Editor's Note: Alastair Smith is a professor of politics at NYU, and is co-author of The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics.
By Alastair Smith – Special to CNN
New York City’s Major Michael Bloomberg and former Sandinista revolutionary Daniel Ortega share something in common. They both circumvented term limits and ran for another term. But while NYC’s democratic culture looks secure, Nicaragua is in some danger of backsliding into authoritarianism.
Ortega led the revolutionary movement that overthrew the dictatorial regime of Anastasio Somoza Debayle in 1979. Nicaragua became engulfed in a civil war against U.S. backed Contra rebels. By the time the war was over, much of the country was destroyed and despite recent robust economic growth, today Nicaragua remains the poorest nation on the American mainland. After a transition towards democracy, Ortega served one term as president before being defeated at the polls in 1990.
He remained influential in politics and, despite losing two additional elections, was once again elected President in 2006. Constitutionally he was forbidden from running in 2011, but since he controlled many of the judges on the Supreme Court, this provision of the constitution was overturned on the basis that it would violate his human rights. The court apparently concluded that part of the constitution was somehow unconstitutional!
Both Bloomberg and Ortega argued that they were needed. Bloomberg maintained that for New York City to manage the financial crisis required his steady hand. He took his case before the city council and carried the day. These independently elected officials voted by 29 to 22 to change the rule forbidding a third term. After judicial review the law changed and the voters of New York City decided Bloomberg was right in his assertion. Although the process made many uneasy, it was all above board. Ortega’s defiance of terms limits was much more questionable.
Under the Nicaraguan constitution, the legislature alone elects the Supreme Court justices and the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) justices, who are charged with organizing elections. But in January 2010 Ortega changed that. He issued a decree that allowed him to extend the terms of friendly judges. When Liberal judges protested and boycotted the Supreme Court, Ortega replaced seven of them. Without anyone to disbar him, he ran in November 2011 and won 63% of the vote.
He is likely to point to his strong economic record as the explanation for his success. His detractors would prefer to point towards voter intimidation and fraud. Even though the poor welcome his populist policies, Ortega’s ability to ride roughshod over the process, to split opposition groups, to restrict media freedoms and to restrict access to the polls casts a dark shadow over Nicaragua’s democratic future.
As I detail in my new book, co-authored with Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, The Dictator’s Handbook, the first rule of politics is to be beholden to as few people as possible. It should therefore come as no surprise that leaders want to restrict democracy. But then, equally, the people want it retained. That means that Ortega’s supporters must be rewarded for going along with such changes.
With $4.5 billion in debt forgiveness since 2004 and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez providing $500 million per year, Ortega is flush with cash. Even in New York City, where the budget is about $63 billion, these would be large amounts, but in poverty stricken Nicaragua they are huge, with Venezuela’s donation being equivalent to about 7% of GDP or nearly a quarter of all government expenditures.
Other nations, such as Iran, also donate large amounts of money to Ortega’s government. Ortega’s close socialist ties give him a huge fiscal advantage over the political right and he is using that advantage, as any politician would, to enhance his hold on power. His government provides food handouts through the social program Zero Hunger, cheap loans through Zero Usury, subsidizes transportation and provides free health care, all laudable in a poor country.
But then the motivation may not be as laudable as the policies. With around 40% of Nicaraguans below the $2 per day poverty level, such largesse buys support for Ortega even as he retracts political freedoms, putting the poor at greater risk in the future if he succeeds in entrenching himself in power for the long haul.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of Alastair Smith.