Opposition leaders in Nicaragua criticized President Daniel Ortega Saavedra’s call for constitutional reform to allow a second presidential term. While extending term limits is not per se undemocratic, other Ortega policies suggest that he is leading the country down a path towards autocracy.

Ortega, of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN, known as the “Sandinistas”), served as president from 1985 to 1990. He returned to the presidency in 2007. In March 2009, Ortega criticized constitutional provisions prohibiting him from running for re-election as unfair. “The President can’t be re-elected. Only the congressman can be re-elected. It is not just, it denies the people of their right to choose,” said Ortega.

The opposition says that an attempt to change the constitution to allow Ortega to run again will undermine democracy. Yet some democracies in the hemisphere, including Brazil and the United States, allow presidents to serve multiple terms. Moreover, some credit the dramatic security improvements in Colombia over the last six years to a 2005 constitutional reform that allowed President Álvaro Uribe serve a second term. It is clear that transition periods between presidential administrations – marked by hiring staff, developing policy priorities, and crafting implementing strategies – consume a larger percentage of the overall administration for single presidential terms than for multiple presidential terms. Therefore, multiple presidential terms may allow presidents to spend more time governing than preparing agendas.

Ortega’s attempts to amend the constitution place him at odds with the Congress. An amendment will require a majority of Congress, something Ortega and his party currently do not have. Ortega also applauded Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s recent referendum victory allowing Chávez to run for multiple terms. Yet Venezuela may not be an ideal reference since Chávez’s referendum abolished term limits altogether.

If seeking to amend the constitution to allow multiple presidential terms is not per se undemocratic, Nicaraguans also protested election results this November after Ortega’s Sandinista party won 105 of 146 municipal races. Violence briefly erupted after right-wing parties accused Sandinistas of fraud. The Wall Street Journal also accused the Sandinistas of using “violence [as] a key campaign tactic.” In response, the United States and several European nations froze some $62 million in developmental aid over concerns that Ortega and his party rigged the November elections. The U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) upheld the suspension in a decision this March after it identified over 40 mayoral posts that the Sandinistas allegedly stole. Ortega has been defiant in the face of foreign criticism, stating that “[t]he [United States] and some European [nations] are saying that they are going to take away our bread if we don’t negotiate the municipal governments. But the municipal governments will not be negotiated.”

Nicaragua’s slide towards autocracy, however, extends beyond the allegedly rigged local elections. Ortega has deployed gangs of uniformed thugs to break up opposition protests in the wake of the municipal protests and his growing unpopularity. One Sandinista leader who now finds himself in the opposition likens the current political state to that of the 1970s, under the country’s infamous dictator, Anastasio Somoza. The former Sandinista says he feels forced to meet contacts in secret, “as we used to do under Somoza.”

The international community is losing patience with Ortega, and as such, Nicaragua loses foreign investors and business that are critical to its people’s standard of living. The result, therefore, has been a weakened state that is sliding towards the very autocracy against which Ortega once led a revolution.