Setbacks in Nicaragua’s democracy and the weakness of the elections

nicaragua

Are elections in Nicaragua a double-edged tool used to suppress democracy? Nicaraguan democracy has historically been affected by several civil wars and coups d’état. Among the most controversial periods are the right-wing dictatorial regime of the Somoza family (1976-1979), the Sandinista Revolution (1979-1990), and the subsequent governments of current Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega. Ortega is now in his fifth term, which began in early 2022. His administration is accused of weakening and obscuring the main components of democracy through the oppression of opposition political parties, the lack of plurality in elections, the decline of freedom of expression, and several acts of corruption. This article seeks to analyze how the Ortega government has lost credibility in electoral processes. Next, it will examine how Nicaragua’s fragile democracy has transformed into semi-competitive authoritarianism, and, in turn, understand how the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), is becoming a single party. Finally, this piece will discuss the most recent presidential and legislative elections of 2021.

Competitive authoritarian regimes are hybrid regimes in which formal democratic institutions are considered the main means of gaining power, but the abuse of rules skews the playing field to such an extent that the opposition’s ability to compete is seriously compromised. It is assumed that these types of governments are competitive because the opposition can use elections in their favor. In most cases, however, this competition follows an uneven trajectory, as the autocratic leaders who govern tend to politicize state institutions such as electoral tribunals, tax institutions, and the judiciary in their favor. In Nicaragua, the Ortega government has repressed the main democratic institutions of the country, trying to silence any citizen who opposes the administration’s governance. In her interview with BBC News Mundo, Vilma Núñez, a principal human rights activist in Nicaragua, notes that “apart from the fact that the Judiciary does not have independence, Daniel Ortega has become an instrument of repression.” This reinforces the theory of academics Steven Levistsky and James Loxton when they explain that for competitive authoritarianism to be generated, the main conditions are fragile political parties and weak governmental institutions. Even so, Nicaragua is only a semi-competitive state moving towards a one-party system.

According to political scientists Freddy Quezada and Silvio Terán, an authoritarian regime such as Ortega’s conditions the competitiveness of Nicaragua’s party system. Because of this, several Nicaraguan organizations and many citizens showed apathy in the last municipal elections in 2022, and the ruling party dominated the electoral field uncontested, taking over all 153 of the mayoralties of the country. According to data from the Supreme Electoral Council of Nicaragua, the FSLN has swept the opposition since July, and there was an abstention rate of 82.7 percent of the electorate in the 2022 elections. The Ortega regime’s coercion and the fraudulent management of state institutions has involved the imprisonment of opposition politicians, presidential pre-candidates, and people who take to the streets to protest. Núñez comments that Nicaraguans “are not even sure if they are imprisoned, because their whereabouts are unknown.” Among other concerns, this casts a shadow over the professed idea of electoral competition.

The presidential and legislative elections held in Nicaragua in 2021 are the clearest example of the enormous setbacks to democracy. Urnas Abiertas is an independent multidisciplinary observatory located in the city of Managua and focuses its work on the monitoring of electoral processes and scientific research. According to its report on the 2021 elections, the FSLN used public resources for its political campaign in the elections of November 7, 2021, where President Daniel Ortega won his third consecutive re-election. It is estimated that more than 20 public institutions and 92 municipal governments were at the disposal of the ruling party helping in its campaign, and state workers collaborated with Ortega’s proselytizing lending state vehicles, technological equipment, offering benefits to voters, and more. In addition, three opposition parties — Democratic Restoration Party (PRD), Conservative Party (PC) and Citizens Party for Freedom (CxL) — were invalidated and seven candidates for the presidency were arrested without justification. A vice-presidential candidacy was also annulled. Illegal and fraudulent methods had been used to eliminate all electoral competition. It is worth emphasizing that the Supreme Electoral Council is managed by FSLN militants, which calls into question its transparency in the electoral process. To this is added the imminent repression of the media and the freedom of expression of Nicaraguan citizens that prevent the correct exercise of the vote. 

The Ortega government has lost credibility in its electoral processes because of its lack of transparency at the polls, widespread repression, and near non-existence of party competition. Nicaragua may be on the verge of becoming a personalist dictatorship, revolving around the political ambitions of not just FSLN, but Daniel Ortega and his family.


References 

[1] Levistsky Steven y Loxton James, “Populism, and competitive authoritarianism in the Andes”. 2013. Democratization Magazine vol 20, No 1, 107-136.  https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13510347.2013.738864

[2] Lissardy, Gerardo.Nicaragua: “The methods of repression, the hatred, the thirst for revenge that the Ortega government demonstrates overcome the repressive actions of the Somoza dictatorship.” BBC News World. June 28, 2021. https://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias-america-latina-57606688

[3] “Observatory accuses FSLN of using public resources in Nicaraguan elections.” SWI. December 22, 2021. https://www.swissinfo.ch/spa/nicaragua-elecciones_observatorio-acusa-al-fsln-de-usar-recursos-p%C3%BAblicos-en-comicios-de-nicaragua/47212718

[4] “Daniel Ortega’s party gets the 153 mayoralties of Nicaragua.”  The Universe. November 8, 2022. https://www.eluniverso.com/noticias/internacional/partido-de-daniel-ortega-consigue-las-153-alcaldias-de-nicaragua-nota/

[5] Quezada Freddy and Terán Silvio.  Political Parties and Social Movements in Nicaragua today. CIELAC, Interuniversity Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies Friedrich Ebert Foundation. 2005. http://biblioteca.clacso.edu.ar/Nicaragua/cielac-upoli/20120813015327/03partidos.pdf

[6] Urnas Abiertas, International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, Center for Political and Government Studies, Andrés Bello Catholic University.  Nicaragua elections 2021: A painful plan to end democracy. International IDEA Stromsburg -10334 Stockholm, Sweden. 2021. https://www.idea.int/sites/default/files/publications/nicaragua-elecciones-2021.pdf

Author

vsvegav@estud.usfq.edu.ec