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Re-election issue divides Nicaragua

20 October 09 13:44 GMT

By Nick Caistor
Managua

A huge iron statue looms over the Nicaraguan capital, Managua. It represents the figure of Augusto Sandino, the 1930s national hero who fought against what was seen as North American imperialism.

It was Sandino whom the rebels of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) took as their inspiration in the 1960s and 1970s in the fight against the dynastic rule of Anastasio Somoza.

Their revolt was successful. In 1979 they toppled the dictator, and set up a revolutionary Sandinista government, led by Daniel Ortega.

After a bitter civil war against the Washington-financed Contra rebels, the FSLN lost power at the ballot box in 1989.

It was not until 2006 that they returned to government, when Mr Ortega won a second five-year term as president.

President Ortega says that he is continuing the 1980s revolution. All over the capital in recent months, banners have been proclaiming that this is the triumphant 30th anniversary of the Sandinistas.

But his critics, many of them former colleagues from his first government, see things very differently.

"This is a dictatorship," says Ernesto Cardenal. He was the priest whom Pope John Paul II publicly rebuked for being a minister in the 1980s Sandinista government.

Father Cardenal will not say any more, as he says he faces the threat of imprisonment. But the vice-president during the first Sandinista government from 1979-1989, Sergio Ramirez, is ready to voice further criticism.

"Ortega and his followers don't believe in democracy. They see it as something that is not necessary. What they want is to stay in power at all costs, even that of destroying democracy," he said.

'Blurring lines'

President Ortega's critics point to the November 2008 local and mayoral elections, when allegations of fraud were so widespread that they led to the freezing of aid from both the United States and the European Union.

They also say that Mr Ortega has been blurring the lines between his Sandinista party and the state.

But what most disturbs the president's opponents are his attempts to secure another five-year term in office when his current period ends in 2011.

On 19 October, Nicaragua's Supreme Court removed constitutional obstacles to him standing again as candidate. The move was approved by the Supreme Electoral Council.

However, critics such as Carlos Chamorro, a journalist who in the 1980s was editor of the Sandinista newspaper Barricada, but is now a fierce opponent of Mr Ortega, see this as a dangerous move.

"What's wrong about allowing re-election? It's because it has been a big problem in Nicaraguan history. We had 45 years of Somoza's dictatorship, and it became a dynastic dictatorship because Somoza wanted to stay in power all the time. We fear the same is happening with Ortega."

The president, however, still enjoys solid support among the poorer parts of Nicaraguan society, in the countryside and in the cities.

Karina Gomez, an 18-year-old who helps to provide health services to the many workers in the informal sector, sees Mr Ortega as the person to lead the Sandinista movement and implement reforms.

"We've been making great progress against capitalism thanks to Daniel Ortega. He knows very well what our problems are and is looking for solutions, whether it's on health matters, the economy, or the country's infrastructure," she says.

For young people like Karina, Sandinismo represents the best hope for real change in their lives. And for her, Daniel Ortega is the man to lead those efforts.

"Ortega is the great leader of the FSLN. He will stay as long as he wants, because he is watching out for all of us," she says.

What most worries local observers is what could happen if President Ortega polarises the country between those like Karina Gomez who support him and those who disagree with his policies and alliances.

Juanita Bermudez, of the Autonomous Movement of Nicaraguan Women - a group which has suffered government harassment because of its support for legalising abortions - fears a dangerous divide.

"People in Nicaragua are very unhappy. There were many violent struggles in the past, and people on both sides gave up their weapons for peace and progress. If they feel that nothing has come of that, there could easily be a return to violence," she said.

The situation in neighbouring Honduras, where President Manuel Zelaya was ousted after he proposed looking at changing the constitution - proposals deemed illegal by the Supreme Court and Congress - has highlighted the fragility of constitutional rule in Central America, says Ms Bermudez.

The move by the Supreme Court to permit re-election seems likely to increase tension, raising fears that the political chaos of Honduras could be repeated in Nicaragua.

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