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Latin America

How Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega gradually eliminated the opposition and consolidated his dynasty

The president picked his wife as his running mate in the November elections just days after the legislature dismissed 28 opposition lawmakers.
4 Ago 2016 – 12:33 PM EDT
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Daniel Ortega and Vice President, Rosario Murillo Crédito: Esteban Félix / AP

MANAGUA, Nicaragua – First Lady Rosario Murillo was chosen Tuesday as the vice presidential candidate to President Daniel Ortega in his reelection bid, putting her directly in line to succeed her husband if he wins the November 6 vote.

Opposition politicians attacked the move as an attempt by Ortega to install a family dynasty, since he already controls all branches of government and the armed forces. He has all but eliminated the opposition and has imposed single-party rule by his Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), critics say.

Murillo has been de facto co-president during Ortega's years in power. She administers the day-to-day affairs of the government and appears almost daily on national TV, outlining official activities and plans. But she was never elected to an official post.

Ortega, 70, is one of Latin America's longest surviving leftwing revolutionaries, after Fidel and Raul Castro in Cuba. He famously led the FSLN during the Nicaraguan Revolution that toppled dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979, which sparked a decade-long war with U.S.-backed Contra rebels.

He lost power in elections in 1990, but made a stunning comeback in 2007, and has since gotten the constitution amended to abolish term limits for the presidency.

The opposition Independent Liberal Party (ILP) and Sandinista Renovation Movement (SRM) branded the coming elections as “a farce” after a court ruling blocked them from fielding candidates. “These are elections without competition,” they said, given that Ortega will face small parties accused of cooperating with the government.

Ortega dealt the opposition a final blow last Thursday when a court system - under his control - dismissed 28 opposition lawmakers in the National Assembly, closing the only official space the opposition held and effectively ending political pluralism in the Central American nation.

“The dismissal of the opposition lawmakers demolishes the last bastion of institutional democracy and the state of law, because it violated all legal procedures and destroyed the bases of Nicaragua's constitutional system,” said Wilber Lopez, who headed the opposition bloc.

Ortega began trying to eliminate the opposition immediately after his election in 2006, said dismissed lawmaker Eliseo Nuñes. The opposition at the time, headed by Eduardo Montealegre, operated under the legally recognized Liberal Nicaraguan Alliance, but the Alliance's legal status was taken away as well as that of the Sandinista Renovation Movement, founded by Sandinistas who broke with Ortega in the 1990s.

“Ortega's next move was fraud in the municipal elections in 2008 and the presidential election in 2011,” said Núñez. The transparency of those elections were criticized by observers from the Carter Center, the European Union and the Organization of American States.

The opposition then created the “Vamos con Eduardo Movement” – We're with Eduardo – but the courts again took away its legal standing, which is required to participate in elections. Montealegre nevertheless ran under the ILP's banner in the 2011 presidential elections, and the party won the second highest number of votes.

June 8 court rulings took away Montealegre's official control of the ILP, leaving the opposition National Coalition for Democracy without a banner or electoral status.

Centralizing power

“The most effective attack on the opposition is removal of legal status, because that leaves you unable to participate in elections on your own,” said Dora Maria Tellez, a member of the Sandinista Renovation Movement. She accused Ortega of seizing all government control in order to move toward an authoritarian system.

The court handed control of the ILP to a little-known politician, Pedro Reyes, who demanded “obedience” from the 28 party members elected to the legislature in 2011. They refused, alleging that Reyes is an Ortega collaborator. Government electoral authorities last week ordered the National Assembly to dismiss the “disrespectful” lawmakers.

The Ortega loyalist majority in the legislature immediately dismissed the ILP lawmakers, even though Francisco Rosales, president of the constitutional wing of the Supreme Court, said that Montealegre's loss of control over the ILP did not affect “the popularly elected lawmakers.”

The legislature's ruling body said it dismissed the lawmakers who refused to obey Reyes because they were “political turncoats.” The leader of the Sandinista bloc in the Assembly, Edwin Castro, also denied Ortega was trying to eliminate all his political opponents.

“There is opposition. There are 17 other parties with legal status in Nicaragua,” said Castro, who seldom speaks with independent journalists. He was referring to micro-parties known popularly as “mosquitoes” and part of Nicaragua's political culture since the Somoza dictatorship.

Nicaragua's Private Enterprise Council and the American Chamber of Commerce also warned that removing the 28 opposition lawmakers from the legislature “deepens the political crisis and uncertainty” and “weakens democracy, political pluralism and the separation of powers.”

A U.S. State Department statement Monday said it was “gravely concerned by the actions of the Nicaraguan government” to "limit democratic space in advance of presidential and legislative elections in November … We strongly urge the Nicaraguan government to create a more open environment for free and fair elections.”

Ortega rejected the criticisms, and on Tuesday defended the legitimacy of the electoral process, saying that the Sandinista Front in the past “has accepted electoral defeats, even though the elections were questionable.”

Nicaragua's Frank Underwood?

Comments on social media compared Murillo's nomination to the U.S. television series "House of Cards," where Claire Underwood yearns for a White House post next to her husband Frank.

Ortega claims his wife's nomination is part of government efforts to expand the role of women in politics.

“To continue with this great government, we had no doubt that the vice presidential candidate should be a woman,” he said. “And who better than our colleague Rosario, whose work has been tested through many sacrifices and long hours."

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