Once again Daniel Ortega was sworn in as President of Nicaragua for a fourth consecutive term as of January 10th, 2022. This alarming reelection has generated widespread media outrage on both domestic and global levels. On a national level, mass protests have mobilized against the left-wing Sandinista National Party, accusing it of undermining democracy through electoral fraud. On an international scale, regional organizations such as the OAS and the EU and several political leaders have publicly condemned Ortega’s reelection.
These claims regarding Nicaragua’s antidemocratic governance are not new, rather they have intensified heavily since Ortega first came into power. According to Freedom House’s 2022 Freedom in the World report, Nicaragua has not fared well on the democratic scale with a score of 23/100 and ranking far below average in terms of political and civil liberties. Amnesty International has documented numerous human rights violations that occurred under his leadership; these include violent repression of protests, criminalization of social activists and journalists, suppression of press freedom and restrictions on media outlets. On top of these violations, Ortega has engaged in a plethora of corruptive and coercive political acts to yield electoral outcomes in his favor and eliminate opposition.
The question underlying the recent backlash is “How is Ortega able to commit these atrocious violations without punishment?” The answers lie in the mechanisms of “stealth authoritarianism” that enable a would-be autocrat to consolidate power. According to Professor Varol’s definition, Ortega falls under the new category of authoritarian leaders who use the same legal mechanisms that exist in their democratic regimes to perpetuate power.  Harvard Professors Levitsky and Ziblatt would likewise agree that the key characteristic of these successful antidemocratic practices is the veneer of legality under which they are carried out. It is these subtle mechanisms that have allowed Ortega to engage in explicit authoritarian behavior with impunity. 
In 2014, the Sandinista legislative majority, led by Ortega, pressed to ratify a “game-changing reform” that would indefinitely extend presidential reelection under the pretext that it was necessary for ensuring economic stability. A 60% majority vote in Nicaragua’s National Assembly is required to pass a constitutional amendment. Ortega successfully won the constitutional amendment with a 64 – 25 final vote. This amendment eliminated provisions contained in Article 147 that capped presidential candidacy at two-terms, prohibited consecutive reelection, and set a minimum vote level requirement. However, no changes were made to Article 148 which mandates a 5 year term reelection for both the president and vice-president. The strategic choice of the Sandinistas to modify Article 147 but leave Article 148 untouched is an example of how would-be autocrats often will implement democratic reform in such a way that conceals their antidemocratic intent. Although Ortega has evaded his numerical and consecutive term limits, he still has to be reelected every 5 years. This constitutional amendment ultimately paved the way for Ortega’s 2016 and 2021 reelections.
These events raise doubts as to whether constitutional safeguards are, by themselves, enough to guarantee democracy. In their book, How to save a Constitutional Democracy, Law Professors Ginsburg and Huq argue that constitutions cannot alone safeguard against the rise of would-be autocrats as they contain numerous ambiguities and are open to competing interpretations. This was the case with Ortega’s 2011 election which ignited much controversy over the legitimacy of the Supreme Court’s decision to declare Article 147 “unconstitutional.” If a constitution lacks “formal, textual protection of bureaucratic autonomy” and fails to provide “conventional and statutory checks” on the various institutions and branches of government, then would-be autocrats can easily exploit these constitutional weaknesses to further consolidate power.  Levitsky and Ziblatt argue that it is the strength and robustness of a country’s democratic norms which reinforce the constitutional checks and balances that are supposed to safeguard against rising authoritarianism. 
As this is his sixth overall reelection as head of State, Ortega boasts the title of longest-serving presidential leader in the Americas. Ortega has now been equated to the role of a dictator and Nicaragua’s democratic regime appears to be quickly transitioning to that of a full autocracy. The international community has only recently begun to raise awareness to the human rights violations suffered by Nicaraguans. The UK and the U.S. have imposed travel sanctions on Ortega and his allies and have withdrawn several funding campaigns. The question now is whether it is too late to remedy Nicaragua’s democratic erosion? Ozan Varol, “Stealth Authoritarianism,” Iowa Law Review 2015, pg. 1684.  How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, Crown Books 2018, pg. 7-8.  How to Save a Constitutional Democracy, by Thomas Ginsburg and Aziz Huq, University of Chicago Press 2018, pg. 150-153.  How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, Crown Books 2018. pg. 101.