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A demonstrator prays with her hand on a policeman's shield in front of a barricade in Independence Square, Kiev, February 2016. MAGNUM/Larry Towell
Special Report 2 / Global

Seizing the Moment: From Early Warning to Early Action

Wars can be prevented or mitigated by early, clear and well-designed political and diplomatic engagement. Yet policymakers are increasingly stretched by a myriad of global crises. Refocusing on knowledge, relationships, frameworks, strategic communication and pathways to peace is crucial to limiting and resolving the world’s current upsurge in deadly conflict.

Executive Summary

After a period of relative calm, an upsurge of crises is testing the international system, pitting major powers and regional players against one another and highlighting the weaknesses of preventive diplomacy. Governments and international organisations were taken by surprise by the Arab uprisings in 2011 and slow to react to crises in South Sudan and the Central African Republic (CAR) in the years that followed. Global and regional rivalries have weakened diplomacy over Syria, Ukraine and the South China Sea. Policymakers, stretched by the symptoms of this wave of instability, including mass displacement and the spread of transnational terrorism, struggle to focus on conflict prevention. 

Yet, preventive diplomacy is not necessarily dead. The Iranian nuclear deal, progress toward peace in Colombia and the high-level push to avoid election-related chaos in Nigeria in 2015 have been reminders of what intensive international engagement can deliver. If politicians, diplomats and international officials invest in key dimensions of early warning and early action – analysing conflict dynamics closely, building sensitive political relationships in troubled countries and undertaking complex “framework diplomacy” with other powers to create political space for crisis management – they still have a chance to avert or mitigate looming conflicts and ease existing wars.

This report, drawing on Crisis Group’s field-centred analysis and policy recommendations from the past five years, sets out a broad strategic framework for preventive diplomacy. Its primary focus is on conflicts, like those in Ukraine and Syria, which directly involve outside powers. While classical inter-state conflicts remain rare, internationalised civil wars are a leading source of regional and global frictions. Building frameworks to address both the internal and external tensions that shape them is likely to be a recurrent challenge for big powers, regional players and multilateral organisations in the years ahead. 

The first half of this report focuses on the internal drivers of recent and current crises. It argues that while it is exceedingly hard to identify specific triggers of future conflicts, it is possible to identify likely threats to peace and work out how they may play out if left unaddressed. It emphasises the need to understand the political dimensions of conflicts and, especially, the leaders and elites whose choices for or against violence are pivotal. Grasping how such leaders make these decisions is essential for effective early warning, but it must be buttressed by much broader political analysis covering, inter alia, the dynamics of ruling parties, opposition groups and civil society, not just at the national but at all levels of society. 

Building anticipatory relations with all these actors constitutes a bedrock for effective early action by outside partners, once a crisis looks set to break. It is important, too, to grasp the politics and strategies of militaries and internal security forces in cases such as Egypt, or of non-state armed groups in chaotic environments like Libya. The report also highlights the sources of many conflicts in countries’ marginalised peripheral regions. Local rebellions in Yemen, Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Pakistan and CAR, to name a few, have expanded unexpectedly and exponentially, causing widespread violence and overthrowing a number of governments. 

A focus on the internal players in countries at risk must be complemented by efforts to engage and balance the interests of external actors, while recognising that the distinction between “internal” and “external” actors is moot in many crises. In the Middle East and Central and West Africa, conflicts frequently flow across borders, and regional powers simultaneously fuel conflicts and position themselves as peacemakers. Ethnic groups such as the Kurds in the Middle East straddle multiple countries, while organised criminal networks and transnational extremist groups are not restricted to individual states. This means that experts engaged in early warning and early action must treat regional and wider international factors as integral to their conflict analysis and development of appropriate policy.

The report goes on to look more closely at the varieties of “framework diplomacy” that can facilitate the requisite engagement. In many crises it is necessary to look beyond established multilateral frameworks – important though these can be – and pull together case-specific groupings of states and institutions to manage a problem, or at least minimise frictions. Sometimes neither formal nor ad hoc inter-governmental arrangements will be suitable: back-channel diplomacy led by local “insider mediators”, specialised international NGOs or other actors may be the best initial way to handle looming tensions.

The remainder of the report reviews the means available for directly engaging in conflicts as they escalate or in anticipation of their outbreak. It emphasises the need for inclusive approaches to political dialogue, meaning not only outreach to civil society, women’s groups and other constructive forces, but also marginalised minorities and armed groups – including some highly controversial actors such as Islamist extremists. In addition to mediation and other diplomatic options such as deploying high-level envoys, tools include a range of coercive measures and incentives for peace. Coercive tools include diplomatic “naming and shaming”, threats of international legal action in response to atrocities and the use of sanctions. All have significant limitations and can worsen rather than alleviate crises if not well coordinated and aligned to a broader political strategy.

This report, drawing on Crisis Group’s field-centred analysis and policy recommendations from the past five years, sets out a broad strategic framework for preventive diplomacy.

At least equal caution should be applied to the use of force. As the Arab intervention in Yemen has underlined, like many interventions before it, military action can prove costly and counterproductive. This caution also applies to deployments of military peace operations, which have become a standard part of international crisis management (especially in Africa) and increasingly tend toward more robust forms of peace enforcement. While such missions can and do save lives, they can also become entangled in local conflicts, get bogged down in situations from which they have no exit strategy and become overly aligned with governments that do not always enjoy much popular support.

Whatever direct or indirect means of engagement states use, they should set explicit and limited political goals and communicate these clearly to other actors (including their opponents) to avoid violence spiralling beyond control. While coercion may have a role to play in management of a specific crisis, it should be balanced with clear incentives for leaders, elites and their supporters to follow paths away from violence. These may include aid for post-crisis demobilisation, governance reforms and reconstruction. 

More strategically, the best peace incentives that outsiders may be able to offer are ideas and advice to actors in a crisis on how to structure mutually-beneficial arrangements to share power and resources. In Libya, for example, the interest all sides ultimately have in a functioning energy sector could be a point of consensus even while political disputes create friction.

No one group of analysts and forecasters is consistently right in its early warnings (Crisis Group included), and no early action strategy is foolproof. Tackling conflicts as they emerge and develop is an inherently chancy business, and governments and international organisations that engage in it inevitably risk failure. Nevertheless, early, strategic, well-designed engagement predicated on the discipline of close analysis, development of anticipatory relationships and framework diplomacy may help prevent conflict or limit its escalation. To the extent that their resources permit, governments, regional bodies and international organisations should invest in four key areas:

  • Knowledge and relationships. Policymakers, working directly or through others, should develop the closest possible knowledge of troubled countries’ political systems and cultivate channels for frank discussions with leaders, elites, security forces and civil society over the risks of crisis. “Early warning” should, in sum, rest not only on economic and other indicators of danger (although these are useful), but also on in-depth political links with crucial actors.
  • Framework diplomacy. Given the dangers of international and regional tensions exacerbating a crisis, policymakers should make early and concerted efforts to bring international players to the table to assess their interests, hear their analyses and develop common positions on how to act. This can take place in formal multilateral settings or ad hoc, but it is essential to choose mechanisms that enable real bargaining, resulting in frameworks for handling a conflict, rather than formal exchanges or public recriminations. 
  • Strategic planning and communication. It is easy for policymakers to stumble into crises without a clear grasp of what they aim to achieve. The constant need to make statements, launch initiatives and satisfy calls for action makes strategic thinking and planning difficult. It is crucial that governments and international organisations invest in laying out clear overall goals for engaging in crises and communicate these clearly both to the players involved in a conflict and other international actors with interests at stake. 
  • Creating pathways to peace. The ultimate goal of all this relationship-building, framework diplomacy and strategic planning is not simply to guide early action, but to signal to the parties at the centre of a conflict that they can take paths to peace rather than wade into violence. Outside actors can rarely compel leaders and factions on the brink of conflict to step back. But if they are able to engage in well-informed political and diplomatic work and sketch out ideas for lasting peaceful solutions to a conflict, they may persuade their interlocutors to pause before escalating – and perhaps follow an alternative political route that avoids, or at least limits, all-out violence.

Brussels, 22 June 2016

I. Introduction

Five years ago, the Arab uprisings exposed the weaknesses of existing models of early warning and early action in response to political crises. While many analysts were aware of the political, social and economic factors that led to the uprisings in early 2011, few if any foresaw the wave of disorder that spread across North Africa and the Middle East. Governments and international organisations resorted to a variety of policy tools – ranging from offers of mediation to economic sanctions and threats of international prosecution – that frequently failed to alter the calculations of embattled political elites. In many cases, their efforts backfired badly.

While the United Nations (UN) Security Council mandated military action in Libya to protect civilians in March 2011, the uprising against Muammar Qadhafi resulted in a fractured state that slid into chaos while outside powers focused elsewhere. In Yemen, an initially successful UN mediation ran out of steam, paving the way for the Saudi-led intervention in 2015. Arguments over these crises also fuelled geopolitical confrontations, variously involving the West, Russia, China, and Arab and African powers, that have severely complicated later attempts at conflict management. Doubts about international crisis response have since been compounded, as conflicts have escalated from South Sudan to eastern Ukraine. In some cases, such as Mali and the Central African Republic (CAR), analysts and officials saw crises escalate but did not react promptly or decisively. In others, as in Ukraine, the pace of events appeared to take outside actors by surprise.

By 2014, the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP) has calculated, there were some 40 conflicts worldwide, eleven involving over 1,000 battle deaths a year: “the highest number of conflicts since 1999”.[fn]Therése Pettersson and Peter Wallensteen, “Armed Conflicts, 1946-2014”, Journal of Peace Research, vol. 52 (4), p. 536. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), with a different methodology, contends that conflicts worldwide have in fact declined since 2010, but there has been a “steady increase in lethality” (which levelled off overall in 2015, despite increased deaths in Afghanistan, Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen) and a long-term rise in conflict-related displacement. Anastasia Voronkova, “Editor’s Introduction,” in Voronkova (ed.), Armed Conflict Survey 2016 (IISS, 2016), p. 5.Hide Footnote  Many governments and international organisations focus on managing the fallout from these conflicts. Donors have had to repurpose funds to handle the record numbers of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). International coalitions are trying to contain and rollback violent Islamist extremist groups in the Middle East and North Africa with a mix of military aid to both state and non-state actors, covert operations and airstrikes. These measures crowd out discussion of long-term conflict prevention and resolution.

This is short-sighted. As UN officials have recently emphasised, the key to stemming the humanitarian crisis in the Middle East is not only to increase funding to aid agencies, but also to resolve the conflicts there. Crisis Group has argued that vital to countering the influence of groups like the Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda is to ratchet down regional confrontations, in particular the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran; redouble efforts to contain (if not immediately resolve) the conflicts these groups exploit; and work toward local solutions based on the inclusion, rather than alienation of vulnerable communities. Panels convened by the UN and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have underscored the need to focus on politics and diplomacy in addressing conflicts.[fn]“One Humanity: Shared Responsibility; Report of the Secretary-General for the World Humanitarian Summit”, UN document A/70/709, 2 February 2016, pp. 6-12. Crisis Group Special Report, Exploiting Disorder: al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, 14 March 2016. “Our Shared Responsibility”, Report of the High-Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations, (UN) A/70/95 – S/2015/446, 17 June 2015; “Back to Diplomacy”, Final Report and Recommendations of the Panel of Eminent Persons on European Security as a Common Project, OSCE, 3 December 2015.Hide Footnote

The strategic case for effective early warning tools and early action mechanisms to avert potential conflicts, or at least stop them from escalating and spreading into broader confrontations, seems clear enough.

Even if governments pay lip service to such notions, many have resorted to covert or overt military actions to manage crises: examples range from Russia in Ukraine and Saudi Arabia and its allies in Yemen to Uganda and Sudan in South Sudan. While the bulk of current conflicts are intra-state wars, at least a third are internationalised – with foreign forces from one or more other countries in the fight – exacerbating regional and wider international tensions and rendering conflict resolution significantly more complex.[fn]Pettersson and Wallensteen, op. cit., p. 537. A recent summary of the political economy of armed conflicts underlines that most “do not fit neatly” into the categories of intra- and inter-state wars, due to the complex nature of their violence and divisions. Achim Wennmann, “The Political Economy of Violent Conflict”, in Armed Conflict Survey, op. cit., p. 20.Hide Footnote  This report thus pays most attention to internationalised intra-state conflicts, but also draws lessons from other flashpoints, like the South China Sea.

The strategic case for effective early warning tools and early action mechanisms to avert potential conflicts, or at least stop them from escalating and spreading into broader confrontations, seems clear enough. Yet, there is a daunting mix of obstacles to effective early international response. These range from understanding the implications of political frictions in peripheral areas of weak states, such as Mali, to the diplomatic challenges of forging international frameworks to handle cases like Syria. Few if any of these challenges are unprecedented – for examples of the problems of volatile peripheral areas, one can go back to the demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire a century ago – but addressing them requires sharp political insight, judgment and action that still often elude policymakers.

In parallel with the deterioration of particular conflicts, the norms that have underpinned much post-Cold War thinking on conflict prevention and resolution are in flux. Russia, China and other non-Western powers argue that NATO abused the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) during the Libyan crisis in 2011. Even if political pluralism and representative government still offer the best hope of stability in most countries, the difficulties of democratisation are obvious. Conflict prevention specialists are now as likely to emphasise the dangers associated with elections in fragile states as their advantages. The post-Cold War trend toward strengthening international justice, symbolised by the International Criminal Court, is also encountering increasing pushback. Yet, the last quarter century’s ideals still have some purchase. In Africa in particular, the African Union (AU) and sub-regional bodies repeatedly, if inconsistently, cite human security, prevention of mass atrocities and defence of legitimate governments to justify interventions.[fn]See, for example, Crisis Group Africa Report N°234, Implementing Peace and Security Architecture (III): West Africa, 14 April 2016, p. 9.Hide Footnote  Rather than rising or declining linearly, these norms ebb and flow on a case-by-case basis.

This report maps out how governments and multilateral organisations can best respond to looming crises in this uneasy international environment. It begins by asking how relevant existing thinking about early warning and early action is today. It then explores recent lessons about drivers of conflict, including elite decision-making, localised violence and regional political factors. Finally, it turns to the diplomatic tools, coercive measures and incentives typically available to policymakers trying to address crises and the strategic and diplomatic frameworks needed to put these tools to use. It is necessary to be realistic about the chances of halting fast-moving crises, but effective and rapid action is often possible.

II. Early Warning and Early Action: In Search of Political Strategies

“Early warning” and “early action” are phrases open to multiple definitions. This report concentrates on early warnings of violent conflict and strategies of early action that external actors may take to address those risks. There is a perennial debate about what “early” means: should it include long-range indicators of instability and long-term actions, such as economic assistance, that may alleviate them? While acknowledging the value of long-term warnings, this paper takes a narrower view and focuses on medium- and short-term warnings and responses to political dynamics that have a clear potential to lead to violence. This encompasses imminent threats and risks that may require some years to come to fruition. The precise timeline is less important than the presence of signs that leaders, political factions or other armed groups are taking steps that could ultimately lead to conflict.

This focus on looming conflicts requires three qualifications. The first is that poli­tical analysis should identify not only threats, but also actors who favour peace and unexpected opportunities for settling disputes. As noted in Section III below, officials and analysts should build relationships with political figures, civil society members and others who can promote non-violent solutions to a crisis.

The second qualification is that, while this report largely discusses emerging and escalating crises, it is essential to keep watch for unexpected developments in active and ongoing conflicts. Events such as the rise of IS in Syria in 2014 or the upsurge of violence in Ukraine in early 2015 can fundamentally transform the dynamics of an existing war. The detailed political and security analysis promoted below can and must continue even after a conflict explodes.

Thirdly, it is necessary to ask who is best-placed to conduct this analysis and direct early action. This report does not focus on the early warning and early action mech­anisms of any one government or international organisation. The lessons and advice it offers are designed to apply to a wide range of governments and other bodies concerned with international security; generic references to “outsiders” and “policymakers” are deliberately non-specific.

As Section IV emphasises, who does early warning and early action is increasingly complicated and contentious. When Crisis Group launched in the mid-1990s, the U.S., its allies and the UN appeared to dominate the field. Today, a diverse array of often mutually mistrustful states, organisations and non-governmental groups are engaged. The exact mix of relevant players differs from case to case. Complex “framework diplomacy” – painstaking efforts to establish case-specific diplomatic mechanisms for analysing, managing and mediating conflicts – is frequently required to bring them together, or at least limit friction. By taking a broad view of who can deal with crises and how, this paper points to some principles for such cooperation.

A. What Can “Early Warning” Do?

A focus on political actors and analysis is in line with earlier studies that argued early engagement in crises must rest on an understanding of political dynamics. The Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict concluded in 1997 that “mass violence invariably results from the deliberately violent response of determined leaders and their groups to a wide range of social, economic and political conditions that … usually do not independently spawn violence”.[fn]“Preventing Deadly Conflict”, Carnegie Corporation of New York, December 1997, p. 29.Hide Footnote  Although political scientists and forecasters search for statistically verifiable causes of conflict, such as economic factors, many are giving more weight to leaders and political factors as creators of violence.[fn]See Michael C. Horowitz, Allan C. Stam and Cali M. Ellis, Why Leaders Fight (Cambridge, 2015).Hide Footnote  Whereas researchers once claimed that ethnic cleavages were an innate cause of conflicts, analysts now emphasise that leaders’ deliberate use of ethnically-loaded rhetoric plays a crucial part in dividing and radicalising communities.[fn]Wennmann, “The Political Economy of Violent Conflict”, op. cit., p. 22; Crisis Group Africa Report N°235, Burundi: A Dangerous Third Term, 20 May 2016, pp. 5-7.Hide Footnote  Recent work on climate change and environmental degradation, for example, indicates that these “only trigger violence if the social and political context of a country are particularly disadvantageous”.[fn]Gerald Schneider, Nils Petter Gleditsch and Sabine C. Carey, “Exploring the Past, Anticipating the Future: A Symposium”, International Studies Review, vol. 12 (1), 2010, p. 5.Hide Footnote

This basic assumption about the importance of political factors has long underpinned policy thinking on early crisis response, with a focus on developing strategies to shape crucial elites’ decision-making. If diplomats or international officials want to engage in a country on the verge of conflict, they need not only to develop a sense of its underlying problems, but also to have a working knowledge of the interests and political calculations of the leaders, parties and factions involved.

Experts on early warning are often rightly wary of quantifying these issues: “the exact degree to which elites are in harmony or conflict, to which opposition movements have popular support, or to which the ruler is supported by neighbouring or foreign states, is not always easy to pin down”.[fn]Jack A. Goldstone, “Using Quantitative and Qualitative Models to Forecast Instability”, United States Institute of Peace, 1 March 2008, p. 6.Hide Footnote  It is arguably even harder to anticipate the precise trains of events that lead to specific acts of violence. Some potential flashpoints, such as divisive elections or the death of an authoritarian leader, may have a high chance of engendering instability. Nonetheless, “long term trends (‘causes’) are often clear enough, but not the proximate causes, or triggers…. What precipitates a conflict may be a sudden, unforeseen event: an accident, misreading or miscalculation, or a temperamental leader’s flash of hubris”.[fn]Joost Hiltermann, “Chemical Wonders”, London Review of Books vol. 38 (3), 4 February 2016, p. 3. Hiltermann is Crisis Group’s Middle East and North Africa Program Director.Hide Footnote

We can, however, still identify and assess the political factors that make a crisis more or less likely and explore how that crisis might play out. Through detailed information gathering and analysis, it is possible to show how the policies and strategies of leaders and other power-brokers are liable to raise tensions, destabilise societies and initiate conflicts. It is feasible to foresee the political dividing lines that might emerge at trigger moments in the future. In some cases, this information also allows observers to estimate how the ensuing confrontations could unfold, if often only roughly, offering a spectrum of possible developments. A review of Crisis Group reports demonstrates the potential of such analysis to flag looming risks, even if it cannot identify precise triggers.

A good example of a medium-term warning comes from Crisis Group’s work on Iraq. In August 2013, it published a report highlighting sectarian tensions and that “Prime Minister al-Maliki has implemented a divide-and-conquer strategy that has neutered any credible Sunni Arab leadership”.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East Report N°144, Make or Break: Iraq’s Sunnis and the State, 14 August 2013, p. i.Hide Footnote  The report warned that many Sunni Iraqis now felt that their “only realistic option is a violent conflict increasingly framed in confessional terms”. While noting the increased activism of the “newly minted” IS, it did not foresee the speed and scale of the group’s offensive in northern Iraq the following year. But in identifying the poisonous effects of Maliki’s political strategy, its impact on Sunni opinion and the probability of armed conflict, it did diagnose many of the drivers of the 2014 crisis. At a time when the U.S. was keen to put the Iraq war behind it, and its allies had disengaged, however, the warning went largely unheeded.

Crisis Group similarly laid out well in advance the dynamics that led to the recent crisis in Burundi, highlighting President Nkurunziza’s strategy of centralising as much power in his hands as possible. Crisis Group insisted in 2012 that the country was “regressing” toward a “one party system characterised by the end of dialogue between the opposition and the ruling party, the government’s authoritarian drift and the resumption of political violence”. Nonetheless, international actors with a stake in Burundi’s stability largely attempted to work with the government rather than confront it: the EU increased aid, while the UN cut back its political presence, even as warning signs grew stronger.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Report N°192, Burundi: Bye-Bye Arusha, 25 October 2012, p. i. Thierry Vircoulon, “Burundi: How to Deconstruct Peace”, International Peace Institute Global Observatory, 24 November 2015. Vircoulon was then Crisis Group’s Central Africa Project Director.Hide Footnote

Crisis Group was, for example, one of the first to recognise how the growing power of the Huthis in Yemen could upset the country’s fragile peace.

