MANAGUA (Reuters) - Nicaragua’s Supreme Court lifted a constitutional barrier on Monday to President Daniel Ortega seeking re-election, opening the way to the leftist running for another term in the 2011 election.
The court’s constitutional arm issued a ruling blocking restrictions on a president running for another term, following a petition from Ortega and a group of mayors last week, and the country’s electoral court said it would comply with the move.
The Supreme Court ruling requires formal approval by 16 state judges but the head of the constitutional courtroom, Francisco Rosales, said the ruling was expected to stand.
The move by the country’s highest legal power means Ortega could run as a candidate in the 2011 presidential election without having to seek national assembly backing to change the constitution or hold a public referendum on the issue.
Latin American countries are increasingly wrestling with the issue of presidential term limits as leftists such as Venezuela’s self-styled socialist President Hugo Chavez seek to stay in power as long as they can win elections.
Central America is locked in its worst political crisis in decades after Honduras toppled and exiled President Manuel Zelaya in June after that country’s Supreme Court said his bid to seek support for lifting term limits was illegal.
Ortega — a left-wing former guerrilla fighter whose Sandinista rebels fought U.S.-backed government forces during a Cold War-era civil war — said in July Nicaragua should move to remove term limits for presidents and mayors after the issue drove neighboring Honduras to mount a coup.
Ortega first took power after Nicaragua’s 1979 revolution and was formally elected president in 1984. After his Sandinista party lost power in 1990, the opposition banned re-election with a clause in the 1995 constitution.
Ortega returned to power in 2007 after running on a platform of reconciliation but presidents are barred from running consecutively or serving more than two terms.
Both Ortega and Zelaya are close to Chavez, a vehement critic of the United States who could rule for decades after winning a referendum this year letting him run for re-election as often as he likes.
In January, Chavez ally Evo Morales of Bolivia won a referendum to let him run for another five-year term. Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa has also engineered constitutional changes to let him hold office for two more four-year terms.
Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, is serving a second term thanks to a constitutional change and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe may seek a third term after a similar move allowed him a second term.
“If Uribe does it, it’s OK, if Arias does it, it’s OK. If we do it ... then it’s bad,” Rosales told Nicaraguan TV.
Changing the constitution in Nicaragua would have required approval by two-thirds of the one-chamber national assembly, where Ortega does not have a majority. His support within the Supreme Court is helped by a split in the opposition.
Reporting by Ivan Castro; Writing by Catherine Bremer; Editing by Bill Trott