On November 7th, Nicaragua will hold its presidential election in which current president Daniel Ortega will seek to extend his title into a fourth consecutive term. Although considered a democratic presidential republic, Nicaragua’s upcoming election is far from fair and open, receiving extensive criticism from around the world. As they prepare for what appears a very performative electoral process, it is valuable to consider other recent corrupt elections and question if the concept of democracy has become a meaningless title that any state can claim.
Global concern over Nicaragua began in June when President Ortega’s government began an aggressive attack on political protestors and opposition leaders. Ortega’s forces arrested critics, including five presidential candidates, and have been accused of various human rights violations regarding detainees. Over the summer, the United Nations expressed concern about these crackdowns. Now, the situation is becoming more dire as the election quickly approaches.
United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken claimed Ortega was “preparing a sham election next month and trying to establish an ‘authoritarian dynasty’ amid a wave of arrests.” He also reminded the world of Nicaragua’s pledge to uphold democracy, established in the Inter-American Democratic Charter, in an attempt to highlight their clearly non-democratic actions. In response to Ortega’s corrupt actions, the U.S. has imposed various economic sanctions on him and his family, as well as denying visas to many Nicaraguan government officials. The Biden administration is currently preparing additional sanctions as the election date gets closer.
The Organization of American States (OAS) joined the charge in entreating Nicaragua to establish a fair election process. They created a resolution calling for a competitive election in which all detained candidates are released and allowed to participate. 26 countries have signed this declaration, which acknowledges Nicaragua’s failure to uphold democratic values, but seven states did not participate in the vote and Nicaragua was not present. Human Rights Watch (HRW) also produced a 37-page report in June chronicling Nicaragua’s corruption and calling for greater global action. HRW’s director of the Americas José Miguel Vivanco says Nicaraguans have “virtually no chance” of exercising “their fundamental rights to freedom of expression, assembly, and association, nor to vote and run for public office, if they are seen as opposing the ruling party.”
President Ortega has not just violated democratic principles in the election process, but throughout his entire time in government. Although Nicaragua’s constitution originally did not allow for candidates to serve a second term, Ortega disregarded this ruling, continuing his time in office. In this stolen position, he abolished term limits, allowing himself to continue serving. His government has consolidated power outside of the executive branch as well. Human Rights Watch affirmed that Ortega’s “administration exerts full control over every branch of government, including the judiciary and the Electoral Council.” In the run for his third-term, Ortega prohibited any outside oversight, and chose his wife as Vice President, ensuring power remained in his family and that he would not receive opposition within his cabinet.
Although it may be easy to blame President Ortega as an individual, similar trends have been happening across the world, putting democracy at risk. In June, Iran’s presidential election was branded corrupt by world powers when just 7 of 592 candidates were approved to run against current president, Ebrahim Raisi. One month later in Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed rapidly declared the occurrence of the previously delayed presidential election (the delay itself a violation of democratic norms). His victory resulted from low electoral participation amidst raging conflict in the Tigray region and the exclusion of almost any opposition due to boycotts and banned candidates. This mirrored some of Ortega’s strategies, such as unfounded arrests and human rights violations. Even in the U.S., which brands itself as the exemplar democracy—“the city on a hill”— there occurred the January 6th’ capitol insurrection and Donald Trump’s threats to refuse to cede power. Although ultimately unfounded, it highlighted the widespread decreasing respect for democratic institutions.
The disturbing reality is that this breakdown of global democracy is not new. According to Freedom House, 2020 was not only the 15th year in a row in which measured global freedom has worsened, but “the countries experiencing deterioration outnumbered those with improvements by the largest margin recorded since the negative trend began in 2006.” Almost “75 percent of the world’s population lived in a country that faced deterioration [in 2020].” Many scholars blame this trend on the effects of COVID-19 that hit the global population in 2020. In an effort to protect their populations, many states imposed measures that under typical circumstances that may not be allowed. This includes restricting freedom of movement by forcing people to stay at home, increasing surveillance to improve contact tracing, and decreased transparency and government communication.
Democratic struggles can clearly not be blamed solely on COVID-19, given the long-term negative decline in global democratic freedoms that began long before 2020. However, it is true that many governments have continued to use the fear surrounding this health crisis as an excuse to extend some of these corrupt restrictions. Turning again to Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed canceled the presidential election, claiming it was too dangerous amidst pandemic concerns; his rescheduling in July when COVID-19 was still active and paired with violent widespread conflict proved that this was likely a power-grabbing tactic.
Other countries used the pandemic to utilize a version of “state of emergency” powers which enable restrictions of freedoms or extensions of power that violate government norms in dire situations. Freedom House reports that Hungary “allowed the government to rule by decree” for an extended period of time, despite low infection rates. If democracy is going to make a comeback, the behaviour sustained throughout the pandemic that is still affecting global populations cannot be allowed to continue when unfounded.
To protect human freedoms and the will of the people worldwide, functioning democracies must hold one another accountable in upholding egalitarian principles of free and fair elections. This, however, becomes difficult when each country operates with its own interests in mind and is likely not fully protecting democratic concepts itself. For this reason, neutral international organizations must get more involved in not only observing elections but actively participating in their just implementation and intervening when necessary. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) assists in monitoring some global elections but does not cover sufficient territory. Additionally, there must be a power that can overstep individual countries’ attempts to prevent observers at their elections, as Nicaragua has done in preparation for this week’s vote.
The UN Electoral Assistance Division (UNEAD) is involved in aiding sovereign countries in planning and executing elections, but often is only included when requested by the country itself. When UNEAD does enter a country as a result of an official UN mandate, it still must receive approval by that member state. Given the rapid decline in democracies around the world that does not seem to be slowing, the UN should consider creating a new body tasked with electoral oversight and upholding democratic principles. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms that “the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of the government.”
Although state sovereignty also must be respected, it is clear that the will of the people is irrelevant to many political leaders and is being silenced by current corrupt regimes. It is not only the institution of democracy that is at risk but the inherent rights and safety of citizens who are receiving the brunt of these authority’s obsession with power. Since the UN is the global body in holding member states responsible for right rule and protecting the well-being of people, it has a duty to intervene to ensure this crisis does not deteriorate further.
If democratic principles such as freedom of speech, movement, and the right to life continue to be violated, there is no way to predict the further human rights abuses that may follow. International organizations and other democratic powers must promptly take action.
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