San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

National Assembly to Use Ortega’s Reforms against Him

Like a ghost from the past, a constitutional reform measure that Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega promoted in 2005 to transfer greater government powers to the legislature could now come back to haunt his own administration, which opponents claim is trying to consolidate power in the executive branch.

Ortega first promoted the Law to Partially Reform the Constitution in 2005 as a way to “strengthen democracy” by empowering the National Assembly with greater checks over the president. At the time, political analysts claimed that the reform was Ortega’s “Plan B” to consolidate power in the legislature, in the event that he couldn’t win the presidential elections in 2006.

But now that Ortega is president, the opposition hopes to use his own reforms against him.

“He is falling into his own trap,” Liberal lawmaker Wilfredo Navarro told The Nica Times this week, adding that all the opposition lawmakers who belong to the “bloc against the dictatorship” have met and agreed to support the reforms, which would enter into force Jan. 20.

The reforms were first passed in January 2005 by the power-sharing pacto between Ortega and Liberal party boss Arnoldo Alemán, touching off one of the worst institutional crises in Nicaragua’s short democratic history. At the time, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick dubbed the situation a “creeping coup.”

The reforms, in effect, created a quasi-parliamentary system whereby the National Assembly had the right to veto any presidential appointments of ministers, ambassadors or other autonomous state institutions.

The reforms also created new, National Assembly-appointed public-service superintendencies to regulate water, electricity and telecommunications.

Then-President Enrique Bolaños never recognized the constitutional reforms, and turned to the international community for help before eventually declaring a state of emergency (NT, June 3, 17, 24, 2005).

Then, amid threats of presidential impeachment, Ortega met with Bolaños behind closed doors and hatched a plan to suspend the controversial reforms until the president’s term in office ended (NT,Oct. 14, 2005).

That agreement later became institutionalized by a law known as the “Ley Marco,” which suspended the constitutional reforms until Jan. 20, 2006. At the beginning of last year, the Ley Marco was again extended until Jan. 20, 2007.

But now that the opposition claims Ortega is trying to consolidate power and handicap the legislature, lawmakers are ready to implement the Sandinista leader’s reforms against him.

Even analysts who claimed the reforms were illegal back in 2005 now argue that they are needed to curb Ortega’s quest for power.

“In this case, the government is moving toward a dictatorship so the reforms are good because they will allow the National Assembly to put the breaks on Ortega,” political analyst Carlos Tünnermann told The Nica Times this week.

Tünnermann, who along with activist group Movement for Nicaragua challenged the reforms as unconstitutional in 2005, said that Ortega will have to accept them, because they are his.

“Ortega asked back then why people are afraid of a parliamentary system?” Tünnermann remembered, adding that now it’s Ortega who will have to answer his own question.

In practice, Tünnermann said, the Law to Partially Reform the Constitution will make it more difficult for Ortega to make changes in government, subjecting all new appointees to legislative approval.

The reforms will also allow the National Assembly to call before it any of Ortega’s ministers to deliver full reports on what their government institution has been up to. If the lawmakers feel the reports are unsatisfactory, they can require the president to appoint a new minister.

Ortega, who once passionately defended the reforms, has remained quiet on the subject for the last year.

“He was the alchemist who came up with this concoction. Now he has to take it,” Tünnermann said.


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