- The Washington Times - Monday, August 8, 2016

Not even Bill and Hillary dared to go as far as Daniel and Rosario.

In what is believed to be a first in modern electoral politics, Nicaragua’s leftist president, Daniel Ortega, last week tapped his wife, Rosario Murillo, as his running mate in his race this year for a third term in office.

The first lady has been a considerable political force in her own right as the chief government spokeswoman, and the ruling party quickly registered her as its vice presidential candidate for the Nov. 6 vote.

From Dolley Madison and Nancy Reagan to Mao Zedong’s wife Jiang Qing and South Africa’s Winnie Mandela, spouses of national leaders have wielded outsized political influence, and the Clintons are not the first family hoping to establish a conjugal political dynasty. But having a husband-and-wife team running for the top jobs on the same presidential ballot is a novelty.

Not everyone is happy with the Mr.-and-Mrs. ticket, saying it raises fresh questions about Mr. Ortega — a onetime leader of the Sandinista movement that fought U.S.-backed rebels during Nicaragua’s brutal civil war in the 1980s — and his commitment to democratic norms.

Critics accuse the couple of running Nicaragua as if it were their personal country and doing everything they can to cement the family’s power.

“At this point, the gloves are off,” said Kevin Casas-Zamora, director of the Inter-American Dialogue’s Peter D. Bell Rule of Law Program. “The authoritarian nature of the regime is there for all to see. That’s the big change. It was slightly more concealed before, but now it’s totally blatant.”

Mr. Casas-Zamora said the 70-year-old Nicaraguan president, first elected in 2007, is “largely invisible,” but his wife is regularly in the spotlight. She appears on television almost daily, preaching socialism, New Age spirituality and Roman Catholicism.

“No important political action in the country happens without her being involved,” Mr. Casas-Zamora said. “She is the visible face of the regime, but she’s much more than that and she’s more than an adviser. She’s been the power behind the throne.”

Mr. Ortega effectively ruled Nicaragua from 1979 to 1990 before losing to Violeta Chamorro.

Ms. Murillo, a poet who fought in the Sandinista revolution, has helped her husband rebuild his political fortunes. She led his winning campaign in 2006 and in 2011, but her role will be different this time.

Mr. Ortega defended the decision to run with his wife by saying it fulfills the party’s commitment to have women in at least half of its candidacies.

“It had to be a woman, and who better than our colleague Rosario, who’s gone about her duties with a lot of efficiency, discipline, dedication and commitment?” Mr. Ortega said.

But Nicaragua’s political opposition says the move is part of a troubling pattern of centralizing leftist power, including a decision by the country’s highest court in 2014 ending term limits for the president.

Eliseo Nunez, a former congressman for the opposition Liberal Party, denounced the Murillo nomination as “absolutist, totalitarian and without respect for the law.”

“I have always thought that Ortega’s plan was to guarantee his family’s succession in case he can’t go on or isn’t around, and this is proof of that,” the former lawmaker told The Associated Press. “To me, it’s an insult — not just to all Nicaraguans, but also to the entire Sandinista movement — because it says that in Nicaragua there are no Sandinistas or Sandinista women who can aspire to this role — only the Ortega-Murillo family.”

Joint project

A number of other power couples have made politics marital joint projects over the years.

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton wants to follow in her husband’s footsteps and bring the Clinton family back into the White House. Mrs. Clinton served as first lady from 1993 to 2001, and Mr. Clinton would become the first U.S. “first gentleman” if his wife wins in November. According to U.S. House of Representatives historians, 46 women directly succeeded their late husbands — included eight senators — through the start of the 113th Congress in 2013, including seven who filled vacancies in the California delegation.

The U.S. is not alone. Cristina Fernandez succeeded her husband, Nestor Kirchner, as president of Argentina in 2007. Isabel Martinez de Peron became Argentine president in 1974 after the death of her husband, President Juan Peron.

On two occasions, first ladies tried to step in to rule after their husbands were ousted from power. In the Philippines, Imelda Marcos ran for president in 1992 after her husband was overthrown. In Honduras, Xiomara Castro ran for president in 2013 after her husband was removed from power. Neither wife won.

Analysts say Mr. Ortega and Ms. Murillo are using the feminism issue to deflect larger questions about his government’s record and his determination to hold on to power.

“By adopting the veneer of feminism, Ortega and Murillo can claim a moral high ground and — to a certain degree — insulate themselves from Western criticism,” Jeremy Luedi, a senior analyst at Global Risks Insight, wrote in a commentary after the announcement.

“Just as autocrats have draped themselves in the language of independence and human rights, so too can the language of feminism be co-opted in the war of words with the United States and others. In doing so Ortega forces the U.S. to appear hypocritical when criticizing a regime which allegedly supports American ethical standards,” Mr. Luedi wrote.

In Guatemala, where the constitution bars close relatives from succeeding the president, Sandra Torres divorced Alvaro Colom to take his presidential spot in 2011. She, too, fell short.

Although Ugandan first lady Janet Museveni has never run for president, she has been a member of parliament since 2006, and her husband recently appointed her as minister of education and sports.

Winnie Mandela, the widow of the father of modern South Africa, never went for the presidency, but she has been a powerful figure in the ruling African National Congress.

First lady Michelle Obama is even more popular than her husband: 58 percent of Americans view Mrs. Obama favorably, while about 50 percent say they like the president. Her emotional speech at the Democratic National Convention last month revived speculation she, too, might vie for the presidency one day.

But Mrs. Obama has refused to seek the president’s job, and her husband backs up her decision.

“There are three things that are certain in life: death, taxes and Michelle is not running for president,” Mr. Obama said at a town hall in January when asked whether his wife might run. “That I can tell you.”

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