MANAGUA, Nicaragua (AP) — Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega moved closer to indefinite re-election Tuesday after his allies in the National Assembly approved constitutional changes that opponents say are designed to keep the Sandinista leader in power for life.
The legislation eliminates presidential term limits and lowers the bar for re-election by naming the candidate with the most votes as the winner, eliminating the current requirement for the winner to garner at least 35 percent. Ortega is serving his third term under a supreme 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."
Sixty-three of the 92 deputies in the National Assembly belong to Ortega's party and the vote was 64-26 in favor 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 increase voters' power by eliminating artificial restrictions. Ortega's opponents say they are designed to create an indefinite presidency for Ortega, who was a leader of the 1970s Sandinista revolution against dictator Anastasio Somoza.
"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 legalization of an authoritarian model spearheaded by enthroning President Ortega forever with indefinite re-election," legal expert Alejandro Serrano Caldera said.
Ortega has managed to coopt 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 Western Hemisphere.
His government also has placed limits on opposition groups' ability to mount protests. Government sympathizers have used violence and intimidation against the protests that do take place.