With ten months left before the 2021 presidential and congressional elections, Nicaragua remains a police state, without electoral reform. Those from the April 2018 rebellion now face a crossroads. Either submit to Ortega’s attempt to “legalize” his dictatorship or rekindle civil resistance until there are guarantees of free competitive elections. The latter would offer a path to taking power.
The first option implies accepting the rules of an election without transparency or political competition. Candidates and political movements will be inhibited well beforehand. In such an election, power would not be in play. It would only serve to legitimize a return to the pre-2018 status quo, now with an unchecked and bloody dictatorship at the helm.
The second option means challenging the police state, from a platform of national unity. It would have to involve the participation of the Blue and White Unity movement and all the opposition parties. It would also have to enlist the support of the business sector and the moral leadership of the Catholic Church. In addition, it would have to issue a call to the public servants, both civilian and military. These forces would all need to be mobilized to restore the right to free and competitive elections. This involves negotiating an electoral reform, with or without Ortega and Murillo in power.
These are two objectives, two roads and two strategies that are radically different. On one side, some sectors harbor the illusion that the solution to our national political crisis will come from outside. They assume that the tyrant will cede, for fear of further international sanctions. They believe that – at the last moment – Ortega will allow “electoral reform”, to keep the OAS from declaring his government “illegitimate”. A reform without substantial changes, but one that offers a minimum of change. Then he can proclaim that he’s made “a step in the right direction”. His growing ideological alignment with the Cuban-Venezuelan model, however, indicates the contrary.
On the other side, the possibility of real civic pressure depends on the April Movement’s power to convoke. They must bring together the new political majority of those without a party. This is the group that in 2018 demanded the departure of Ortega and Murillo from power, and early elections. They have put up the dead, the political prisoners, and have suffered massive exile. They won over the Catholic church the hard way. They also forced the rupture of the corporate-authoritarian partnership “model”. This alliance of the large business owners with the Ortega-Murillo regime had lasted nearly a decade.
United, the blue and white vote embodies the hope for political change. Not only of their defeating the FSLN in a free election, but also of winning by a sizable majority. Such a majority would give the new democratic government an unmistakable mandate to dismantle the dictatorship’s power mafia, clearing the road for progress.
A divided opposition grants Ortega and his allies a competitive advantage as a political minority. The current tendency seems to divide the Blue and White vote into two blocs. There’s the Civic Alliance, on the ballot as Citizens for Liberty, with support from the business sector. Then there’s the Blue and White National Unity, the Rural Movement, and the National Coalition, on the ticket as the Democratic Restoration Party.
That scenario would leave Ortega and the FSLN as the largest political minority. As such, they could steal the election through fraud, or they could win by a slight margin. Or, they could even lose and continue governing from below. The political arithmetic that all the surveys project is invariable. Only a united opposition alliance, excluding only the small parties that collaborate with the FSLN, can comprise a winning force. Only a united alliance could defeat and dismantle the dictatorship. Such a force must begin with unified action to pressure for the suspension of the police state and for electoral reform. These are two inseparable parts of the same political process. Such a unified opposition represents the chief pillar for a new democratic republic.
But how can electoral reform be forced from the regime, when the police state has truncated the freedoms of assembly and mobilization? How can it happen with a regime that maintains more than 100 political prisoners?
Paradoxically, political support for the dictatorship today is at its lowest point. The three consecutive years of economic recession has multiplied poverty and unemployment. This has all been aggravated by the lax management of the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, since September 2020, the tightening police encirclement and the persecution from the paramilitary have triggered a decline in civic protest. Further, the regime is illegally holding under “house arrest” more than a hundred opposition figures. These include leaders, released prisoners, returned exiles, and family members of the victims of repression.
Ortega’s response to the demand for free elections has been to close the political space yet further. Key to this was the approval of the four repressive laws: “hate crimes law”, “gag law”, “foreign agents’ law”, and “national traitors”. These laws criminalize the exercise of democratic rights and are aimed at eliminating political competition during the electoral process.
Nonetheless, the way out of this crisis doesn’t lie in proclaiming abstention in advance. Nor does it lie in waiting for the “electoral reform” Ortega offered in May. Instead, it lies in changing the balance of power. In the first months of 2021, the opposition faces the formidable challenge of getting ahead of Ortega’s deadlines and imposing their own political agenda. This agenda should represent the aspiration for change of the great impoverished majorities and of the country’s middle class.
In the first place, civic pressure must be restarted. This must focus on demanding the suspension of the police state and electoral reform. Ortega will never grant minimal conditions for a free and competitive election unless he faces maximum political and economic pressure. Enough pressure to force him to negotiate an electoral reform.
Secondly, a national opposition alliance must be built, to bring together the Blue and White vote around a program of democratic change. Then candidates for president, vice president and congress must be selected through a democratic primary.
The April 2018 civic insurrection generated the most participative political process in Nicaraguan history. The candidates for the united opposition can’t be subject to Ortega’s veto, nor to the fingerings of the elites nor to party quotas. They can only be chosen through democratic competition. The tradition of the existing parties is to condition and predetermine the political results. Contrary to this, the future opposition alliance should assume as their banner of change the legitimacy that only comes from candidates selected through genuine democratic competition.
Can the opposition political leaders create such a great national alliance and guarantee a participative process to choose their leadership? If so, that leadership may govern the country beginning January 2022. The presence of minimal electoral rules, as well as the recovery of confidence in the vote will depend on such an alliance. In addition, it holds the hope of achieving the aspiration of my father, Pedro Joaquin Chamorro. Assassinated 43 years ago by another dictatorship. My father proclaimed: “Nicaragua will once more be a Republic.”