For the November 2021 elections, the Ortega regime is preparing to replicate the model they used in 2016. That year, Ortega and Murillo ran essentially without political competition. Ortega proclaimed his fourth term as President of Nicaragua, alleging he’d received the most votes in the country’s history. And he didn’t even campaign. Analysts, sociologists and historians consulted by CONFIDENCIAL described those 2016 elections as an “electoral circus”.
In pursuit of his objective of assuring himself another victory, the Ortega government has escalated political repression. Recent actions include canceling the legal status of the Democratic Restoration Party (PRD), which had formed an alliance with the National Coalition. The regime then attacked leading candidate Cristiana Chamorro, announcing she was under investigation for alleged money laundering.
Amid a general reinforcement of the police state, the regime intensified its persecution of independent journalists and media outlets. As part of this strategy, they once again staged an illegal break-in and looting of the temporary production studios used by Confidencial and Esta Semana.
The candidate with the most votes in Nicaragua’s history
The 2016 elections were unique. According to the Supreme Electoral Council’s registers, the winning presidential candidate garnered the highest percentage of votes ever received since the country’s democratic transition of 1990.
The Sandinista Front, with Ortega as the presidential candidate for the seventh straight time, secured 71.4% of the vote, according to the official election results. There were supposedly 1.8 million votes for Ortega. That translates into an average of seven out of ten Nicaraguans who voted for the Sandinista strongman. That’s something never before seen in the Nicaraguan elections.
Ortega’s resounding victory came without a single campaign rally. To achieve this political feat, he didn’t even have to leave home. It didn’t seem to matter that Nicaragua remained the second poorest country in Latin America. Nor that with nine years in power, Ortega’s popularity would normally face some consequent attrition.
In fact, the 2016 elections marked the culmination of a long process of destruction of Nicaragua’s democratic institutions. That process began during the historic vote of 1990, when the FSLN lost the elections and became an opposition party. Ortega and his party then determined that its primary objective would be to return to power.
The tentacles of this process, which grew like poison ivy, focused on three major areas: controlling the electoral system, dividing the opposition vote, and gaining a legislative majority to control Nicaragua’s National Assembly. These aims were pursued over the course of the FSLN’s 16 years as an opposition party, from 1990 to 2006.
The seedbed: The Aleman – Ortega pact
The most definitive step in Ortega’s process of reassuming political control was the pact he reached with President Arnoldo Aleman in 1998. At the time, Alemán was the leader of the powerful Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC). With the pact, he became the dictator’s political partner.
The Sandinista Party suffered three electoral defeats (1990, 1996, and 2001) at the hands of the National Opposition Union (UNO) and later the PLC. The so-called ‘hard-core” Sandinista vote remained a minority. They couldn’t win against the electorate that was unified in their aversion to the figure of Daniel Ortega.
In 1990, running against Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, Ortega won 40.82% of the vote. In 1996, running against Arnoldo Aleman, he received 37.83%. In 2001, against Enrique Bolaños, his percentage was 42.28%.
Carlos Tünnermann Bernheim, academic leader and currently a member of the opposition’s Good Will Commission, offers some insight into these events. In his view, the UNO victory in 1990, and the two PLC victories in 1996 and 2001, occurred through a unified bloc of voters who were independent but anti-Sandinista. These voters placed their bets on the opposing platforms they judged as having the best chance of defeating Ortega. Tunnermann calls this large swathe of electors the “blue and white vote”.
“In 1990, and principally in 1996 and in 2001, the vote went to the candidate they saw as being able to defeat the Sandinista Front, irrespective of party affiliation or clear political sympathies. The voter always centers their reflections on how not to waste their vote. They mark the ballot space that they think can defeat the Sandinistas. As a result, the “mosquito” parties [small parties that cooperate with the regime in power to mount a token opposition] were the least favored.”
The 1996 election had the highest number of parties on the ballot, a total of 24 candidates. However, the real contest was between Aleman’s PLC and Ortega’s FSLN.
