Was Nicaragua’s November 7 general election fixed or fair?

See also: 

Nicaragua: Was Daniel Ortega’s re-election a gain for the left? Preface to three articles
On Nicaragua: to the left forces of the Sao Paulo Forum
Nicaragua: What have we learnt about the conflict of April-July 2018?  

By Dick Nichols

February 12, 2022 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — The November 7 Nicaraguan general election was never about who would govern the country once the votes were counted. Everyone knew outgoing president Daniel Ortega would be returned for a fourth consecutive term (and his fifth since 1985) and that his wife Rosario Murillo would repeat as vice-president. 

The vital question in dispute was why. Was it because Ortega-Murillo and the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) retained majority social support, as argued by Nicaraguan sociologist Yader Lanuza? Or because the candidates from the tolerated opposition parties were unknowns? Or because the ballot was rigged? Or because of some combination of all three?

And what would be the impact of the April-July 2018 conflict—the most important event in recent Nicaraguan history—on the first national election since that protest-revolt exploded?

As matters turned out, after six months in which potential rivals (“pre-candidates”) all fell by the wayside, the election ended up as basically a two-horse race. The front runners were Ortega-Murillo (FSLN) and Abstention-Invalid Vote (not-FSLN), and we still do not know who really won a race whose stakes were the legitimacy of the race itself. 

The opposition that was excluded from standing called for abstention or an invalid (informal) vote to mark rejection of what it called a “circus”. The real contest then became one over participation: whether the opposition would be more successful in getting voters to stay at home or the government in getting them to vote.

The official race result as announced by Nicaragua’s Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) had Ortega-Murillo as easy winners with 75.9% of the vote: according to the CSE, 2.09 million of 2.76 million valid votes went to the FSLN. Its figure for the participation rate was 65.2%, 3% down on that of the last general election. That meant 1.56 million people on the electoral roll had not turned out to vote and of those voting 161,000 (5.5%) had not marked the ballot paper or had spoiled it.

Tailed off behind the FSLN came the Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLI), with 14.3% (395,000 votes), and then four “mosquito” (zancudo) parties, so called for mimicking opposition while sucking funding from the state and securing government and parliamentary perks for their leaders and families. They were Nicaraguan Christian Path (CCN), the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN), the Alliance for the Republic (APRE) and the Independent Liberal Party (PLI), with 270,500 votes (9.8%) in all.

The result for the FSLN was better than the predictions of pollster M&R Consultores, whose forecasts of support ranged from 58.3% to 70.7% in the six months prior to the poll. Table 1 gives details of the official result of the election and Table 2 details of election forecasts by M&R Consultores and Costa Rican pollster CID-Gallup, together with a post-election survey by CID-Gallup.

What was the true level of abstention?

For the election monitoring platform Open Ballot Boxes (Urnas Abiertas), this official result was pure fiction, made possible by the absence of international observers and the government’s control of the CSE. 

Urnas Abiertas said it had secretly organised 1450 observers for November 7. They counted the number of people entering 536 of the country’s 3106 polling stations over three two-hour periods (in the morning, in the middle of the day and during the afternoon). This figure was then used to estimate turnout for the 11 hours that polling stations were open, and this estimate compared to the number of people on the electoral roll at each polling station, as listed by the CSE.

The result was a calculation that only 18.5% (828,000) of Nicaraguans eligible to vote had bothered to turn out on polling day: 81.5% (3.65 million) had abstained. 

According to Ligia Gómez, the former head of research at the Bank of Nicaragua, who devised the monitoring system for Urnas Abiertas, the real figure for participation would have fallen between 14.5% and 22.5% (18.5% plus or minus a 4% margin of error) in 95% of instances of repeated sampling of the turnout. (Gómez had been FSLN branch secretary at the central bank [in English] until she rejected the government’s repression of the April 2018 protests against changes to the social security system.)

There was anecdotal evidence that the turnout may have been low. On the morning of election day media reports spoke of scarce attendance at polling stations and empty streets. Onofre Guevara López, former trade unionist and FSLN MP in the 1980s, described election day as marked by a “tomblike silence and an absence of voters at the ballot box”. Ben Norton, reporter for the website Grayzone and defender of the present Nicaraguan administration, himself noted the lack of queues outside polling stations. He ascribed this, however, to the efficiency of the electoral system.

At 11am, possibly out of concern over what was looking like a low turnout, Daniel Ortega made a TV appearance after voting.  In it he called for a vote against the violence of April-July 2018: 

We cannot forget those who sowed terror, who did not respect our national anthem, and who took pride in filming destruction, murders, publicly defending the roadblocks [that followed April 18, 2018]. They had no shame … we managed to put an end to terrorism, re-establish peace and stabilise the country.

In contrast with the Urnas Abiertas figure of 81.5% abstention, the CID-Gallup’s post-election survey (done on December 21 over telephone with 1000 respondents) gave a different message: 58% of those interviewed said they had voted while 42% had abstained (equal to 1.88 million voters). This was roughly in line with CID-Gallup’s September pre-election poll, in which 51% said they would very probably vote and 17% that they would quite probably vote, while 31% said they would definitely or probably not vote and only 1% did not know or didn't want to respond.

According to the feedback to CID-Gallup, disaffection with the Ortega-Murillo administration had been expressed more inside polling stations than through abstention. Of those who had voted, 20% said they had spoiled the ballot paper or left it blank and 38% had voted for the five also-ran parties: only 27% said they had voted for Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo.

