Nicaragua’s Political Outlook

With the upcoming elections in Nicaragua on November 6, the Inter-American Dialogue hosted a discussion on the country’s political outlook with Benjamin Lugo, head of the Coordinators for Civil Society of Nicaragua; Marcos Carmona, head of the Human Rights Commission of Nicaragua, and Manuel Orozco, senior associate and director of the remittances and development program at the Inter-American Dialogue.

“¿Cuál es el miedo?” is a campaign to raise awareness in Nicaragua about the need for free and fair elections. The name of the campaign (“What’s the fear?”) reflects the prevailing sentiment in Nicaraguan civil society that the government should not be afraid of international scrutiny or democratic participation if the upcoming presidential election is to be conducted as transparently as it claims. According to Benjamín Lugo, some 80 percent of Nicaraguans agree on the need for international election observation, but the government has been reluctant to accept it. But last week in a significant breakthrough, the OAS received an invitation from the Nicaraguan government to participate as electoral observers in November, complying with civil society demands.

Marcos Carmona, director of the Permanent Commission for Human Rights, questioned the democratic credentials of Ortega’s administration, arguing that more than 60 percent of media institutions in Nicaragua are controlled by the presidential family. Ortega has even exerted undue control over some independent political institutions, appointing high ranking officials himself instead of allowing the National Assembly to carry out this duty. After the contested presidential elections of 2008, official development aid has diminished, removing the incentive to curry the favor of international donors by displaying a commitment to transparency.

The three civil society representatives agreed that the government’s refusal to issue identity cards to thousands of Nicaraguans who are not supporters of the official party is a way of assuring Ortega’s reelection.  Carmona stated that “denying this civil right to them is condemning them to a civilian death penalty.”  “Roughly 52 percent of Nicaraguans don’t feel represented by any political party,” Benjamín Lugo commented. But he emphasized that citizens should exercise their right to vote nonetheless.

According to Manuel Orozco, there are three main issues that could summarize the democratic challenges faced by Nicaragua. First, there is a close political circle that restricts the participation of a younger generation in politics (some 53 percent of Nicaraguans are under 30 years old). Second, the private sector has not really opposed the political class. They have not denounced electoral fraud or the intimidation of the media, and in some cases have even been an accomplice to these abuses of power. Finally, Nicaraguan civil society is highly polarized: there is a rupture between “sandinistas” and “antisandinistas”, and young professionals have chosen not to participate in politics. These realities create even greater challenges for Nicaragua’s fragile democracy.

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