Nicaragua ruling party ups advantages in run-up to elections

FILE - In this July 13, 2018 file photo, Nicaraguan police have their picture taken with President Daniel Ortega, after weeks of unrest in Masaya, Nicaragua. President Ortega is seeking a fourth consecutive term in November 2021, and he's pulling all the levers at his disposal to ensure his Sandinista National Liberation Front retains power. (AP Photo/Cristobal Venegas, File)
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MANAGUA, Nicaragua (AP) — As Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega seeks a fourth consecutive term in November, he is pulling all the levers at his disposal to ensure his Sandinista National Liberation Front retains power, and on Wednesday the country's divided opposition appeared to confirm that it will remain so.

Last week, the country’s Sandinista-dominated congress chose new members of the Supreme Electoral Council, who immediately set the electoral calendar to make Wednesday the deadline to register political alliances.

That threw Nicaragua’s already divided opposition into chaos. Days of intense negotiations ensued, culminating in a last-ditch attempt to find common ground mediated by Dennis Martínez, the first Nicaraguan to play Major League Baseball.

But Wednesday afternoon, one key opposition bloc, Citizens for Freedom, registered with election officials on its own, appearing to torpedo hopes for a grand alliance with the other main opposition grouping, the National Coalition.

Political analyst Eliseo Núñez said there was always a chance one opposition coalition would collapse before the election and endorse the other, but that the lack of a united opposition gives Ortega the best chance to win.

“Now we are facing a three-way election with two opposition options,” Núñez said.

Nicaraguans have suffered political repression, human rights abuses and a contracting economy in recent years as Ortega has continued to consolidate power and enrich his family. In April 2018, government forces and allies violently put down street protests, leading to months of unrest. Ortega called the protests an attempted coup with international backing.

With protest leaders forced into exile or hiding, Ortega and Vice President and first lady Rosario Murillo set about strengthening their grip on power while ignoring international recommendations for electoral reforms and demands from the domestic opposition.

In October 2020, the Organization for American States approved a resolution demanding electoral reforms. On Wednesday, during a discussion of the situation in Nicaragua, Secretary General Luis Almagro said, “None of this has happened.”

Nicaragua is on track to have “the worst possible election,” he said.

Instead, changes enacted by the National Assembly and Supreme Electoral Council “clearly give the official party an absolute advantage in controlling electoral administration and justice, eliminating the necessary guarantees and minimal institutional credibility for the development of a free and fair electoral process in November 2021," the OAS said last week.

Police have authority to decide what political gatherings are allowed. Government financing of campaigns was reduced. Laws passed earlier bar Nicaraguans working for organizations that receive foreign funding from running for public office.

Public protests already had been prohibited and activists were harassed by frequently having police cars parked outside their homes.

Ortega spent a decade in power after leading rebels who ousted dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979, and he has been in office for nearly 15 additional years since returning in 2007. He won reelection in 2011 and 2016 and is once again the Sandinistas’ presidential candidate. The former guerrilla commander will turn 76 four days after the Nov. 7 election.

Nicaragua’s fragmented opposition has managed to gather itself under two large umbrella groups: the National Coalition and the Citizen Alliance.

The two groups trade insults on social media, but had agreed on one thing: They stand little chance against Ortega in November unless they present a united front.

“Time has been lost in setting locations and few direct meetings,” Juan Sebastián Chamorro, the Citizen Alliance’s presidential pre-candidate, wrote on Twitter.

Oscar Sovalbarro, vice president of Citizens for Freedom, part of Citizen Alliance, said among the disputed issues was how a united opposition would divide up seats in the National Assembly.

Pastor Saturnino Cerrato, president of Democratic Restoration Party and a negotiator for the National Coalition, said “there simply is not political will to arrive at an agreement,” accusing the Citizen Alliance of “arrogance.”

At the OAS on Wednesday, Almagro said electoral reforms approved last week by Nicaragua's National Assembly do not comply with the democratic standards necessary to ensure free and fair elections. Ortega “wants to consolidate total control of the electoral process,” he said.

Luis Alvarado, Nicaragua’s representative before the regional body, asked the OAS and the United States to “stick to their own affairs. The Nicaraguans will resolve Nicaragua’s affairs.”

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Associated Press writer Claudia Torrens in New York contributed to this report.

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