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Daniel Ortega: Why dictators love elections | The Global Observer | Opinion

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The proliferation of autocrats who love to stage presidential elections is a surprising political phenomenon. Of course, we’re not talking about free and fair elections that a dictator might lose. Oh no. What they want is an exercise that gives off the illusion – or at least the passing aroma – of democracy, but where their victory is securely guaranteed. And the strange thing is that, even though people both inside and outside the country know it’s all a sham, autocrats near and far continue to put on these threadbare electoral shows.

Rigged elections have a long history. Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, or the leaders of the Soviet Union and its satellites loved to hold elections they would always win with 99% of the votes, or, when it was tight, 96.6%. More recently, the likes of North Korea’s tyrant Kim Jong-un, Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, Vladimir Putin in Russia, and Aleksandr Lukashenko in Belarus, have all “won” fraudulent elections.

An extreme case of these is Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua. A few years back he argued before the Nicaraguan Supreme Court that term limits injured his fundamental human rights. This absurdity was accepted by the justices who, obviously, were his lackeys. Inevitably, the international courts that considered this aspiration declared it void. That didn’t stop Ortega. In 2011, the president violated the Constitution and ran for a third term. He won that election using all sorts of tricks and traps. A few weeks ago he did it again. He was declared the overwhelming winner, making him president for an unprecedented fourth term.

In the early 21st century, more and more leaders begin to look for ways to extend their terms and weaken the checks and balances that limit their power from the moment they’re first elected

Ortega, an erstwhile Marxist who in the 1970s joined the armed struggle to overthrow the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza, has now, at the age of 75, become a classic tyrant himself, a strongman who has misruled one of the poorest countries on Earth with an iron fist for two solid decades. The idealistic Marxism of his youth contrasts jarringly with the opulent lifestyle that he and his family now enjoy.

Ortega loves elections, especially when he can imprison the main opposition leaders, including businessmen, journalists, academics, social activists and student leaders. He throws them all in jail, including seven presidential candidates. He also brutally repressed street protests against his government’s corruption and authoritarianism. The abuse of state resources to support the autocrat’s re-election campaigns, the coercion of public officials who are forced to vote in favor of the incumbent, the censorship of social media and tight control of the armed forces are the familiar ingredients that tyrants like Ortega use to steal elections.

Rigged elections keep people under the sway of leaders and policies that deepen their misery, perpetuate inequity and enshrine ongoing injustice. They also underscore that the international community lacks the tools and strategies to punish those who do away with democracy in a given country. The United States, the European Union and most countries in America have denounced the abuse and illegality of Daniel Ortega’s government. The United States has imposed ever tougher sanctions on the leaders and main beneficiaries of the monstrous Nicaraguan regime.

Unfortunately, none of this will make Ortega give up his ruinous hold on power. The Nicaraguan dictator embodies George Orwell’s observation that “we know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it.”

Paradoxically, democracy is based on just the opposite principle: on the premise that the power of rulers who are freely chosen by the people in fair elections must be held for a limited time only. The longest-lived and best consolidated democracies in the world have managed to establish laws, institutions and rules that stop leaders from perpetuating themselves in power. Other countries however, have become victims of Orwell’s insight: their leaders increasingly take it for granted that, once obtained, power is not to be let go.

In the early 21st century, more and more leaders begin to look for ways to extend their terms and weaken the checks and balances that limit their power from the moment they’re first elected.

Daniel Ortega, his family and his accomplices must be celebrating their make-believe win. Nicaragua’s election shows why dictators love such electoral shams so much.



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Kill the Bill and period protests: human rights this fortnight – in pictures | Global development

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‘No embargo’ on meetings with Putin, EU says

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EU leaders are free to meet Russian president Vladimir Putin despite his threats to start a new war with Ukraine, the EU foreign service has said. “There is no embargo on contacts and visits between member states and Russia. Each member state decides … on their own judgment,” the EU foreign service told EUobserver. The comment follows reports Croatia invited Putin to visit and that Hungary’s leader will meet him.

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Vulnerable Malians could ‘pay the price’ of heavy sanctions, warn aid groups | Global development

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More than a dozen aid organisations have called for humanitarian exemptions to heavy sanctions imposed on Mali after the military leadership postponed planned February elections.

The EU has announced support for the sanctions imposed earlier this month by the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), which include closing borders and a trade embargo.

But this week, 13 international groups working in Mali warned of devastating consequences for the population, a third of whom rely on aid.

Humanitarian access is hindered by the Malian interim authorities’ decision to reciprocate border closures with Ecowas member states, except Guinea.

Thousands of people demonstrated against the sanctions last week in the capital Bamako, carrying placards saying “down with Ecowas” and “down with France”.

The country is in the grip of the worst food insecurity in 10 years.

A joint letter signed by the NGOs, including the International Rescue Committee (IRC), Care and the Norwegian Refugee Council, said: “To continue their work effectively, humanitarian actors must have unfettered access for the transportation of life-saving goods including food and medicine, as well as guarantees that they can transfer funds into the country without violating the sanctions.”

Mali’s current insecurity dates back to early 2012 when northern separatists rebelled against the government. Islamist militants that initially allied with the separatists, including Ansar Dine, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, ultimately hijacked the rebellion.

France, the former colonial ruler, made a military intervention in 2013 on the government’s side against the militants. The UN has also deployed an estimated 18,000 peacekeeping staff, in what was called its most dangerous mission.

The Malian military, led by Col Assimi Goïta, has conducted two coups in two years and reneged on promises to hold new elections. The junta’s most recent power grab, in May 2021, was the fifth coup since Mali’s independence in 1960 and it has been unwilling to commit to transition to civilian rule, despite international pressures.

Postponement of elections has been blamed on Islamist insecurity, an impasse that has deepened with the arrival of private military contractors belonging to the Russian mercenary firm Wagner Group. European states have condemned Wagner’s presence, concerned it will enable the military to hold on to power.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said this month that EU sanctions on Mali were in part in response to the involvement of Russian contractors. France is withdrawing troops, but 14 other EU members, led by Sweden, had established a taskforce to replace them in a three-year mandate. As tensions intensified over the Wagner Group, Sweden said last week that it had decided to withdraw its troops.

France, which holds the rotating EU presidency, has been vociferous in its support of sanctions but Russia and China have blocked the UN security council’s move to follow suit.

Ecowas has frozen financial aid and Malian assets at the Central Bank of West African States.

Elena Vicario, director for the Norwegian Refugee Council in Mali, said: “Malians are already bearing the brunt of the humanitarian catastrophe, punctuated by horrifying attacks against civilians. Sanctions must not hold us back from delivering essential assistance in a country where drought, rising insecurity, and the economic impacts of Covid-19 are already pushing millions of Malians over the edge.”

Franck Vannetelle, the IRC’s country director in Mali, echoed Vicario, saying: “Despite more than a third of the country’s population being dependent on humanitarian aid, organisations working in Mali already face severe access constraints. It’s imperative that the international community keeps responding to people’s urgent needs, and that any new sanctions have concrete humanitarian exemptions. These must be monitored and implemented, or the most vulnerable people in Mali will pay the price.”

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