With elections a year away, opposition to Ortega splits in Nicaragua

. Nov 06, 2020
President Daniel Ortega portrait is frequently displayed in public places. Photo: Barna Tanko/Shutterstock President Daniel Ortega's portrait is frequently displayed in public places. Photo: Barna Tanko/Shutterstock

In Central America, the 6.4-million inhabitants of Nicaragua held high expectations for 2021. With next year’s general elections, the hope was to finally overthrow President Daniel Ortega, who has ruled the country since 2006. Once a socialist freedom fighter, leading the Sandinista Revolution in the 1980s, Mr. Ortega has gradually turned into exactly what he once fought against: from an idyllic revolutionary to an authoritarian leader. And he wants more. 

For the opposition and civil society, patience ran out in 2018. After a major reform to the Nicaraguan pension system, people rose up in protests that were brutally repressed by the government.

More than 300 people were killed with the support of pro-regime paramilitary groups, thousands were held as political prisoners, NGOs and human rights groups were shut down, and <a href="">journalists</a> and opposition figures went into forced exile.</p> <p>To make matters worse, the country’s economy was directly affected by the turmoil. In 2018 and 2019, Nicaragua&#8217;s GDP shrank 3.9 and 3.8 percent respectively, according to data from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).</p> <p>The solution to end &#8220;Orteguismo&#8221; was perceived as being at the polls, with the opposition forming a broad united front that would topple the government come 2021. Gathering forces to defeat Mr. Ortega&#8217;s Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), seven political parties united to form the National Coalition, which officially began operations in January 2020.</p> <p>However, while initially managing to threaten the government — providing a credible counterpoint to Mr. Ortega&#8217;s <a href="">complete Covid-19 denialism</a> during the pandemic — the marriage of opposition forces was short-lived. One year before the November 2021 elections, members of the Civil Alliance for Justice and Democracy party — one of the leading factions of the National Coalition — announced its separation from the bloc.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img loading="lazy" width="1000" height="668" src="" alt="Anti- Ortega rally in Managua, the capital of Nicaragua" class="wp-image-52331" srcset=" 1000w, 300w, 768w, 600w" sizes="(max-width: 1000px) 100vw, 1000px" /><figcaption>Anti-Ortega rally in Managua, the capital of Nicaragua. Photo: Will Ulmos/Shutterstock</figcaption></figure> <p>In a statement, the departing party said its decision was related to disagreements with other organizations, and because “the coalition still does not have enough popular support” to overcome the Ortega government, which it calls &#8220;a dictatorship.&#8221;</p> <p>While this may sound like good news for the president, experts are skeptical on the repercussions. According to Jorge E. Cuéllar, assistant professor in Latin American studies at Dartmouth College, an internal dispute coming so close to the electoral process is not a perfect scenario for the opposition, but it could also show strategy. Especially when it comes to a democratic attempt to defeat an increasingly antidemocratic and long-lasting government.&nbsp;</p> <p>“It is not necessarily a failure of the work created by the coalition, but an expansion of the strategies,&#8221; Mr. Cuéllar tells <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong>. &#8220;Its current fragmentation also means that the group realized that they still don’t have enough to be effective in changing Ortega’s policies, and there are new strategies required to move the debate around.”</p> <p>Indeed, triumphing over the ruling Ortega government is not simply a matter of winning an election. Besides suppressing allies, the Congress in Manágua approved a law in October labeling organizations that receive any sort of financial aid from other countries as &#8220;foreign agents.&#8221; The government claims that the measure seeks to combat foreign interference in domestic politics, while the opposition says the law undermines parties’ capacity for organization, as many opposing bodies inside the National Coalition depend on remittances and international donations.&nbsp;</p> <h2>The future for the National Coalition</h2> <p>One of the symbols of Daniel Ortega’s much-criticized legacy is First Lady and Vice President Rosario Murillo, nicknamed &#8220;The Witch&#8221; by the opposition, due to her ultra-religious and &#8220;mystical&#8221; habits. Earlier this year, she <a href="">called for a Catholic street parade</a> to &#8220;fight the coronavirus&#8221; and called members of the National Coalition &#8220;malevolent&#8221; and &#8220;ridiculous devils.&#8221;</p> <p>The National Coalition that exists today was formed by the Blue and White National Unity (UNAB) party, which made a similar attempt in 2015, before losing to Daniel Ortega in the 2016 election — precisely the outcome the opposition does not want to experience a second time.</p> <p>Yet, the uncertainty around Nicaragua’s electoral process worries former diplomatic representatives working in Managua. One source heard by <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong> said that even if the National Coalition remains together until the election, it is “far from being a monolithic movement.”&nbsp;</p> <p>“The Nicaraguan electoral system allows for a president to be elected in the first round. The division of any opposition therefore decreases the chances of winning. However, if it is really necessary [to rebuild a coalition], it is better to ‘explode’ now than during the campaign,” the source said.&nbsp;</p> <p>Much of the fears are about the integrity of the elections themselves, with former diplomats calling free and fair voting &#8220;wishful thinking,&#8221; citing fears about the police harassment of the opposition.</p> <p>This year marks the 30th anniversary of the election of Violeta Chamorro — the country&#8217;s first non-Sandinista civilian president since Daniel Ortega took power after the 1979 revolution. Ms. Chamorro’s election symbolized the existence of an organized opposition that seems to be a far cry from the scenario.&nbsp;</p> <p>Now, three decades later, an increasingly authoritarian Mr. Ortega faces a yet-to-be-defined coalition among charges of fraud, as the country tries to turn a seemingly never-ending page in history, or whether President Ortega will continue to perpetuate himself in power.

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Lucas Berti

Lucas Berti covers international affairs — specialized in Latin American politics and markets. He has been published by Opera Mundi, Revista VIP, and The Intercept Brasil, among others.

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