Nicaragua wakes up to Daniel Ortega's new 'Sandinista Constitution'

While Nicaragua was on holiday, the Sandinista government of Daniel Ortega reprinted the Constitution. It now includes a law that was left dead 20 years ago.

Oswaldo Rivas/Reuters
Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega speaks during a military parade in Managua on Sept. 2. Taking advantage of last week's public holiday decreed by President Ortega, the Sandinista government reprinted the Nicaraguan Constitution while the rest of the country was on vacation.

Unable to muster the votes needed in legislature to reform the Constitution, the ruling Sandinista Front has done the next best thing: reprint the old Constitution with several "modifications."

Taking advantage of last week's public holiday decreed by President Daniel Ortega, top Sandinista legislator Rene Núñez ordered the reprinting of the Nicaraguan Constitution while the rest of the country was on vacation. When opposition lawmakers returned to work this week, they discovered that the "new edition" of the Constitution mysteriously included an old law that many left for dead 20 years ago.

The Sandinistas argue the reinclusion of the "forgotten" article will ensure government stability and prevent "anarchy," according to fellow Sandinista legislator Edwin Castro.

"The people have to understand clearly that laws that are not reformed or overturned are still in effect," Mr. Castro told state media.

Lawyer Carlos Tünnerman, of the opposition civic group Movement for Nicaragua, says the Sandinistas' argument is "absolutely absurd" and demonstrates "the desperation of Ortega and those around him to perpetuate in power."

According to the resurrected second paragraph of Law 201, supreme court judges, electoral magistrates, and other public officials can remain in office beyond their term limits until new officials are appointed. The problem is, according to legal analysts, that the law was a "transitory" provision in the 1987 Constitution and expired more than two decades ago. That's why it wasn't included in the current Constitution, which was printed after the reforms of 1995.

Yet with elections happening next year, Mr. Ortega, who hopes to run despite a constitutional ban on presidential reelection, wants to keep his "dream team" government in office, even though the terms of 25 top officials have already expired. With a political gridlock in the legislature blocking the election of new officials, Ortega attempted to extend the terms of judges and magistrates by presidential decree earlier this year – a move the opposition called illegal.

The political outrage to Ortega's decree forced the Sandinistas to come up with a new legal argument, which they did by trying to revive the old law from 1987. Sandinista congressman Mr. Núñez announced his "discovery" of the law with much fanfare last April, claiming that it had "mistakenly" been excluded from the Constitution – an alleged omission he was happy to correct.

But by printing a new Constitution including the old law, some observers say the Sandinistas are pushing Nicaragua toward dictatorship.

"This eccentric and arbitrary decision by President Ortega is a demolition blow to the rule of law and a step towards a totally lawless government," says Felix Maradiaga, a political science professor at Universidad Americana and a former senior adviser to the Ministry of Defense when the opposition Constitutional Liberal Party controlled government.

"With this decision, Ortega has turned back the clock to a time before the social contract," he says.

Some critics have gone so far as to call on citizens to burn the new Constitution in the street as a form of public protest, though no pyres have been set.

The Sandinistas, however, seem content with the reworded Constitution. Supreme Court judge Rafael Solís, whose term ended last April yet refuses to hand in his gavel, said the new Constitution is the proof that he needs to rule in favor of Ortega's controversial decree.

Many lawyers, however, are shaking their head at the state of rule of law in Nicaragua.

"The Sandinistas have no legal arguments," says Alejandro Serrano, who was president of the supreme court during the first Sandinista government in the 1980s. "This government is no longer legal or legitimate."

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