The social outburst of April 18-19, 2018 established a political watershed in Nicaragua. It marked the beginning of the end of the Ortega Murillo dictatorship, but three years later, the country is still being crushed under the police state without having achieved democracy.
The self-convened protest demanding Ortega's departure and early elections unleashed a true civic insurrection. A new political majority, blue and white without party flags, stripped the Sandinista Front of its monopoly of political control of the streets, but was unable to remove it from power.
The institutional dictatorship that was designed to govern without political opposition in 2007, responded with Rosario Murillo's "Let's go all out" order, provoking the worst bloodbath in national history during peacetime. The slaughter of April and May, in addition to the "operation clean-up" perpetrated in June and July 2018 by police, paramilitaries, and FSLN activists, left more than 328 people murdered, 1600 political detainees, hundreds injured and tortured, and 100 000 exiled. Crimes against humanity that today remain in impunity, and place the demand for truth and justice as an inseparable pillar of the demand for democracy.
By becoming a bloody dictatorship, the Ortega Murillo regime lost its political viability. In 48 hours, its corporatist model of alliance with big business collapsed, which for a decade had given it political legitimacy to govern without democracy or transparency in exchange for economic advantages.
Since then, the dictatorship has been going through a terminal crisis. Without freeing political prisoners and reestablishing democratic freedoms, it cannot solve the political crisis - with three consecutive years of economic recession and social crisis, aggravated by the negligent management of the covid 19 pandemic -, nor does it have a reform or succession plan. But by holding on to power with a de facto state of siege and the backing of a solid armed and fanatic political minority, managing the macroeconomy reasonably well, he has shown that he will not fall under his own weight nor under international pressure, but can still prolong his agony for some time, at the cost of the deterioration of the country.
For Ortega, the long term is not important, only the day to day. His strategy consists of gaining time, hardening the police state with more police and paramilitary to prevent the people from demonstrating in freedom, as happened this weekend. In the same direction, it offers elections without guarantees of transparency or political competition, in which the power of the FSLN would not be at stake, to try to return to the pre-2018 status quo with the big businessmen.
The FSLN's electoral reform not only distances itself from the national consensus proposal presented by the Promoter Group and the OAS resolution, but also subordinates itself to the repressive laws dictated in 2020 to inhibit opposition candidates. The "reform" also maintains the FSLN’s party control over the electoral system intact, with elections that will be held without freedom of assembly and mobilization and under the control of the National Police, which is led by Daniel Ortega, the very same reelection candidate.
For those who had hoped that Ortega would yield to international pressure to avoid new sanctions, the leader has made it clear that he has already decided to go to elections without electoral reform and without international observation, even if this means placing his own government on the brink of the abyss of illegitimacy. Legitimacy, according to his own political calculation, does not come from the endorsement of the OAS, but from the participation of at least a sector of the opposition in the elections, together with the collaborationist parties, even though they do not comply with the minimum international democratic standards.
Divided between the Citizens' Alliance and the National Coalition and subjected to the blackmail of the electoral boxes of CxL and the PRD, the opposition faces the dilemma of whether or not to go to elections without guarantees, or to reject Ortega's offer united, presenting a political alternative to pressure for a change in the rules of the game. Since unity in a single bloc is unlikely to be achieved in the next 60 days, the only alternative is the active unity of all opposition forces and presidential pre-candidates who agree on at least three points: the demand for the suspension of the police state, free elections with democratic electoral reform, and the removal of the dictatorship from power.
The opposition should discard the mistaken premise that electoral reform will come about as a result of pressure from the OAS, the United States and the European Union, or that Ortega will modify his electoral reform proposal, negotiating with the satellite parties. National pressure and the re-launching of civic resistance in the new circumstances of repression, is the only thing that can snatch the suspension of the police state and a true electoral reform from the regime.
According to all polls, out of the eight pre-candidates of the opposition for the presidency, none of them have the advantage to win an election with a divided opposition. Certainly, there are candidates better positioned than others against Ortega and his competitors, but none of them have the political traction to win overwhelmingly in a context of opposition division. On the contrary, political arithmetic confirms that several of the eight could beat Ortega if there is an opposition alliance, even without democratic conditions, but none can beat the FSLN minority with a divided opposition.
The April Rebellion still has the opportunity to remove Ortega from power and dismantle the dictatorship peacefully, but first it must untie the knot that is preventing national unity. When what is at stake is the dispute between democracy and dictatorship, there is a struggle for control of power that is disguised as ideological differences, from left and right or even religious values. If the sectarianism of the political, business and ecclesiastical elites prevails, the division of the opposition will be inevitable and with the fraud machinery of the FSLN Ortega can remain in power for a few more years after the election, even if the country continues to plunge into the precipice of the economic-social crisis. On the other hand, if the leaders of these three sectors - CxL, the big businessmen, and the bishops - assume the risk of supporting unity in the action of the opposition to get out of the dictatorship, the only fear they must avert is the lesser evil of the uncertainty of democratic change.
This article been translated by Ana María Sampson, a Communication Science student at the University of Amsterdam and member of our staff*