Which figure for abstention to trust? 3.65 million? 1.88 million? Why not the CSE’s official figure of 1.56 million? Which figure for blank and spoiled ballots to trust? The CES’s 161,000 (5.5% of the total vote) or CID-Gallup’s 895,000 (20% of its survey sample)?

In a November 16 article defending the integrity of the election, Masaya-based writer John Perry said of the work of Urnas Abiertas:

Urnas Abiertas do not, however, provide any evidence of it [its figure for abstention] other than their claimed survey of attendance at a sample of polling stations, which is only briefly described in a few lines of their four-page report. It offers no technical details of their work or examples of polling stations which they surveyed (link in original).

This is not entirely true. While Urnas Abiertas did not list polling stations observed, by November 10 the platform had already published a description of how it had calculated voter turnout, with an English translation. The problem with the Urnas Abiertas monitoring of attendance at polling stations was not statistical method but whether the volunteers who gathered its basic data succumbed to the incentive to understate attendance at an election they almost certainly regarded as a fraudulent. There is no way to know with what degree of accuracy the count of persons entering polling stations was done (nor could there be, given that it was an “underground operation”).

A problem with the CID-Gallup post-election poll was that it was done by telephone from Costa Rica, with no opportunity for its pollsters to check the answers of respondents face to face. With only 90% of the Nicaraguan population owning a mobile phone, there is also the possibility that any telephone poll is biased against poorer Nicaraguans living in more remote areas (and maybe more likely to be FSLN supporters).

No independent confirmation

John Perry argues for the validity of the CSE figure by referring to data for participation in the July electoral re-registration process:

In July, the electoral authorities published a provisional electoral register, and invited voters to verify their entries and check they were allocated to the correct polling station. This exercise was massively supported, by 2.82 million voters out of a possible 4.34 million then registered (the registered total has since increased by about 130,000 as entries were updated). The opposition media, intent on showing supposed anomalies in this process, inadvertently also showed the scale of the response it received from the public, with videos of queues of people waiting to verify their vote. The likelihood is that, having turned up at the polling station to check their right to vote, people turned up again on November 7 to use it, and the similarity in numbers who did both confirms that this was the case.

The photos of “empty streets” and “empty polling stations” were in any case highly misleading: it is easy to take such shots, especially on a Sunday when businesses and schools are closed, and especially at the hottest time of day. Furthermore, a simple calculation of the likely attendance at each polling station, open for 11 hours with (on average) 333 potential voters and 216 who actually voted, shows that roughly 20 people an hour would have passed through each one. Given that each person needs only a few minutes to vote, it is obvious why queues occurred only when groups of voters arrived simultaneously (links in original).

This seems plausible, but the problem with the CSE’s results for November 7 is that they lack independent confirmation—the election took place in the absence of certified election observers. Although supporters of the government have written that the Nicaraguan voting system is “incredibly secure” (as in this article by Nan McCurdy), under Nicaragua’s Law 1070, which amended the Electoral Act (Law 331), outside scrutiny was reduced. 

The election result will always be contested precisely because of this refusal to accept internationally certified election observers. This was the case not only with observers from the Organisation of American States (OAS) but also those from the Carter Centre, which had fully monitored Nicaraguan general elections from 1990 to 2006, but was prevented from observing the 2016 poll after its study mission criticised the conduct of the 2011 general election

Unlike the November 20-21 Venezuelan regional and local election (which an EU Election Observation Mission attended) and the November 27 Honduran presidential election (observed by an 80-member OAS mission headed by former Costa Rican president Luis Guillermo Solís) the Nicaraguan poll was conducted before 232 invited international “election accompanists”, who after a brief stay around polling day certified that the poll was  free, fair and transparent

Under Nicaragua’s amended Electoral Act (Article 10, Paragraph 9), the accreditation and role of accompanists is controlled by the CSE, without specifying their responsibilities and rights, including right of access to information. On September 28, CSE board member Mayra Salinas defined the difference between accompanists and observers. The former “is like the friend who comes to your home”:

You invite him to come to your home so that he can take part in a process of sharing, of seeing, of enjoying it, of knowing it and so he can make recommendations effectively. But observers impose themselves on you as if they were above your national process, your legislation, and they want to even intervene in those aspects where they should not intervene, because your legislation does not allow it.

The accompanists were drawn for organisations sympathetic to the FSLN, for example José Luis Centella and Miguel Ángel Bustamente from the Communist Party of Spain (PCE), Gerry Condon, ex-president of US Veterans for Peace and Jorge Kreyness, international relations secretary of the Communist Party of Argentina (PCA). There is no evidence that the accompanists sought the opinion of opposition forces as to the legitimacy of the election.

At the same time, correspondents from seven foreign media concerns were prevented from entering the country to cover the poll. Those affected were The New York Times, Washington Post, National Public Radio, CNN, Le Monde, Spanish Radio and Television, and the Vice Media Group. Nicaraguan media that is not pro-government was not accredited to cover official election events.

Pick a number, any number

In the struggle over the meaning of the result, different Nicaraguan public figures picked whatever number seemed appropriate to make their point. For example, Guillermo Osorno, the CCN candidate for president, said on November 9 that the abstention rate had been 75% (3.3 million) and that “I’m not voting” had been the real winner. Ortega had still scored three-quarters of the formal vote, but this had only been 1.1 million.

