In 1984, Daniel Ortega of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) won the presidency after having overthrown the almost ten-year dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza Debayle. Ortega served one term as president and was surprised to then lose his reelection campaign. He ominously vowed to keep “ruling from below,” referencing the vast influence his party already had within the Nicaraguan government.
Flashforward to 2007, and Ortega no longer has to rule behind the scenes because he has once again won the presidency.
In a democracy, there must be regular constitutional opportunities for changing government officials. Nicaragua does in fact hold presidential elections every 5 years, thereby meeting perhaps the loosest definition of democracy. However, the opportunities for changes of government officials are essentially nominal at this point.
Ortega has made it clear that he is willing to ignore the rules of the game of democracy, one of the warning signs of a would-be autocrat according to Levitsky and Ziblatt, in order to rid himself of opponents that threaten his position. In 2016, Ortega disqualified Eduardo Montealgre of the Independent Liberation Party (PLI), his only significant competition, and replaced the party leader with a new politician that had significant ties to the Ortega administration. This effectively made the election a merely performative gesture and won him his third term as president.
According to Robert Dahl, in a democracy, free and fair elections should be present in their most basic form not only at the national level but also in subnational institutions. Nicaragua also fails this test. For mayoral elections, primary surveys are ignored, and candidates are often chosen by the government. Additionally, for some civil service positions, a person must be a member of the FSLN. These actions might be seen as a form of gatekeeping in order to prevent Nicaraguans from electing a mayor that could grow to be dangerous to the people. However, since a populist leader has clearly already been elected to the highest position in the Nicaraguan government, this manner of blocking potential opponents from the ballot is obviously a way to prevent Nicaraguans from electing a mayor that could grow to be dangerous to Ortega and the FSLN.
Even putting aside the ballot restrictions, the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE), which is the electoral branch of the Nicaraguan government, has actually been officially sanctioned by the United States in the past due to suspicion of the council pulling strings to ensure that Ortega continued to win elections. Ortega’s efforts to keep significant opponents from appearing on ballots or even joining the government at the level of a civil servant in addition to his use of the CSE to manipulate election results indicates that one of the main pillars of democracy, free and fair elections, has decayed in Nicaragua.
Another significant indication of how far away from democracy Nicaragua has slipped is Ortega’s blatant suppression of civil liberties and the media, which Levistsky and Ziblatt warn is one of the alarms for a would-be autocrat.
In many instances, the Ortega administration and police forces have elected to use cruel measures and often lethal force against peaceful protestors. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights released a report of the violence the Nicaraguan police force used against peaceful protestors from April 2018 to August 2018. The document describes in detail how the police beat, tortured, raped, and killed peaceful protestors and turned a blind eye when pro-government groups did the same to other peaceful protestors. In protests since 2018, over 300 Nicaraguans have been killed, with over 2,000 protestors being injured.
Eventually, some arrested protestors were released under an Amnesty Act passed by the government in June 2019; however, it came with strings attached. The act stipulated that those released were prohibited from protesting again, once more suppressing their civil liberties. Furthermore, many saw this law as a way to protect police from accusations of violent acts they committed while arresting the protestors.
Ortega has suppressed the media since his election in 2007, but it picked up significantly during the protests of 2018. Television companies and cell phone service providers were prohibited from airing independent news stations, and various media outlets were raided and closed down by the government. El Nuevo Diario, a 40-year-old newspaper, was forced to close after being unable to obtain paper and ink due to obstacles from the government.
If only Nicaraguan citizens could find comfort in the idea that Ortega’s reign would soon be over.
In 2009, Ortega’s second term was coming to an end. At that point, he did not have the 79% supermajority that his party holds today, and he turned to the courts. The Supreme Court declared the section of the constitution that prevents presidents for running for more than two terms to be unconstitutional. Thus, Ortega was able to run for and win his second consecutive and third term overall as president of Nicaragua. Ortega ran again for reelection in 2016 and won his fourth overall term. Bermeo describes both the main cause and symptom of democratic backsliding as executive aggrandizement. Ortega’s abuse of the court system to eliminate term limits and remove competition from the ballot in addition to his pulling the strings of the electoral branch of government shows clear executive aggrandizement and dismantling of core principles of democracy like free and fair elections.
The democratic erosion in Nicaragua is so severe that it can now only be considered an electoral autocracy. At this point, elections are purely performative, and with the removal of term limits, Ortega has now been in power for 13 consecutive years, which is longer than the reign of the dictator he tried so hard to overthrow in his youth. His blatant use of violence against his people, suppression of the media, and abuse of the court system and electoral branch of government to further entrench his own power have made it so that he could easily stay in power for another 13 years without much of a struggle. The only hope Nicaragua has for a democratic recovery is for Ortega’s party to remember their original roles as part of a true democracy, as gatekeepers. They must find someone to replace Ortega, someone who will be amenable to the reinstitution of free and fair elections, civil liberties, and free media. Unfortunately, there is no sign from the FSLN that this will occur any time soon. Seymour Martin Lipset, “Some Social Requirements of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy,” American Political Science Review 53, no. 1 (March 1959): 71.  Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2018), 21.  Robert Dahl, Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition (Yale University Press, 1971), 12.  Nancy Bermeo, “On Democratic Backsliding,” Journal of Democracy 27, no. 1 (January 2016): 6.