These two cases show how focusing on the strategies and behaviour of leaders can help identify impending crises, even if those strategies and behaviours are informed by deeper contextual factors. Where conflicts intensify, analysts may also be able to identify how short-term political developments may create instability and potentially reshape dynamics. Crisis Group was, for example, one of the first to recognise how the growing power of the Huthis in Yemen could upset the country’s fragile peace. The group did not initially appear to be a major spoiler, but military success turned it into a significant and ambitious political force in 2013-2014. In February 2014, a Crisis Group Conflict Alert raised the possibility it would try to take the capital, Sanaa.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East Report N°154, The Huthis: From Saada to Sanaa, 10 June 2014; and “Yemen: Conflict Alert”, 26 February 2014.Hide Footnote  Yet, many outsiders, keen to see Yemen as a success story, focused on UN-led efforts to consolidate a new political settlement and played down the threat until the Huthis did indeed enter Sanaa that September.

Elsewhere, early warnings have more successfully led to early action. In late 2014, Crisis Group was among organisations that emphasised signs Nigeria’s 2015 presidential elections could lead to large-scale violence. Signals included increasing low-level sectarian attacks and local politicians arming followers in anticipation of worse to come. Crisis Group advocated a high-level international push to persuade President Goodluck Jonathan and his opponent, Muhammadu Buhari, to renounce violence. Following intensive personal diplomacy by luminaries such as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, coupled with pressure by domestic powerbrokers, Jonathan accepted his eventual defeat gracefully. Research in the Niger Delta, a centre of his support, suggests that local leaders had been ready for violence.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Reports N°s 220, Nigeria’s Dangerous 2015 Elections: Limiting the Violence, 21 November 2014; and 231, Curbing Violence in Nigeria (III): Revisiting the Niger Delta, 29 September 2015, p. 14.Hide Footnote

Analysts with a good grasp of the political dynamics can also make credible (if inher­ently probabilistic) assessments of how events will unfold. In late 2011, for example, Crisis Group assessed the increasingly chaotic security picture in Syria and identified factors that have since come to characterise the conflict, including the prevalence of “sectarian retribution and criminal activity” and the mounting risks of “foreign intrusion”.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East Briefing N°31, Uncharted Waters: Thinking Through Syria’s Dynamics, 24 November 2011, pp. 5-6.Hide Footnote

Crisis Group certainly does not always foresee future developments accurately: it did no better than others in forecasting the 2011 Arab uprisings and gave no advance alert of South Sudan’s collapse or the Ukrainian crisis.[fn]Like governments and other actors, Crisis Group’s analysis is affected by resource constraints: it did not have staff in Ukraine in 2013 (this has since been remedied).Hide Footnote  At best, analysts work with partial information and have to make judgment calls about which risks are most pressing. If policymakers are sometimes inclined to discount warning signs, there is a parallel danger of “over warning”, of perceiving every fresh political twist as a harbinger of inevitable conflict.Nonetheless, good analysis-based early warning can identify not only the underlying risks of future conflicts, but also (i) how political actors are exacerbating the dangers of a crisis through their medium-term strategies; (ii) how shorter-term tactical developments may accelerate tensions; and (iii) what possible paths a conflict could take if not controlled. The goal of early action is then to determine how to persuade or push actors to pursue alternative courses that avert or minimise violence, or, where the internationalisation of a conflict is a risk, at least contain it.

B. The Complexities of Early Action

Early action “tools” fall into three broad categories: (i) facilitative (high-level diplomacy, mediation and confidence-building measures); (ii) coercive (diplomatic penalties, sanctions, threats of international justice and, ultimately, use of force); and (iii) incentives (such as financial aid, security guarantees and institutional support for new power- and resource-sharing arrangements). While it is important to understand the strengths and weaknesses of specific tools, they can only rarely be utilised in isolation from each other.

It remains true, as argued in a 2000 essay on early action, that “preventive diplomacy will usually require ‘mixed strategies’ combining coercive elements capable of posing a credible deterrent, and inducements and other reassurances that provide positive incentives for cooperation”. Optimally, such strategies should include a concept of a peaceful end-state to a crisis that all major players can buy into. “In even the most terrible of civil wars, for some there is always a threat more terrifying than the war itself”, noted a former UN official, namely, “the wrong peace”.[fn]Bruce W. Jentleson, Opportunities Missed, Opportunities Seized: Preventive Diplomacy in the Post-Cold War World (Carnegie, New York, 2000), p. 13. Tom Hill, “Fear of the Peace: Why Assad is Not the Main Obstacle to a Deal on Syria”, The Daily Telegraph, 3 October 2015.Hide Footnote  Parties to a conflict may ignore both coercion and incentives if they believe they will lose fundamentally from a final political settlement. This long-term view must be factored into early action where possible, even if there is inevitably always a short-term focus on averting an immediate crisis.

This is all hard. Devising and applying “mixed strategies” to manage emerging or ongoing crises typically involves bringing together not only the tools available to a single government or international organisation, but also pooling the influence and resources of multiple actors, who often have very different short- and long-term perspectives. Even where concerned international actors have roughly similar strategic goals, it can be hard to match up their strategies. In 2015, for example, Crisis Group warned that the Security Council risked undermining regional peace-making in South Sudan by threatening sanctions on six generals who actually favoured a settlement (two were sanctioned, duly creating resentment).[fn]Crisis Group Statement, “South Sudan: No Sanctions Without Strategy”, 29 June 2015. This case underlines the advantage of close political analysis. The Council targeted the generals largely due to their positions; Crisis Group argued they were comparatively moderate due to their views.Hide Footnote

More daunting still, it is sometimes necessary to coordinate strategies with actors with deeply opposed views, as in recent efforts involving regional powers, Russia and the West in Syria. In such cases, it is impossible to distinguish neatly between mediators and parties to the conflict and strategic competitors and diplomatic collaborators. As Crisis Group President Jean-Marie Guéhenno has argued, such situations demand a “multi-layered” response with wider international, regional, national and local diplomatic efforts continuing in parallel.[fn]“The World’s Fragmenting Conflicts”, Crisis Group “Future of Conflict series, 26 October 2015.Hide Footnote

III. Identifying Dangerous Political Dynamics

If diplomats, analysts and international officials want to recognise warning signs of political dynamics that are liable to lead to violence, what should they look for? It is necessary to nod to the cliché that all politics is local, and no two crises play out precisely the same way. Nevertheless, Crisis Group reports highlight four recurrent sets of warning signs: (i) evidence that leaders and elites are adopting political strategies conducive to conflict, or signs of breakdowns in the bargains that hold leaders and elites together; (ii) evidence of discontent or political radicalisation among militaries and security forces; (iii) violence in “peripheral” areas with potentially broader implications; and (iv) signals that outside actors are engaging in an “internal” conflict, or spillover effects from such a conflict. This section concludes with thoughts on how policymakers can use knowledge of such warning signs to build “anticipatory relationships” and take very early preventive action.

A. Leaders and Elites

Some observers argue that there is an “end of leadership” globally, as transnational communications and organisations gain influence at the expense of national figures. Where a leader such as Nigeria’s President Jonathan is willing to release his grip on power, however, underlying political and social tensions can be eased, while a recalcitrant chief can have the reverse effect. As Crisis Group observed in 2011, the initial protests in Syria, having created an “unprecedented sense of awareness, solidarity and responsibility among large segments of the population”, had the potential to engender peaceful change, but President Bashar al-Assad guaranteed wider violence by whipping up the fears of his base, especially in the Alawite community, and signalling his intention to “go down fighting”.[fn]Moisés Naim, The End of Power (New York, 2014). Crisis Group Middle East Briefing N°31, Uncharted Waters: Thinking Through Syria’s Dynamics, 24 November 2011, p. 3.
Hide Footnote

It is essential to understand not only individual leaders but also the political currents around them. As Guéhenno has argued, “political leaders have lost some of their capacity to control outcomes, and multiple actors, from the bottom up, need to be influenced”. This involves understanding the political organisations, factions and elites that underpin any leader, as well as the strength and strategies of opposition groups and the wider constellation of local leaders, armed groups and other secondary players who might exploit a crisis.[fn]Guéhenno, “The World’s Fragmenting Conflicts”, op. cit. Wennmann, “The Political Economy of Violence”, op. cit., pp. 23-26.Hide Footnote

As Guéhenno has argued, “political leaders have lost some of their capacity to control outcomes, and multiple actors, from the bottom up, need to be influenced”

The need to understand such secondary political actors was made clear in South Sudan in 2013. For much of that year, there were signs of an “unravelling” of the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), which had papered over serious internal divisions on gaining independence from Sudan in 2011. Civilian and military factions now jockeyed for control of the party, creating discontent in the army and threatening President Salva Kiir's grip on power. While symptoms of this struggle became increasingly public, UN and Western diplomats focused on working with Kiir. They arguably missed opportunities to engage with a wider range of actors and were caught badly off-guard when the country collapsed into war that December. A host of armed groups and ethnic militias joined in, fighting grew exponentially, and “communal mobilisation and spiralling violence quickly led to appalling levels of brutality against civilians, including deliberate killings inside churches and hospitals”.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Report N°217, South Sudan: A Civil War by Any Other Name, 10 April 2014, pp. 3-5, p. i.Hide Footnote

Egypt has also highlighted the importance of tracking opposition and other interest group dynamics. From their 2012 election, President Mohamed Morsi and his Freedom and Justice Party had a confrontational relationship with the bureaucracy, which went “on an informal strike”. He and his foes adopted polarising policies, culminating in emergence of the Tamarod opposition movement, supported by a mix of “activists, political parties and establishment figures” and later businessmen and religious leaders.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East/North Africa Briefing N°35, Marching in Circles: Egypt’s Dangerous Second Transition, 7 August 2013, p. 3, fn. 6 (interview, senior National Salvation Front member, Cairo, 9 June 2013); p. 4.Hide Footnote  The security services and military manipulated these groups and exploited Morsi’s intransigence to legitimise his overthrow.

In more propitious circumstances, civil society and economic interest groups can act as restraints on violence. The National Dialogue Quartet (a coalition of civil society groups with a strong popular base) helped to avert a similar breakdown in Tunisia in 2014. “In a region where civil-society groups often face repression and are marginalised”, Crisis Group’s North Africa Project Director noted, “the Tunisian example shows the value of having actors outside formal politics play a role in moments of crisis”.[fn]Issandr el Amrani, “Tunisia’s National Dialogue Quartet Set a Powerful Example”, Crisis Group, 10 October 2015.Hide Footnote  In West Africa, Guinea has avoided the full-scale wars that affected many neighbours in part thanks to the role of civil society groups as “powerful balancing mechanisms” against violence.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Report N°178, Guinea: Putting the Transition Back on Track, 23 September 2011, p. 29.Hide Footnote

Where there is high political polarisation and few domestic constraints on violence, leaders can easily initiate civil conflict by design or accident.

“Civil society” is, of course, an amorphous phrase that covers very different types of entities with variable levels of leverage in different societies. These are most likely to have a positive effect when and where they have a solid popular base, and key poli­tical factions have some willingness to compromise. In Tunisia, the Quartet was able to sustain peace in part because the Islamist government chose to relinquish power voluntarily, due both to its leaders’ greater inclination toward compromise and their fear of suffering Morsi’s fate. Where political factions are intent on violence, civil society may only be able to mitigate the resulting conflict. National Christian and Muslim leaders have, for example, called for peace throughout the CAR crisis but could not stop the deterioration in 2013. Some lower-level religious figures actually incited sectarian violence.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°96, Central African Republic: Better Late Than Never, 2 December 2013, p. 4.Hide Footnote

This brief cross-section of cases shows that the best way to predict how crises may evolve is to have a clear picture of the politicians and factions at the centre of decision-making and that political drivers of violence must be analysed from a range of angles. First, it is necessary to recognise when a leader is willing to address threats to his/her rule through long- or short-term strategies of polarisation and radicalisation. It can be helpful to focus on inflection points in political processes, such as elections or the date of a constitutionally-set term limit, which are likely to be polarising moments. Of course, analysts should not concentrate solely on such risky moments lest they miss other tensions and flashpoints.[fn]On “inflection points”, see Richard Gowan, Bruce D. Jones, Sara Batmanglich and Andrew Hart, “Back to Basics: The UN and Crisis Diplomacy in an Age of Strategic Uncertainty”, NYU Center on International Cooperation, pp. 12-15. In 2012, for example, Crisis Group warned that violence around Libya’s first post-war election risked “undermining an already fragile transition”. It was relatively successful but arguably lulled many outsiders into a false security sense, so they did not track the ensuing deterioration closely enough. Crisis Group Alert, “Libya’s Elections under Threat”, 3 July 2012. President Jonathan’s concession in Nigeria’s 2015 election may have averted serious violence in the Niger Delta, but that region remains tense. Nnamdi Obasi, “Buhari’s Nigeria: Boko Haram Off Balance, But Other Troubles Surge”, Crisis Group, 30 May 2016.Hide Footnote Secondly, it is important to understand the coalition of political actors that support – or aim to undermine – a leader in his/her party, such as Kiir’s opponents in the SPLM. Thirdly, how opposition forces and civil society may fuel, defuse or mitigate a political crisis must be assessed. Where there is high political polarisation and few domestic constraints on violence, leaders can easily initiate civil conflict by design or accident. Conversely, they may take advantage of conflict abroad to strengthen their position at home, as Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to have done in Ukraine.

B. The Security Sector and the Military

Egypt also highlights the need to monitor national security forces and militaries as sources of instability. A strong army’s capacity to threaten constitutional government is obvious. Yet, it is also necessary to recognise the dangers associated with security forces that have lost status and self-confidence (post-2011 revolutionary Tunisia), lack cohesion to ward off internal and external enemies (Iraq, 2014), are not rooted as an established institution (Libya) or are linked to only part of society (Syria). While outsiders often invest heavily in training and equipping militaries and security forces, their political dynamics tend to be poorly understood.

It is not enough to ask to what degree civilians formally control the military and security structures. In many states, relations between uniformed and civilian authorities are a matter of constant manoeuvre. In the run-up to the 2012 coup that combined disastrously with secessionist violence in the north to push Mali to the brink of collapse, Bamako was “buzzing with accusations of dangerous liaisons between political and military elites and major drug and hostage traffickers and rumours of plots by junior officers angry about the way the president pampered senior officers”. In Tunisia, tensions are growing between the army, Internal Security Forces (ISF), poli­tical parties and the public. ISF “isolation” from the public is a potential source of fresh political friction. There is evidence of breakdowns in the ISF chain of command and “emergence of mutually exclusive clans” in units that limit their ability to fight dangerous Islamist extremists.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Report N°189, Mali: Avoiding Escalation, 18 July 2012, p. 18; Middle East and North Africa Report N°161, Reform and Security Strategy in Tunisia, 23 July 2015, pp. 15-16.Hide Footnote

Outsiders concerned by such security dynamics need to assess (i) whether nation­al security forces have the political cohesion to threaten a government in their own right; (ii) whether their divisions could lead to in-fighting or create security vacuums; and (iii) if, where states face external threats or internal disorder, security forces have the capacity to provide an adequate defence and the discipline and professionalism to maintain public trust.

Troubling examples include the “shambolic” nature of Nigerian law enforcement in areas Boko Haram threatens and the Kabul government’s use of the “cheap and dangerous” Afghan Local Police. The Pakistan army’s “poorly conceived counter-insurgency strategies, heavy-handed methods and failure to restore responsive and accountable civil administration and policing” complicate efforts to oust Islamist extremists from tribal areas, creating or exacerbating more problems than they resolve. Elsewhere, security forces may act as forces for restraint in volatile situations: there are indications Venezuela’s military has played a positive if opaque role in lowering tensions after potentially explosive 2015 elections.[fn]Crisis Group Reports, Africa N°s 216, Curbing Violence in Nigeria (II): The Boko Haram Insurgency, 3 April 2014, p. 32; 237, Nigeria: The Challenge of Military Reform, 6 June 2016; Asia N°s 268, The Future of the Afghan Local Police, 4 June 2015, p. i; 242, Pakistan: Countering Militancy in PATA, 15 January 2013, p. i; and Latin America Briefing N°34, The End of Hegemony: What Next for Venezuela?, 21 December 2015, p. 7.Hide Footnote

The difficulties of assessing the intentions and capacities of formal military and security forces are often compounded by the proliferation of militias and informal armed groups with uncertain affiliations. In the wake of the Minsk II agreement to halt fighting in Ukraine in February 2015, for example, Crisis Group warned that both Moscow and Kyiv needed to be ready for a “mass collapse of discipline” among the militias that had sprung up in the east (including such oddities as “an Orthodox Christian unit, now in schism”). In the event, Russia has kept a firm grip over these groups, but it is sometimes necessary to treat irregular and semi-regular armed groups as serious political actors, not marginalise them. Crisis Group has thus criticised the UN-led political process for not including “a concerted effort to bring [Libya’s] security actors together in support of [a national] government”.[fn]Crisis Group Europe Report N°235, Eastern Ukraine: A Dangerous Winter, 18 December 2014, p. 13. Testimony by Claudia Gazzini, Crisis Group senior analyst, U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing on “Libya: The Path Forward”, p. 4.Hide Footnote  While outsiders may be tempted to write off “warlords”, it remains necessary to assess – and potentially engage – them as real political actors.

C. Peripheral Conflicts

Studies of armed groups can link to another, often-overlooked challenge to weak states: disruptive political dynamics and trends in violence in peripheral regions, where central authorities have poor relations or little control or oversight.[fn]“Peripheral” refers here not only to geographically remote regions (though in many cases, such as northern CAR, volatile areas are far removed from national power centres), but also to those that are marginalised politically and/or economically, or cut off from state institutions. A more detailed study would also look at the emergence of “peripheral” areas within cities, where services and rule of law are absent. Crisis Group recently chronicled Mexico’s efforts to address social and economic alienation in Ciudad Juaréz as part of its campaign against drug cartels. Latin America Report N°54, Back from the Brink: Saving Ciudad Juaréz, 25 February 2015. Robert Muggah, “Visualizing Urban Fragility”, UN University Centre for Policy Research Blog, 10 February 2016.Hide Footnote  Outside observers sometimes assume that widespread disorder in outlying regions is either insignificant or normal.[fn]National elites can easily fall into the same trap. Addressing the Syrian regime’s instability in 2011, Crisis Group experts Peter Harling and Robert Malley noted that “today’s ruling elite has forgotten its roots. It has inherited power rather than fought for it, grown up in Damascus, mingled with and mimicked the ways of the urban upper class and led a process of economic liberalization that has benefited large cities at the provinces’ expense. The state abandoned vast areas of the nation, increasingly handling them through corrupt and arrogant security forces”. “How the Syrian Regime is Ensuring its Demise”, The Washington Post, 1 July 2011.Hide Footnote  This happened at the start of the CAR crisis, when the Seleka rebel group that overthrew the government in 2013 was initially dismissed as a “heterogeneous consortium of malcontents” from the perennially unstable north east.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Report N°203, Central African Republic: The Priorities of the Transition, 11 June 2013, p. 6.Hide Footnote  Yet, it morphed into a serious threat, as it seized territory, realised it could overthrow the government and became more radical.

