One Way to Interpret Nicaragua's Presidential Election: A ‘Democracy Without Consensus’

Daniel Ortega, presidente electo de Nicaragua por tercera vez consecutiva. Fotografía tomada de Wikimedia Commons.

Daniel Ortega, president-elect of Nicaragua for a third consecutive term. Image taken from Wikimedia Commons.

President Daniel Ortega‘s victory in the 2016 Nicaraguan elections at the beginning of November came as no great surprise to both onlookers and Nicaraguans. The elections, which have provoked little reaction from citizens, have allowed Ortega a third consecutive term in office in this Central American country.

Daniel Ortega's long career in Nicaraguan politics is primarily rooted in his leadership of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), a leftist political party which has played an important role over the past few decades in Nicaragua. The foundations for the FSLN were laid during the Nicaraguan Revolution and the fall of Atanasio Somoza‘s dictatorial government. This was followed by a long battle to retain power against the Nicaraguan Contras — or the counter-revolution — which were propped up by the United States government.

Ortega's government and its years in power have continually elicited criticism, most notably in reference to the country's democratic process. One of the most controversial aspects of this last election was the nomination of Ortega's wife — now the vice president-elect — as running mate.

On the Latin American news blog Con Distintos Acentos (With Different Accents), researcher Renée Salmerón explores how best to understand the election results, as well as the complexities of the Nicaraguan government and the country's prospects for the coming years. The article interprets the statistics and points to specific data, but more importantly examines the way in which Nicaraguan democracy, for all intents and purposes, does not appear to unite its citizens around a common purpose:

[En] el país continúa vigente lo que refería [el profesor e investigador Andrés] Pérez Baltodano, para quien en el país lo que se vive es una «democracia electoral sin consenso social». El martes pasado, La Prensa recordaba que hace diez años se celebró el último debate entre candidatos a la presidencia. A aquel debate no acudió el recién reelecto presidente, quien además desde el año 2008 no comparece ante la asamblea nacional.

Andrés Pérez Baltodano, a professor and investigator, refers to a prevailing notion in this country whereby there exists an “electoral democracy without social consensus”. Last Tuesday, La Prensa recalled that it has been ten years since the last debate between presidential candidates. The recently re-elected president did not attend this debate and, furthermore, has not appeared before the National Assembly since 2008.

Salmerón also highlights how the political discourse, which draws references from Nicaragua's recent past, is not managing to connect with the population, and is not resulting in greater participation:

La oposición y el gobierno yerran. En el entorno político se ha manifestado cierta tendencia en el discurso de la oposición y algunos analistas sobre la valoración al gobierno. Dicha tendencia tiene que ver con los siguientes factores: El primero, es el que relaciona el contexto político electoral de los 90's con el actual. El segundo, compara al presidente Ortega con el dictador Anastasio Somoza […] El tercero, afirma que existen civiles armados en el norte del país (rebeldes). Y finalmente, un cuarto, es el que asocia la Nica Act (Nicaraguan Investment Conditionality Act) con la política de Estados Unidos en el contexto de la guerra fría. Todo es una reminiscencia del pasado.

Ese discurso no abona el diálogo, y no ha surtido efectos movilizadores en el comportamiento de los ciudadanos.

The opposition and the government are mistaken. In this political climate, we have seen certain trends within the narrative of the opposition and a few analysts in their assessment of the government. These trends relate to the following factors: firstly, they link the political electoral context of the 1990s with the current one. Secondly, they compare President Ortega to dictator Anastasio Somoza […]. Thirdly, they affirm that there are armed civilians in the north of the country (rebels). Fourthly, and finally, they associate the Nica Act (Nicaraguan Investment Conditionality Act) with American politics within the context of the Cold War. These all allude to the past.

This discourse does not lead to dialogue, and it has not had a mobilising effect on citizens’ behaviour.

She continues:

Por su parte, el gobierno no ha sabido gobernar para todos, simpatizantes y no simpatizantes. Los ciudadanos incluidos en sus programas sociales, y que integran los gabinetes de poder ciudadano son simpatizantes del FSLN […] en su mayoría. Ello ignora el clivaje histórico sandinismo-antisandinismo […] que existe en el seno de la sociedad y que en la elección se ha manifestado a través de progobierno vs abstención.

As far as the government is concerned, it has not known how to govern across the board, for both supporters and non-supporters. Citizens who benefit from social programmes and who join the Citizen Power Cabinets [local forms of government made generally by volunteer citizens] are mostly supporters of the FSLN. It has overlooked the historical sandinismo-anti-sandinismo schism which prevails at the heart of society, and which became apparent during the elections via the pro-government supporters vs. the abstainers.

Elections that do not build democracies

One of the areas of analysis pertains to a critical review of the elections. For Salmerón and her associates, there is more involved with building a democracy than merely holding elections. There are many variables, and representation remains limited; furthermore, if deliberation and discussion panels are not involved with the debates, there is the real risk that elections are merely a symbolic event with little real significance:

Empero, no solo los candidatos son responsables por no debatir. Ni los medios, ni las universidades reunieron a los candidatos para discutir sobre sus programas de gobierno. No basta con las elecciones. Como sugirió McConnell (2009: 310) se debe reflexionar hasta qué punto la simple celebración «exitosa y regular» de elecciones es suficiente para consolidar una democracia liberal representativa. Todo parece indicar que no es suficiente. Por qué si desde hace meses se habla de una alta aprobación, y ahora el gobierno gana con una mayoría absoluta, continúa la crítica a un maquillaje de las encuestas o una farsa electoral.

Nonetheless, the responsibility for not participating in the debates does not lie solely with the candidates. Neither the media nor universities have brought the candidates together to discuss government policies. And this is not good enough for elections. As McConnell (2009:310) suggests, we must consider to what extent holding “successful and regular” elections will be useful in forming a representative liberal democracy. Everything appears to point to the fact that this is not enough. If we have been talking about high approval ratings for months, and now the government has won with an absolute majority, why is it that we are still hearing criticism about skewed polling or farcical elections.

A government in times of peace, a shakeup of friends and enemies

Foreign intervention and armed conflict have not disappeared from the news. However, times have changed and today's greatest challenges relate more to internal disputes than external influences. For Salmarón, the challenge continues to be how to unite Nicaragua around a common purpose and how to overcome the limitations brought about by the lack of support from certain strategic allies:

El voto duro del FSLN ya ha tenido lo que ha querido: Este partido gobierna en tiempo de paz. No puede alegar más las ideas del “imperialismo” o “el capitalismo salvaje”. No puede evocarse más a los enemigos. Pero además, esta vez no puede citar a los amigos. Hay que decirlo. Dejémonos de tonterías, se acabaron los beneficios producto de la relación con el expresidente Hugo Chávez. El país no es productivo como potencialmente debiera.

La polarización no ha desaparecido. Hay un sector que tiene su espacio en la sociedad. Ello es innegable. Es un reto para el gobierno reivindicarse, corregir los vicios, decir sí a la transparencia, a la inclusión y al verdadero cambio económico social.

The FSLN's partisan voters have achieved what they wanted: a party that governs in times of peace. It can no longer declare ideas of “imperialism” or “fierce capitalism”. It can no longer talk about its enemies. However what's more, it can no longer list its friends. It needs to be said. Let's stop messing around, the benefits derived from the relationship with ex-President Hugo Chávez have stopped. The country is not as productive as it has the potential to be.

Political polarisation has not disappeared. There is a sector which has its place in society. This is undeniable. The government faces many challenges, such as defending itself, tackling corruption and enabling transparency, inclusion and real socio-economic change.

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