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The Hour of Aspiring Candidates in Nicaragua

The next 90 days will determine whether Nicaragua will have free elections or not on November 7th.

In the next 90 days

Carlos F. Chamorro

11 de marzo 2021


Less than eight months remain until November 7th, when Nicaragua is scheduled to hold their presidential and legislative elections. At this juncture, there’s no guarantee that the upcoming election will be free, transparent and competitive.

We’re living in a police state. The freedoms of assembly, association and movement are constantly breached in practice, along with freedom of expression and the press. There are more than 120 political prisoners in the jails. Meanwhile, the police and paramilitary are holding some 80 citizens captive in their own homes. Among those under police siege are four of the eight aspiring presidential candidates.

Danial Ortega has blocked the OAS and UN international human rights commissions from returning to the country. They’ve prevented any on-site observation that could certify safe conditions for the return of tens of thousands of exiles. In addition, the state of siege has been reinforced by the approval of four repressive laws criminalizing the right to civic protest. These laws threaten to inhibit potential candidates for the Presidency and Congress, so as to “legally” eliminate political competition.

Although the Blue and White opposition majority demand free elections, they can’t exercise any political rights. Meanwhile, the minority that supports the Sandinista candidate’s bid for a third consecutive reelection maintains a permanently active electoral campaign.

The State-Party-Family in power utilizes all the government programs – health, education, infrastructure and welfare programs – for this campaign. They condition access to public services on support for the “Comandante and la compañera” (Ortega and his wife VP). Those expressing disagreement face the threat of being blacklisted by the public institutions or falling victim to fiscal terrorism.

In addition, Ortega maintains intact the FSLN’s complete control over the Supreme Electoral Council’s chain of command. Their control runs from the highest magistrates, right down to the individual polling places. With less than three months until the OAS deadline for electoral reform, there are no advances or contacts that suggest a change. There’s no suggestion that the regime is willing to negotiate a reform that meets democratic standards.

On the contrary, it’s clear that Ortega has already decided to hold elections in a police state. Despite warnings from the Biden Administration and the EU, he’s planning to go forward without electoral reform or international observation. He’ll pursue this path, even though it situates his own government on the cliff edge of illegitimacy.

With this authoritarian logic, Ortega has announced his own “electoral reform” for the month of May. This reform consists of some “technical adjustments” to the electoral law, without ceding a millimeter of party control over Nicaragua’s Electoral Council. It’s a cosmetic “reform”, without the endorsement of the opposition or the scrutiny of the OAS. It would omit the right to international electoral observation. Unlike 1990, Ortega wants elections where his power and that of the FSLN aren’t on the line.

Without a true electoral reform, and without international observation, the OAS will have some dilemmas to resolve. They’ll have to decide whether to declare these elections illegitimate, or to award Ortega the benefit of the doubt. They can reward him for “making some steps in the right direction, albeit insufficient”, or declare the process undemocratic.  Meanwhile, the regime is betting everything on maintaining a divided opposition. They’re hoping the inscription of a number of opposition alliances will grant legitimacy to the voting process.

The opposition is left with two options. They can pursue the illusion that at the last minute international pressure will succeed in bringing electoral reform. Or, they can try to change the political balance of power by reviving national pressure for free elections without a police state.

Despite the despair that predominates in Nicaragua, the emergence of eight aspiring presidential candidates has generated new hope. The eight candidates are competing for leadership of an opposition unity that is still under construction.

The pre-candidates represent a broad swath of the national political spectrum. Among them are:

  • Medardo Mairena: rural leader and former political prisoner
  • Felix Maradiaga: political scientist and National Blue and White Unity candidate
  • Cristiana Chamorro: former president of the Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation,
  • Juan Sebastian Chamorro: economist and former Civic Alliance director
  • Miguel Mora: journalist and released political prisoner
  • Arturo Cruz: diplomat, historian and professor
  • Luis Fley: former counterrevolutionary commander
  • George Henriquez: Creole leader from the Atlantic Coast.

All support the creation of an alliance between the two existing opposition blocs, the National Coalition and the Citizens’ Alliance. They demand that the two blocs unite and eventually appear as one slot on the ballot. Complicating matters for the candidates, only two opposition parties currently have legal status: Citizens for Liberty and Democratic Restoration. The former currently belongs to the Citizens’ Alliance and the latter to the National Coalition. All eight candidates say they’ll support a “single final candidate” to be selected through democratic competition. If these promises are upheld, the aspiring candidates could represent the last chance for a united opposition to reawaken national pressure.

The opposition, however, is fighting against time. The November 7th elections haven’t even been officially declared. The next 90 days will be crucial in determining whether or not there’ll be free and competitive elections. According to electoral calendars used in the past, parties and alliances may be asked to register in June. Presidential and congressional candidates may be required to register in July. The political campaign would then run from August to November.

As a result, the opposition must move up their timelines, so as to culminate their alliance and select their candidates in May. Only that way will they be able to decide as one unified bloc whether conditions exist to go forward to elections. They would then have to decide how to confront the regime’s plans to inhibit their candidates and thus annul possible electoral competition.

In the next 90 days, the aspiring candidates could put a fatal, final stamp on the opposition’s division.  Or, they could cement its unity, by calling together for civic resistance. In unity, they could call on citizens to demand the suspension of the police state. They could support demands for the liberation of the political prisoners and the restitution of the right to free elections.

Finally, the opposition must resolve the main challenge to the consolidation of an opposition alliance. That’s not the selection of the presidential formula, but the selection of the 90 candidates for the legislature. Will these be chosen through rules of democratic competition and representation? Will they include leaders of the civic movements that arose from the April rebellion? Or, will the deputy positions be doled out with the “big spoon” among the two parties who can legally appear on the ballot?

In the end, the answer to those questions will determine if there’ll be a unified opposition. Or, conversely, if the sectarianism currently seen in the Citizens for Liberty party will dominate. That latter road will lead to the division of the opposition. Such division, in turn, would mean handing Ortega the victory, with or without fraud, on November 7th.


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Carlos F. Chamorro

Carlos F. Chamorro

Periodista nicaragüense, exiliado en Costa Rica. Fundador y director de Confidencial y Esta Semana. Miembro del Consejo Rector de la Fundación Gabo. Ha sido Knight Fellow en la Universidad de Stanford (1997-1998) y profesor visitante en la Maestría de Periodismo de la Universidad de Berkeley, California (1998-1999). En mayo 2009, obtuvo el Premio a la Libertad de Expresión en Iberoamérica, de Casa América Cataluña (España). En octubre de 2010 recibió el Premio Maria Moors Cabot de la Escuela de Periodismo de la Universidad de Columbia en Nueva York. En 2021 obtuvo el Premio Ortega y Gasset por su trayectoria periodística.