Similar threats have emerged in the peripheries of other weak states with highly destabilising results: recent major crises have often been tied to regions where minority groups feel cut off from, or threatened by, national political dynamics, such as the Tuaregs in northern Mali, ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine and the Huthis in northern Yemen. In 2015, Nepal’s gradual recovery from civil war was severely set back when its ruling parties rushed through a constitutional statute that alienated minorities, including those in the southern plains, where mass protests contributed to a five-month blockade on goods entering from India.[fn]Crisis Group Asia Report N°276, Nepal’s Divisive New Constitution: An Existential Crisis, 4 April 2016.Hide Footnote  Even where there is no immediate trigger, disputes over ethnic issues, language rights or religion in peripheral regions can combine with economic grievances to create fertile conditions for political tensions and violence.[fn]For a further case study by Crisis Group of a little-known region facing this mix of problems, see Europe Briefing N°63, Georgia: The Javakheti Region’s Integration Challenges, 23 May 2011.Hide Footnote

Watching how authorities handle a specific area’s problems can illuminate dangers affecting the state as a whole. Crisis Group recently explored heavy-handed army tactics in Arsal, a Lebanese border town host to many Syrian refugees, as a case-study of a much wider “self-reinforcing loop in which the measures the government takes to compensate for its shortcomings make matters worse”.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East Briefing N°46, Arsal in the Crosshairs: The Predicament of a Small Lebanese Border Town, 23 February 2016, pp. 2-3. For other recent examples of analysis of peripheral towns and regions see Africa Reports N°s 198, Sudan’s Spreading Conflict (i): War in South Kordofan, 14 February 2013; 204, Sudan’s Spreading Conflict (ii): War in Blue Nile, 18 June 2013; and 209, Sudan: Preserving Peace in the East, 26 November 2013.Hide Footnote

It is often hard for diplomats and international officials in capitals (or further afield) to get a clear picture of developments in peripheral regions. If violence is widespread, they may be banned from travelling, leaving them reliant on other sources, such as humanitarian workers who resent being turned into “spies with food”. Central governments are often happier to relay “news” that is not always reliable: in Russia, “a powerful propaganda machine promotes the ‘success story’ of today’s Chechnya”, despite its continued “intimidation, humiliation and violence”.[fn]Crisis Group Europe Report N°236, Chechnya: The Inner Abroad, 30 June 2015, pp. i-ii.Hide Footnote  Observers should look past such misinformation to ask how direct security threats may emerge from peripheral regions and how arguments over ways to engage these regions may feed back into central political tensions in capitals.[fn]Not all conflicts emerge in peripheral regions. Disorder in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and Kyiv’s Maidan can be equally or more threatening. Politically and culturally symbolic sites are potential flashpoints: the Holy Esplanade in Jerusalem (the Temple Mount and Noble Sanctuary to Jews and Muslims respectively) has become “a microcosm of the Israeli Palestinian-conflict. It sees repeated violent upsurges that never decisively end, only fade; as a final status issue it is in a stalemated peace process [and] its disposition remains unclear”.[8] Crisis Group Middle East Report N°159, The Status of the Status Quo at Jerusalem’s Holy Esplanade, 30 June 2015, p. i.Hide Footnote

D. External Drivers of Conflict

A focus on national leaders, political factions, security politics and peripheral conflicts can give outside observers a clearer understanding of the chains of events that may destabilise a government or create conditions for violence. But, as noted above, it is also necessary to evaluate how these internal factors are tied to external political pressures and outside actors’ interests, and how international actors may assess each other’s engagement. One country’s peripheral conflict may be another’s bid for security or influence: there is evidence that the emergence of Seleka as a threat in CAR was at least abetted by neighbouring Chad. Moscow used ethnic Russian concerns in Ukraine to legitimise its incursions in 2014. Saudi Arabia interpreted the Huthis’ rise in Yemen as proof of Iranian meddling in its backyard, though it may have overestimated Tehran’s original involvement and pushed the Huthis closer to its regional rival by intervening.[fn]Crisis Group Reports, Central African Republic: The Priorities, op. cit., p. 8; Middle East N°167, Yemen: Is Peace Possible?, 9 February 2016, pp. 10-12.Hide Footnote

Strains within security forces and between uniformed and civilian leaders in a fragile country may also be exacerbated by external threats. In 2014, Crisis Group tied growing rifts in the security apparatus to broader anxiety arising from Tunisia’s insecure neighbourhood: “an increase in violence along the Algerian border; the chaotic situation in Libya; the advance of radical Islamism in the Middle East – all made all the more acute by an alarmist anti-terrorist discourse”.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East and North Africa Briefing N°41, Tunisia’s Borders (II): Terrorism and Regional Polarisation, 21 October 2014, p. 1.Hide Footnote  It added that arms and drugs traffickers had become increasingly active along the borders. Transnational criminal networks frequently exacerbate instability in other vulnerable regions. Crisis Group’s Latin American experts, for example, regularly balance political analyses with research on parallel dynamics in the drug trade.[fn]Just as analyses of the Libyan and Ukrainian conflicts must pay attention to the outlooks and capacities of armed groups, it is necessary to see how shifting balances of power inside criminal networks affect their trajectories. “The capture of … local drugs lords has shaken once powerful organisations”, Crisis Group observed regarding Central American trafficking, “allowing a new generation of sometimes more violent leaders to emerge”. Latin America Report N°52, Corridor of Violence: The Guatemala-Honduras Border, 4 June 2014, p. i.Hide Footnote

The activities of cross-border political movements, bound together by ethnicity, faith or strategic calculations, can also easily result in spillover conflicts. This pattern is all too familiar from past Balkans cases and is currently a matter of urgency in the Middle East, where the rise of Syria’s Kurds has contributed to Turkey’s repressive approach toward its own Kurdish population.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East Briefing N°49, Steps Toward Stabilising Syria’s Northern Border, 8 April 2016.Hide Footnote

However, policymakers now tend to prioritise two facets of the internationalisation of conflict: the spread of violent jihadist groups, primarily al-Qaeda and IS, in many troubled states in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia; and regional and wider international powers’ roles in proxy wars, including in Ukraine, Syria, Yemen and South Sudan. Given the prominence of these trends in diplomatic discourse, it is worth testing their importance.

There is no doubt that jihadist groups have played a brutal part in recent conflicts in the Arab world, in addition to instigating and inspiring terrorist acts globally. Yet “jihadists’ growing prominence over the past few years is more a product of instability than its primary driver”.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Exploiting Disorder, op. cit., p. 8.Hide Footnote  The Iraqi government’s prolonged marginalisation of Sunnis, noted above, fuelled the rise of IS, which then benefitted from President Assad’s vicious, radicalising response to the Syrian uprising. In Mali, Libya and Yemen, IS, al-Qaeda or other extremist movements have taken advantage of existing instability to seize territory.

The activities of cross-border political movements, bound together by ethnicity, faith or strategic calculations, can also easily result in spillover conflicts.

It would be foolish to argue these groups are not a serious threat in many regions. Their presence vastly complicates efforts to end conflicts, given the increasing military potency of some of them and that their aspirations and ideology are hard to envisage as part of a political settlement; in any case, few show much interest in peace processes.[fn]But Crisis Group believes it is as necessary to understand the political goals of jihadists as of other actors, since “what they want, particularly related to the state system, their openness to sharing power and tolerance toward other sects or religious groups, bears on policy” (ibid, p. 29).Hide Footnote  Overall, though, these groups prey on existing crises and wars more than they start new ones. There are risks Western policymakers will see Syria, Libya, Yemen and the rest of the Muslim world solely through the prism of a renewed “war on terror” (or “countering violent extremism”), targeting jihadist movements but not addressing other, deeper stresses. Applying a counter-terrorism lens to such cases risks stigmatising members of disadvantaged communities as potential extremists, reducing the chance to solve their underlying grievances.

Equally, there is nothing new about outside powers engaging in proxy warfare, subversion and direct intervention in long-suffering states such as Yemen. As Stephen John Stedman underlined on the basis of a monumental study of civil wars in 2001, the greatest threats to peace agreements are “spoilers – factions or leaders who oppose the peace agreement and use violence to undermine it – and neighbouring states that oppose the peace agreement and assist the spoilers”.[fn]“Implementing Peace Agreements in Civil Wars: Lessons and Recommendations for Policymakers”, International Peace Academy, May 2001, p. 2; Stedman, Donald Rothchild and Elizabeth M. Cousens (eds.), Ending Civil Wars: The Implementation of Peace Agreements (Boulder, 2002).Hide Footnote

Nonetheless, the tense international politics that surround many of today’s conflicts – and that so many powers have overt or covert military roles in other states’ wars – fundamentally complicates efforts to analyse and respond to existing and looming crises. In South Sudan, Uganda’s decision to send troops to back President Kiir in the 2013 crisis, coupled with Sudan’s support to his foes, threatened to turn the conflict into a proxy war. In eastern Ukraine, the supposed leaders of the separatist groups know they are “expendable” and that “all major political and military decisions are taken in Moscow, and their implementation is overseen by Russian officials on the ground”.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Report N°223, Sudan and South Sudan’s Merging Conflicts, 29 January 2015; Europe and Central Asia Briefing N°79, Russia and the Separatists in Eastern Ukraine, 5 February 2016, p. 7.Hide Footnote

The Libyan conflict has been fuelled by arms supplies and other forms of military aid from countries including Chad, Egypt, Qatar, Sudan, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates; in some cases this is motivated by security concerns, in others by “ideology and regional rifts, notably over what role Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood will play in Libya and whether they will use its wealth to support like-minded movements elsewhere”.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East and North Africa Report N°157, Libya: Getting Geneva Right, 26 February 2015, p. 11.Hide Footnote  The regional animosities and great power tensions that have grown up around the Syrian civil war are even more complex and destructive, if it is possible to quantify such things.

This report considers how governments and international organisations may be able to manage such complicated tensions around future conflicts. Yet, the divisions that have sprung up around these cases are not simply the product of chance or bad policy. They represent deeper shifts in the international context for early warning/early action. Much thinking on these issues dates from the first ten to fifteen post-Cold War years, when Western analysts presumed (sometimes optimistically) that the U.S. and its allies could line up sufficient states behind specific conflict management and resolution strategies if only they tried. While Washington retains far more power to play a guiding role in managing conflicts than any other state, the geopolitical context is shifting: lining up political actors for early action is becoming more difficult, a dilemma considered in greater depth below.

E. Beyond Analysis: Anticipatory Relationships and Actions

The preceding pages have laid out a series of issues that should interest analysts and policymakers looking for signs of looming crises. These include: (i) evidence of leaders promoting political polarisation or radicalising their bases, and signs of political elites and parties breaking up and/or interest groups mobilising against leaders; (ii) political discontent and divisions among security forces and military actors; (iii) emerging threats from violent groups in peripheral regions of weak states; and (iv) signs of external actors fuelling conflicts through military engagement, supplying weapons or political and diplomatic means.

Policymakers and analysts need to combine tracking these issues with other indicators, such as economic trends, to strengthen their understanding of potential risks. They should also use knowledge of developments in countries at risk as the basis for early, direct, low-key political action; useful analysis should identify not only how key players are behaving, but also chances to nudge them away from dangerous stra­tegies. Diplomats and international officials can build on early warning by creating a network of “anticipatory relationships” with relevant actors.[fn]“Back to Basics”, op. cit., p. 4.Hide Footnote

Optimally, this should include channels for frank communication with leaders on choices and strategies. Persuading presidents like Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza or the DRC’s Joseph Kabila to respect term limits should be a long-term project, not a hasty gamble: “There comes a point when leaders are so entrenched that there seems little point in challenging their right to hold office. Calling it early is therefore vital to avoid a position where all the options look bad”.[fn]Richard Moncrieff (Crisis Group’s Central Africa Project Director), “The reluctance of Joseph Kabila to cede power could push Congo to the brink”, The Guardian, 2 May 2016.Hide Footnote

Outsiders who build close ties with authoritarian leaders can, however, become over-entangled with them. As an ex-UN official put it, “we pick or create a leader who is capable of dealing with the international community, but forget to engage with the rest of the society and political sphere”.[fn]Crisis Group communication, 10 May 2016. Richard Gowan, “The Peacekeeping Quagmire”, Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, vol. 16 (2), pp. 39-46. There is, of course, a parallel danger of choosing “good” rebels and opposition figures who prove to be misleading partners, as in the U.S. administration’s collaboration with Iraqi exile politician Ahmad Chalabi prior to Saddam Hussein’s overthrow. See Loveday Morris and Brian Murphy, “Ahmed Chalabi, Iraqi Exile Who Helped Spur U.S. Invasion, Dies of Heart Attack”The Washington Post, 3 November 2015.Hide Footnote  Diplomats should aim to reach beyond the relatively narrow range of officials, contacts and polite society in a capital to include more opposition figures, security officials and representatives of marginalised communities. As noted, international actors’ lack of insight into South Sudan’s politics in 2013 meant they struggled to engage with its breakdown. It may be possible to cultivate potential “insider mediators” (figures from civil society or official circles in a country at risk who may be able to guide crisis talks better than outsiders) or work via international NGOs with more leeway to engage key opposition actors and non-state armed groups than formal diplomats.[fn]Simon Mason and Oliver Wils, “Insider Mediators: Their Key Role in Informal Peace Processes”, Berghof Foundation for Peace Support, 2009.Hide Footnote

Building anticipatory relationships may go hand in hand with “anticipatory actions”: steps to resolve structural dangers in troubled societies, such as misuse of justice, before they fuel worse trouble. Crisis Group recently highlighted that Bangladesh’s “dysfunctional criminal justice system” has potential to fuel wider conflict by “provoking violent counter responses, benefitting violent party wings and extremist groups alike”. It argued that donors should tie some aid to government efforts to improve this. Western countries often prioritise institutional reforms and capacity-building, as these may offer a path to lasting stability, or at least give fragile states “the tools to deal constructively with the violent potential of future conflicts”. However, it is important to recognise the stakes many actors have in stymying reforms and potential political repercussions. In Bangladesh as elsewhere, “years of partisan recruitment, promotions and postings have polarised… institutions to the point that officials no longer conceal their allegiances”.[fn]Crisis Group Asia Report N°277, Political Conflict, Extremism and Criminal Justice in Bangladesh, 11 April 2016, p. i. Sophie-Charlotte Brune, Anne Kovacs, Anaïs Reding and Maryse Penny, “Crisis and Conflict Prevention Strategies: An International Comparison”, RAND, 2015, p. 4.Hide Footnote

In some cases, outsiders may be better advised to focus on supporting civil society groups and other unofficial actors who may help constrain violence, but doing so requires considerable time, and may meet high-level political opposition. Given the mixed chances of success of such preventive actions, it is necessary to consider the tools that external actors can bring to bear on crises as they escalate.

IV. Dilemmas of Early Action

Successful early action consists of steps – including efforts to facilitate a political process, coerce key actors or create incentives for peace – that may open paths to a sustainable settlement of a crisis. A sustainable settlement may range from tweaking the status quo in an unstable country to make it acceptable to all sides, through steps such as limited political reforms, to a large-scale rebalancing of power, including constitutional changes and leadership transitions. Where conflicts are internationalised, territorial compromises and/or the creation of new regional security arrangements may be necessary, albeit difficult steps.

Outsiders must tread carefully when pursuing these goals. All early action involves engaging in fluid political environments. There is a high chance of political friction, with misunderstandings and miscalculations derailing plans. No form of crisis response is neutral. Domestic actors will always perceive outsiders as biased. In some cases they will still welcome engagement as a means to secure their own goals, resolve complex policy issues or minimise violence; in others, they may decide to misuse such help, for example by extending political talks indefinitely.

Understanding domestic political actors’ intentions and interests, which as argued, is at the centre of early warning, is thus also crucial to effective early action. Pathways outsiders want to help devise to avoid or curtail violence must be based on appreciation of what local factors will accept. In country-focused Crisis Group reports in the first third of 2016, 61 per cent of recommendations were aimed at governments or domestic political actors. External actors often appear unable to do more than encourage contacts to behave responsibly. When it comes to complex steps needed to unravel many crises – reducing political influence over institutions, for example, or reining in security services – even the best-placed outsider usually lacks the insights or contacts to do more than nudge national leaders to act.

There are also constraints on external actors in most cases. Policymakers who consider engaging in an escalating conflict assess whether it is in their own interests to expend the resources and take the risks. Internal political issues and competing bureaucratic priorities may militate against acting, even when good policy options are available. This report does not reflect at length on these problems, but it is essential to keep in mind that even when decision-makers want to launch early action to end a crisis abroad, they do not have infinite resources.

In the current context of internationalised conflicts, policymakers face a further layer of dilemmas: how to balance, align or corral other international actors to follow a more-or-less coherent strategy. The trend toward states acting as both combatants and peacemakers (Saudi Arabia in Yemen, Russia and the U.S. in Syria) has been noted but is only one facet of the growing complexity of conflict management. There is a broader diffusion of conflict prevention and peacemaking responsibilities, with new powers, ambitious regional organisations and non-governmental actors taking roles that might once have been filled by the U.S., its allies or the UN. New actors may vary as markedly in strength and style as China and Chad.

China often appears tentative in crises outside its immediate Asia-Pacific area, even if it has been increasingly prominent in Afghan affairs since NATO drew down its main force there in 2014. By contrast, Chad has tried to downplay its internal weaknesses and develop regional leverage in Africa by “pursuing a strategy of military diplomacy, hoping to lead the fight against terrorism in the region”, including operations in Mali and CAR and the fight against Boko Haram.[fn]Crisis Group Asia Report N°244, China’s Central Asia Problem, 27 February 2013, p. i; Africa Report N°233, Chad: Between Ambition and Fragility, 30 March 2016, p. i.Hide Footnote

Regional and sub-regional organisations have, meanwhile, increasingly attempted to take primary responsibility for conflict issues in their own areas. The best known examples are in Europe and Africa, but others include the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and, in Colombia, the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR). These actors often enjoy clear advantages of legitimacy and local contacts, but internal political divisions and capacity gaps can hold them back. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), for instance, is candid about “the lack of coordination and cooperation between [its] different departments and slow implementation of decisions”.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Implementing Peace and Security Architecture (III), op. cit., p. 23.Hide Footnote

In the current context of internationalised conflicts, policymakers face a further layer of dilemmas: how to balance, align or corral other international actors to follow a more-or-less coherent strategy.

Multiple local, regional and other international actors often pile into efforts to resolve new crises and create frictions between themselves. ECOWAS “believes the AU disregards it and tends to take over its role at the first opportunity”. It is not hard to find AU officials equally critical of African sub-regional bodies or convinced the UN treats them with disdain; UN officials grumble that the AU sometimes overreaches.[fn]Ibid, p. 22. On sub-regional organisations’ weaknesses, see Crisis Group Africa Report N°181, Implementing Peace and Security Architecture (I): Central Africa, 7 November 2011.Hide Footnote  The tensions are almost endless and perhaps inevitable.

“Framework diplomacy” is thus an essential element of handling any crisis: working out which international actors should (i) set strategies; (ii) handle direct contacts with key political actors; and (iii) manage information exchange and other practicalities.[fn]“Framework diplomacy” is taken from Jack F. Matlock, Superpower Illusions: How Myths and False Ideologies Led America Astray – And How to Return to Reality (New Haven, 2010), pp. 31-56, referring to U.S.-USSR negotiations over the global framework to end the Cold War.Hide Footnote  Since the Cold War, diplomats have created multiple frameworks for individual conflicts with mixed results, including the Contact Group for Bosnia and later Kosovo, the Quartet for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and multiple “friends groups” at the UN.[fn]See Teresa Whitfield, Friends Indeed? The United Nations, Groups of Friends, and the Resolution of Conflict (USIP Press, 2007).Hide Footnote  Recent cases include successful, low-key cooperation by Cuba, Chile, Norway and Venezuela to assist Colombia’s peace talks (see below) and the higher-profile, larger and troubled International Syria Support Group (ISSG) Russia and the U.S. formed under UN auspices in 2015.

The South Sudan case shows the complexity of framework diplomacy. After the country’s collapse, regional leaders – including some of those overtly and covertly fuelling the conflict – initially attempted to mediate a solution under the Inter-Gov­ernmental Development Authority (IGAD). After more than a year of failure, the AU, China, Britain, Norway, the U.S. and others joined an “IGAD-PLUS” format as a “bridge between an ‘African solution’ approach and concerted high-level, wider international engagement” that forged a peace deal in August 2015.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Report N°228, South Sudan: Keeping Faith with the IGAD Peace Process, 27 July 2015.Hide Footnote

IGAD-PLUS’s complexity is not unique. In an attempt to resolve the long-running insurgency on Mindanao in the southern Philippines in 2009, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the UK formed a “hybrid” International Contact Group with four international NGOs. In the view of one of the latter, this was useful, as “states provide a level of diplomatic leverage that NGOs do not have”, but NGOs “provide specific expertise in conflict transformation, which embassies do not necessarily have”.[fn]Kristian Herbolzheimer and Emma Leslie, “Innovation in Mediation Support: The International Contact Group in Mindanao”, Conciliation Resources, 2013, p. 3.Hide Footnote  The group helped midwife a peace deal in 2012 that has since faltered.

Framework diplomacy can extend to mandating parallel mediators and, in a few, generally difficult, cases such as Syria or Darfur, deploying joint mediation teams and peace operations. Transaction costs are high, but the alternative is often fragmentation of international efforts, as in Libya in 2011, where the AU insisted on mediation, while NATO and the Arab League engaged in military action.[fn]Alischa Kügel, “Three’s a Crowd? Inter-organizational Cooperation in Conflict Mediation”, Global Peace Operation Review, 19 November 2015. Emily O’Brien and Andrew Sinclair, “The Libyan War: A Diplomatic History, February-August 2011”, NYU Center on International Cooperation, 2011, p. 14.Hide Footnote

Multiple local, regional and other international actors often pile into efforts to re-solve new crises and create frictions between themselves.

Concrete interests and trade-offs lie beneath disputes about which international actors should “own” a peace process. Policymakers must balance their approach to one crisis with their stakes in others. European officials cannot help viewing the Middle East through the prism of the refugee issue; the U.S. seeks to complement implementation of the 2015 nuclear deal with efforts to contain Iran’s strategy of “forward defence” in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon; Iranian policymakers try to reconcile implementation of the nuclear deal with fears that the U.S. seeks regime change. Efforts to resolve Burundi’s crisis are complicated by the fact that its troops play significant roles in Somalia and CAR.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East Report N°166, Iran After the Nuclear Deal, 15 December 2015, p. 20; Statement, “Burundi: Time for Tough Messages”, 24 February 2016.Hide Footnote

Once again, these difficulties are not new. The “herding cats” problem in conflict management has persisted since the end of the Cold War; many mediation difficulties in cases such as Burundi echo 1990s Balkans dilemmas.[fn]See Chester A. Crocker, Fen Osler Hampson and Pamela A. Aall (eds.), Herding Cats: Multiparty Mediation in a Complex World, United States Institute of Peace, 1999.Hide Footnote  A sub-set of today’s crises, however, presents especially acute coordination challenges: those that pit the U.S., Russia and China directly or indirectly against one another.

Escalation risks and obstacles to framework diplomacy are especially great in cases such as Syria, Ukraine and the South China Sea. Even if China has often been “tentative” outside its immediate sphere, its “foreign policy decision-making and implementation skew toward stridency” when its core interests are at stake. A similar logic has guided Moscow in recent years and can still gain traction in Washington.[fn]Crisis Group Asia Report N°267, Stirring up the South China Sea (III): A Fleeting Opportunity for Calm, 7 May 2015, p. ii; Europe Report N°231, Ukraine: Running out of Time, 14 May 2014, pp. 18-20.Hide Footnote  Cooperation over a serious crisis is not impossible for the main powers, as the P5+1 (E3+3) process with Iran demonstrated, but it often relies on fissiparous negotiating mechanisms, such as the ISSG and the “Normandy format” for Ukraine.[fn]The P5+1 were the five permanent Security Council members (China, France, Russia, the UK and U.S.) and Germany; E3+3 refers to the same states in a Europe/non-Europe configuration.Hide Footnote  In many cases, leader-to-leader contacts are necessary, which can leave regional allies alienated, risking new tensions: Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran have all pushed back against U.S.-Russian efforts to find an accommodation over Syria.Under these circumstances, framing strategies for early action in looming crises typically involves acting on at least three levels: (i) preparing a response to the immediate circumstances; (ii) assessing and addressing regional political dynamics; and (iii) where necessary, engaging with international powers. Understanding and balancing the external actors’ competing priorities is difficult and time-consuming. A key dimension of any early action strategy should be rapid, multi-level diplomacy to bring on board as many actors as possible. This also involves understanding which policy tools may affect a crisis.

