Nicaragua Political Reviews
The Sandinist Party’s dominance in Nicaraguan politics is apparently unchallenged. Social reforms lead to strong support for President Daniel Ortega as the opposition fumbles. At the same time, the room for civil society and critics is narrowed to the government.
Expectations were high when Daniel Ortega, one of the great heroes of the revolution and president during the 1980s Sandinist era, returned to the presidency in 2006. 16 years of neoliberal politics had led to a strongly shrinking state and what many claimed was a reversal of revolution. Admittedly, the neoliberal governments had managed to get the country out of the economic crisis that characterized the country in the late 1980s. However, the relatively stable economy failed to cope with poverty. Corruption increased and dissatisfaction with the right side grew in large sections of the population. At the same time, the internal divide on the right increased, which undoubtedly helped Ortega and the Sandinists to regain power. With new, and contentious, alliances with the Catholic Church and the private sector, Ortega appeared more pragmatic than before.El Pueblo Presidente, “The People as President,” Ortega sought to continue the promising revolution that was stranded after several years of civil war, the US blockade, and economic chaos.
The dominance of the Sandinists
Daniel Ortega and the Sandlinist Party (FSLN) have great support among voters in Nicaragua. Ortega won the presidential election in 2011 by a solid margin. With 63 out of 92 representatives in parliament, the FSLN also secured a large majority and can in practice implement its policy without having to take into account or negotiate with the opposition parties. The local elections in 2012 confirmed the trend. FSLN received 75 percent of the vote and is now in power in most municipalities in the country. In 2014, there were elections in the autonomous Atlantic regions, and again the FSLN got a majority of votes.
In addition to the fact that the FSLN holds a two-thirds majority in parliament and power in most of the country’s municipalities, the party also has in practice control of important state institutions such as the electoral council and the Supreme Court. Parliament elects the members of the Supreme Court, and this hinders the emergence of a party-political independent judicial system. The strong influence of the FSLN in the Supreme Court has enabled the adoption of constitutional amendments and laws or reforms that have been highly controversial and on the border to be unconstitutional.
President for life?
At the same time as the FSLN dominates ever larger parts of Nicaraguan politics, Daniel Ortega and his wife, Rosario Murillo, retain power in the party. Ortega’s leadership position is difficult to challenge, due both to his historical position during the revolution and in the party, and to ever less room for internal criticism. A very contentious constitutional amendment in December 2013 opens for a third presidential term for Ortega, which has revived the opposition’s accusation that his ambition is to be a lifetime president.
The concentration of power within the party has led many former central FSLN politicians to withdraw from the party and politics. Many have accused Ortega and the rest of the leadership of having distanced themselves from many of the values and principles of Sandinism, instead of being led by economic and power political interests. On the other hand, many whole-hearted Sandinists in municipal councils and local FSLN agencies are still working for real change. The image of today’s FSLN is therefore nuanced and composed.
While controversy and allegations of electoral fraud characterized the first elections after the FSLN took power, the last local elections were conducted without major protests. One of the reasons for this is that the history of the municipal elections in 2008, where there were clear signs of electoral fraud, has not repeated. At the same time, the possibilities for external election observation have been limited, which also gives fewer critical votes.
First and foremost, however, this can be explained by the popularity of Ortega and the Sandinist government among the Nicaraguan people, and an opposition that is increasingly struggling to convince voters that they are a real alternative. The right-wing side is still severely divided following major disagreements between former President Arnoldo Alemán and his supporters, and the country’s other liberal party. As long as the two right-wing parties are divided, in reality there are no contenders for the power position of the Sandinists. The outlaws from the FSLN that formed a reformist party in the 1990s also struggle to reach out to people outside the largest cities. The Sandinist Revolution continues to characterize Nicaraguan politics, with the main difference between Sandinist and non-Sandinist. So far no one has been able to challenge this dividing line,
Social policy provides support
The Sandinists maintain many of the social reforms they implemented when they took power in 2006. Especially the poorest sections of the population have been prioritized in the government’s program of housing construction, literacy and better health care. The “zero hunger” program in the countryside has helped to strengthen the livelihoods of many poor peasant families. Formalization of property conditions has given increased security both in the countryside and in the cities. Investing in better infrastructure has not only led to better main roads, but has also made the accessibility of poor neighborhoods in cities and countryside better.
The social programs have undoubtedly led to better living conditions for Nicaragua’s many poor people. Visible improvements in the cities are indicative of a country where much is better, despite an increasing concentration of power, which in turn explains much of Ortega’s popularity.
FSLN has also invested heavily in popular participation. The so-called “committees of power”, the Comités de Poder Ciudadano, are spaces where people can participate and influence the formulation of local politics. Through these committees, Ortega wants to live up to the slogan that the people are president. But the committees have been criticized for being too closely related to the party structure, and for being a power tool for the FSLN rather than a room where everyone can participate regardless of party sympathies. Undoubtedly, they are linked to FSLN, but at the same time, the ceiling height is higher at the local level, and they can therefore contribute to both increased participation and a policy that responds to real needs.
Nicaragua’s canal dream
The 19th century plans for Nicaragua as the main artery for traffic between the Pacific and the Atlantic have been brought back to life according to Countryaah. In 2013, Parliament approved plans to build a canal through Nicaragua. The channel will be built and operated by a Chinese company that will own the rights and revenues from the channel for the first fifty years. The state’s ownership interest starts at 1 percent, and will increase by one percentage point each year. The agreement allows for an extension of the period for another fifty years.
The Government is investing heavily in this mega project, which they believe will give the country economic growth and make it an attractive center for both shipping and trade. The project has provoked strong criticism from both the opposition, the environmental movement and other parts of civil society. The environmental movement fears the consequences of the development and shipping in areas in the country with the greatest biodiversity. In addition, the project is criticized for having been developed without adequate consultation, and for being adopted before the route was clear and the environmental consequences investigated. Critics also question whether the channel project will lead to economic growth Nicaragua needs, and calls for a comprehensive strategy for economic and social development.