Enabling Environments for Civic Movements and the Dynamics of Democratic Transition - Nicaragua

Period of democratic transition: 1990
Pro-democracy civic movement: present

The Sandinista regime came to power in 1979 after overthrowing the Somoza dynasty, which had ruled Nicaragua for over four decades. Within three years, Nicaragua found itself in a midlevel civil war as rebels opposed to the socialist nature of the Sandinista regime took up arms against the government with U.S. support. By the late 1980s, the government had turned sharply authoritarian, denying many political rights and civil liberties to Nicaraguan citizens.

In the two years before elections in 1990, the Contra rebels continued to wage a low-intensity civil war against the leftist Sandinista dictatorship, but the killings and violence had declined significantly from the brutality of the mid-1980s. As the election approached, civic opposition included the Catholic Church, a small, independent trade union movement, business organi zations, independent political parties, and independent print and radio that were frequently under state pressure. The previously fractious opposition united under the banner of the National Opposition Union, with Violeta Barrios de Chamorro as the presidential candidate. In the February 1990 elections, Chamorro defeated the Sandinista candidate, Daniel Ortega. Weariness of conflict, polarization, and economic stagnation played a critical role in forging this somewhat surprising result. The Sandinistas exited power peacefully, though they initially maintained control of the security forces. Additionally, the Sandinista leaders were discredited by the self-enrichment of some party members through the privatization of publicly owned land and businesses.

Since the transition, Nicaragua has struggled to achieve either political or economic stability. Though political violence tapered off, the government has been ineffective at bringing prosperity to the country. A 2000 pact between the Liberal and Sandinista parties was viewed as corrupt and resulted in decreased confidence in these two dominant parties. However, in 2006 Daniel Ortega was returned to the presidency, winning a plurality of the vote.

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