Dexter Boniface

Constitutional Coup in Nicaragua

In Democratic Crisis, Inter-American Relations, Nicaragua, Organization of American States, United States Government on October 27, 2009 at 10:02 pm

On Monday, October 19th, 2009, the constitutional commission of the Nicaraguan Supreme Court overturned the constitutional article (No. 147) that prohibits presidents (and mayors) from seeking re-election and serving more than two terms. The decision paves the way for left-leaning President Daniel Ortega to seek re-election in 2011. However, critics allege that the decision was not legal and is thus tantamount to a “constitutional coup”.  The ruling is just one of several worrisome developments that  (further) call into question Nicaragua’s democratic credentials.


Ortega, a leader and former president (1984-1990) during the Sandinista Revolution (1979-1990) was re-elected to the presidency in 2006. His re-election was preceded by years of corrupt and Machiavellian deal-making between Nicaragua’s two largest political parties, the Liberals and Ortega’s Sandinistas (including a deal that enabled Ortega to win the presidency in the first round of voting with less than 40% of the vote). Since taking power, moreover, Ortega has been heavily criticized for his authoritarian tendencies. Municipal elections on November 9, 2008 (a major victory for the Sandinistas) were accompanied by widespread accusations of fraud–leading the United States and European countries  to suspend aid to the impoverished country. Furthermore Sandinista supporters have routinely attacked peaceful anti-government demonstrations in the country.

A Constitutional Coup?

Ortega’s critics have questioned the legality of the Supreme Court’s recent decision–and rightfully so. According to Nicaraguan law, the Constitution can only be amended by the legislature. Lacking the legislative support needed to amend the constitution, Ortega turned instead to the country’s heavily politicized courts.

The Supreme Court was evenly divided between Sandinista and Liberal appointees but the death of a Liberal Party justice tipped the balance in favor of the Sandinistas. In fact, only Sandinista appointees were present during the controversial constitutional vote and the president of the Supreme Court (a Liberal Party appointee), refused to recognize the decision. However, Liberal Party judges lack the votes to overturn the decision.

The Court’s decision has generated international criticism (including strong rebuke from the United States) and driven Nicaraguan opposition groups to mount daring and often humorous underground protests–in one, toilets were placed on the sidewalk of the Supreme Electoral Council with copies of the Constitution as toilet paper. For their part, pro-Sandinista mobs threatened the U.S. Ambassador Robert Callahan and vandalized the U.S. Embassy.

Adding to the controversy, in 2010, Ortega issued a pair of controversial decrees extending the terms of 25 magistrates and judges, including two Sandinista loyalists on the Supreme Court. When the President of the Supreme Court, Manuel Martíne, ordered the justices to surrender their gavels, armed Sandinista supporters stormed the court building and cheered the defiant judges as they reclaimed their seats on the bench. When Congressional opposition members subsequently met to discuss repealing the controversial decree, they too were attacked, leaving three lawmakers injured:

The OAS Should Act Now

My take: the recent breakdown of democracy in Nicaragua demands a response from the Organization of American States (OAS). Indeed, during the Honduran crisis (see blogpost), the OAS was accused of applying a double standard by defending besieged left-wing presidents but ignoring the threats to democracy posed by power-hungry (left-wing) populists. Taking a strong stand against Ortega’s blatant power-grab would demonstrate that the organization applies a consistent standard in its defense of democracy. Article 20 of the organization’s Democratic Charter stipulates that, “In the event of an unconstitutional alteration of the constitutional regime that seriously impairs the democratic order in a member state, any member state or the Secretary General may request the immediate convocation of the Permanent Council to undertake a collective assessment of the situation and to take such decisions as it deems appropriate.” The OAS should act now.

Further Reading

Carter Center, “Friends of The Inter-American Democratic Charter Issue Statement on Crisis in Nicaragua,” April 22, 2010.

Corrales, Javier, “Nicaragua: Déjà Coup All Over Again?Huffington Post, November 3, 2009.

Diehl, Jackson, “Leftist thugocracy in Nicaragua: Will Washington notice?Washington Post, April 21, 2010.

Economist, “Daniel Ortega’s Nicaragua: The show goes on (More blows against democracy),” April 29th 2010.

______, “How to steal an election,” Nov. 13th, 2008.

“For contras, a reprise of bitter discontent,” Miami Herald, November 20, 2009. Ex-contras re-organize?

Freedom House, “Country Report: Nicaragua,” Freedom in the World, 2010.

______, “Country Report: Nicaragua,” Freedom in the World, 2009.

Johnson, Tim, “Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega lays groundwork to stay in power,” Miami Herald, August 17, 2010.

Miami Herald, “Another president for life?” August 17, 2010.

Oppenheimer, Andres, “Nicaragua headed for one-man rule–again,” Miami Herald, March 17, 2011.

Rogers, Tim, Sandinistas demand removal of OAS ambassador to Nicaragua,” Daily News (Costa Rica), Sept. 14, 2010.

______, “Could Honduras crisis prompt a power grab in Nicaragua?” Christian Science Monitor, February 9, 2010.

______, “Ortega targeting his ex-comrades,” Miami Herald, Oct. 6th, 2008.

Sabatini, Christopher, “Here We Go Again: Nicaragua-Honduras-Re-Election,” Americas Quarterly, November 6, 2009.

News from Nicaragua:
1 Year After Municipal Elections:

Nicaragua’s Democracy Still Unraveling

By Tim Rogers
Nica Times Staff |

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