Despite Nicaragua's Constitution, Ortega headed for re-election

MANAGUA, Nicaragua — Nicaragua's Constitution bars re-election for politicians, but that's proved no obstacle to President Daniel Ortega, the Sandinista leader, who's widely expected to win another term in office in voting on Sunday.

Ortega beat that particular problem in 2009, when friendly appointees on the country's Supreme Court essentially declared the Constitution's ban on re-election unconstitutional.

Now the no-longer youthful leftist guerrilla, whose movement swept away a hated family dynasty in 1979 only to lose power at the ballot box in 1990, sits atop a growing family fortune and seems destined himself to become the founder of a dynasty as he steers his Central American nation through a modest economic boom.

Some of the country's economic improvement comes from Ortega's patron, President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, who pumps a half billion dollars a year into Sandinista coffers. The rest comes from high global prices for Nicaragua's main exports of coffee, sugar and gold, and two straight years of bumper harvests. Combined, the two sources of income have allowed Ortega to broaden programs that provide food, land titles and better housing to the poor.

Ortega seems to enjoy greater support than ever before.

"In our polling, we show that Daniel Ortega will win re-election without the need for a runoff," said Vania Soza, the project director for the CID Gallup polling firm in Managua.

With the country's Constitution no longer an issue, the bar for re-election is low. Ortega needs only to secure 40 percent of all votes, or 35 percent of the votes with a 5 percentage-point lead over any other candidate, to avoid a runoff and sit another five-year term. Ortega tallied 38 percent in the vote that returned him to office in 2007. Last week's CID Gallup poll gave him 48 percent, 18 percentage points above his nearest rival.

That rival is Fabio Gadea, a co-founder of a news radio station who heads the Independent Liberal Party Alliance, a broad, strange-bedfellows movement that includes both conservatives and former Sandinistas. While still vigorous, Gadea turns 80 next week.

With economic trends filling the sails of Ortega, who's but 65, his supporters say he's passing through a moment of peculiar good fortune.

"One can argue that the stars have aligned themselves to favor the government," said Arturo Cruz, an Oxford-trained historian who served as Ortega's ambassador to Washington from 2007 to 2009. Ortega, he said, "has never had the approval ratings of today."

Even foes speak with respect of how Ortega has co-opted some of the business sector. Unlike Chavez in Venezuela, Ortega hasn't sought to nationalize or destroy the capitalist class. He no longer provokes hives among businessmen.

Ortega's image today is that of "a very easygoing, soft-spoken personality, non-threatening to private enterprise," said Alvaro Somoza, a descendant of the Somoza dynasty, which ruled Nicaragua for five decades until Ortega's Sandinista movement cast it aside. "That's called reinventing yourself."

It was Ortega's ambition to entrench himself in power, with his wife, Rosario Murillo, as his image manager, that led him to install cronies in the Supreme Electoral Council and the Supreme Court and ignore the constitutional ban on re-election. In a feat of judicial cunning, Ortega got friendly court magistrates in October 2009 to rule that the ban violated his individual political rights.

Handsome rewards have befallen Ortega's defenders, chief among them Roberto Rivas, the head of the electoral council, a supposedly independent body.

"Rivas has a mansion in Managua, a mansion in San Jose (Costa Rica). He's got a private plane, which he uses all the time to fly between Costa Rica and Nicaragua and elsewhere. He's got all these fancy and expensive cars . . . all of this allegedly on a salary of $4,000 a month," said Robert J. Callahan, who left Nicaragua in July for retirement after serving three years as the U.S. ambassador.

Callahan said Rivas had helped Ortega carry off fraudulent ballot counting in 2008 municipal elections that allowed dozens of his followers to fill city halls.

"If everything else goes wrong, he can depend on Rivas to steal the election," Callahan said.

While the European Union and the Organization of American States will field observers for Sunday's balloting, the Ortega government has refused to accredit two domestic civic groups. The Atlanta-based Carter Center decided against sending an observer team, deeming the obstacles simply too great.

"There are widespread concerns about the potential for irregularities and for fraud in these elections," Maureen Meyer of the Washington Office on Latin America, a social justice and democracy advocacy group, wrote in an election preview.

Most of the focus isn't on cheating in the presidential race, but in the voting for the 92 seats of the National Assembly. The Sandinista Front currently holds 38 seats, the largest bloc in the assembly. It needs to win 56 seats for a super majority that would allow Ortega to change the Constitution, enshrining presidential re-election.

Even if electoral problems arise, they're unlikely to get much attention in Washington or European capitals, which are preoccupied with global economic instability, upheaval in the Arab world and withdrawal from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ortega remains loyal to Chavez, and is a steadfast political ally of Iran, Russia and Libya — before strongman ruler Moammar Gadhafi's recent ouster and demise. Hundreds of Russian-built buses cruise Managua's streets.

But global tensions no longer send tremors through this earthquake-prone nation as they did in the 1980s, when Nicaragua became a proxy battlefield between U.S.-backed Contra rebels and Soviet- and Cuba-backed Sandinista soldiers. Now Nicaraguans face internal problems largely on their own. Even steadfast Scandinavian donors have slashed or withdrawn assistance.

"We have great news. We are orphans of empire. ... That's the reality," said Cruz, who's a professor at the INCAE Business School, which has branches in Managua and in Alajuela, Costa Rica.


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