Nicaraguans go to the polls on Sunday November 7 with former revolutionary leader, Daniel Ortega, hoping to win a fourth consecutive term in office. He’s not leaving much to chance, though. Prominent opposition figures (including presidential candidates) and critics have been imprisoned or forced into exile and newspaper offices have been raided.

It seems likely that his Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) will receive a significant portion of the popular vote and Ortega – together with his wife and vice-president Rosario Murillo – will continue to rule Nicaragua for the foreseeable future.

Ortega has come a long way from the young left-wing revolutionary in the 1970s who fought in the guerrilla war against the US-backed anti-communist dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza, whose family had been in power in Nicaragua for more than four decades. After the Sandinistas led a popular revolution to topple the Somoza dictatorship on July 19 1979, Ortega became a member of the revolutionary junta. It embarked on a radical programme of social change, including land reforms and a successful literacy campaign.

In 1984, with vice-presidential candidate Sergio Ramírez, Ortega won the first presidential elections since the revolution with a landslide. The 1980s were a period of economic hardship and counterinsurgency at the hands of the Contra rebels. There was also international pressure, principally from the United States, which mined Nicaragua’s harbours in 1984 and provided financial backing to the Contras through the 1980s.

To the surprise of international observers, but largely as a result of a decade of hardship and turmoil, Ortega lost the presidency in 1990 as the Nicaraguan people voted for the opposition coalition led by Violeta Chamorro.

International acclaim

If their popularity at home often came into question, in Europe and the Americas the youthful and optimistic Sandinistas were immensely popular throughout the 1980s. Left-wing activists organised solidarity campaigns, fundraisers and protests to support healthcare reform, educational programmes and agricultural projects in Nicaragua. European social democrats including former German Chancellor Willy Brandt and Spanish Prime Minister Felipe González even launched a committee to defend the revolution from “external infringements and influences”.

In Britain, Ortega and the Sandinistas were the darlings of the cultural scene. Leading rock group The Clash released a triple album entitled Sandinista! in 1980 while in 1989, when Ortega made an official visit to the UK, playwright Harold Pinter threw Ortega a soirée at his London home, where the Nicaraguan leader met a who’s who of arts identities.

Acclaimed novelist Salman Rushdie, who travelled to Nicaragua in 1987 to observe the unfolding revolution, shared his rose-coloured view of the Sandinistas in a non-fiction book entitled The Jaguar Smile:

Father Miguel, Sergio Ramírez, Daniel Ortega: were these dictators in the making? I answered myself: no. Emphatically, no. They struck me as men of integrity and great pragmatism, with an astonishing lack of bitterness towards their opponents, past or present.

Ruthless in power

On Daniel Ortega, Rushdie could not have been more wrong. Since returning to power in 2007, the Sandinista leader has slowly and ruthlessly consolidated his power over the FSLN and the Nicaraguan state. Seeking to avoid a repetition of past mistakes, Ortega formed alliances with former enemies, including the Catholic church (declaring himself a Christian and banning abortion), and business organisations such as COSEP (the Superior Council for Private Enterprise) which had been a strong opponent of the FSLN in the 1980s.

Combining social policies with a neoliberal economic model that received praise from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, the Ortega regime kept the country stable and improved living standards. Not even the US, despite the occasional outburst on the state of Nicaraguan democracy, put much pressure on the FSLN leader. After all, the Sandinista government had adopted a strong stance against narcotics and implemented violent but effective policies to stop migrants and refugees travelling to the US. That all this came at the cost of transparency and democracy in Nicaragua did not seem to matter as much.

But in April 2018, these alliances with the church and the business sector broke down in the wake of a popular protest which was then violently crushed by the police and groups of Sandinista paramilitaries, leaving more than 300 mostly young people dead. From that moment it became impossible to deny that Ortega was starting to look more and more like the dictator he had overthrown.

Popular support

But Ortega and Murillo have managed to cling on to power. There are many reasons for their political survival, including the opposition’s fragmentation, a repressive state apparatus, and a lack of international pressure. What is too often overlooked, though, is that for many Nicaraguans, the FSLN remains the only political party that represents the interests of the poor.

Freedom of speech and independent media are vital elements of a functioning democracy, but they matter less to the voter who is concerned about food, clean water, a stable house and healthcare. Even though the Sandinistas’ social programmes are embedded in a neoliberal economic model, they still made a difference to the daily lives of many Nicaraguans.

If the opposition is serious about challenging the Ortega-Murillo regime, the answer lies perhaps in building a broad alliance that includes all sectors of society, particularly the marginalised. This, at least, was what the Sandinista revolutionaries needed to finally bring an end to decades of Somocista rule in 1979.

Eline van Ommen does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.