The Sad Decline of Sandinista Leader Daniel Ortega
The Sad Decline of Daniel Ortega: Rewriting the Nicaraguan Constitution Once Again, with the Help of Corruption Incorporated, Arnoldo Alemán
• Daniel Ortega, veteran leader of the leftwing opposition National Sandinista Liberation Front (FSLN), and Arnoldo Alemán, former president and leader of the rightwing Liberation Constitutionalist Party (PLC), once again have joined forces, this time in an effort to eliminate Nicaragua’s constitutional separation of powers.
• The joint campaign of Ortega and Alemán to remove President Enrique Bolaños from office, or severely impede the executive branch’s power, appears to have no constitutional basis.
• One might suspect that Alemán has a personal vendetta to settle against the incumbent president, after the former was convicted of money laundering and subsequently sentenced to twenty years in prison by the Bolaños administration.
• Ortega and Alemán have a history of “behind closed doors” negotiations, conspiring to rewrite the Nicaraguan constitution for their own self-interests. However, some observers support these attempts to change the constitution, hoping that these reforms will create more balance among the government’s branches.
• In an attempt to avert a national crisis, Bolaños recently succeeded in petitioning the Sandinista and PLC-controlled National Assembly to temporarily delay its effort to remove him from office, on the basis that the proceedings may be unconstitutional.
• The resulting delay has cleared the way for the formal launching of a national dialogue set to take place among representatives of the country’s major political parties, facilitated by representatives of the Catholic Church and the United Nations.
Opposition leaders Daniel Ortega, head of the National Sandinista Liberation Front (FSLN) and Arnoldo Alemán, ex-president and leader of the rightwing Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC), in an attempt to strip President Enrique Bolaños of much of his power, are proposing constitutional changes that, if successful, would considerably alter the framework of Nicaragua’s democracy. On January 10, the National Assembly passed a bill first introduced last November that would change the constitution and remove President Bolaños’ power to directly appoint cabinet ministers, vice-ministers, diplomats and directors of state agencies, thus severely undermining the chief executive’s authority. Bolaños, however, in an appeal for international assistance, has temporarily managed to avert a major crisis by implementing an Accord for National Dialogue to be overseen by Cardinal Obando y Bravo and Jorge Chediek, delegates of the Catholic Church and the UN, respectively. By initiating this endeavor that requires the legislative and executive branches to reach a consensus before any constitutional change can take effect, Bolaños has been able to sidestep the measure recently passed by the National Assembly that would limit his powers. The Dialogue is a clear indication of the lengths Bolaños will have to go in order to preserve what he sees as the nation’s democratic foundations.
An Attack on Democracy?
The recent constitutional reforms proposed by the National Assembly are aimed at crippling executive powers, the one remaining branch of government not controlled by the two caudillos (strongmen) – Ortega and Alemán. The National Assembly, however, possesses no constitutional authority to declare itself an independent body, superior to the other branches of government. Thus, the proposed constitutional change currently being rushed through the National Assembly appears to violate Article 129 of the Nicaraguan Constitution, which states: the legislative, executive, judicial, and electoral powers are independent of each other and they will cooperate harmoniously, subordinated only to the supreme interests of the nation and that which is established in the present Constitution. Since no one specific branch possesses the constitutional power to subordinate, much less eliminate, the autonomy of another, the very notion of the National Assembly usurping the chief executive’s power would arguably alter the nation’s fundamental democratic principles and eliminate the checks and balances that most would argue are needed to maintain harmonious cooperation.
It should also be noted that the proposed PLC-Sandinista constitutional reforms would nullify the vote of the Nicaraguan people, for Bolaños is, after all, a popularly- elected president. However, some independent observers feel that the 1987 constitution drafted by the Sandinistas granted too much power to the executive branch and therefore support the National Assembly’s current reforms. The strength of the executive branch is an issue being hotly contested, especially by those who view Bolaños as “a friend of the bankers” and a man aligned with Washington’s rightwing ideologues. Furthermore, these observers who continually express their discontent would argue that the new constitutional changes are not, in fact, negative. It has become a part of Nicaragua’s political culture for a president to appoint cabinet members and other officials based on “personal favors, business affinity, ideological loyalties, patronage, nepotism and the like, rather than professional capacity,” as was reported in Nicaragua's Envío News Magazine (“Year-end Firework in the Legal Country and the Real One,” January 2005). However, whether or not one supports the proposed reforms, the fact still remains that they are unconstitutional. The removal of Bolaños from office, or even the subordination of the executive branch’s power, violates Nicaragua’s democracy.
There is little doubt that PLC leader Arnoldo Alemán has a vendetta to settle against his former vice president, Enrique Bolaños. Following his defeat of Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega in the 2001 elections, Bolaños pledged to rid Nicaraguan politics of corruption – a campaign vow that led to his virtual ouster from the PLC by Alemán and his cronies. In a nationwide anti-corruption campaign that won him much international praise, the president cracked down on his former running mate after a money-laundering scandal involving Alemán surfaced. An investigation by Comptroller General Agustín Jarquín revealed that Alemán had diverted government funds for personal use by purchasing property from impoverished farmers whose parcels had been devastated by Hurricane Mitch in 1999. Alemán’s candid admission that he used public resources on a construction project at one of his private estates, in addition to acknowledging that his personal assets significantly increased during his time as president, promptly led to his arrest.