A. Facilitation

Facilitative tools make the most straightforward contribution to creating short-term pathways to avoid violence, if they have political credibility. These include (i) deployment of senior officials for leader-to-leader talks; (ii) mediation; and (iii) confidence-building, including military or civilian monitoring missions. Governments and international organisations have invested heavily in mediation in recent years, often setting up special units to assist high-level envoys.[fn]Multilateral examples include the UN Mediation Support Unit, EU Mediation Support Team and Commonwealth Good Offices Section.Hide Footnote  Even so, “the institutional capacity to provide effective support has not caught up with the collective aspiration to offer it”. Senior envoys “resist the idea of support outside their trusted staff, grounded in the confidence that they have been engaged for their lifetime experience and authority, and no further expertise or training is required”.[fn]Teresa Whitfield (senior adviser to Crisis Group’s president), “Support Mechanisms; Multilateral, Multi-Level and Mushrooming”, Global Peace Operations Review, 17 December 2015.Hide Footnote

While this confidence is not always justified, senior figures remain in demand as crisis managers. Crisis Group frequently notes that outsiders’ best entry-point for dealing with a crisis is leader-to-leader contacts, as shown by the contributions of envoys such as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in persuading Nigeria’s President Jonathan to avoid post-electoral violence in 2015. It is now the norm in many African crises for serving or ex-senior politicians to mediate rapidly developing conflicts. South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki has had an extensive post-presidential career in cases such as Côte d’Ivoire and the Sudans.[fn]See African officials’ comments on the uses of high-level mediators in Nora Gordon, “Meet the Envoys”, Global Peace Operations Review, 7 December 2015.Hide Footnote  Nor is this solely an African phenomenon: German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande have been essential interlocutors with President Putin; Kerry bases much of his Syria strategy on ties with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Senior political engagement is often tricky to initiate and maintain. Even when willing to engage, top politicians are busy. A good mediator does not mean a particular crisis is actually amenable to resolution or containment: Kofi Annan ended violence in Kenya in 2008 but had little leverage as UN envoy in Syria in 2012. Overreliance on very senior figures can hamper the work of middle- and lower-level officials on details of a political process. Crucial time was lost when IGAD’s leaders took responsibility on South Sudan: “Without them, no one was empowered to advance the process, and often little was done for weeks, and the parties were left to refocus on the war rather than the peace process”.[fn]Crisis Group Report, South Sudan: Keeping Faith, op. cit., p. 16.Hide Footnote

Alternatives to big-name mediators include quiet diplomacy and using NGOs, such as the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue and Crisis Management Initiative, or local civil society groups to undertake back-channel talks. The value of discreet discussions has been clear in the peace process between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). While not an early action example, it emerged from a year of secret contacts Cuba, Venezuela and Norway facilitated. That process also confirmed the importance of senior leaders: Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez helped enable it via confidential contacts with both sides that required a high degree of secrecy.[fn]Crisis Group Latin America Report N°45, Colombia: Peace at Last?, 25 September 2012, pp. 1, 16. The conflict, dating back to FARC’s formation in the early 1960s, is one of the world’s oldest.Hide Footnote

Crisis Group often advocates such quiet diplomacy and that there should be no taboo on talking to non-state armed groups, despite the difficulty: “Opportunities to open discreet lines of communication to at least try to define whether groups have demands that could be used as the basis for talks and can be moved away from those that are irreconcilable are usually worth pursuing”. Opportunities have been missed to engage leaders in such groups, including in Afghanistan, Libya, Nigeria and Soma­lia, in ways that might have offered hope of reducing violence.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Exploiting Disorder, op. cit., pp. 45-48.Hide Footnote

A major challenge is often to move as quickly as possible from initial contacts to creation of a framework and recognised process for discussing and defusing tensions. Inclusivity is a recurrent stumbling block: in the rush to set up a mediation process to avert escalation, it is easy to exclude essential participants. Inclusivity is open to interpretation and is often used as shorthand for involving civil society and women in peace processes. As a recent UN report highlighted, this is frequently more a matter of rhetoric than reality: “A study of 31 major peace processes between 1992 and 2011 revealed that only nine per cent of negotiators were women”. There is evidence that such exclusion reduces chances of sustainable settlement. Minority groups in peripheral regions are also frequently excluded, such as the “progressively marginalised” Rohingya in Rakhine State, who have become targets of serial violence during Myanmar’s transition to democracy.[fn]Radhika Coomaraswamy et al., “Preventing Conflict, Transforming Justice, Securing the Peace: A Global Study on the Implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325”, UN Women, 2015, p. 14. On the importance of civil society inclusion to sustainable settlements, see Desirée Nilson, “Anchoring the Peace: Civil Society Actors in Peace Accords and Durable Peace”, International Interactions vol. 38 (2), 2012, pp. 243-266. Crisis Group Asia Reports N°s 251, The Dark Side of Transition: Violence Against Muslims in Myanmar, 1 October 2013; and 261, Myanmar: The Politics of Rakhine State, 22 October 2014.Hide Footnote

Yemen shows the danger of getting inclusion wrong. In 2011, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Western powers and the UN stopped immediate violence by setting up a transitional political process, “protecting traditional power centres to prevent war”. This alienated factions in both north and south, including the Huthi movement, which later “thrived by presenting itself as an uncorrupted outsider”. By contrast, pro-government and opposition groups in Mali have made positive efforts to reinforce their political agreements with lower-level pacts “involving local actors and strengthening their trust in a peace otherwise externally imposed”.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East Report N°167, Yemen: Is Peace Possible?, 9 February 2016, pp. 2; Africa Briefing N°115, Mali: Peace From Below? 14 December 2015, p. i.Hide Footnote

There are also risks of processes becoming ends in themselves and of conflict parties deliberately stringing out talks as cover for political games or violence. In eastern Ukraine, “the Minsk process [risks] becoming a substitute for a settlement”, as Russia follows a deliberate strategy of making “parties concentrate more on the process than the settlement”. The Israeli-Palestinian peace process has been criticised as “low-intensity management of the conflict masquerading as the only path to a solution”.[fn]Crisis Group Europe and Central Asia Briefing N°79, Russia and the Separatists in Eastern Ukraine, 5 February 2016, p. 1; Middle East Report N°122, The Emperor Has No Clothes: Palestinians and the End of the Peace Process, 7 May 2012, p. 29.Hide Footnote  In situations where great power interests are at stake, it is difficult to push back. In other circumstances, it may be possible to hustle talks forward by setting timelines and parameters for bargains: though the South Sudan peace process dragged on for nearly two years, regional leaders, the U.S. and China finally strong-armed President Kiir into a peace deal in August 2015.

Alternatively, mediators may try to disaggregate difficult political questions and persuade actors to address specific problems in isolation. This can include focusing on particular economic issues: Crisis Group has argued, for example, that to stop the energy sector falling apart, Libyan factions should hold focused talks on economic governance in parallel with broader political reconciliation efforts. Where no political progress on any level seems likely, it may still be possible to keep open humanitarian talks to minimise suffering or technical military talks to avoid accidents. Crisis Group has highlighted a need for China and neighbours to have functioning capital-to-capital hotlines to handle South China Sea incidents.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East and North Africa Report N°165, The Prize: Fighting for Libya’s Energy Wealth, 3 December 2015; Report, Stirring Up The South China Sea (III), op. cit., noting that hotlines are “important but insufficient” tools for handling potential crises (p. 29).Hide Footnote

Confidence in political processes can also be built by measures such as international observer missions to monitor factions’ behaviour in parallel with talks. In Ukraine, the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission has gradually expanded overview of frontline areas; while its position is fragile, it has helped consolidate a reduction in hostilities. Crisis Group has often argued for similar arrangements, such as increased monitoring of the Sudan-South Sudan border in 2014 to address passage of armed groups.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Sudan and South Sudan’s Merging Conflicts, op. cit., pp. 23-24.Hide Footnote  While such presences may help sustain trust, they can easily be marginalised by radical actors: the light UN supervision mission deployed to Syria in support of the Annan peace plan was a courageous effort with little impact.

B. Coercion

The slow progress of many mediations has also led some governments to favour more coercive responses to crises. These may first include relatively limited diplomatic penalties, such as the AU’s threats to suspend members which have had coups, but they have a mixed track record at best. There is minimal evidence repeated resolutions and condemnations from the UN Human Rights Council and General Assembly have influenced Syria’s government since 2011. In some cases, key local players have little knowledge of or respect for the far-off gestures. In others, they do not believe the outrage matters. Crisis Group noted on the CAR crisis that “international organisations always condemn unconstitutional changes of government in Africa, but very rarely try to restore constitutional order by force”.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Central African Republic: The Priorities, op. cit., p. 16, fn. 109.Hide Footnote

This does not mean human rights diplomacy is valueless. In Syria, for example, a UN Commission of Inquiry has gathered much evidence on the use of violence and torture that has challenged false narratives. The Human Rights Council has helped maintain pressure on Sri Lanka to address abuses committed during the war against the Tamil Tigers. Quantitative studies suggest “naming and shaming” helps limit atrocities; nonetheless, statements of concern still often go unheard.[fn]See the Commission’s report “Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Deaths in Detention in the Syrian Arab Republic”, UN document A/HRC/31/CRP.1, 3 February 2016. Jacqueline H.R. De Merritt, “International Organizations and Government Killings: Does Naming and Shaming Save Lives?” International Interactions, vol. 38 (1), 2012, pp. 1-25.Hide Footnote

More stringent forms of coercion include threats of international prosecution of leaders involved in crises and sanctions. The former’s impact is controversial. The International Criminal Court (ICC) appears to have deterred some elites from human rights abuses; other threats of prosecution have been counterproductive. Prospect of prosecution may cause a leader to become more radical. Security Council referral of Libya to the ICC in 2011 left Qadhafi “boxed in”, more willing to fight. In other cases, the evidence is mixed: Crisis Group found that senior Kenyans the ICC accused of crimes relating to the 2007 elections used the cases to “shore up their ethnic bases” before 2013 polls (ironically uniting 2007 foes against the ICC), but also that ICC attention may have helped avert new violence. A wide-ranging study concluded that “the effects of justice mechanisms on the outlook of armed groups or criminal regimes is not likely to hasten an end to atrocities except on rare and unpredictable occasions”, and “states should avoid the use of international justice as an instrumental tool to affect the dynamics of conflict”.[fn]For links to recent and ongoing quantitative studies, see Kevin Burke, “The Deterrent Effect of the International Criminal Court”, Citizens for Global Solutions Blog, 2 March 2015. Jo Becker and Scott Shane, “Hillary Clinton, ‘Smart Power’ and a Dictator’s Fall”, The New York Times, 27 February 2016. Crisis Group Africa Report N°197, Kenya’s 2013 Elections, 17 January 2013, p. 2; Briefing N°94, Kenya After the Elections, 15 May 2013. Anthony Dworkin, “International Justice and the Prevention of Atrocity”, European Council on Foreign Relations, October 2014, p. 44.Hide Footnote

Polarisation over the ICC, especially in Africa, complicates framework diplomacy. Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir (indicted in 2009 for Darfur) is particularly effective at “mobilising Arab, Islamic and African countries against the court by pitching it as a Western instrument of regime change”. The U.S. and its European allies had prolonged differences over whether to invoke the ICC over Syria, as Washington feared it would hurt diplomacy with Moscow; Russia and China vetoed a French Security Council resolution on this in 2014.[fn]Fouad Hikmat, “Hard Road to Peace After ICC Indicts Bashir”, The East African, 4 March 2009. Ian Black, “Russia and China Veto UN Move to Refer Syria to the International Criminal Court”, The Guardian, 22 May 2014.Hide Footnote

At the least, policy makers should carefully calculate the likely impact of any call for international justice in a crisis. The Security Council referred Libya to the ICC a day after the Human Rights Council instituted a Commission of Inquiry.[fn]Human Rights Council Resolution S-15/1, 25 February 2011. On Security Council-ICC relations, see Eran Sthoeger, “International Courts and Tribunals”, in Sebastian von Einsiedel, David M. Ma­lone and Bruno Stagno Ugarte (eds.), The UN Security Council in the 21st Century (Boulder, 2015), pp. 517-521.Hide Footnote  The latter was arguably a wiser decision and would have been more effective without the former: it sent a message to Qadhafi that he could face legal action one day, but lacked the chilling effect of invoking the ICC. It is impossible to say how Qadhafi would have acted if the Security Council had held back, but the Human Rights Council’s more subtle message was lost.[fn]See also the “Report of the International Commission of Inquiry into Libya”, 8 March 2012 (UN document A/HRC/19/68).Hide Footnote  In some cases, the best way to promote accountability is through special national or hybrid national/international justice mechanisms. Crisis Group has praised the UN-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CIGIC) for empowering citizens and tackling corruption.[fn]Crisis Group Latin America Report N°56, Crutch to Catalyst? The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, 29 January 2016. Though supported by the UN, CIGIC follows Guatemalan law and works closely with domestic prosecutors.Hide Footnote Yet, developing such mechanisms takes time and requires consent from local power brokers that may be unavailable in a fast-moving crisis.

The value of sanctions, both targeted against individuals and entire sanctions regimes, is also often contentious, as are cuts in aid. Sanctions and economic penalties have helped bring some conflicts to a decisive conclusion – as in the EU’s economic isolation of Côte d’Ivoire, 2010-2011 – and appear to have shaped, in combination with many other factors, recent calculations in Iran and Myanmar. Crisis Group has underlined the need to maintain sanctions pressure on Russia over Ukraine. Elsewhere, economic tools have been less effective, especially in changing the short-term thinking of leaders. Denied some EU economic aid in 2015, Burundi simply took cash from elsewhere in its budget.[fn]Crisis Group Briefings N°s 79, Russia and the Separatists, op. cit., p. 2; N°111, Burundi: Peace Sacrificed?, 29 May 2015, p. 3.Hide Footnote

A study found that 22 UN targeted sanctions regimes led to an increase in corruption and criminality in 69 per cent of cases and strengthening of authoritarian rule in 54 per cent, while only 22 per cent could be broadly classed as successful.[fn]Thomas Biersteker et al., “The Effectiveness of United Nations Targeted Sanctions”, The Targeted Sanctions Consortium, November 2013, p. 17. See also Sue Eckert, “The Role of Sanctions”, in The UN Security Council, op. cit., pp. 413-439.Hide Footnote  Crisis Group typically emphasises that sanctions are only worthwhile policy tools if embedded in a wider political strategy, have a clear purpose, enjoy sufficient multilateral support to be effective and are tied to clear conditions for their lifting.

The risk of applying sanctions without strong political messaging on goals beca­me clear in tense periods of the Iran nuclear negotiations. Crisis Group warned:

Critical differences exist between how policymakers in Washington and Brussels on the one hand and Tehran on the other view and interpret the sanctions regime. … the West views it as an instrument of coercive diplomacy, primarily designed to pressure Tehran into curtailing its nuclear activities … Iran sees it, and indeed the nuclear issue as a whole, as a thinly disguised pretext to undermine the regime.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East Report N°138, Spider Web: The Making and Unmaking of Iran Sanctions, 25 February 2013, p. 39.Hide Footnote

While the Iranian leadership has not completely shaken off its suspicions of Western intentions, improved communication over the aims of sanctions after 2013 helped make a deal feasible.

In sum, threats of international justice and sanctions may nudge political actors away from escalation but must be tied to a path back from violence.[fn]A partial exception in the sanctions field are arms embargoes, which may limit the deadliness of a war but are porous.Hide Footnote  They should be used sparingly and pointedly.

It is less clear whether military force can be applied in a controlled fashion. Crisis Group does not object in principle to use of force. It has advocated that the U.S. retain its forces and even conduct further military activities in Afghanistan as part of a broader strategy of balancing and engaging with the Taliban in recent years. However, it has also raised concerns about many recent efforts to resolve escalating conflicts by military means in the absence of an overarching political strategy. It warned in 2011 in Libya that “Western calls for military intervention of one kind or another are perilous and potentially counterproductive”. After NATO’s air campaign began, it argued for a ceasefire and search for political settlement, because Qadhafi’s fall could be followed by “a potentially prolonged vacuum that could have grave political and security implications for Libya’s neighbours as well as aggravate an already serious humanitarian crisis”. Recently, it said the Saudi-led operation in Yemen “did more to terrorise civilians than to harm the Huthis”.[fn]Crisis Group Impact Note, “Pushing for a U-Turn in Afghanistan”, 2015; Media Releases, “A Ceasefire and Negotiations the Right Way to Resolve the Libya Crisis”, 10 March 2011 and “Libya: Achieving a Ceasefire, Moving Toward Legitimate Government”, 13 May 2011; and Middle East Report N°167, Yemen: Is Peace Possible?, 9 February 2016, p. 4.Hide Footnote

The arguments against military interventions are as old as thought about warfare: once underway, initially limited campaigns tend to take on their own logic, strategic goals change, and violence can breed resistance that can itself escalate dangerously. Crisis Group thus often urges actors that insist on military action to limit its duration (as in calls for a Libyan ceasefire) and link it to political goals that targets can understand. In Yemen, for example, it urged the Saudis to “communicate specific security requirements” to help end their campaign.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Yemen: Is Peace Possible?, op. cit., p. iv.Hide Footnote

It is also necessary to consider the political implications of covert operations and support to proxy groups, common tools for big powers in recent crises. The U.S. and its allies have given covert support to Syrian rebels and Kurdish groups in Iraq. This is sometimes seen as a limited option, involving few or no (declared) boots on the ground and relatively inexpensive. Yet, it has unintended effects, such as empowering Kurds against the state, exacerbating Baghdad’s challenge to restore a national order and “giving the Kurds not only greater military capability, but also diplomatic cover”. Supposedly trustworthy militias can collaborate with more radical forces. Outside actors may not view such actions as limited: Russia reacted to U.S. and Arab covert support in Syria with its own direct intervention in 2015.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East Report N°158, Arming Iraq’s Kurds: Fighting IS, Inviting Conflict, 12 May 2015, p. 25. “Coalition members see arming the Kurds as a quick security fix, divorced from broader political considerations”, ibid. Jeremy Shapiro (ex-U.S. official), “Obama’s Syria Failure is a Perfect Case Study in How Bad Foreign Policy is Made”, Vox World, 16 March 2016.Hide Footnote  Even when using covert means, governments must recall the political goals they are meant to serve and the diplomatic messages they send.

Military deployments can make immediate and medium-term contributions to peace in many situations, but it is necessary to be realistic about their limits.

Similar considerations apply to another form of military action not always classed as “coercive”: deployment of multilateral peace operations and stabilisation missions. Mandating these is common in post-Cold War conflict resolution. Over 100,000 troops and police are under UN command worldwide, with entities such as the AU, EU and NATO heavily involved. UN officials warn against deploying troops where there is “no peace to keep”, but there is a trend in the Security Council and elsewhere to do just that.[fn]See the data gathered at www.peaceoperationsreview.org. John Karlsrud, “The UN at War: The Consequences of Peace-Enforcement Mandates for the UN Peacekeeping Operations in the CAR, the DRC and Mali”, Third World Quarterly, vol.36 (1), pp. 40-54.Hide Footnote  The AU and African sub-regional bodies have pushed for early deployments to stabilise countries in crisis, including Mali and CAR. There is evidence that deploying peacekeepers leads to significant reduction in violence, but it has risks: African troops have come dangerously close, particularly in CAR, to being a conflict party. The risks are also high for peacekeepers in such cases: the UN has lost over 60 to insurgent attacks in Mali since 2013.[fn]See on statistical evidence in favour of peace operations, Lisa Hultman, Jacob Kathman and Megan Shannon, “United Nations Peacekeeping and Civilian Protection in War”, American Journal of Political Science, vol. 57 (4), pp. 875-891; on risks, Somini Sengupta and Alan Cowell, “Chad, Amid Criticism, Will Pull Troops from Force in Central Africa”, The New York Times, 3 April 2014; on UN Mali casualties, Olga Abilova and Arthur Boutellis, “UN Peace Operations in Violent and Asymmetric Threat Environments”, International Peace Institute, March 2016.Hide Footnote

The long-term presence of peacekeepers can freeze political divisions rather than provide a framework for their resolution. The UN’s DRC mission has faced significant implementation challenges: “political agreements, military operations and attempts at reconstruction have all come up against the same problem … there is a lack of political will to implement agreements and organise indispensable reforms”. Crisis Group has emphasised that “peacekeeping is a tool, not a strategy”, and CAR requires far broader support. Operations often settle into a cycle of “haphazard crisis responses, contingent decisions, and unintended consequences” (otherwise known as dealing with “one damn thing after another”) and can lose strategic direction. In some cases, international forces end up cooperating with governments that lack popular support or target their own citizens.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°91, Eastern Congo: Why Stabilisation Failed, 4 October 2012, p. 13; Africa Report N°219, The Central African Crisis: From Predation to Stabilisation, 17 June 2014. Richard Gowan, “The Security Council and Peacekeeping”, in The Security Council, op. cit., p. 752. For Darfur, Chad and Côte d’Ivoire cases, see Colum Lynch “See No Evil, Speak No Evil: U.N. Covers Up for Sudan’s Bad Behavior in Darfur”, Foreign Policy (online), 21 November 2014; and Giulia Piccolino and John Karlsrud, “Withering Consent, but Mutual Dependency: UN Peace Operations and African Assertiveness”, Conflict Security And Development vol. 11(4), pp. 467-472. Recurrent revelations of sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers exacerbate the problem. Marco Odello and Rósín Burke, “Between Immunity and Impunity: Peacekeeping and Sexual Abuses and Violence”, The International Journal of Human Rights, vol. 20(6), 2016, pp. 839-853.Hide Footnote  Military deployments can make immediate and medium-term contributions to peace in many situations, but it is necessary to be realistic about their limits.

