MEXICO CITY – After an electoral campaign without rallies, demonstrations or even real opposition, Nicaraguans voted in municipal elections Sunday that the governing party hoped would give it near-total control of local governments.
President Daniel Ortega's party already controls all three branches of the federal government and 141 of Nicaragua’s 153 municipalities, and much like Ortega's 2021 reelection, the new vote was preceded by arrests and crackdowns on opponents.
Polls closed Sunday evening, but it was not clear when results might be announced.
In a report, the civic group Urnas Abiertas, or Open Ballot Boxes, said 17 people had been arrested prior to or during the elections.
The group said Sunday's voting was carried out “under the absolute control” of President Daniel Ortega’s Sandinista National Liberation Front.
It said government employees were “pressured” to vote and that in 63% of polling places visited, Sandinista party operators were keeping tabs on who had voted. It said there were Sandinista posters or people wearing Sandinista party promotional gear in 41% of the polling places.
The U.N. office on human rights wrote on Twitter that it was “concerned” about the “arbitrary arrests,” and said “we call on the government to guarantee the political and civic rights of the Nicaraguan people and stop the repression.”
Denis Moncada, Ortega's foreign minister, told local media Sunday the elections “help to strengthen the people's revolutionary democracy.”
But Ligia Gómez, an election observer for Urnas Abiertas, said that “these elections are part of a consolidation of the totalitarian regime of Daniel Ortega.”
She said the group had documented more than 700 instances of political violence, including targeted harassment and threats toward candidates or known opposition figures this year.
Ortega’s Sandinista National Liberation Front is so dominant it is approaching single-party status in Nicaragua. In the past two years, some opposition parties have been cancelled altogether and their candidates jailed. In July, police ousted five opposition mayors who belonged to a party disbanded by electoral authorities and replaced them with allies.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights expressed concern Friday that “the minimum conditions necessary” to hold free and fair elections do not exist in Nicaragua. It called on the government to reestablish democratic guarantees and stop the repression.
The government has shuttered some 2,000 nongovernmental organizations and more than 50 media outlets as it cracked down on voices of dissent. Some 100 other civil society organizations were closed Friday, the government announced. The pace of the crackdown has increased since the run-up to national elections last year in which Ortega won a fourth consecutive term,
The level of mistrust in the elections and available candidates is such that “people don’t even talk about the elections,” said an accountant who works in Managua and requested anonymity to avoid reprisals.
He said he hadn’t seen candidates caravanning around the city in the usual fashion or even banners advertising candidacies.
According to the Supreme Electoral Council, 153 mayors, as well as vice mayors and thousands of municipal council members, will be elected Sunday. At least 3.7 million Nicaraguans are eligible to vote.
The governing Sandinistas lead an alliance made up of eight parties, as well as Indigenous and religious movements supportive of the ruling party called “United Nicaragua Triumphs.”
In the capital, Sandinista Mayor Reyna Rueda, a close confidant of first lady and Vice President Rosario Murillo, is seeking reelection. She faces a candidate from the Liberal Constitutionalist Party, which is not part of the Sandinista alliance, but is dismissed by many in the opposition as a collaborator helping to create a facade of opposition.
Opposition groups have denounced irregularities ahead of the vote, among them the disappearance of more than 755,000 names from voter rolls without any explanation.
At the same time, the government decreed that people with expired identification documents will be allowed to vote.
A group of 13 opposition organizations in exile said in a statement Thursday that the election was a “farce” and just an effort by the government to install “an absolute dictatorial and single party regime.”
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ statement Friday said the government had excluded real opposition from these elections in a context of “government closure and co-optation of civic spaces and democratic participation.”