MANAGUA – In a move the opposition is calling the first step in a unified resistance to President Daniel Ortega’s ambitions to perpetuate himself in power, 47 lawmakers from various opposition parties and political movements this week introduced a legislative initiative to annul the Sandinistas’ controversial Supreme Court ruling in favor of unlimited presidential terms.
Opposition lawmakers, constitutional lawyers and even the U.S. government have all come out against last week’s controversial ruling by six Sandinista magistrates, who scrapped a 14-year-old constitutional ban on consecutive presidential reelection and green-lighted their boss’ aspirations to run again in 2011. The Sandinista powerplay has been decried as an illegal “coup d’état” against Nicaragua’s wobbly institutional democracy (NT, Oct. 23).
The loudest international condemnation so far has come from the U.S. government. “Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s manipulation of the Nicaraguan Supreme Court to circumvent constitutional limits on his term in office reeks of the authoritarianism of the past,” said U.S. Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in a release. “Coming on the heels of universally condemned municipal elections last year, his power grab deepens a crisis that Nicaragua can ill afford.”
The U.S. State Department also came out against the ruling, saying, “We share the concern of many Nicaraguans that this situation is part of a larger pattern of questionable and irregular governmental actions … that threaten to undermine the foundations of Nicaraguan democracy.”
In Nicaragua, the opposition political forces demonstrated their repudiation of the ruling by forming a united front against what they are calling “the consolidation of an Ortega dictatorship.”
On Tuesday, opposition lawmakers flexed their new combined muscle by boycotting the legislative session, preventing the ruling Sandinista Front and its allies, which represent 42 of 91 seats, from establishing quorum. A minimum 47 votes is needed for quorum.
The opposition coalition is demanding that a new congressional agenda be set that includes a bill to overturn last week’s Supreme Court ruling and nixes the Sandinistas’controversial tax reform measure, which President Ortega has asked lawmakers to approve with all urgency.
The Sandinistas and their allies have been trying frantically to pass their tax reform bill as a way to ensure macroeconomic stability and economic viability for 2010, ahead of the government’s scheduled Nov. 2 meeting with officials from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The IMF has frozen aid disbursements to Nicaragua for the past year. In play is a total of $90 million in international aid for 2009 and 2010, according to opposition lawmaker Francisco Aguirre, of the National Assembly’s Economic and Budget Commission.
Though the Sandinistas are trying to keep the tax reform issue separate from the reelection controversy and other political problems, the opposition insists the issues are all intimately connected. Since losing millions in international aid following last year’s contested municipal elections, the Sandinistas are trying to fill budget gaps with internal debt and increased taxes, according to opposition lawmakers.
Therefore, these lawmakers argue, annulling the Supreme Court ruling and blocking the tax reform bill are two fronts in the same battle against what they allege to be the Sandinista government’s corruption and violation of the constitution.
Yet despite the opposition’s emboldened stance this week, Sandinista lawmakers remain confident they’ll get their way in the end. “This will be resolved with time; this is a dynamic that has been going on all year,” Sandinista lawmaker and union boss Gustavo Porras told The Nica Times.
Porras said the opposition’s efforts to legally overturn the Supreme Court ruling “will have no effect.” He claimed that when the time comes, the Sandinistas will have the votes they need to pass their tax reform, which he says “has been totally arranged.” The Sandinistas are trying to downplay allegations that Nicaragua is experiencing an institutional crisis and conflict between governmental powers. The opposition, however, says the constitutional order has been ruptured by the government – a situation they liken to the coup in Honduras.
The Regressive ‘Progressive’ Sandinista magistrates responsible for last week’s controversial ruling insist that their verdict is final, and that the opposition has to respect the law even if they are in disagreement. Legal analysts, however, insist it’s the Sandinista magistrates who have shown complete disregard for the law.
“This is totally illegal from all points of view,” said constitutional analyst Carlos Tünnermann. “The Supreme Court cannot invalidate an article of the constitution that is already in effect.”
Tünnermann warns that Ortega, “in his backwards vision,” is trying to undo the 1995 reforms to the 1987 constitution, which was drafted by the first Sandinista government (1979-1990) and then later reformed after Ortega was voted out of office.
Sandinista Supreme Court magistrate Rafael Solís this week admitted as much. In an interview with Sandinista media, Solis said that in overturning the ban on consecutive presidential reelection, “What we did was reestablish the constitution of 1987.”
According to Tünnermann, reverting the constitution back to its 1987 status is not only regressive, but a dangerous assault on Nicaragua’s democratic advances.
“The 1987 constitution was justified in a wartime context, but gave disproportionate power to the executive,” said Tünnermann. “The 1995 reforms were meant to establish a balance of powers between the branches of government.”
The analyst said that Ortega’s intention to turn back the clock on the constitution is the “exact opposite” of his earlier promises to promote a parliamentary system in Nicaragua under the banner of “direct democracy.” Indeed, Tünnermann said, it shows that Ortega’s political project first and foremost is about his “insatiable” desire to consolidate “personal power,” in whatever form is convenient or feasible.
The Rest of the World
While Europe and the rest of the world has been slower to react to the political meltdown in Nicaragua, congressman Aguirre said the positions of the donor countries will become clearer after the IMF meeting on Nov. 2, which forebodingly falls on the same day Nicaraguans observe the Day of the Dead.
Aguirre said that from a “strictly technical point of view,” Nicaragua has most likely complied with the IMF requirements to reactive the economic assistance program. But what remains to be seen, he said, is “what dimension the lack of governability” will play the agency’s final decision.
Aguirre said that based on the IMF’s experiences with African countries, the issue of governability has now become something to consider, in addition to macroeconomic indicators.
Whether or not the IMF program gets reactivated next week, he said, “All depends on the will of the donors, and that’s when we will see how worried they are with what’s going on in Nicaragua.”