The changes Daniel Ortega and his Sandinista party have wrought on Nicaragua’s political system over the past several years nicely illustrate how democracies typically come undone nowadays. Invasions, coups d’etat, and even autogolpes are so last century. Instead of failing with a bang, democracies now usually peter out in a series of whimpers. Elections keep happening, but ruling parties gradually cripple their opposition by harassment and obstruction. News media keep functioning, but they increasingly hew to scripts favoring the party in power, either because that party’s allies own them or because they fear being hobbled or shuttered if they don’t. Election results aren’t entirely fabricated, but they may be tweaked if necessary to ensure the desired result. The gradualism makes it hard to identify a transitional moment, but the end result is the same: democracy gets supplanted by authoritarian rule.
In Nicaragua, the return to Sandinista-led autocracy began with Ortega’s narrow victory in that country’s 2006 presidential election. In legislative elections held at the same time, the Sandinistas (a.k.a. FSLN) didn’t win a majority of seats, but together with the allied Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC), they retained a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly. Upon gaining office, Ortega used a series of legislative changes and personnel appointments to tighten his grip on the country’s police and military and its central bank. He also started building a system of Citizens’ Power Councils (CPCs) that critics derided as “patronage mills” because they are both controlled by the FSLN–Ortega’s wife, Rosario Murillo, oversees their operations–and are used to distribute state welfare funds with little transparency.
Opposition concerns about the incumbents’ authoritarian bent were realized in municipal elections held in November 2008. The Sandinstas won 105 of 146 municipalities, including Managua, but they did so, in part, by revoking the legal status of some of their challengers and perpetrating fraud as needed. When opposition activists protested the results, some of them were violently attacked by Sandinista supporters.
With municipal power back in Sandinista hands, Ortega turned his attention to the next major hurdle in his path: a constitutional ban on consecutive presidential terms. Here’s how Freedom House, in the 2011 edition of its Freedom in the World report, describes the end-around that ensued:
In July 2009, Ortega publicly stated that the constitutional ban on consecutive presidential terms should be eliminated. The National Assembly opposed his initiative, and Ortega lacked the support to pass a constitutional amendment on the issue. However, in October, the FSLN-controlled Supreme Court lifted the ban on consecutive terms, leading the National Assembly to pass a resolution in December against the Supreme Court’s decision. The president of the CSE [central election commission]—left to decide which body of government to obey—supported the Supreme Court’s ruling, but was scheduled to leave his post in 2010. In January 2010, Ortega decreed that appointed officials could remain in their posts until the National Assembly selects replacements, even if this occurs after the end of their terms. The decree affected 25 high-level posts, including the president and magistrates of the CSE, who had supported allowing Ortega to run for a consecutive presidential term in the 2011 elections.
The five-year erosion of democratic procedures in Nicaragua culminated with the Sandinstas’ sweeping victory in national elections held earlier this month. Ortega won another term in office, and the FSLN finally won firm control of the National Assembly. The Sandinstas didn’t flat-out fabricate the vote counts, but careful analysis of the results suggest that they did tweak it a bit to produce the legislative majority they badly wanted. In truly modern style, the Sandinista campaign was further assisted by a concerted effort to gain control over Nicaraguan media. By this year, the FSLN was effectively running half of the country’s six TV channels, one because it’s state-owned and two because they are managed by children of President Ortega.
So, folks, that’s how it’s done in 2011. Don’t cancel elections or fake the vote count unless you absolutely must, and for God’s sake, don’t send in the tanks. Relax, take your time. Stack the watchdogs with your friends; pepper your rivals with lawsuits; sic the cops on their campaign rallies; buy up or shut down unfriendly media outlets; and tap the administrative and judicial resources at your fingertips to reward the people who play along and punish the ones who don’t. The outcome is the same, but it’s harder for your critics to slap a “dictator” tag on you because they can’t quite put their fingers on that moment when democracy finally died.
(For a scholarly but very readable treatment of this phenomenon, see Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way’s article in the January 2010 issue of the Journal of Democracy, “Why Democracy Needs a Level Playing Field.”)