Nicaragua: Protest Abstention, Dedazos and Electoral Farce

By Kenneth M. Coleman*

A group of people holding Nicaraguan flags and banners protest outside

Organized by the Sandinista dissident group Movimiento Renovador Sandinista (MRS), protesters took to the streets last year ahead of the general elections to demand recognition of their party, and free and open elections. Many members of MRS will abstain from voting in the upcoming elections. / MRS / Flickr / Creative Commons

The surge in protest abstentionism in Nicaragua’s presidential election last November appears likely to worsen in elections this November 5 – undermining the legitimacy of the Daniel Ortega government but not threatening its control.  The  Supreme Electoral Council, dominated by the ruling Sandinista Party (FSLN), proclaimed that 68 percent of the registered electorate had voted last November 6, but two more credible estimates – that of independent observers (closer to 30 percent) and post-election public opinion polls (50 percent) indicated a much lower turnout.  Non-voters come in at least two variants: the disinterested, disengaged, and poorly informed; and protest abstainers.  The evidence points to the latter reason.

  • Critics of the now-autocratic FSLN had nowhere meaningful to go electorally. In June 2016, the FSLN-controlled Supreme Court of Justice (CSJ) withdrew recognition of the Partido Liberal Independiente (PLI) from Eduardo Montealegre, a prior presidential nominee who had finished second to Daniel Ortega in 2006, and recognized Pedro Reyes, a political non-entity soon booted from party leadership.  Years before, in 2008, the government withdrew recognition from the Movimiento Renovador Sandinista, which included most of the well-known Sandinista dissidents (including author Sergio Ramírez, once Daniel Ortega’s Vice President, and several surviving members of the Sandinistas’ original nine-person National Directorate).
  • Focus groups organized by scholars at Florida International University (FIU) and follow up studies confirmed high abstention rates driven by unhappiness with the election. Interviewees said, for example, “There was no candidate who fulfilled my expectations for making the country better … none … capable of taking the country forward.”

Protest abstentionism appears likely to be equally high or even higher in the municipal elections on November 5, reflecting frustration from an unexpected source:  loyal Sandinistas opposing the imposition of candidates by President Daniel Ortega, and his wife and vice president, Rosario Murillo.  Adapting Mexican political discourse, many FSLN nominees for mayors, vice-mayors, and municipal councilors are now criticized as representing dedazos, candidates “fingered” from above.  Two unhappy Sandinistas told the opposition paper Confidencial on August 29 of their discontent.  “It hurts me … but that is what [the party] has left me… not to vote in the municipal elections,” said one in Masaya.  “They didn’t take the party loyalists into account [in picking candidates], so the party loyalists will not take the party into account in the elections in November,” said a former FSLN supporter in Corinto.

  • Associates of the old PLI, reconstituted as Ciudadanos por Libertad (CxL), have been granted legal registration – and intend to compete as long as the Organization of American States observes the elections. The OAS role remains unclear, however, prompting the initial CxL candidate for Mayor of Managua to resign his candidacy earlier this month.

What the opposition proclaimed an “electoral farce” last November seems likely to be repeated on November 5.  Ortega has taken steps to allow “same-day registration” of voters on election day – apparently to counter abstentionism – and recent reports of distributing cédulas (national identity cards necessary for voting) to minors have surfaced in La Prensa, presumably also with an intent to increase electoral turnout.  However, anger over dedazos may be deep enough to keep many members of the FSLN away from the polls.  In spite of high abstention levels, the Ortega family enjoys control over all branches of government – National Assembly, Judiciary, and Electoral Council – and continues to enjoy an implicit corporatist accord with COSEP, the leading business organization, while having long proven adept at undermining potentially competitive leaders.  Overreaching via the dedazos may have caused visible cracks in the partisan foundation of the dynasty – strengthening party dissidents’ portrayal of Daniel and Rosario as usurpers – but no leader capable of undermining their grip over governmental structures is yet visible or appears likely to emerge in the near term.

September 18, 2017

* Kenneth M. Coleman is a political scientist at the Association of American Universities who directed the 2014 AmericasBarometer national survey in Nicaragua.