C. Incentives

If facilitation is complicated and coercive strategies can backfire, can outsiders respond to looming crises by offering political actors incentives to avoid or limit violence? These can take many forms, including proposals to win over leaders under pressure. The initially successful 2011 political transition plan for Yemen specifically protected President Ali Abdullah Saleh from domestic prosecution. In Darfur, Crisis Group suggested the Security Council could suspend ICC pursuit of President Bashir if Sudan adhered to its promises to end violence and promote reform in the region.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East Report N°125, Yemen: Enduring Conflicts, Threatened Transition, 3 July 2012, p. 1; Africa Report N°152, Sudan: Justice, Peace and the ICC, 17 July 2009. Saleh faced a simultaneous sanctions threat; the UN referred transitional justice questions to the Yemeni national dialogue conference, rather than endorsing a blanket amnesty (Crisis Group communication with UN official, 4 May 2016).Hide Footnote  More broadly, incentives fall into three categories: (i) offers of specific assistance to implement political agreements to avoid violence; (ii) greater economic and political assistance to reduce short- and medium-term risks and tensions; and (iii) efforts to help factions come to long-term agreements on the division of resources or political responsibilities to lower their interests in violence.

Help for implementation of political agreements to avoid or end violence can range from specific proposals to back new political mechanisms to broader efforts to support processes such as disarmament, security sector reform or local forms of transitional justice. In many mediations, such structures are agreed on for political reasons without reference to costs. The South Sudan peace deal, which, as noted, involved a convoluted high-level process, demanded “more than twenty new institutions, [including] the cantonment of tens of thousands of fighters and … other costly provisions”. China helped resolve one obstacle by offering electrical generators for cantonments, but donors are wary of such projects, as hard to evaluate and frequently open to corruption and waste. The head of the UN Peacebuilding Support Office has complained, “in 2013, … support to legitimate politics, security, and justice systems represented only 16 per cent (or $6.8 billion) of the $42 billion in gross development assistance for 31 conflict-affected countries”.[fn]Casie Copeland, “South Sudan’s Peace Needs More than Tents and Generators”, Crisis Group In Pursuit of Peace Blog, 23 February 2016. Oscar Fernandez Taranco, “A New Deal or a New Global Partnership for Conflict-Affected States?”, Africa in Focus, 30 March 2016.Hide Footnote

In South Sudan and other cases, donors need to overcome qualms and support post-conflict mechanisms to help solidify peace agreements (while assessing which mechanisms are truly useful and which may be marginal). Nonetheless, as in other cases of capacity building, it is necessary to recognise that these are inherently political, not solely technical processes. Efforts to disarm or reform corrupt militaries should take into account factions and patronage networks that have grown up inside them and who loses from reform. In cases like Ukraine, though “the inter-penetration of the corrupt political class and super-rich oligarchy is the main obstacle to reform”, it is necessary to offer financial aid to keep the state afloat.[fn]Andrew Wilson, “Survival of the Richest: How Oligarchs Block Reform in Ukraine”, European Council on Foreign Relations, April 2016, p. 3.Hide Footnote

Such economic assistance may at times seem to do little more than buy time and make limited contributions to lasting resolutions. However, outsiders may be able to play a positive, if less direct, role by helping antagonistic leaders and factions identify long-term mechanisms for distributing resources. This is an important element of creating a path away from conflict: if actors agree on possible economic bargains, they may chart political ways forward together.

Resolving Crisis In the Middle East: An Iranian Perspective


Crisis Group, as noted, has for example advocated a push for national consensus on economic governance in Libya, which relies entirely on energy sales, and “the institutions that manage production, sale and export of oil and gas and the wealth they generate … remain the bedrock of what is left of the state and a key to its control”.[fn]Crisis Group Report, The Prize, op. cit., p. 1.Hide Footnote  As a result, much of that war is driven by contests for physical and political control over these assets and institutions. At the same time, a sustainable unity government “is a prerequisite to tackling the complex issues around security and management of the hydrocarbon economy”. It is potentially a point of leverage for outsiders that framing political discussions in terms of protecting and sharing economic gains may persuade divided parties to compromise.

Crisis Group has applied similar logic, in different circumstances, to the South China Sea, where competition for underwater energy reserves may lead to clashes. A mechanism is needed to reduce immediate risk of unintended confrontation, while collaborative efforts are explored to exploit the resources. Economic planning may help China and its neighbours envisage a compromise to share control.[fn]See Crisis Group Asia Report N°275, Stirring up the South China Sea (IV): Oil in Troubled Waters, 26 January 2016.Hide Footnote

While early action inevitably centres on short-term issues, policymakers trying to avert conflict should start thinking about long-term end-states they can help local actors imagine and achieve. If this sounds hubristic, one must keep in mind that leaders and their followers may refuse assistance if they believe they will end up in a “wrong peace”, ie, a situation in which their fundamental security and interests will be compromised. Sketching realistic terms for a “good peace” (a situation in which all sides feel secure with the outcome) may help reframe leaders’ risk analyses and calculations, though this may take a long time.

In 2006, Crisis Group proposed “delayed limited enrichment” to resolve tensions over Iran’s nuclear program that could include “a several-year delay in … [Iran’s] enrichment program, major limitations on its initial size and scope, and a highly intrusive inspections regime”. That early Crisis Group concept, unpopular with both sides at the time, proved, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif recently acknowledged, to be a major contribution to the deal concluded in 2015.[fn]Crisis Group Middle East Report N°51, Iran: Is There a Way out of the Nuclear Impasse?, 23 February 2006, p. i. “Resolving Crisis in the Middle East: an Iranian Perspective”, Australia National University, 15 March 2016.Hide Footnote

D. Bringing Policy Tools Together

None of the tools available for early action are perfect or even consistently useful. There is a tendency for policymakers to adopt what organisational theorists call the “garbage can” theory of response to crisis: throwing whatever policy tools they have to hand at it and hoping that something will work. This is particularly pernicious where, in the absence of effective framework diplomacy, multiple states and organisations are simultaneously bidding to manage a looming crisis. Different agencies and bureaucracies in powerful states such as the U.S. or diffuse bodies such as the UN often follow confused or internally contradictory policies, despite repeated calls for more integrated approaches. Looking at American policy towards Kurdish groups in Syria, Iraq and Turkey for example, Crisis Group has argued that the U.S. should “unify and clarify its messaging, which has not been understood by many actors in the field, in part because it has not been consistent”.[fn]Michael Lipson, “A ‘Garbage Can’ Model of UN Peacekeeping”, Global Governance, vol. 13 (1), 2007, pp. 79-97. Crisis Group Briefing, Steps Toward Stabilising, 0p. cit., p. 9.Hide Footnote

Even if many calls for greater coherence in crisis response have gone unheeded, it is worth repeating their basic message. Governments and international organisations are likely to perform better in a crisis if they establish clear central planning and oversight functions early to guide overall strategy and can also communicate their strategic goals clearly and explicitly to allies and opponents. In every organisation there are reasons why these tasks are difficult, but in an era when crisis management requires so much framework diplomacy to establish even minimal levels of cooperation, individual players must be clear over their own goals.

V. Conclusion

Though this report has laid out a framework for approaching early warning and early action in an increasingly complex international environment, it must be recognised that all forms of diplomatic engagement are risky and have unpredictable results. It is easy to be pessimistic, but letting conflicts escalate is often risker than addressing them early. Strategic, well-designed engagement predicated on the discipline of close analysis, development of anticipatory relationships and construction of framework diplomacy may all help prevent or limit conflict. As Crisis Group President Guéhenno has noted, “we should approach our responsibilities with humility and set clear limits to our agenda. We must be modest, but we must not be defeatist”.[fn]Jean-Marie Guéhenno, The Fog of Peace: a Memoir of International Peacekeeping in the 21st Century (Washington, 2015), p. 317.Hide Footnote  To the extent resources permit, governments and regional and wider international organisations should thus invest in four key areas:

  • Knowledge and relationships. In addition to economic, demographic and other indicators, policymakers, working directly or through others, should develop the closest possible knowledge of troubled countries’ political systems and those actors who could play essential roles in shaping the outcomes of future crises. Approaches include (i) cultivating channels for frank discussions with leaders and elites; (ii) close monitoring of shifts in political alignments; (iii) deepening contacts with militaries and security services to understand their political positions; and (iv) tracking tensions in volatile peripheral areas.
  • Framework diplomacy. Both in anticipation of and in the immediate run-up to potential crises, policymakers should place early emphasis on constructing diplomatic frameworks and mechanisms among regional and wider powers to discuss policy options and reduce tensions. The faster frameworks can be constructed, whether under the aegis of international organisations or ad hoc, and the more robust the discussions they permit, the more likely they can provide a platform for resolving or at least managing an otherwise divisive crisis.
  • Strategic planning and communication. Where powers or organisations choose to engage directly in a crisis, they must define their goals early and clarify them to both domestic and external players rapidly and explicitly. This is especially true when overt or covert military options are in play.
  • Creating pathways to peace. While decision-makers can use a wide range of tools to try to resolve a crisis, these should be paired with ideas and proposals for a mutually-beneficial peace agreement that can offer a long-term horizon for antagonists to aim at. Outsiders can use back channels, second-track diplomacy and other means to define peace parameters. To do this, however, they need the mix of analysis and relationships required in the first place for effective early warning; indeed, it is hard to know how a conflict can be avoided or halted without a thorough sense of how it begins. Effective preventive diplomacy begins with getting deep inside the dynamic of a conflict – a process that involves grinding analytical work, political risk-taking and uncertain success, and yet can, if done right, create a basis for avoiding unnecessary crises.

Brussels, 22 June 2016

A man attends a mass to commemorate the third anniversary of the beginning of the protests against the government of President Daniel Ortega, at the Church of San Miguel in the Nicaraguan town of Masaya, on 18 April 2021. Maynor VALENZUELA / AFP

The Risks of a Rigged Election in Nicaragua

With Nicaraguans heading to the polls in November, the government is already trying to engineer the outcome in its favour. An unfair ballot could spark unrest and a violent crackdown. External actors should push for reforms and dialogue with the opposition while eschewing counterproductive sanctions.

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What’s new? Three years after the government responded to massive protests with a lethal crackdown, killing hundreds and displacing thousands, Nicaragua approaches its November presidential and legislative elections in a climate of extreme polarisation. State persecution of the fragmented opposition and fears of a skewed election persist amid a prolonged economic slump.

Why does it matter? Although protests have waned since 2019, the grievances underlying the uprising remain unaddressed. Disquiet has grown over President Daniel Ortega’s remoteness and increasingly authoritarian rule. A fraught election could further isolate the government internationally and rekindle domestic unrest.

What should be done? The government should reverse reforms that tilt the playing field and agree with the opposition on measures to ensure a fair poll, while committing to political coexistence after the elections. Foreign powers should push Ortega to run a clean vote and encourage dialogue and compromise on both sides.

Executive Summary

Three years after mass protests brought Nicaragua’s historical rifts back to the surface, the standoff between the government and a resolute but factious opposition continues. In 2018, President Daniel Ortega quelled unrest through a crackdown that left at least 328 dead, chiefly protesters, and drove more than 100,000 to flee, mostly to neighbouring Costa Rica. An arsenal of laws, controls and police operations since then have largely extinguished public dissent, although online condemnation of the government persists. Establishing a level playing field for the polls in November will require urgent modification of recent one-sided electoral reforms and agreement on conditions acceptable to all sides. Without these, opponents and foreign powers are likely to brand the elections as rigged, potentially stirring renewed unrest and repression. While the government’s intransigence as well as competing priorities have led several countries to scale back diplomatic engagement in Nicaragua, the U.S., European Union and Latin American states should all press for a fairer election and support an accord on political coexistence, while holding back on new sanctions, which are unlikely to sway Ortega.

Nicaragua remains a divided and troubled land. In the Ortega government’s eyes, its efforts to turn the page on the 2018 mayhem have largely prevailed. But even if the past year has seen virtually no protests, the government has not regained its former public support. Only a third of the population now backs the president. Discontent simmers even within the ranks of the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front, with Ortega cutting an increasingly isolated figure surrounded by a narrowing circle of relatives and aides. COVID-19 claimed the lives of over a dozen senior party figures in 2020, while authorities were downplaying the virus and burying the dead in secret. The economy contracted again in 2020, marking a three-year slump that the pandemic and two back-to-back hurricanes have deepened.

In response to these adverse conditions, the government has relied on repression to keep the opposition at bay. The electoral authorities recently ruled that the party representing the civic and political movements that form the opposition National Coalition could not compete in the forthcoming polls. New laws threaten to jail those criticising authorities with what the government calls “fake news”, or anyone who took part in the 2018 protests and wishes to campaign in the forthcoming presidential and legislative elections.

Opposition groups also face internal struggles. Due to personal rivalries and ideological differences, civic and political movements are now divided into two blocs. Severely weakened, they appear unable to offer a cohesive alternative to the government, and they failed to form an alliance for the election by 12 May, the deadline set by electoral authorities. Around 60 per cent of Nicaraguans do not identify with any party, according to surveys. Even so, the risks of an egregiously unfair election – which, given recent experience in Nicaragua, might feature miscounted votes, harassment of opposition politicians and the prohibition of their parties – is likely to trigger public ire. A contested poll would also deepen the country’s international isolation and aggravate its economic distress.

While the need for changes to the electoral system is widely recognised inside and outside the country, there is little agreement on what reform is essential. Root-and-branch proposals for electoral and constitutional reform from the opposition as well as calls for comprehensive international monitoring of the polls contrast with the government’s express intentions to make only minor alterations. Furthermore, the recent appointment of government loyalists to the Supreme Electoral Council and the approval of a controversial, amended electoral law underlined just how reluctant the government is to cede control over election management. The Organization of American States set the end of May as a deadline to undertake various largely technical reforms, but some, like cleaning up the voter register, already appear impracticable due to time constraints. Channels of communication between the government and foreign powers are largely moribund despite recent efforts, reportedly spearheaded by the Holy See, to rekindle some diplomatic ties.

Washington’s reliance in recent years on sanctions as a means of browbeating the Nicaraguan government has been ineffective, if not counterproductive, with Ortega responding by adopting harder-line positions on domestic dissent and alleged foreign interference. More robust diplomacy and less reliance on punitive measures, particularly from the U.S., are urgently needed. The domestic opposition also needs to come together and formulate clear electoral demands and a greater spirit of compromise in order to elicit meaningful concessions from Ortega.

There is still a small window of opportunity for the government and opposition to set the stage for a credible election and avoid an escalation of tensions. Ideally, the months ahead would see national political forces not only agree on acceptable conditions for a level playing field in the elections, including revising the composition of the Supreme Electoral Council and inviting unrestricted international observation, but also set the stage for a post-election effort to reach the terms of peaceful political coexistence. Backed by foreign partners, this process could also aim to address the unresolved legacies of revolution and war that underpin a great deal of today’s political bitterness. Achieving a fair and peaceful election should be the first crucial step on the way to ensuring that Nicaragua does not soon find itself consumed by another outbreak of political violence.

Guatemala City/Bogotá/Brussels, 20 May 2021

I. Introduction

Three decades after the civil war that followed the 1979 revolution led by the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), Nicaragua is still among the hemisphere’s poorest nations. It is also still haunted by the political divides of the post-revolutionary period. After losing power in 1990, President Daniel Ortega, a Sandinista hero, became a champion of the poor by attacking free-market policies applied by the governments succeeding him. He regained the presidency in 2006.[fn]In the aftermath of the 1979 revolution, Ortega served as coordinator of a governing board and then as president after the FSLN won the 1984 elections, before losing power in 1990 to Violeta Barrios de Chamorro. He then promised to “govern from below”, exploiting the Sandinistas’ social movements as well as its business empire, until he regained the presidency in 2006, partly due to divisions among liberal parties. In doing so, he managed to appeal both to the old Sandinista base and the contras, the counter-revolutionaries of the 1980s, who reportedly felt abandoned by their leaders. Ortega’s running mate in 2006, Jaime Morales Carazo, was a former contra. “From ‘Governing from Below’ to Governing Right Up at the Top”, Revista Envío, November 2006. Crisis Group interview, former Nicaraguan ambassador, Managua, 17 March 2021.Hide Footnote Once back in power, he oversaw rapid economic growth while also progressively filling state institutions with loyalists and hindering opposition participation in elections.[fn]Crisis Group Latin America Report N°72, A Road to Dialogue After Nicaragua’s Crushed Uprising, 19 December 2018.Hide Footnote Mounting discontent over his efforts to concentrate power erupted in April 2018 when protests – led by younger people and denounced by the government as an attempted coup – shook the country. A crackdown by security and para-police forces left at least 328 dead, mostly protesters.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

Nicaragua has seen little if any progress on electoral reform, other political issues or the protection of human rights.

The government twice embarked on negotiations with the protesters, along with business and civic organisations, aimed at bridging their differences. These efforts proved largely in vain, although the talks did manage to secure some access for international human rights organisations to the country in 2018 (they were later expelled) and the release of around 500 political prisoners in 2019.[fn]The first round of talks took place at the height of the crisis in 2018 and the second between March and May 2019. Crisis Group Latin America Report N°74, The Keys to Restarting Nicaragua’s Stalled Talks, 13 June 2019.Hide Footnote Intransigence on both sides and confused or unrealistic demands accounted for these failures.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote Since then, the country has seen little if any progress on electoral reform, other political issues or the protection of human rights.[fn]Crisis Group Commentary, “Coaxing Nicaragua Out of a Deadly Standoff”, 16 October 2019.Hide Footnote More than 100 people are reportedly still jailed for political reasons, and the government’s opponents face the constant threat of harassment, both in person and online, by police and government supporters.[fn]Nicaragua mantiene en la cárcel a 122 presos políticos, según un informe”, 100% Noticias, 8 May 2021; ¿Por qué la dictadura de Daniel Ortega y Rosario Murillo ha impuesto “casa por cárcel” y “Managua por cárcel” a opositores?”, La Prensa, 21 January 2021.Hide Footnote

Nicaragua’s crisis has also been moulded by regional events and foreign pressure.[fn]Tiziano Breda, “A Thaw or a Trap? Nicaragua’s Surprise Return to Negotiations”, Crisis Group Commentary, 6 March 2019.Hide Footnote Under the Trump administration, the U.S. placed the country in the same basket as Venezuela and Cuba due to Ortega’s close ideological, economic and political ties with these governments. Indeed, Ortega’s openness or resistance to opposition demands often tracked the wavering fortunes of his Venezuelan counterpart, Nicolás Maduro. As an illustration, in early 2019, when it briefly looked as if a U.S.-backed opposition challenge had some hope of toppling the president in Caracas, Ortega conceded to resuming dialogue with the Civic Alliance, an opposition umbrella organisation.[fn]Phil Gunson, “In Venezuela, a High-stakes Gambit”, Crisis Group Commentary, 24 January 2019; Robert Malley, “What We Heard in Caracas”, Crisis Group Commentary, 8 February 2019; Ivan Briscoe, “Will Pressure Bring Down Venezuela’s Government?”, Crisis Group Commentary, 9 April 2019.Hide Footnote For the most part, however, U.S. sanctions and strongly worded Organization of American States (OAS) resolutions – informed by the same “maximum pressure” strategy used in Venezuela – have proven ineffective and occasionally counterproductive in Nicaragua. They seem to have increased both Ortega’s sense of victimhood and his reluctance to contemplate any diminution of his power.

Nicaragua’s November presidential and legislative elections are thus rapidly approaching in a tense, polarised climate, with the government seemingly unwilling to meet the opposition on a level playing field. This report assesses the dangers that may result from a flawed election, including the prospect of worsening international isolation and renewed public unrest. It also identifies steps that could still be taken to restore electoral credibility and shape a more stable post-election modus vivendi between government and opposition forces. It is based on more than 45 interviews with Sandinistas, opposition and private-sector representatives, diplomats, journalists, election experts, political analysts and human rights defenders, including more than a dozen interviews held during a visit to Managua and other Nicaraguan cities in mid-March 2021. Government officials and National Assembly members rejected or did not respond to Crisis Group’s requests for meetings.

II. An Unresolved Crisis

Nicaragua’s political standoff seems stuck in place, with neither side showing either sufficient momentum or strength to break the deadlock. Through a series of new laws, the government has narrowed the space for political expression and paved the way for a renewed crackdown on dissent, should it decide that is necessary. It is also trying, not altogether successfully, to coax back business and other allies that it alienated in the 2018 tumult, and facing a public that is deeply concerned about the economy in the wake of a prolonged contraction of GDP, worsened by the pandemic. On the other side of the nation’s political divide, the myriad parties and movements that compose the political opposition seem to have lost their appeal and are struggling to unify around a common electoral strategy.

