Wether in the streets or at the ballot box, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega has once again demonstrated his reach into the judicial and legislative branches of the country, and his use of them to increase his political power while simultaneously weakening that of his opponents.
Most recently, President Ortega has brought five private universities under state control. Private universities in Nicaragua have served almost as a refuge for protestors, as they are often times supported by faculty who allow for protests to take place on campus.
The significance of this event lies in that students in the country’s private universities are some of the most vocal critics in their opposition of Ortega’s government. One of these universities, the Polytechnic University of Nicaragua, was the site of mass anti-government protests in 2018 where more than 350 people were killed due to police violence. The new status of the universities as public, or state-controlled, makes them increasingly subject to punishment from the government.
The new law, passed by the National Assembly on February 7th of this year, was widely supported by many of Ortega’s loyalists. The control Ortega has on the country’s legislature serves to emphasize the importance of delegitimizing and manipulating other branches of government as it allows for would-be authoritarians to use legislative power to punish any critics of their regime,
Ortega’s attempts to stifle legitimate political speech by depriving students from safe spaces for political discourse build on his past attempts to stop any kind of opposition against him. Ortega is not only using the legislative branch to dissuade political opposition, but also the judiciary.
In fact, just this past week seven opposition leaders were convicted of conspiracy and sentenced to more than a decade in jail. Three of these men, one who included a former Nicaraguan ambassador to the U.S, had been planning to run in opposition to President Ortega in the presidential election of November 2021. Before Felix Maradiaga, Juan Sebastian Chomorro, or Arturo Cruz Sequeira could have run though, they were arrested, granting Ortega a basically undisputed path to the presidency once again.
By curtailing the civil liberties of his opponents, in this case the right to freedom of speech and the right to political candidacy, Ortega is wearing the opposition base and creating the illusion that he has full support in the country. In jailing political opponents for arbitrary crimes and without valid evidence, Ortega has politicized the criminal just system and also made clear to the Nicaraguan people and to the international community that he is not interested in having to deal with public contestation to his rule. Yet this does not mean that Ortega and other autocratic leaders in today’s world do not want to maintain a semblance of legitimacy in their role as president. this strategic manipulation of elections is not outright fraud, and actually decreases the chances that international organizations will contest the results from the presidential election in Nicaragua.
The erosion of democracy in Nicaragua is apparent through the analysis of these recent events as they exemplify how the executive branch has grown to control many aspects of both the legislative and judicial branches in the hopes of dissuading political protest and, more personally, any opposition to Ortega’s presidency.