President Daniel Ortega’s first act of 2010 has sent Nicaragua spiraling back into a dizzying political crisis, after signing a polemic decree that extends the terms of 23 top judges, magistrates and other officials whose periods in office are set to expire within the next six months.
Under Nicaraguan law, only the legislative National Assembly has the authority to appoint or remove judges and magistrates.
Opposition politicians and legal analysts are blasting Ortega’s decree as illegal usurpation of power, and have likened the move to a “coup against the Constitution.”
Lawmaker Francisco Aguirre, national secretary of the Liberal Constitutional Party, said Ortega’s decree is further proof that Nicaragua is now a “failed state.” And former Supreme Court president Alejandro Serrano said the president’s actions push Nicaragua into the category of “de facto government.”
Meanwhile, a group of 17 opposition lawmakers headed by Eduardo Montealegre is calling for Ortega’s impeachment.
In his first public appearance in nearly a month, President Ortega, dressed elegantly in the presidential sash, issued the decree Jan. 9.
Unable to muster the votes needed in the National Assembly to stack the key posts with his own loyalists, Ortega ordered the extension of all current magistrates of the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE), the Supreme Court, the Comptroller General’s Office, the Superintendent of Banks, and even the Ombudsman’s Office, which had already been cleared out last year.
By extending the terms of judges and magistrates – many of whom have been questioned for corruption – Ortega seems to be trying to hold together his “dream team” that oversaw the allegedly fraudulent municipal elections in 2008 and produced the equally questionable presidential reelection ruling at the end of last year.
Ortega defended his decree by saying it would contribute to the stability of the country. He blamed the National Assembly of trying to “create chaos” and “paralyze” his government by not proposing candidates to replace the outgoing officials.
The Sandinistas further attempted to justify Ortega’s decree by releasing a dubious opinion poll suggesting that a majority of Nicaraguans back the president’s decision, and only 28 percent oppose it. The poll was mysteriously dated the day after Ortega issued his evening decree, raising doubts about when the alleged polling was conducted.
Ortega loyalist Nelson Artola, head of the government’s poverty relief fund (FISE), added his own Orwellian twist to the drama by suggesting that the Sandinistas should form a “Permanent Forum in Defense of the Constitution,” to protect it from right-wing forces that are out to destroy it.
“Daniel has given us a clear sign of the respect he has for the Constitution – a respect that all Nicaraguans should have,” Artola said, without intended irony.
The opposition, however, claims Ortega has pushed Nicaragua to the brink of chaos by once again overstepping his constitutional boundaries to maintain his quota of power and get what he wants by hook or crook.
Ortega already has a proven track record of similar behavior, such as his attempt last year to reform the 2009 budget by presidential decree, and when he had Sandinista judges rule in favor of his re-election bid after he couldn´t get the votes to reform the Constitution (NT, Dec. 24, 2009).
Analysts say each offense has been increasingly bold as Ortega continues to push the outer limits of what he can get away with within the loose framework of democracy.
“It is very worrisome that abnormal (political behavior) has now become normal,” Serrano said of Ortega’s record as president. “I’m afraid Nicaragua has already crossed the threshold into a failed state,” said Aguirre. “It’s no longer a potential category, we’re already there.”
Aguirre said Ortega’s latest move will be a major test to the international community and foreign lending institutions to see if their commitment to democratic governance is more than just “lip service.”
Ortega’s decree might also be a symptom of a dying power-sharing pact with former President and Liberal party strongman Arnoldo Alemán, who has already announced his bid for the presidency in 2011.
In posturing himself as a leader of Liberal party unity, Alemán said last week his political group will not negotiate with Ortega to allow the re-election of any CSE or Supreme Court magistrates, despite the Sandinistas’ desire to keep their people in key positions.
In the past, Alemán has made similar comments about Ortega, only to re-pact with the Sandinista leader shortly afterwards. But if Alemán keeps to his word this time, it could mark the beginning of the end of the power-sharing pacto that has defined Nicaraguan politics for the past decade.
Calls for Impeachment
Montealegre’s liberal party voting bloc says Ortega has gone too far this time, and he needs to be removed from office and brought to justice for violating the Constitution.
“According to the Constitution, President Ortega can be declared incapacitated to continue governing the country (now that he’s shown) he can’t even follow the most basic attributions of a chief of state, which is to comply with the Constitution and the laws,” the opposition Nicaraguan Democratic Bloc proclaimed in a statement.
While former chief justice Serrano said impeachment is unlikely considering the opposition doesn’t have the two-thirds vote it needs to remove the president from office, he said Ortega’s controversial decree can be overturned by a legislative decree or law.
However, the legal analyst warned, if that doesn’t happen and constitutional order is not re-established, Nicaragua will be stuck in a de facto government situation, leading to all sorts of problems in the months to come.
According to the law, all five CSE magistrates and their supplements are scheduled to be replaced in two shifts on Feb. 14 and June 1; all eight comptrollers are to be replaced by February; and the terms of four Supreme Court magistrates end April 11.
Ombudsman Omar Cabezas’ term already ended Dec. 9, leaving the post unoccupied – a vacancy the opposition has likened to addition by subtraction.