Nicaraguans head to the polls on Sunday in a presidential election where the outcome is a foregone conclusion.
“Democracy is dead in Nicaragua. No credible conditions exist for democratic elections,” said Jennie Lincoln, a veteran election observer and at The Carter Center, founded by former U.S. president Jimmy Carter. “What they have engineered is a coronation of Daniel Ortega,” she added.
Ortega’s government has arrested 40 opposition figures, including seven potential presidential candidates, over the past six months, mostly on vague charges of conspiring against the state. Many are being held without proper access to lawyers or family visits. As a result, Ortega stands virtually unopposed, the result a mere formality that leaves many voters wondering why bother casting a vote at all.
Bianca Jagger, the former Nicaragua actress and human rights campaigner, called on the Nicaraguan people to stay home on Sunday “to send a clear message” to Ortega and Murillo, “that we refuse to be complicit in their illegitimate electoral process.”
Univision News correspondent María Lily Delgado, who is based in Nicaragua, was among a number of journalists targeted in a renewed government cracked down this summer, effectively silencing her. A Univision crew sought credentials to cover the election but was denied along with other media, some of whom have been physically prevented from entering the country.
Ortega, the longest-serving leader in the Americas, has rushed off mounting international pressure which will only intensify after Sunday’s vote, which critics are calling “an electoral farse.”
A September poll by CID Gallup found his disapproval rating to be 69% - and falling.
Ortega, the longest-serving leader in the Americas, accuses his enemies of conspiring against him with U.S. financing. A one-time left-wing revolutionary, he first came to power in 1979 as part of a coalition, led by the left-wing FSLN (Sandinista Front for National Liberation), that overthrew the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza.
Ortega was voted out of office in 1990 following a decade-long civil war involving so-called 'Contra' insurgents financed by the U.S. government.
In 2006, Ortega returned to power, rebranding himself as a devout Catholic and seeking to ally himself with the country’s conservative business elite.
He has since eliminating presidential term limits and added his widely repudiated wife, Rosario Murillo, to the ticket as vice president. He has also created a family business empire, naming several of his children to government jobs running state media outlets.
While the election result may not be in doubt, some Nicaraguans are already looking to the future, hoping that Ortega’s will pay a price for his brazen attempt to prevent free and fair elections. “I hope that a new game will start on Nov 8 after the electoral farse,” journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro, founder of Confidencial, who was forced into exile in Costa Rica earlier this year to avoid arrest, told an online forum on Thursday.
“We will have an aggravation of the crisis, in what forms it’s hard to predict,” he added.
Most Nicaraguans oppose armed conflict, hoping to avoid the bloodshed of the past, but at the same time there is little hope of peaceful dialogue.
“I don’t think there are the conditions in Nicaragua for this government to call a national dialogue that will have any credibility,” Chamorro said. “I would expect more international pressure to not let Ortega recover the political initiative and manage the situation as if nothing has happened,” he added.
“The international community can and must acknowledge that the elections are fraudulent, that they are occurring under conditions that are in no way democratic, and that, therefore, the results are illegitimate,” said Eric Farnsworth, Washington director of the Council of the Americas.
Josep Borrell, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, this week slammed Ortega as a “dictator,” saying he was staging a “fake” election.
“We cannot expect that this process will yield a result we can consider legitimate,” Borrell said.
The U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday approved legislation, which the Senate previously passed, to increase pressure on Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega amid his widespread crackdown on the country’s opposition. The House passed the legislation, known as the Renacer Act, in an overwhelming vote of 387-35 with strong bipartisan support.
The bill now goes to President Joe Biden for his signature.
The Renacer Act calls for broader international sanctions against anyone responsible for obstructing free elections in Nicaragua and human rights abuses. It also seeks to restrict loans to Nicaragua from international financial institutions, such as the International Monetary Foundation (IMF) and possible expulsion of Nicaragua from CAFTA-DR, a regional free-trade agreement with the United States.
So far, sanctions have proven ineffective and experts warn they should be used carefully. “It’s delicate because you don’t want to harm people who are essentially blameless, but the most potent tool to use in this circumstance is economic pressure. You have to hope and try to structure economic pressure so that it does not harm people in, for example, in the agriculture sector or manufacturing sector, who have no particular say in the Ortega regime,” said Farnsworth.
Congress’ passage of the legislation also came as a group of human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, condemned Sunday’s planned elections, citing an atmosphere of repression, forced disappearances and restrictions on civil and political rights.
Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas Director of Human Rights Watch, argues that only additional international pressure will force Ortega to back down, adding that the United Nations Security Council needs to examine the situation in Nicaragua.
Ortega’s survival in power had become a threat to the region, he wrote in a recent opinion column. “The growing list of political opponents sitting in Nicaraguan jails should serve as a warning for what happens when the rule of law is allowed to disintegrate,” he wrote in the Financial Times.
It emerged last week that the Ortega government has also employed cyber trolls to drown out opposition on the Internet. Facebook said Monday that it had shut down 937 accounts linked to the government of Nicaragua and the Sandinista party of President Daniel Ortega. The company described the accounts as an example of a “troll farm,” which it defined as attempts to “corrupt or manipulate public discourse by using fake accounts to mislead people… creating the appearance of a vibrant and diverse public debate," the report said.
Lincoln said the situation in Nicaragua amounted to an unprecedented power grab by Ortega. “In the history of Latin, there is no comparison to the scenario of this election. No-one, not even Pinochet (for former Chilean dictator) has imprisoned the political opposition like Ortega has done,” she said.
“There are simply no guarantees for a credible election,” added Lincoln, who spoke to Univision on the eve of departing on an election mission to Venezuela, where she noted that even the autocratic regime of Nicolas Maduro, had opened its doors to outside groups.
By comparison, Ortega has kept out groups like The Carter Center, inviting only his allies as “companions" (acompañantes) to the election.
“They are electoral tourists and should just go to the beach,” said Lincoln.