Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Presidential Term Limits: Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega Seeking Constitutional Changes

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Whether term limits are essential for democracy is a matter of opinion. Whether certain Latin American politicians are pushing that debate front and center is not a matter of debate.


Recent constitutional assemblies in Ecuador and Bolivia have limited presidential re-election to two terms. In Venezuela, voters cast ballots in a February 15 referendum promoted by President Hugo Chávez to allow unlimited re-election for all elected offices (it was approved), and in Colombia, President Álvaro Uribe continues to keep people guessing as to whether he’ll seek constitutional changes to allow a potential third term.


The latest to follow suit is Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, who announced in February his intentions for constitutional reform. Nefarious motives have been attributed by publications such as The Economist, which interpreted the move as a power grab between Ortega and his partner in crime, former President Arnoldo Alemán.


Those who prefer to mix their telenovelas with their politics are no doubt rapt by these current events. Alemán, under the watch of his successor, former President Enrique Bolaños, was convicted to a 20-year prison sentence for embezzling more than $100 million. Transparency International named him one of the 10 most corrupt leader ever, and back in 2005, after forging “the pact,” Alemán and Ortega worked a “slow motion coup” to unseat then-president Bolaños. That “slow motion coup” ended in 2006, when Ortega was elected with 35.6 percent of the vote. Under Ortega, the Sandinista-controlled Supreme Court quashed the 20-year sentence for embezzlement against Alemán.


And the soap opera does not end there. The latest in this lamentable string of events is a rumor that Ortega suffers from a skin disease that prevents him from venturing out in the light of day. He has denied this vampire theory. (But notably his image does appear when photographed.)


Is it justified to group Ortega’s potential constitutional reform (clearly part of a larger pattern of other brazen and clearly corrupt power grabs) with the efforts of other executives in the region?


In its newly released issue, Americas Quarterly asked experts Patricio Navia and Steven Griner to address the broader issue at play here: Should executives be allowed to run for indefinite re-election? The conclusion was anything but foregone.


According to Navia, term limits may work against the democratic consolidation they purport to advance:

“Without the possibility of re-election, representatives lack the incentive to serve those who voted them in. The prospect of re-election implies that representatives can be “fired” by constituents who feel they have not been served well. Efforts to introduce term limits were initially framed as promoting responsiveness. But it turns out that they do not have a significant effect in limiting political careers: officeholders who are term-limited simply switch to other elected positions to continue their careers.”


Griner points to Brazil’s thriving democracy as proof of term limits’ democratic credentials. He invokes former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori—a man who changed the constitution and extended his rule in the midst of an unrivaled show of executive abuse—as a caution against the absence of term limits.


While many AQ readers will find intellectual interest in these arguments, Nicaraguans will read them with a greater immediacy. Reforming the country’s constitution requires passage in two legislative sessions by two-thirds of the members of Nicaragua’s unicameral National Assembly. The Sandinistas, led by Ortega, and the Liberals, led by Alemán, can deliver that number.


But even if the constitutional reforms are secured, indefinite re-election may be moot. Before the economic crisis, Ortega’s popularity was at a new low. In its wake, a CID-Gallup poll released in late Decembers—just weeks before Ortega celebrated two years in office (January 10, 2009)—showed a 22 percent approval. So voters may very well be looking for a new leader when they go to the polls in 2012, opening up the possibility that if Ortega succeeds in amending the constitution he may be allowing his successor to stay indefinitely.


Read the entirety of Navia’s argument: “Executives Should Be Allowed to Run for Re-election Indefinitely”

Read the entirety of Griner’s argument: “Term limits can check corruption and promote political accountability”


Tags: Elections, Nicaragua, Ortega
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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
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