Daniel Ortega’s New Kind of Coup

Managua, Nicaragua – Amid accusations of fraud and expressions of serious doubt by international observers, Daniel Ortega’s re-election as Nicaragua’s president constitutes a new kind of “incumbent’s” coup – one that establishes a dangerous precedent for Latin America. What to do about it poses a grave dilemma for the Organization of American States (OAS).

According to the European Union’s electoral observers, there was a “serious loss” in the election’s democratic quality, while Nicaragua’s own election monitors, its chamber of commerce, and the Episcopal Conference of the Catholic Church called the voting “not transparent” and demanded the resignation of the entire Supreme Electoral Council. Unfortunately, the OAS – though bound by the Inter-American Democratic Charter – has failed to act, revealing that it is not prepared to address the gray areas of electoral fraud.

Fight corporate influence by keeping independent media strong! Click here to make a tax-deductible contribution to Truthout.

Ortega’s re-election to a third term, prohibited by Nicaragua’s constitution, completes the last stage of a “coup from above,” in which a government that came to power as a democratically elected political minority in 2006, uses its control of state institutions – the courts and electoral machinery, in particular – to undermine the rule of law. With his widely documented history of fraud in the 2008 municipal elections, Ortega is on his way to becoming Latin America’s Robert Mugabe.

In most of Latin America, electoral fraud has become a thing of the past. Ortega’s victory, achieved by emulating the machinations of Mexico’s long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and of Alberto Fujimori’s elected dictatorship in Peru in the 1990’s, strongly suggests that Latin American democracy remains fragile.

The November 6 elections set a record for lack of transparency, so much so that the EU observers declared them to be “not verifiable,” while the OAS envoy, Dante Caputo, confirmed that his observers were arbitrarily expelled from 20% of the electoral boards selected for monitoring. The opposition estimates that, at more than a third of the polling stations, Ortega’s Sandinista party counted the votes alone because the opposition PLI alliance was not allowed to have supervisors present.

The irony is that Ortega didn’t need to steal the election in order to win, even by a considerable margin; pre-election polls gave him a clear advantage. Why, then, did he not choose to organize transparent elections?

With his authoritarian mindset, Ortega instinctively rejects the norms of representative democracy. His behavior reflected his conviction that only party control of the electoral apparatus can guarantee an overwhelming parliamentary majority.

The outcome of the election, which gave Ortega 62% of the vote, provides him a comfortable majority in the National Assembly, allowing him to pursue constitutional reforms and modify the political system as he pleases. He now holds all governmental power in a regime that combines state, party, and family, and that is advancing toward co-optation of the army and the police. The only visible counterweights are civil society’s democratic organizations and an independent press, whose freedoms have been drastically reduced, and a new political opposition that has yet to establish its credentials through a strategy of resistance.

Ortega’s model, “Christianity, socialism, and solidarity,” is very different from that of his peers in the Alianza Bolivariana (ALBA), headed by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. Beyond the revolutionary rhetoric and the personality cult surrounding Ortega and his wife, Rosario Murillo, he is politically authoritarian, economically pro-business, and socially populist.

Thus, contrary to Chávez and his state interventionism, Ortega ensures the continuity of neoliberal economic policies backed by the International Monetary Fund. Indeed, he promotes an alliance with big money in the grand style of Anastasio Somoza, the dictator who was overthrown by Ortega’s Sandinistas in 1979. Somoza famously told business leaders: “You make money, and I’ll take care of politics.”

But the key factor explaining Ortega’s strength is not cautious economic management, but rather the political impact of Venezuelan money, inflows of which have been privatized and are therefore not subject to normal mechanisms of public accountability. An estimated $500 million dollars is dispersed by Chávez to Nicaragua annually – the equivalent of 7% of GDP. Nearly $2 billion was sent during Ortega’s previous term. These funds are earmarked for private businesses and party campaigns, but also to finance welfare programs under a model of political patronage known as “gifts from the Commandante.”

Ortega’s re-election thus represents a political triumph for the ALBA, but it also demonstrates his regime’s dependence on Chávez’s re-election in 2012. Ortega’s third term as president may not immediately alarm neighboring governments in Central America, but how it plays out does raise uncertainty in the longer term.

One possible scenario is that the regime consolidates itself and temporarily resolves its legitimacy crisis with economic aid from Chávez. Another, equally likely, is that popular pressure and protest against fraud, mounting corruption, and authoritarianism lead to radical change.

In any case, the OAS should not remain on the sidelines. Remaining silent about Nicaragua sets a dangerous precedent for other Latin American countries. Article 20 of the Inter-American Charter allows any government to put Ortega’s regime on the agenda for debate, on the grounds that it represents a threat to democracy. It is just a matter of finding one with the political will to do so.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011.