Central American leaders let out a collective sigh of relief last week when Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega announced he would drop efforts to have President Enrique Bolaños impeached - thus averting a political crisis threatening to shake Nicaragua, and possibly destabilize the whole region.
The relief felt here, however, may be short lived. Nicaragua, say observers, remains in the throes of the worst political crisis in its brief 15 years of democracy.
"Nicaragua's main political actors," says Carlos Rosales, special secretary to the president of El Salvador," have engaged in a type of political cannibalism that threatens its democracy, its future and the stability of the region."
"One issue may be over. But the story is not," says Manuel Orozco, a Nicaragua expert at the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington. "Ortega managed to distract the government and put it on check for a while with this 'one' .... Now, he will look for another strategy and the saga will continue until the [2006 general elections]."
Congress was to have voted last week on whether to strip Mr. Bolaños of criminal immunity for alleged electoral campaign funding abuses. If he were to have lost his immunity, Bolaños would most likely have been prosecuted and, if found guilty, forced to resign.
The crisis began in 2002, when ex-president (1997-2002) Arnoldo Alemán's hand-picked successor Bolaños turned against his former mentor, accusing him of massive corruption. A trial ensued, and Alemán, an anti-Sandinista crusader who was once a US favorite, was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison for fraud and embezzlement.
But instead of being applauded as an anticorruption leader, Bolaños found himself dragged into a political crisis filled with backstabbing, revenge, and as many twists and turns of plot as any afternoon telenovela (soap opera) here. Ultimately, the crisis has diminished his presidency and stalled most of his desired legislation, including the ratification of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) with the US.
Bolaños' move against Aléman led to a split in the ruling Partido Liberal Constitucionalista (PLC) and eventually to a new alignment - a pact between Aléman and his one-time political nemesis, Ortega. These two men need one another: Aléman wants his freedom, and Ortega wants the presidency - which he lost in 1980 - back. Combining their power, they aim to achieve both these goals.
Between them today, Aléman and Ortega control 81 of the 92 seats in the National Assembly, and dominate the Supreme Court, the Electoral Council, and the Comptroller's Office. The Election Council has already made institutional changes that help Ortega, such as reducing the percentage of vote needed for a run off to 35 - the percent of support the Sandinistas have in the country.
The main loser from what is known here simply as "the pact" is Bolaños. Even before the impeachment efforts began in August, his power was being challenged.
The other obvious losers are the Nicaraguan people. An estimated 50,000 Nicaraguans took to the streets in June, waving blue and white flags and calling for an end to the pact. A poll done by Nicaraguan group M&R at that time showed close to 80 percent of the population against the Aléman-Ortega alliance.
International pressure is fierce as well.
In Washington, the Organization of American States (OAS) issued a strongly worded statement and called for an "immediate halt" to actions that could worsen the political crisis. Also,the leaders of seven Central American and Caribbean countries met up at the Managua airport on Sept. 5th to back Bolaños.
"Ortega's about-face should be understood as an act of prudence," says El Salvador's Rosales. "These very public expressions of support for Bolaños have made Ortega pull back from his intentions...Ortega probably realized it was best to keep it under wraps than risk losing control of it."
But, Orozco says the new strategy for weakening Bolanos is to blame the government for the energy crisis. With outages throughout the country, this seems to be a charge that will resonate with Nicaraguans. "Weakening the Bolaños government means weakening the party," says Orozco.
"At stake," says Rosales, "is next year's presidential election."