MANAGUA – President Daniel Ortega is only four votes away from obtaining the 60 percent majority he needs in the National Assembly to reform the Constitution and legalize his reelection bid next year.
On Sunday Sept. 26, in an “emergency session” of congress that was boycotted by the opposition, Ortega demonstrated that he now controls a 52-vote majority in the National Assembly, just four votes shy of the super majority he needs to reform the magna carta. The 38 Sandinista lawmakers, accompanied by 14 minority party allies from the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN), the Conservative Party (PC) and the Nicaraguan Unity Bloc (BUN), dutifully voted to approve Ortega’s $70.4 million budget reform in its entirety and without any substantive discussion.
After months of heavy rains – which have claimed more than 40 lives, displaced more than 4,000 people, flooded entire neighborhoods, destroyed hundreds of homes, wiped out crops, washed out bridges and turned Nicaragua’s national roadways into Swiss cheese – Ortega finally decided to declare a national emergency last week.
“It’s important to be sensible in these moments of tragedy that thousands of Nicaraguan families are living,” Ortega said during a Sept. 25 meeting with Sandinista congressional leaders and their allies.
As part of his sudden recognition of the flooding and subsequent spring to action, Ortega called for the immediate approval of an “emergency budget reform.” The $70 million budget modification is allegedly aimed at responding to all the damages caused by rains and to “preserve the economic stability of the country,” according to the government.
“We are fulfilling our responsibility to the citizens and to the country,” said Sandinista lawmaker José Figueroa, upon voting in favor of Ortega’s reforms last Sunday.
“This is a moment to unite as one family, independent of political colors,” said congressman Alejandro Bolaños, whose Conservative Party recently received its legal status back from the Sandinista-controlled Supreme Electoral Council (CSE), apparently in exchange for supporting Ortega in the National Assembly.
Both the Sandinistas and their allies criticized the 40 opposition lawmakers who boycotted Sunday’s “extraordinary session” under the argument that it was convened illegally. The Sandinistas accused the boycotting opposition – lawmakers belonging to Arnoldo Alemán’s Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC), Eduardo Montealegre’s Vamos Con Eduardo political bloc, and the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) – of putting political interests before those of the nation.
The opposition, however, is accusing Ortega of trying to manipulate the national emergency caused by the rains to covertly advance his political agenda of control and political domination. And the proof, they say, is in the pudding.
“The pretext for this extraordinary session of congress was to respond to the damages caused by the rains, but the budget reforms introduced by Ortega is inconsistent” with that objective, said PLC lawmaker Francisco Aguirre, member of the congressional budget commission.
Aguirre said that less than 15 percent of the “emergency budget reforms” are actually earmarked for emergency spending to respond to damages caused by rain and flooding. The other 85 percent of the budget reform is for “ordinary spending,” including budget increases for the Sandinistas’ de facto Supreme Court and the de facto Supreme Electoral Council.
Opposition leader Eduardo Montealegre also questioned the timing and motive for Ortega’s sudden emergency budget reforms.
Montealegre claims Ortega’s emergency reform package was an attempt to demobilize the opposition, which was planning to introduce a bill this week to overturn the president’s newly printed Constitution that includes an old law allowing government officials to remain in office beyond their term limits (NT, Sept. 24).
Worse Than Caligula?
The criticism is also coming from the left. Congresswoman and former revolutionary comandante Monica Baltodano, of the Movement to Rescue Sandinismo, blasted Ortega’s manipulation of the natural disaster to push a reform package that “shamelessly maintains a budget with the same neoliberal characteristics of the previous administrations.”
Baltodano said Ortega is using the excuse of the rains to comply with the structural adjustments imposed on the country by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
The Orteguistas, meanwhile, say the reforms are based on “prudence in fiscal projections” for the year. The legislative budget commission, headed by Sandinista lawmaker Wálmaro Gutierrez, noted that the reforms will reduce the budget deficit by 21 percent from the initial 2010 budget – a move that will make the IMF happy.
The problem, Baltodano said, is the way Ortega went about pushing his budget reforms through congress under the cloak of emergency, to avoid any meaningful debate or analysis of the bill.
The opposition lawmaker accused her former revolutionary comrades of being Ortega sycophants who say “yes sir” to their leader and “vote with their eyes closed” in support of the boss’s initiatives.
Baltodano said she is not denying the emergency caused by the rains, but added, “As a country, we’ve been in a state of emergency for years.”
The pretext of an emergency, Baltodano said, is further example of Ortega’s intolerant and authoritarian ways – an indication that he has no time for checks and balances or proper democratic procedures.
“Since the days when the institution of parliament was invented as a counterweight to the absolute monarchy, great figures such as (former Roman Emperor) Marcus Aurelius, who is remembered in history as a tolerant and wise leader, consulted the Senate and tried to convince its members of his viewpoints through explication and brilliant arguments,” Baltodano said.
“On the other hand,” she added; “there were also monarchs such as Caligula and Nero, who ruled in an absolute manner. They went above the heads of Senate and were incapable of discussion with those who had a different opinion.”
4 Votes to go
What most worries the opposition about last Sunday’s vote is not so much that Ortega got his budget reforms approved, but the fact that he proved he now has 52 votes in the National Assembly – four shy of 56 needed to reform the Constitution and lift the ban on presidential reelection.
Last weekend’s extraordinary session of congress was – in the words of congressman Aguirre – a “dry run” for Ortega’s final push to reform the constitution before December.
And according to opposition lawmakers, the Sandinistas are already fishing for the remaining votes.
PLC congressman José Pallais told The Nica Times last June that the Sandinistas had offered him a seat on the Supreme Court for his vote – an offer he turned down.
And this week MRS president Enrique Saenz confirmed to The Nica Times that the Sandinista envoys have also approached his party with the offer of money and government posts in exchange for their four votes.
The ALN, headed by lawmaker Enrique Quíñonez, told The Nica Times last month that his party was going to maintain its position as an opposition bloc. And the recently resurrected Conservative Party, headed by lawmaker Bolaños has also insisted it is still in the opposition camp.
But so far, neither the ALN nor the Conservatives have done anything to suggest they are still members of the opposition. Instead, they continue to vote in lock step with the Sandinistas on most initiatives proposed by the ruling party.
PLC vice president Wilfredo Navarro, first secretary of the National Assembly, has referred to the 14 Sandinista allies as the “Albita lawmakers,” essentially accusing them of receiving bribes from the ruling Sandinistas’ deep pockets lined with Venezuelan-provided “ALBA” funding. The ALN and Conservatives deny that they’ve accepted any bribes.
Regardless, Navarro insists the Sandinistas won’t be able to get the remaining four votes because “there are no more traitors” to be bribed.
But not everyone is convinced the so-called opposition, with all its weaknesses and foibles, will be able to hold the line.
“All I can say is that the Sandinistas had 38 votes in congress, and now they have 52,” Aguirre told The Nica Times. “I am not going to put my hand on the Bible for anyone else in the opposition.”