By Luke Orban-
On November 7th 2021, elections were held in Nicaragua and the result came as a surprise to no one. Daniel Ortega won with approximately 75% of the votes with a turnout of around 65% according to the Consejo Supremo Electoral, Nicaragua’s official elections body. This would be a pretty solid mandate for Ortega and the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN) as the official figures show they received an overwhelming number of votes from a decent turnout. However, it has become clear that this election did not adhere to democratic standards or norms and Urnas Abiertas, a grass-roots poll-watching group, claimed turnout was actually closer to 20%.
The result granted Ortega his fourth consecutive term as president and his fifth term overall. Throughout his time as leader, he has eroded democratic institutions, brutally repressed opposition, and consolidated his own power. This has led many to believe that Nicaragua has become an 'electoral dictatorship.' Given what has happened in Nicaragua since Ortega took power, it is difficult to disagree.
Ortega has managed to consolidate a dictatorship over time. He was part of the Sandinista revolution which overthrew the U.S-allied Samoza dictatorship in 1979. He then ruled Nicaragua from 1979-1985 as part of the Junta of National Reconstruction and then as president from 1985-1990 following free and fair elections in 1984. In that period the FSLN successfully established the revolution by defeating the U.S-backed Contras in the Contra War. The FSLN was out of power from 1990 until the re-election of Ortega in 2006. Since assuming office in January 2007, he has remained as president and has actively worked to reverse the democracy that he helped to establish in Nicaragua in the aftermath of the Sandinista revolution.
In this context, controversy surrounding the government(s) of Ortega has been consistent since 2007. To name just a few examples, during the municipal elections in 2008, election observers were denied accreditation by the Supreme Electoral Council which also refused a nationwide recount following allegations of intimidation, harassment and violence towards opposition members and NGO’s. As well as this, some opposition parties were barred from running by the Supreme Court. These election irregularities have continued in presidential and municipal elections, with international and local observers being blocked, barred or not given the chance to observe elections, including the most recent ones on November 7th 2021. Whatsmore, in the run-up to the 2016 elections the National Assembly, the legislative branch of the government of Nicaragua, even approved changes to the constitution which abolished term limits.
Furthermore, since 2007, the Ortega regime has run a sustained campaign of confiscation, intimidation and harassment, including arrests, against private media in Nicaragua. This led Reporters Without Borders to rank Nicaragua 121/180 in their World Press Freedom index for 2021. As well as this, especially in the context of the mass protest of 2018, there has been a markedly violent crackdown on those ‘defying’ authorities. According to a report by VICE News, in the first four months of the protests in 2018, more than 500 people were killed. Findings of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights held the state responsible for a considerable number of these deaths.
With the above in mind, it is imperative that the international community act to break the cycle that is causing Nicaragua to become more of a dictatorship with every election “won” by Ortega. Unfortunately, many, including journalist Eric Farnsworth of AS/COA, have pointed out that the international community has been absent in Nicaragua's descent into dictatorship. The United States is going to place further sanctions on the Ortega regime but according to Farnsworth, this is too late.
One issue is that the Ortega regime has friends in the region, and is therefore not internationally isolated. America’s Quarterly compiled a list of responses on the outcome of the recent elections which showed that Bolivia, Cuba and Venezuela actually congratulated Ortega on his victory. The Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) in Brazil initially showed support but afterwards struck a more ambiguous tone.
Another issue is the lack of clear actions in response to the situation in Nicaragua taken by the Organisation of American States (OAS). On November 12th 2021 the body voted for the adoption of a resolution which states that the elections on November 7th 2021 were “not free, fair or transparent and lack democratic legitimacy”. 25 nations voted for the resolution, however, despite the condemnation by the body, it is unclear what follows. The resolution states that the OAS can “take appropriate action” without outlining what that would specifically be.
With this in mind, individual states may decide to act unilaterally, as the United States did when making the decision to impose more sanctions on Nicaragua, including barring entry to the U.S for members of the Nicaraguan government, along with other officials. The United Kingdom also imposed new sanctions on eight individuals linked to the regime. This, however, is merely symbolic. As the international attention subsides after the election, Nicaragua could potentially fade into the background allowing for the status quo to continue.
Given the trajectory of Nicaragua since 2007, it should be no surprise that the government is being called a dictatorship by many. Punitive sanctions and resolutions of condemnation are merely performative as the international community has done nothing practical to halt the democratic backsliding of the country. As the most recent election fades from international attention, it is difficult to picture things changing in Nicaragua any time soon.