitted a proposal for an extra duty on all exports of agricultural products. When the matter was put before the Senate, her own vice president opposed the motion, and her government was crucially weakened. So was the vice president, who in the next term chose to go into local politics in Buenos Aires, Marsteinstredet sums up.


From blue to red in a day


Historically speaking, in countries where a military coup has taken place, the armed forces have often allied themselves with the vice president to give the coup a semblance of legitimacy. In other countries, by contrast, they have turned their back on the vice president.


– Until 1961, the president and vice president of Brazil were elected on two different ballots. In 1961, however, the conservative candidate Jãnio Quadros won the presidential election, while the leftist candidate Jõao Goulart was elected vice president. A few months later, the conservative president issued an ultimatum saying that he would resign if he failed to gain a majority for a particular motion. He failed to gain the majority and resigned, enabling the vice president to take over the presidency. From one day to the next, Brazil had gone from blue to red. This was the reason for the military coup some years later, in 1964, because the army did not want a leftist president, the researcher states.


Bolivar abolished the office


The problems associated with the office of vice president in Latin America are not of recent origin. They appeared already in the first government of Simón Bolivar, Latin America’s great liberation hero, in 1827.


– When the former general became president of Gran Colombia, which encompassed both present-day Colombia and Venezuela, he brought with him Francisco Paula de Santander as his vice president. Early on, Santander was suspected of planning a coup against his own president. When the plans were discovered, Bolivar’s supporters wanted to execute Santander as soon as possible, but Bolivar solved the problem by exiling him to a far-flung corner of the country. At the same time, he abolished the vice-presidency, Marsteinstredet explains.


Lessons from Chávez


Hugo Chávez, recently deceased president of Venezuela, was most likely familiar with the history of the vice-presidency in Latin America, and he also attempted to do something about it.


– What he did was quite unique in the Latin American setting. To ensure that the vice president remained loyal to the presidency and not to his own party or his own career, Chávez made sure to amend the constitution, so that the vice president was not elected, but appointed by the president. Chávez made frequent use of this provision, which helped him win elections and maintain his incredibly strong position in the government. During his 13-year presidency he had eight different vice presidents, Marsteinstredet underscores.


A death with complications


On the other hand, this constitutional amendment caused great problems when Chávez died of cancer while still formally in office as president.


– If the vice president had been elected by popular vote along with Chávez, this would not have been a problem, since the vice president would automatically have acted as president for the remainder of the term. Since Vice President Nicolás Maduro had been appointed by the deceased president, it was not quite clear who should be Chávez’ successor. According to the constitution, this should normally be the president of the national assembly, while others claimed it would be natural for the vice president to fill this office, since a new presidential election would have to be held anyway. Finally, the government and the opposition agreed that a new presidential election had to be held. In it, the acting vice president, Nicolás Maduro, ran for the Socialist Party while Henrique Capriles ran for the opposition. Maduro won the election by a small margin.


ANOTHER PARTY:  – I have reviewed the history of 80 of the 137 vice presidents in office during the last wave of democratization from the late 1980s to the present day. It’s interesting to note that 30 of these vice presidents belonged to a different party than the president, says Leiv Marsteinstredet. Photo: Ola Sæther

By Martin Toft
Published Nov. 28, 2013 10:31 AM