A. The Government’s Crackdown

Even before the April 2018 unrest, the Ortega government had grown accustomed to silencing critics rather than addressing their demands. Since returning to power in 2007, Ortega has progressively concentrated power and narrowed the space for political competition, fuelling sporadic outbursts of public discontent.[fn]Among the leading organisers of protests since 2007 is the campesino movement, whose members have marched several times against the government’s plan to dig a Grand Canal across Nicaragua. “Nicaragua reprime las protestas contra el Canal”, El País, 30 November 2016; Crisis Group Report, A Road to Dialogue After Nicaragua’s Crushed Uprising, op. cit.; “From ‘Governing from Below’ to Governing Right Up at the Top”, Revista Envío, November 2006.Hide Footnote The March 2018 proposal of Vice President Rosario Murillo (Ortega’s wife) to “regulate” the use of social media and poor government handling of a massive wildfire in the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve a month later riled the public.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, protest movement leader, 18 February 2021. “Daniel Ortega pretende regular las redes sociales en Nicaragua”, El País, 14 March 2018; “Jóvenes marcharon por Indio Maíz a pesar de represión policial”, Confidencial, 13 April 2018.Hide Footnote But it was the plan to reform the Nicaraguan Institute of Social Security by reducing pensions and increasing contributions that prompted mass protests led by students and supported by various groups, including former government allies like the Catholic Church and the private sector.[fn]Crisis Group Report, A Road to Dialogue After Nicaragua’s Crushed Uprising, op. cit.Hide Footnote Talks between government and opposition failed to reach a negotiated solution. Eventually, the authorities opted to assert control over the country by force, dismantling protesters’ barricades by July, ruling street marches illegal in September and detaining hundreds of opposition activists.[fn]A December report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) identified at least 1,614 political arrests between April 2018 and May 2020. Crisis Group Report, The Keys to Restarting Nicaragua’s Stalled Talks, op. cit. “Personas privadas de libertad en Nicaragua”, IACHR, 5 October 2020.Hide Footnote

Since mid-2019, the government’s strategy has become less blatantly coercive and more carefully targeted. Politically motivated arrests continue, although imprisonment is mostly temporary.[fn]Personas privadas de libertad en Nicaragua”, op. cit.Hide Footnote As of early May, Nicaraguan civil society groups reported 122 political prisoners still in jail.[fn]These 122 include ten detained before 2018. “Nicaragua mantiene en la cárcel a 122 presos políticos, según un informe”, 100% Noticias, 8 May 2021.Hide Footnote Virtually all of them are being or have been tried.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, Nicaraguan human rights defender, 5 February 2021.Hide Footnote The way in which the government charges political targets has also changed. “Now [prosecutors] don’t accuse them of terrorism or other serious crimes, but rather petty crimes”, according to a Nicaraguan human rights defender.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, Nicaraguan human rights defender, 29 January 2021. “¿A cuántos presos políticos ha condenado por delitos comunes el régimen este año?, La Prensa, 20 March 2021.Hide Footnote The Nicaraguan Blue and White Observatory, an independent civic platform, reported 1,797 attacks on opponents in 2020, the vast majority of which involved threats and harassment by the security forces or para-police.[fn]Paramilitares del régimen siguen amenazando de muerte”, Confidencial, 14 February 2021.Hide Footnote

A police patrol, from whose rear-view mirror hangs a ruling party’s flag, monitors Granada’s central park. 14 March 2021. CRISISGROUP/Tiziano Breda

Locals and diplomats believe that the government has “eyes and ears everywhere”, and uses undercover agents, local sympathisers, ex-convicts and even parking valets to conduct surveillance.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, priest, shop owner, diplomat, security guard, taxi driver, academic, Granada, Managua and Catarina, 14-19 March 2021.Hide Footnote Dozens of prominent opponents report that they live under constant intimidation, with police almost permanently stationed in front of their houses or following them in the street, preventing them from moving about freely.[fn]¿Por qué la dictadura de Daniel Ortega y Rosario Murillo ha impuesto ‘casa por cárcel’ y ‘Managua por cárcel’ a opositores?”, La Prensa, 22 January 2021.Hide Footnote

The government has also enacted new laws that muzzle dissent and impede opposition electoral participation.

The government has also enacted new laws that muzzle dissent and impede opposition electoral participation. The Foreign Agents Law, based on similar Russian and Venezuelan laws, compels all people and organisations receiving funds from abroad to register as “foreign agents” at the interior ministry.[fn]As a result, two NGOs, the Nicaragua Chapter of PEN International and the Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation, decided to cease operations in early February, while many others receiving outside funds tried to bypass the control by receiving bank transfers abroad and opted not to register. The Articulación de Movimientos Sociales, a group of more than 60 Nicaraguan NGOs, filed appeals against the law before the Supreme Court. Crisis Group telephone interview, Nicaraguan activist in Costa Rica, 1 February 2021. “Interponen recurso por inconstitucionalidad contra Ley de Agentes Extranjeros”, Confidencial, 3 December 2020.Hide Footnote Another law bars from candidacy any Nicaraguan found to have jeopardised national sovereignty, including by leading or financing a coup, altering the constitutional order, or inciting terrorist acts and foreign intervention – all categories that can be stretched to penalise political adversaries.[fn]The government has dubbed the 2018 uprising a “failed coup”. “Nicaragua: Law Threatens Free, Fair Elections”, Human Rights Watch, 22 December 2020.Hide Footnote A third sets jail terms for anyone who leaks government information or produces or shares “fake” or distorted news, without saying what that phrase means.[fn]Nicaragua approves ‘cybercrimes’ law, alarming rights groups”, AP, 27 October 2020.Hide Footnote Congress has approved life sentences for perpetrators of vaguely defined “hate crimes” and extended the length of provisional detention from 48 hours to 90 days.[fn]Nicaraguan parliament approves controversial hate crimes law”, Reuters, 10 November 2020. “Detained without charges for up to 90 days in Nicaragua”, Confidencial, 30 January 2021.Hide Footnote Most recently, Sandinista deputies incorporated several of these bills’ provisions in an amended electoral law and tasked the police, instead of electoral authorities, with authorising campaign rallies.[fn]The police have not granted a single permit for an opposition rally since September 2018, when the law made it mandatory to request one. “Ortega declares marches ‘illegal’ and imposes a police state”, Confidencial, 1 October 2018.Hide Footnote

Whether or not these laws comply in whole or in part with international standards on paper, the concern is that they will be used to hound opponents.[fn]UN and IACHR officials assess that, on paper, the life sentence amendment and the cybercrime law comply with international standards on those matters. Crisis Group interviews and telephone interviews, IACHR and UN High Commissioner on Human Rights representatives, diplomats, Managua, February and March 2021.Hide Footnote Sandinistas argue that other countries apply most of these measures to avoid misuse of foreign funds or prevent the spread of disinformation. They say such is their intention as well.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Sandinista former police commander, March 2021.Hide Footnote But Nicaraguan and foreign observers suggest that their purpose is to instil fear without necessarily driving a fresh wave of judicial persecution.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, diplomats, civil society representatives and human rights defenders, February and March 2021.Hide Footnote “More than punishment, what the government wants to impose is terror”, a former Nicaraguan deputy minister said.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, 23 February 2021.Hide Footnote One electoral expert argued that the goal is “to convince the people that it is not worth voting”.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, 29 January 2021.Hide Footnote

According to opposition activists, the laws display Ortega’s determination not to repeat the “mistake” of 1990, when the landmark election at the civil war’s end led to defeat for him and his party.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, civil society and opposition representatives, March 2021.Hide Footnote In light of domestic and international repudiation of the crackdown on protests in 2018, losing the poll could be a “life-threatening risk”, a Managua-based diplomat observed, adding that the government is now better prepared to handle unrest than it was in 2018.[fn]Crisis Group interview, European diplomat, Managua, 15 March 2021.Hide Footnote

In theory, Ortega, his family and his allies could face criminal prosecution on charges relating to human rights abuses and corruption, should they lose power. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts has already indicated that the methods used to repress street protests may be considered crimes against humanity.[fn]The Group is known by its Spanish acronym, GIEI, for Grupo Interdisciplinario de Expertos Independientes. It was granted access to the country thanks to an agreement struck in the first round of talks between government and opposition in 2018. “Informe sobre los hechos de violencia ocurridos entre el 18 de abril y el 30 de mayo de 2018”, GIEI, February 2019.Hide Footnote Media investigations have also shed light on alleged corruption rackets involving Ortega and his family, who reportedly built a business empire in telecommunications, energy and other sectors by diverting part of around $5 billion in Venezuelan funds received by Nicaragua between 2007 and 2017, mostly through the Albanisa holding company.[fn]The Nicaraguan government responded to one round of Albanisa-related sanctions affecting Ortega’s family by saying they were “interventionist policies” that would hit “above all the most vulnerable, the poorest”. “Las sanciones de EE.UU. causan daño a ‘los más pobres’ Nicaragua, según el gobierno”, EFE, 2 May 2019. The U.S. Treasury has in fact sanctioned several entities and officials for their alleged involvement in money-laundering activities (see Appendix C). In 2019, it designated for penalties both of Albanisa’s main stakeholders, the Venezuelan oil and gas company PDVSA (holding 51 per cent of its actions) and Petronic, the company that distributes Nicaragua’s oil (holding the remaining 49 per cent). “Ortega media enrich his family, entrench his hold on Nicaragua”, Reuters, 23 November 2020; “Treasury Sanctions Venezuela’s State-Owned Oil Company Petroleos de Venezuela, S.A.”, U.S. Treasury Department, 28 January 2019; “La bonanza de Daniel Ortega se llama Venezuela”, Connectas, 7 June 2015.Hide Footnote

B. Ortega’s Struggle to Win Back Allies

Discouraging opposition voters and clamping down on dissent are only part of Ortega’s political repertoire. He has also reportedly heightened pressure on the private sector in an apparent bid to strong-arm it into resuming a working relationship with his government, including via a tax reform that raised businesses’ social security contributions – along the lines of the bill that triggered the April 2018 uprising – as well as a “customer protection” law that virtually prohibits banks from denying services to anyone, including relatives or acquaintances of officials sanctioned by foreign countries.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, diplomats, Managua, 15 March 2021. “Empresarios de Nicaragua advierten que reforma a ley de los consumidores compromete al sistema financiero”, CNN, 4 February 2021.Hide Footnote “Ortega wants to co-opt the private sector into restoring relations” along the lines of the “dialogue and consensus model” with business that fell apart in 2018, a Nicaraguan economist said.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, 23 February 2021.Hide Footnote

The government is reportedly approaching private-sector organisations bilaterally to pursue this objective. Ortega has even alluded to a new “great national dialogue” with the private sector, but only after the elections.[fn]Crisis Group email interview, Nicaraguan journalist, 28 January 2021. “Presidente Ortega afirma que habrá diálogo en Nicaragua hasta después de comicios y evita hablar de reforma electoral”, CNN, 14 January 2021. “Daniel Ortega ‘sueña’ con regresar a esquema de pacto, dicen opositores tras propuesta de diálogo nacional”, 100% Noticias, 12 January 2021.Hide Footnote While one representative confirmed that members of the construction and industry unions would be eager to negotiate with the authorities, most business groups insist that a political settlement between government and opposition is a precondition for resuming friendly relations.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, diplomat and private-sector representative, Managua, 15 and 19 March 2021. “Cosep: Diálogo con Ortega, si cumple acuerdos de 2019 y reforma electoral”, Confidencial, 20 January 2021.Hide Footnote

Ortega also aims to win back disgruntled Sandinistas by stressing his government’s valour in resisting alleged U.S.-backed “coup-mongers”.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, European diplomats, Managua, 15 March 2021.Hide Footnote But the party is undergoing both generational and leadership turmoil.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, political expert, 25 March 2021.Hide Footnote Over 60 high-level FSLN members died in 2020 alone – including Edén Pastora, known as “Commander Zero”, and Ortega intimates such as former Managua Mayor Dionisio Marenco – at least fifteen of them from COVID-19.[fn]The departed include former ministers, deputies, party political secretaries, mayors and security officials, among others. Paul Oquist, an adviser to Ortega, died of COVID-19 in April 2021. Pastora’s nickname dates back to the August 1978 seizure of the Nicaraguan National Palace by a group of FSLN combatants, all of whom used numbers as codenames, with Pastora as Zero. “La covid-19 arrasa en las filas del FSLN”, Confidencial, 8 June 2020; “Edén Pastora, ‘Commander Zero’ in Nicaragua, dies at 83”, The New York Times, 16 June 2020; “US-born aide to Ortega dies in Nicaragua”, Associated Press, 13 April 2021.Hide Footnote Even before the pandemic, Ortega’s inner circle was shrinking. “The Carmen [the president’s residence] progressively emptied of advisers and filled with ‘courtiers’”, said a former Nicaraguan ambassador in describing the phenomenon.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Nicaraguan former ambassador, Managua, 17 March 2021.Hide Footnote

Against this backdrop, conflict over succession may intensify. “Those of us who know history are aware that we owe much to Daniel [...] but youngsters who did not live the struggle think differently”, said a shop owner in a Sandinista neighbourhood in Managua.[fn]Crisis Group interview, shop owner, San Sebastián, 16 March 2021.Hide Footnote Rosario Murillo, the vice president and first lady, reportedly aims to assume the reins, but she seems to enjoy less support. According to a former Nicaraguan diplomat: “People fear, respect and love Daniel, but they only fear Rosario”.[fn]Rosario Murillo has been the primary government patron of the Sandinista Youth. This group played a crucial role in cracking down on protesters and actively supports party initiatives across the country, but it is not involved in the decision-making process. Crisis Group telephone interview, Sandinista Youth representative, 18 February 2021; Crisis Group interview, Nicaraguan former ambassador, Managua, 17 March 2021.Hide Footnote

A passer-by walks in front of a wall where protesters’ slogans were mostly covered by pro-government writings, in Managua. 15 March 2021. CRISISGROUP/Tiziano Breda

C. The Effects of COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has added a further challenge to President Ortega’s efforts to regain public affection. For months, the government imposed no mobility restrictions – instead promoting mass events and encouraging tourists to visit the country – and managed coronavirus-related data with secrecy, underreporting deaths and contagion figures.[fn]As of 11 May, the government recognised only 183 COVID-19 related deaths, but a civilian observatory reports at least 9,000 more deaths in 2020 than the annual average in the period 2015-2019. It surmises that many of these excess deaths are attributable to the virus. “MINSA oculta 8824 muertes atribuibles a covid-19, según datos de sobremortalidad”, Confidencial, 20 March 2021.Hide Footnote These moves reportedly sought to prevent panic and economic collapse, but they soon caused additional bitterness between government and opposition.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, European diplomat and Sandinista former police commander, Managua, 15 and 16 March 2021.Hide Footnote The government also prohibited, at first, the use of face masks and fired at least fifteen doctors who vocally opposed its laissez-faire approach.[fn]Nicaragua: prohibieron el uso de mascarillas a los médicos para no alarmar a la población; ahora muchos tienen coronavirus”, Infobae, 24 May 2020; “Tres meses de pandemia: Los médicos de Nicaragua ante la covid-19”, Confidencial, 19 June 2020.Hide Footnote Between April and June 2020, hospitals and morgues were overwhelmed with dead bodies that the government tried to conceal through “express burials”.[fn]Nicaragua realiza decenas de ‘entierros exprés’ por la noche, en plena pandemia”, France 24, 9 June 2020.Hide Footnote

By mid-2020, the government was quietly changing tack, but that has only gone some way toward allaying public concern. It has imposed stricter requirements for entering the country and promoted pandemic awareness, while continuing to encourage social activities.[fn]One health expert maintains that the government’s attitude changed when the ruling party started to lose important figures to the virus. “Nicaragua y el Covid-19: entre la falta de información y un Gobierno que anima a aglomerarse”, France 24, 14 September 2020; “Gobierno de Nicaragua reforzará las campañas y lucha contra la covid 19”, El 19 Digital, 6 October 2020.Hide Footnote Since then, the situation has improved, although most recently both government and independent data have pointed to an upward trend in new cases.[fn]OPS confirma el aumento de contagios por Covid-19 en Nicaragua: “Hacemos énfasis en que se detecten los casos”, La Prensa, 5 May 2021.Hide Footnote

Disapproval still runs high, as Ortega has failed to contain the public’s worries about the pandemic’s economic damage.

Public approval of Ortega’s pandemic management has risen from 29 per cent in September 2020 to 37 per cent in March 2021.[fn]Mayoría de nicas continúan reprobando a Ortega según encuesta de CID Gallup”, Nicaragua Investiga, 4 March 2021.Hide Footnote But disapproval still runs high, as Ortega has failed to contain the public’s worries about the pandemic’s economic damage. In fact, polls show that unemployment has displaced COVID-19 as the main public concern.[fn]Ibid.; “Encuesta: nicaragüenses más preocupados por desempleo que por COVID-19”, VOA, 5 October 2020; “Encuesta CID Gallup: 49% opina que el régimen orteguista ha manejado ‘muy mal’ la pandemia”, Divergentes, 2 October 2020.Hide Footnote Private-sector representatives agree with the government that jobs would be scarcer still if officials had imposed a lockdown.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, private-sector representatives, Managua, 17 and 19 March 2021.Hide Footnote The country’s economic contraction since 2018, described in more detail below, had forced many low-level public employees out of work or to accept fewer shifts even before the pandemic struck.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, security guard, shop owner, taxi driver, Managua, March 2021.Hide Footnote “Before you earned 12,000 córdobas ($340) a month; now they call and pay you for fewer days, and you make 4-5,000 ($110-140) córdobas, and if you criticise anything, you’re out”, grumbled a security guard working for a state-controlled firm.[fn]Crisis Group interview, security guard, Managua, 18 March 2021.Hide Footnote A waiter in a tourist area also complained about the lack of government assistance. “We [restaurants] all closed, but the government didn’t help anyone”, he said.[fn]Crisis Group interview, waiter, San Juan del Sur, 19 March 2021.Hide Footnote

D. Opposition Divisions

If Ortega’s grip on power has faced certain challenges, a fractured political opposition has not been well positioned to take advantage of it. Its fragmentation has recently been demonstrated by the failure of the two main blocs to register as an electoral alliance in the forthcoming polls.

There had been efforts to unite disparate opposition groups. The Civic Alliance, the grouping that sat opposite the government in past rounds of talks, was created in 2018 under the aegis of the Catholic Church to give shape to the amorphous protest movement.[fn]It included students, civil society and private-sector figures, academics and farmers’ representatives. Crisis Group Report, A Road to Dialogue After Nicaragua’s Crushed Uprising, op. cit.Hide Footnote Then, with the goal of building a more representative coalition, the Alliance presided over the creation of the Blue and White National Unity (UNAB) in October 2018, which comprised political movements, student associations and local protest organisers.[fn]Ibid. Among the political movements, the Sandinista Reformist Movement, now called Unamos, holds particular weight.Hide Footnote The Alliance and the UNAB joined with three political parties to form an electoral front called the National Coalition in early 2020.[fn]The first member parties were Yatama, the Democratic Restoration Party and the Liberal-Constitutionalist Party. “Civic movements and political parties launch the National Coalition”, Confidencial, 26 February 2020.Hide Footnote

But the new front soon showed signs of strain. Denouncing slow progress and “old political practices”, the Alliance left the Coalition in late 2020 and has since suffered a bout of internal strife.[fn]As a result, high-level political, academic and civil society representatives and the campesino movement have abandoned the Alliance, now reportedly spearheaded by the private sector. Crisis Group telephone interview, political analyst, 28 January 2021. “Renuncian otros cuatro dirigentes de la Alianza opositora de Nicaragua”, EFE, 31 October 2020; “La Alianza Cívica por la Justicia y la Democracia se retira de la Coalición Nacional en Nicaragua”, CNN, 26 October 2020.Hide Footnote It recently joined the Citizens for Freedom party to form yet another grouping – the Citizen Alliance – which reportedly enjoys the sympathy of the country’s business magnates and Catholic clergy, and which has regarded the Coalition project with suspicion since its conception.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, political analyst, 26 April 2021. “Alianza Cívica y Ciudadanos por la Libertad concretan su alianza política”, La Prensa, 13 January 2021; “Kitty Monterrey: ‘La Coalición no existe y la Unab tampoco’”, Confidencial, 14 January 2021.Hide Footnote Meanwhile, the National Coalition has had its own struggles, expelling the Liberal-Constitutionalist Party in November 2020 for its alleged affinities with the Sandinista government and suspending the Yatama party in May for approving the appointment of a Sandinista electoral judge.[fn]The remaining party is the Democratic Restoration Party, the movements are the Blue and White National Unity, the campesino movement and National Democratic Front. “Coalición Nacional expulsa al PLC”, La Prensa, 30 November 2020; “Coalición Nacional suspende a Yatama por la ‘infracción grave’ a código de ética”, 100% Noticias, 6 May 2021.Hide Footnote

While ‘unity’ is the preferred slogan of many opposition leaders, there is precious little of it among them and their followers.

