Suarez: When Is a Democracy ‘Good Enough?’

BY Ray Suarez  November 3, 2011 at 3:53 PM EST

Watch a preview of the NewsHour’s two upcoming pieces from Nicaragua below, and read Ray Suarez’s reflections on the political situation in the country. Friday on the NewsHour, Ray looks at what’s at stake in the upcoming Nicaraguan elections, and next week we’ll have a report on efforts to bring a life saving-vaccine to the country’s children.


All the outward signs of a functioning democracy are in place: campaign posters and t-shirts, television commercials, rallies, theme songs and colors. Turnout is high, opinions passionate, and the stakes high. In a lot of the ways that matter, Nicaragua has a political culture that gives voters choices between clear alternative visions of the country’s future, and allows voters to freely exercise their choices.

After 30 years of democracy, however, there are also disturbing signs of bad old habits of Latin American and developing world governance and electoral management that promise little to Nicaragua’s six million people.

It should be said from the outset that Nicaragua is not alone, not unique, and arguably not anti-democratic. Everyone who roots for the future success of the country should be watching this election with concern.

This national election will be run under new rules that appear to benefit one candidate above all others: the incumbent president, Daniel Ortega Saavedra. Ortega was one of the leaders of the Sandinista Front of National Liberation, FSLN in Spanish, that overthrew the government of U.S.-backed strongman Anastasio Somoza Debayle.

The constitution barred Ortega, who served as president in the ’80s and again starting in 2006, from running again. A constitutional court stocked with Sandinistas cleared the way for Ortega’s re-election bid.

Countries across the world recoiling from long-term rule by one leader have modified their systems to limit the number of terms, or prevent heads of state from succeeding themselves. Some leaders simply take their medicine and go home, but they’re the exception that proves the rule.

Many others have engineered constitutional changes (think Hugo Chavez of Venezuela), while others have sent their wives or handpicked placeholders to get around term limits (like Christina Fernandez Kirchner of Argentina and Vladimir Putin of Russia). So the fact that Ortega is a candidate at all begins with changing the rules.

Next, his detractors accuse, Ortega created the conditions to win through a set of bargains with a political nemesis, President Arnoldo Aleman, who still wielded great power in and out of office. Aleman and his party helped push through constitutional changes that allowed Ortega to win the presidency again, and Ortega lifted some of the most onerous penalties for Aleman’s stunning personal corruption.

The Nicaraguan constitution used to require a 50 percent vote margin for presidential victory. The Sandinistas have a faithful bloc of about a third of voters, but could not break that majority ceiling. Aleman helped lower the required threshold of victory to 35 percent, scrapping the requirement of a runoff and clearing the way for a Sandinista return to power.

With the table set for hanging on to power for a long, long time, Ortega and the Sandinista Front aren’t taking any chances. It’s hard to tell where and when the programs of government are separate from the electoral ambitions of the FSLN.

They’ve been mingled in a way that breathe up a lot of the available oxygen in the political space. The delivery of government medical programs…exams, vaccinations, screenings…all come with campaign posters and government workers in party gear.

The party has the power to close schools and bus high schoolers to key intersections and plazas to rally for the FSLN. The government sells subsidized food at a street party, but the party reaps the benefits, using the occasion to remind voters they owe their thanks for the help not to the government of the republic, but to the FSLN.

In this way, critics say, Ortega has become an interesting mix of a democratically-elected leader and a traditional Latin American caudillo, or strongman. According to Arturo Cruz, a former Nicaraguan ambassador to the United States, the president has done it without repression and political murder.

“I do believe that this society that wants to feel the government close to them. The way that Ortega has managed the country for the last five years is like a gigantic mayor taking care of people’s immediate needs,” Cruz said.

“For instance, right now we have had a very strong winter, so the lake in Managua raises its level, putting houses in the water. Who do you think is taking care of those people the next day? Daniel Ortega. So in, it’s not even the government. It’s Daniel Ortega himself. So in that sense the government has connected emotionally and immediately with the majority of the Nicaraguans who are overwhelmed by their daily needs. Even the rain right now is helping Daniel Ortega to get re-elected.”

The “Super Mayor” is keeping his country in good standing with international organizations at the same time as he’s fusing the party and the state.

Carlos Fernando Chamorro is a member of one of the country’s most prominent families. His family includes five Nicaraguan presidents, including his mother, Violeta, who defeated Ortega’s first re-election bid in 1990.

Chamorro, who once edited the Sandinista’s party newspaper, now hosts a nightly news program, and told me Ortega combines different strains of Latin American politics, authoritarian and pro-market, all underwritten by the Venezuelan government.

“This is not a socialist government. And he’s populist in social issues. He’s highly dependent on Chavez’ cooperation. That means at least 7 percent of the GDP every year, 500 million dollars that they go beyond the national budget and Ortega can use that money discretionally, either for government programs or to promote his own business group, or finance his own political campaigns.”

But Hugo Chavez has been waging a very public battle against cancer, making repeated visits to Havana for treatment.

“If Chavez is gone, Ortega will have trouble maintaining this, the degree of support that he already has. I’m not saying that if Chavez disappeared 2012 or 2013 Ortega will fall, but he will have a lot of troubles,” he said.

Over the past century, many authoritarian governments have finally gone terminal — that is, making elections an annoying technicality rather than offering voters a real choice. Fabio Gadea, an 80-year-old radio host and longtime foe of Ortega and the Sandinistas, told me he still believes an opposition candidate can win in Nicaragua, which in a way, concedes that the FSLN has not taken complete control of electoral politics.

“He has four television channels and he is using the channels that are not his to run his advertisements. All the channels are full of ads that advertise the government’s accomplishments and there is so much publicity we feel harassed.”

Gadea said Ortega may have overplayed his hand. “I think that when you use too much publicity, it can be counterproductive and it can turn against him. But we have much more moral authority.”

This is a turning point. No matter what you think of Ortega’s latest tenure and his service to the people of his country, his unwillingness to follow the constitution and cede power will garner him attention from good government watchdogs around the world.

Read more of the NewsHour’s coverage from Nicaragua and view a slideshow on our Global Health page.