From a cursory glance, Nicaragua appears to be doing better than ever. Economic growth continues in the 4-5% range and the homicide rate is even lower than neighboring Costa Rica. Clearly the country is a far cry from the years of violence and economic ruin brought by the 1979-1990 Nicaraguan Revolution that left an estimated 30,000 dead and thousands more displaced. However, Nicaragua’s young democracy has been in a crisis, albeit a slow moving one, since at least 2008. I argue that economic and social stability – which subdue oppositional movements – combined with weak international pressure have allowed President Daniel Ortega to gradually weaken the country’s democratic institutions through a process of executive aggrandizement and election manipulation. He has accomplished this without losing significant support from his countrymen thanks to backroom pacts with business elites, and largely avoided the international condemnation other authoritarians have faced in recent years.
Gradual and barely noticed backsliding
Perhaps surprisingly, democratic backsliding in Nicaragua has largely gone unnoticed. The country enjoyed what appear to be free and fair elections between 1990 (when Ortega was first defeated) and 2008. This eighteen-year period saw a liberalizing of Nicaragua’s markets and some economic growth, but also corruption that reached the highest levels of government. Most assumed democratic gains would continue, and though Daniel Ortega only won 38% of the vote in 2006, he played by the rules and appeared to be committed to the pluralist democracy Nicaragua had become. The ensuing decade proved otherwise.
Independent election observers were barred from monitoring the 2008 municipal elections, and fraud was suspected. As the 2011 presidential elections approached, Ortega moved to subvert the constitutional ban on consecutive terms despite the legislatures disapproval. By changing the terms for election commission officials, he sent the decision to the Supreme Court, which abolished term limits. He won handily in the 2011 election, and his FSLN party took control of the national assembly. Since then, the pro-Ortega supreme court has ousted the opposition party’s candidate, while his colleagues in the national assembly expelled 16 lawmakers who refused to accept the new candidate. Ortega received more than 72% of the vote in a once again unmonitored election with his wife as his running mate, setting up just the sort of oligarchic dynasty he fought against in the 1970s and ‘80s.
Though the process has taken almost a decade, Ortega has managed to subvert the country’s weak institutions to the point of autocracy. He may not employ the kind of rousing, anti-elite rhetoric that typical populists and authoritarians use, but he has succeeded in quietly consolidating immense power. This slow moving, yet powerful process has been dubbed “democratic backsliding,” and involves an authoritarian and those loyal to him engaging in the systematic “elimination of the political institutions that sustain democracy.” Both executive aggrandizement and the strategic manipulation of elections come hand in hand with backsliding. The phenomenon is often hard to spot, as is evidenced by the coverage of Nicaragua’s recent election, which often does not emphasize the lack of accountability in recent contests like the 2017 municipal elections (see Yahoo News coverage, for example).
A stable economy for the people… and the elites
Any analysis of Ortega’s executive aggrandizement would be incomplete without acknowledgement of his popularity. Polls released in April showed Ortega with a 74.1% approval rating while almost 73% of people saw the government as a unifying force for the nation. Many of the anti-poverty programs he pushed such as free healthcare, and the focus on reducing the illiteracy and infant mortality rates are popular with the poor, which may explain some of this support. Those living in abject poverty are more concerned with getting access to healthcare than with a robust, pluralist democracy.
However, there is also a more calculated and unspoken reason for Ortega’s domestic support and the weak resistance movement. Unlike traditional populists who pit “the people” against “the elites”, Ortega has made a point to cozy up to business interests. His regular consultations with the Nicaraguan federation of business associations known as Cosep has ensured that in exchange for little interference and minimum taxes, they will not meddle in politics. This is just the sort of elite pact that Barry Weingast examined in his study of political foundations and self-enforcement. In it, he demonstrates that these pacts are more successful when 1) participants perceive that they’re better off under the pact, and 2) the pact is self-enforcing, meaning elites will punish those who defect from it. In Ortega’s new Nicaragua, both of these conditions are met in the tit-for-tat environment This approach differs from that of many leftist dictators, and is a stark departure from his intense offensive against the country’s business elite as leader of the Sandinista revolution. Ortega appears to have learned from the disastrous economy of the 1980s as well as his 1990 ouster. He understands that a stable economy with consistent FDI, and a clientelist relationship with at least some elites are necessary to keep power.
Lack of widespread violence
Ortega has also grasped the necessity of maintaining order in Nicaragua. Though drugs are still smuggled through the country, the murder and violent crime rates have remained far below Nicaragua’s neighbors to the north. El Salvador (108.64 per 100,000 people), Honduras (63.75) and Venezuela (57.15) have the highest intentional homicide rates in the world, and Belize, Guatemala and Mexico are not far behind. Nicaragua’s homicide rate of 11.49 is less than a fifth if those neighbors, and is closer to stable Costa Rica and Panama. Nicaragua’s more advanced and professionalized police force play a big role in the lack of widespread violence. Ortega has also moved to exert direct control over the police and military, and in 2014 the passage of the so-called police reform made the president the “supreme commander” of the force. By moving himself closer to the country’s successful police, and implicitly taking responsibility for the low levels of violent crime, Ortega has framed himself as a Central American leader who can keep order. Once again, this gives him domestic legitimacy and silences criticism of the regime.
International actors remain on the sidelines
The United States and it allies have programs aimed at promoting democracy and sanctioning would-be authoritarians. The problem is that there are only so many resources allocated to democracy promotion, and certain countries’ authoritarian threats appear more pressing. This fact along with the image of economic and social stability Nicaragua projects have kept it off most developed countries’ radars. While Venezuela regularly appears on US news for its debt troubles, crackdown on civil society, and violence, we almost never hear about Nicaragua’s democratic backsliding. The last three US administrations have publicly feuded with Chavez and now Maduro, with President Trump declaring he wouldn’t rule out a “military option.” Both the US and EU have also imposed arms embargos and sanctions against Venezuelan officials.
Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the western hemisphere and reportedly relies on foreign aid for 70% of its budget. Sanctions and concerted efforts aimed at strengthening democratic institutions in the country or forcing Ortega to step down could have profound impacts and help prevent complete democratic collapse. Yet the distractions of violence and drug trafficking in other Central American nations, and Maduro’s brutal, and more blatantly authoritarian regime in Venezuela draw attention away from Nicatagua’s backsliding. It remains to be seen how the recently introduced “Nica Bill” aimed at curbing loans to Nicaragua will affect the calculus.
Is democracy doomed in Nicaragua?
After the Ortega’s 2016 victory, and this year’s FSLN landslide, it’s hard to see how Ortega’s dynasty can fail. Though Kurt Weyland’s assessment that Ortega grew out of the same populist left as leaders like Hugo Chavez and Manuel Zalaya is convincing, other factors have been more integral to his success. As demonstrated above, a stable economic environment (partly thanks to elite support), notable lack of violence compared to other Central American countries, and an international community with more pressing worries have coalesced to keep Ortega popular and in power. Without at least one of these factors significantly deteriorating, it seems unlikely that Democracy in Nicaragua will begin to heal.