In a November 11 article in Confidencial, [in English] University of Georgetown academic Manuel Orozco used the average of the CSE and Urnas Abiertas abstention figures (2.6 million) to calculate that at least 750,000 of these non-votes (and maybe some informal votes as well) must have been added to Ortega’s real score to produce his official CSE result of 2.09 million votes. Why at least 750,000? Because the president’s popularity rating as measured most favourably would have given him 1.2 million votes at most, and because it is inconceivable that his popularity would have increased in a period of economic stagnation and political turmoil.

Orozco gave no indication of methods by which hundreds of thousands of votes could be shifted to Ortega without this showing up in the system of counting, given that the vote at each table within a polling centre is counted before party scrutineers and then posted publicly outside the centre. John Perry points to the following difficulties in organising a fraud on this scale:

[C]reating 1 to 2 million false votes would require a large proportion of the 13,459 polling stations[1] and 245,000 officials to be engaged in the process. This is because the fraud would have to start at the points where votes were cast, because if the false votes had been created centrally the discrepancy with local voting tallies would be blatantly obvious.

Is it really feasible that every polling station (or most of them) created up to 200 false votes from entries on their register using blank ballot forms, stamped as authorised by officials, at the risk that real people with those votes would turn up and find they had already “voted”? Or, if it was done after polls closed, would there have been no complaint from poll watchers from rival parties, and would none of the 245,000 people involved have leaked the truth about what really happened, in a country as chismoso (gossipy) as Nicaragua? The whole notion is absurd.

As I write this, it is one week since the election took place. I have been unable to find any evidence of actual fraud (as opposed to speculation about fraud) in any of the main media which support the main opposition groups.

According to the November 22 Ninth Report of Urnas Abiertas (“X-Ray of an Electoral Farce”), “adjustment” to the final tally was achieved through a combination of methods, not the least of which was reliance on the fact that the minor parties standing did not have enough members and sympathisers to scrutineer the vote across the country. In addition, the CCN alleged that election officials who were FSLN members supposedly prevented scrutineers for other parties from entering polling centres, filled in blank ballot papers, ruled votes for other parties null and void and altered final tallies.

Given that claims about the true participation rate like Orozco’s and Osorno’s are based on rubbery data, anecdotes and rather arbitrary assumptions, we can take our pick as to the true numbers for November 7. There’s no definitive proof, as Perry says, that the election was fraudulent on the day, but, in the absence of real election observers, there’s no definitive proof that it wasn’t. 

According to CID-Gallup’s post-election survey, 68% of respondents disagreed with the statement that the election results were credible and 66% disagreed with the statement that they were legitimate. But how trustworthy, in turn, are those numbers?

An insight into where the range of the real outcome on November 7 might possibly lie was given in the November 12 edition of the web-based feminist magazine La Lupa, which contains a story on “Manuel”, a school teacher who scrutineered for the FSLN because it was expected of him as a public employee. “Manuel” says that in the counting of the vote at his table any mark—even an insult—in the square alongside Daniel Ortega’s name was interpreted as a vote for the incumbent president.

So, if you added horns or anything to Daniel’s picture, we would count the vote as valid. When we were counting the votes there was a ballot paper in which all the squares of the Front read “murderer”, “your mother”[2], “freedom for Nicaragua”: we counted it as a valid vote because it supposedly expressed a clear voting intention.

According to “Manuel”, only 162 of the 385 voters registered at his table turned up to vote (42%). Of their ballot papers 12 were counted as invalid because they contained messages against the government and/or obscenities, demanded freedom for the 170-plus prisoners awaiting trial for alleged crimes related to April-July 2018, or insulted Ortega. However, whenever this was done in the square against the FSLN candidate, the vote was counted as valid. Of the 150 formal votes on the single ballot paper, 17 did not have a vote for a presidential candidate, even though they contained a vote for MPs for the National Assembly and the Central American Parliament.

Of the 133 votes cast for President Ortega won 91 (68.4%), including those that were abusive of his candidacy. So, if the result at the polling station of “Manuel” were the Nicaraguan average (a very big if, of course), the real abstention rate would have been 58% and 7.4% of the total vote would have been invalid. What Daniel Ortega would have won, including with the help of the ballots that denigrated him, would have been 68.4% of the valid votes cast for president, 60.1% of the total valid vote, 56.1% of the total vote and 23.6% of those on the electoral roll. 

More rubbery figures, in the absence of proper observation of the ballot.

Mobilising the Ortega-Murillo vote

One feature of the election campaign that helps explain the lower abstention rate detected by CID-Gallup compared to Urnas Abiertas was the intense mobilisation effort undertaken by the government and the FSLN to get the people to vote. As already noted, this was because the key contest was not among the candidates but over the legitimacy of the election itself. La Lupa noted in its interview with “Manuel”:

From February this year they [FSLN leaders] told him to get ready for “a tough election”, not only because the international eye would be on the country but also because they knew that the population was not going to vote and they had to do everything possible to get the people to the ballot box.

The answer was a coordinated mobilisation of Nicaragua’s public institutions, mass organisations, public sector workers and the membership of the FSLN. This was not organised as an official campaign of the CSE to increase participation and make resources available to help people exercise their right to vote, but as an operation of social pressure.

According to Urnas Aniertas, the pressure manifested in many ways: the requirement of public servants and students in public universities to send a selfie showing their finger marked in indelible ink as proof of having voted or the requirement to check in with “vigilance houses” set up near polling stations to confirm their vote; three visits before polling day from representatives of the local Citizen Power Council (CPC) to remind people of the benefits received from the government; and phone, text and WhatsApp messages to ensure that they had voted.

