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Nicaragua votes in elections panned as ‘parody’ by international observers

After an iron-fisted crackdown on opposition voices this year, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega is widely expected to claim a fourth consecutive term at the polls this weekend, alongside his vice president and wife Rosario Murillo.
The vote is the first for Nicaragua since a wave of popular demonstrations in 2018 rattled the country, and the Ortega government is taking no chances, having spent the past months blocking political participation of potential rivals and closely controlling the electoral process.
Several possible candidates for the presidency have been detained in recent months. Journalist and former candidate Cristiana Chamorro Barrios — whose mother defeated Ortega at the polls in 1990 — was placed under house arrest this summer on nebulous charges (which she denies) over her management of a nonprofit. Her cousin, economist Juan Sebastián Chamorro García, who was running for president for another party, was also arrested.

In total, at least half a dozen likely presidential contenders have been arrested ahead of the vote, including former diplomat Arturo Cruz, political scientist Félix Maradiaga, journalist Miguel Mora Barberena, and rural labor leader Medardo Mairena Sequeira.

Dozens of other prominent critics and opposition leaders have been detained and investigated for alleged national security concerns, according to Nicaraguan law enforcement — moves that much of the international community has criticized as political repression.

Nicaraguans will also cast votes for the country’s National Assembly this Sunday — though under the current conditions, Ortega’s Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) is expected to claim overwhelming victory. Other parties are in the running, but none are seen as significant challengers to the incumbent government, according to the Americas Society/Council of Americas.
Furthering concerns that the deck is stacked in the septuagenarian leader’s favor and that of his party, the country’s Ortega-aligned electoral council has limited campaigning and the eligibility of political parties — creating what the Organization of American States Secretary General Luiz Almagro described in May as “the worst possible circumstances for an electoral process.”
Misinformation and the manipulation of social networks have emerged as another possible contaminant in the electoral process. Facebook last week said that it had removed a troll farm of more than 1,000 Facebook and Instagram accounts backed by the government, Reuters reported. The accounts had been working to amplify pro-government content, according to the news agency.
Throughout it all, the specter of Covid-19 still looms over the vote. Though the country has officially counted fewer than 20,000 cases and just 209 deaths since the start of the pandemic, health experts say the reality could be more severe than reported. According to the Pan American Health Organization, less than 20% of Nicaragua’s population has been vaccinated.
A motorbike drives past a banner of Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega, and his wife and running mate Rosario Murillo, placed on a mobile clinic, in Masaya on November 2, 2021.

‘A parody of an election’

The Ortega government’s tactics to stifle competition have prompted condemnation from democracies around the world. At the height of the presidential candidates’ arrests this summer, Mexico and Argentina recalled their ambassadors for consultations, citing “worrying legal actions by the Nicaraguan government.”

During a November 3 meeting about a new report on Nicaragua’s political repression by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, US representative Bradley Freden described the Nicaraguan election as “nothing more than a sham.”

“The event that’s about to take place on November 7 is a parody of an election,” echoed Canadian representative Hugh Adsett.

Nicaragua's looming election poses two challenges to the rest of the region

Earlier, on November 2, the European Union’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell had described Nicaragua’s election as so “completely fake” that it would not be worth sending independent observers.

“We are not going to send any electoral observation mission there because Mr. Ortega has taken care to imprison all the political contenders who have stood in these elections,” Borrell said, speaking in Lima, Peru.

Both the EU and US have imposed sanctions on senior Nicaraguan officials, including members of the Ortega-Murillo family. The US is also poised to levy further punitive financial measures after Sunday’s vote.

Ortega came to power as part of the Sandinista rebels who overthrew the Somoza dynasty in 1979, and fought against the US-backed contras during the 1980s. First elected in 1985, he has since demolished Nicaragua’s presidential term limits, allowing him to run over and over again.

Sixth Nicaraguan presidential candidate detained in 'night of terror' roundup
Increasingly, however, Ortega has retreated from the public eye, with weeks and even months passing between appearances. His wife Rosario Murillo is now the recognized face and voice of the administration, with an idiosyncratic daily radio broadcast.

Over the years, the pair have inexorably consolidated power, appointing loyalists to top government roles and exerting an increasingly tight grip on the country’s social and political spheres. Local press describe a climate of fear and intimidation.

“They’re fearful of losing their grip on power,” said Julie Chung, the Acting Assistant Secretary for the US Department of State’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs in June. “As such, that fear of democracy, I think, has contributed to triggering these kinds of actions, repressive actions, because they have no confidence in their own ability to have the people support them.”

Hundreds killed in protests

Anti-government protests in 2018, sparked by uproar over a plan to pare down the country’s social security programs, offered a striking example of the government’s intolerance for dissent: Pro-government armed groups arbitrarily detained hundreds of participants, attacked churches and universities where demonstrators were thought to be hiding, and allegedly blocked the injured from accessing medical care.

At least 322 people were killed then, according to rights groups, with thousands injured and hundreds detained. At the time, UN human rights experts accused the government of human rights violations against protesters. Ortega said the UN report was “nothing more than an instrument of the policy of death, of the policy of terror, of the policy of lying, of the policy of infamy.”

Hundreds of protesters and activists are believed to still be detained, according to a report by the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights in February, and over 100,000 Nicaraguans have fled the country, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Anti-government protests were subsequently banned. Even waving the country’s flag in public — a key symbol of the 2018 demonstrations — was criminalized.

Previous reporting contributed by CNN’s Taylor Barnes, Claudia Rebaza, Matt Rivers and Natalie Gallon.

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