MANAGUA, Nicaragua — The constitution bars Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega from seeking re-election next year, but that's not stopping the onetime leftist revolutionary.
Billboards and murals are going up across Nicaragua announcing "Daniel — 2011," making it plain that Ortega intends to stay at the helm.
Now 64, Ortega still has some of the panache of his guerrilla days three decades ago, when the Sandinista National Liberation Front swept away the Somoza family dictatorship, which had ruled Nicaragua for four decades. Now, however, Ortega is laying the groundwork to rule Nicaragua for a long time himself in apparent defiance of the constitution.
With some arm-twisting, Ortega gained a faint judicial green light to seek re-election. Last October, he won a ruling from a Supreme Court stacked with his supporters that Article 147 of the constitution, which bans the re-election of a sitting president, doesn't apply to him.
"This is the only country in the world where the court has declared the constitution unconstitutional. . . . It's a legal subterfuge," said Vilma Nunez, the head of the Nicaraguan Center for the Defense of Human Rights, which at one time was sympathetic to the Sandinista front.
Ortega also has made it clear that he's willing to shut down the National Assembly if it doesn't comply with his wishes.
He's showed little inclination to ensure that next year's elections are free and fair. A key aide rejected letting international election observers monitor the vote.
Former Sandinistas who've turned against Ortega say they detect in him the same authoritarianism that led them as young idealists to take up arms against the despised Somozas.
Carlos Fernando Chamorro, a journalist who once edited the Sandinistas' Barricada newspaper, said that Ortega "aspires to indefinite continuance in power. Many people say that he repeats the Somoza syndrome: He considers himself indispensable."
A slight paunch, a receding hairline and a bigger bank account distinguish Ortega from his days as a leader of the Sandinista front, which battled the U.S.-backed Contras and ruled from 1979 to 1990.
Otherwise, his penchant for supporting radicals around the globe and enrapturing his supporters with fiery speeches remains intact. He embraces Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez and Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. As a sop to Moscow in 2008, he recognized the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia after Russia's five-day war with Georgia.
Ortega's links to Chavez have been strong — and lucrative — and they include a sweetheart deal in which Venezuela sells Nicaragua crude oil at half price, which Ortega can resell, using the profit for whatever he wants. The deal began when Ortega was elected in 2006 after defeats in 1996 and 2001.
Ortega wheels around Managua in a Mercedes-Benz sport utility vehicle, and his offspring are known to enjoy luxury cars.
"His sons have already savored the money. Many of them drive Range Rovers, Mercedes and BMWs in Costa Rica. They like what the oligarchs have. Ortega is starting to enjoy it, too," said Eduardo Montealegre, a center-right politician who lost the 2006 presidential vote to Ortega and plans to challenge him again in 2011.
Curiously, Ortega doesn't rule from a government building. He presides from his one-story home in a walled compound along Managua's Parque el Carmen.
"The presidency, the headquarters of the front and his private home are all there. It is a trio: family, state and party," said Moises Hassan, a physicist who once belonged to the front's ruling revolutionary junta in the early 1980s.
The front exists today less as a political party than as a political vehicle for Ortega. Most of the nine "comandantes" who formed the party's national directorate left it years ago. Most decried Ortega's politics of expediency, which led to Nicaragua's banning of abortion to win favor from the Roman Catholic Church and an agreement to divvy up key judicial and electoral tribunal posts with former President Arnoldo Aleman, a political rival, at the expense of all other parties.
In addition to his pact with Aleman, Ortega relies for political support on his wife, poet Rosario Murillo, a number of children and stepchildren and a handful of aides.
He's shut off contact with the news media except for outlets run by the government. Presidential press office numbers are unlisted. Murillo didn't respond to an e-mail sent to her personal account. Members of the Ortega Cabinet rarely speak in public.
"It's the first time where we have a government where you say, 'Who's the minister of health? Who's the minister of education?' and no one knows," said Sergio Ramirez, a writer who was the vice president under Ortega in the late 1980s but later helped form a rival center-left party.
Business leaders say they're convinced that Ortega is unlikely to confiscate property or implement policies, as he did in the 1980s, that trigger hyperinflation.
"One of the things that President Ortega learned from his first period is not to let the economy fall apart," said Jose Adan Aguerri, the head of Nicaragua's largest business group, the Superior Council of Private Enterprise, or COSEP in its Spanish initials.
Ortega has kept Nicaragua in the good graces of the International Monetary Fund, and he's cooperated with Washington on anti-narcotics and immigration matters, lashing out at U.S. imperialism only to rally domestic support.
Still, business leaders are wary. At a meeting May 26 with COSEP, Ortega hinted that he might dissolve the 92-seat National Assembly and replace it with a council of workers, students, business owners and ranchers similar to the committee that helped rule after the 1979 ouster of the Somoza dictatorship.
"We could bring that back. If you tell me to bring it back, I'll do it. If COSEP backs me, I'll bring it back. I'll immediately dissolve the National Assembly and we'll occupy it and we'll do the choosing. The choice is yours," Ortega said in a somewhat jocular tone.
"Nobody said, 'Mr. President, this is not a joking matter.' No one said anything. They just laughed," Hassan said.
In early January, Ortega made another move that critics decried, decreeing that 25 government officials, including two allies on the Supreme Court, could keep their jobs even though their constitutional terms had expired.
Opinion polls gauge Ortega's public support at 35 to 38 percent, which would seem slim except that the political opposition is deeply divided.
"We are happy that our adversaries are constantly fighting among themselves while we build houses and schools," said Bayardo Arce, Ortega's chief economic adviser and a veteran Sandinista front leader whose subordinates still refer to him as "comandante."
In an interview, Arce said Ortega would seek the 56 votes needed in the National Assembly to change the constitution by Dec. 31 and give broader legitimacy to the president's quest for re-election next year.
No way would the government agree to election monitors, however.
"We aren't exhibitionists so that they can come and 'observe' us. We aren't suspects of anything," Arce said. "They can accompany us but they cannot observe."
Ramirez, Ortega's former vice president, said blocking observers was another sign that the outcome of next year's elections was foretold.
"He who thinks Daniel Ortega will campaign fairly in the elections and is willing to lose them is either naive or ill informed," Ramirez said.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY