Supporters of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega were in the streets of Managua last week firing on a hotel, burning cars, and otherwise trying to intimidate opposition members of Congress. The mob was mobilized because the legislature is standing in the way of a Hugo Chávez-style power grab by Mr. Ortega.
Shades of Honduras: Last year Honduran President Manuel Zelaya had similar aspirations, ran into the same problem, and tried the same solution—violence. Fortunately the Honduran military stepped in to stanch the flow of blood by deporting him. U.S. Ambassador Hugo Llorens was disappointed, but the Honduran democracy was saved. Nicaraguans may not be so lucky.
In a liberal democracy when there are disagreements between the legislature, the courts and the executive, the constitution is the rule book. Each institution jealously guards its privileges while recognizing its limits.
But populist demagogues channeling Mussolini see respect for the rule of law as the stuff of quitters. The elected despot can do what he wants. Institutions that push back get visits from thugs. That's what has happened in Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia, and why those countries can no longer be considered democracies.
Nicaragua now hangs in the balance—and there is a lot at stake. Mr. Chávez wants a permanent, reliable ally in Central America. He hoped that would be Honduras. Now his chips are on Nicaragua, with the goal of making the Sandinista paradise part of the 21st-century Bolivarian utopia. Cuba, with its long history of repression, is a valuable partner in this effort. Its armed forces and elite guards are already working with the Chávez government as noted in a press conference last week by retired Venezuelan Gen. Antonio Rivero. Specifically he complained of "courses in sniper training in which Cuban professionals participate."
If Mr. Ortega gets tenure in Nicaragua you can bet he will be eager to promote the values of his close allies, Cuba and Venezuela, on the isthmus in exchange for their help in holding onto power. Iran will also want to join the cause. An unclassified report from the Pentagon released this month says that Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force "maintains operational capabilities around the world" and "recent years have witnessed an increased presence in Latin America, particularly Venezuela." Mr. Ortega re-established diplomatic relations with Iran after his election in 2006.
But Mr. Ortega's term is up in January 2012, and according to Article 147 of the constitution he is barred from running for president again. For three years he tried to get Congress to change that. He failed. So in October he went to Nicaragua's Supreme Court alleging that since congressmen can be re-elected, he's the victim of discrimination.
The Sandinista judges on the court's constitutional panel waited until the opposition judges had gone home for the day, called in three Sandinista judges from other court panels as alternates and held a vote. The court ruled the prohibition on re-election "inapplicable." Mr. Ortega promptly declared himself a candidate for 2011.
Even so, the wannabe dictator still has a problem: He is unlikely to win a fair election. That's why he wants to hand-pick the electoral council, which is charged with ensuring a level playing field and is up for renewal in June. And that's why he is locked in mortal combat with Congress.
Normally the president sends his nominees for the Supreme Court and the electoral council to Congress for a vote. But after the "inapplicable" trick, Congress refused to proceed. So in January Mr. Ortega issued a decree that he was extending the terms of two Supreme Court judges and the electoral council.
The president has no such power, and earlier this month the two judges should have withdrawn from the court because their terms expired. They refused to do so. Last week one of them was leading the mob violence in the street.
Mr. Ortega's demand that Congress re-elect the current electoral council is even more troubling. Its record is shoddy. It never produced a full vote tally from the 2006 presidential election that Mr. Ortega supposedly won. Worse, the 2008 elections for the country's mayors—who provide an important counterbalance to the national government—were so flawed that neither the U.S. nor the European Union recognized the results. The U.S. suspended Nicaragua's participation in the foreign aid program known as the Millennium Challenge Account and the EU suspended aid as well.
Nicaragua's Congress is insisting on a new slate of candidates for the electoral council and has the votes to repeal Mr. Ortega's decree. Now there is speculation that Mr. Ortega is working behind the scenes to peel off members of Congress from the opposition.
If that fails, he will have to either rely on further street violence against the legislators or he will have to sit down and make some compromises. Even if he chooses the latter this time around, this chapter should not be forgotten. Nicaraguans have been forewarned about their president's respect, or lack thereof, for the rule of law.