MANAGUA – President Daniel Ortega this week managed to deftly sidestep his own trap thanks to a Supreme Court ruling that partially overturned a set of constitutional reforms aimed at shifting several presidential powers to the legislature.
In an unorthodox and theatrical moment during Ortega’s first State of the Nation address Jan. 10, a messenger from the Supreme Court came running up on stage during the president’s speech to hand him a set of court resolutions that – as chance would have it – were favorable to Ortega, who appointed half of the high court’s magistrates.
The first ruling reiterated that the president is free to create his controversial Councils of Citizen Power (CPCs), Sandinista-led neighborhood organizations that have been set up across the country to help “accompany” the government. The ruling did, however, clarify that the CPCs will not be eligible for state funding – something Ortega this week said he never intended in the first place.
The second ruling found unconstitutional a two-year-old law known as the Ley Marco, a Band-aid piece of legislation passed in 2005 to suspend a package of constitutional reforms until next Jan. 20. The constitutional reforms, passed in the beginning of 2005 to create a semi-parliamentary system, were also found partially unconstitutional, saving Ortega from his own efforts to emasculate the former president (NT, Jan. 11).
Among the most relevant of the articles in the constitutional reforms was the creation of three National Assembly-led “superintendencies” to regulate water, electricity and telecom, as well as the creation of a new institute to reform the social security system and an institute to manage property disputes left over from the confiscations in the 1980s.
The high court ruled that all of those new agencies are unconstitutional, restoring full power to the presidency.
However, the court also ruled to uphold a separate reform that obliges the president to ask the National Assembly’s approval for all future nominations to government posts, including ministers, directors of state institutes and foreign diplomats.
Ortega, perhaps comforted by the fact that most of his appointments have already been made and therefore not subject to the new law, applauded the decision as a “step toward a parliamentary system.”
“I think this is healthy and good,” the president said.
Roberto Courtney, head of government watchdog group Ethics and Transparency, said there is little doubt that last week’s Supreme Court ruling was the product of a political negotiation between the powersharing pacto between Ortega and incarcerated former President Arnoldo Alemán, whose generous condition of house arrest was reinstated as part of the agreement.
However, Courtney said that despite being politically hatched, the court’s ruling actually helps to reestablish the rule of law by overturning several laws that were clearly illegal in the first place. By using the Supreme Court to partially reject the 2005 constitutional reforms and the controversial Ley Marco, the pacto was using its judicial arm to fix an earlier political negotiation that was both illegal and no longer convenient to either Ortega or Alemán, Courtney said.
Critics, however, claim the political nature of the court rulings also exposes the weakness of Nicaragua’s democratic institutions and the separation of powers (see separate story on Page 1).
“Here there are no institutions. Everything is just a political game to win or lose power,” veteran political analyst Emilio Alvarez told The Nica Times. “And the Ortega government won this round by using Alemán.”
State of the Nation?
The announcement of the court ruling was one of many distractions to Ortega’s first State of the Nation address, where he managed to talk for two-and-a-half hours about everything that occurred to him except for the state of the nation’s affairs.
Ortega’s recognition of all his guests of honor at the event – foreign diplomats and heads of government institutions – took a mind-numbing hour and a half, as the president named everyone he saw sitting in the National Assembly chamber, and then indulged in some stream of consciousness related loosely to each person he named.
When that was over, Ortega continued on with a rambling and unprepared speech that touched on diverse issues such as global warming, the predatory nature of the capitalist global development model, the dangers of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), heroic rescue efforts from last year’s Hurricane Felix, and the whiney nature of private investors in Nicaragua.
Ortega also blasted the 52 opposition lawmakers who did not show up for his speech in protest, accusing them of being “scared” and “running away.”
In the end, those who boycotted the speech didn’t miss much.
In fact,many of those who did attend were starting to nod-off in their chairs before it was over. Several Sandinista lawmakers could be seen turning on their computers and surfing the Internet or checking emails about 80 minutes into Ortega’s opening roll call.
After two-and-a-half hours of talk, Ortega finally pulled out a voluminous document that was supposedly the State of the Nation report, and handed it to National Assembly President Rene Núñez, joking that he wasn’t going to bore people by reading it all.
“The law doesn’t say I have to read the report, it just says that I have to present it to the National Assembly, which I did,” Ortega explained afterwards.
The contents of the State of the Nation report remain a mystery.