Supporters of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega have fired up protests against opposition efforts to block the leftist's re-election next year, worrying business leaders and the United States.
Opposition lawmakers accuse Ortega of turning Nicaragua into a Cuban-style dictatorship and say they have enough support in Congress to overturn a 2009 ruling in the Supreme Court -- where Ortega's Sandinistas have control -- that lifted a ban on the former guerrilla leader and Cold War-era U.S. foe from being able to run again for president.
Their stance sent Ortega's supporters onto the streets last week, reigniting last year's sporadic protests. In the latest demonstrations, some attacked the National Assembly building, smashing windows.
Protesters burned two cars belonging to opposition members and threw rocks and small firecracker bombs at a hotel where lawmakers were meeting, wounding a state TV reporter.
Opposition leader and lawmaker Eduardo Montealegre called on both sides to step back from the violence.
"I think we have to talk for the good of the country. The violence is unacceptable," he said.
An ally of Venezuela's socialist President Hugo Chavez, Ortega would have been barred by the constitution from serving two consecutive five-year terms but he petitioned the Supreme Court to lift the ban.
Disagreement over whether the Supreme Court or Congress has the final say on lifting the ban on a second term could blow up into a institutional crisis, analysts warn.
The Washington-based Organization of American States said it was "deeply concerned" about the protests and the United States called on the government to bring them under control.
"We urge the government of Nicaragua to take steps to end mob violence, and we urge the police to ensure the safety and security of all Nicaraguans," said U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley.
The State Department has warned that Ortega's re-election push could threaten democracy in the Central American country. Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was toppled in a coup last year after the Supreme Court and Congress there accused him of pushing for re-election, which is barred by the constitution.
Rising tensions, fist fights
Ortega, who took power after a 1979 revolution staged by his Sandinista rebels and then won the presidency in November 2006, has not formally said he wants to to run in the 2011 election but has made moves to do so.
Opposition lawmakers in Congress have resisted the Supreme Court ruling and hope to elect at least two new judges in May as some Sandinistas retire so they can enforce the ban.
Seven members of the electoral tribunal that will oversee the election say they back the Supreme Court judges' decision. Ortega issued a decree in January to extend their terms.
Congress, split between the ruling Sandinistas and their opponents, is locked in closed-door meetings to decide if the sitting electoral authorities will be replaced or reappointed.
Montealegre, who lost to Ortega in 2006, says tribunal members failed to investigate fraud allegations in 2008 municipal elections when the Sandinistas won big victories.
"We cannot vote for magistrates who signed off on electoral fraud," said Montealegre, of the conservative Liberal Party.
Ortega, whose Sandinista rebels fought U.S.-backed government forces in a 1980s civil war, said last July that Nicaragua should lift term limits altogether.
Businessmen are worried the rising tensions will scare away investors and aid agencies that are badly needed in Nicaragua, one of the Western Hemisphere's poorest countries and a coffee and textile exporter to the United States.
Sandinista demonstrators threw rocks and firecrackers at the U.S. Embassy in Managua in October after the ambassador criticized Ortega's re-election plans. Last week some started fist fights with opposition supporters.
A failure of current talks on reappointments of court and electoral officials could spark further violence, she warned.
ReutersLast Mod: 30 Nisan 2010, 20:10