President Daniel Ortega’s 11th-hour attempt to reform the 2008 budget by presidential decree is being likened to a “technical coup d’etat” against the Nicaraguan Constitution, according to analysts and opposition political leaders.
Constitutional analyst Carlos Tünnermann says that Ortega’s efforts to mandate a $30 million budget reform represents the usurpation of powers that are clearly assigned to the legislature.
“Article 112 of the Constitution gives the National Assembly the responsibility to pass and reform the budget,” Tünnermann said. “The president can pass administrative decrees, but not legislative decrees.”
According to paragraph three of Article 112 of the Constitution, “All modifications to the Budget of the Republic that require an increase or decrease in credits, a decrease in income or transfers between institutions, requires the approval of the National Assembly.”
Last October, Ortega presented the National Assembly with his proposed law for the 2008 budget reform and repeatedly urged lawmakers to pass it as a priority. But when the legislature was paralyzed in protest of vote fraud following the Nov. 9 municipal elections, Ortega’s budget-reform proposal got stuck in the National Assembly’s stack of unfinished work for 2008 (NT, Dec. 24).
That’s when Ortega tried to take the issue into his own hands by decreeing his reforms into law in the final hours of 2008. In a Dec. 29 speech, Ortega accused opposition lawmakers of being “antidemocratic” and “dictatorial,” and then issued presidential decree 78-2008, which orders the Finance Ministry to “legalize” the president’s unapproved budget reforms. The next day, Finance Minister Alberto Guevara, an enthusiastic defender of Ortega, called a press conference with Sandinista media outlets to announce his compliance with the president’s order.
Analysts say that Guevara’s adherence to the “illegal decree” essentially makes him “an accomplice” to Ortega’s violation of the Constitution.
Veteran political observer Alejandro Serrano said the presidential decree was “absolutely unconstitutional” and that Guevara’s compliance has only served to “infect the budget with illegality.”
Opposition lawmakers, although on year-end recess, also spoke out against Ortega’s decree. Liberal Party lawmaker Wilfredo Navarro, vice president of the National Assembly, wrote a letter of protest to Ortega Dec. 29, noting that the budget decree wasn’t the first time that Ortega has infringed upon the legislature’s authority in recent weeks.
Navarro noted that Ortega’s two previous presidential decrees – one of which attempted to legitimize the Nov. 9 municipal elections and the other which authorized the entrance into Nicaragua of Russian naval forces in late December – were also in clear violation of his presidential authorities.
“President Ortega, nobody, not even you as president of the republic, is above the law,” Navarro wrote in his letter to Ortega. “With your actions you are breaking the principle of the division of powers, which is an essential pillar of democracy. You are not a king to say ‘the state is me.’”
Navarro went on say that the president’s questionable decrees reflect the Ortega administration’s “dream of absolute totalitarianism.”
By Hook Or By Crook?
Though the National Assembly doesn’t return from recess until today – Jan. 9 – the crisis that paralyzed the government at the end of 2008 continued to worsen during the year-end break.
Political analysts consulted by The Nica Times this week agreed that Ortega’s 11th-hour budget decree has “deepened the crisis” of governability in Nicaragua. Yet not everyone is in agreement about how Nicaragua can best get out of the mess.
Carlos Tünnermann thinks that the crisis can be resolved institutionally by addressing the root of the problem: the Nov. 9 municipal elections, which were widely considered fraudulent. The analyst notes that the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE), which announced its final vote tallies last November, still hasn’t fulfilled its legal obligation to issue a full and detailed report of all the vote-count results from the individual voting stations.
Until that information is provided, the allegations of fraud and missing votes will continue to discredit the results, paralyze the government and hurt the economy in the form of suspended aid from foreign donors.
“At the bottom of the country’s institutional and economic crisis is the electoral fraud on Nov. 9, and the political will to maintain that fraud at all costs,” Tünnermann said.
However, the analyst added, the crisis could be resolved institutionally if the CSE and the ruling Sandinista Front agree to conduct a transparent and credible recount to put an end to the election fiasco.
Alejandro Serrano, meanwhile, said he thinks the constitutional and institutional crisis has become so severe that the only way out now will be through a political negotiation among powerbrokers that goes above and beyond the law, such as the pact formed between Ortega and then-President Enrique Bolaños in October, 2005.
During the political crisis of 2005, which the United States likened to a “creeping coup” against the Bolaños administration after opposition lawmakers passed questionable constitutional reforms to strip the president of authorities, Ortega and Bolaños met behind closed doors to hatch a political solution called the “Ley Marco” (NT, Oct. 14, 2005).
Though legal analysts blasted the Ley Marco as a flagrant violation of the Constitution, it did provide a basic – albeit temporary – political solution for the governability crisis.
Serrano says he thinks the situation in Nicaragua has become too serious for the country’s weak institutions to resolve alone, and that a similar political pact will be needed once again.
“We have established a precedent of violating the Constitution as a way of saving it,” Serrano told The Nica Times.
Regardless of whether the solution is institutional or political, the situation here, analysts agree, is not healthy for the country’s fragile democracy.
“We are living in a totally irregular situation here,” Tünnermann said. “We are getting to a situation where we have a de-facto government.”