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Nicaragua's avowed anti-US leader Ortega eyes new mandate

MANAGUA, Nicaragua – He hasn’t officially started campaigning, but Daniel Ortega, president of Nicaragua, is widely believed to be aiming to extend his near decade in power by yet another term.

If that turns out to be the case in elections to be held in November 2016, the former Marxist rebel would be on track to tighten his grip on the Central American country, which is aligned with Cuba, Venezuela and Iran against U.S. “imperialism.”

A high popularity rating, currently at 54 percent, and a fractured opposition would pave the way for Ortega’s re-election.

Nicaragua is also fairly peaceful, especially when compared to neighboring Honduras, which has one of the highest murder rates in the world.

Ortega’s wife Rosario Murillo, who is also the government’s official spokeswoman and a Cabinet minister, is seen as either a partner in power or the éminence grise.

The president’s Sandinista Front party has not yet designated its candidate, but analysts have little doubt that Ortega will be seeking a new five-year mandate.

“It’s obvious he will run again. It’s a sickness — he believes himself indispensable,” a Nicaraguan sociologist, Cirilo Otero, told AFP. “He believes that. And we are facilitating him with our silence, fear or praise.”

A protester wears a mask of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega during a demonstration against the electoral system, in Managua, on Sept. 2, 2015.

Inti Ocón/AFP

The former rebel

Ortega, today aged 70, rose to power in 1979 when his Sandinista rebels overthrew the U.S.-supported dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza in a revolution.

Ortega was soundly elected president in 1984 despite an unsuccessful CIA-backed effort to topple his leftist government, but he lost office in the next election in 1990, and failed in the three following polls to win it back.

After 16 years in opposition, during which his hardline stance mellowed, Ortega managed to regain the presidency in 2006. He was re-elected in 2011 with 62 percent of the vote after a ban on successive terms was lifted.

“I have not a doubt that while he’s alive he will be the [party’s] candidate, even if he’s 90,” said Dora María Téllez, a Sandinista dissident. “Because part of his power source is his grip on the candidacy.”

Nicaragua is currently living through what looks curiously like an Ortega re-election push, even though its Supreme Electoral Council — stacked with the president’s allies — has not called on candidates to be declared.

Ortega has been highlighting what he says are his government’s successes, which include a reduction in poverty over the past five years and an improved economy that he boasts has been endorsed by international financial bodies.

But a political analyst, Óscar René Vargas, said the issues that Ortega highlights “don’t reflect the daily reality” in the country. A CID-Gallup poll has found that poverty, lack of jobs and the high cost of living are the most pressing topics for the public.

“I don’t want to say” that discontent “will result in a loss of votes, because it’s still way too early to make forecasts,” Vargas said. “But these social conditions could create a negative environment.”

See: ‘Trees of Life’: Nicaragua capital transformed into first lady’s new-age vision

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega waves to supporters during the celebration of the 36th anniversary of the Sandinista Revolution at La Fe square in Managua, on July 19, 2015. At the podium is First Lady Rosario Murillo.

Inti Ocón/AFP

A call for fair elections

For the country’s opposition, the problem is not whether Ortega runs again, but whether the elections will be free and transparent.

“If the elections are transparent and honest, if they are not stolen, then they [Ortega and the Sandinista Front] will lose,” said Téllez, an ex-guerrilla commander who backed Ortega during his first stint in power.

A lawmaker from the opposition Liberal Independent Party, Eliseo Núñez, agreed. “He has already lost four times. Really, if the elections are free ones, he will lose again.”

With just less than a year before the vote, the opposition is keeping up pressure on the government. Each week, small protests are held in the capital Managua and in other cities demanding electoral transparency.

However the opposition is split, unable to produce a strong leader to seriously compete with Ortega for the presidency.

“The big challenge for the opposition is unity,” said Vargas. “But I don’t see any indications right now that it has that.”

Still, the silence of the Supreme Electoral Council has started to attract the opposition’s attention.

“Once the electoral process is opened, political mobilization will intensify and Ortega wants to avoid that for as long as possible so as to keep his opposition under the club,” Téllez said.

Other factors may also be in play, such as Sunday’s legislative elections in Venezuela, Núñez said.

“It’s not so much the results [of Venezuela’s election] but the reaction of the international community if there should be some anomaly,” he explained. “If the reaction is strong, we will have more transparent elections [in Nicaragua] than the ones in 2011.”

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Give it another 20 years.
If they can enjoy some stability for a while, this nascent political entity will evolve.
Really, the biggest threat to democracy there is outside interference and poverty.
The intertwining of social institutions that create a vibrant society, takes decades to build at the very least and when a country’s stability is constantly threatened, its only option for survival is to create a defensive shield of military and iron-fisted control. The constant belligerence against them has not been productive as they are still in a state that is economically and socio-politically precarious stemming from the deep turmoil of the past.
I don’t hear anything supportive of progress there coming from the outside, do you?

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Ken Morris

Well, there is the usual mistake of calling Ortega a former Marxist, when he never was, and the usual practice of soliciting critical quotes from people such as Dora María Téllez, who can always be counted upon to say something against Ortega. (Though in this instance, Téllez is plainly wrong, since Ortega is plenty popular enough to win reelection without rigging the vote).

However, the main oversight in this article (again, as usual) is to fail to consider what the alternatives are to Ortega not running for reelection.

Realistically, those alternatives don’t include a candidate from the opposition winning. As the article notes, the opposition is in utter disarray, and even as a coaltion wouldn’t constitute an electoral majority.

The realistic alternative to Ortega’s reelection is that either his wife, Rosario, or one of his sons (the one he’s grooming seems to change) becomes president, and just for my taste, I find this alternative worse.

If you don’t like Daniel, just wait till you get Rosario or Daniel, Jr., and you’ll wish that Daniel was back at the helm. This is if either succeeds. There’s some thinking that if Rosario runs, one of Ortega’s less than law-abiding henchmen will take her out, and henchmen support for a son is also iffy. It could become a blood bath.

The longing for democracy in Nicaragua is understandable, and I share it, but at this point it’s not very realistic. Ortega currently controls not merely the presidency, but also the legislature, the courts, the elections tribunal, much of the media, and by some accounts the Chamber of Commerce. Take him out and democracy isn’t likely to sprout like mushrooms after a spring rain. More likely is a nasty power struggle in which the fragmented opposition won’t be more than pulverized combattants.

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Good catch on this article. This writer has put her finger on a key problem with dictatorial-type power in any former democracy. Still, it seems farfetched to say that more transparency will turn the election to the opposition.

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