Nicaragua Strongmen's Pact Under Strain

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(L-R) Henny Ray Abrams / AFP / Getty; Spencer Platt / Getty

Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Arnoldo Aleman (L); Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega (R)

A decade after opening to harsh reviews in Managua, "El Pacto" — the tragicomedy that has defined Nicaraguan politics and disappointed audiences since 1999 — finally appears to be approaching its denouement. But, following a recent plot twist that saw one of Nicaragua's most notorious crooks freed from prison, many fear the worst act of this Nicaraguan novela is being saved for last.

"El Pacto" refers to the power-sharing agreement between Arnoldo Aleman and Daniel Ortega, rival political bosses ostensibly from opposite ends of the political spectrum, that has allocated government institutions as partisan booty and manipulated Nicaragua's weak democracy. For example, the pacto changed the electoral law to allow Sandinista leader Ortega to return to the presidency in 2006 with only 38% of the vote, then helped him to consolidate his power by eliminating third-party opposition and cracking down on political enemies using politically appointed judges.

Although the pact was forged between the two strongmen as equal partners in 1999, subsequent events — most importantly, Aleman's corruption trial and conviction in 2003 — relegated the so-called "fat man" to de facto junior-partner status. With Ortega well entrenched in the presidency and Aleman quite literally put out to pasture under house arrest at his sprawling hacienda estate, it had lately begun to appear that the Sandinista leader had, in fact, outwitted his partner, and that their pact was becoming irrelevant.

Aleman's increasingly frustrated Liberal Constitutional Party began to rebel against El Pacto's status quo at the end of 2008, by protesting the Sandinistas' alleged theft of the Nov. 9 municipal elections. Aleman supporters staged street protests against the Ortega government and paralyzed the National Assembly to prevent passage of several of the President's bills.

Repairs to the fraying pact began on Jan. 16, when the Supreme Court absolved former President Aleman of all crimes, wiping out his 20-year sentence for money laundering. In exchange for his freedom, Aleman returned the favor by essentially forgiving the Sandinistas last November's electoral theft by providing the congressional votes needed to give Ortega control over the National Assembly, which had been considered the "last democratic holdout."

By the end of the day, Aleman was free, Ortega was in control of all four branches of government, and El Pacto was retored. For their next act, the duo plan to rewrit eNicaragua's bruised Constitution to create a hybrid semi-parliamentary system headed by President Ortega and Prime Minister Aleman. "This is the final act of the pacto," said former Attorney General Alberto Novoa, whose efforts to put Aleman behind bars for corruption were foiled by El Pacto.

Analysts say the proposed semi-parliamentary model, for which Ortega and his minions have been lobbying in recent months, would suite both men's leadership style. President Ortega, who's as nocturnal as an opossum but less charismatic, would no longer have to feel guilty about not getting out of bed in the morning to administer the country's daily affairs. Ortega's main interest in the presidency has always been the international stage, where he feels he still has enough credibility to inhabit the part of erstwhile revolutionary icon. Aleman, meanwhile, has no international credibility and limited travel possibilities due to ongoing international corruption investigations and a revoked U.S. travel visa. But he loves to micromanage the day's events.

By sharing the duties of governance, Ortega could travel to South Ossetia to rail against U.S. capitalism, while Aleman stays back at home to tend to the state farm — an arrangement comfortable for both men. (See pictures of the Russians in Ossetia.)

For most Nicaraguans, however, the possibility of an Ortega-Aleman tag-team rule would be the worst of both worlds — a "bipartisan dictatorship" run by two of the least popular figures from the country's history. "This is a reproduction of a corrupt model based on cronyism and privileges that will forever impede the economic, political and social development of Nicaragua," said the civil society group, Citizens' Union for Democracy.

Aleman, however, already appears to be testing the limits of his newfound freedom. He now says he won't support Ortega's constitutional reforms, and instead will consider running for President in 2011 — which wasn't part of the deal. The Ortega government quickly responded by threatening Aleman with new corruption charges in the event he tugs too hard on his leash.

"Aleman is still Ortega's prisoner," said opposition lawmaker Victor Hugo Tinoco, of the recently banned Sandinista Renovation Movement — a minority party that fell victim to El Pacto's guillotine last year. "Aleman has to support the constitutional reforms. Corruption is the only way he can maintain political power."

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