Urnas Abiertas claimed, without giving details, that pressure also took the form of promises (of increased pay and social benefits) and, in the case of refusal to vote, of threats to suspend the operating licences of taxi and private bus drivers and, for students, to block access to scholarships to public universities and to student accommodation.

Unidas Abiertas also claimed to have registered, based on the observations it received on the day, 895 instances of official vehicles (including ambulances) being used to transport voters to polling stations and 285 acts of violence (the majority involving paramilitaries keeping a watch on polling stations).

The platform said 35% of its observers, both of participation and of anomalies in the conduct of the election, were subject to intimidation from police, paramilitaries, or election officials.

Only an independent inquiry could establish what truth there is to these claims. What is clear, however, is that between November 3 and 7, the National Police carried out 35 detentions, including two journalists from the digital daily Masaya al Dia

Removing opposition candidates with a chance

The jury is still out on whether there was fraud on November 7 itself. However, even if it eventually emerges that there wasn’t (or not enough to make a difference), the election was still illegitimate, because it took place after all the candidates with even a very slim chance of defeating Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo had been removed from contention: when the contest eventually took place they would be the winners, regardless of the level of social and political support the FSLN retained. 

This operation had a single objective: to ensure that Ortega and Murillo did not face a single, united candidacy identified with rejection of the repression of the April-July 2018 protest. Having successfully cleaned away the barricades with Operación Limpieza (Operation Clean-up), an Operación Limpieza 2.0 was needed to clean away the political opposition created by the repression itself. 

This operation was marked by the following events:

1. The adoption between July 2018 and May 2021 of laws to provide legal justification for banning potential candidates to public office from standing. These were: 

  • Law 977 (adopted July 18, 2018), with its catch-all offence of “alteration of the constitutional order” enabling criminalisation of political opponents.

  • Law 1040 (adopted October 15, 2020), requiring any individual or organisation receiving income from foreign governments, institutions, NGOs or associations to be registered as a “foreign agent” and be deprived of the right to stand for office or have public employment, irrespective of whether he or she has been found to have committed a criminal offence. This legislation violates the principle of equality before the law.

  • Law 1042 (adopted October 27, 2020), ostensibly against cybercrimes, but making it an offence to broadcast “false and/or misleading information that might produce alarm, fear or anxiety in the population”.

  • Law 1055 (adopted December 21, 2020), establishing the catch-all condition of “Traitor to the Fatherland”. It covers acts “diminishing independence, sovereignty and self-determination, promoting foreign interference in internal matters, seeking military interventions, organising with financing from foreign powers to carry out acts of terrorism and destabilisation, propose and manage economic and commercial blockades and financial operations against the country and its institutions, to call for, praise and applaud the imposition of sanctions against the State of Nicaragua and its citizens, and harm the supreme interests of the nation set forth in the law”. It became popularly known as the “guillotine law”.

  • Law 1060 (adopted February 2, 2021), allowing prisoners to be held without charge for up to 90 days.

2.The adoption on May 4 of the amended Electoral Act.

With the adoption of the amended law, the Nicaraguan electoral process, already under criticism from the 2011 general election onward, became more opaque, even as it set a 50:50 gender requirement for its elected bodies. Henceforward, the CSE’s composition was to be determined by the President of Nicaragua pending endorsement by the National Assembly (Article 6) and no independent mechanism to oversee the integrity of its functioning was to exist. In particular:

  • The number of grounds for deregistering a political party (withdrawing its status as a legal entity) increased (Article 59, 6).

  • As already noted, the only form of observation of election allowed would be through “election accompanists” with unspecified responsibilities (Article 10, Paragraph 9).

  • Grounds for banning candidacies increased, including those adopted under Laws 1040 and 1055 (Article 67).

  • Except in the case of the regional parties of the Caribbean Coast, parties that did not stand would be automatically deregistered (Article 10, 17a).

  • The 4% vote threshold for receiving electoral funding would be removed, thus favouring the zancudo parties who mostly get less than this figure. Parties eventually allowed to stand would get all their expenses paid out of the public purse (Article 86). 

 3. The May 4 election by the National Assembly of nine new judges to the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE), without passing through the consultative process envisaged in the constitution. 

The National Assembly, with a FSLN majority, installed the candidates proposed by the FSLN and the zancudo opposition, but not the candidates of the broad opposition platform National Coalition, born of the events of April-July 2018. 

4. The May 19 deregistration—annulment of legal statusof the Democratic Restoration Party (PRD), the only member of the National Coalition legally empowered to register a candidacy for this opposition alliance after it signed an agreement to fulfil this function on May 15. 

The pretext for the deregistration was the claim by some evangelical pastors that the PRD, born of their religious movement, would be violating its mission if it stood on November 7. The CSE ruled that the PRD, as a member of the National Coalition, was a de facto alliance, which disqualified it from standing.

5. The opening on May 5 of a police investigation into the role of leading pre-candidate Cristiana Chamorro, standing for preselection as an independent in in the Citizens’ Alliance bloc, in a possible money laundering case involving the Violeta Barrios de Chamorro (VBC) Foundation.

This was a threat to her candidacy because anyone facing possible criminal charges is disqualified from standing in elections. Chamorro, under house arrest from June 2, was formally charged with money laundering and related crimes on September 2. 

6. The detentions of six more candidates with some chance of wresting sizeable support away from Ortega-Murillo.

They were:

  • Former Sandinista-turned-contra, ex-FSLN ambassador to Washington and academic Arturo Cruz (arrested on June 5 at Managua airport under Law 1055, the “guillotine law”).