While “unity” is the preferred slogan of many opposition leaders, there is precious little of it among them and their followers.[fn]A “good-will commission”, led by former Education Minister Carlos Tünnermann, aims to bring the Alliance and the Coalition together. At least seven presidential hopefuls signed a letter indicating that they would defend opposition unity and support the eventual candidate. “Cristiana Chamorro firma compromiso para apoyar candidatura única”, La Prensa, 22 February 2021; “¿Es suficiente el esfuerzo de la Comisión de Buena Voluntad?”, Nicaragua Investiga, 2 February 2021.Hide Footnote Personal antipathies, some decades old, have opened rifts that are often exacerbated by differences over substantive issues like abortion, the means of selecting presidential candidates and conditions for participating in elections.[fn]Crisis Group interviews and telephone interviews, Civic Alliance members, Blue and White National Unity members and electoral expert, January-March 2021. “¿Cuál es el vehículo para la unidad opositora: CxL, PRD, o los dos?”, Confidencial, 22 February 2021.Hide Footnote A former Civic Alliance member complained that a number of opposition figures cling to the logic of “join me, rather than ‘let’s build unity’”.[fn]The Citizen Alliance has so far refused to meet with the Coalition as a whole, instead looking for partners to join its initiative. Crisis Group telephone interviews, political analyst, civil society representative and former Civic Alliance member, January and February 2021. “Alianza Ciudadana descarta un encuentro con la Coalición Nacional”, Despacho 505, 22 February 2021.Hide Footnote

But other powerful motives drive the jostling for supremacy. In the 1990 election, a similarly diverse array of political and social movements beat Ortega under the wing of the National Opposition Union.[fn]Many opposition activists, particularly older ones, support the candidacy of Cristiana Chamorro, daughter of former President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, a liberal initially sympathetic to the revolution who broke with the Sandinistas over disagreements with other members of the revolutionary governing board – which she formed part of. She eventually ran against and beat Ortega in the 1990 election. “Así fue como la UNO seleccionó a Violeta Barrios para que enfrentara a Daniel Ortega en 1990”, Nicaragua Investiga, 18 January 2021. Crisis Group telephone interviews, civil society representative and political opponents, January and February 2021.Hide Footnote With this precedent in mind, Ortega and former President Arnoldo Alemán agreed on electoral reforms in 2000, which among other things mandated that any coalition has to be headed by one leading party, which also gets disproportionate sway over candidacies and resources.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, electoral expert, 4 March 2020. “El camino a las elecciones: un proceso fraudulento”, Revista Envío, November 2001.Hide Footnote Both current opposition blocs, the Coalition and the Alliance, have already defined their own internal processes to select possible presidential candidates.[fn]Coalición Nacional presenta a sus seis candidatos presidenciales oficiales”, La Prensa, 2 May 2021; “Conoce a los cuatro precandidatos presidenciales inscritos en la Alianza Ciudadana”, IP Nicaragua, 30 April 2021.Hide Footnote Differences over the selection process, as well as the allocation of candidates for seats in the Assembly, underpinned the recent decision to run separately in the elections.[fn]Oposición no logra acuerdo: Ciudadanos por la Libertad inscribe ante el CSE su alianza sin el PRD”, La Prensa, 12 May 2021.Hide Footnote Shortly after, the newly appointed Supreme Electoral Council – broadly sympathetic to the Ortega administration – withdrew the legal status of the Democratic Restoration Party, which functioned as the opposition National Coalition’s electoral vehicle, thus preventing its participation in the polls.[fn]CSE cancela personería jurídica al PRD confirma Saturnino Cerrato”, Nicaragua Investiga, 18
May 2021.Hide Footnote

The opposition’s internal struggles and government repression lie behind waning public dissent in the country. “We gave you [the opposition] detainees, dead and exiles, and you threw it away”, grumbled a citizen who participated in the 2018 protests.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, 15 February 2021.Hide Footnote Only 4 per cent of interviewees in a January survey identified as supporters of the Blue and White National Unity, while the opposition party that attracted the most backing was Citizens for Freedom, with 3 per cent.[fn]Cristiana Chamorro encabeza lista de preferencias políticas de acuerdo a un sondeo de la firma Cid Gallup”, La Prensa, 2 February 2021.Hide Footnote Most opposition representatives remain optimistic that they will manage to present a common front, believing that the shared desire to provide Nicaraguans with a clear alternative to Ortega will outweigh internal divisions.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, political analysts, Civic Alliance and Blue and White National Unity representatives, March 2021. Others disagree with this assessment. Even before negotiations to form an electoral alliance fell apart, the head of Citizens for Freedom, Kitty Monterrey, suggested that “only a miracle” would unite the two blocs. “Kitty Monterrey descarta la unidad con la Coalición Nacional”, La Prensa, 30 April 2021.Hide Footnote If they do, they think they can attract the vote of the 65 per cent of people who, according to the same poll, are willing to vote. Many of these potential voters “are neither with the government nor with us, because they don’t know who to vote for”, according to a youth movement representative.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, members of UNAB and Civic Alliance, political expert, February and March 2021. In the poll, 62 per cent of interviewees said they did not identify with any political party. “Cristiana Chamorro encabeza lista de preferencias políticas de acuerdo a un sondeo de la firma Cid Gallup”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Given recent developments, however, forming a common front will require one of the blocs (the National Coalition) to support the other (the Citizen Alliance).

III. The Risks and Costs of a Disputed Election

Against this backdrop of unresolved political tension and polarisation, “elections are unlikely to stabilise the crisis, any way they go”, in the words of a UN official.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, UN officer, 25 February 2021.Hide Footnote To the contrary, the vote could well cause long-running tensions to escalate, particularly if there are credible allegations that it has not been cleanly run.

A. An Uneven or Co-opted Election

The greatest concern is that Ortega will inhibit opposition participation and meddle with the results, undermining the vote’s legitimacy and sowing further grievance.

Past elections offer hints as to possible government tactics. In the 2008 municipal and 2011 and 2016 general elections, FSLN-controlled electoral authorities withdrew some opposition parties’ legal credentials and reportedly interfered with the vote count by denying access to or hindering the work of independent and political party observers.[fn]As an illustration, the Supreme Electoral Council suspended the legal representation of the Sandinista Renovation Movement and the Conservative Party in 2008. Crisis Group interview, political expert, Managua, 18 March 2021. “Nicaragua is the municipal elections’ big loser”, Revista Envío, November 2008; “Las Elecciones de 2011 en Nicaragua: Informe de una misión de estudio del Centro Carter”, The Carter Center, 9 January 2012.Hide Footnote A former opposition party observer in the 2011 and 2012 elections recounted that FSLN representatives constantly violated procedure in the polling stations – recalling that they “did not want us to count how many ballot boxes were received, wanted to let people vote whose names did not appear in the voter registry and did not allow us to go the stadium, where the count takes place”.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, former electoral observer, 15 February 2021.Hide Footnote In 2016, after the government’s moves to stymie the participation of the Independent Liberal Party’s candidates, the main opposition parties decided to boycott the elections, paving the way for Ortega’s third consecutive term.[fn]La oposición se retira de las elecciones en Nicaragua”, El País, 16 June 2016.Hide Footnote

Ortega may try to skew the elections yet again, but it is unclear which methods he might choose. He could merely threaten to use the recently approved laws to discourage voting and scare away the opposition, or he could actually apply those laws.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, civil society representative, security guard, shop owners, Managua, Catarina and San Juan del Sur, March 2021.Hide Footnote In some heavy-handed scenarios, electoral authorities could rule the Citizens for Freedom party illegal as well, while the police may deny permission for electoral rallies and keep threatening – and even detain – leading opposition figures. A former police commander argued that Ortega would not go as far as to arrest the “coup-mongers”, although he would be within his rights to do so, but others maintain that the president is capable of anything.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, diplomat, Sandinista former police commander and opposition representatives, March 2021.Hide Footnote

Risks of cheating and greater repression may be greater if the opposition manages to forge a common front. “Ortega would have to commit more fraud if the opposition is united”, a diplomat noted.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, diplomat, 8 February 2021.Hide Footnote

B. A Stifled but Hostile Political Opposition

Government persecution has displaced the opposition from the public stage, and also had a subtler chilling effect: micro-level recriminations and animosity have made political debate increasingly taboo, even within households.[fn]Participation in the 2018 marches became a divisive issue straining family ties. On occasion, people would spot younger relatives or neighbours among the protesters and denounce them to the police. Crisis Group telephone interviews, Sandinistas, protesters, civil society representative, March and April 2021.Hide Footnote The opposition’s own lack of unity has also undermined its capacity to shape public opinion. But hostility to the Ortega government still runs high in many parts of society, above all among the younger, better-educated segments of the population, and the possibility of renewed protests cannot be discounted, particularly in the case of a manifestly rigged election.[fn]Even before 2018, fraught elections had sparked opposition-led street protests. “Claims of a rigged vote foment bitter protests in Nicaragua”, The New York Times, 19 November 2008. For a breakdown of Ortega’s popularity by age and education, see Figure 2 in Appendix B.Hide Footnote

A street where protesters clashed with police forces in 2018, Granada, Nicaragua. 14 March 2021. CRISISGROUP/Tiziano Breda
Social media have become the main platform for sharing anti-government messages.

With public dissent encountering more obstructions, political discussion has largely moved online.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, FSLN supporters and protesters, February 2021. “En Nicaragua ‘nada está normal’, aunque el régimen intenta que el país lo olvide”, Confidencial, 3 February 2021.Hide Footnote “We [young people] are left with quiet resistance”, said a former student who took part in the 2018 protests. “We can’t express ourselves”.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, representative of a “self-convened” group, 18 February 2021.Hide Footnote Social media have become the main platform for sharing anti-government messages, even though Nicaragua has relatively low internet coverage.[fn]The World Bank estimated 27.8 per cent internet coverage in 2019. World Bank data.Hide Footnote One news editor reported that government propaganda efforts during the 2018 protests were “debunked by social media and Nicaraguans with cell phones. … That is the loudest media voice right now”.[fn]John Otis, “In Nicaragua, Ortega’s control over the media slips even as a government crackdown intensifies”, Committee to Protect Journalists, 7 August 2018.Hide Footnote The National Self-Convened Movement of Nicaragua at one stage organised a national tweet protest against the police, while anti-government activists have coalesced around hashtags demanding an end to repression (#FreePoliticalPrisoners), branding the government as terrorist (#FSLNIsTerrorism) and calling for sanctions (#SanctionTheDictatorship).[fn]Mildred Largaespada, “Daniel Ortega sin masas en la plaza el 19, ganó una audiencia digital, ¿para qué?”, Confidencial, 24 July 2020.Hide Footnote

The government has sought to counter these campaigns by exerting greater control over social media and disseminating its own messages.[fn]Over the course of three terms, most TV and radio stations have come under Ortega allies’ control. The headquarters of Confidencial and 100% Noticias, two independent outlets, were confiscated at the height of the 2018 protests and have subsequently been turned into health ministry facilities, forcing staff to continue publishing from elsewhere. “Nicaragua passes bill criminalizing what government considers fake news”, Reuters, 27 October 2020; “Como Ortega levantó un imperio mediático que enriquece a su familia y afianza su poder en Nicaragua”, Reuters, 23 November 2020; “Gobierno de Nicaragua inaugura centros de salud en instalaciones de medios de comunicación clausurados”, CNN, 26 February 2021.Hide Footnote Sandinista supporters are relatively less visible on social media platforms, since they tend to be older and have less access to the internet.[fn]Largaespada, “Daniel Ortega sin masas en la plaza el 19, ganó una audiencia digital, ¿para qué?”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Still, they have coalesced around hashtags celebrating the government like #UnitedInVictory and #WeWillWin, often accompanied by praise for the Sandinista revolution.

While most opposition factions insist on peaceful dissent, making armed insurrection unlikely, the risk of local flare-ups of violence, set off by electoral fraud or an intensified state crackdown, cannot be excluded.

Nor has the risk of a resurgence in offline discontent, which could boil over into violence, vanished, and opposition representatives, both in Nicaragua and abroad, agree that a fraught election could be a trigger.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, Civic Alliance and Blue and White National Unity members, February 2021.Hide Footnote “We are like a ticking bomb”, said a high-level exile in Costa Rica.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, Nicaraguan exile, 1 February 2021.Hide Footnote While most opposition factions insist on peaceful dissent, making armed insurrection unlikely, the risk of local flare-ups of violence, set off by electoral fraud or an intensified state crackdown, cannot be excluded.[fn]Opposition representatives reckon that some minor groups might be willing to take up arms. Weapons have been widely available in the country since the civil war. Crisis Group telephone interviews, Nicaraguan exile, street protester and long-time Sandinista, February and March 2021.Hide Footnote A former Nicaraguan minister argued that the protest movements of 2018, at the time largely spontaneous, are now better equipped to mobilise people.[fn]Crisis Group interview, former minister, Managua, 19 March 2021.Hide Footnote At the same time, much will depend on whether the opposition is able to offer an alternative to Ortega that is credible and cohesive enough to incite mass public demonstrations. “Supplying more deaths for such an incompetent opposition will not solve anything, either”, a disaffected student representative observed.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, student representative, 5 March 2021.Hide Footnote

Sandinistas, for their part, voice concern that violence could also erupt in the event of a surprise opposition victory, however unlikely such a result appears, especially if the new government were to embark upon an anti-Sandinista witch hunt in state institutions. “It would be war”, warned a Sandinista former police commander.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Sandinista former police commander, Managua, 16 March 2021.Hide Footnote A local ruling-party activist remarked that, in the event of an opposition victory, much of the Sandinistas’ response would depend on Ortega: “If Daniel says ‘they stole the election’, we take to the streets”.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, Sandinista activist, 29 April 2021.Hide Footnote A Nicaraguan political analyst stressed that the FSLN remains in essence a guerrilla movement, which, if faced with a contest for control of the state, could lash out violently. “The day the opposition wins the elections, I will lock myself up at home”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, political analyst, Managua, 18 March 2021.Hide Footnote Managua-based diplomats say there is little debate within opposition ranks about the risks of violence they would have to manage in the event of electoral victory: few have talked about how they would deal with FSLN loyalists, who dominate public institutions and account for at least one quarter of the population.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, diplomats, Managua, 15 March 2021.Hide Footnote

C. International Isolation

A disputed election that leaves Ortega clinging to power would have costs that extend beyond further alienation of the domestic opposition; it would also most likely deepen Nicaragua’s international isolation. A Managua-based journalist labelled this eventuality a “Venezuela-like scenario”, while another political analyst warned of a “slow but relentless decline” toward pariah status.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, Nicaragua-based journalist and political analyst, February 2021.Hide Footnote

In some respects, Nicaragua is already on this trajectory. Various foreign countries and multilateral organisations have already severed ties with the government, halting cooperation and imposing sanctions on individuals and institutions, including the entire National Police.[fn]Since the crisis began, the U.S. has imposed at least eleven rounds of sanctions against a total of 26 individuals and seven businesses and institutions. The EU, United Kingdom and Switzerland have also sanctioned six Nicaraguan police and government officials each, while Canada has sanctioned nine. For a timeline of U.S. sanctions, see Appendix C.Hide Footnote The OAS has discussed Nicaragua’s predicament on several occasions and considered applying Article 20 of the Inter-American Democratic Charter (applicable in situations where a member state has experienced serious impairment of the democratic order), which could lead to the country’s expulsion from the Inter-American system – although that prospect is remote.[fn]OAS seeks to activate democratic charter on Nicaragua”, VOA, 29 December 2018.Hide Footnote The U.S. Congress, for its part, passed a bill in late 2018 known as the Nica Act, which instructs U.S. officials in multilateral lending institutions to use their influence to halt funding to Nicaraguan state bodies, and more recently saw the introduction of the Renacer Act, which would add electoral wrongdoing to the potential grounds for U.S. sanctions.[fn]Donald Trump signs the Nica Act to pressure Ortega”, Confidencial, 21 December 2018; “RENACER Act of the US Senate expands causes to sanction Ortega’s abettors”, Confidencial, 29 March 2021.Hide Footnote “The portfolio of investments in Nicaragua is blocked”, confirmed a high-level Inter-American Development Bank official.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, Inter-American Development Bank official, 27 February 2021.Hide Footnote

Some of these measures have made it harder for the country, one of the poorest in Latin America, to climb out of a pronounced economic slump that began around the time of the 2018 protests. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) reported in April 2021 that Nicaragua’s GDP had suffered a 4 per cent contraction in 2018, 3.9 per cent in 2019 and 3 per cent in 2020, partly as a result of the pandemic.[fn]The government recognised a GDP contraction of only 2.5 per cent in 2020. “Global economy on firmer ground, but with divergent recoveries amid high uncertainty”, IMF, April 2021; “Banco Central admite que economía de Nicaragua acumuló caída de -2.5% en 2020”, Confidencial, 9 March 2021.Hide Footnote Even before the onset of COVID-19, 3,400 businesses had to shut down, and close to 200,000 jobs had been lost in the formal sector alone, as political turmoil and tax increases hurt domestic and foreign investments, and caused tourism, a sector that contributed more than 4 per cent of GDP in 2017, to collapse.[fn]Tras un año oculto, el INSS publica su anuario estadístico, que revela la pérdida de más de 3,400 empresas en Nicaragua”, La Prensa, 10 March 2021; “Nicaragua ha perdido más de 200 mil empleos formales desde inicio de crisis de 2018”, Confidencial, 17 October 2020; “El turismo en Nicaragua, seis años en retroceso tras la crisis sociopolítica”, EFE, 12 February 2020.Hide Footnote Two hurricanes that devastated the country in November 2020, with damage estimated by the government at $742 million – or around 6 per cent of GDP – made matters worse.[fn]Gobierno de Nicaragua da a conocer el informe preliminar de daños materiales de los huracanes Eta y Iota”, El 19 Digital, 24 November 2020.Hide Footnote Government supporters squarely blame the protests for the country’s economic plight. “The destruction of 2018 was worse than the pandemic and the hurricanes”, argued a former police commander.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Sandinista former police commander, Managua, 16 March 2021.Hide Footnote

A contested election followed by public unrest could accelerate the decline in investor confidence in Nicaragua and compound the reduction in formal employment.

International cooperation funds – namely loans and grants to the public sector – have declined as donors have snubbed the country.[fn]Funding fell from $711.5 million in 2017 to $623.7 million in 2019. “Informe de la Cooperación Oficial Externa, I Semestre 2020”, Nicaraguan Central Bank, October 2020.Hide Footnote One Managua-based diplomat said the real drop in aid to Nicaragua is even higher than official figures suggest, since these reflect previously approved loans that were disbursed later, whereas no new loans from institutions such as the World Bank, the IMF and the Inter-American Development Bank were approved between 2018 and late 2020, when coronavirus-related funds were released (see Section IV.B).[fn]Crisis Group interview, diplomat, Managua, 17 March 2021. In 2018, domestic investment fell by 25 per cent and foreign investment by 53 per cent. Gabriela Selser, “Business group: Nicaragua’s economy in ‘free fall’”, AP, 24 April 2019.Hide Footnote Foreign direct investment, for its part, has nosedived from $1 billion in 2017 to $182 million in 2020, according to Central Bank figures.[fn]La inversión extranjera directa en Nicaragua cayó un 63.8 % en el 2020”, El Economista, 5 April 2021.Hide Footnote A contested election followed by public unrest could accelerate the decline in investor confidence in Nicaragua and compound the reduction in formal employment (particularly in tourism, construction and retail).[fn]“Nicaragua: 2019 Article IV Consultation”, IMF, February 2020.Hide Footnote

New sanctions and a drop in foreign investment resulting from allegations of electoral rigging or a post-electoral crackdown would place further strain on the economy, with potentially dire consequences for the Nicaraguan people.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote “Beyond the political, economic and human rights crisis, this could turn into a humanitarian one”, said a former World Food Programme official.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, former World Food Programme official, 23 February 2021. “Otra explosión social en Nicaragua podría ocasionar ‘una nueva crisis migratoria’, advierte Fundación Arias”, La Prensa, 25 March 2021.Hide Footnote A fresh exodus from the country could result. The combination of high unemployment and political persecution has already pushed more than 100,000 Nicaraguans to flee abroad, mostly to neighbouring Costa Rica.[fn]The UN High Commissioner for Refugees reported that, as of June 2020, 108,000 Nicaraguans had sought asylum abroad, more than 81,000 of them in Costa Rica. The latter number had grown to 94,000 as of March 2021, according to updated figures a UN official shared with Crisis Group.Hide Footnote Two of three Nicaraguans interviewed in an early 2021 survey said they also wished to leave the country.[fn]Dos de cada tres nicaragüenses quiere migrar a EU, España o Canadá”, Forbes Centroamérica, 2 February 2021.Hide Footnote

More Nicaraguan arrivals would put Costa Rica in a very difficult situation. Before the pandemic, Costa Rican authorities were having difficulty coping with the influx of asylum requests.[fn]Crisis Group Commentary, “Coaxing Nicaragua Out of a Deadly Standoff”, op. cit.Hide Footnote While border shutdowns halted the flow of asylum seekers, whose numbers fell from 3,500 to 75 per month on average after March 2020, the system continues to struggle.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, UNHCR officer, 5 March 2021.Hide Footnote Part of the reason is that Costa Rican migration authorities suspended services, leaving a backlog of around 90,000 unadjudicated asylum requests, while the pandemic’s economic impact made it even harder for Nicaraguans to get by in the country as they awaited resolution.[fn]Many provisional work permits and IDs for Nicaraguans have also expired. See data from the journalist Cindy Regidor, based on information from Costa Rican migration authorities. Tweet by Cindy Regidor, @cindyregidor, 11:01 am, 31 January 2021. Costa Rica suffered an estimated 5.5 per cent decline in GDP in 2020. “World Economic Outlook, October 2020: A Long and Difficult Ascent”, IMF, October 2020.Hide Footnote “While the country’s response capacity decreased, asylum seekers’ needs increased”, a UN official stated, adding that the country’s asylum system is on the brink of collapse and could not handle another uptick in requests.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, UNHCR officer, 5 March 2021.Hide Footnote

IV. Achieving an Acceptable Election

Defying national and international calls for far-reaching electoral reforms, the National Assembly recently took steps in the opposite direction, including appointing loyalists to electoral authorities. Given the risks associated with a rigged election, the government should reverse course while it still has time. The opposition, for its part, will need to adjust objectives and expectations, dropping more ambitious proposals that could rouse the government’s strong pushback and collide with technical and time constraints. To defuse the risks of post-electoral turmoil and build a path out of the current crisis, the government and opposition should also explore the possibility of a political settlement after the election, regardless of its outcome, that could enable the two sides to begin overcoming their history of rancour. Stronger and more constructive diplomatic engagement, particularly from the U.S., will be essential to moving things forward.

