Somewhere at a palatial banquet table in a gaudy seaside mansion guarded by an excessive police detail, Sandinista officials are determining the final vote count in next Sunday’s presidential election. It’s a delicate task. Daniel Ortega’s landslide win needs to look authoritative, but without appearing absurd.
A 75% margin of victory would project the type of strength and admiration that’s befitting of El Comandante. But 85% might seem like a bit of an overreach, turning Ortega’s fourth term into a laughingstock and making Nicaragua look like a tinpot republic.
The range of respectability is somewhere between 70% and 80%. And it’s up to Nicaragua’s electoral authorities to divine that magic number sometime this weekend, with the help of math, speculation, and whisky.
The final vote tally in Nicaragua’s election might not really be determined that way, but after more than a decade of covering politics in that country, that’s my best guess.
If U.S. voters think this year’s election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump has been a dumpster fire, Nicaragua is what happens after the dumpster fire burns out. While the U.S. election has been contentious, divisive, expensive, noisy, awful, and seemingly interminable, Nicaragua’s has been completely non-existent.
Nicaragua doesn’t even pretend to go through the motions anymore. There was no campaign. No ads. No debates. No promises. No real opposition candidates. Just a balding and reclusive president and his clap-happy ubiquitous wife, who also happens to be his running mate. (And you thought your marriage was complicated.)
Nicaragua isn’t really having an election on Sunday. It’s more like an automatic subscription renewal on some forgotten account that you didn’t realize you were committing to for life when you signed up for the trial period.
The country’s last real election was in 2006, when Ortega was voted back into power with a narrow but legitimate 38% victory over a divided and moronic opposition. It was a homecoming of sorts. Ortega was president of Nicaragua during the revolutionary days in the 1980s, so he settled right back into office. At the time, Nicaraguan writer and former Sandinista vice president Sergio Ramirez told me that anyone who thought Ortega was going to relinquish power after his five-year legal term limit ended was being naive.
He was right. Since Ortega returned to the presidency, he has spent the past decade methodically dismantling the country’s constitutional democracy, eliminating checks and balances, rigging elections, and rewriting the constitution so that he can now die in office without ever having to find an honest job.
The Sandinista government’s first power grab came in 2008, when they rigged the municipal elections and stole more than 40 mayoral seats, according to election observers. It sparked days of street fighting in Managua and caused the U.S. to cancel tens of millions of dollars in aid projects. Nicaragua’s ruling party has since fiddled with every subsequent election on an as-needed basis, culminating with Ortega’s illegal reelection in 2011, which was a brazen violation of the constitution. (Nicaragua’s constitution at the time prohibited sitting presidents from seeking reelection, so Ortega sidestepped the law with the help of Sandinista judges and then rewrote the constitution once he was reelected.)
But this year’s “election” might be one tinker too many. Through a series of pre-electoral shenanigans by the Sandinista-controlled electoral authority, the genuine opposition was banned from running for president. Now Nicaragua can’t even pretend to have a legitimate election on Sunday.
It’s just old Danny and his wife running together against five unlikely straw men, some of whom are so unknown that their own neighbors probably don’t recognize them. Ortega is currently polling 60 points ahead of his nearest challenger, who is so irrelevant I won’t even mention him by name.
So now, the Sandinistas’ only challenge on Election Day is to get their own supporters to turn out to the polls and cast their ballots. The real opposition—those who have been banned from participating in Nicaragua’s democracy— are calling on people to boycott the electoral farce. But chances are, the Sandinistas will be able to make a show of it. Ortega still enjoys a high popularity rating in a country where the opposition has been marginalized and discredited for their fecklessness.
Plus, the ruling party can always motivate and coerce enough tired souls to turn out the vote. Abstentionism isn’t an option for weary-cattle state employees. And members of the Sandinista Youth will keep the party going by spreading their government-manufactured élan.
At this point, nothing really matters. Ortega will win the election handily and remain in office until his next five-year automatic renewal comes up, unless he dies before then and his wife inherits the family subscription.
I guess the point of all this, my dear gringo friends, is to remind you that you should be thankful and mindful that your vote still matters. Democracy in the U.S. is noisy and imperfect, but your ballot still counts towards deciding the next president. And if Trump wins, I’ll meet you in Nicaragua. Because even Ortega is better than that guy.