What next for Nicaragua as Ortega prepares for fourth term?

Nicaragua faces critical moment after contentious vote, as experts say nation could see more repression, rights abuses.

Daniel Ortega presided over a government crackdown the saw his political opponents detained before the election [Stringer/Reuters]

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega has secured a fourth consecutive term in Sunday’s elections, despite facing a chorus of criticism from rights groups, opposition figures and international observers who decried the vote as “a sham”.

The Sandinista leader, who ran alongside his wife and vice-presidential candidate Rosario Murillo, secured 76 percent support, the Electoral Supreme Council (CSE) said late on Monday after a preliminary tally of the votes.

“This day we are standing up to those who promote terrorism, finance war, to those who sow terror, death,” Ortega said on Sunday, as he once again hit out at his opponents.

But the vote was held after a months-long government crackdown on dissent, as dozens of opposition figures – including seven presidential hopefuls – were detained in what rights groups said was an effort to guarantee Ortega’s re-election.

Several other opposition leaders have been forced into exile, often to neighbouring Costa Rica, while dissident groups abroad had called on Nicaraguans to boycott Sunday’s vote in protest of the arrest campaign.

Now, with Ortega set to begin another five-year term as president in January, political analysts and experts said Nicaragua is facing a critical moment – and they warned that the Central American nation could witness a further deterioration of human rights.

“There’s no light at the end of the tunnel right now,” said Jennie Lincoln, a senior adviser to The Carter Center, a United States-based group that helped validate the fairness of Ortega’s 2006 election but found “significant deficiencies” when he won re-election five years later.

“The election day is going to come and go, and the situation for the people who are imprisoned isn’t going to change, the position of the opposition and the heavy, heavy boot print on them is not likely to change,” Lincoln told The Associated Press.

Voter turnout

Some 4.5 million Nicaraguans were eligible to vote on Sunday for president and vice president, as well as the National Assembly and Nicaragua’s representation in the Central American Parliament.

But with the country’s main opposition jailed or barred from participating, just five little-known candidates of mostly small parties allied to Ortega’s Sandinistas were allowed to run against him.

The CSE said turnout was 65 percent, but Open Ballot Boxes, an opposition effort to observe the elections, said that its more than 1,450 monitors around the country estimated an average turnout of about 18 percent.

Both Ortega, who governed Nicaragua from 1979 to 1990 before returning to power in 2007, and Murillo welcomed the results, with Murillo calling the vote “the first sovereign elections in Nicaragua’s history”.

Russia, Cuba, and Venezuela expressed their backing of Ortega, while the US, UK and EU slammed the vote, with US President Joe Biden accusing Ortega and his wife of orchestrating a “pantomime election that was neither free nor fair”.

As the preliminary vote tally was released on Monday, Amnesty International said a citizens’ electoral observatory called Urnas Abiertas had reported more than 200 acts of political violence and electoral coercion on Sunday.

That included “the presence of parapolice forces in the vicinity of the voting stations, as well as intimidation and coercion of state workers to force them to vote”, the human rights group said in a statement.

“Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo’s renewed mandate as president and vice president augurs the perpetuation of the structures behind the repressive strategy against critical voices and guaranteed impunity for crimes under international law,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Amnesty’s Americas director.

A man sings Nicaragua’s national anthem during a march of Nicaraguans exiled in Costa Rica to protest against the presidential election, on November 7 [Mayela Lopez/Reuters]

‘Difficult year’ ahead

Other experts have said Nicaraguans could face tough months ahead, as the international community – which has already issued a string of sanctions against Ortega’s government in recent months – weighs its response to the election.

Already, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said the Biden administration would deploy sanctions and other measures “to promote accountability for those complicit in supporting the Ortega-Murillo government’s undemocratic acts”. That was echoed by the US special envoy for Central America, Ricardo Zuniga, on Tuesday.

The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said the bloc would “consider all instruments at our disposal to take additional measures” against Ortega’s “autocratic” regime.

Meanwhile, the Organization of American States (OAS), which has strongly criticised the opposition arrests, will discuss the issue later this week at a General Assembly, where Nicaragua risks suspension.

Next year “will be a decidedly difficult year for the government, but also for the population, both in economic and political terms”, Elvira Cuadra, security and governance expert at Nicaragua’s IEEPP political studies institute, told the AFP news agency.

But political analysts said increasing isolation is unlikely to force Ortega’s hand; instead, it could worsen an already dire economic crisis in Nicaragua and fuel migration.

More than 103,600 people already left the country since mass anti-government protests broke out in 2018. More than 300 people were killed in the ensuing government crackdown on the demonstrations, while more than 1,600 others were arrested, according to a tally by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

“Not recognising the legitimacy of an election does not function like a magic wand which transforms the situation of democratic collapse in Nicaragua,” said Kevin Casas of the Stockholm-based Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.

Nicaraguan political analyst Enrique Saenz also said that “Ortega has no instrument to reverse the political crisis, the international isolation and the social expressions of the crisis, such as unemployment, underemployment and poverty”.

“Ortega only has repression and repression is not enough to indefinitely subdue the rejection of the population.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies