High Court Green-Lights Reelection
By Tim Rogers
A surprise ruling by the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court to overturn a 22-year-old constitutional ban on consecutive reelection is being blasted by political opponents, lawyers and business leaders as an “illegal” and brazen “assault” on Nicaragua’s rule of law, and another dangerous step toward dictatorship under President Daniel Ortega.
Unable to get the 57 votes needed to change the constitution to allow for his reelection in 2011, President Ortega and 109 Sandinista Party mayors filed a motion of unconstitutionality before the Sandinista-controlled Supreme Court on Oct. 19. In a matter of hours, the Sandinista magistrates ruled in favor of their boss, setting a new speed record for the high court, which has yet to rule on numerous other cases that have been collecting dust for years, such as a challenge to the ban on therapeutic abortion.
The ruling was announced by Sandinista judge Francisco Rosales, sitting alongside Supreme Court Vice President Rafael Solís, who for months has been campaigning tirelessly on behalf of constitutional reforms to allow Ortega to seek reelection.
The Constitutional Chamber’s ruling will now go before the full Supreme Court for a final decision.
The 15-member Supreme Court (the 16th judge recently passed away) is controlled by 8 Sandinista judges and 7 judges loyal to former President Arnoldo Alemán.
In order to be approved, the resolution will have to pass by 9 votes, meaning the Sandinistas are currently one vote shy. Yet regardless of how many votes the Sandinistas have, legal experts claim Monday’s ruling was a shockingly brash violation of Nicaraguan law.
“This is really dramatic. They are manipulating the constitution and the state of law in an unthinkable way,” former Supreme Court President Alejandro Serrano told The Nica Times.
Serrano explained that the Supreme Court does not have the authority to rule that the constitution is unconstitutional. In addition, he said, Ortega’s motion of unconstitutionality should have been instantly dimissed on two fundamental arguments.
Firstly, Ortega is not officially a candidate because it’s not yet election season, so he can’t argue that his rights as a candidate arebeing violated. And secondly, Article 147 of the Nicaraguan Constitution bans consecutive reelection, so Ortega can’t argue that his legal rights are being violated by not being allowed to run again.
Serrano said if the constitution allowed Ortega to run for president but the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) – or some other government institution – blocked his candidacy, then perhaps he would be have a case. But in this instance, he’s trying to do something that is not allowed by law, so “there’s no violation of his rights.”
Embattled CSE President and Ortega loyalist Roberto Rivas, whose supervision of the scandalous 2009 municipal elections resulted in Nicaragua losing more than $150 million in international aid due to allegations of fraud, immediately called a press conference following the court ruling to announce he would uphold the high court’s decision.
The countries of the Venezuelan-propped Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA), which helped push Honduras into crisis last June by urging a constitutional reform agenda there, also released a statement backing the Sandinista judges’ decision.
Nicaragua’s floundering opposition parties, which have done little to curb Ortega’s authoritarian aspirations over the past two and a half years, reacted with outrage to this week’s court decision.
Former president and ex-convict Arnoldo Alemán, Ortega’s partner in the power-sharing pact, bellowed that the court ruling is “illegal,” and said not even former dictator Anastasio Somoza tried to get away with what Ortega is attempting in his quest to remain in power.
“The rule of law is being totally destroyed,” Alemán said, calling for the opposition to unify. “Enough already with the Ortega dictatorship.”
Former presidential candidate and independent Liberal party leader Eduardo Montealegre called on Nicaraguans to “resist the coup against institutional democracy.” He compared the Ortega-authored efforts to the coup in Honduras.
Enrique Sáenz, leader of the left-wing opposition Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) also called on Nicaraguans to “resist the coup and avoid a tragedy.”
“If we allow Ortega to get away with this, there is no going back,” Sáenz warned.
Business Climate Worsens
Leaders of the private sector are also lamenting the ruling, and warning that it will have a very negative effect on Nicaragua’s already wobbly business and investment climate.
“This gives the sign of judicial insecurity in this country,” said Róger Arteaga, president of the Nicaraguan-American Chamber of Commerce (AMCHAM). “If the judicial system is capable of going against the constitution, that means that the whole constitution is inapplicable, including the laws that protect investors.”
“This whole thing is crazy,” Arteaga lamented.
On a positive note, he said, the situation will most likely facilitate the unification of the opposition in Nicaragua, which represents about 70 percent of the population, according to the polls.
“Now we are in an emergency situation,” the business leader said.