Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Misconceptions in Nicaragua’s Presidential Term Limit Debate

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The National Assembly of Nicaragua met last Wednesday to discuss a proposal from the ruling Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional party (Sandinista National Liberation Front—FSLN), which seeks to remove a constitutional article banning consecutive presidential terms.

The proposed amendment was submitted to the National Assembly on November 1 and will be voted on by the end of December. The reform would also eliminate the minimum simple majority needed to win a presidential election, according to The New York Times, though it remains unclear what percentage would be needed to secure a presidential victory in the future.

National Assembly Secretary Alba Palacios said that she and six other multi-partisan lawmakers would form a commission to examine the proposal and consult with union representatives, community leaders, law professors, members of the armed forces, businesses and several other groups from an array of social and economic backgrounds.

“It is the people of Nicaragua who should decide who the president will be and whether or not there should be re-election,” Palacios said in a statement last week. Once the commission collects data from the public regarding their thoughts on the proposal, the National Assembly will vote and decide. Palacios’ statement follows a perception that the measure is likely to pass the National Assembly—where FSLN representatives hold a large majority—regardless of public opinion.

Although the proposition’s impact, if approved by the National Assembly, would not come into play until Nicaragua’s presidential election in 2016, many foreign media outlets and conservative Nicaraguan newspapers have distorted coverage of the FSLN’s bid and have approached the story from a perspective of perceived political superiority.

Perhaps the biggest misconception associated with news coverage of the proposal is that the measure is an attempt by Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega to seize authoritarian power.

Many story headlines about the proposal—whether intentionally or unintentionally—isolate Ortega and portray him as the sole advocate of removing consecutive presidential term limits. In reality, Ortega enjoys widespread popularity from his party members and the Nicaraguan public. According to a recent CID Gallup Latin America poll conducted in September and October 2012, Nicaragua is the only country in Central America where a majority of citizens believe the country is heading in the right direction, jumping from 25 to 55 percent between 2007 and 2012 under the Ortega administration. Between May and September 2013, polling company Consulta Mitofsky found that 66 percent of Nicaraguans approved of Ortega’s job.

Several news organizations, including the Associated Press and Reuters, have been quick to emphasize Ortega’s overriding of Nicaragua’s constitutional single-term limit in 2010, which allowed him to run for reelection in 2011. Yet they barely mentioned the overwhelming support he received from both the Supreme Court and the public when making this decision. In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled in Ortega’s favor, allowing presidents to serve consecutive terms. The proposed amendment is seen as an attempt to ensure that the ruling is enacted into law.

In addition, stories that isolate Ortega from the FSLN’s efforts to remove presidential term limits provide s the impression that the president is attempting to place himself above his party, which proposed the measure itself.

Another distortion surrounding the proposal involves the assumption that congressional commissions, such as the group formed by Secretary Palacios that seeks to consult the public on political reforms, are dangerous to democracy—or at least to the brand of democracy that many North American and European citizens are accustomed to—because the public is likely to maintain its support of Ortega.

If approved, “the reform would set a dangerous precedent that could extend the time all elected officials can stay in power,” political analyst Danilo Aguirre Solis told the Associated Press, reinforcing normative Western views of democracy.

On the contrary, a close examination of the human rights violations which followed the 2009 coup that ousted President José Manuel Zelaya Rosales in neighboring Honduras after he attempted to enact a similar referendum illustrates the dangers of using coercive force to prevent democratically-elected officials from staying in power.

Many conservative journalists portrayed Zelaya as authoritarian for attempting to introduce a direct-democratic referendum to extend presidential terms, despite the overwhelming support his proposal received from numerous groups. Military officials illegally removed Zelaya from the presidency and oversaw the accession to power of a new administration that has ruled over a period of the country’s worst records in crime, economic inequality and journalistic repression.

The homogenization of definitions of democracy based on representative republicanism and neoliberal economics by many Western journalists exudes an impression of political superiority that many Nicaraguans, who have a different definition of the term, find hegemonic. In contrast, many FSLN supporters associate democracy with economic egalitarianism, a hallmark of the Ortega administration. To many in Nicaragua, economic equality isn’t just a component of democracy, it is the chief doctrine.

Overall, there are many distortions involved in the media coverage of the proposal to remove presidential term limits in Nicaragua that represent the one-sided view many Western political journalists have in examining democracy in Latin America. These distortions present a danger to many readers who consume political news at face value. 

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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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