A. Ensuring a Level Playing Field

The government’s recent effort to reshuffle the electoral authorities and update the electoral law has further antagonised the opposition and foreign powers. President Ortega had announced in November 2020 that his government would make only technical improvements to the electoral system.[fn]Daniel Ortega ordena reforma electoral, pero ‘sin hacer cambios en CSE’”, Confidencial, 6 November 2020.Hide Footnote According to Wilfredo Navarro, a liberal congressional deputy who has sided with the Sandinistas, these reforms were to be in line with a 2017 agreement with the OAS, which mostly focused on cleaning up the voter registry and stiffening regulations to prevent elected representatives from switching parties.[fn]The accord expired in 2020 after the government failed to request its extension. Crisis Group telephone interviews, high-level OAS representatives, 4 March 2021. “Diputado dice que reformas electorales en Nicaragua serán técnicas”, Prensa Latina, 18 December 2020; “Daniel Ortega’s electoral accord with the OAS expires today”, Confidencial, 28 February 2020.Hide Footnote Instead of moving in this direction, however, the government in early May reasserted its one-sided control. Following consultations with nineteen parties, including those in the two opposition blocs, it renewed the Supreme Electoral Council’s composition and amended the electoral law.[fn]The FSLN holds 71 of the 92 seats, with the remaining nineteen divvied up among various opposition parties. “Asamblea Nacional aprueba reformas y adiciones a la Ley 331, Ley Electoral”, El 19 Digital, 4 May 2021.Hide Footnote The opposition rejected these moves, particularly the election of the new magistrates (as council representatives are called), while the U.S., European Union (EU) and OAS released statements expressing concern over the move.[fn]Six of the seven principal magistrates were proposed by the FSLN, and one by the Conservative Party, considered a government affiliate. “Oposición cierra filas y condena “reformas FSLN” sin credibilidad”, Confidencial, 5 May 2021; “Orteguismo mantiene el control total en el Consejo Supremo Electoral”, Despacho 505, 4 May 2021; “Statement from the General Secretariat on the Election of CSE Magistrates and Electoral Reform in Nicaragua”, OAS, 6 May 2021; “Nicaragua: Statement by the Spokesperson on the New Electoral Law”, European External Action Service, 6 May 2021; “Ortega’s Electoral Legislation, Biased Council Undermine Credibility of Nicaraguan Elections”, U.S. State Department, 6 May 2021.Hide Footnote

The flag of the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front hangs beside the Nicaragua flag in Granada’s central square. 14 March 2021. CRISISGROUP/Tiziano Breda
The opposition and foreign powers have made several demands for [electoral] reform.

The opposition and foreign powers have made several demands for reform. A proposal drawn up in 2020 by a group of experts called Electoral Reforms Promoting Group (GPRE in Spanish), which was signed by all the main opposition forces except Citizens for Freedom, laid out root-and-branch reforms.[fn]Organizaciones de la Coalición Nacional firman propuesta de reforma electoral del GPRE”, 21 September 2020.Hide Footnote It envisaged a change in the Supreme Electoral Council’s composition, given the body’s alleged complicity in wrongdoing in past polls.[fn]The U.S. sanctioned both the former president and the subsequent acting president of the Council, Roberto Rivas and Lumberto Ignacio Campbell Hooker, under this argument, in late 2017 and late 2019, respectively. “Estados Unidos impone sanciones al responsable de los fraudes electorales en Nicaragua”, El País, 26 December 2017; “Treasury Sanctions Nicaraguan Government Officials Involved in Human Rights Abuse and Social Security Corruption”, U.S. Treasury Department, 7 November 2019.Hide Footnote It also contemplated introducing non-partisan appointment of polling station officials, rather than their selection by parties; cleaning up the outdated voter registry; and allowing international observation. Additionally, it touched on issues requiring constitutional reform, such as prohibiting presidential re-election and raising the threshold for electoral victory to 50 per cent.[fn]The current threshold is only 35 per cent of the votes, a measure agreed upon between Ortega and Alemán in 2000 that suits the size of the FSLN’s historical vote base. “Consenso Nacional sobre Reformas Electorales”, GPRE, 18 September 2020; “Diez datos para entender el pacto Alemán-Ortega”, La Prensa, 13 April 2019.Hide Footnote The OAS General Assembly adopted a resolution in October 2020 that promoted reforms largely consistent with the GPRE’s plans, but without constitutional elements, though OAS officials recognise that cleaning up the voter registry will be impossible before November.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, high-level OAS representative, 4 March 2021.Hide Footnote

Today, opposition movements are divided as to what the government must do by way of reforms and enabling conditions for them to participate in the forthcoming elections. For example, some are loath to take part if the government does not grant their representatives free movement or release political prisoners.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, UNAB and Civic Alliance members, student representatives, February and March 2021.Hide Footnote A boycott would serve neither side’s interests and would certainly be detrimental to the interests of most Nicaraguans. It would leave the opposition bereft of representation. While a full or partial opposition boycott might help Ortega retake the presidency, it would only exacerbate the country’s divisions once the election is over.

While a full or partial opposition boycott might help Ortega retake the presidency, it would only exacerbate the country’s divisions once the election is over.

Despite the government’s apparent unwillingness to meet national and international demands thus far, there are still a number of technically feasible, politically viable measures it could take to restore some credibility to the process and spur participation by parties. Ideally, it should revise the composition of the Supreme Electoral Council, replacing at least one or two magistrates with candidates proposed by the two opposition blocs.[fn]For example, the recent re-election of Lumberto Ignacio Campbell Hooker, who is under U.S. sanctions, reinforces the Council’s lack of credibility. “Orteguismo mantiene el control total en el Consejo Supremo Electoral”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Doing so would not only enhance oversight of the vote count but also increase the chances of a more balanced composition of regional and municipal electoral councils, bodies appointed by the Supreme Electoral Council and tasked with selecting polling stations officials, among other duties.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, political analyst, 5 May 2021.Hide Footnote As an immediate confidence-building measure, the government should also provide assurances that it will allow unrestricted national and international observation of the election, and formally invite the EU (or other credible partners) to deploy a mission; to leave time for adequate preparation, it should issue this invitation before June.[fn]At present, the only form of monitoring allowed under the new law is electoral “accompaniment”, which operates on a smaller scale, and gives national authorities greater power over what observers can do and publish. Crisis Group telephone interview, diplomat, 8 February 2021.Hide Footnote

Establishing a level playing field for elections will also require guarantees from the government that all parties and candidates can run campaigns safely.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, electoral expert, 25 March 2021.Hide Footnote In particular, the government should abide by pledges made in the two agreements reached with the Civic Alliance in March 2019 that it will respect citizens’ rights, including peaceful assembly.[fn]Nicaragua: Statement by the High Representative/Vice President Josep Borrell”, European External Action Service, 22 December 2020; “Resolution Restoring Democratic Institutions and Respect for Human Rights in Nicaragua Through Free and Fair Elections”, OAS General Assembly, 22 October 2020.Hide Footnote

Although many observers have grave doubts as to whether Ortega has any intention of making reforms that could foster greater political competition, it would be in his interest to avoid more domestic turmoil and further international isolation.[fn]One Nicaraguan electoral expert said: “Ortega doesn’t want a competitive game; he wants a controlled one”. Crisis Group telephone interview, electoral expert, 29 January 2021.Hide Footnote “Ortega can rule without legitimacy, but not without legality”, as a former Nicaraguan diplomat put it, indicating that the president would be fearful of international non-recognition of the electoral results should he win.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, former Nicaraguan diplomat, 17 February 2021.Hide Footnote The government’s recent largely superficial efforts to consult with various political forces ahead of choosing the new election magistrates, as the OAS had requested, hint that Ortega is at least conscious of international expectations even as he pursues his own political advantage. That said, beyond making cosmetic changes, little suggests that he would be willing to commit to a fair and transparent election.

B. International Engagement

Since the end of the second round of talks between the government and the opposition in mid-2019, the Nicaraguan crisis has slipped out of the international spotlight, drawing less attention from even its Latin American neighbours. According to a high-level OAS official: “Countries in the region all face internal problems and are not interested in getting into such a complicated situation”.[fn]These countries include those led by left-leaning governments, such as Mexico and Argentina, which, according to some Managua-based diplomats, could facilitate an exchange with the government. Crisis Group interviews and telephone interviews, high-level OAS representative and diplomats, Managua, 4 and 15-17 March 2021.Hide Footnote International human rights bodies have been virtually the only ones to keep up reporting on the country, although the government has since mid-2020 cut off its communication with these organisations.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, OAS, IACHR and UN officials, February 2021. The Human Rights Council approved a resolution on 23 March. For the third year in a row, the IACHR included Nicaragua in its Section 4 report published in mid-April. “ONU demanda a Daniel Ortega la aprobación de urgentes reformas electorales”, Confidencial, 23 March 2021; “La CIDH presenta su Informe Anual 2020”, IACHR, 16 April 2021.Hide Footnote “Before, there was dialogue, even though it wasn’t constructive. Now they don’t even reply to our communications”, said a UN official.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, UN official, 25 February 2021.Hide Footnote The same applies to the OAS, perhaps even more so, given that its image has been tainted in Nicaraguan government circles by its controversial role in Bolivia’s 2019 elections.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, diplomat and Sandinista former police commander, February 2021. On the OAS in Bolivia, see Crisis Group Latin America Briefing N°43, Bolivia Faces New Polls in Shadow of Fraud Row, 31 July 2020.Hide Footnote The Holy See reportedly spearheaded a discreet but fruitless effort to build bridges between the government and diplomats some months ago. “It was like both sides were talking to a wall”, a diplomat recalled.[fn]Crisis Group interview, diplomat, Managua, 18 March 2021.Hide Footnote

Even so, the COVID-19 pandemic and the wreckage left by hurricanes Eta and Iota partly halted the country’s isolation and restored some technical cooperation with donors. In late 2020, the government received around $300 million in foreign loans to address the pandemic and $8 million in humanitarian assistance to tackle the hurricanes’ effects.[fn]Ortega con fuerte ‘oxígeno financiero’: más de 1,300 millones de dólares para el 2021, en pleno año electoral”, La Prensa, 14 December 2020.Hide Footnote From this perspective, the virus and the hurricanes “brought salvation to Ortega, as they injected foreign resources”, remarked a former Nicaraguan minister.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, former Nicaraguan minister, 23 February 2021.Hide Footnote These resources are strictly tied to humanitarian relief, which the Nica Act permits, and improvements in cooperation at the technical level have not translated into more government openness on political or human rights issues.[fn]In-country UN agencies partnered with the government to deliver humanitarian aid to hurricane-hit areas. Crisis Group telephone interview, UN official, 5 March 2021.Hide Footnote Still, they are a step in the right direction. Moreover, the rush for COVID-19 vaccines, which are as desperately needed in the country as they are across Latin America, could offer an opportunity for U.S. and European partners to restore more cordial ties with Managua.[fn]In January 2021, the government disclosed a plan to vaccinate 55 per cent of the country’s population in a first phase, using the AstraZeneca, Sputnik V, Moderna and Covaxina vaccines, but so far it has received little more than 400,000 doses of Sputnik V and AstraZeneca. “Nicaragua gestiona compra de 7,4 millones de vacunas”, Deutsche Welle, 14 January 2021; “Minsa recibe 70 000 dosis de la vacuna rusa Sputnik V”, Confidencial, 4 May 2021.Hide Footnote “Any help is more than welcome”, as a Sandinista former police commander put it.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, Sandinista former police commander, 4 March 2021.Hide Footnote

C. The U.S. Government Stance

Given U.S. influence in the region, Washington’s posture will be an important reference point for international powers mapping out their strategy with respect to the Nicaraguan elections. But thus far the U.S. has not sent clear signals. Although President Joe Biden has personal knowledge of the region, having made numerous visits to Central America during his time as vice president under Barack Obama, his focus is not on U.S. relations with Managua.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, political expert, 28 January 2021.Hide Footnote Having recently passed its 100-days in office mark, the Biden administration is still struggling with domestic priorities and a migration surge at the southern U.S. border. In Washington, the latter is seen more as a function of crises in the so-called Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, the countries to which U.S. Special Envoy Ricardo Zúñiga’s mandate is restricted.[fn]Announcement of Ricardo Zúñiga as Special Envoy for the Northern Triangle”, U.S. State Department, 22 March 2021.Hide Footnote Nicaragua gets less attention.

Biden’s presidential plan for Central America made no specific reference to Nicaragua, and he has yet to define a strategy.

Indeed, Biden’s presidential plan for Central America made no specific reference to Nicaragua, and he has yet to define a strategy.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, U.S. State Department, diplomats and OAS officials, February and March 2021. In November 2020, he announced a plan for Central America, centred on the fight against corruption and involving a $4 billion aid package to tackle the root causes of migration, but focused on the northern Central American countries (Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras). “The Biden Plan to Build Security and Prosperity in Partnership with the People of Central America”, Joe Biden’s official website, November 2020.Hide Footnote Given the way in which the U.S. is revisiting at least some heavy-handed Trump-era policies, reconsideration of Washington’s sanctions-centric approach to Nicaragua before the country’s elections hardly seems out of the question, but the Biden administration has yet to craft a clear alternative. “It seems that the calendars of U.S. and Nicaraguan politics do not coincide”, as a Managua-based diplomat wryly observed.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, U.S. State Department and OAS officials, 25 February and 4 March 2021. A Washington-based political analyst was more forthright: “It’s like we are standing on a sideline watching a train wreck happening”. Crisis Group telephone interview, political analyst, 7 April 2021.Hide Footnote

A change in stance is overdue. The mounting use of sanctions by the Trump administration – including on some of the Ortega family’s financial assets and its allies in the judiciary, government and security forces – failed to break the Sandinista ranks or force Ortega to resume talks with the opposition. Instead, the sanctions alienated the government and prompted it to become increasingly outspoken about the supposed evils of foreign interference, including the alleged role played by embassies based in Nicaragua.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, diplomats, Managua, 17 March 2021. “Daniel Ortega dice que EEUU busca ‘asfixiar’ a Nicaragua con sanciones, cuando medidas solo afectan a sus funcionarios, familiares y empresas”, La Prensa, 10 June 2020.Hide Footnote According to one former Sandinista commander, not only are sanctions useless, they are an honour – “like putting a medal on your chest” – although he also argued that removing them is a “sine qua non” for the government to sit down and negotiate.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, former Sandinista police commander, 4 March 2021.Hide Footnote

Withdrawing sanctions and putting the brakes on Washington’s efforts to halt multilateral loans would be politically difficult and unpopular moves, particularly in light of bipartisan support for them in the U.S. Congress.[fn]On 25 March, six U.S. senators from both major parties proposed a bill to target Ortega government officials, family members and other allies, including in the police and army, in a bid to press him to concede free and fair elections. Crisis Group telephone interview, U.S. diplomat, 10 February 2021. “Senators Menendez, Rubio, Kaine, colleagues introduce legislation to advance democratic elections in Nicaragua”, U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, 25 March 2021.Hide Footnote Still, U.S. and EU authorities should consider offering sanctions relief – at least privately – to persuade Ortega to undertake electoral reforms and allow widespread participation in the forthcoming polls. At the very least, they should refrain from imposing new sanctions and step up diplomatic engagement before the electoral process begins.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, diplomats, Managua, 15 and 17 March 2021.Hide Footnote One potential first step would be to include Nicaragua in Special Envoy Zúñiga’s mandate so as to open some fresh communication channels.[fn]Given his role in restoring U.S. relations with Cuba under the Obama administration, Zúñiga was seen positively by a former Sandinista police commander. Crisis Group telephone interview, former Sandinista police commander, 22 March 2021.Hide Footnote

Managua-based diplomats also caution that even if the polls are disputed and the validity of Ortega’s fresh mandate is questioned, further punitive moves may not be the best response. “What would be the consequences of non-recognition [of the government]?” wondered one diplomat. “Close to none”. The diplomat added that after the experience of Juan Guaidó’s challenge to President Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, “nobody is willing to recognise another parallel government”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, diplomat, Managua, 15 March 2021. For more on the failed campaign to remove Maduro in Venezuela, see Crisis Group Latin America Report N°85, Venezuela: What Lies Ahead after Election Clinches Maduro’s Clean Sweep, 21 December 2020.Hide Footnote According to one EU official, foreign partners can cut development aid and impose more sanctions, but this is unlikely to move Managua: “It is the pressure from inside that Ortega is most afraid of”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, EU official, Managua, 15 March 2021.Hide Footnote Even so, they should stand ready to denounce electoral fraud, support firm regional and international condemnation of a rigged poll, and warn Ortega of the risks he is incurring should his victory be disputed.


D. Beyond Elections

Beyond paving the way for credible elections, the Nicaraguan government and opposition, with the support of foreign partners, would ideally agree to work together to address the underlying causes of the standoff, rooted in deep-seated enmity dating back to the revolutionary struggle of the 1970s and civil war of the 1980s.

In the opinions of representatives from both sides, the recurrent conflict derives from a “winner takes all” mentality in politics.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, National Coalition representative and Sandinista activist, 2 March and 29 April 2021.Hide Footnote “The opposition wants a scorched-earth policy against Sandinismo, but that is impossible”, warned a journalist close to the government, adding that the FSLN is still the most popular and best organised political force in the country, with a core support base of at least 25 per cent.[fn]This support has remained virtually unchanged over the past two years, according to CID Gallup polls. Crisis Group email interview, Nicaraguan journalist, 28 January 2021. “Cristiana Chamorro encabeza lista de preferencias políticas de acuerdo a un sondeo de la firma Cid Gallup”, op. cit.Hide Footnote As mentioned earlier, there has been little debate – much less agreement – among opposition groups as to how to deal with Sandinista supporters or government loyalists employed in virtually all state institutions and security forces in the event of an upset opposition election win.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, diplomat, journalist, Civic Alliance and UNAB representatives, February and March 2021.Hide Footnote

Proposals by some moderates to seek out means of coexistence with Sandinismo have led to disagreement with other factions, which insist on punishment for the actions of the government and security forces in the 2018 crackdown.[fn]La controversia de ‘convivir con los sandinistas’”, La Prensa, 5 March 2021.Hide Footnote Business allies of the opposition tend to support restoration of working relations with the government should Ortega notch a reasonably fair victory in November.[fn]Crisis Group interview, private-sector representative, Managua, 17 March 2021.Hide Footnote Their pragmatism extends to an understanding that if the government were to suffer a poor electoral showing, it would likely cling to power if its alternatives are sufficiently off-putting. The prospects of criminal prosecution or political oblivion are particularly alarming in this regard. A former Nicaraguan diplomat argues that “you can only subdue the Sandinistas by giving them space”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Nicaraguan former ambassador, Managua, 17 March 2021.Hide Footnote

The country’s rival forces have never sought to establish a common understanding of what has caused the fierce conflicts since the 1970s.
A sentence attributed to Augusto César Sandino at the entrance of Granada: “As long as Nicaragua has sons who love her, Nicaragua will be free”. 14 March 2021. CRISISGROUP/Tiziano Breda

One underlying problem is that the country’s rival forces have never sought to establish a common understanding of what has caused the fierce conflicts since the 1970s.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, Nicaraguan former diplomat, 29 January 2020.Hide Footnote Many of today’s grievances and the most prominent politicians have remained unchanged over the last 40 years, and numerous amnesties have neither resolved these disputes nor given redress to victims’ relatives.[fn]The newspaper La Prensa counted at least 52 amnesties that have been applied in Nicaragua’s recent history. “52 amnistías se han otorgado en la historia de Nicaragua, y ninguna ha logrado justicia para las víctimas”, La Prensa, 26 May 2019; “La Ley de Amnistía de Nicaragua: ¿una trampa para personas detenidas por motivos políticos?”, Due Process of Law Foundation, October 2019.Hide Footnote Crisis Group has previously recommended that government and opposition should agree to create a truth commission with a broad mandate that goes beyond the events of 2018, features representatives from both government and opposition as well as international experts, and potentially draws upon similar experiences elsewhere, such as in Colombia, Guatemala and South Africa.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, expert in transitional justice and Civic Alliance representatives, 11 April 2019 and 5 March 2021. Crisis Group Report, The Keys to Restarting Nicaragua’s Stalled Talks, op. cit.Hide Footnote Ortega’s call for a “great national dialogue” could turn into a reconciliation effort that seeks to create a framework for peaceful political coexistence and end recurrent outbreaks of violence. But for that to happen would require the willingness of both sides.

V. Conclusion

Nicaragua’s social and political divisions reopened during the 2018 uprising and the brutal government repression that followed. State surveillance and harassment, as well as the opposition’s infighting and inability to organise, have helped clear the streets of protesters and stifled political debate. But resentment of the growing concentration of power in the presidential couple’s hands runs deep. Three consecutive years of economic contraction, compounded by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and two hurricanes, have made it still more entrenched.

The forthcoming elections could test Nicaragua’s recent calm. Should the polls give rise to accusations of unfairness, fraud or other wrongdoing, they could trigger renewed unrest, deepen the country’s international isolation and economic misery, and spur a fresh outflow of migrants and refugees. But the lead-up to the polls could also lay the groundwork for a new attempt to settle the country’s social and political conflicts. Much will depend on Ortega’s readiness to allow for a reasonably competitive election and respect its results, whatever they are. The stance adopted by rival political forces and outside states could influence his decision. If opposition movements overcome mutual distrust and focus on agreeing on a technically feasible and politically viable set of conditions in the run-up to the polls, their chances of persuading Ortega would be higher. Stronger, less punitive and more constructive diplomatic engagement by foreign partners such as the U.S., left-leaning Latin American governments, the Holy See and the EU could also stay the government’s penchant for confrontation over compromise.

Still, responsibility for charting a negotiated way out of the crisis and establishing the bases for a working relationship between Nicaragua’s political adversaries will ultimately fall to the government, first and foremost, and also to the opposition. If they manage to treat the election not as an all-or-nothing battle but as a way to begin establishing the rules for peaceful competition, then Nicaragua may have an opportunity to begin moving beyond its troubled past.

Guatemala City/Bogotá/Brussels, 20 May 2021

Appendix A: Map of Nicaragua

Appendix B: Ortega’s Popularity

Figure 1: Trends in the approval rate of President Daniel Ortega by year – from 2007 to January 2021

* Annual Average. Source: CID Gallup. / CB-G / CRISIS GROUP.

Figure 2: Frequency with which Ortega does what’s best for the people, by age and education