“The famous PLC Liberal party muscle never existed. In reality, that muscle was the independent vote, that today I call the blue and white vote. For example, in 1996, with an extreme diversity of candidates, the PLC was seen as the one party that could defeat the Sandinistas, as in fact occurred. In 2001, even with all the stigma of the corruption during the government of Arnoldo Aleman, the PLC once more won. In that case, the candidacy of Enrique Bolaños was very influential. He attracted a lot of sympathy, principally among those independent voters,” Tunnermann recounted.
A divided vote smooths the way for Ortega’s return
By 2006, Nicaragua’s electoral panorama had changed drastically. Ortega was determined to return to power. Aleman was seeking political survival, after facing accusations of corruption against him and the members of his cabinet. The anti-Sandinista vote fractured, split between two possibilities: the PLC, with Jose Rizo as candidate, and the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN), headed by Eduardo Montealegre.
Other factors favoring the division of the anti-Sandinista vote also entered into play. One was that Liberal party factions turned a deaf ear to the cries for unity. They remained divided, even though the projections clearly indicated that united they could defeat the Ortega hard-core voters. Second was the control that the Sandinistas had gradually acquired over the electoral apparatus.
“The Liberal vote split, despite the many attempts made by all sectors to keep the Liberals from becoming divided. Those voices remained unheard. Eduardo Montealegre, with his ALN party, was convinced he could win the election on his own, even with a divided PLC. He forgot that the FSLN maintained a committed sector of the voters, which had to be countered with strong electoral backing. This was especially true after the pact with Arnoldo Aleman. That agreement allowed policy changes permitting a candidate to declare victory in the first round with merely 35% of the votes, as long as there was a 5% margin between that candidate and the party in second place,” recalled Tunnermann.
Political analyst Enrique Saenz adds that by 2006, Ortega’s party, in conjunction with the PLC, had already succeeded in placing key figures on the Electoral Council. The pact allowed them to install three openly Sandinista Magistrates and three PLC loyalists on the Supreme Electoral Council. These now controlled the electoral branch of power.
The Sandinista Magistrates on the Electoral Council in 2006 were: Emmet Lang, Jose Luis Villavicencio, Jose Miguel Cordoba and Roberto Rivas. Rivas was proposed by the PLC but later crossed over to the Sandinista Front. His change of party occurred when the FSLN protected him from allegations of corruption that were being investigated by the Comptroller’s office. The PLC was left at a disadvantage, with Magistrates Luis Benavides, Jose Marenco and René Herrera.
In 2006, these electoral council magistrates declared Daniel Ortega the definitive winner, with 38.7% of the vote. Montealegre received 29%; Rizo 26.21%; and Edmundo Jarquin, of the Sandinista Renewal Party (MRS), 6%. However, the great mystery of these elections was 8.7% of the votes which the Supreme Electoral Council never accounted for. That percentage could have made an important difference in the final numbers, and possibly triggered a second round.
“2006 was the crowning moment of Ortega’s ascent to Executive Power. The divided Liberal vote – between Eduardo Montealegre’s ALN and Jose Rizo’s PLC – is a well-known factor. But another factor that shouldn’t be overlooked is the considerable control that Ortega already had over the Electoral apparatus. Its greatest expression was that murky story of the 8% that was never clarified. It was never known, because they covered it up. Effectively, the final electoral results were never known,” Saenz noted.
After those irregular results in 2006, Ortega set in motion the third phase of his plan for absolute control. He already controlled the judicial, electoral and executive powers, and now set out to dominate the legislature. He’d eventually succeed at that, with the ever-present aid of his now weakened political partner, the PLC, and his tentacles in the Electoral Council.
“Since 2007, Ortega governed as if he held a qualified majority in the legislature. The PLC upheld the pact in the legislative arena, systematically voting with the FSLN. The divisionism in the Liberal parties was such that they ended up turning over control of the National Assembly to Ortega, by endorsing Rene Nuñez as president of that legislative body,” Saenz explained. “And that was a moment when the two Liberal factions could have taken control of the Legislative Branch.”
Electoral fraud on a larger scale
This allowed Ortega to dismantle the precarious framework of Nicaragua’s democratic institutions. His FSLN reinforced their presence in, and control over, the country’s institutions, via the legal apparatus and the Electoral Council. As a result, not even the reunification of the Liberal factions for the 2008 municipal elections could counteract what the expert called: “the best-documented electoral fraud in Nicaraguan history.”
