Nicaragua presidential election rules changes–again

The ruling Sandinista party of Nicaragua is seeking to lift the current restrictions on presidential reelection, and to return to election of the president by plurality.

This was utterly predictable. Daniel Ortega has become the new strongman of Nicaragua, and has been president off-and-on since the revolution of 1979. He is 67, giving him plenty of years left, assuming continued good health. Did anyone think he would contemplate voluntary retirement?

The rules have been changed before. Ortega remains in office now thanks to a favorable court ruling that allowed him to run for reelection in 2011. His return to office in 2007, following a hiatus of several years, was facilitated by a change in the rules to a variant of qualified plurality: winning  a plurality of just 40% of the vote would suffice, but so would as little as 35% if the runner-up was at least five percentage points behind. (For the 1996 and 2001 elections, the requirement was 45%, as part of an earlier pact between the Sandinistas and the opposition.)

In the 1990-2006 period, Ortega averaged 39.9% of the vote in presidential elections. In 2011, he managed 62.5%, his highest since 1984. He must be worried that he will regress to his mean.

If the current proposal passes, it will return Nicaragua to the provisions that prevailed in the original 1987 constitution enacted in the early post-revolutionary period when the Sandinista Front was still dominant: plurality election, and unlimited eligibility for reelection.

Barring an unexpected internal split, the caudillo will get what he wants. Sandinistas won more than two thirds of the seats in the unicameral legislative assembly in 2011.

6 thoughts on “Nicaragua presidential election rules changes–again

  1. On the one hand, I don’t like term limits. If a legitimate majority wants to return the same guy over and over again, why shouldn’t they be able to. On the other hand, I don’t like plurality elections. On the gripping hand, if a united opposition candidate can get some support behind him, he may have a chance.

  2. I think this is another example of why changing constitutions should take more (or work differently) than a supermajority in parliament. My current preferred option is requiring amendments to be proposed by an elected convention, subject to approval in a referendum, but even just the latter part (referendum) would be a large improvement on 2/3 majority in the legislature.

    • @JD, Preventing a super majority, which can be elected with far from a majority of votes in many places, from changing a constitution willy nilly is probably a good idea. But at the other end, making it too hard to change a constitution can lead to problems. Personally I would be quite happy with a super-majority and a majority at a referendum held alongside a general and/or presidential election (whichever would get the highest turnout) approving an amendment to give it force.

  3. I think there is a case for a referendum supermajority to amend (1) founding provisions (2) rights (3) the amending procedure itself. By founding provisions I mean the sort of broad statements of principle that appear in contemporary constitutions. Chapter 1 of the South African constitution is a good example.

    The Swiss/Australian double majority would be a good alternative to a referendum supermajority.

    • Nicaragua doesn’t have a federal system, so I have no idea how they might arrange a double majority.

  4. The Sandinistas get creepier all the time:

    “These constitutional reforms will institutionalize a model of government that has been applied in his country, in the context of a democracy that’s taking a new turn…we can call it an ‘evolving constitutionalism’ that tries to establish mechanisms for a direct democracy…a political model inspired by the values of Christianity, the ideals of socialism and the practices of solidarity,” reads the introduction to the Sandinistas’ proposed constitutional reforms, echoing the jargon of Nicaragua’s puissant first lady, Rosario Murillo.


    Key amendments will give the president additional powers to govern by fiat, empower the military’s role in government by allowing active officers to hold civilian posts, eliminate the already-disregarded constitutional ban on presidential reelection, and give Sandinista party structures (Family Councils) a legal mandate to meddle in the private lives of Nicaraguans

    Source: Nicaragua Dispatch.

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