Is Nicaragua's Constitution facing an extreme Sandinista makeover?

The proposed reforms would target presidential reelection and the role of the military in politics –  affecting nearly one-fifth of the constitution.

Oswaldo Rivas/Reuters
A woman walks past murals of Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega (r.) and Nicaraguan revolutionary and Sandinista leader Augusto Cesar Sandino in Catarina November 4. President Ortega's ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front party will seek to change the constitution by year-end to remove presidential term limits.

Nicaragua’s Constitution is about to get an extreme Sandinista makeover.

After years of tweaking and sidestepping articles that were inconvenient to Sandinista rule, such as the ban on presidential reelection, the ruling party is now embarking on an aggressive campaign to overhaul the legal document in what critics say is a bid to accommodate the party's needs. Proposed changes to 39 articles would pave the way for President Daniel Ortega’s indefinite reelection and replace Nicaragua’s representative democracy with a version of “direct democracy,” as envisaged by Mr. Ortega's politically active wife, Rosario Murillo. 

Sandinista lawmakers, whose super majority status in the National Assembly means little need for in-depth consultation or compromise, presented the reforms last week. If all goes according to plan, the Central American nation will have an entirely new political system by the New Year. 

“These constitutional reforms will institutionalize a model of government that has been applied in this country, in the context of a democracy that’s taking a new turn,” reads the introduction to the proposed reforms. “We can call it an ‘evolving constitutionalism’ that tries to establish mechanisms for a direct democracy… a political model inspired by the values of Christianity, the ideals of socialism, and the practices of solidarity.”

The document echoes rhetoric often used by Ms. Murillo, who, despite not holding any formal political office or party post, wields political clout unrivaled among most other first ladies.

Some legal analysts worry that the promise of “direct democracy” is window dressing for a project that will tighten President Ortega’s and his wife's grip on power, derail any hopes for a democratic transition of power, and further polarize the country.

“It’s just a cosmetic disguise for a vertical and authoritarian political project,” legal analyst Gabriel Alvarez says. “These reforms will be the padlock on a system that is being closed to democratic reform; it will prevent any possibility Nicaraguans have of reversing the advances of authoritarianism… They are changing the entire essence of the Nicaraguan political system.” 

All three opposition parties in the legislature have come out against the reforms, but even if they combine all their votes they don't have the numbers to stop the Sandinistas from steamrolling the bill through the legislature.

The left-wing opposition Sandinista Renovation Movement argues the reforms are proof that Mr. Ortega aspires to become the next Anastasio Somoza, the former dictator whose campaign slogan was "Somoza forever." The right-wing opposition is equally concerned; liberal congressman Luis Callejas called the reforms unconstitutional and warned they could lead to a socialist and militarized state. 

“We are not going to support these reforms because they are a threat to me and to all other Nicaraguans,” Mr. Callejas said after his legislative bloc studied the  reforms. “According to these reforms, if you are not a Christian, socialist, and in solidarity, you will be outlawed.” 

Another group of 14 civil society organizations and political parties argued the reforms would mark the end of the social pact that brought peace to Nicaragua in 1989 following the decade-long civil war that pitted the US-backed Contra rebels against the Sandinistas.

Organizations favoring the reforms include the police and army, both of which have been criticized for becoming increasingly partisan, and the Supreme Electoral Council, which is controlled by Sandinistas and accused of orchestrating electoral fraud.

“I want to express our total support for these reforms, because they meet the requirements needed for the Nicaragua we are building today," chief electoral magistrate Roberto Rivas said.

Roman Catholic church leaders, who have been increasingly critical of the Sandinistas' perceived abuses of power, have not yet commented on the proposals. Meanwhile, Ortega and his lawmakers also remain tight-lipped, allowing other state organizations under Sandinista control to do the talking for them. 

What the bill says 

The proposed reforms call for a rewrite of nearly one-fifth of the constitution, including much of its core ingredients. Key amendments will give the president additional powers to govern by decree; increase the role of the military in the government by allowing active officers to hold civilian posts; and eliminate the  ban on presidential reelection limits. Others enact new controls on the Internet and social media, and give new powers to Sandinista party structures called Family Councils.The councils are neighborhood organizations created earlier this year by Murillo in an attempt to rebrand the Councils of Citizen Power, activist groups that were formed in 2007 but never gained much acceptance. 

The sudden push to institutionalize the party structures as constitutionally mandated community organizations could lead to greater social control and persecution of political opponents, critics say. The inclusion of the Family Councils in the constitution, according to Vilma Núñez, president of the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights, is a form of repression. 

No constitutional convention?

Mr. Alvarez, the legal analyst, says the dimension of the reforms call for a constitutional convention, not partial reforms. He fears the ruling party’s unwillingness to discuss the sweeping changes demonstrates their authoritarian nature.

“No president has the right to change the political system without consulting the people; to do so would be illegal and illegitimate,” Alvarez says.

He expects the consultation process to be rushed through the National Assembly without discussion, as was the case during the recent Grand Canal Concession law, which was passed unilaterally without debate, consensus, compromise, or consultation. 

- A version of this story ran on the author's website,

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