Nicaragua Opens Era of Reform Vote on Constitutional Amendments Heralds a Significant Realignment of Political Forces That Could Add to Social Stability, but Puts the Administration on the Defensive

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IN a bold challenge to President Violeta Chamorro, a coalition of opposition leaders has taken a step toward realigning Nicaragua's politics that they hope will bring stability to their divided country.

With the far right abstaining, Nicaragua's National Assembly voted on Dec. 10 to approve what appeared to be an innocuous amendment to the country's charter that reduces the time necessary to approve constitutional amendments from two annual legislative sessions to one.

The vote, made possible by a split in the National Opposition Union (UNO), which allowed a center-left coalition to emerge, appears to herald an important realignment of political forces, and creates a serious dilemma for the Chamorro administration.

The reforms are "the most important political event in Nicaragua since the 1990 elections," says Jose Leon Talavera, a Sandinista who is one of the authors of the reforms. "In this vote, we are seeing a new alliance take shape with long-term implications."

Last week's vote could pave the way for further reforms in the spring, including curbs on presidential power.

Under reforms envisaged by the center-left coalition, Mrs. Chamorro could lose her rights to decide who sits on the Supreme Court, levy taxes without the legislators' approval, and conduct economic policy without consulting the other branches of government.

In addition, Chamorro could be banned from running for immediate reelection in 1996, as will her son-in-law, Chief Minister Antonio Lacayo, who also has presidential ambitions.

In part, the reform effort responds to longstanding criticism by the UNO right that the current Constitution, passed in 1987 during the heyday of the Sandinista revolution, is autocratic. The constitutional reformers are taking aim particularly at those presidential powers that go beyond those found in other Latin American constitutions and overshadow other branches of government.

The leftist Sandinista Front, several varieties of centrists, and the Christian Democratic Union, which belongs to UNO, contributed the 58 votes needed for the reform. The Christian Democrats, the principal moderate faction in UNO, in casting their crucial swing votes with the Sandinistas, showed that they will continue aligning themselves with the Sandinistas and Centrists to pass wholesale substantive changes to the nation's Constitution.

The government has reacted negatively to the legislature's moves to curb of its power. "We are opposed to the prohibitions on Dona Violeta and Tonio Lacayo," presidential legal advisor Tomas Delaney saidas the vote neared, "as well as the transfer of powers to the Assembly, because it undermines our ability to conduct economic policy."

The latter question is particularly sensitive at present, as the Chamorro government is negotiating a three year aid agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF)that the reform forces oppose.

The government's objections notwithstanding, reformers argue that better constitutional balance will contribute to political stability by helping to control impunity and corruption and by facilitating public input into economic policy. …