“It was useless to go into the 2008 municipal elections with the slogan of ‘all together against Ortega in the PLC ballot space’. Montealegre endorsed that slot; even the MRS backed the Liberal candidates. But by now, the power of the pact and the control over the Electoral Council was so strong that Ortega and his followers simply divided up the Mayor’s positions. The Managua Mayoralty was stripped from Montealegre, through open fraud. They left Aleman as a lesser partner,” Saenz summarized.
A report prepared by the Institute for Development and Democracy (IPADE) established that of the “146 municipalities where there were mayoral elections on November 9, 2008, there was fraud in 46 (32%) of them; that is, a third. In the remaining 68%, the popular will was respected. The irregularities reported and confirmed during the two-months-long Ipade investigation included: massive challenges to the results from individual polling places; the alteration of official tallies registered in the Municipal and Departmental Electoral Councils; and massive annulling of votes, among other irregularities.”
As a result of these irregularities in the 2008 elections, the FSLN assigned itself 105 Mayor’s offices. The PLC received 37 and the ALN 4. The rest of the municipalities were divided up among the minority parties. Ipade itself was later forced to close. Its property has been confiscated by the dictatorship.
Control over the Legislative Power fully achieved at last
The 2011 presidential elections were characterized by a reunification of the opposition forces. They succeeded in uniting, in order to face the FSLN. Daniel Ortega was once again at the head of his party’s ticket.
Ortega then used his control over the Nicaraguan Supreme Court and the Electoral Council to violate the Constitution. Nicaraguan law, as established in that Constitution, prohibited him from running for a second successive term. The Ortega allies then initiated a legal maneuver through the Constitutional Division of the Supreme Court. The Court ruled that impeding Ortega from being a presidential candidate violated his human rights.
Once again, the Sandinista strongman evaded the padlock that would have prevented him from running for reelection. The Electoral Council complied with the resolution the same day it was issued, allowing him to run again.
By that time, the PLC was no longer a relevant force, and the dictator had no further need of them. The opposition grouped under the banner of the Liberal Independent Party. Eduardo Montealegre renounced his presidential aspirations to clear the way for a consensus candidate. That candidate was to be Fabio Gadea, a well-known journalist and radio station owner. For his part, Arnoldo Aleman returned to the electoral arena with the PLC, proclaiming himself the “manager” who would once again lead his party to victory in the elections.
Following the voting, the Electoral Council declared that 62% of the ballots were for the Sandinista Party, 31% were for Fabio Gadea, and only 10% for Arnoldo Aleman. The famous PLC-FSLN pact was now dissolved. That percentage of the vote gave the Sandinista party 62 seats in the National Assembly, a qualified majority. This majority would allow him to push through laws without the need to negotiate with any other political forces. It also allowed him to make unilateral reforms to the Nicaraguan Constitution. Finally, Ortega had consummated his control over the Legislative Power.
As could be expected, the 2011 elections were plagued with irregularities. These included problems with the vote counts, roadblocks put in the way of the international and national electoral observers, and political violence against those opposing the government. Fabio Gadea and his vice-presidential candidate Edmundo Jarquin refused to accept the result.
Part of the report from the prestigious Carter Center read: “According to diverse assessments including international and domestic observers, the 2011 elections in Nicaragua were not transparent, and none of the opposition parties accepted the results. Credible domestic and international observers catalogued a raft of serious irregularities and were unable to verify the election results. It is particularly telling that many of the problems stemmed from the election authorities rather than being remedied by them.”
Key reforms cement Ortega’s power
The results from the 2011 election smoothed the way for reforms to key laws and to the Nicaraguan Constitution “without the need for partners like Aleman. It also allowed them to reform key instruments of power, through the Police and Army Law,” Enrique Saenz explained.
