Changes to Nicaragua constitution boost Daniel Ortega's grip on power
Opposition warns that move legalises authoritarian model of government
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega is closer to indefinite re-election, with allies in the national assembly approving constitutional changes that opponents say are designed to keep the Sandinista leader in power for life.
The legislation removes limits on multiple presidential terms and lowers the bar for re-election by naming the candidate with the most votes as the winner, eliminating the requirement for the winner to gather at least 35 per cent of the vote. Ortega is serving his third term under a court decision that overrode the constitutional ban.
"With these reforms we are continuing to deepen democracy, in which the people express their will directly," Sandinista congressman Edwin Castro said.
"Diverse sectors of society have been consulted and the opposition has had a chance to speak out against the reforms, but that's democracy. He who has the majority has the power, and in this case it's the Sandinista Front."
In all, 63 of the 92 deputies in the assembly belong to Ortega's party and the vote was 64-26 in favour of the constitutional changes. Opposition legislators walked out before the vote.
The changes must be voted on a second time next year to become law.
The Sandinista government has said the reforms would increase voters' power by eliminating artificial restrictions.
Ortega's opponents say they have been designed for the sole purpose of creating an indefinite presidency for Ortega, who was a leader of the Sandinista revolution against dictator Anastasio Somoza in the 1970s.
"Our history has shown that constitutional reforms to perpetuate power have brought fratricidal confrontation and armed conflict," said Eduardo Montealegre, leader of opposition members of congress.
The changes also give many presidential declarations the automatic force of law and allow serving military officers to hold public office.
"What we're seeing is the legalisation of an authoritarian model spearheaded by enthroning President Ortega forever with indefinite re-election," legal expert Alejandro Serrano Caldera said.
Ortega has managed to co-opt many of the traditional bases of opposition to his party's rule, including the Catholic Church and private business. He has worked to increase private investment in the country, which has the second-highest rate of poverty in the region.
His government has also placed limits on opposition groups' ability to mount protests. Government sympathisers have used violence against the protests that have taken place.