  • Felix Maradiaga, pre-candidate for Blue and White National Unity (UNAB), who was arrested on June 8 under Law 1055.

  • Economist Juan Sebastián Chamorro, pre-candidate for the Citizens Alliance, also arrested on June 8 under Law 1055.

  • TV station owner Miguel Mora, pre-candidate for the PRD, was detained on June 20 under Law 1055. 

  • Medardo Mairena, peasant leader and pre-candidate for the Peasant Movement (MC), arrested on July 5 on charges of murder and kidnapping during the protests of 2018.

  • Noel Vidaurre, pre-candidate for the ultra-conservative Citizens for Freedom (CxL), opposed to any coalition with ex-FSLN forces such as Unamos—formerly the Movement for Sandinista Renewal (MRS)—which is part of the National Coalition. Vidaurre was put under house arrest on July 24 under the terms of Law 1055. On the same day, María Asunción Moreno, another CxL pre-candidate, announced she was going into exile.

7. The reduction in the number of polling centres (from 4309 at last municipal election to 3106) and reduction in the time for the election campaign from 75 to 39 days 

CxL denounced the shifting of polling centres in regions where it has support (Jinotega), the effect of which would be to increase abstention. On August 11, the CSE announced that because of the Covid pandemic the deadline for nominating and withdrawing candidates would be extended, with a consequent reduction in the time for campaigning (from 75 days to 39 days).

8. The deregistration of CxL. 

After the arrest of Vidaurre, the leadership of the CxL announced that it had settled on a replacement formula for November 7: cattle king and former contra leader Óscar Sobalvarro for president and 2017 Miss Nicaragua Berenice Quezada for vice-president. 

The response of the CSE was to deregister CxL under the terms of Law 1055. On August 6, María Haydée Osuna, president of the Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC), a member of the National Coalition but also registered in its own name, charged CxL with promoting “sanctions” and “foreign interference” in Nicaragua. The CSE then ruled, on the same day and without even hearing CxL, that it had committed “acts against the economy of Nicaragua and its citizens”. The PLC’s candidate for November 7, Milton Arcia, later resigned in protest at this manoeuvre to eliminate CxL, while Osuna was later to appear as head of the PLC list for the National Assembly.

The weeding-out was not restricted to election candidates and their parties—those who might influence the way people voted were also rounded up. In addition to the leaders of Unamos (covered in the accompanying article of Iosu Perales), the National Police also detained student leaders Lesther Aleman and Max Jerez, José Adán Agerri, the ex-president of the Superior Council for Private Enterprise (COSEP) and former close collaborator of Ortega’s, banker Luis Rivas Anduray, and sports journalist Miguel Mendoza. Other oppositionists went into exile to avoid arrest.

9. Repression of non-government media 

The main events in the wave of repression of non-government media were:

  • On September 27, 2019, the blocking of printing supplies to El Nuevo Diario resulted in its closure.

  • The May 20 raid on the headquarters of anti-government digital publications Confidencial and Esta Semana, leading to editor Carlos Fernando Chamorro having to go into exile.

  • The (already noted) June 20 arrest of 100% Noticias editor Michael Mora.

  • The August 20 closure of the print edition of La Prensa, the main Nicaraguan daily, due to the Nicaraguan government blocking its supply of newsprint, followed by a raid on its offices, seizure of its property and arrest of its general manager Juan Lorenzo Holmann Chamorro on charges of money laundering.

Leaving nothing to chance

The outcome of this operation was an election in which outrage and anger at the government’s handling of the events of April-July 2018 was blocked from having any candidate on November 7: as if the hundreds of deaths, thousands of wounded, tens of thousands driven into exile and 170-plus in jail awaiting trial were not an election issue, or as if the Ortega-Murillo construction of the conflict as a coup successfully put down were overwhelmingly accepted by Nicaraguan society. 

Such was the concern that a single candidate might mobilise the anti-Ortega vote that every last one of them, even someone with residual electoral appeal like eternal Conservative Party hopeful Noel Vidaurre, had to be set aside. 

This was not paranoia on the part of Ortega and Murillo. The September CID-Gallup phone poll of 1200 voters had found that if the split and fractious opposition forces had been able to settle on a single candidate, he or she would have beaten Ortega 65% to 19%. M&S Consultores still had the incumbent president way ahead of the opposition (63.9% to 13.0%), but it did not specifically ask what the score would be if the opposition were to come behind a single candidate. Maybe, too, internal FSLN polling was telling a different story to the seemingly comforting message of M&R Consultores.

Yader Lanuza argued at the time of the detention of potential rival candidates that, given the FSLN’s lead in the polls, Ortega had no political motive to have them arrested and every interest in triumphing over as many right-wing candidates as possible. Ergo, the seven “pre-candidates” must have been detained for real criminal offences.

[T]he current government actions have nothing to do with Daniel Ortega being afraid of an election loss. On the contrary, it is beneficial for President Ortega to run against various opposition candidates, as is scheduled to happen with four parties and two alliances of parties running presidential and vice-presidential candidates as well as candidates for National Assembly and Central American Parliament Deputies. Opposition candidates legitimate the electoral process when Ortega does win.

This was, at best, disingenuous. Ortega’s central problem was to avoid a campaign that would have set him head-to-head with a single opposition candidate embodying rejection of his government’s handling of the April-July 2018 conflict. The spectre haunting the incumbent was a repetition of the 1990 election, won by Violeta Chamorro backed by a 13-party coalition running for the far left (the now-extinct Communist Party) to the contra right. This loss took place when the country voted with a gun at its head and in the knowledge that if it voted back the FSLN government it would get continuation of the horrors and privations of the US-backed and funded contra war. This time, such powerful blackmail was missing.