Among key changes that Ortega was now able to push through the National Assembly was the removal of constitutional obstacles to reelection, making it a permanent option. In addition, he eliminated the minimum percentage needed for a candidate to win a first-round victory. The presidency could now be determined by a simple majority, regardless of the percentage difference with the second-place candidate. Finally, Ortega named himself Supreme Police Commander, and opened the way to limitless renewal of the Head of the Armed Forces position.
2016: the “electoral circus” and the establishment of a dynasty
With constitutional reforms tailored to his needs, Ortega sealed his destruction of electoral legitimacy during the 2016 elections. Using his power in the Supreme Court, he turned his sights towards eliminating any threat from the unified opposition in the PLI. Three months before the elections, the Court ruled that Eduardo Montealegre was not the party’s legal representative. In this way, they blocked presidential candidates Luis Callejas and Violeta Granera, as well as the PLI deputies, from participating in the elections.
That year, the dictator competed only against the tiny collaborationist parties. The process was marked by a high percentage of abstention. The Electoral Council issued crude tallies of the supposed vote count. Their numbers were questionable, both in percentages of votes and in deputies seats assigned to the Sandinista Party. The role of second political force was assigned to the PLC. Maximino Rodriguez, the PLC presidential candidate, initially said he was a victim of “electoral fraud”, but later accepted the final results and his allotted seat in the National Assembly.
The official election results minimized the percentage of abstentions in these elections. The Electoral Council reported an abstention rate of only 34.7%. However, reports from opposition parties that participated in the process, as well as national electoral observers, put this percentage between 65% and 70%.
Sociologist Elvira Cuadra explained that the phenomenon of abstentionism went hand in hand with the gradual control that the Ortega regime achieved over the Electoral Council. There was a great explosion of abstentionism in the 2016 elections, due to “the perception that the electoral system was controlled by Ortega, and therefore not trustworthy”.
The 2016 process was of major importance because of one key factor. It opened the way to the inauguration of a family dynasty, by naming Ortega’s wife, Rosario Murillo vice president.
“There was no win. Everything was prearranged. So much so, that people refrained from going to vote,” affirmed Cuadra.
“We can only call 2016 an electoral circus. Ortega did what he wanted. He excluded the coalition that was formed as the PLI Alliance, and he imposed his wife as vice president. He assigned himself the votes he wanted; he distributed legislative seats as he wished. And that’s where we’re headed in 2021,” Enrique Saenz warns.
A dark panorama in 2021
On January 12, 2021, Ortega announced that after the November elections he’d call for a dialogue with the country’s principal sectors. “The Sandinista Front is going to sweep everyone else away,” he stated at that time. He emphasized that his priority would be reviving the “consensus model” with the large business sector.
To sociologist Elvira Cuadra, pronouncements like this from Ortega, and the recent repressive acts, seek to end the idea of a plebiscite. Following the popular uprising of April 2018, and the regime’s violent suffocation of it through Ortega’s paramilitary and police forces, these 2021 elections acquired the tone of a vote for or against the regime.
“These elections have connotations of a plebiscite, because of the civic insurrection of April 2018. The uprising put into sharp focus the enormous citizen discontent. It reflected a political crisis that was already destroying the country. It elevated the importance of the political competition to its highest point. People demanded that Ortega leave the presidency, in order to put the country back on the road to democracy,” Cuadra believes.
In Cuadra’s view, the plebiscite factor in the 2021 elections is something the dictator will never allow. “Ortega will never expose his regime to a plebiscite, as occurred in Chile during the era of Augusto Pinochet. That plebiscite opened the way to a democratic transition in that country. That’s why, in addition to the control he already had over the electoral system, Ortega entrenched himself more securely with the repressive laws in 2020 and electoral reforms enacted this year.”
Carlos Tunnermann believes that hope still lies in achieving the unity of the opposition figures in 2021, especially among the presidential candidates.
“I hope that they’ll honor the commitment they signed in the document Unity First Nicaragua. I hope this is honored by the candidates. That they’ll allow unity to be achieved in deeds, since it couldn’t be sealed under law with the Electoral Law. It’s in the candidate’s hands to seal a unity of action, to succeed in naming one unique candidate to beat Ortega. The Good Will Commission is placing its bets on that. Over in that direction,” Tunnermann believes, “could be the way out of this scenario of division.”