Nicaragua court says Ortega can seek re-election

MANAGUA, Nicaragua – Leftist President Daniel Ortega appears to have won the right to seek re-election in 2011, though opponents call the decision illegal and are vowing to fight it.

The constitutional commission of the Supreme Court on Monday overturned a ban on consecutive re-election and on serving more than two terms, and the head of Nicaragua's electoral commission said the ruling is final.

Only members of Ortega's Sandinista party took part in the ruling by the heavily politicized court.

But the president of the Supreme Court, a member of the opposition Liberal Party, refused to recognize the decision on Tuesday.

"Ortega is completely disqualified from being a candidate" in the next elections, Justice Manuel Martinez said.

Opposition leaders said the commission ruling was an underhanded power grab by Ortega, who was first named president after the Sandinista rebels toppled dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979.

Liberal Party judges were not present at Monday's vote and say it must be approved by the full Supreme Court. But they lack the votes to overturn it because the death of a Liberal Party justice tipped the balance of the court to the Sandinistas.

Under a power-sharing deal, the Sandinistas and Liberals each appoint eight members of the court and split influence over other agencies as well, freezing out third parties.

Later Tuesday, Ortega called the court's decision "indisputable" and asked his opponents to have faith in the electorate.

"The people will decide at the election. Why deny them the right to choose whomever they want for whatever post?" Ortega said at a rally broadcast live on radio and television.

Latin American leaders such as Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, Ecuador's Rafael Correa and Colombia's Alvaro Uribe also have maneuvered to extend their terms in office.

In Central America, leaders of the interim government of Honduras have accused ousted President Manuel Zelaya of attempting to undo presidential term limits through a referendum on whether to revise the constitution. Zelaya vehemently denies the accusations.

Ortega left office in 1990 after opposition candidate Violeta Chamorro defeated him in nationwide elections. He was re-elected in 2006.

Monday's ruling also would allow consecutive re-election of the country's mayors, roughly two-thirds of them Sandinistas.

The Sandinistas made major advances in November 2008 municipal elections. But accusations of widespread Sandinista fraud led the U.S. and European authorities to suspend economic aid to the impoverished nation.

Ortega has repeatedly sought ways to extend his stay in office, often suggesting that Nicaragua adopt a parliamentary system that would let the dominant party's leader be head of government.

Opponents say the president took his campaign for re-election to the courts only after he failed to secure enough votes in congress to amend the constitution.

Associated Press writer Morgan Lee contributed to this report from Mexico City.