Ortega and Nicaragua's Eroding Democracy

By Marcela Sanchez
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, June 19, 2008 4:38 PM

WASHINGTON -- Another milestone has been reached in the continued dismantling of democracy in Nicaragua.

Last week, President Daniel Ortega's government effectively eliminated two opposition parties. Under the guise of enforcing bureaucratic regulations, the government's Supreme Electoral Tribunal revoked the political party status of the Sandinista Renewal Movement (MRS) and the right-leaning Conservative Party.

The ruling is the latest in a series of efforts by Ortega to thwart dissent, undermine democratic institutions and keep himself in power.

In April, the same tribunal postponed municipal elections in some northern localities because, the government claimed, the havoc of Hurricane Felix last year made it impossible to ensure proper conditions for the election. The opposition and foreign observers, however, said this was just another Ortega ploy to avoid a Sandinista defeat in a region where his popularity has diminished. The election, originally scheduled for November, is now set for January.

Also early this year, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal decided to, figuratively, cut off the head of the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN), another opposition party. No doubt the government found the ALN leader, Eduardo Montealegre, too big a threat after his second-place showing in the

2006 presidential election against Ortega. The government then installed as ALN leader Eliseo Nunez Hernandez, an associate of former President Arnoldo Aleman, who eight years ago entered into a political marriage of convenience with Ortega that helped Aleman avoid prison time for his 2003 money-laundering and embezzlement conviction.

This shameless power-sharing agreement between Ortega and Aleman, the so-called El Pacto, has been behind every move to undermine democracy in Nicaragua in recent years. With nearly all opponents silenced, next on El Pacto's agenda is passage of a constitutional reform that will allow Ortega to serve consecutive terms -- and by default allow Aleman to continue his corrupt influence.

Ortega's former Sandinista comrades say that he is becoming the same kind of dictator they fought to overthrow in 1979. The key difference, according to Edmundo Jarquin, the MRS presidential candidate who lost to Ortega in 2006, is that Ortega is not using the police and the military to repress the opposition. Instead, Ortega is manipulating electoral and judicial powers to establish "an institutional dictatorship," Jarquin said.

Oddly, Jarquin notes, with little outside pressure and internal mechanisms undermined, Ortega's worst enemy may be himself. The former MRS standard-bearer, who worked at the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington for more than 10 years before his run for the presidency, says that Ortega has three major vulnerabilities that may cause his downfall.

First, he said, is Ortega's inability to meet the expectations of the

38 percent of Nicaraguans who elected him. (Thanks to El Pacto, any candidate can win the presidency in the first round with as little as 35 percent of the vote.) A recent analysis by professor Patricio Navia of New York University concluded that of the 11 Latin American countries that held presidential elections two years ago, Nicaragua is one of only three that have seen little economic growth. That has weakened Ortega's capacity to fulfill his campaign promises of reducing poverty and inequality, said Navia.

Also Ortega, the great mass mobilizer, may be "losing the streets,"

according to Jarquin. In anticipation of the tribunal's decision last week, Dora Maria Tellez, a former rebel commander and minister of health who is now an MRS leader, began what would become a 13-day hunger strike in downtown Managua. Her act of defiance raised awareness in a country where people have grown apathetic. She ended the strike on Monday, calling for a "new stage in the struggle" by taking to the streets to reject the government's actions.

Finally, Ortega may be putting at risk millions of dollars from the international donor community, funds that are essential to his country's well-being. The European Union's representative indicated that financial support -- estimated at about $105 million for the remainder of the year -- could be in jeopardy. The Bush administration could withdraw its five-year

$175 million investment under the Millennium Challenge Corp., although in an interview in the Nicaraguan daily La Prensa, U.S. Ambassador Paul Trivelli made it seem that such an option was not on the table.

Despite Jarquin's prognosis, it is hard to get a sense of how vulnerable Ortega really is. One thing seems clear: that at the very least Ortega's opposition needs to come together, both from right and left, to attack fire with fire. Individually the opposition groups have shown that they have no power against El Pacto.

Marcela Sanchez's e-mail address is desdewash(at)washpost.com.

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