The presidential election in Nicaragua on Sunday, November 7 was neither free, fair, nor competitive. Unwilling to maintain even a superficial façade of democratic legitimacy, the country’s long-term president and former guerilla fighter Daniel Ortega made a mockery of the electoral process.

Over the past months, Ortega had detained all of his serious challengers along with numerous activists, business leaders, opposition politicians, and even former allies of the Sandinista movement—which Ortega had been instrumental in leading and which overthrew former president Anastasio Somoza Debayle’s regime in 1979. Those who were allowed to run against Ortega were not seen as serious contenders, leaving no doubt that he would win his fourth re-election. Not only did more than two-thirds of Nicaraguans consider the election to be illegitimate, but also polls suggested that, if the elections had been free and fair, Ortega would have received less than 20 percent of the vote.

Ortega’s Expanding Autocracy

Nicaragua’s democracy had been severely compromised for years. The president and his wife, Rosario Murillo, who is thought to be in charge of day-to-day decisions of government, tightly control the executive, the legislature, the courts, and the electoral authorities. Six months ahead of the previous presidential elections in 2016, Nicaragua’s Supreme Court barred Eduardo Montealegre—the head of the Independent Liberal Party, which was the leading opposition party at the time—from running.

Oliver Stuenkel
Oliver Stuenkel is an associate professor at the School of International Relations at Fundação Getulio Vargas (FGV) in São Paulo, Brazil. He is also a nonresident scholar affiliated with the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His research focuses on Latin American politics and foreign policy, as well as China’s and the United States’ role in Latin America.
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Several factors all suggested that the president—who lost re-election in 1990 and only became president again in 2006—had no intention to allow a return to democracy. In 2018, Ortega pulled out of a national reconciliation dialogue that was established after the large-scale anti-government protests that shook the country in 2018, during which pro-government paramilitary groups killed at least 300 protesters. And in 2020, he adopted harsh laws that laid the groundwork for eliminating any opposition in the country by judicial persecution—and used them to charge business leaders and politicians with vague crimes such as “undermining sovereignty.” And yet, the brazenness with which the government has cracked down, over the past year, on the media, opposition parties, and civil society is unprecedented in Latin America's recent past.

What’s Driving Ortega’s Autocratic Backslide?

Two factors can explain this swift deterioration. First of all, Ortega is aware of the fact that he has become so unpopular that even holding a partly free election would be too risky. The Nicaraguan government has maintained over a thousand fake social media accounts to influence public opinion ahead of the elections—a practice revealed by Meta Platforms (formerly Facebook), which recently announced that it had deleted a troll farm of false accounts. The existence of these accounts also signals that Ortega is well aware of public discontent, deepened further by a catastrophic handling of the coronavirus pandemic and a severe economic crisis.

At the same time, however, Ortega felt strong enough to imprison all meaningful opposition candidates and organize a sham election victory to hold on to power—showing that growing international pressure has failed to have a moderating impact on the government. The president’s grip on power is not weakening, and repression has deepened so much that a repeat of the 2018 anti-Ortega protests now seems very unlikely. In fact, given that Ortega would almost certainly be prosecuted and face jail time if he lost the elections, the incentive for him to retire from politics is small. Quite to the contrary: Ortega and Murillo have nine children, and several hold important positions. At some point, one of them may be groomed to succeed the president.

One of the few remaining actors who defends, to some extent, a critical debate, is the Catholic Church. Ortega, a former atheist, had largely co-opted it by embracing social conservatism—such as the criminalization of abortion—but the church became more critical of Ortega after the regime’s brutal response to the student-led uprising in 2018.

Why Hold Elections?

While having few qualms about imprisoning countless opposition leaders, it is noteworthy that Ortega still invested heavily in the trappings of a real election. While the president has rejected the presence of independent international election observer missions, the government mobilized allies from numerous countries, mostly lawmakers from Communist parties, to act as observers.

In the same way, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA)—an intergovernmental organization consisting of ten countries across Latin America and the Caribbean, including Cuba, Bolivia, and Venezuela—actively sought to legitimize Nicaragua’s electoral process. Evo Morales, Bolivia’s former president who retains significant political influence in the region, lauded Nicaragua for holding “sovereign elections.”

While international observers have rightly described Nicaragua’s electoral process as a “pantomime,” the situation in Nicaragua suggests the international community should refrain from using the term “election” at all—after all, voters did not have a real choice. Since all of Ortega’s serious opponents are in jail, the election lacked numerous hallmarks of normal electoral contests, such as debates and a free public debate about the future of the country. As a consequence, several opposition parties called on voters to boycott the elections, and observers reported a low turnout on Election Day.

Consequences of Regime Consolidation

First of all, the Central American nation’s economic collapse is likely to deepen, worsening an already historic migration crisis in the region. Economic instability is also set to adversely affect the country’s public security situation, an area where the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front had made significant progress since coming to power, especially compared to other Central American nations.

Secondly, the international community’s incapacity to positively influence developments in Nicaragua is likely to encourage other leaders with authoritarian ambitions elsewhere in Latin America. This is not to say that foreign governments and leaders across the Western Hemisphere have been quiet. In October, twenty-six countries voted in favor of a resolution at the Organization of American States that condemned the Nicaraguan government’s authoritarian strategy. Both the United States and the European Union have imposed targeted economic sanctions on Ortega and his inner circle, in addition to a U.S. visa ban on one hundred Nicaraguans affiliated with the regime. Even Mexico and Argentina, which had abstained from the resolution, have been openly critical of Ortega’s decision to imprison political opponents.

While one option for the international community would be to toughen targeted sanctions on Ortega’s allies, including the military, it would almost certainly backfire to impose broader economic sanctions, which could produce even more economic misery and emigration. At the same time, such efforts are bound to have only a very limited impact on the Nicaraguan government’s behavior.

In a region that once prided itself on a sophisticated normative framework to protect democracy and disincentivize authoritarian crackdowns—such as the Inter-American Democratic Charter, approved in 2001—those mechanisms have lost their relevance. Even if the Inter-American Democratic Charter were to be invoked in the coming months, it would probably not have a profound influence on Nicaraguan politics. This is particularly worrisome because Latin America, devastated by the pandemic-induced economic crisis and a sharp increase in poverty, is bound to be far more vulnerable to authoritarian-minded leaders (from both the left and the right) in the coming years.

One of the main takeaways of the collapse of Nicaraguan democracy for policymakers abroad is that the capacity of international actors to reverse democratic backsliding decreases significantly the longer authoritarian leaders remain in power. In the case of Nicaragua, the window of opportunity for meaningful dialogue has long closed. Yet even if it were still open, or if a strong, normative, regional pro-democracy framework were still in place, there is a broader problem. Latin America currently lacks political leaders capable and willing to mobilize the region around the goal of strengthening democracy. Unfortunately, Nicaragua is unlikely to be the last Latin American democracy to perish.