Nicaragua re-elects Ortega; opponents cry foul, call him a dictator

Nicaragua's reelected President Daniel Ortega with his wife and vice president, Rosario Murillo. (Credit: Multimedia commons, Russian Kremlin)

Nicaragua has re-elected President Daniel Ortega, whose government has been praised for continued improvements in poverty and violence rates but criticized for manipulating the political system to stay in power.

The outcome of the election was nearly a guarantee. A former rebel who first became head of state in 2007, Ortega is popular, particularly among the country’s poor. The 70-year-old president faced no obvious challenger, paving the way for his third consecutive term – the longest any president has held office in the impoverished Central American nation.

His wife, Rosario Murillo, has assumed office as vice president.

“This is a vote for peace, for stability, for the security of Nicaraguan families,” Ortega said Sunday in the capital city of Managua. “Some say that we don’t have proper elections here, because we’re not insulting each other, throwing messages of hate, banging the drums of death.”

Undeniable progress

With a history blighted by wars, crippling poverty and instability, Nicaragua remains the second-poorest country in the Americas after Haiti and has the lowest level of GDP per capita in Central America. Still, even Ortega’s staunchest opponents will admit that the country has seen significant economic gains since his election in 2007.

In what the World Bank has described as a “remarkable economic turnaround,” Nicaragua’s GDP has been increasing by an average of 4 percent to 5 percent annually, exports have doubled and inflation has dropped to low single digits. The country’s poverty level also dropped from 42.5 percent in 2009 to 29.6 percent in 2014, according to World Bank figures, with the percentage of those living in extreme poverty falling from 14.6 percent to 8.3 percent during the same period.

In August, the International Monetary Fund closed its office in Nicaragua, saying it had finished its job helping the country reduce debt and poverty and get on the path to sustainable growth.

Ortega’s supporters also praise his government for expanding access to education, public housing and social services and for addressing the violence and oppression of marginalized groups that plagues the region. Unlike neighboring Honduras and El Salvador, Nicaragua has cracked down on youth gangs to some success, and its community-oriented approach to policing has contributed to a relatively low crime rate. With this ‘soft approach’ to policing, Nicaragua has become one of the safest countries in the Americas with a murder rate lower than that of neighboring Costa Rica.

Degradation of democracy

Despite Ortega’s popularity, both national and international observers have expressed concern over signs of corruption throughout Nicaragua’s recent elections.

Nicaragua used to limit its president to one five-year term. A court ruling in 2011 allowed Ortega to run for a second term. Congress later changed the constitution to eliminate term limits. The move sparked outrage among the numerous opposition parties, who say that the Ortega administration has become a dictatorship.

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Some of the opposition called for a boycott of the recent election in the hope that low voter turnout would delegitimize the vote. But Ortega effectively stifled the opposition when, in July, Nicaragua’s top electoral authority unseated practically all of the opposition’s remaining lawmakers in congress.

Activists and opposition party members who have protested the elections have at times been met with violent attacks from riot police. The opposition parties, its members say, are weak and divided under the strengthening Ortega dictatorship.

Critics say Ortega’s refusal to leave office has also led to unease over the country’s growing economy.

“Concern is already growing among investors and big lenders who fear the economic harm of authoritarian rule,” wrote Carlos Chamorro, a Nicaraguan journalist and son of former President Violeta Chamorro, who was in office from 1990 to 1997, in an op-ed for the New York Times.

The United States Congress is considering legislation, Chamorro said, that would make it more difficult for Nicaragua to get loans from multilateral financial institutions if the country continues to show signs of high-level corruption and a failing democracy.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com