Nicaragua's Spoiled Ballot

Sunday, November 16, 2008

THROUGH MUCH of the 1980s, the United States waged a proxy war to prevent Daniel Ortega and his Sandinista party from consolidating a dictatorship in Nicaragua. In 1990, Mr. Ortega finally agreed to hold a presidential election, which he lost; since then Central America's poorest country has struggled to build a functioning democracy. Now Mr. Ortega is back and once again is seeking autocratic power. This time, however, neither the United States nor other outside powers are doing much to stop him.

Mr. Ortega regained the president's office in 2006, thanks to a corrupt alliance with a right-wing leader and a constitutional amendment that allowed him to claim power with 38 percent of the vote. Since then eight of 10 Nicaraguans have turned against the president, according to independent polls -- yet Mr. Ortega's campaign to dismantle the political system has accelerated. He has banned two opposition parties, brought criminal charges against independent journalists and nongovernmental organizations, and built bullying "citizens power councils" with funding from Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez.

The opposition hoped to block what several former Sandinista leaders have called an emerging dictatorship by winning local elections last Sunday. Mr. Ortega responded by barring international election observers for the first time since 1990 and organizing what the opposition and Nicaraguan election observers say was a massive fraud. Opposition leader Eduardo Montealegre, who was favored to win the race for mayor of Managua, was declared the loser by a government-controlled electoral council. Mr. Montealegre's own count, compiled by collecting results from individual polling stations, showed him winning decisively. In the country's second-largest city, León, thousands of ballots were found in the municipal dump, most of them marked with votes for Mr. Montealegre's Liberal party. Now violence is mounting in Managua's streets between opposition supporters and groups of Sandinista thugs, who wield machetes and guns.

Outraged by Mr. Ortega's behavior, European governments are moving to cut off funding equal to a third of the government's budget. But the Bush administration's reaction has been laconic. The State Department issued a statement last week deploring the "irregularities"; on Thursday the U.S. ambassador said he was concerned. The United States has considerable economic leverage it can employ -- there is no need for another contra army. Among other things, Nicaragua is currently the beneficiary of a $175 million aid program from the Millennium Challenge Corp., which is supposed to condition grants on the government's respect for political rights and the rule of law. It seems pretty obvious that Mr. Ortega has flunked those tests.

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