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Nicaraguan elections, Ortega wins as opposition is crushed

With most of the ballots counted, president Daniel Ortega wins the Nicaraguan elections. The vote has been controversial, with repression and irregularities cited.

The 2016 Nicaraguan elections took place on the 6th of November: voters chose the next country’s president, vice-president, members of the National Assembly and representatives of the Central American Parliament. Incumbent President Daniel Ortega, leader of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), together with his running mate and wife Rosario Murillo won 72 per cent of votes out of around two-thirds of the ballots counted.

The outcome was predictable as Ortega faced no real competition. The Constitution was changed in 2014 to enable presidents to serve an indefinite number of terms, and in June this year the Supreme Court took the controversial decision of ousting incumbent President Daniel Ortega‘s main contender, Eduardo Montealegre, leader of the opposition Independent Liberation Party (PLI), from the elections.

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Opponents of reelected Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega take part in a protest, four days after the presidential elections of 2011 © Elmer Martinez/AFP/Getty Images

The illusory democracy

Electoral processes in Nicaragua have been widely criticized in the past both by civil society organisations and the international community. The lack of transparency and gradual tightening of the FSLN’s control over democratic institutions have undermined the country’s democratic aspirations on numerous occasions. The credibility of the elections has been weakened by common irregularities such as unexplained delays in voter registration, outdated lists of voters (for example, in the 2011 general elections 71 per cent of registries included names of deceased individuals), and disproportionate representation in electoral bodies. 

Furthermore, judicial means have been used to exclude opposition groups from electoral processes, like the case of Yatama, the main indigenous party, which was unlawfully excluded from municipal elections in 2000. Also, Ortega announced in June that Nicaragua won’t be welcoming international observers to monitor elections. “Shameless observers, here stops the observation! Go observe other countries, if you wish,” he said. 

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Employees of the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) prepare ballot boxes for elections on the 6th of November © Inti Ocon/AFP/Getty Images

The shaky grounds of Daniel Ortega’s popularity

The popularity of Ortega and his party is primarily attributable to socio-economic advances, including reduced poverty levels, improved access to education and social services, according to observers. Civil society organisations emphasise, however, that this progress hasn’t reached every corner of the country, as over 60 per cent of rural areas suffer extreme poverty, with indigenous and Afro-descendent groups being the most adversely affected. It should also be noted that the pace of progress itself has been called into question since the country’s economic growth is considerably slower than in the rest of the region and Nicaragua still has the lowest GDP in Central America.

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Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, who is running for reelection © Elmer Martinez/AFP/Getty Images

History likes to repeat itself

Abuse of power has a long tradition in Nicaragua. The country was subjected to the hereditary dictatorship of the Somoza family between 1927 and 1979, only to be subsequently ravaged by a vicious civil war between the leftist Sandinistas, who overthrew the Somoza dictatorship, and the right-wing Contras rebels. The country began to regain stability after the institutionalisation of democratic instruments, most notably the constitutional reform of 1987 that extended legislative control over the political system. After Sandinistas led by Ortega lost power in the first truly democratic elections in 1990 to Violetta Barrios de Chamorro, first female president in the Americas, the party maintained a strong presence in the legislature, and since 2006 has retained the largest representation in the government with Ortega as president. Ironically though the FSLN, which came onto the political scene fighting the dictatorship, is the same political force that is now challenging the consolidation of democracy.

The outcome of the upcoming elections is already determined. The only remaining question is, will there ever be an end to this daunting déjà vu.

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