The political behaviour of Ortega-Murillo was to leave nothing to chance to avoid this scenario. The government’s extensive social programs could not be trusted by themselves to win re-election for the ruling duo, nor could the squabbling of the opposition, made up as it was of representatives of the Nicaraguan economic elite, ex-contras, Sandinistas who had long broken with Ortega, and the politically variegated members of the student movement who had been the protagonists of the 2018 protests. Nor could polls saying that Ortega-Murillo would win easily be trusted: the memory of the 1990 election when Violeta Chamorro won against all poll predictions would have counselled extreme caution.

Common criminals?

With all its possible candidates now locked up, under house arrest or exiled, the two main opposition blocs, the National Coalition and the Citizens Alliance for Freedom, which had never managed to unite behind a single candidature, finally achieved unity on one issue—to call for abstention on November 7. As already noted, this decision made the election campaign a contest about the validity of the election itself, a contest between those with forefinger marked with indelible ink to show they had voted and those with a clean forefinger.

On June 23, Ortega justified the arrest of potential rival candidates in these words: 

Here we are not accusing politicians; we are not accusing candidates. Here, we are accusing criminals who have launched an assault against the country, against the security of the country, against the lives of its citizens by, once again, organising another April 18, another coup d’état, to carry out what they call ‘regime change.’ This is what we are pursuing; this is what we are investigating, and this is what will be punished, in due time, as the laws require.

In his article “Debunking myths about Nicaragua’s 2021 elections, under attack by USA/EU/OAS”), Ben Norton justified the arrests with the following arguments. 

He first stated that “not a single one [of those arrested] was an actual registered candidate” but says nothing about why this was so. None were registered, firstly, because any registration of a non-zancudo opposition candidate was on hold while negotiations took place between National Coalition and the Citizens Alliance for Freedom (dominated by CxL); secondly because after these broke down and the PRD agreed to be the vehicle for a National Coalition candidate, the CSE deregistered it; and thirdly because CxL’s various attempts to register candidates were also blocked by the CSE, with CxL too eventually losing its legal status. 

In short, those arrested were not presidential candidates … because the CSE stopped them from becoming presidential candidates. 

The tradition of the Ortega-friendly CSE deregistering opposition parties if they even started to loom as potentially serious rivals began in 2008, when the CSE stripped the MRS and the Conservative Party of their legal status before the municipal elections. It continued in 2016, when the Supreme Court ruled that the leadership of the Independent Liberal Party (PLI) did not belong to former minister Eduardo Montealegre but to an obscure party rival called Pedro Reyes. The National Assembly with its FSLN majority then voted to endorse a CSE ruling that 28 MPs—24 of them followers of Montealegre and four members of the MRS that had run in alliance with the PLI—had usurped their seats in the chamber. 

The result in the general election held later in the year was that the PLI vote, which had been 31% at the 2011 general election, crashed to 6.7%, while the vote for the FSLN reached 72.4%.

Norton next deals with those arrested between May and August. He justifies their detention in this paragraph:

As for the opposition figures who were detained several months before the election the Grayzone documented how they were arrested for conspiring with a foreign government (the United States), taking millions of dollars from Washington in a large money-laundering scheme to organise a violent coup attempt in 2018, in which hundreds of Nicaraguans were killed and the country was destabilised, and in which right-wing extremists hunted down, tortured, and murdered Sandinista activists and state security forces, even setting some on fire (links in original).

Here Norton makes an amalgam of the ex-Sandinista Unamos leadership (shown by Wikileaks to have had dealings with US agencies), the Violeta de Chamorro Foundation (insinuated but not explicitly identified as the agency “taking millions of dollars from Washington … to organise a violent coup attempt in 2018”), and those responsible for atrocities against FSLN supporters during the conflict of April-July 2018. But who exactly is guilty of what exactly?

Once again, the official version of this event is indispensable as justification for the latest arrests carried out by the Nicaraguan authorities—April-July 2018 was a coup instigated and funded by US agencies and carried out by their Nicaraguan proxies. For Norton, who also propagates this version of events, in arresting the oppositionists the Nicaraguan authorities were just enforcing the country’s laws: describing the detainees as “political prisoners” was simply “a way to try to maintain impunity for US-backed coup-plotters and money launderers”.

Norton avoided specifying individuals or organisations among the “them” insinuated to be behind the “violent coup”. More revealingly, he did not note that all but one of the accused were investigated and charged under the wave of laws adopted between July 2018 and May 2021, with the clear goal of preventing them from standing in, or influencing the outcome of, the November 7 poll. 

The exception was peasant leader Medardo Mairena, and his case could be one of double jeopardy: having been imprisoned for 216 years on charges of terrorism in 2019, then pardoned one year later under the June 8, 2019 Amnesty Law, he was again charged on June 5 with murder, kidnapping and robbery with violence.

An obvious question arises. Why, given that the political positions and activities of those jailed were well known (including USAID funding to the Chamorro Foundation and the political evolution of Unamos), did the Nicaraguan prosecutors wait until May-August 2021 to charge them? In the case of the VBC Foundation, the Nicaraguan prosecutor launched investigations into Cristiana Chamorro for “money laundering” under Law 977. The charge of money laundering requires the funds in question to have had an illicit source, but the donations to VBC Foundation came openly from sources such as USAID, the UN and the Swiss Agency for Development Aid, funding which the Nicaraguan Interior Ministry had itself sanctioned by issuing the foundation with the requisite annual certificates of compliance.

