Seven out of 10 Nicaraguans think democracy is the best form of government for their country, and only 17% of the population supports the type of “21st century socialism” championed by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, according to a poll released this week by M&R Consultants.
Based on those polling numbers, one might guess that Daniel Ortega is an unpopular president. But one would be wrong.
On the contrary, the M&R Consultants poll suggests that Ortega is exceedingly popular and generously democratic. The president has a 60% approval rating and 69% say he is governing democratically and lawfully. In contrast, only 25% of Nicaraguans are fussy-pants who think the president is an autocrat trying to install a dictatorship.
In many democracies it would be disconcerting if a quarter of the population suspected the president of being a tin-pot dictator, but for Ortega those numbers are great. In a 2009 poll, 60% of Nicaraguans said they thought Ortega was dictatorial and only 32% said they thought he was governing democratically. Three years later, after sidestepping the Constitution to get himself reelected, Ortega has somehow managed to invert his poll numbers and convince most of the countrymen that he’s now a law-abiding democrat.
As Ortega’s approval ratings and popularity continue to soar, an overwhelming majority of Nicaraguans say they are feeling confident about the country’s direction and future. Indeed, 73% of those polled say they are pleased with Ortega’s leadership—a remarkable turnaround from four years ago, when the same polling firm found that 70% of Nicaraguans thought Ortega was leading the country in the wrong direction.
Overall, 70% of the population is satisfied with the state of democracy in Nicaragua, and 55% claim democracy has only gotten better under perpetual president, who plans to run for reelection again in 2016, according to his chatty wife.
The question is: has Ortega suddenly become a model president in an exemplary democracy? Or have Nicaraguans simply lowered their expectations?
More basic yet, what does democracy mean for Nicaraguans?
To understand why Nicaraguans are so tickled about the state of their self governance, it is helpful to understand how Nicaraguans define democracy in the first place. According to the poll, most Nicaraguans think of democracy in terms of basic individual liberties—or what a libertarian political philosopher might call “negative rights.”
The M&R surveyors asked people what it means to “live in democracy,” and the top answer across the board from those identifying as Sandinistas, opposition or independents was: “to live in peace, tranquility and harmony”—an answer with a certain chayistic ring.
The second-most common answer—provided by 20% of the population—was “freedom of expression,” while the third-ranked answer was “freedom.”
Based on their top three answers, Nicaraguans—undoubtedly influenced by their past experiences with authoritarian regimes, war, forced military drafts, arbitrary incarceration and other egregious intrusions on individual liberties—seem to think democracy exists when the government simply gets out of people’s way and does not subjugate its citizens. It’s the school of thought that defines things diametrically, without any refined consideration for subtleties: peace is the absence of war; democracy is the absence of military dictatorship.
That concept seems to be further supported by what people didn’t say in the poll. Only 5.5% of those surveyed said democracy brings to mind “constitutionality, justice and rule of law.”
In other words, the legal framework, checks and balances or other guarantees of a properly functioning liberal democracy seem less important to Nicaraguans than the concept of respect for inalienable rights and basic personal liberties.
No one polled said that “living in a democracy” means having the right to healthcare, the right to education, the right to social security, or even the right to freely elect government authorities. Those would all be “positive rights,” which are provided by Nicaragua’s mistreated Constitution, but apparently are not considered pertinent enough to make people’s list of benefits from “living in a democracy.”
However, when pressed on some of the specifics of democracy, there is a dramatic split of opinion between those in the ruling party and members of Nicaragua’s fatuous opposition. For example, 90% of Sandinistas agree with the statement “Nicaragua freely elects its government authorities,” while only 34% of the minority opposition agrees. More than 80% of Sandinistas agree that the government respects rule of law and the separation of powers, but 75% of the opposition disagrees. And 71% of Sandinistas think there is economic stability and economic progress under Ortega, while 80% of the opposition disagrees.
Nearly 90% of Sandinistas claim the government is responding to the needs of the population, while 70% of opposition party members and half of independents disagree.
Those answers start to paint a picture of a caste system, which isn’t entirely democratic.
Still, despite the discrepancy over who is benefiting most from democracy under Ortega, there does seem to be a sense of universal relief—and a rather sophisticated level of distinction, given thick political rhetoric peddled by the presidential couple and echoed by mindless politicasters—that at least the president isn’t trying to replicate Chávez’s self-styled socialism in Venezuela.
More than 70% of Nicaraguans—including many Sandinistas—say it’s better for Nicaragua to maintain its own course rather than follow Chávez down the path towards “21st century socialism.”
Nicaragua might not be a highly evolved democracy, but Nicaraguans have come to realize that the country does best when it dances to the beat of its own drummer.