“I had to go vote, because the control is so strong,” one government employee told Nicaraguan journalist Wilfredo Miranda, who reported from exile. “My only way of expressing my discontent was to write ‘murderers’ and ‘freedom for political prisoners’ on the ballot.”
On Sunday, Nicaragua fell deeper into a socio-political crisis after Daniel Ortega and co-president and wife Rosario Murillo carried out farcical elections condemned as illegitimate by the United States, 27 countries in the European Union, Costa Rica, and the Nicaraguan opposition.
While on paper Ortega and Murillo ran against five other tickets, in practice they ran uncontested. In the run-up to election day the regime barred the country’s two political opposition movements from participating and imprisoned seven prospective candidates for alleged crimes including “betraying the nation.”
Independent election observer Urnas Abiertas recorded 200 instances of election abuses at polling stations, including intimidation by government-aligned paramilitary groups. Sandinista Front (FSLN) party workers transported public sector employees and their families to polling sites with the order to vote the party line.
The government ramped up its propaganda machine to try to present the appearance of normal elections, but even sympathetic foreign journalists it invited admitted that the voting booths sat empty.
Lacking the right to protest, Nicaraguans sent a message by staying home. Urnas Abiertas reported an abstention rate between 79 and 84 percent.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights wrote just 15 minutes before polls closed that it had received reports of “raids, arbitrary detentions, harassment, and restrictions of the press” and called on the state to “cease the repression of opposition leaders and [human rights] defenders.”
Authorities denied entry to election monitors from the European Union and Organization of American States and briefly arrested two Nicaraguan reporters in the western city of Masaya. As El Faro English reported on Nov. 1, in recent weeks international reporters from Reuters, The New York Times, Le Monde, The Washington Post, NPR, and other outlets have also been denied entry. Reporters working in independent Nicaraguan outlets publish sans byline.
Ortega called the elections a victory over terrorism on state television. The results cemented the regime’s repressive crackdown after the 2018 mass protest movement, once considered a possible tipping point, and underscored its willingness to go to any lengths to prevent a political opening.
With control of the election apparatus, executive branch, legislature, courts, police and armed forces, the regime has fastened its grip on power as it enters its fifteenth consecutive year. Find more context on Sunday’s elections in our Nov. 1 edition.
Protesting from exile
In neighboring Costa Rica, exiled political dissidents, members of the opposition, and other Nicaraguans lined the streets of San José and demanded that the international diplomatic corps refuse to recognize the vote. Costa Rican president Carlos Alvarado responded at 8 p.m.: “Due to the lack of democratic conditions and guarantees, we do not recognize the elections in Nicaragua.”
Alvarado then called for the release of all political prisoners and for the Nicaraguan government to respect its commitment to “consolidating democracy” as a member state of the Central American Integration System.
President Joe Biden also rejected the election results hours before the polls closed, calling the affair a “pantomime election that was neither free nor fair, and most certainly not democratic,” and comparing Ortega and Murillo to the Somoza dynasty overthrown by the FSLN in 1979. The Biden administration is planning a new round of sanctions and has begun a review of Nicaragua’s participation in the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA).
The European Union, Spain, and Chile also rejected the results. In a press release, the European Union said it will study additional measures against the Nicaraguan government, “including those that can go further than individual restrictions.”
“The only way out of the regime’s political crisis is in Managua, not in Washington or Brussels,” wrote Confidencial director Carlos Fernando Chamorro, self-exiled in Costa Rica to avoid imprisonment, in an election-day op-ed. “The Ortega regime can withstand international sanctions, individual or institutional, for a time, but it cannot rule a single day without losing control of power if the police state is suspended.”
The leaders of Latin America’s “leftist” governments, including Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro and Cuba’s Miguel Díaz-Canel, were quick to congratulate the Ortega-Murillo government. The Nicaraguan elections also received a significant election-day plug from the Salvadoran left-wing party FMLN, whose ties with the Sandinistas trace back decades to the era of the Central American armed conflicts. “We congratulate the sovereign people of Nicaragua for submitting to elections and holding a true democratic fiesta,” the party tweeted.
Former FMLN president Mauricio Funes, who gained asylum in Nicaragua in 2016 to avoid prosecution for embezzlement, tweeted a picture of himself at the polls and wrote: “Exercising my civil right to vote.”
Former FMLN legislative bloc chair Nidia Díaz — one of the most prominent figures of a party that openly denounces the Bukele administration as a “dictatorship” — also congratulated Ortega and Murillo, adding: “I’m convinced that peace will prevail and that the Nicaraguan revolution will continue to consolidate itself and defeat neoliberalism.”
President Nayib Bukele quickly exploited the opening: “See how the FMLN and friends aren’t at all interested in defending “democracy,” “institutionality,” or “rule of law,” like they claim? See how the whole discourse of resisting the “dictatorship” is a farce?”, he wrote in a retweet of Díaz. “They’re only interested in returning to power.”
Civil society and human rights organizations in El Salvador compare Bukele’s consolidation of power to Ortega, though they argue that Bukele is moving faster than in the case of the Sandinistas or Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez.
Nicaragua’s political future is uncertain and the opposition faces a complex dilemma as it plans its next moves. “The first step, starting November 8, is to face the crisis of the 150 political prisoners,” wrote Chamorro, whose sister and cousin, including one presidential candidate, are political prisoners. “For Ortega, they are hostages and bargaining chips in an eventual negotiation.” He adds that the opposition will look to regroup in exile to “facilitate a process of national unity,” but without forming an “illusory provisional government.”
“Ortega’s political defeat on November 7 will always be incomplete, as long as it does not lead to greater national and international pressure,” he added. “From that moment on, the democratic opposition that today is in jail and in exile will become an alternative power to negotiate the rules of the democratic transition, with or without Ortega and Murillo.”
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