Nicaragua's Ortega pledges moderation in 3rd term

AP News
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Posted: Jan 09, 2012 11:01 AM
Nicaragua's Ortega pledges moderation in 3rd term

Once seen as a socialist crusader, Daniel Ortega is promising to start his third term as Nicaragua's president Tuesday with a "profile of moderation," despite the large majority his Sandinista Party won in the legislature and critics' fears that he aims to become president for life.

Ortega, 66, jumped a constitutional ban on presidential re-election with help from a Supreme Court filled with his supporters and won November elections with 64 percent of the vote, building his popularity in his previous term with pork-barrel populism and support for the free-market economy he once opposed.

Critics say he will take the margin as a mandate to solidify his power and capture the few governmental institutions that remain independent of the Sandinistas.

But the former revolutionary, who fought U.S.-backed Contra rebels in the 1980s, has pledged "not to use the National Assembly to change the country's course" and promised "peace, stability and tranquility."

Even his detractors agree he will start any changes slowly.

"His greatest challenge is to shake off the domestic and foreign criticism of his illegal and unconstitutional re-election," said Edmundo Jarquin, the unsuccessful vice-presidential candidate for the Independent Liberal Party,

Jarquin believes once that criticism dies down, Ortega will try to "perpetuate himself in power."

Ortega allies Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, two major antagonists of the United States, will attend the ceremony, among other leaders.

Unlike them, Ortega has worked to maintain ties with Washington while befriending its foes. He signed the Central American Free Trade Agreement with the U.S. and has cultivated Nicaragua's business sector while boosting his popularity by creating dozens of programs for the poor in a country of 5.8 million people, more than 40 percent of whom live on less than $2 a day.

Ortega's domestic strategy has moved toward a religious-tinged populism rather than the socialist revolutionary policies he espoused when he came to power in 1979 as the rebel leader of the Sandinista National Liberation Front, overthrowing dictator Anastasio Somoza. He was first elected president in 1984, then lost elections in 1990, 1996 and 2001 before winning in 2006.

Edwin Castro, the Sandinistas' legislative leader, said his party "has no plans at this moment to change the constitution."

Still, doubts persist in a country where the Sandinistas have packed courts with loyal political appointees, including the Supreme Court justices who approved Ortega's third presidential bid despite a clear constitutional ban on immediate re-election, or serving three terms.

Some of Ortega's traditional foes share responsibility for his political influence over courts, the election board and other agencies. They had engineered a power-sharing pact to prevent either side from gaining total power and to shut out other rivals, but the deal has now collapsed in the Sandinistas' favor.

Though few dispute Ortega's wide victory in November, local and international groups complained it was still marred by voting irregularities and lack of transparency. A team from the European Union said the vote was directed "by electoral authorities that were not completely independent nor impartial."

The Sandinistas also won 62 seats in the unicameral congress, compared to 26 by Independent Liberal Party and two by the Liberal Constitutionalist Party. The majority would allow the ruling party to push through some constitutional changes on its own.

Carlos Tunnermann, the former Nicaraguan ambassador to Washington, said Ortega could use his congressional majority to make indefinite re-election constitutional, he could make his Sandinista-based local Citizens' Power Councils a formal part of the government, complicating rule by any post-Sandinista government.

The councils already have some official role. In some cases, people need to get the councils' approval to obtain government jobs or aid, though Castro said they are purely consultative bodies whose actions fall within pre-existing laws.

The councils grew out of the Cuban-inspired Revolutionary Defense Councils the Sandinistas' set up following the 1979 revolution that were criticized for smothering opposing viewpoints and acting as spies and shock troops for the government, though Castro said the bodies .

Ortega's chief opponent, former Independent Liberal candidate Fabio Gadea, still refuses to recognize Ortega's victory. But he says that if the Sandinista leader wants to at least appear democratic, he must "make substantial changes in the judiciary, electoral agencies and the comptroller's office, to give them sort of credibility."

Those branches of government are essentially controlled by the Sandinistas.

Others just want to see concrete results.

Julian Vilchez Baltodano is one the of the thousands of Managua residents who eke out a living selling bottled water and washing windshields at stoplights in the capital alongside his wife and two young sons.

"I hope he gives us jobs, gets us out of the street and gives us housing, so we don't have to pay rent and can spend that money on food," Vilchez Baltodano said.

Venezuela's Chavez has given the Ortega government more than $600 million a year in donations and discounted oil to help. Economist Adolfo Acevedo noted that prices are rising for Nicaragua's exports, including coffee, sugar and gold. With Venezuela's largesse, Ortega has "a lot more money than previous governments have had."