By so many different measures, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega is sitting pretty. His approval rating in June 2016 was 70 percent. One recent poll shows 65 percent of Nicaraguans are planning to vote for him in the November 6th presidential election. According to recently released Latinobarómetro data, Nicaragua has the highest percentage of respondents in Latin America (46 percent) who believe the country is governed for the good of everyone. Further, Nicaragua ranks fifth in the proportion of people (81 percent) who feel satisfied with their lives. Nicaragua does not face the same levels of crime as its neighbors. And none other than The World Bank sings the country’s praises for its higher than average growth and “disciplined macroeconomic policies.” After an April 2016 country visit, the International Monetary Fund issued a statement that was overwhelmingly positive, even praising the government for its “candor.
As Thomas Walker and Christine Wade note in the latest edition of their textbook on Nicaragua, for the average Nicaraguan “the revolution continues.” With this overabundance of good news, Ortega is a lock for winning a third term in the presidential election scheduled for November 6th.
So why is he cheating when he would win anyway?
The cheating is extensive. The Sandinista-controlled legislature eliminated presidential term limits and the Sandinista-controlled Supreme Court banned Eduardo Montealegre, the most relevant opposition candidate, from running. Ortega named his wife—Rosario Murillo—as vice presidential candidate. He refuses to allow any international election observers. Media outlets have found themselves increasingly harassed. He even blocked Christian missionaries from coming to the country prior to the election.
Why do this? Michael Shifter suggests that Ortega sees rough economic times on the horizon due to Venezuela’s economic collapse, since Nicaragua receives oil (with which it often buys food) through Petrocaribe. Further, Shifter predicts unrest related to the possibility (or perhaps probability) that his Chinese-funded canal project will never be completed. That project was going to be one of the biggest in the world, but now cows graze on where they broke ground with fanfare at the end of 2014. From this perspective he is amassing power in anticipation of losing future revenue and thereby getting squeezed economically.
Yet there is also clearly a strong dose of old-fashioned lust for power. No one misses the irony of the similarities to the Anastasio Somoza dictatorship that Ortega helped overthrow. The centralization, personalization, and perpetuation of power, the cronyism, and attacks on the opposition all have echoes with the past. Tied to that is paranoia, the fear that despite all the popularity, his enemies could find some means of defeating him.
Acting on paranoia in a democratic (or even a nominally democratic) political system is dangerous. There are risks associated with Ortega’s approach, which are similar to an “A” student cheating just to get a higher “A.” Using illegal means to bolster your own strong position can easily generate a damaging backlash.
President Richard Nixon knew something about the risks of cheating when you don’t need to. In early 1972, his approval rating was over 50 percent and climbing. Yet his paranoia fueled demands that his re-election team do whatever necessary to discredit George McGovern and increase Nixon’s margin of victory. Later that year he defeated McGovern in a landslide, with 60.7 percent of the popular vote and a 520-17 Electoral College victory. That would’ve happened even if he hadn’t broken the law. But less than two years later the Watergate scandal cut his term short with his resignation.
For this type of scenario to play out in Nicaragua, Ortega would ride a wave of acclaim to victory next month, but then find his supporters slowly peel away in distaste as his power grab accelerated and became more ham fisted.
Ortega is now getting negative attention from Luis Almagro, the Secretary General of the Organization of American States. Amnesty International is taking a closer look into the evaporation of rights. Even the left in the United States is becoming more critical of Ortega’s political maneuvers. On the domestic side, protests have developed over the past two years against the canal because of the impact both on local communities and on the environment; that could easily shift toward Ortega’s clampdown on the political system. In May 2016, police were deployed in response to a protest to the Supreme Electoral Council when it announced the November presidential election. “Protest Wednesday” has become a weekly fixture in Managua.
There really is no doubt that Ortega will win in November. The broader question is whether the coalition that supports him—which transcends ideology—will stand with him as political power in the country devolves almost entirely to him and his family. As Richard Nixon once famously said, “When the president does it, that means it is not illegal.” Ortega appears to agree, and we can only wait to determine whether the same hubris and paranoia has the same disastrous outcome in the long term for Nicaragua’s Nixon.