Another president-for-life looms for Nicaragua

There’s rarely any shortage of governments wanting to manipulate election laws to their own advantage. Readers might recall recent cases in Pennsylvania, Italy and Israel, but examples could easily be multiplied. Now there’s the rather interesting case of Nicaragua to add to the list.

Nicaragua’s time of international fame was the 1980s, when it was ruled by the Marxist Sandinista National Liberation Front, which was in turn subject to a sustained campaign of subversion by the United States. The Reagan administration illicitly funded an armed insurgent movement known as the Contras, and defence of the Sandinistas became a trademark of fashionable leftism across the western world.

But the Sandinista government of president Daniel Ortega ultimately fell, not to the insurgency but to a democratic election, in 1990. As I put it a few years ago, “This was embarrassing in about equal measure for the US, which had said Ortega would never agree to fair elections, and for the left, who had assured everyone that the Sandinistas enjoyed overwhelming popular support.”

Despite its tumultuous history, Nicaragua has a fairly conventional Latin American political system. There’s a separation of powers between legislature and executive, and the executive is headed by a president elected by a nationwide ballot over two rounds.

In order to avoid the runoff, a candidate has to either win 40% of the vote on the first round (reduced from 45% in 2000), or win 35% and be more than 5% clear of the second placegetter. And it was with that second requirement that Sandinista leader Ortega returned to the presidency at the 2006 election: although he had only 38.1%, his two main opponents split their vote evenly, with 29.0% and 26.2%.

If an absolute majority had been required, it’s unlikely that Ortega would have won. But in 2011, after the Supreme Court had controversially read down the term limits in the Nicaraguan constitution, he had much less difficulty, winning re-election with 62.5% in the first round. Various irregularities were alleged, but it’s hard to believe they would have been enough to overturn that sort of margin.

The Sandinistas also won a large majority in the National Assembly, removing any barrier to constitutional change. So now Ortega is leaving even less to chance. This week, the National Assembly approved constitutional amendments that removed the term limits altogether and also scrapped the threshold for first round election (or, according to other sources, reduced it to a derisory 5%), effectively instituting a first-past-the-post system.

Ortega is 68, and on the strength of these moves it would appear he intends to stick around. Prior to the 2006 election he claimed to have reinvented himself as a mainstream social democrat, but in government he has veered back towards the hard left. Most notoriously, perhaps, he was one of the last public supporters of Colonel Gaddafi during the Arab Spring of 2011.

Once upon a time, it was the right that headed the resistance to democracy in Latin America – a role it’s still quite capable of performing on occasion. But in recent years, dictatorial tendencies on the left have become more apparent. Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, and of course the late Hugo Chávez in Venezuela have all built personality cults with many of the trappings of authoritarianism.

Democracy still survives in those countries, but it is not in great shape. Their leaders’ admiration for Cuba gives a worrying sign of where things may be headed. Compared to them, Nicaragua is a minor player, but its history gives this week’s manoeuvres a particular resonance.

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