Daniel Ortega's closet is filled with skeletons that would terrify the bravest of campaign handlers. The 65-year-old Nicaraguan President once the mustachioed Marxist in olive fatigues who bedeviled the Reagan Administration in the 1980s has admitted to murdering a National Guardsman in 1967, been convicted of bank robbery, been accused by a stepdaughter of sexual abuse and by Miskito Indians of genocide. He's been denounced for confiscating private property and using public office for personal enrichment, and he's been blamed for the systematic undermining of Nicaragua's constitutional order including what many legal scholars call his illegitimate bid to win another five-year term this weekend.
With a résumé like that, one might expect Ortega to have electability issues. But not in Nicaragua. Ortega, presiding over a record run of economic prosperity in his impoverished Central American nation, is expected to win re-election on Sunday, Nov. 6, by a landslide even though critics say his candidacy is illegal, the elections are a sham and that his victory will mean a return to dictatorship after more than 20 years of democracy. "You can say the Supreme Electoral Council has a dubious reputation and that the legality of Daniel Ortega's candidacy is also dubious, but what's undeniable is that [he] has more support than ever before," says Arturo Cruz, a political-science professor at Managua's INCAE Business School. "This is a total realignment."
An M&R Consultores voter poll released last week shows Ortega at 58%, with a seemingly insurmountable lead of 40 points over his closest rival, octogenarian radio producer Fabio Gadea, who was a contra-rebel supporter during Ortega's first presidency a generation ago. Former President Arnoldo Alemán a conservative who was serving a 20-year sentence for a 2003 corruption conviction when it was overturned by the Ortega-controlled Supreme Court two years ago in what many called a political deal between him and Ortega is polling a distant third.
Ortega has engineered a stunning consolidation of political and economic power since his 2006 election. That victory marked a comeback, if not revenge, after he and his revolutionary Sandinista government were voted out of power in 1990 following a decadelong civil war against the U.S.-funded contras. He lost two more presidential bids in 1996 and 2001 before finally regaining the presidency in 2006 with a twiggy 38% of the vote. Since returning to office, Ortega has worked hard to recover traditional Sandinista support and recruit new voters among disenfranchised youth. His selective crackdown on dissidents, while offensive by modern-day Facebook standards, has been tame compared with the Sandinista authoritarianism of the 1980s. And even his brazen assaults on rule of law Ortega's questionable candidacy was born in a banana-republic moment in 2009, when Sandinista judges amazingly ruled that the constitutional ban on consecutive re-election was unconstitutional have been met mostly with indifference in Nicaragua.
The Sandinistas, of course, insist they're playing by democratic rules and deny that Ortega is acting like a dictator. "Imagine, a dictator with no political prisoners not one," Tomás Borge, the Sandinistas' last living founding member and Ortega's feared Interior Minister in the 1980s, said recently. "No one has been exiled during this 'dictatorship.'" Ortega has also gotten an assist from his feckless foes. For the first time ever, Ortega is winning support from independent voters who are traditionally anti-Sandinista but who have now given up on the opposition. As Ortega's opponents continue to point fingers, squawk and trip over their egos, independent voters realize Ortega is no longer the worst option.
Nor do they seem too concerned that the $2 billion in aid poured into Nicaragua since 2006 by Ortega's chief patron, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, has perhaps enriched the party far more than the country. Ortega and Sandinista leaders, in fact, have unabashedly used chunks of the money to purchase private ownership of Nicaraguan companies, sometimes as mixed Venezuelan-Sandinista business ventures, and to corner entire industries in Nicaragua. It's startlingly reminiscent of the personal fiefdom that the Somozas the dictator family the Sandinistas overthrew in 1979 made of Nicaragua during their long rule. What's more, say critics, Ortega has spent a modest remainder buying votes through social programs and party giveaways like food supplies, roofing materials, basic health care services, microcredit loans and other party perks.
Political patronage isn't economic development, but it has helped satisfy the immediate daily needs of the "50% of the population whose top priority is survival," says veteran pollster Raúl Obregón. And for Nicaragua's huddled masses, basic needs take priority over democracy. Obregón's M&R poll shows that 54.6% of the population thinks it's O.K. to sacrifice a little institutional democracy to resolve socioeconomic problems, while 33% claim they don't care how a leader gets into power, so long as he resolves people's hardships. "People are saying, 'Democracy doesn't feed me; it doesn't fill my stomach,'" says Obregón.
At the same time, Ortega has kept the wealthy happy by maintaining macroeconomic stability. Business profits are at all-time highs, and banks are rolling in dollars from the Chávez-led alliance of leftist Latin America governments called ALBA. On the streets of Managua, it's not uncommon to see an expensive BMW pass a rickety horse-drawn cart both waving Sandinista flags.
Making matters more bizarre is the recent theatrical conversion of Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo to Christian fundamentalism, which at times seems to have the First Lady speaking in tongues. And even though idealists like the international leftists who backed the revolutionary government of the 1980s view Ortega's conversion to a Bible-thumping capitalist with sadness, Washington's old cold warriors are still disgruntled. "The developments in Nicaragua are a sad story from the perspective of human rights and respect for democracy," says Elliott Abrams, a controversial Assistant Secretary of State under Ronald Reagan. "Every human-rights organization has reported on harassment of the press, curbs on freedom of assembly and expression, vast corruption, and manipulation of the courts and of the elections."
Still, few Nicaraguans care what U.S. neocons have to say anymore as Washington's influence flickers and especially since Washington's arrogant negligence of their war-torn country after 1990 helped lead to the economic misery that in turn led to Ortega's 2006 comeback. Showing up Uncle Sam might not be Ortega's primary goal and his escalating power is less the revenge of his leftist revolution than a confirmation of his caudillo bent but it's still a payback that few U.S. adversaries have pulled off as well as the Sandinistas.
Rogers is editor of www.nicaraguadispatch.com.