Nicaragua opposition unites to contest legality of President Ortega's candidacy

The four Nicaraguan opposition parties on November's ballot will present legal challenges to President Daniel Ortega’s candidacy for a third term in office.

By , Correspondent

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    Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega speaks to supporters before registering as a presidential candidate for the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) in Managua March 18.

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Nicaragua’s contentious presidential elections are already off to a rocky start as civil society groups and opposition parties move to block President Daniel Ortega’s controversial candidacy for reelection.

Despite a constitutional ban prohibiting acting presidents and two-term office holders from seeking reelection, President Ortega on March 18 officially inscribed his candidacy for the 2011 elections. Ortega was president from 1985 to 1990, and reelected in 2006.

Supporters insist their leader’s sixth consecutive bid at the presidency is legal, pointing to a 2009 ruling by a group of loyalist judges who determined that Article 147 of the Constitution is “inapplicable” because it violates Ortega’s right to equal treatment under the law. The ruling was upheld by the Ortega-controlled Supreme Court last year.

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Representatives from all four opposition parties competing on next November’s presidential ballot have announced they will be presenting legal challenges to Ortega’s candidacy before the March 31 electoral calendar deadline. One group of 15 citizens – including a former attorney general and two former Sandinista guerrilla heroes – have already filed a challenge against Ortega’s candidacy.

The citizen challenge to the president’s candidacy also accuses the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE), headed by Ortega’s family friend Roberto Rivas (whose term as electoral president expired more than six months ago yet remains in office under a presidential decree) of being “illegally and illegitimately constituted.” If the CSE does not reject Ortega’s candidacy, the citizen appeal reads, the electoral authorities “will become accomplices and coauthors in the violation of the Constitution, in addition to being usurpers.”

The opposition Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC), Liberal Independent Party (PLI), Alliance for the Republic (APRE), and Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN) have all said they will file similar motions in the coming days, meaning all opposition parties will be participating in the elections under protest.

In addition to the legal motions against Ortega's candidacy, a group of civil society organizations calling themselves the Citizen's Union for Democracy have announced a nationwide march on Managua April 2 – the first massive opposition mobilization since 2009.

Orteguistas close ranks

Ortega’s supporters, meanwhile, have started to mobilize in different parts of the country to defend their caudillo as “the only option” fit to lead Nicaragua, the second-poorest nation in the hemisphere. The Sandinistas argue that defending Ortega’s candidacy is an issue of “national sovereignty” and that opposition, manipulated by outside forces, is trying to trick voters with “lies.”

“The only leader for us, the youth, is Comandante Daniel Ortega and that’s why we say no to foreign meddling,” Sandinista Youth member Jahaira Aburto told state TV, while alleging US meddling.

US Ambassador Robert Callahan has said Washington is interested in clean and transparent elections with credible observation – something the CSE and Orteguista activists are trying to obstruct.

Ortega confidant Rafael Solís, a Supreme Court magistrate whose term expired last year but remains at his post under the same presidential decree, suggested this week that anyone who attempts to challenge the legality of Ortega’s candidacy could face jail time for refusing to respect the high court’s ruling.

Ortega’s supporters have pointed to court rulings in Colombia and Costa Rica that allowed the reelection bids of Alvaro Uribe and Oscar Arias, respectively, as important “legal precedents.”

A fight ahead

But jurists insist that’s nonsense, and so too is the Sandinistas’ attempt to claim legal precedent from other countries that have different political models and distinct constitutions. Former Supreme Court President Alejandro Serrano says no legal recourse afforded under the Constitution can be deemed illegal.

What is illegal, he argues, is Ortega’s candidacy. And while the Ortega-controlled CSE is not expected to suddenly change its mind and uphold any of the challenges presented this week, Mr. Serrano expects that once the motions are shot down in Nicaragua they will be appealed instantly to the Inter-American Court.

Even within Ortega's ranks, however, there appears wariness. After acting Vice President Jaime Morales has declined to run again, sheepishly citing concerns about the constitutional ban against his candidacy, Ortega announced that his new running mate will be recently retired military Gen. Omar Hallesleven, who stepped down last year as Nicaragua’s top military brass.

His inclusion has raised some concerns that Ortega intends to enlist the military in his political project and impose a more heavy-handed regime in the years ahead.

“We have won the peace at the cost of blood, and now we will defend it at all costs,” Ortega said Friday.

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