In Nicaragua, the Struggle for Free and Fair Elections Continues

  • Stacey Pirtle, Marin Exler

In November 2021, Nicaraguans will head to the polls to decide the Presidency in their first general election since the April 2018 protests. Despite mounting pressure for meaningful electoral reform from citizens, opposition leaders, and international actors, electoral reforms recently approved by the National Assembly are cosmetic at best. Instead of improving ballot access, the reforms increase Daniel Ortega’s Sandinista National Liberation Front’s (FSLN) control over the elections, campaigning, and freedom of assembly.

Historical Context

In April 2018, Nicaraguans took to the streets in-mass protest due to changes in the pension system proposed by the government. These demonstrations grew larger, as many Nicaraguans harbored frustration with President Ortega’s 11-year rule. Peaceful protests were disrupted by a violent crackdown by the National Police that left over 300 people dead.

Three years later, the Nicaragua government has continued to limit the freedom of expression of Nicaraguan citizens and stifled dissent. Opposition leaders are under constant surveillance by police, arbitrary detentions are frequent, and many citizens are afraid to speak out due to fear of persecution.

In November, Nicaragua will hold general elections to decide the Presidency, and whether Nicaragua will continue the path with Ortega, or opt for change. However, the ability to implement genuine electoral reforms to ensure free and fair elections seems unlikely.

OAS pressures Ortega for electoral reforms

In 2016 and 2017, the Organization of American States (OAS) observed Nicaraguan elections and concluded that the “The electoral system of Nicaragua would benefit from a comprehensive electoral reform that addresses various topics,” and that ”A permanent judicial and administrative framework that gives more confidence and security to political forces and citizens is necessary.” The government cooperated with the process, and in 2017 Ortega signed an agreement with the OAS pledging to strengthen Nicaragua’s electoral institutions. The agreement was effective for three years; however, no substantive reforms occurred, and it expired in February 2020.

Last October, the OAS General Assembly adopted a resolution setting a May 2021 deadline for the Government of Nicaragua to implement the electoral reforms needed to ensure free, fair, and transparent elections come November. The resolution called for Nicaragua to modernize its Supreme Electoral Council (CSE), the leading body that reviews all legality surrounding election-related processes currently controlled by FSLN. The resolution also called for open registration of new political parties, increased transparency, and management of electoral processes among other critical reforms.

Far from OAS requirements

After years of silence, on April 12th FSLN proposed electoral reforms in the National Assembly that severely inhibit the ability of the opposition to operate and deny Nicaraguan citizens their right to free and fair elections. The reforms maintain FSLN control over electoral institutions—including the CSE–and prohibit political parties, alliances, and candidates from receiving any direct or indirect funding from international sources, including support from Nicaraguans living in the diaspora. Lastly, the reforms move the responsibility for approving campaign marches or activities on public roadways from the CSE to the National Police. This would give the National Police, who have been a driving force of repression, the direct authority to restrict any electoral activity such as political rallies or party marches. The reforms were passed by the National Assembly on May 4th, along with approval of the FSLN-dominated CSE.

Opposition continues pressure

The reforms sparked immediate outrage among opposition groups and the international community. On April 22nd, the Nicaraguan opposition signed a joint statement rejecting the electoral reforms proposed by FSLN and demanded reforms that would guarantee free and fair elections. While the Nicaraguan opposition has yet to unify around one candidate or party, all 48 opposition groups united to sign this statement. In a session of the National Assembly on April 26th, Violeta Granera, of the pro-democracy group the National Blue and White Unity (UNAB), presented 18 objections to the electoral reforms proposed by FSLN. Additionally, the opposition nominated candidates to the CSE, however none were approved by the National Assembly. All magistrates serving on the CSE are now either members of the FSLN or allied parties. The dual force of the repressive electoral reforms, coupled with Supreme Electoral Council being dominated by the ruling party, making it extremely unlikely that the opposition will have a fair chance at competing in the elections.


In Nicaragua, the chance for free and fair elections come November looks slim. Despite this, the opposition and Nicaraguan civil society actors continue to show resilience in advocating for democracy and denouncing human rights abuses. The international community can and should continue their support for free and fair elections in Nicaragua and supporting human rights defenders. Without a unified response to these reforms from the international community, and without a unified movement within Nicaragua, President Ortega’s control will likely continue for the unforeseeable future.

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