Nicaragua President Daniel Ortega has been re-elected to a fourth term in office in a landslide victory. But as his inner circle tightens its hold on power, the legitimacy of state institutions could be compromised.
Ortega has won 72 percent of the vote with over 99 percent of the ballots counted, according to Supreme Electoral Council figures published by El Nuevo Diario.
The runner-up, center-right candidate Maximino Rodríguez, obtained 15 percent of the vote.
Victory for Ortega, head of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional - FSLN), was considered by many to be a foregone conclusion. Sandinista-dominated institutions have reportedly taken various steps to weaken the political opposition in recent months.
In June 2016, the Supreme Court replaced the head of Nicaragua's most important opposition party, the Independent Liberal Party (Partido Liberal Independiente - PLI) with a suspected Sandinista collaborator. Ortega's main political rival, Eduardo Montealegre, was then kicked out of the National Assembly and subsequently announced his withdrawal from politics.
As a result, Ortega faced little competition, with the other five candidates polling at under 10 percent, according to El Diario de Hoy. Opponents to the regime called the election a "farce."
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Furthermore, Ortega disallowed international observers from the Organization of American States or the European Union from monitoring the electoral process. Both bodies had criticized the 2011 presidential election for irregularities.
Ortega was one of the leaders of the left-wing rebel movement, the "Sandinistas," that overthrew dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979. He was first elected president in the mid-1980s, then again in 2006 and 2011. His third consecutive election was made possible by a constitutional reform.
Nicaragua's economy has grown at double the average rate of other countries in Latin America under Ortega's administration, making him popular in the business and foreign investment sectors, according to the BBC. The country's social programs and low violence levels compared to its Central American neighbors also helped secure his victory.
First lady Rosario Murillo ran alongside her husband as the vice presidential candidate.
InSight Crime Analysis
Signs that Ortega is cementing what some are calling a "dynastic" rule with shades of authoritarianism is a troubling development in a country where there is evidence of official collusion with organized crime. While the links between criminal networks and state actors is less visible than in many other Latin American nations, the FSLN has been implicated in shady dealings with drug traffickers in the past.
Ortega's grip on Nicaraguan politics opens the door to greater levels of corruption, as it weakens the independence of state institutions and puts a vast amount of power in the hands of a few elites. The president has been criticized for his control over congress, the police, the military and the courts. His family members and allies reportedly control fuel companies, television stations and public works, and his wife is now set to become the vice president.
This centralization of power weakens the regulation and accountability of public and private entities, making it easier for individuals and groups to co-opt such systems for their personal benefit. Precedents for this trend include the 2014 police reform, which made the president the "supreme commander" of the force, fueling concerns that this could erode the integrity of the institution. Corrupt elements of the Nicaraguan police are already known to work with drug trafficking organizations and drug theft groups known as "tumbadores."
Nicaragua has also been beefing up its military, increasing its budget over the past five years and buying Russian tanks and planes to supposedly bolster the state response to drug trafficking and natural disasters. But this has also led to suggestions that Ortega is working to strengthen the army's political influence.
A dramatic example of how the consolidation of state power can provide fertile territory for organized crime is Venezuela. Initially credited for reducing poverty through social development schemes, the socialist administration's tight hold over institutions was accompanied by extreme levels of corruption at the highest levels of government. Experts say corruption has robbed state coffers of at least $70 billion.
At the same time, Nicaragua continues to outperform its neighbors on public security indicators. It has been hailed as being one of the safest places in the region, avoiding the epidemic levels of crime seen in the gang-afflicted Northern Triangle countries of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Nicaragua's community-focused, preventive policing model and "neighborhood watch" organizations left over from the Sandinista revolution are believed to have helped keep violence down.