But that was before April 2018 and the 2021 election: the charge now is that the funds were used illicitly, to endanger the integrity of the Nicaraguan state. Readers can judge the quality of the case against the arrested pre-candidates and the other prisoners charged under the legislation adopted since July 2018 from this January 31 media release of the Nicaraguan Attorney-General’s department, announcing that trials would begin in the first week of February:

The accused persons will be judged for having violated the Political Constitution, Law 1055, the Law of Sovereign Security [Law 919] and the Penal Code of Nicaragua. They will be tried for harming national security by having received funds from foreign sources in order to commit crimes of laundering money, property and assets.

These same criminals and delinquents have reoffended, violating the rights of the people and Nicaraguan society, endangering peace and public safety. They are the same people who instigated and directed the terrorist acts of the aggression of the failed coup attempts of the year 2018, having paralysed the country and damaged the economy; they are the same people who brought so much pain and grief to Nicaraguan families through murders, tortures and kidnappings.

They have upset the peace and tranquillity of Nicaraguan families, creating alarm and damaging the supreme interests of the nation. They have carried out acts which harmed the independence, sovereignty and self-determination of Nicaragua and have publicly demanded foreign interference in internal affairs, proposing or organising economic, commercial and financial blockades against the country and its institutions, including, yet again, calls for armed intervention by foreign powers like the United States of America. They have called for and celebrated the imposition of sanctions on the State of Nicaragua and Nicaraguan families.

At the time of writing (February 11), the trials, conducted not in the courtroom but in the prison (“El Chipote”) where the prisoners are held, have produced eight sentences of up to 15 years jail and prohibition to stand for public office. The accused did not know their trials were about to start until shortly beforehand, their lawyers did not have access to the full detail of the prosecution case, and one of them, student leader Lesther Aleman, was prevented from making any statement. All pleaded innocent, with Unamos leader Ana Margarita Vijil signing the verdict against her “political prisoner” and fellow leader Dora María Tellez declaring that “Neither Daniel Ortega nor Rosario Murillo are the State of Nicaragua. This is a Republic, not a monarchy. I’ll keep struggling whether jailed or free.”

The evidence against the convicted prisoners—the specific deeds that have made them guilty of “causing harm to national security”—have yet to be made public.

‘The highest price would be to lose power’

Would Ortega-Murillo have won a fair election on November 7? It is impossible to say because the government retains sizeable social support, as also reflected in CID-Gallup polls, with estimates ranging between 20% and 35% and higher. 

However, Nicaragua under Daniel Ortega was never going to see a fair election, especially if there was a risk of losing it. After the 2006 Nicaraguan general election returned Ortega to office, longstanding FSLN leader and former interior minister Tomás Borge commented (to Telesur in 2009)

Anything can happen here, anything except the Sandinista Front losing power … For me, the possibility of a return of the right in this country is inconceivable. I used to say to Daniel Ortega: ‘Hombre, we can pay whatever price, let them say what they like, the only thing we cannot do is lose power.’ Whatever they say, let’s do what we have to do, the highest price would be to lose power. There’ll be a Sandinista Front today, tomorrow, and forever.

Such has been the guiding principle of the Ortega government. To that end any agreement, with interests inside Nicaragua or abroad, has been acceptable, so long as it strengthened the hold on power of the Ortega leadership, always presenting itself as the continuation of the Sandinista Revolution of 1979.

The core institutional alliance underpinning the government’s strategy, which the student protests of 2018 shattered, was with Nicaraguan big business grouped in COSEP while the core economic strategy was to attract foreign investment—including US investment—with the prospect of stable labour relations, low taxation and protection against Central American drug mafias, a policy overseen until 2018 by now jailed COSEP head José Adán Agerri, who acted as de facto super-minister of economy. 

Accompanied by rhetoric about “popular economy”, this approach enabled growth, reduction in poverty and infrastructure spending, especially during the 2007-2016 decade when $US4.66 billion in Venezuelan funding flowed into government coffers off-budget. Political hegemony was exercised through an FSLN transformed into institutionalised “party of the revolution” along the lines of the former Mexican Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), through tamed unions, through neighbourhood organisations (the CPCs), and through an enlarged police force backed, if necessary, by paramilitaries.

In foreign policy, the approach of seeking support wherever and whenever possible produced seemingly schizophrenic zig-zags such as “warm greetings” to Israel on the 73rd anniversary of its founding (after Nicaragua had been the first Central American state to recognise Palestine and dubbed Israel as a state “with fascist characteristics”). Likewise, the attitude to Spain flipped to ingratiation towards the Spanish monarchy on last year’s anniversary of the “discovery” of America. Tis came on the heels of outraged rejection of the Spanish foreign ministry's condemnation of the earlier arrests of the opposition. The statement by its Nicaraguan counterpart included the demand that Spain "assume full responsibility for its ferocious and brutal colonial and neocolonial history as well as its fascism disguised as socialism”.

More obvious as pure self-interest is Managua’s never missing the celebration of the Saudi Arabian family monarchical state’s National Day and its December 9 decision to endorse the “one China” policy of Peking and end recognition of Taiwan (despite a free trade agreement between the two countries greatly favouring Nicaragua and Taiwan’s $US200 in aid to help repair damage caused by Hurricane Eta).