Nicaragua: A New Family Dynasty Taking Root

By Aaron T. Bell*

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Left: Photo of Daniel Ortega celebrating his latest presidential triumph (July 20, 2012) / Fundación ONG de Nicaragua / Wikimedia / Creative Commons; Right: Anastasio Somoza DeBayle / DemonSabre / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

Events in Nicaragua this summer have demonstrated that President Ortega and his family have a vision for the future that erodes a key element of political democracy – the replacement of the executive through free and fair elections – and risks establishing a dynasty of corruption and authoritarian rule.  In May 2016, President Daniel Ortega of the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN) announced his candidacy for a fourth presidential term – his third consecutive.  Since then the government has taken several steps to ensure that Ortega and his family remain in power in November’s elections for President and National Assembly, and beyond:

  • Voting irregularities, a lack of transparency, and accusations of fraud have marred several successive elections since Ortega’s return to power in 2007. In June of this year, Ortega announced that he would not permit international election observers to monitor this fall’s elections.
  • Weeks later, the Supreme Court stripped opposition leader Eduardo Montealgre of his position as head of the Partido Liberal Independiente (PLI) and replaced him with Pedro Reyes, considered by observers to be an Ortega ally. In July, Nicaragua’s electoral council removed 16 sitting members of the National Assembly and 12 alternates after they refused to recognize Reyes.
  • In August, Ortega announced that Rosario Murillo, his long-time partner and wife since 2005, would serve as his vice presidential candidate in the November election. Murillo has been a prominent figure in the Ortega government while serving as both first lady and chief spokeswoman.  Her political ascension is complemented by the rise to prominence in recent years of her and Ortega’s children as operators of business and media interests, including the couple’s eldest son and presidential adviser on investments, Laureano Facundo, who helped sell the stalled interoceanic canal project to Chinese businessman Wang Jing.

Nicaragua’s opposition parties have thus far been unable to mount an effective response and have shown the lack of cohesion and focus that have plagued them for decades. Montealgre announced that the coalition led by the PLI would boycott the election and called on others to do the same.  But rather than present a united front, opposition leaders are fighting amongst themselves to seize the mantle of leadership and challenge Ortega through several competing parties and coalitions.  This will be no easy task: polling conducted by M&R Consultores this summer shows that over 60 percent of voters are likely to vote for Ortega, with the leading opposition parties drawing low single digits.  Over a quarter of potential voters said they were unsure whom they would vote for.  With the opposition beset by division and lacking much legitimacy – tainted as they are by a history of corruption, self-interest, and financial support from the United States – it is unsurprising that protests and civil unrest have been largely absent.  The ouster of the PLI delegates has also stirred the FSLN’s old opponents outside the government, who have been largely quiescent in recent years but condemned the decision: the Bishops of the Episcopal Council, the Nicaraguan-American Chamber of Commerce, and the Consejo Superior de la Empresa Privada (COSEP), the largest business chamber that has enjoyed a working relationship with the Ortega government.

The FSLN’s authoritarian turn, Ortega’s long reign, and the rise to prominence of both Murillo and the couple’s children invite comparisons between Ortega and Somoza family dynasties.  It may be from COSEP and the business sector, rather than among the weak and divided political opposition, that a serious challenge to Ortega could eventually emerge. It was after all the defection of non-Somoza family interests in the private sector, combined with a popular insurrection led by a guerrilla insurgency, that did away with Nicaragua’s previous family dynasty.  But that combination only emerged following the shock of the 1972 earthquake and resulting massive corruption, the assassination of a national figure like Pedro Chamorro in 1978, and the particularly bloodthirsty turn that the Somoza regime had taken. With similarly game-changing circumstances absent at this juncture, the sort of cross-sector revolutionary movement that ultimately toppled the Somozas appears unlikely.  For the moment at least, an Ortega family will be well on its way to firmly preserving its dynastic power come November.

 September 19, 2016

* Aaron Bell is an Adjunct Professorial Lecturer in History and American Studies at American University.

Nicaragua: Model for Citizen Security?

Police in Managua, Nicaragua / Photo credit: jorgemejia / Foter.com / CC BY

Police in Managua, Nicaragua / Photo credit: jorgemejia / Foter.com / CC BY

Nicaragua – often accused of keeping bad company on political and economic matters – finds itself in a special group of countries that are doing quite well combatting crime.  Along with Chile, Costa Rica, and Uruguay, it has one of the lowest crime and violence rates in Latin America.  At a discussion* at the Wilson Center in Washington this week (click here for video), experts identified factors explaining why these countries stand out, including the democratic traditions, relatively strong institutional frameworks, and economic stability in Chile, Costa Rica, and Uruguay.  Nicaragua, on the other hand, has witnessed dictatorships, coups, chronically weak institutions, and the sort of grinding poverty that fuels chronic security challenges.  Gross generalizations are risky, but analysts probed why Nicaraguans generally trust their police force and commit fewer violent crimes.

