Nicaragua court splits opposition with ruling on party leadership

Managua (AFP) - The Supreme Court in Nicaragua controversially split the opposition's ranks ahead of a presidential election in November by ordering a change in leadership of a pivotal conservative party.

The divested opposition leader, Eduardo Montealegre, immediately slammed the ruling as a "coup" instigated by President Daniel Ortega, who is standing for re-election.

He called for protests starting Friday.

His Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLI) is the main force in the opposition coalition, a grouping of eight parties and movements.

The coalition has nominated a lawmaker, Luis Callejas, as its presidential candidate for the November 6 election, but that has to be ratified by a national convention.

- 'Precarious' situation -

Francisco Rosales, chief judge of the Supreme Court, told a news conference that the PLI's new leader was now Pedro Reyes Vallejos, and the party must hold the convention as soon as possible.

Montealegre was made head of the PLI in 2014 after lawsuits by four dissidents -- one of them Reyes Vallejos -- toppled the previous party chief. Their legal battle was taken to the Supreme Court.

"With this verdict, Daniel Ortega is trying to deal a coup d'etat to the opposition because he knows he can't beat it at the polls," Montealegre said in his own news conference accompanied by supporters.

"We will move forward with the campaign on which the verdict has no bearing," he said.

The development provoked concern among business leaders, many of whom back the government.

The verdict created "a complicated situation, utterly precarious," said Jose Aguerri, head of the national employers' federation.

- Ortega leads in polls -

Ortega, a 70-year-old former rebel who has been a polarizing figure as head of state, is seeking a third consecutive presidential term.

He has been in office since 2006, and before that had a 1985-1990 stint as president.

Last weekend the ruling Sandinista Party unanimously nominated him as its candidate in a conference closed to the press.

Recent polls show that he has 57 percent voter support, far ahead of Callejas.

In 2014, amid controversy, Ortega had a law passed that scrapped a previous limit of two consecutive five-year terms for presidents. The legislation also gave him new powers.

Ortega's Sandinista National Liberation Front party was born out of the 1970s rebel movement that toppled US-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979.

In addition to the president, the November polls will choose the post of vice president and the lawmakers in the 92-seat National Assembly. Their five-year terms will begin in January 2017.

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