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Nicaraguan Election: Extreme Poverty May Bring Ortega Back to Power

by Johanna Godoy
Research Director for Latin America

Sandinista leader's populist appeals aimed at high percentage of poor voters


After 16 years out of power, the Sandinista Party could return to the presidential seat in Nicaragua's next election on Sunday. Daniel Ortega, leftist Sandinista Party leader and former Nicaraguan president (1985-1990), has lost his last three attempts to win the presidency. But according to recent local pre-election polls, he heads into this weekend's first-round vote leading the race, followed by conservative businessman Eduardo Montealegre. To avoid a runoff, the winner must receive at least 40% of the votes, or 35% with a minimum five-point margin over the second-place candidate.

Why might Ortega win this time? His tone has changed considerably. No longer the fiery rebel leader who defeated the Somoza dictatorship in 1979, today Ortega presents himself as the person who will fight for the country's poor with reconciliation and love. His renewed popularity reflects the growing leftist tendency in Latin America, epitomized on the radical side of the spectrum by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has supported Ortega's campaign, and on the moderate side by Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Ortega's populist message is aimed at the high proportion of Nicaragua's population living in extreme poverty. Recent Gallup World Poll data show Nicaraguans are considerably more likely than Latin Americans region-wide to say there have been times in the past year when they have not had enough money to buy food or provide shelter, or when their family has gone hungry.

Though Ortega's main focus is on generating a strong connection with the poor, he is still associated with a highly unstable period in Nicaragua's history, characterized by war, insecurity, corruption, and private-property violation. Nicaraguans appear to have established a relatively strong sense of personal security in the years since he left office: the majority (60%) mention feeling safe walking alone at night, and 51% say they have confidence in their local police. Those numbers are somewhat higher than the corresponding results for Latin America overall: both questions are answered favorably by 46%. In his campaign ads, Montealegre has attempted to highlight Ortega's association with Nicaragua's insecure past.

For his part, Montealegre, a former banker and finance minister, has focused on two points in his campaign: the importance of having strong democratic institutions, and the potential of the CAFTA (Central American Free Trade Agreement) alliance to reduce poverty levels. His campaign has been faced with deep skepticism among the poor that further pro-market reforms can result in better lives for them in the long run. Currently, just 13% of Nicaraguans say they consider the country's current economic conditions to be good. And the majority, 62%, feel the economic situation is getting worse.

Legitimacy Problems Possible

Nicaraguans' lack of trust in the country's official political institutions could present a difficult time for the country if the election results are close, as is expected. World Poll results show Nicaraguans lack confidence in the country's official institutions. Less than one-third have confidence in the honesty of elections in the country, as well as in Nicaragua's national government and judicial system.

Survey Methods

These results are based on face-to-face interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,001 Nicaraguans, aged 15 and older, conducted April 19 to May 15, 2006. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the approximate error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±3 percentage points for a percentage at 50%. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.


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