Among the key factors is that Nicaragua, like the other three top performers, separated the police from the armed forces and increased civilian control over it.  Unlike in the rest of Central America, where revolutionary movements did not triumph, the Sandinistas abolished the hated National Guard in 1979 and created a force under the Interior Ministry.  Over the course of the Esquipulas peace accords, the elections in 1990, and the passage of a Ley Orgánica de la Policía Nacional in 1996, civilian oversight was institutionalized and respect for human rights and judicial process grew.  The Sandinistas’ promotion of mechanisms for community vigilance – a negative when used to root out suspected “counterrevolutionaries” in the 1980s – later helped communities develop cohesive approaches to citizen security and contributed to respect of institutions.  Another factor is that, like the other three countries under discussion, Nicaragua has a relatively low gun ownership rate.

Chile, Uruguay, Costa Rica and Nicaragua have another thing in common:  none has resorted to the sort of militarized strategies toward transnational or homegrown crime that Colombia, Mexico and the United States have espoused.  The Nicaraguan National Police have generally maintained closer ties with their Scandinavian counterparts, who emphasize addressing the root causes of crime and violence – a philosophy that Nicaraguans of most political stripes embrace more readily than the emphasis on military-style operations.  The steadily worsening situation in Honduras, where Washington has pursued collaboration with the military, has convinced many in Central America that the militarized approach doesn’t work.  The mix of limited training and operational cooperation that the United States provides Costa Rica would probably work well in Nicaragua, but Washington – prodded by legislators who still see Nicaragua through a 1980s optic and condition cooperation on electoral performance – appears cool to fashioning a flexible package of joint initiatives.  Rather than applying the Colombian-Mexican security model to Central America, perhaps the successful elements of the Nicaraguan model can be expanded in the troubled region.

*CLALS Research Fellow and InSight Crime Senior Fellow Javier Meléndez delivered the lead presentation on Nicaragua.

A Nicaraguan Model for the Drug War?

Daniel Ortega | Photo by: Presidencia de la República del Ecuador | Flickr | Creative Commons

Bilateral tensions going back to the Cold War have obscured the value of counternarcotics cooperation between the United States and one of its least-favorite governments in Latin America – that of former Sandinista guerrilla and three-term Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega.  The man who battled U.S.-funded proxies, the Contras, in the 1980s is now the most effective soldier against the drug trade in Central America, although Washington appears loathe to admit it and to imbue the cooperation with political good will.  However, while closer U.S. allies such as Honduras and El Salvador have seen levels of violence climb, Nicaragua remains relatively safe.  According to U.S. government estimates, Honduras (with vastly greater assistance) interdicted more cocaine than did Nicaragua in 2011 (22 v. 9 metric tons), seized one-tenth as much heroin (8 v. 86 kilograms) and arrested only half as many drug-related criminals (84 v. 168) – but had a homicide rate six times greater than Nicaragua.

Managua has achieved its relative success with an approach quite different from its neighbors’ –less costly in both dollars and bloodshed.  Compared to the flow of allegations about human rights violations committed by the Mexican security forces, Nicaragua’s record appears clean and citizens feel relatively confident providing information to the police.  Its armed forces have been involved in drug interdiction, focusing on coastal seizures, often in cooperation with the U.S. Navy.  But the backbone of Nicaragua’s strategy has been a series of local initiatives such as community policing.  These programs focus on “juvenile delinquency, education, and reintegration into society by gang members and other young offenders,” scholars noted in a recent special issue of the journal Policing and Society.  Nicaragua’s geography may be a factor as well.  The cartels’ main routes to Mexico are through the northern tier of the isthmus, and Nicaragua does not have the same sort of migration patterns that shaped Salvadoran gangs, as Insight Crime noted last year.

Scaling up Nicaragua’s local solutions to fit Mexico would be an immense challenge because of the disparity between the countries’ size and history.  But elements of Managua’s approach could be tried and adapted in neighboring countries, particularly its emphasis on community policing and anticorruption efforts that help gain citizens’ confidence.  Within Nicaragua itself, some observers argue that the government should do more to integrate its Afro-descendant Creole population into these supportive measures.  Currently, these Creole coastal communities bear much of the effect of military-oriented U.S.-Nicaraguan counternarcotics cooperation, without the social assistance to deal with the underlying problems in the region.  As the costs – and limits on effectiveness – of the full-frontal assault on cartels become ever clearer, Nicaragua’s relative success stands as an important reminder that other paths are possible.