On Monday, November 1, 2021, Facebook uncovered one of the largest troll farms, run by the Nicaraguan government, in which at least 1,300 accounts on Facebook and Instagram formed part of an operation targeting critics of President Daniel Ortega and the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front. This unsurprising development—the latest in a series of maneuvers aimed at quelling opposition and further consolidating power—comes just days before President Ortega seeks to be elected for a fourth consecutive term. The November 7, 2021 election in which most opposition candidates have been arbitrarily detained, has been widely denounced as illegitimate.
Between Oct 1, 2020 and September 15, 2021, Urnas Abiertas, a Nicaraguan citizen electoral observatory, registered 1,513 acts of political violence, in which 60 percent of the victims were people within political organizations or parties, 20 percent were committed against candidates in the presidential and congressional races, and 10 percent were journalists. Among the more worrisome and blatant tactics used by the Ortega government has been criminalization of the opposition. From May to November of this year, 39 people were arbitrarily detained for political motives, 7 of which were presidential candidates. A recent oral update on the human rights situation in Nicaragua before the UN Human Rights Council by High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet had similar findings, affirming that Nicaraguans are not able to “exercise their right to vote without intimidation, violence, or administrative interference” or freely present their candidacies and engage in election campaigns. Not only has the integrity of the electoral process been compromised with the virtual elimination of the opposition, but there have been several efforts to make the elections themselves completely devoid of legitimacy.
According to Urnas Abierta’s report, harsh measures have been taken to completely control the electoral process and its outcomes. A quarter of the country’s polling stations were eliminated, an estimated 20% of the total electorate was purged from the register, and three opposition parties were abolished. State resources have been used for the governing parties’ private activities as well as partisan and electoral purposes.
In anticipation of the upcoming illegitimate elections, the U.S. is preparing new sanctions as well as reviewing Nicaragua’s participation in the CAFTA-DR. On October 11 the European Council announced that it was prolonging for another year the sanctions it had imposed in 2019 on 14 individuals from Nicaragua; previously it had reiterated its call for “inclusive dialogue and democracy as the only way out of the political, economic and social crisis in Nicaragua.” On October 20, the Permanent Council of the OAS adopted a resolution expressing concern “that the measures instituted by the Government of Nicaragua do not meet the minimum criteria for free and fair elections as established by the Inter American Democratic Charter,” calling for the immediate release of presidential candidates and political prisoners, and affirming that they will assess the November 7 elections at the upcoming General Assembly and discuss undertaking any further needed actions in accordance with the OAS Charter and Democratic Charter. These measures build on previous pressure from the U.S. and others, including the European Union, yet to date there has been little evidence that these condemnations and sanctions have had an impact on the behavior of the Ortega government.
Apart from the international community not recognizing the results of these elections or the process itself, moving forward they should urge the Nicaraguan government to establish a new round of elections that is convened in accordance with the law and international principles, and with the inclusion of qualified international electoral observation missions (there are no independent observation missions for the November 7 elections, only “electoral accompaniers” selected by Nicaragua’s electoral council). However, in order to get Nicaragua to a place in which such elections are feasible, there are several benchmarks that must be met first, for which the international community’s support is necessary.
These include reiterating calls for the immediate cessation of repression, freedom for presidential candidates and political prisoners, guarantees to ensure justice for victims of human rights violations, cessation of persecution against journalists and the media, and access to public information and citizen participation. In addition, Nicaraguan authorities should implement reforms to the electoral framework including the powers and composition of the Supreme Electoral Council. Finally, the international community should work to support efforts to reestablish the constitutional order, recognizing that the president and legislators who will be elected on November 7 will not take office in a process that has respected democratic norms. As the Ortega government has made no moves to guarantee human rights and electoral integrity, the international community should make clear they will only engage with the Ortega government on the condition that it opens negotiations with the goal of meeting the aforementioned benchmarks to restore democratic order in Nicaragua.