The Nicaraguan government has been trying since April to bring a wave of protests across the country under control. Though the government is steadily raising pressure on the protesters, the damage to the administration may already be done. Political pressure from within the government and from the United States will make it difficult for President Daniel Ortega to continue the offensive against protesters without risking his rule.
On July 29, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega said he was open to the idea of holding a referendum to let Nicaraguans decide if they want an early presidential election. This statement came two days after the president's brother, Humberto Ortega, criticized the government's violent crackdown on anti-government protests that began in April, saying his brother's administration was primarily responsible for Nicaragua's current political crisis. Then on July 30, the United States also took a stance against the crackdowns by security forces, announcing that it would pursue a strategy of steadily escalating sanctions against Nicaragua's government for its repression of the protests.
Why It Matters
These events showcase how serious the Nicaraguan protest crisis has become, both domestically and regionally. The country's government is under increasing pressure to push Ortega out of the presidency, both from the protests themselves and from the United States, which has been attempting to settle the crisis through diplomatic means by threatening sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act.
A wave of protests erupted in Nicaragua in April, after the government in Managua attempted to raise social security taxes. The persistent pressure from Nicaraguan police and paramilitary forces has resulted in a recent decline in the total number of protests across the country. But that doesn't mean the strong negative sentiment against Ortega has diminished, nor the unrest. Demonstrations, combined with the threat of heavier U.S. sanctions, may well be disruptive enough to threaten Ortega's presidency.
Ortega's statements — along with his brother's — suggest that cracks are forming within the ranks of the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). The president previously refused to even consider the idea of early elections, since holding any vote on his rule would give dissatisfied voters an opportunity to punish the administration for its crackdown on protests. But his acquiescence indicates that he is losing valuable party support and running out of options for how to handle his country's crisis.
As Stratfor noted previously, government officials formerly loyal to Ortega would be most likely to turn against the president if it appears that he or his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, are threatening the country's economic stability by remaining in power. Such a shift, we said, would likely occur because of private sector pressure on Managua. However, the possibility of U.S. sanctions is now also an additional threat.
Whether Ortega voluntarily submits to a referendum on his rule largely depends on how many allies he can rally to his side through shadow negotiations or pure coercion.
Statements made by Humberto Ortega, a former defense minister who likely retains significant influence over the National Police and armed forces, are strong evidence that members of the ruling party are indeed considering a future without the president or his wife in power. If other party loyalists publicly follow their lead, the president will find himself with a shrinking base of political allies.
Remaining in power by continuing to quash protests is thus becoming a riskier strategy all the time, especially as violence is employed by pro-government forces. Ortega's offensive against the protests has already led to more than 400 deaths among protesters, and further crackdowns will raise the risk of business disruptions and U.S. sanctions in the long run.
What to Watch for Next
The timing of Ortega's departure from office — if it happens at all — will depend on three factors: pressure from the streets, pressure from the United States and the effect of these two factors on the FSLN hierarchy. If protests continue or strengthen the uprising, the Ortega government will come under greater pressure at home and abroad. Nicaraguan business elites concerned that the protests will hurt their profits will press the government to oust Ortega, and the United States government will likely find ample opportunities to justify heavier sanctions against individual members of the FSLN.
It will be important to watch whether Ortega actually begins preparations to hold a referendum for an early election, and whether that initiative results in a free and fair vote. If there is a significant movement growing within the FSLN to oust Ortega, then the president will have little choice but to acquiesce to their demands or else risk an even wider split within the party.
Ortega can still try to remain in power by threatening the private sector into submission and distributing resources to political allies. And at this point, whether Ortega voluntarily submits to a referendum on his rule will depend on how many allies he can rally to his side through behind-the-scenes negotiations.