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Ortega's Comeback Schemes Roil Nicaragua

By Mary Anastasia O'Grady | The Wall Street Journal

August 5, 2005 wall st jo | MANAGUA | Daily life took a holiday here Monday as the city feted its patron, Santo Domingo. Thousands lined the parade route, under a sweltering tropical sun, to view a diminutive image of the revered saint atop a huge, ornate flower arrangement shouldered through the streets by some 20 men.

Only death and politics refused a day off. Tragically, on the same day, President Enrique Bolaños and his family were receiving condolences at the wake of the president's son Jorge, who died suddenly last week of a brain aneurysm. Elsewhere the rest of the country's politicians were working overtime, maneuvering for a new presidential election scheduled for November 2006.

Nicaragua is in the midst of a constitutional crisis. Its frail democracy was born only 15 years ago of an election outcome that shocked the Cuban-sponsored Sandinista dictatorship of Daniel Ortega and brought Violeta Chamorro to power. But real democracy, with truly independent institutions, competitive markets and a secure rule of law, is yet to emerge. Now Ortega, who has made it no secret that he envies the one-man rule of Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, wants to strangle constitutional government in its crib.

If poverty reduction and commitment to democracy are more than slogans voiced at rich-nation summits, the international community ought to care. Ortega's rule after the Sandinista takeover in 1979 became a Cold War issue as the Soviet-backed Sandinistas sought to destabilize the rest of Central America. Those years destroyed this country's economy, leaving it far behind its neighbors. Investors are just now beginning to eye the place for its low labor costs, untapped human capital and unexplored business opportunities. Growth is picking up. Crime is low relative to the region and Nicaraguan democracy is showing signs of maturing past the oversimplified politics of Sandinismo versus contra-Sandinismo.

If Ortega is allowed to bully his way back to the executive office where he will seek to impose his caudillo-style "capitalism," much will be lost. As if to make the point, this week the Sandinistas in congress reiterated their opposition to the Central American Free Trade Agreement. Equally alarming is Ortega's hateful class warfare and his virulent anti-Americanism. If Nicaragua falls under his control, the Yankee-hating Latin axis that already joins Cuba and Venezuela will have extended its reach.

Much will depend on the effectiveness of an emerging and widening popular resistance movement that links Nicaraguans across the political spectrum and has pledged to take to the streets a la Ukraine's Orange Revolution to stop Ortega's effort to regain power.

For most of the last 15 years the Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC) has held the presidency but never fully dislodged the Sandinistas from their power base. Mrs. Chamorro was forced into a tacit understanding that granted the Sandinistas immunity from prosecution, control of the army and ownership of the many properties they had confiscated at gunpoint when they realized they would lose the 1990 election.

During the presidency of Arnoldo Alemán (1997-2002) the PLC became more corrupt and yielded even more ground to Ortega. The two dons crafted a pact in 2000 that gave Alemán a congressional seat with immunity from prosecution in exchange for changes to the electoral law that favored Ortega's effort to resume power. One of those changes was to lower the percentage of the presidential vote needed to avoid a runoff to 35% from 45%.

Pres. Bolaños succeeded Alemán but broke with the PLC machine and managed to strip Alemán of his congressional immunity. The former president was convicted of embezzlement in 2003 and is now serving a 20-year sentence under house arrest. But with the Supreme Court now evenly divided between Sandinistas and the PLC, Ortega holds the keys to Alemán's release, yet another source of political leverage.

In January, congressional Sandinistas teamed up with the PLC to pass constitutional changes to strip Mr. Bolaños of his executive powers. The president chose to ignore the Congress, so, in effect the country is now operating under two constitutions. Last week a Nicaraguan judge with links to the PLC released Alemán from house arrest, granting him limited parole. Several days later an appellate court with Sandinista connections reversed that decision. The case will now go to the Supreme Court. Many Nicaraguans believe that Ortega's price for Alemán's re-release is PLC cooperation in assuring an Ortega presidential victory.

With such powerful leverage, Ortega would seem to have what he needs to freeze out any political competition "legally." What remains unclear is whether this despised political elite can bear the grass-roots pressure against them. Polls indicate that Alemán and Ortega are Nicaragua's two most unpopular political figures. On June 16, an estimated 50,000 Managuans turned out to protest their "pact," or what one nongovernmental activist describes as the "two-headed dictatorship."

In a fair election, Ortega's worst nightmare is a popular challenger and former Sandinista mayor of Managua, Herty Lewites, who told me this week that Ortega wants nothing less than "total control" of power in Nicaragua. At a minimum, the ex-mayor could spoil Ortega's chances to capture the 35% he needs for a first-ballot success by allying left-of-center defectors from Ortega's extremist wing of the Sandinista movement. Ortega's minions are now seeking an indictment against Mr. Lewites for corruption.

A similar strategy is being used against one of the country's popular right-of-center candidates, Eduardo Montealgre, who threatens to siphon off much of the PLC's natural base, now fed up with Alemán corruption. Nicaraguans fear that the Sandinista-PLC coalition will try to disqualify such candidates on technical grounds or employ fraud on election day.

Some democrats here are relying heavily on the Organization of American States to force the country's institutions to hold a free and fair election. But judging by the OAS's failure in the Venezuelan recall referendum and in municipal elections here last year, that may be folly. A better strategy would be to rely on Nicaraguans themselves to finally secure a democracy that has been too long in the making.

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