illustration by Angus Greig
A decade ago, President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua made a startling comeback by persuading voters to give him a second shot at running the country. It was a hard-fought victory for the former guerrilla leader, coming after three electoral defeats.
This November’s presidential election, however, won’t be a democratic exercise. Drawing relatively little international scrutiny, Mr. Ortega has worked in recent years to consolidate power by building a vast network of patronage and vanquishing the political opposition.
Last Friday, 28 opposition lawmakers were dismissed from office as a result of a ruling by Nicaragua’s Supreme Court, which is packed with his loyalists. This week, Mr. Ortega announced that his wife, Rosario Murillo, who has long served as the government’s spokeswoman, would be his vice-presidential running mate in the coming election, the clearest sign that they intend to establish an authoritarian dynasty.
Mr. Ortega’s dominance in Nicaragua stands in stark contrast to the fate of other leftist governments that rose to power in the last decade. The appeal of leftist leaders in Bolivia, Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina and Ecuador has ebbed as the commodities boom that enabled them to dole out generous social benefits crashed, bringing the mismanagement and corruption of their governments into sharp focus.
Mr. Ortega and his wife have been at the center of Nicaragua’s turbulent history for decades. They were members of the Sandinista National Liberation Front, a leftist rebel group that overthrew the Somoza family, which ran the country dictatorially from the 1930s to 1979. Mr. Ortega became president in 1984 in an election that international monitors called the nation’s first credible vote. His bid for re-election in 1990 failed, in large part because of allegations of corruption.
After Mr. Ortega won the election in 2006, he moved swiftly to overhaul the country’s political structure. The Sandinista party disqualified rivals from running in municipal elections in 2008 and has since used a combination of financial incentives and arbitrary legal cases to co-opt segments of the opposition and sideline the rest.
Mr. Ortega packed the courts and the National Assembly with allies, which paved the way for a 2014 legislative change that allows the president to run indefinitely for five-year terms. Ms. Murillo, meanwhile, has become a highly visible public figure with a daily radio show, and personally awards land titles and other benefits to Nicaraguans.
Under Mr. Ortega, 70, the country’s tiny economy has grown. And he has managed to work closely with international donors, foreign investors and the private sector, all while collecting financial aid from Venezuela. Nicaragua, which has a vast police force that keeps close tabs on its citizens, has also remained safer than three of its northern neighbors, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Gangs and violent drug trafficking has caused tens of thousands of people from those nations to flee to the United States in recent years.
The country’s relative security is no reason to tolerate repression and authoritarianism. Genuine political competition and a free press are necessary cures to the corruption and inefficiency that so often corrode authoritarian systems. The course of Mr. Ortega’s own political history should serve as reminder that overthrowing a government can be the citizens’ response when all other avenues for dissent are shut.
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