Daniel Ortega once liberated the Nicaraguan people from dictatorial rule. Now, he leads them towards autocracy.
The result of Nicaragua’s presidential election was sealed months before election day arrived.
Daniel Ortega was re-elected to a fourth consecutive term as President on November 7th, receiving 2.09 million out of 2.48 million cast. President since 2007, Ortega has openly consolidated power and eroded the status of democracy, freedom, and trust in government institutions and the courts.
Since 2017, Ortega and Rosario Murillo, Nicaragua’s Vice President (and wife to Ortega), have supported the use of violence against the public, censorship of the media, and most recently, the imprisonment and persecution of their party’s political opponents. Without major opposition parties on the presidential ballot, Ortega and Murillo easily secured another term in office.
Nicaragua has veered back and forth from democratic society to authoritarianism multiple times. Beginning in the mid-1850s, Conservative party rule in Nicaragua ended with the election of the Liberal party’s Jose Santos Zelaya in 1892. Zelaya began a sixteen-year crusade of centralized power until he left in 1909. At that point, Conservatives regained power but eventually lost it to the Nationalist Liberation Party (PLN) in 1937. The PLN ruled Nicaragua for the next four decades under a familial dictatorship known as the Somoza family rule.
The decades-long dictatorship led to the rise of the Nicaraguan Revolution in the 1960s and ‘70s until the PLN was removed from power by Daniel Ortega’s Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) in 1979; Ortega became President that year and led the country through 1990.
For years, Nicaragua’s democracy slipped away: horizontal and vertical checks of accountability eroded even before Ortega won the presidency back in 2006. Within the past four years, between 2017 and 2021, Nicaragua’s freedom ranking on the Freedom House index dropped from 47 to 30, a drop from a partly free country to a country no longer free.
The stark drop in political and civil rights may be attributed to two major signs of autocratic consolidation within those years: 1) state violence against the people and 2) persecution of political opposition.
In 2018, Ortega’s government announced reforms to the country’s social security and pensions system that levied taxes and reduced government-funded benefits. As a result, Nicaraguans took to the streets in protest of the government’s actions.
The government’s response to the mainly peaceful protests drew criticism from Nicaraguans and the international community alike. Between April and July of 2018, hundreds of protesters, police, and civilians died; thousands more sustained injuries. The public blamed police and security who used violent force in reaction to the protests. The Human Rights Watch said that the Nicaraguan government was committing human rights abuses against protestors.
Simultaneously, Ortega’s government attacked freedom of the press. After the protests began in mid-April, multiple news channels suddenly went off the air. One news site, La Prensa, said that their website was subject to a “cyber attack” just a week into covering the protests.
Over the summer of 2021, Ortega’s government began a crackdown on political opposition leaders and activists. Some were arrested and detained by the police. Others were detained on house arrest. At least ten opposition leaders were arrested, including presidential contender Medardo Mairena, a farmer known for his work in labor rights. In 2019, Mairena was sentenced to 216 years in prison by Nicaraguan courts on falsified charges of murder, robbery, etcetera. A year into his prison sentence, he was released.
Authoritarians or would-be authoritarians are increasingly utilizing government institutions and the judiciary for anti-democratic purposes, as Ozan Varol argues in Stealth Authoritarianism (Varol 2015, para 3). Varol’s assessment applies to the case of Nicaragua. The state has weaponized the police to commit human rights atrocities. They’ve also influenced the courts to arrest opposition leaders like Mairena and others.
While Ortega’s regime has used governmental power for those purposes, their actions are not stealthy or covert. State violence against the people occurred in broad daylight, as did the crackdown on political opposition. Contrary to some literature, and at least in the case of Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega is not a stealthy authoritarian, but an authoritarian he is indeed.
Fresh off what many are deeming a sham election, including U.S. President Joe Biden, the future of Nicaragua remains unclear. Efforts of the FSLN’s political opposition to form a united opposition front could take years to build, and it’s not entirely certain that a united opposition will be formed.
If the past four years are any indicator of democratic backsliding and authoritarian consolidation, Ortega will likely continue to consolidate power in government and the courts.
“Posesión de Daniel Ortega como presidente de Nicaragua” by Cancillería Ecuador is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0