Members of the Sandinista Youth pose with homemade mortars. The ruling party's official youth group, which has been called on repeatedly in recent years as security thugs to put down opposition protests, has helped Daniel Ortega establish a one-party system in Nicaragua. Image by Tim Rogers. Nicaragua, 2012.

MANAGUA, Nicaragua — Denis Obando’s short-lived rebellion against what he calls Nicaragua’s “totalitarian regime” has been swiftly beaten into submission.

Obando, a popular mayor of the battered opposition Liberal Party, thought the Nov. 4 municipal election in his farming town of Nueva Guinea was his to lose.

To the mayor’s surprise, and despite claiming he trounced the challenger from President Daniel Ortega’s Sandinista party, he lost.

Obando and his followers — many of them former Contra fighters who battled the left-wing Sandinista government in the 1980s — challenged the official results. They pointed to copies of ballot tallies as proof he won by a cushy margin of 2,000 votes.

That proved futile. Election officials refused their recount request, and handed victory to Ortega’s preferred candidate. The Supreme Electoral Council, controlled by the Sandinistas, robbed Obando of an easy re-election, the opposition group claimed.

“I’m not dismounting my horse, I’m getting pulled out of the saddle,” Obando says.

When it seemed Obando’s supporters would not back down, the Ortega government put the kibosh on their rebellion. In the second week of protests in November, the National Police deployed a rapid-response unit to crack skulls and clear the streets. Dozens of Obando followers were injured — several seriously — and 54 opposition organizers were tossed in the slammer.

“This whole electoral process was cooked before it started,” Obando told GlobalPost. “Any room for democracy in Nicaragua has been closed off.”

Dismantling democracy from the inside

Since sliding into power in 2007 with a narrow victory over a balkanized opposition, President Ortega has used the power of government to grow his minority Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) into a dominating, one-party system.

Some analysts compare it to Mexico’s “perfect dictatorship,” the 71-year reign of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that ended in 2000.

Yet many here recall an oppressive system much closer to home. In Nicaragua, today’s regime is most often compared to the country’s Somoza dictatorship that Ortega and Sandinista guerrillas ousted in 1979.

The Somoza dynasty was far more brutal than the current government. But many disgruntled citizens say there’s a chilling familiarity: A powerful family rules the poor country like a fiefdom, engineering some economic growth, but restricting the civil rights of its political opponents.

They complain Nicaragua, in the past 35 years, has traded a US-propped right-wing dictatorship for a Venezuela-propped left-wing one — or at least the makings of one.

With the poise of a chess master, Ortega’s steady moves over the past decade — first as opposition leader and more recently as president — have secured the Sandinistas’ complete control over all four branches of government, leaving the feckless opposition to squabble among itself.

Ortega’s crowning achievement was to win re-election last year with a majority vote, despite a constitutional ban that should have blocked him from running — a legal obstacle that Sandinista judges dutifully cleared by ruling that the constitution was unconstitutional.

Free of checks and balances, the FSLN now legislates unilaterally in the National Assembly. The party is widely accused of twisting the laws in the Supreme Court to suit party objectives and of overseeing dubious elections to consolidate its power. There are now more than 30 top government officials — including the entire Supreme Court, the electoral council and Comptroller General’s Office — who occupy their posts for months and even years after their terms expired, thanks to a presidential fiat that extended everyone’s tenure indefinitely.

“There are no democratic institutions in this country anymore,” lamented opposition lawmaker Luis Callejas, whose minority Nicaraguan Democratic Bloc (BDN) doesn’t have enough votes to do anything about it. “Practically every government institution is now in a de facto situation due to an illegal presidential decree. They continue to violate the constitution and I don’t see any prospects for this getting better — it will only get worse.”

The final blow came with November’s municipal elections, when the Sandinistas won or nabbed the mayor’s office in 134 of 153 townships across the country. The opposition’s position was further relegated to 13 mayors’ seats in smaller municipalities. The Sandinistas’ political allies won the other six.

The US government criticized the electoral process for its lack of fairness and transparency. Electoral watchdog group Ethics and Transparency said the ballot failed to meet minimal international requirements to be considered a “fair, honest or credible process.”

“There was fraud in 70 municipalities,” says Roberto Courtney, director of the Nicaraguan affiliate of Transparency International, an anti-corruption group. In its recently published 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index, the group ranked Nicaragua among the world’s most corrupt countries, tied for 130th place with Uganda and the Ivory Coast.

Nicaragua’s clergy is also concerned. On Nov. 30, the Episcopal Secretariat of Central America, headed by Nicaraguan Archbishop Leopoldo Brenes, warned about the risks of consolidated political power.

“We are worried by the undermining of democracy, which is no longer threatened by military regimes as in the past, but … by the tendency to build one-party systems in some of our countries and the high indices of corruption among all government officials, elected or not,” the bishops’ conference said in a statement.

Yet they are loved

The Sandinistas scoff at allegations of electoral mischief and dictatorship. They dismiss their critics as calamity howlers or “enemies of the people.” They claim the government is legitimately popular due to its social programs and improved access to health care, land titles, microloans and other handouts. The government also says individual rights and the free press are respected.

And some of their argument is not unsubstantiated.

Polls suggest the FSLN has doubled its support base over the past five years and is now a majority party for the first time in almost 30 years. Despite his tactics to grab power and squelch protest, the president is polling higher than ever — his approval rating is over 60 percent, according to independent polls.

An M&R Consultants poll released last October shows nearly seven in 10 Nicaraguans think Ortega is governing “democratically and lawfully” — a dramatic turnaround from 2009, when 60 percent of Nicaraguans said they thought Ortega was dictatorial.

“They used to call them dictatorships, but as far as Latin American political machines go, this one is not particularly violent,” says John Booth, a professor who researches Nicaraguan politics and democracy at North Texas University.

“It’s not that they don’t break heads from time to time. But, in general, the apparatus they have constructed is that of a fairly typical political machine. And they are pretty good at it.”

The FSLN’s “permanent election mode” has become very effective at using government handouts to win political clients.

“They give away stoves and roofing materials and whatever they have to do,” Booth says. “The leadership style of ‘caudillismo’ is an old tradition in Latin America … we are getting a return to the political culture that lurks in the DNA of Nicaraguans.”

Ortega is only doing what he said he would.

During a visit to Havana in April 2009, the Sandinista leader said he envied the communist island’s single-party political system and dislikes political pluralism because it “brings about division.” Ortega complained, “multi-party systems are nothing more than a form of disintegrating a nation and dividing the people.”

Three years later, Ortega’s wife and spokeswoman Rosario Murillo now talks of Nicaragua’s “good government” working in “harmony,” “unity,” and “teamwork to advance towards many more victories.”

Not everyone is convinced it’s sustainable, though. Former revolutionary leader Dora Maria Tellez thinks Nicaragua’s new one-party system, similar to the Somoza dictatorship before it, is already planting the seeds of its own destruction.

“This is a model that they are building in total defiance to the reality of the world and Nicaragua — this is one family with absolute control,” says Tellez, who once fought side-by-side with Ortega’s Sandinistas. “This, too, will eventually get resolved.”

Project

Back in power since 2007, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega is leading what he claims is a “second phase of the Sandinista revolution.” Some fear Nicaragua is repeating a cycle of social unrest.

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