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Explainer: What might happen in Nicaraguan leader Ortega's fourth term

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By Reuters

By Diego Oré

– Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega has won a fourth consecutive term in a presidential election widely viewed as rigged, extending his run as the longest-serving ruler in the Americas until January 2027 after a crackdown on dissent.

Following are some possible scenarios for what might happen next:

INTERNATIONALPRESSUREINCREASES

U.S. officials told Reuters they are working with international partners on new sanctions that could be slapped on the Ortega administration after the election, and the U.S. House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly on Wednesday in favor of legislation clamping down on Nicaragua.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration is also reviewing Nicaraguan participation in a Central American free trade agreement (CAFTA-DR) that gives preferential treatment to exports to the United States, its main trade partner. Washington has already stopped activities aimed at improving Nicaragua’s export capabilities, seen as benefiting the government.

Ortega, 75, has said he will not bow to sanctions and many analysts are skeptical about their impact – sanctions have done little to bring about change in Cuba and Venezuela.

“If they keep coming in a disorganized fashion, without clearly defined objectives, they won’t have the desired effect of bringing about some kind of change,” said Tiziano Breda, an analyst at the International Crisis Group think tank.

Some analysts argue that sanctions could provide a scapegoat for which Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, can blame poor economic performance.

Others speculate that the Managua administration will seek to buy time by releasing opponents held in jail who their supporters say are political prisoners.

Increased international isolation could ultimately end up pushing the Ortega administration closer to competitors of the United States such as China and Russia.

WEAKECONOMY

Between 2000 and 2017, Nicaraguan gross domestic product grew by an average 3.9% annually, driven by remittances and foreign direct investment. But between the onset of a political crisis in 2018 that led to clashes between business leaders and the administration, to 2020 and the coronavirus pandemic, GDP contracted by an accumulated 8.8%.

Growth in 2021 is not expected to bring the economy back to pre-crisis levels, according to a projection by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Some analysts believe that Ortega and Murillo will seek to lift the economy by negotiating behind the scenes with leading business groups.

Over the short term, Nicaragua should be able to count on support from the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI) and the IMF.

However, even if dialogue with business yields fruit, the economic impact is likely to be modest, according to Oscar Rene Vargas, a Nicaraguan political analyst at the CEREN think-tank in Managua.

MIGRATIONRISING

Further crackdowns on dissent and economic weakness could spur additional emigration to the United States.

The number of Nicaraguans detained at the U.S. southern border has leapt dramatically in 2021, from 575 in January to 13,391 in July, according to official data.

An increase in the number of Nicaraguans living abroad has also boosted remittances to the Central American country, and may act as an escape valve for some internal dissent.

Between 2017 and 2020, money transfers from abroad grew 33% cumulatively to $1.85 billion. Remittances are worth some 15% of Nicaragua’s GDP, one of the highest percentages in Latin America.

REPRESSION

Major protests against the Ortega government began in April 2018. At least 300 people died in the subsequent security crackdown and over 150 more remain behind bars, according to human rights organizations.

This year, 37 more Ortega adversaries, including seven presidential candidates, were detained for alleged conspiracy and treason, while the Supreme Electoral Council stripped three parties of legal status and Congress did the same for 45 civil society groups, including six foreign NGOs.

With many opposition leaders now out of the country, behind bars, or subject to judicial constraints, repressive measures may ease once Ortega has secured another term, analysts say.

However, the possibility remains that the crackdown could extend deeper into the civilian population.

Ortega says the crackdown has been necessary to defend Nicaragua against unscrupulous adversaries bent on ousting him with the aid of foreign powers.

A former Marxist rebel who helped topple the right-wing Somoza family dictatorship in 1979, Ortega served one term as president before being defeated in an election upset in 1990. He was re-elected president in 2007 and has governed ever since.

WEAKOPPOSITION

The quashing of criticism has made it hard for the opposition to forge a united front.

The next chance the opposition has to make its voice heard will be in municipal elections at the end of 2022 – assuming the government meets the minimum democratic guarantees they ask for.