Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, are expected to claim victory after national elections Sunday in which the Ortegas faced only nominal opposition from little-known candidates representing small parties seen as friendly to Ortega's Sandinista Front. The Ortega government arrested seven potential opposition candidates starting in May, as well as 32 leading businessmen, journalists, political foes, and student and peasant leaders.
The election completes Ortega's "transformation into a 21st century version of the dynastic dictator he helped overthrow as a guerrilla revolutionary more than 40 years ago," The Wall Street Journal reports. Ortega's Sandinistas toppled right-wing dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979. Ortega then led Nicaragua from 1985 until 1990, when he was defeated by Violeta Barrios de Chamorro. He returned to power in 2007.
Chamorro's daughter, Cristiana Chamorro, was one of the opposition politicians Ortega arrested. When she was detained in June, the Journal notes, she had a 53 percent favorability rating, versus Ortega's 39 percent. A recent CID-Gallup poll found that 19 percent of Nicaraguans would vote for Ortega if he faced one of the seven jailed candidates.
The U.S. and European Union denounced Sunday's election as a sham. President Biden, in a statement Sunday night, called it "a pantomime election that was neither free nor fair, and most certainly not democratic," adding that the U.S. would work with the international community to "use all diplomatic and economic tools at our disposal to support the people of Nicaragua and hold accountable the Ortega-Murillo government."
The U.S. has steadily ramped up sanctions on Ortega's government — including his wife and children he placed in power — after it violently cracked down on a wave of protests in 2018, killing 328 Nicaraguans. Biden is expected to sign legislation passed last week to expand sanctions on Nicaraguan authorities and review Nicaragua's membership in the Central American Free Trade Agreement.
Ortega's ongoing crackdown on dissent "reeks of Putin-style tactics," Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the bill's lead sponsor, told The Washington Post. "What he's doing is basically taking steps to set up a dynastic regime, just like the Somozas before him."
But "Washington faces a dilemma: If it imposes tougher economic sanctions, they could harm ordinary people in Nicaragua," leading to more migration, the Post reports. "And yet if Ortega faces no repercussions for holding a rigged election," other tentative democracies in the region could similarly tip into autocracy.