During the last decade, Nicaragua’s democracy has taken a turn for the worse. Admittedly, democratization in the Central American country had been an uphill battle for years. Following independence, the country suffered from recurrent U.S. interventions and was home to one of Latin America’s most infamous dictatorships: The Somoza regime (1934-1979). In 1979, a revolution led by the leftist Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) overthrew the dictatorship. However, regime liberalization took another decade to complete, as the 1980s saw the Sandinista government fight the U.S.-backed Contras in a bloody civil war. The struggle left more than 30,000 dead and hundreds of thousands were displaced.
In 1990, Violeta Chamorro surprisingly defeated the Sandinista incumbent president, Daniel Ortega, in an election that marked the country’s transition to electoral democracy. While Nicaragua took valuable steps towards democratization, the corrupt presidency of Arnoldo Alemán (1997-2002) initiated an era of democratic backsliding. Ortega’s return to the presidency in 2006 accelerated de-democratization.
In 2011, Ortega won re-election by embracing strategic alliances with former foes and adopting pragmatic policies—a drastic change from the far-left state-centered policies he implemented as a revolutionary in military fatigues in the 1980s. The opposition grew bitterly divided. Yet, in the wake of his successful re-election bid, the former guerrilla commander further undermined democratic checks-and-balances (mostly, by co-opting institutions). Simultaneously, the political regime began showing neo-patrimonial traits. Ortega moved the FSLN’s headquarters to his private residency and nominated his wife, Rosario Murillo, as his Vice-presidential ticket in the 2016 election.
Nicaragua’s reversal from electoral democracy to competitive authoritarianism became even more evident in the 2016 elections. The regime blocked the candidacy of Eduardo Montealegre from the Independent Liberal Party’s presidency (until then, the main opposition bloc). Ortega additionally oversaw the purge of opposition lawmakers from the National Assembly. Both moves represented significant swings at the opposition’s electoral prospects. In a contest that resembled the Somoza’s sham polls in the mid-20th century, the Ortega-Murillo ticket unsurprisingly won the election with more than 70 percent support, amidst cries of foul play from within the country and abroad (the regime prohibited international observers from monitoring the poll).
In our recent article in Politics, we examine how Ortega’s FSLN attained a dominant status during democratic backsliding. We work under the theoretical premise that elite cues and messages impact public opinion under democracy and dictatorship. As a result, when a regime gradually becomes non-democratic—and the diversity of those cues and messages substantially decreases—the determinants of support that marked party competition should change as the ruling party turns dominant.
Using three waves of the AmericasBarometer by the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP) from 2006 to 2016, we present binary logit models and plot predictive margins to test for changes in the FSLN’s support determinants (measured in vote intention and party identification). We reach four main conclusions. Foremost, left–right ideological self-placement has lost statistical relevance in explaining the party’s support. Interestingly, in 2016, the party stopped appealing mostly to leftists, as it received a similar backing across the ideological spectrum. Second, economic vote variables are robust predictors of the dominant party’s support. This outcome sheds light on how national and pocketbook views condition political preferences, even as competitive authoritarianism replaces electoral democracy.
At the same time, we find insufficient evidence to assert whether FSLN supporters are less democratic and display more authoritarian attitudes. Similarly, the lack of statistical significance stemming from socio-demographic variables underlines the FSLN’s catch-all approach, which the party adopted even before returning to power.
In recent years, scholars have examined worldwide trends in de-democratization. Nicaragua is one of many countries that have suffered democratic backsliding following the third wave. Focusing on the FSLN as a case study, our article takes a step toward exploring how the support determinants for a dominant party shift as a competitive system unravels to authoritarianism.
The implications of our paper go beyond Nicaragua. Other countries in Latin America and elsewhere in the world are experiencing democratic backsliding. Though a lot of attention has been put on the role of the populist and often authoritarian leaders responsible for exacerbating polarization and undermining democratic institutions, we contribute by looking at the impact of those top-down actions on the way in which people react. We contend that when the dominant party becomes increasingly authoritarian, the historical ideological support basis of the party becomes more blurred as the nature of the party’s appeal changes. We also find evidence that voters continue to react to economic conditions in their level of support for the dominant party.