By Caitlin Hu, Natalie GallÃ³n and Mia Alberti, CNN
They have been called “a parody”, “a sham” and “the worst possible conditions â for a vote, but the general elections in Nicaragua were still held this weekend – the first since a wave of popular demonstrations rocked the country in 2018.
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega claimed victory on Monday, with more than 97% of the vote counted, according to the country’s Supreme Electoral Council – a victory that resulted from months-long government crackdown on potential political rivals.
The strong man in his seventies will now enter a fifth term, alongside his vice-president and wife, Rosario Murillo.
According to the Nicaraguan Electoral Council, 65.23% of voters went to the polls.
“Massive turnout in all municipalities,” government newspaper El 19 Digital reported over the weekend, which described long queues conducted in “order, peace and quiet.”
However, Urnas Abiertas, a civilian election observation group, said abstention rates were on average over 80% nationwide, amounting to a boycott of the electoral process that several Nicaraguans first described. hand.
“Going to vote is a joke,” a senior clergyman of the Catholic Church in Nicaragua told CNN via text message. âPeople are scared and locked in their homes. “
“A lot of people I know don’t leave their homes,” said another Nicaraguan from the city of Granada, asking to remain anonymous for security reasons. As he walked through the city, the streets and polling stations he saw were empty, he added.
An empty field
At least a half-dozen likely presidential candidates had been arrested ahead of the vote, paving the way for Ortega for another five years in office. Although five other presidential candidates were entered in the final ballot on Sunday, none were considered serious challengers.
Among those arrested was a former candidate and journalist Cristiana Chamorro Barrios (whose mother beat Ortega at the polls in 1990); his cousin, the economist Juan SebastiÃ¡n Chamorro GarcÃa; former diplomat Arturo Cruz; political scientist FÃ©lix Maradiaga; journalist Miguel Mora Barberena; and the leader of rural work Medardo Mairena Sequeira.
According to Nicaraguan law enforcement, dozens of other critics and opposition leaders have also been arrested and investigated for alleged national security concerns – measures that many of the international community described as political repression.
“We have the right, as Nicaraguans, to open investigations against terrorists and to defend peace,” Ortega said at a press conference with Murillo on Sunday.
Following fears that the package has been stacked in favor of the current president and his party, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), the Electoral council aligned with Ortega had limited campaigns and political party eligibility – creating what the Organization of American States Secretary General Luis Almagro described in May as “the worst possible circumstances for an electoral process”.
Disinformation and manipulation of social networks has emerged as another possible contaminant of the electoral process. Facebook announced last week that it had removed a troll farm from more than 1,000 government-backed Facebook and Instagram accounts, Reuters reported. The accounts had worked to amplify pro-government content, according to the news agency.
Throughout all of this, the specter of Covid-19 has loomed over the vote. Although the country has officially counted less than 20,000 cases and only 209 deaths since the start of the pandemic, health experts say the reality could be more serious than reported. According to the Pan American Health Organization, less than 20% of the Nicaraguan population has been vaccinated.
“A parody of election”
The Ortega government’s tactics to stifle competition have drawn condemnation from democratic governments and members of the Nicaraguan diaspora around the world, with weekend protests staged in San JosÃ©, the capital of Costa Rica, in Miami, Florida. , and in Madrid, Spain.
Even before the results were announced, the governments of Colombia, Chile and Costa Rica said on Monday that they would not recognize the result. The UK, US and EU have also issued statements challenging the legitimacy of the vote.
“What Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, orchestrated today is a pantomime election that was neither free nor fair, and certainly not democratic,” the president said. American Joe Biden. said in a press release Sunday which called on the ruling couple to release the detained political dissidents.
Venezuela and Cuba, however congratulated Nicaragua on its vote. And Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Monday called US criticism “unacceptable”, saying the elections in Nicaragua were conducted “in an orderly manner, in full compliance with Nicaraguan law,” according to Russian election observers. sent to the country at a press conference. by the Russian state news agency TASS.
Regional governments have long expressed concern about the pre-election repression of the Ortega regime. Following a wave of arrests this summer, Mexico and Argentina recalled their ambassadors for consultations, citing “worrying legal actions by the Nicaraguan government.”
At a meeting on November 3 on a new report on the political repression of Nicaragua by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, US representative Bradley Freden called the Nicaraguan elections “nothing more than a sham” and Canadian representative Hugh Adsett called them ” parody of elections â.
European Union chief diplomat Josep Borrell earlier described the Nicaraguan elections as so “completely bogus” that it would not be worth sending in independent observers.
The European Union and the United States have imposed sanctions on top Nicaraguan officials, including members of the Ortega-Murillo family. The United States is also on the verge of imposing new punitive financial measures after Sunday’s vote.
Ortega and Murillo’s hold on power
Ortega came to power as part of the Sandinista rebels who overthrew the Somoza dynasty in 1979 and fought the US-backed Contras in the 1980s. First elected in 1985, he has since demolished the boundaries of the Nicaraguan presidential term, allowing him to run for office again and again.
Increasingly, however, Ortega retreated from the public eye, with weeks and even months passing between appearances. His wife, Rosario Murillo, is now the recognized face and voice of the administration, with a unique daily radio broadcast.
Over the years, the two have inexorably consolidated their power, appointing loyalists to the highest positions of government and exercising an increasingly tight grip on the social and political spheres of the country. The local press describes a climate of fear and intimidation.
“They fear losing their grip on power,” Julie Chung, acting assistant secretary in the Office of Western Hemisphere Affairs at the US State Department, said in June. “As such, this fear of democracy, I think, has helped trigger these kinds of actions, repressive actions, because they have no confidence in their own ability to be supported by the people.”
Anti-government protests in 2018, sparked by outcry over a plan to cut the country’s social security programs, offered a stark example of the government’s intolerance of dissent.
Pro-government armed groups arbitrarily detained hundreds of participants, attacked churches and universities where protesters were hiding, and reportedly prevented the wounded from accessing medical care.
At least 322 people were killed then, according to rights groups, with thousands injured and hundreds detained. At the time, UN human rights experts accused the government of human rights violations against protesters. Ortega said the UN report was “nothing more than an instrument of the politics of death, the politics of terror, the politics of lies, the politics of infamy.”
Hundreds of protesters and activists are still detained, according to a report by the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights in February, and more than 100,000 Nicaraguans fled the country, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Anti-government protests were subsequently banned. Even waving the country’s flag in public – a key symbol of the 2018 protests – has been criminalized.
Today, civic participation seems unnecessary, a young woman told CNN on Sunday.
âYears ago, during elections, there were lines at the polls and people wanted to participate,â she said. Although she boycotted the vote, she stressed that others in Nicaragua are not even free to do so, with government employees being especially watched.
âMy father works for the state and if he doesn’t vote he will be fired. It’s a way of forcing people to vote, it’s not voluntary, âshe said.
Her only hope is to leave the country, she added. âI don’t see a future here. Unless Daniel Ortega and this woman die, nothing will change. There is no life here.
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Previous reporting contributed by CNN’s Flora Charner, Taylor Barnes, Claudia Rebaza and Matt Rivers.