Nicaragua closes this week its unprecedented election season — without campaigning, debates, serious opposition candidates, international observers, or press scrutiny — with the outcome already known: on Sunday's election, Daniel Ortega will remain in power.
A former Sandinista guerilla who first served as president in the 1980s after overthrowing the Somoza dictatorship, Ortega returned to the presidency in 2007 with just 38 percent of the vote. (In Nicaragua, a candidate only needs 35 percent of the vote and at least a 5 percent lead in the first round to secure the presidency. He then pushed a reform to the constitution to allow his reelection.)
In 2011 and 2016, he won 62 percent and 72 percent of the vote, respectively, amid low participation and wide suspicions of fraud. In total, only 2.5 million voters have turned out in the past three elections in a country of about 6.6 million.
A September Gallup poll revealed that only 19 percent of Nicaraguans planned to vote for Ortega on Nov. 7, compared to 65 percent who supported an opposition candidate. But with the seven legitimate opposition candidates in prison or on house arrest, Ortega will fraudulently secure a fourth consecutive term as president, with his wife Rosario Murillo serving as vice president for a second term.
Ortega, who controls all state institutions and most media in Nicaragua, recently named Murillo “co-president,” a role that doesn’t exist in the constitution. The move is a “continuation of a family succession plan,” writes independent Nicaraguan media outlet Divergentes.
Isolated but Strong
Support for Ortega has been waning since protests against his government erupted in April 2018 across the country. Around that time, Facebook announced this Monday, Nov. 1, the government began operating a troll center of more than 1,000 Facebook and Instagram accounts to promote pro-government messaging and discredit protesters.
As the 2021 elections neared, Ortega faced a growing opposition boasting the support of the private sector that backed him until 2018. He took a more drastic strategy.
In early June, he began arresting opposition candidates. Cristiana Chamorro, daughter of former president Violeta Chamorro who defeated Ortega in 1990, was placed on house arrest. Then, former Nicaraguan ambassador to the U.S. Arturo Cruz was arrested on return to Managua. Arrests of opposition leader Félix Maradiaga, economist and businessman Juan Sebastián Chamorro, campesino leader Medardo Mairena, journalist Miguel Mora, and former vice foreign minister Noel Vidaurre followed. Arrests of other government critics, most recently the business association president Michael Healey on Oct. 21, continued until two weeks ago.
There will be five other candidates joining Ortega on the ballot, but none are considered real contenders by the opposition or international community. The most well-known is evangelical pastor Guillermo Osorno, a member of a party formerly allied with the FSLN. Two are current legislators: former newspaper boy Walter Espinoza and pastor-turned-legislator Mauricio Orúe, whose US visa was recently revoked for complicity in the Ortega-Murillo government’s attacks on democracy.
Another two candidates are political unknowns: millennial candidate Gerson Gutiérrez Gasparín, who said in an interview that he strives to be a better version of El Salvador’s Nayib Bukele, and Marcelo de Jesús Montiel, who rarely gives interviews. Nicaraguans will also vote for the 90 members of the National Assembly and 20 members of Central American parliament.
The opposition is now urging people not to vote so as not to legitimize elections they consider to be a farce. In a video campaign with the slogan “Let’s stay home,” a young woman with her face painted blue and white in the colors of the Nicaraguan flag, a symbol of resistance during the 2018 protests, enters her home and shuts the door. “You can’t kidnap the word of the people,” a vocalist sings as the video pans to an empty street.
The Nicaraguan elections will likely be held without the presence of international journalists or observers. In July, the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) announced it would ban international observers to avoid “interference.” On October 18, the Nicaraguan government denied entry to a journalist from French media outlet Le Monde without justification, following the denial of entry of a journalist from The New York Times in June.
The Biden administration is planning a new round of sanctions after elections and has begun a review of Nicaragua’s participation in the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), according to an exclusive Reuters interview with a State Department official.
An Odd Pair
Honduras also holds presidential elections this month. The presidents of both countries, Daniel Ortega and Juan Orlando Hernández, face international condemnation, one for becoming a dictator and another for drug trafficking accusations. This might explain why in recent days, they are presenting a united front.
In what appears to be an act of propaganda, and a challenge to Salvadoran president Nayib Bukele, the two leaders held a meeting Wednesday in Managua to announce a treaty to recognize border limits between the two countries, particularly in the disputed Gulf of Fonseca.
Hernández had previously announced on Oct. 12 a development plan for one island, Isla Conejo, reigniting a long-standing territorial dispute with El Salvador. Hernández may face drug trafficking charges when he leaves office in January, and the meeting caused speculation as to whether he will seek Nicaraguan citizenship, as did former Salvadoran presidents Mauricio Funes and Salvador Sánchez Ceren.
Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele was absent, but weighed in on Twitter. “What do you think @dw_espanol, @nytimes, @washingtonpost and their affiliated media would be saying if I had signed this same geopolitical treaty with Ortega?”, he said in another attack on the international press, which he accuses of criticizing him more fervently than the leaders of Honduras or Nicaragua.
On Oct. 20, the Organization of American States (OAS) issued a resolution calling for the immediate release of political prisoners and for respect of the Inter-American Democratic Charter. Seven countries, including Guatemala and Honduras, abstained.
The OAS members have not yet voted to kick Nicaragua out of the organization for disrespecting the Democratic Charter, but the U.S. representative hinted members would do so after elections.
“We are not pushing to invoke the Democratic Charter, it is the Nicaraguan government, with its continuing disregard for basic human rights and fundamental freedoms, that is pulling us inexorably toward a discussion of the Charter,” said United States OAS representative Bradley A. Freden in a statement.
In response, the Nicaraguan government accused foreign governments of interference. “Our country has never accepted, nor accepts, nor will accept, acts that degrade its liberty, as an independent state, which we have held for more than 200 years since our independence,” the government wrote in a statement.
Despite international pressure, the Ortega-Murillo government has persisted in its pre-electoral repression. Although the couple signed an agreement with the opposition in 2019 under the supervision of the Vatican and OAS, it did not fully comply with the release of political prisoners or suspend the police state.
In an opinion piece for El Faro, Nicaraguan journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro urged the international community to help reestablish democratic norms in Nicaragua.
“External diplomatic pressure, individual sanctions against high-ranking officials of the regime, as well as eventual scrutiny of actions before the multilateral credit agencies that finance Ortega, certainly exert pressure on the regime and even anger Ortega and Murillo,” he writes. “But they will be useless to restore democracy if they fail to influence the full recovery of all democratic freedoms in Nicaragua.”
He added: “Inaction is the dictatorship’s closest ally.”
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