Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega renominated for president, despite term limits

Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega is finishing his second term in office, the maximum allowed under the Constitution. But on Saturday he accepted the Sandinista Party's nomination to run again.

Esteban Felix/AP
Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega makes the victory sign during a ceremony to deliver houses to farmers in Managua, Nicaragua, Friday, Feb. 25. On Saturday he accepted his party's nomination for the presidency, even though his reelection is barred by the Constitution.

President Daniel Ortega on Saturday accepted his party's nomination for the presidency, even though his reelection is barred by the Constitution.

Despite an outcry over the allegedly fraudulent presidential bid, early polls show Mr. Ortega is favored to win the November election. And given Nicaragua’s bleak political panorama, the Sandinista strongman is increasingly considered the least-bad option here – at least by the country’s sizable poor population that has benefited from new social programs and government handouts.

“I don’t think that the Nicaraguan citizen relates to the issue of legality or legitimacy as long as fundamental services are provided in an immediate way – and this government is very effective in delivering the fundamentals,” says Arturo Cruz, a political science professor at INCAE Business School and Ortega’s former ambassador to the United States.

'Totally illegal'

The former revolutionary’s bid for presidency is nothing new – he’s been the Sandinista Front’s only candidate since 1984, when he was first elected president. But this time it’s illegal, insist legal experts, opposition politicians, and religious leaders.

Silvio José Báez, the Roman Catholic Church’s popular and outspoken auxiliary bishop of Managua, says the “rule of law has been blown to smithereens.” And today a group of Sandinista dissidents, who held various leadership roles in the revolutionary government in the 80s, released a joint statement calling Ortega’s candidacy a “shameful act” by a “criminal group that has usurped the name of the Sandinista National Liberation Front.”

Article 147 of the Constitution prohibits acting presidents from seeking reelection, and bans the candidacy of any president who has already served two terms. The Supreme Court declared that part of the Constitution illegal in 2009, apparently clearing the way for Ortega’s reelection bid. But opposition lawyers argue that Articles 191 and 195 of the Constitution establish that only the National Assembly has the authority to reform the Constitution.

“Legality and legitimacy are academic arguments that apply to the Facebook crowd, and to a small educated elite,” Mr. Cruz says. But, he adds, that’s not so much the case for “people who are overwhelmed by life.”

While the “Facebook crowd” is indeed protesting – on Saturday some 16,000 Nicaraguans held a “virtual march” on Facebook against Ortega’s reelection bid – most of the country is offline.

Weak opposition

Further aiding Ortega’s candidacy is a divided opposition and general mistrust of the Ortega-controlled Supreme Electoral Council (CSE), which is still marred by alleged electoral fraud in 2008 that led to massive aid-cuts from the US and European Union. Roberto Rivas, who remains chief of the CSE though his term expired last July, is now attempting to block electoral observers from monitoring this year’s polls.

“Right now, with the current electoral authorities, people feel that regardless of whether Ortega gets more votes or not, he’ll win the elections,” says Nicaraguan pollster Raul Obregón.

Former CSE chief Rosa Marina Zelaya, Mr. Rivas's predecessor from the 1990s, worries that even if the rest of the electoral process moves forward peacefully and with some semblance of normalcy, the process has already been corrupted.

“What legality or legitimacy are the elected authorities going to have after the Nov. 6 elections?” she asks. “There is an illegitimacy to the entire electoral process that will never be removed.”

How Ortega outfoxed US

While the US and EU – regular targets of Ortega’s rhetorical harangues – are most likely not thrilled about the prospect of another Ortega administration, in quieter moments, some Western diplomats admit they’ve been outfoxed by Ortega.

In addition to stripping Western powers of their economic leverage by forming a sweetheart deal for financial assistance from Venezuelan comrade Hugo Chávez, Ortega has also kept Nicaragua’s sluggish opposition divided and confused, giving Western nations no viable allies to work with.

“The art of messing around in another country is; you can’t do it all by yourself, you need to have strong local allies,” Latin American expert Richard Feinberg, former President Bill Clinton’s senior director of the National Security Council’s Office of Inter-American Affairs, told the Monitor.

And the US, Mr. Feinberg says, doesn’t feel it has strong local allies in Nicaragua. Presidential hopeful Fabio Gadea, a veteran radio producer who is running on the ticket of the Liberal Independent Party (PLI), might be the US’s best bet for a political partner, considering the other “opposition” option is former president and ex-convict Arnoldo Alemán, named to Transparency International’s list of top 10 most corrupt leaders of all time.

“The US government decided quite a while ago that Alemán was irredeemable – that’s the view in Washington among Democrats and Republications,” Feinberg says. “Alemán bears a great deal of responsibility for the institutional and political problems besetting Nicaragua.”

While Washington analysts stop short of calling Ortega the lesser of two evils, if he can provide stability in a world increasingly beset by political turmoil and social upheaval, would-be foreign meddlers might be more inclined to sit this round out.

“The fact that Ortega is now the establishment in Nicaragua and represents continuity and stability in an otherwise convulsed region also encourages passivity in Washington,” says Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank. “Ortega seems to have made all the right moves not only to consummate his power grab at home, but to inoculate him against an effective international campaign."

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