By Julia Ríos
MANAGUA – The Sandinista National Liberation Front, headed by President Daniel Ortega, crushed its political opposition in municipal elections on Sunday, further strengthening Sandinista control of the country’s political process. Sunday’s elections continue a process of power grabbing by Sandinistas that took a major step forward in presidential and legislative elections of 2011.
Sunday’s municipal elections were marked by high voter absenteeism, and with half the votes counted, the Sandinista party won control of 127 of Nicaragua’s 153 mayoral offices, a gain of 18. The Sandinistas picked up 75 percent of the vote tally so far.
A year ago, Ortega won re-election with 60 percent of votes, and his party won two-thirds of the seats in the National Assembly. Now, the Sandinistas have “absolute control over what happens [in the country],” analyst Sofía Montenegro told AFP. “And that is deeply troubling,” she added.
For Montenegro, Sunday’s low voter turnout “is a clear rejection of [a government] that has burned all its bridges in terms of communication.”
For the 12th consecutive year, the Sandinistas retained control of Managua. But they also won in traditionally right-leaning municipalities, some of them the battlefields of the 1980s war between the Sandinistas and the Contras, who were financed by the United States.
The right-leaning Liberal Independent Party captured 16 percent of votes on a national level and solidified its status as the top opposition party, while the Liberal Constitutional Party of ex-President Arnoldo Alemán (1996-2002) remained a distant third.
Roberto Courtney, president of the civic group Ethics and Transparency, said the municipal elections were “an enormous setback” in the political process, as the “necessary conditions for voter participation by those opposed to the government did not exist.”
While acknowledging that there was significant voter participation by Sandinistas, Courtney admonished the government by saying that “a rigged process is not convenient” for the country.
According to Supreme Electoral Council President Roberto Rivas, voter turnout was 57 percent.
Vilma Núñez, president of the nongovernmental Nicaraguan Human Rights Center, called the elections a “masquerade,” as she highlighted several problems voters encountered at polling sites across the country. She also criticized the “militarization” of polling centers and the ease at which ink used to mark the thumbs of voters was easily removed.
Nicaraguan voters elected mayors, vice mayors and municipal council members for a period of four years. A total of 6,534 candidates participated.
Since returning to power in Latin America’s poorest country, Ortega has elevated his popularity with a platform that combines populism and a strong alliance with leaders like Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. There also is an element of pragmatism to Sandinista policy, allowing the country to foster trade with the U.S., maintain relationships with local business owners and apply structural adjustments required by the International Monetary Fund.