University of the Philippines, Diliman


Daniel Ortega and the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) played a key role in topping down the Somoza dictatorship in 1979. Through a long and heavy struggle, democracy was institutionalized in Nicaragua with the election of US – backed Violeta Chamorro in the 90’s. In 2006, after several electoral defeats for the presidency in 1990, 1996, and 2001, Ortega has managed to re-capture leadership of the country and from then on, seems to be slowly but surely eroding the fledgling democracy that took root in the country, through executive aggrandizement, explained by Bermeo, as a situation where “elected executives weaken checks on executive power one by one… through legal channels, often using newly elected constitutional assemblies or referenda… existing courts or legislatures may also be used, in cases where supporters of the executive gain majority control of such bodies” .

The Pact
Ortega with his political savviness has seemingly mastered the art of manipulating institutions and the constitution in his quest for political power. This started with the pact, the “El Pacto” created between FSLN and Arnoldo Aleman’s Constitutional Liberal Party (PLC) in 1996. The pact led to changes in the electoral rules, where (1) the proportion of votes needed to win the first round was reduced from 45% to 40%, and the removal of the second run-off election if the candidate who wins on the first round has a 5% difference with the second candidate and (2) an increase in the voting threshold was imposed on political parties in order to gain a seat in the assembly, and changes in the judiciary and the Supreme Electoral Council leading to (1) an increase in the number of Supreme court justices from 12 to 16 (9PLC, 7 FSLN), and increase in the members of the Supreme Electoral Council (ESC) from 5to 7 (4 PLC, 3 FSLN) . Taken together, these changes which were passed in 2001, worked to Ortega’s favor, where the voting threshold made it more difficult for political parties to gain a seat in the assembly, in effect creating a two-party situation with PLC and FSLN, and Ortega and Aleman gaining relative control over the Assembly (until the time where Ortega was able to push Aleman and PLC out of the picture), and also a bipartisan control of the key non-elected democratic institutions. Indeed, Ortega’s pact with Aleman paved the way for the plunder of power that will come after his return to the executive’s position in 2007.

To the Victor Goes all the Spoils
Since his electoral victory in 2007, Ortega has successfully managed to weaken any form of horizontal accountability and has embarked on a wide-spread executive aggrandizement to consolidate his power through the manipulation of the institutions. In 2008, Ortega was accused of using his Sandinista led ESC to disqualify two political parties from participating in the elections and of using the electoral body to cheat in the mayoral elections where 96 of the 146 mayoral seats at stake were won by the FSLN candidates . In 2009, given the absence of FSLN majority in the legislature, Ortega turned to the Sandinista – controlled Supreme Court to remove the ban, on the executive running for 2 consecutive terms. The SC ruling was strengthened by the EC’s ready compliance, leading to Ortega’s victory in 2011. This ruling was upheld despite it being a direct violation of article 147 of the constitution that explicitly banned presidents from serving consecutively, and the provision that stated that only National Assembly has the power to make changes regarding provisions on executive term of limits.

Taking things further, in 2014, the Sandinista -led National Assembly ratified the provision which officially lifted the term limits that a president can served, making Nicaragua, the third Latin America country that has done so, after Peru in 1999 and Venezuela in 2009 . Also, a significant change is the removal of the 35% vote needed to win the presidency, thus reducing Nicaragua to a simple first past the post system. Using the ESC, Ortega was also able to get his strongest competitor from the PLC party Eduardo Montealegre barred from running, and he also banned some political parties from participating in the elections, thus securing the electoral victory of the FSLN candidates. For Zovatto , this trend is worrisome especially in presidential systems as it puts the “political system at risk of a democratic dictatorship and reinforces the trend towards personal and hegemonic leadership.” The fear now is that Ortega may have removed a dictator, but has become one himself, with the lifting of the term limits. This is further exacerbated by the election of his wife Rosario Murillo as vice-president and the alleged government positions that various family members hold. The last presidential elections showed that massive electoral support that he received at 71% vote, a far cry from the paltry 38% that he received in the 2006 elections. But then again, how many of these votes is a result of genuine support and how many of these votes take advantage of the incumbents’ advantage that Penfold and Corrales talk about?

The Future of Nicaragua’s Democracy
What is the future of Nicaragua’s democracy? For Corrales and Penfold,a president can face backlash by “pressing to amend the constitution to allow for a third term after having already won an initial change permitting re-election…these efforts are polarizing and potentially destabilizing” . However, this does not seem to be the case in Nicaragua. One way of toppling down a powerful executive is through challenges outside of the state. Unfortunately, this appears impossible given the massive popularity that Ortega seemingly possess, particularly from the sector of the masses. This is brought about by a relatively stable economy with a 4% growth, stable foreign reserves, and increasing bank deposits . His popularity is also a by-product of the programs he has for the poor. At the same time, the low crime rate that the country is enjoying under Ortega’s continuing administration has boosted his popularity. Moreover, Ortega has managed to make another pact with the Consejo Superior de la Empresa Privada (COSEP), the business group in Nicaragua, making the government and the business sector cozy buddies. And the support of the business sector is a necessary ingredient in removing an executive as what we’ve seen in countries like the Philippines. Hence, with the popularity that Ortega enjoys from the masses and the support of the business sector, the absence of horizontal accountability is coupled with a lack of vertical accountability, allowing Ortega to further erode democracy in Nicaragua. The future of democracy in Nicaragua then appears to be bleak.

Photo Courtesy of Firkin, Creative Commons Zero License


Nancy Bermeo.”On Democratic Backsliding,” 2016. Journal of Democracy. 27 (2010): 4-19.
Demetrius Walker and Philip J. Williams, “The Nicaraguan Constitutional Experience, Process, Conflict, Contradictions, and Change” last modified March 18, 2018. %20State/Chapter18_Framing.pdf
How to Steal an Election, accessed March 18, 2018.
Javier Corrales and Michael Penfold. “Manipulating Term Limits in America,” Journal of Democracy 25(2014):157-168.
Daniel Zovato.”Re-election, continuity, and Hyper-Presidentialism in Latin America” last modified March 18, 2018. http:///
Javier Corrales and Michael Penfold. “Manipulating Term Limits in America,” Journal of Democracy 25(2014):157-168.
Tim Rogers. “Why Ortega Will Go On Running Nicaragua”. Last modified March 18, 2018.,2047235,00.html


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