Despite Honduran crisis, Nicaraguan President Ortega launches bid to extend his term

Nicaragua's leftist leader Daniel Ortega says constitutional limits on presidential terms stand in the way of 'direct democracy.'

Esteban Felix/AP
Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega waves to supporters during a ceremony marking the 30th anniversary of the Sandinista revolution against dictator Anastasio Somoza, in Managua, Sunday.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

Insisting there is no possibility of a coup d'état in Nicaragua, President Daniel Ortega is pushing forward on a "citizen power" reelection agenda similar to the controversial political project that led to the June 28 ouster of President Manuel Zelaya in neighboring Honduras.

Speaking in front of hundreds of thousands of Sandinista loyalists Sunday at a rally to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the leftist revolution he helped lead, Mr. Ortega called for a constitutional referendum on scrapping presidential term limits.

It's the latest in a series of moves to consolidate power by leftist leaders allied together in the Venezuelan-led Bolivarian Alliance for the People of Our America (ALBA). Critics decry such measures as undemocratic, but Ortega, Mr. Zelaya, and other leftists say that taking the decisions to the people is the purest form of democracy and that they must band together against the conservative powers that have traditionally run things in the region.

"The ALBA countries, led by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, believe they are engaged in an ideological battle and need to employ every resource within the broad parameters of democratic legitimacy to pursue their political project and prevent what they call the right-wing oligarchs from returning to power," says Latin America political analyst Michael Shifter, of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington.

Mr. Shifter said the ALBA countries are "undeterred" by critics and "what should have been a warning in Honduras," because "for them, the alternative is to give up power, which is totally contrary to their political game plan."

'Direct democracy'

As part of Ortega's effort to implement so-called "direct democracy," he says people should not face any constitutional restrictions on who they want to lead them. The Sandinista boss insists his party represents a majority in Nicaragua and that term limits are an example of the "oligarchy's fear of the people."

"The right is terrified of the people and the word 'citizen power,' " Ortega said. "They are afraid of the poor and the farmers, who are the great majority in Nicaragua."

Even though Zelaya's referendum project, which was promoted using similar language, led to a political crisis in Honduras, Ortega's own presidential clock is ticking. He must make his move now if he hopes to remain in office beyond the 2011 elections.

"If we are going to be just and fair, everyone has to have the right to reelection so that the people, with their vote, can award or punish [candidates] – that is the principle that we have to defend," Ortega said at Sunday's rally, which, despite being a national holiday in Nicaragua, had all the trappings of an Ortega campaign event.

"If Honduras had this referendum, there wouldn't have been conditions for a coup there," Ortega added. "There the [Honduran] people are still fighting for constitutional reform; and here the people will continue fighting."

Ortega much savvier then Zelaya?

While the game plan is similar, the internal political situations in Honduras and Nicaragua are very different. Ortega, so far, has proved to be a much shrewder political operator than Zelaya.

Whereas Zelaya faced stiff domestic opposition from virtually all other branches of government and state institutions – including the military – Ortega has worked over the past decade to consolidate power over all branches of government. The judicial system and electoral council, critics now say, are both viewed as Ortega's personal instruments, allowing him to get away with arbitrary decisions, such as raids and "investigations" of political opponents and even last November's widely denounced municipal elections, in which the Sandinistas were accused of stealing more than 40 mayors' seats.

Although the municipal elections have led to the suspension of more than $150 million in US and European aid, Nicaraguan citizen efforts to protest the elections in the electoral council and court system have fallen flat.

Nicaraguan national security analysts say Ortega has also tried to subordinate the National Police and the armed forces under his control as Sandinista boss rather than the president, by continuously reminding both institutions of their "revolutionary roots."

"In Nicaragua, the Army and police come from the revolution and would never act against the state of law, against democracy or against the people," Ortega said, referring to the fact that both institutions were formed during the revolutionary Sandinista government in the 1980s.

Critics: Ortega is a threat to democracy

While there may not be any threat of a military coup in Nicaragua, critics say it's Ortega who represents the real threat against constitutional democracy here. Last year's alleged electoral fraud, the subordination of other government branches, and a widespread crackdown on dissidents have empowered Ortega, critics argue.

"Here the coup is being staged by the president against the state of law and the Constitution; Ortega is staging an incremental coup," says Hugo Torres, a retired military general and former Sandinista militant leader. "It's not a typical coup, it's more subtle."

Mr. Torres warns that if Ortega is able to achieve his plans for reelection or constitutional changes to convert Nicaragua into a parliamentary system, it would be the "definitive step" toward establishing a form of "tropical fascism" in Nicaragua.

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