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Weekly Report - 07 October 2021 (WR-21-40)

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NICARAGUA: Electoral campaigns kick off

Campaigns have officially begun ahead of the 7 November general elections in which President Daniel Ortega is seeking a fourth consecutive five-year term for the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN). With key contenders arrested [WR-21-36], genuine opposition parties excluded [WR-21-32], a supreme electoral court (CSE) widely criticised as partisan, and an absence of credible international observers, opposition groups like Coalición Nacional (CN) continue to dismiss the contest as a “farce” and urge the public and international community alike not to recognise the results.

Campaigns officially kicked off on 25 September. As well as Ortega, whose current vice president, First Lady Rosario Murillo, is also seeking re-election, other presidential candidates registered include Walter Espinoza (Partido Liberal Constitucionalista); Guillermo Osorno (Camino Cristiano Nicaragüense); Mauricio Orúe (Partido Liberal Independiente); Marcelo Montiel (Alianza Liberal Nicaragüense); Gerson Gutiérrez Gasparín (Alianza por la República); and Brooklyn Rivera of the indigenous Yatama party.

The line-up is perhaps more notable for who it does not include. Those not on the ballot sheet include Ciudadanos por la Libertad (CxL), which had headed up the Alianza Ciudadanos por la Libertad (ACL), the main opposition alliance, which had its legal status cancelled in August – a move described at the time by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken as “the final blow against Nicaragua’s prospects for a free and fair election” [WR-21-32]. Two other parties had previously been excluded in May [WR-21-21]: Partido Conservador and Partido de Restauración Democrática, one of CN’s members, which was going to serve as the political vehicle for the CN to field its candidates.

Amid existing concerns regarding the integrity of the election, days before the official launch of campaigns, the CSE further stoked criticism with its 20 September announcement that mass electoral campaign events (of over 200 people) were prohibited due to the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic. The timing of the announcement came as Nicaragua was facing a surge in new infections – a report by Observatorio Ciudadano Covid-19, a collaborative civil society group set up to monitor the outbreak in Nicaragua, tallied 5,123 new cases in the first 22 days of September, the highest total for a month since the start of the pandemic in March 2020. Cynics point out, however, that the constraints stand in marked contrast with the government’s earlier refusal to impose restrictions and its promotion of tourism and rallies involving large crowds [WR-20-23]. In a report published on 28 September, a local citizens’ group, Urnas Abiertas, also pointed out that despite this ban the FSLN had organised “4,300 recreational activities” which would appear to fly in the face of these concerns, and more generally accused the ruling party of “permanent propaganda”. Urnas Abiertas cited as an example on 25 September the handover of 150,000 homes in Managua as part of the Bismarck Martínez government programme.

International concern

The human rights situation in Nicaragua continues to draw international concern ahead of the vote. On 22 September the US, Canada, Colombia, Ecuador, France, Chile, the Dominican Republic, and the UK signed a joint statement during the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) highlighting concerns about political repression, human rights abuses, and democracy in Nicaragua. It warned the “current measures taken by the government fail to meet the necessary conditions to stage free and fair elections” – a reference to electoral reforms approved earlier this year which fell far short of demands by the Organization of American States (OAS).

Railing against the Church

President Ortega formally launched his campaign on 4 October with a tirade against the Catholic Church, accusing bishops of being “terrorists”. Such accusations are nothing new and have been levelled by Ortega against his opponents since the eruption of anti-government protests in April 2018. An increasingly vocal critic of the Ortega government, the Catholic Church has repeatedly called for respect for human rights and the release of political prisoners.