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The New Sandinista Autocracy

7:05 AM, Nov 20, 2013 • By JAIME DAREMBLUM
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A few months later, Nicaraguans were reminded of Ortega’s sinister pact with Arnoldo Alemán. After leaving office in 2002, the former president had been sentenced to 20 years in prison for money laundering, but in January 2009 the Ortega-allied supreme court abruptly cleared Alemán of all charges and allowed him to walk free. “Alemán returned the favor,” noted journalist Tim Rogers, “by essentially forgiving the Sandinistas last November’s electoral theft by providing the congressional votes needed to give Ortega control over the National Assembly, which had been considered the ‘last democratic holdout.’”

By March of 2009, the New York Times Magazine was lamenting that Ortega had “abused the powers of his office to win near-total dominance of Nicaragua.” The worst was yet to come. In October of that same year, Sandinista justices on the supreme court ruled that Ortega could seek reelection in 2011, even though the Nicaraguan constitution clearly bars presidents from serving consecutive terms in office and also bars them from serving more than two terms total. Ortega had served his first term in the 1980s, and his second term had begun in 2007, so it was plainly illegal for him to pursue reelection. Yet the Sandinista-controlled supreme court gave him a green light anyway.

Nicaragua’s 2011 national elections, in which Ortega won another term as president, were marked by widespread Sandinista abuses: The European Union’s Election Observation Mission said they “constituted a deterioration in the democratic quality of Nicaraguan electoral processes.” A year later, the Sandinistas again used fraud and intimidation to sway the outcome of local elections. The U.S. State Department cited a number of “irregularities,” such as “citizens being denied the right to vote, a failure to respect the secrecy of citizens’ votes, and reported cases of voters being allowed to vote multiple times.”

Now Ortega is attempting yet another naked power grab. On October 31, his party proposed a series of constitutional amendments that would, among other things, (1) permanently abolish presidential term limits, (2) reduce the 35 percent vote-share threshold in presidential elections to just 5 percent, (3) dramatically expand Ortega’s ability to govern by executive decree, (4) let him place active military officers in the government, and (5) reverse constitutional reforms enacted in 1995. As Nicaraguan journalist Carlos Chamorro—the youngest son of Violeta Chamorro, and a former Sandinista revolutionary—told the Economist: “These reforms are aimed at legalizing everything that until now [Ortega] has done illegally.” With the Sandinistas controlling more than two-thirds of all seats in the unicameral national assembly, the reforms are likely to pass.

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