MANAGUA – Concerns about a conspiracy between the Sandinista Front and the opposition Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC) to impose a semi-parliamentary system is “more noise than anything else,” according to PLC lawmaker Wilfredo Navarro.
In recent weeks, civil society groups and opposition daily newspapers have warned that the power-sharing pact – or “pacto” – between President Daniel Ortega’s Sandinistas and former President Arnoldo Alemán’s Liberals is preparing to push through a serious of constitutional reforms aimed at changing the system of government and allowing the President to remain in power indefinitely.
Though no project has yet been presented officially, drafts of the proposed reforms call for conditions that would allow Alemán, currently serving a 20-year sentence for corruption under very loose terms of house arrest, to return to National Assembly as a lawmaker with a lifetime seat.
Political analysts say the reforms – if passed – would be the masterwork of the pacto.
“This is the new phase of the pacto, and it’s the most intense part yet,” said analyst Alejandro Serrano. “These reforms would be a pretext for the pacto to stay in power indefinitely.”
Navarro, however, says the reforms aren’t going to happen – at least not in their current form, and not anytime soon.
“We [the PLC lawmakers] say the reforms are not going to happen,”Navarro said. “And if we say they’re not going to happen, then they’re not going to happen.”
Alemán has been the biggest booster of the reform proposal, which would divide power between a President and a Prime Minister and give the President the power to dissolve the National Assembly and hold new elections. The reforms also would lift the ban on presidential re-election and eliminate the minimum percentage of votes needed to win an election in the first round.
Several months ago, Alemán created an “academic commission” in the PLC to draft a proposal for constitutional reforms to suit his needs. The situation prompted U.S. Ambassador Paul Trivelli to quip that Nicaragua must be the only country in the world where “a prisoner is drafting a new Constitution.”
The Sandinista Front, too, has been quietly developing its own proposal to reform the Constitution and create a quasi-parliamentary system.
Political analyst Carlos Tünnermann said the Sandinistas’ proposed reforms would be perfect for Ortega because they would allow him to remain in the presidency, where he would still manage foreign relations and have control over the military and police, while delegating other day-to-day government functions, including the issues of health and education, to a Prime Minister whom he would personally appoint.
“Those are issues he never wanted to deal with anyway,” Tünnermann charged. “In the 1980s, those were the issues that he delegated to (then Vice-President) Sergio Ramírez.”
Navarro says the Sandinista Front asked the PLC to combine the two party’s reform proposals to ensure the legal initiative would pass in the National Assembly. However, the PLC Vice-President said, the proposal was rejected by PLC lawmakers and the party’s National Executive Committee.
Navarro admits that there is now division within the PLC between a smaller group loyal to Alemán and a larger group that doesn’t want to support any reforms that would concede even greater power to their supposed adversaries, the Sandinista Front.
“Alemán is pushing for the reforms, but the [PLC] lawmakers say no,” Navarro told The Nica Times. “The PLC is not Alemán’s personal finca. Alemán is not the owner of the PLC.”
Mutiny Aboard the PLC?
Navarro’s comments are the latest in what appears to be growing dissent among the ranks of the PLC, which has long referred to Alemán as its “maximum leader.”
Tünnermann says that there are those within the PLC who remain, at their core, vehemently anti-Sandinista and they “won’t forgive Alemán” if conditions are created to allow Ortega to remain in power.
Others in the PLC, meanwhile, feel that their party has already conceded too much to the Sandinistas and that the pacto is a losing situation for their party, as demonstrated clearly by last year’s elections.
A PLC insider recently told The Nica Times that a plan is already under way within the party to get Alemán to step aside as leader of the party and replace him with lawmaker Enrique Quiñonez, a former Contra who remains abrasively anti-Sandinista.
“The trick,” the PLC source said; “will be to get Alemán to believe that this is his idea.”
Not Time for Reforms
Though as of yet there is no official project that has been presented to the National Assembly to reform the Constitution, the various Sandinista and Liberal proposals have worried civil society.
Civil group Movement for Nicaragua has categorically rejected any attempts to reform the Constitution. Another group, the Institute of Development and Democracy (IPADE), has already called on authorities to include a referendum on constitutional reforms on the 2008 municipalelections ballot.
Third-party lawmakers argue that the political and economic conditions don’t exist right now to implement an expensive and potentially unstable parliamentary system, nor do the social conditions exist to even consider such abstractions.
“People right now are worried about the price of beans, electricity and health,” said lawmaker Eduardo Montealegre, leader of the opposition Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance.
“Now is not the moment, in my judgment, for constitutional changes.”
The PLC’s Navarro agrees, adding that before any new constitutional reforms can be introduced, the National Assembly must first decide the fate of the pending Partial Reforms to the Constitution, which were passed in January 2005 but have been frozen until Jan. 20, 2008.
The Sandinista-authored 2005 reforms, which also call for an inventive version of a semi-parliamentary system, touched off a major political crisis here in 2005, which the U.S. government likened to a “creeping coup” (NT, Oct. 7, 2005).
The crisis finally came to a tentative ceasefire when Ortega and then President Enrique Bolaños struck a deal to suspend the reforms – under a law known as the Ley Marco – until Bolaños finished his term in office (NT, Oct. 14, 2005).
In January of this year, the Ley Marco was extended for one more year, further suspending the reforms until Jan. 20, 2008.
Navarro, who is also president of the National Assembly’s commission on the Ley Marco, said that it would be “crazy” to discuss a new set of reforms to the Constitution when the 2005 reforms haven’t yet been implemented. Plus, he said, it’s not even clear whether the Ley Marco could again be extended to further postpone the reforms.
Some analysts have called the 2005 reforms, which would strengthen the power of the National Assembly and weaken some of the president’s authority, Ortega’s original “Plan B” in the event that he didn’t win the presidency last year.
As it worked out, Ortega did win and – ironically – his own reforms could now be used to weaken his power as President.
“Now Ortega doesn’t want those reforms,” Navarro said. “It’s like a sword over his presidency.”