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Why dictators love elections

Tyrants without legitimacy have to do with the threadbare replacement of rigged votes

Daniel Ortega, presidente de Nicaragua
Daniel Ortega, president of Nicaragua, at a public event in July 2019.Jorge Torres (EFE)

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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