Just over two weeks ago, Nicaragua held presidential elections. The incumbent, Daniel Ortega, who ran with his wife, Rosario Murillo as vice-President, dominated the election, winning with approximately 72 per cent of the popular vote. Nicaragua has experienced steady economic growth in recent years and has not experienced the same level of violence and homicides that have plagued many of their Central American neighbors. Additionally, the opposition are currently weak and fragmented, with Ortega’s nearest challenger, Maximino Rodríguez of the Partido Liberal Constitucionalista (PLC), gaining only 14 per cent of the vote.
Daniel Ortega, previously President of Nicaragua from 1985 to 1990 and a former member of the leftist revolutionary Junta Provisional de Reconstucción Ncaional that overthrew the Somaza dictatorship in 1979, re-gained office in 2006 and has adopted both a more socially conservative and business friendly stance. In 2009, he also sought to alter the constitution to allow him run for a third term. At the time, Ortega and the Sandinistas lacked the necessary 60 per cent majority in the Assembly and so were forced to turn to the Supreme Court, which overturned the constitutional ban on consecutive re-election, thereby enabling him to return to power in 2011.
In 2013, Ortega sought reform of 39 articles in the constitution, the most significant of which abolished presidential term limits; altered the election of the president; and increased presidential power. Specifically, the proposal changed article 147, and removed the prohibition on consecutive presidential terms and the previous, two-term limit. The reform also awarded presidential decrees the status of legislation (article 150), and allowed the appointment of military officers to the cabinet. The other major change involved the abolition of the current 35 per cent minimum electoral threshold for candidates in presidential elections, which was replaced with a requirement for a simple 5 per cent lead over the next nearest rival.
What is more, the opposition is weak and fragmented partly because of the actions of the incumbent. Critics allege that the Ortega government has actively manipulated the political playing field to undermine the electoral chances of his competitors. For example, with just five months to go before the election, the Supreme Court ruled that Eduardo Montealegre, the leader of one of the main opposition parties, the Partido Liberal Independiente, was no longer allowed to remain in that role. Additionally, opposition parties have claimed that the recent presidential election was in fact rigged and called for their supporters to boycott the vote.
Clearly, part of Ortega’s electoral success lies in the economic success of Nicaragua, its relative stability and a reduction in poverty since 2006 of nearly 13 per cent. But part of Ortega’s success lies in the increasing electoral authoritarianism of the regime. We have written before on this blog, notably with reference to Venezuela, about electoral or competitive authoritarianism, a coin termed by Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way in a seminal paper back in 2002. These are regimes that they describe as a ‘diminished form of authoritarianism’ and involve the reform of political institutions to centralize power and distort the electoral arena in order to stack the deck in favor of the incumbent. They are often accompanied by judicial reform and media manipulation. Nicaragua, as well as Venezuela, ticks many of these boxes, and indeed the recent electoral victory of Ortega with 72 per cent of the vote, exceeds the 70 per cent threshold that Levitsky and Way suggest in order to classify non-competitive elections. Echoes of electoral authoritarianism have also been heard in the Andes. Democracy remains, particularly the façade of procedural democracy, but it is of a much weakened variety.
 Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way. 2001. The Rise of Competitive Authoritarianism. Journal of Democracy., Vo. 13(2), pp. 51-65.