Daniel Ortega Reworks Nicaragua’s Constitution To His LikingJanuary 29, 2014
At the behest of President Daniel Ortega, Nicaragua’s Sandinista-controlled legislature is preparing to approve a series of made-to-order constitutional reforms that together amount to an overhaul of the country’s entire political system.
Among other things, the changes clear the way for Ortega – who has already won the presidency three times (1984, 2006 and 2011) – to seek indefinite reelection. The constitution currently bars presidents from immediate reelection and limits at two the total number of terms they can serve. Ortega, with help from his political allies in the Corte Suprema de Justicia (CSJ) and Consejo Suprema Electoral (CSE), strong-armed his way around those limits prior to the last election, which he won in a landslide. By eliminating the term limits once and for all, the president will no longer have to resort to such tactics should he choose to run again in 2016 – and beyond.
The Ortega administration says the reforms will give Nicaragua a more “direct democracy” and institutionalize a model of government it now calls “evolving constitutionalism.” Unveiled in late October, the proposals were “inspired by the values of Christianity, the ideals of socialism and the practices of solidarity,” the administration went on to say.
Critics say the reforms are anything but democratic. They see the move instead as a clear power grab by the already potent president, whose Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FLSN) enjoys a two-thirds majority in the Asamblea Nacional (AN), the country’s unicameral legislature, and has thus taken to rubberstamping any and all legislation Ortega sends their way.
Besides allowing for indefinite reelection, the reforms also give the president new powers to govern by decree, something he has already done, for example, by allowing key government officials – such as CSE head Roberto Rivas, an FSLN stalwart – to keep their posts well after their constitutionally-mandated term limits expired. “These reforms are aimed at legalizing everything that until now was done illegally,” media director Carlos Chamorro, son of the late Nicaraguan President Violeta Chamorro (1990-1997), told the weekly news magazine The Economist.
Dim prospects for dissidents
Overall, the reforms affect approximately 20% of the Nicaraguan constitution, which was implemented in 1987 (during Ortega’s first official stint as president) but underwent major reforms in 1995 during the Chamorro presidency. They touch on more than 40 constitutional articles and have already been green-lighted by a mixed AN committee. The full 92-seat legislature is expected to vote on the measures in the coming weeks.
Under current law, active military officials are barred from occupying civilian government posts. That will no longer be the case once Ortega’s constitutional reforms go into effect. The rewrite could spell trouble, on the other hand, for would be political dissidents. Lawmakers who choose to leave their respective political parties will automatically lose their seats in the legislature. The bill does not bode well for presidential runners up either. Under the new rules, second place finishers will no longer have the option – in cases where the first place finisher fails to net at least 35% of the vote – of competing in a head-to-head runoff. Elections will instead be determined in just a single round, regardless of how low the winner’s total vote percentage may be.
Less controversial – at least in Nicaragua – is Ortega’s desire that the revamped constitution recognize a pair of favorable International Court of Justice (ICJ) rulings. The first ruling, issued by the Netherlands-based ICJ in 2007, pertains to Nicaragua’s maritime boundary with Honduras. The second concerns an ongoing sea border with Colombia. In late 2012, after more than a decade of deliberations, the World Court, as the ICJ is also known, extended Nicaragua’s reach into the Caribbean by at least 75,000 square kilometers. Colombia has so far refused to recognize the tribunal’s supposedly binding authority in the matter.
A push for “absolute power”
The army and national police both came out in support of the reforms, as did the Fiscalía General and CSE. Nicaragua’s various opposition parties, on the other hand, were quick to criticize. The 24-seat Bancada Alianza Liberal Independiente, as Ortega’s opponents in the lop-sided AN are now calling themselves, promised to vote against the bill, calling it “authoritarian” and “regressive.” The proposals represent “a frontal attack on our representative democracy, on the values and principles of our democratic institutions and on the rule of law,” said opposition Dep. Luis Callejas. “According to these reforms, if you are not a Christian, socialist and in solidarity, you will be outlawed.”
The government initiative has also drawn complaints from leaders in the Catholic Church and from various civil society organizations. In a statement issued on Nov. 22, the Conferencia Episcopal de Nicaragua (CEN) accused Ortega of seeking “absolute power” and warned that the constitutional changes “will offer no benefits to the nation.” A week later, a group called the Movimiento por Nicaragua organized a march on the AN building in Managua. Several hundred people turned out for the Nov. 28 demonstration. “Gathered here are citizens who represent the people of Nicaragua and who don’t want Daniel Ortega to have perpetual power,” Movimiento spokesperson Carlos Tünnermann told reporters.
Sandinista lawmakers dismissed the protest, describing it as a “partisan” gathering, and ridiculed organizers for the low turnout. “How many people were marching out there, 250?” said FSLN Dep. René Núñez.
Núñez’ and his colleagues have a reason to be smug. Neither the protestors outside the legislature nor the toothless opposition deputies inside have any real hope of blocking Ortega’s constitutional reforms. Having a won a so-called “super majority” in the 2011 parliamentary elections, the 63-seat FSLN can legislate at will. The question now isn’t if the AN will approve the measures, but when.
Ortega says the changes, once approved, will offer Nicaragua and its people a brighter future. “They’ll give us more tranquility, more security, more peace, more happiness and more hope,” he said during a late November appearance at a Policía Nacional graduation ceremony.
Critics fear the opposite will happen, that Ortega’s power push could eventually lead the once war-torn country back down the road to violence. “If these constitutional reforms pass as is, and democratic spaces in Nicaragua are closed, Ortega’s eventual removal from office will not be as peaceful as his entry,” legal analyst Gabriel Alvarez told the online news site The Nicaragua Dispatch.
(This article originally appeared December 2013 in LADB)