Alemán’s subsequent conviction on the grounds of corruption has not been well received within the National Assembly, where he has many friends. In October 2004, the Comptroller General’s Office called upon the Assembly to remove Bolaños from office for his failure to disclose the origin of $7 million purportedly used in his 2001 presidential campaign. In reaction, both the FSLN and the PLC requested that unless Bolaños tender his resignation, they would move to impeach him. However, the questionable tactics being used to remove Bolaños, or severely limit the executive branch’s governing power, seems to be a method designed to protect the FSLN and the PLC. Given the dubious history of Nicaragua’s politicians who administered previous reforms, it must be asked: does the current legislative “package” actually further the possibility for a greater democracy, as Ortega and Alemán would argue, or is it merely providing a narrow corridor through which the two caudillos can seize control of Nicaragua’s political processes?
Cornerstone of Alemán’s Presidency
During his presidency, Alemán created an Anti-Corruption Commission in an attempt to disguise the methods that he and his confederates used for diverting public funds. Ironically, this commission was to be headed by then Vice President Bolaños. The anti-corruption attitude adopted by Alemán and his party cohorts, however, only helped to increase, instead of curtail, the growing distrust among average Nicaraguans. While president, Alemán’s governing style – namely the concentration of power in his own hands – frustrated and angered many sectors of Nicaraguan society, Daniel Ortega and members of the FSLN included. Over time, as it became increasingly difficult to unilaterally consolidate power, Alemán had no choice but to look to Ortega and his Sandinista followers for support. Alemán and Ortega began to engage in a series of “behind closed doors” negotiations, from which was spawned their infamous Pacto Liberal-Sandinista, or as it is more commonly referred to, El Pacto.
After several meetings concerning a series of proposed constitutional reforms, a final version of El Pacto was drafted in August 1999 and received the necessary legislative support to become law in January 2000. Alemán and Ortega, by means of the PLC-Sandinista dominated National Assembly, managed to functionally rewrite the Nicaraguan Constitution in pursuit of their own sectarian interests. El Pacto was not solely a strategically planned political alliance that created alternating turns of governance for the two parties at both the provincial and municipal levels, but also contained language devised to ensure immunity for Alemán after his presidency was concluded. Furthermore, these reforms made it extremely challenging for any smaller third party to elect candidates to office, thus greatly undermining a capacity for political competition and participation – both demonstrably crucial for a functioning democracy. The potential threat of greater caudillo control, which seeks to maintain only the appearance of a democracy instead of its substance, presents an extremely difficult challenge for President Bolaños if his power is in fact reduced.
Bolaños Fights Back
In a nationwide television address delivered on December 9, 2004, Bolaños announced that he would strongly oppose the constitutional changes put forth by the National Assembly. Furthermore, the president intends to prove that the methods being used to remove him represent an attempted “coup d’etat,” as stated in a January 7 press release issued by the Nicaraguan Embassy in Washington.
The constitutional referendum proposed by Bolaños, as outlined in the Accord for National Dialogue, is based on a three-pronged political attack that attempts to thwart the National Assembly’s goals by permitting the electorate to vote on key issues. The first tactic seeks to reform the method by which delegates are selected to the National Assembly. The president suggests that Nicaraguans be permitted to vote for their own representatives, instead of having to choose from a list of pre-selected candidates. He is also seeking to ban the re-election of former presidents, such as Ortega and Alemán, in order to counter the institutionalized corruption inherent in Nicaragua’s political system. Giving citizens an opportunity to reject the joint campaign of the PLC and Sandinista “regime” would provide an opportunity to restore the separation of powers that Ortega and Alemán have, in effect, attempted to eliminate. Finally, Bolaños has proposed that any future constitutional changes (like those currently being debated within the National Assembly) only be made via a national referendum.
National Dialogue: A
Lasting Solution or another Futile Effort?
It appears that the constitutional referenda outlined by Bolaños in the accord, although strongly opposed by most of the National Assembly, have attracted support from Nicaraguans and members of the international community. This support has helped to pave the way for the formal launching of a national dialogue. A January 18 press release distributed by the Nicaraguan Embassy states that “The eight point Accord [lays] out an expansive agenda for discussion of key political issues…‘professionalization’ of the Supreme Court, the Supreme Electoral Council and the National Comptroller General…commitments to discuss internally democratizing the political parties, and examining the way that delegates are elected to the National Assembly.”
Additionally, the Nicaraguan ambassador to the U.S., Salvador Stadthagen, unsurprisingly observed that “[The accord] is a real testament to the leadership of President Bolaños and the spirit of reconciliation in Nicaragua. We have to congratulate and thank Nicaraguan civil society and the international community, particularly the United Nations, for their constructive role in getting us to this point.”
Nonetheless, the active participation of each of the political parties involved in the Accord will be crucial for resolving Nicaragua’s national crisis; for the time being, however, it seems that the measures to remove the president have temporarily abated. Neighboring El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, in addition to Catholic Church and UN delegations, will be paying close attention to what emerges from these sometimes acrimonious debates to ensure that the legal norms of the System of Central American Integration (SICA), an institutional framework designed to facilitate the eventual economic and political integration of Central America, are not violated.
“ Now that the dialogue is starting,” states Stadthagen, “it is absolutely critical for the world to continue watching…this is an ambitious agenda and we will need the world community’s support.” As for Bolaños, who is continuing his struggle with the National Assembly to uphold his democratic vision for Nicaragua, he will ultimately be tested by the political challenges he presently confronts.
This analysis was prepared by Adam Kleiman, COHA Research Associate.