A power struggle between Nicaragua's president and a congressional alliance of the country's two dominant political parties is destabilizing Nicaragua politically. Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega wants to oust President Enrique Bolanos from power and retake the presidency. Ortega is supported by Arnoldo Aleman, a member of Bolanos' own party. Should Ortega become president, Nicaragua would distance itself from the United States and seek closer alignment with Venezuela and Cuba.
A political power struggle is destabilizing Nicaragua, pitting President Enrique Bolanos against a congressional alliance that includes Bolanos' right-wing Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC) and the opposition Marxist Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). The alliance was formed in the first half of 2004 by the leaders of both parties — former Nicaraguan Presidents Daniel Ortega, of the FSLN, and Arnoldo Aleman, of the PLC. Ortega and Aleman are seeking to topple Bolanos from power and force early general elections — and are taking a two-pronged approach to achieve the goal. First, they are implementing congressional measures to systematically strip the president of his executive powers. Second, Sandinista activists are holding sporadic street protests, aiming to provoke deadly clashes with anti-riot police so that charges of repression and human rights abuses can be brought against Bolanos in Congress. This latter tactic is similar to what radical groups have done recently in Ecuador and Bolivia, whose presidents were forced out of power in April and June. Bolanos responded by saying he would resign and call early elections if the FSLN-PLC alliance agrees that elections will include members of a constitutional assembly mandated to reform the Nicaraguan Constitution. Such a move would threaten Ortega and Aleman's power bases by opening up the political arena to more moderate members of their parties. Thus, the two ex-presidents likely will push for even more street protests and increased congressional pressures to force Bolanos' resignation before his constitutional assembly idea can catch on. Ortega's goal is to be re-elected president of Nicaragua so that he can install a left-leaning socialist government similar to that of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Aleman's goal is to win a presidential pardon that will free him from a 20-year home-arrest sentence (on a conviction of stealing more than $100 million while he was president of Nicaragua from 1997 to 2001). The PLC's congressional members are following Aleman's lead because many also benefited economically from the corruption that characterized Aleman's presidency — if Aleman is pardoned, the chance that other PLC members will be prosecuted for corruption would lessen considerably. Aleman is selling out Nicaragua's governmental, judicial and electoral institutions in exchange for Ortega's promise to pardon him if elected president. Ortega was president for a decade in the 1980s, after the Sandinista revolution toppled Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle in 1979-1980. Ortega, who has never won a democratic election and has lost twice before as the FSLN's candidate, wants the general elections that are scheduled for November 2006 to take place a year early. Ortega's alliance with Aleman has split the FSLN internally. Rifts have erupted between hardcore Sandinistas led by Ortega and moderates led by Sandinistas such as former Managua Mayor Herty Lewites — recently expelled from the FSLN because he is challenging Ortega's presidential ambitions. These internal divisions likely will peel some Sandinista votes away from Ortega in the elections. Ortega, however, expects to pick up enough votes from Aleman's PLC camp to win the presidency. Should Ortega's political strategy succeed, Nicaragua's next government will shift sharply toward the left. Aleman probably will get his presidential pardon, but the PLC will likely become a weaker party. It also is likely that the alliance between the FSLN and PLC would not survive long in Congress once Ortega became president. Ortega and his hardcore Sandinista supporters maintain close ties with the governments of Cuba and Venezuela. Ortega also is close politically to Bolivian indigenous leader Evo Morales, who advocates establishing a radical socialist state in Bolivia. As president, Ortega would seek to align Managua politically with Caracas and Havana. He also would seek closer ties with Brazil and the Mercosur South American customs union. An Ortega government also would move Nicaragua away from the United States politically and economically, and seek closer ties with China. Ortega opposes Managua's participation in any trade agreement with Washington. Relations between Nicaragua and the United States on military and security-related issues also would be adversely affected by an Ortega presidency, especially because U.S. policymakers currently responsible for Latin America are the same ones who battled Ortega and the Sandinistas in the 1980s. They would see an Ortega government as a regional security threat, and would seek to isolate Nicaragua regionally. For his part, Ortega likely would seek to break ties between the U.S. military and the Sandinista-controlled army and national police — and realign Nicaragua militarily with Havana and Caracas. Relations between El Salvador and Nicaragua would cool quickly if Ortega were elected president. Many right-wing Salvadorans see Ortega as an enemy and a potential security threat to El Salvador if he becomes president of Nicaragua. Many Salvadoran companies have also invested significantly in Nicaragua during the past decade, and fear those investments will be at risk if Ortega becomes president and tries to move Nicaragua away from market-friendly policies. Because the FSLN-PLC controls both Congress and the judicial branch, Bolanos is in no position to impose demands for a constitutional assembly. General elections will be moved earlier, likely to first quarter 2006, but there probably will be no constitutional reform.