MANAGUA, Nicaragua — Opposition candidates have been detained. Protests have been banned. And political events have been disqualified.

Simply months earlier than looking for re-election, Nicaragua’s president, Daniel Ortega, has introduced his nation a step away from turning into a one-party state, clamping down on the opposition to an extent not seen because the brutal suppression of anti-government protests in 2018, specialists say.

The aggressive strikes by Mr. Ortega current an sudden problem to the Biden administration, which has made strengthening democracy in Central America one of many pillars of its coverage towards the area.

Mr. Ortega’s crackdown reached an inflection level on Wednesday, after his authorities charged a number one opposition candidate, Cristiana Chamorro, with cash laundering and “ideological falseness” and positioned her underneath home arrest hours after she introduced her plans to run for president within the Nov. 7 election. One other candidate, Arturo Cruz, was detained Saturday by the police for allegedly “conspiring towards Nicaraguan society.”

Three different presidential hopefuls have been confined to their properties by the police with out but going through any formal fees, successfully stopping them from mounting electoral campaigns.

“Ortega is on the verge of ending all political competitors within the nation,” mentioned Eliseo Núñez, a Nicaraguan political analyst and opposition activist. “We’re very near calling this a dictatorship.”

The pace of Nicaragua’s slide towards authoritarianism has taken even a lot of Mr. Ortega’s opponents unexpectedly.

Mr. Ortega, Nicaragua’s former revolutionary junta chief, has step by step dismantled the nation’s democratic establishments and stifled dissent since returning to energy in 2007 after successful democratic elections. Greater than 320 individuals, largely protesters, died in protests towards his rule in 2018, making it the worst wave of political violence in Latin America in three many years.

The protests have helped plunge one of many area’s poorest international locations into a protracted financial downturn and led to American sanctions towards Mr. Ortega’s prime officers, together with his spouse, Rosario Murillo, who’s the vp and his spokeswoman.

In search of to ease the financial and worldwide strain, Mr. Ortega started talks with the opposition following the protests, and reached a deal final yr with the Group of American States to make Nicaragua’s electoral system extra truthful.

However as final month’s reform deadline approached, Mr. Ortega swung radically towards repression. He has staffed the electoral board with loyalists. He rolled out a collection of legal guidelines permitting his officers to detain or disqualify from workplace virtually any citizen who has voiced disapproval of the president, together with journalists and politicians.

“Ortega did all the things the precise reverse of what was anticipated,” mentioned Carlos Tünnerman, a former senior official in Mr. Ortega’s revolutionary authorities within the Nineteen Eighties. “He has proven that he’s ready to do something to stay in energy.”

The federal government’s boldest transfer thus far has been the shock arrest of Ms. Chamorro, a scion of considered one of Nicaragua’s richest and most influential households, whose mom defeated Mr. Ortega in elections in 1990. Ms. Chamorro till just lately headed a basis that skilled Nicaragua’s impartial journalists with funds partially obtained from the U.S., main the federal government to accuse her of cash laundering and subversion.

At present, just one credible opposition group stays legally eligible to take part within the November vote, offering the final hope for Mr. Ortega’s opponents. The group, referred to as Residents for Liberty, is now within the course of of selecting its presidential candidate, who would grow to be the de facto flag bearer for the often fractious opposition.

Political analysts say a critical Residents for Liberty candidate would have a superb probability of mobilizing the majority of Nicaraguan voters who don’t help the federal government, presenting a significant electoral menace to the ruling occasion.

Mr. Ortega seems to be taking no possibilities. On Friday, the government-allied electoral board issued a thinly veiled menace to ban any candidate who doesn’t adjust to the brand new legal guidelines criminalizing political dissent.

Opposition leaders mentioned the brand new directive provides the electoral officers energy to ban any candidate who poses a critical menace to Mr. Ortega or his chosen candidate, in impact leaving him unopposed.

“They’re clearly open to taking that remaining step,” mentioned Félix Maradiaga, one of many front-runners to grow to be the Coalition for Liberty’s candidate.

Mr. Maradiaga has himself been confined to periodic home arrest with out authorized fees since November.

Mr. Ortega’s spokeswoman, Ms. Murillo, didn’t reply to a request for touch upon the detention of opposition candidates.

The fast deterioration of Nicaragua’s democratic safeguards has introduced a problem to the Biden administration, which was already struggling to halt rising authoritarianism in Central America

U.S. officers and lawmakers responded to Ms. Chamorro’s detention by threatening new sanctions towards Mr. Ortega.

“We’re positively evaluating what actions we are able to take to reply” to the political crackdown, the White Home’s chief Latin America adviser, Juan González, instructed the Voice of America on Saturday.

Nicaragua’s heavy reliance on preferential exports to america and loans from U.S.-financed worldwide lenders make sanctions a critical financial menace to Mr. Ortega, mentioned Tiziano Breda, a Central America analyst on the Worldwide Disaster Group.

However main sanctions may tip Nicaragua’s already contracting economic system right into a disaster, triggering a brand new exodus of migrants from the area to america.

“Ortega had already presided over a battle economic system — he’s displaying that he’s keen to repeat historical past,” mentioned Mr. Breda. “The query is, is the U.S. keen to face the results of its actions?”

Yubelka Mendoza reported from Managua, and Anatoly Kurmanaev from Mexico Metropolis.