It is not excluded that Daniel Ortega and the FSLN would have come in first in a fair election. Such a result would have been due to the FSLN’s ongoing base of support and to the personal rivalries and marked political conflicts within the opposition camp.

However, it would most of all be the result of the main factor generating those conflicts: the each-way betting of the Nicaraguan economic elite, which by sponsoring CxL as a hard-right alternative to the National Coalition sabotaged the possibility of opposition unity around a minimum program of democratic demands. As Nicaraguan sociologist Silvio Prado wrote in Confidencial on December 15 in an article titled “And self-criticism, for when?”:

This account [of the failure of the opposition] would be incomplete if it did not include big capital’s manoeuvres to promote a sectarian, far-right alternative and sabotage any sort of anti-dictatorship consensus that would include formations suspected of being left-wing or progressive. Faithful to their essence as powers-that-be, nostalgia for the pre-2018 cohabitation of “dialogue and consensus” counted for more than the demands for political change coming from broad sections of society. Not even the jailing of the former president of COSEP and the CEO of the country’s largest bank provided sufficient incentive to form the common front that was needed before the elections. In a display of rational choice, the gentlemen with illustrious surnames kept two candles alight: one ex ante (their party project) and the other ex post (resuming dialogue after [Ortega’s investiture on] January 10).

The Ortega-Murillo regime, now enjoying the support of China and Russia in a world increasingly hardening into two camps, seems likely to survive and not pay “the highest price” of losing power, at least for now. There are people who see this as a victory for the left, even as a victory for anti-capitalist, Marxist, politics. Does it matter that a few hundred “terrorists” and “delinquents” lost their lives in 2018 and that a handful of US-funded right-wing politicians and traitors to Sandinism are now ending up in jail? The important thing—power—has been maintained.

John Perry concluded his pre-election article “Ordinary Nicaraguans Should Guide Progressive Left’s Stance” with these words:

Nicaraguans have at least three reasons to suspect the worst [of any alternative government to Ortega-Murillo]. First, while US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has urged governments in Central America “to work to improve the lives of people in our countries in real, concrete ways,” the lessons of what happens to ordinary people under US-friendly governments are evident from our neighbour, Honduras, which has become a “narcostate.”

Second, we can judge [imprisoned “pre-candidates”] Maradiaga, Chamorro and their like from their friends – Mike Pompeo, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and others on the US right – and from their support for the coup against Evo Morales, for the self-proclaimed “president” Guaido in Venezuela, and so on.

Third, and most important, the country has already renounced its revolutionary achievements once – when it elected neoliberal governments from 1990-2006. It suffered 16 years of privatised services, increased poverty, daily power cuts and roads that were among the worst in the region.

The alternative to the current administration is not one that would better represent “the values, principles and goals of the Sandinista revolution”. The alternative is a government whose aim would be to destroy them. Is this what the progressive left really wants?

If John Perry could perceive these threats, it is conceivable that the “ordinary Nicaraguans” he so often invokes could also be trusted to perceive them, and to vote in their own interests in an election agreed by all to be free and fair: like that won by left candidate Xomara Castro in Honduras only three weeks after Ortega-Murillo’s ugly fraud.

In such a contest, maybe gratitude for any social gains attributed to Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo would have been outweighed by revulsion at their shoot-to-kill approach to student protest.

We’ll never know.

Dick Nichols is the European correspondent of Green Left and Links—International Journal of Socialist Renewal. Written in a personal capacity.


[1] This terminology is slightly confusing. At this Nicaraguan election there were 3106 Voting Centres (Centros de Votación, equivalent to polling stations in Australia) and 13,459 Vote Lodgement Tables (Juntas Receptoras de Voto) inside these centres.

[2] A reference to the rebellious reply--“Get your mother to surrender!” (¡Que se rinda tu madre!)—of 20-year-old poet Leonel Rugama when he and two other Sandinista militants, who were trapped by Somoza’s National Guard inside an FSLN Managua safehouse in 1970, were called upon to surrender. The three fighters had been surrounded by 200 soldiers, with an armoured car, after being betrayed by an informer. They died, riddled with bullets, in the unequal struggle. ¡Que se rinda tu madre! revived as a cry of resistance during the April-July 2018 protest-uprising against the Ortega-Murillo government. Rugama’s most famous poem is “The Earth is a Satellite of the Moon”.

Further note on November 7 Nicaraguan election

Since this article was published I came across this video of interviews with four former FSLN members who explain how they helped perpetuate electoral fraud in the 2008 municipal election and the 2011 and 2016 general elections.

The main points are:

1. As president of the electoral table (JRV) the first interviewee would wait until 5pm and then fill in blank ballots for people who had not come to vote. A small amount would go to the Independent Liberal Party (PLI) and the rest to the FSLN.

2. The second interviewee confirms this practice and explains how valid votes for opposition parties could be converted into spoiled ballots and how the vote of the dead could be given to the FSLN.

3. The two other interviewees explain how the distribution of benefits to the population was organised in function not of need but of maximising the FSLN vote.

The local FSLN committee would monitor the efficiency with which the benefits distributed in its area were being converted into support for the FSLN.

4. The first interviewee says the second stage of electoral fraud took place when the results of JRVs are entered into the central computer system, with “adjustments” made accordingly.

5. The third interviewee explains how the FSLN used the 2011 general election to note where the other parties could field scrutineers and, in the case that they couldn’t, offer FSLN members as scrutineers in future.

6. The ex-members had received threats to themselves and their families for leaving the FSLN.