Daniel Ortega, the president of Nicaragua, is about to accomplish a feat that is routine among dictators across the globe.
He has persuaded himself that he alone is suitable to lead his country till death do them part. To ensure that eventuality, he has arranged that no one else who might have a chance of winning may run in national elections scheduled for November.
Nicaragua’s descent into a new round of long-term dictatorship – more than 40 years after Marxist guerrillas overthrew the 43-year rule of the Somoza family dynasty – gets hardly an international shrug. The world is far more concerned with dangerous big-power rivalries, a persistent pandemic and widespread economic worries.
Nicaragua is a country of 6.5 million that mainly produces textiles, coffee and economic migrants. Unlike the case during the 20th century’s second half, when national liberation movements were widespread, Nicaragua now has no political influence – surrounded as it is by also impoverished but nonetheless democratized neighbors in Central America.
Still, Nicaragua serves as a textbook example of a long-running trend: the erosion of electoral democracy across the globe. Ortega has used partisan domination of government institutions to put a legal stamp on his crushing of foes. As is common elsewhere, physical repression and the silencing of critics spice what is in effect a constitutional coup.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the spread of democratic elections exemplified a new burst of democracy. Warsaw Pact countries and Latin American nations run by military juntas – Cuba excepted – embraced alternation of power through elections.
Some countries in East Asia followed the trend. In Africa, a few entered the democratic ranks by discarding lifetime leaders, though others remained and still remain entrenched.
As decades passed, autocrats began to turn the election into a ritual to distract from one-man rule. Russia stands as a case in point.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has in effect ruled Russia since 2000. Periodic elections are less and less contested because of concentration of power in the Kremlin, persecution of democratic rivals and suppression of independent media.
Via referendum, he canceled rules that limited presidents to serving a pair of six-year terms. Under the new framework, he can rule until 2036, should he triumph in the next two votes. The next one is scheduled for 2024.
This year, he jailed Alexei Navalny, a leading pro-democracy leader, anti-corruption campaigner and presidential hopeful. Putin also signed off on laws that criminalize opposition organizations. At a minimum, both actions pre-empt legislative elections this year in which he might have lost a commanding majority.
In neighboring Belarus, President Alexander Lukashenko, in power since 1994, held elections last year that were deemed fraudulent by many. Thousands of protesters took to the streets and police beat them down. Lukashenko jailed opponents while many fled into exile.
Former Soviet republics in Central Asia – Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan – are ruled by dictators who hold ornamental elections to provide their regimes a veneer of popular participation.
It’s much the same for rulers outside the former Soviet realm. As of June, five African heads of state have been in power for more than 30 years – in Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon, the Republic of Congo, Uganda, and Eritrea. More than half a dozen other African leaders have ruled for at least a decade.
It seems that every time an old potentate falls in Africa, others work to ensure their own political longevity. In Uganda, for instance, president Yoweri Museveni, 76, persuaded the parliament to let him run beyond the constitutional age limit of 75 years. He won a sixth term in January.
During the weeks leading up to the vote, police killed around 50 protesters, reporters were beaten in the street, and opposition politicians including the losing candidate were repeatedly detained.
In the Middle East, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who was first elected in 2000 by referendum, has shown remarkable, if brutal, staying power. He is a son of the late Hafez al-Assad, who took power in a 1971 coup. In a May vote against token opposition, Assad Junior won his fourth term, even as his country is absorbed in a 10-year civil war. Somehow, he garnered 98% of the vote, according to electoral officials.
So Ortega is well within the mainstream of old as well as aspiring presidents-for-life. He won his first, apparently fair election, for a five-year term in 1984, but lost the next three. He won the subsequent three elections, which, except for the vote that returned him to power in 2006, featured assaults on critics, ballot-box stuffing and elimination of rival candidates.
In 2006, Ortega dropped his Marxist credentials and reinvented himself as a devout Catholic. He promised not to touch private property. The vote was clean, observers and the opposition reported. Ortega won with just 38% of the vote against fractured rival parties.
He soon began preparations to rule for life. He stacked the country’s Supreme Court with members of his own party and the court returned the favor by ruling, in the face of a constitutional prohibition, that he could run for office again for a third term and beyond.
A few months before the 2011 presidential election, Ortega decreed that the government’s electoral oversight council, already dominated by his supporters, could overstay its members’ term in office rather than give way, as rules demanded. Outside observers, both foreign and domestic, were blocked from overseeing either the balloting or the vote count. Voting lists were inflated. Ortega won in a landslide. Much of the voting public boycotted.
In 2016, Ortega won again – after the Supreme Court (ever at the ready!) barred the leading opposition candidate from running and outlawed the coalition putting him up for elections.
Nicaraguans began to protest his increasingly authoritarian rule. In 2018, large demonstrations against Ortega’s rule took place in towns across the country. Police killed scores of demonstrators, according to human rights groups.
After the explosion of discontent – protesters routinely labeled Ortega an assassin – he is taking no chances in this September’s elections. A new law gives Ortega the power to classify citizens as “traitors to the homeland” and “terrorists” and ban them from running as candidates. Anyone who takes money from abroad or connects with foreigners may be excluded. Election observers can be banned.
Police have the power to prohibit public rallies. No opposition member was allowed to serve as a member of the electoral council, which is again stocked with members of Ortega’s party and other allies. The Supreme Court barred a main-opposition coalition from fielding candidates.
This month, five potential candidates have been detained on charges of threatening “national sovereignty” or “security.” At least a dozen news outlets are under investigation for “seditious conspiracy.”
Nicaraguans now compare Ortega to Anastasio Somoza, the president he helped overthrow in 1979. In its heyday, Somoza’s regime featured mass nepotism; he placed his relatives in lucrative industries.
The Somozas controlled large sectors of the country’s economy with their fingers in construction, shipping, airlines, television, newspapers, agriculture, fishing, breweries and mining. Anastasio Somoza placed uncles, a brother, cousins, sons and nephews in government posts throughout. His half‐brother was the second‐ranking officer in the National Guard, a key military support for his regime. A brother-in-law was ambassador in Washington.
By way of comparison, eight of Ortega’s nine adult children are involved in controlling an oil distribution company, running most of Nicaragua’s television channels, as well as advertising companies that receive state contracts. A daughter oversees an annual fashion fair in Managua. The ninth offspring was under investigation by former US president Donald Trump’s Treasury Department for money-laundering.
Ortega’s wife, Rosario Murillo, does double duty as first lady and, since 2016, vice-president.
The family inhabits a house in a posh Managua neighborhood that was confiscated from a banker after Somoza’s overthrow. Ortega claims he bought it for US$2,000. The family compound has expanded to seven other adjacent houses in the neighborhood.
As is customary, democratic governments across the globe have condemned Ortega’s anti-democratic moves. But the routines have little effect. Devaluation of elections is not a passing phase, but an existential strategy that autocrats abandon at their own risk.
Neither Putin nor Lukashenko nor the old dictators of Africa nor new ones like Ortega nor, likely, the emerging one in Myanmar that ousted an elected government last year will take a chance on the ballot box.
Losing power is far too painful to contemplate.