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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 178 | Mayo 1996
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Nicaragua

Nicaragua's Two Options: Change or Stay the Same

Whoever looks into the depths of the electoral morass will become aware that there are only two options: more of the same or change. What will change mean? What political force can effect this change?

Nitlápan-Envío team

Nicaragua's election panorama is getting more complex and incoherent by the day. With 35 registered parties and 5 more in the process of registering, 15 presidential candidates so far plus five major candidates for mayor of Managua and hundreds for all the other mayorships and legislative posts, the electoral atmosphere is virtually a replica of Managua's Eastern Market on the eve of a religious festival. The strident electoral sloganeering makes it hard to distinguish true from false, new from repetition, progress from backsliding. The fireworks of the parties and candidates both illuminate and blind, making it difficult to know what road to take.

A Suspicious Amount of Enthusiasm

The elections, highest symbol of representative democracy, awaited as the formal finish to the battered and ungloried Chamorro Lacayo administration, are being readied amid personal attacks, instability and increasing political tensions, all within an authoritarian culture unaccustomed to the democratic game or to thinking in terms of the country and not of group rivalries. Rather than discomfiting the politics merchants, this environment allows them to elbow their way into new spaces and hoodwink the gullible. With the media already saturated with campaign spots full of declarations, promises, repetitious refrains, slogans and speeches, the openness of the electoral campaign is beginning to cloud over ominously. So much enthusiasm by the political class in a country so poor is a bit suspect: it suggests that a lot is at stake in the upcoming elections, and that winning the electorate's favor by any means is the only thing that can relieve the tensions of the different factions in the running.

In this miasma, promises of alliances and realignments of power succeed each other with dizzying speed. Known candidates speak of better times and try to erase their past to attract a population dying first for a decent meal and second for a decent life, while new candidates with nothing yet to hide promise the moon.

As the uproar increases, one must keep one's eyes wide open in order to exercise the right to vote wisely. Anyone who manages to see to the core of things will realize that the options are actually very limited. There are only two: change or more of the same. The bulk of the population just wants a simple change for the better, but the small yet powerful groups already have it good. While many are still staggering across the blistering desert on foot in search of economic take off, these groups have already reached that promised land in air conditioned Cadillacs. Why would they want to change anything?

The Point of Departure

We can ask ourselves many questions today, starting with whether the current state of things can possibly continue as it is. From there questions just tumble out. What small changes might be made to avoid undertaking major ones? Could grassroots participation be intensive and massive enough to achieve real and lasting change? Will popular aspirations be swindled in the elections? In the country's condition today, what risks do a real rupture and profound political change imply? Would the change desired by so many improve or worsen the situation? None of these questions has an easy or definitive answer but, in this confusing market of electoral offers, trying to respond to them helps clear our heads.

The apparent gamut of options presented by the 15 and possibly more presidential candidates can be reduced to the same two: continuity or rupture. There is room for a third option, a mixture of these two, some sort of partial change or half way continuity, but this "center" between the two great poles of the electoral spectrum is what appears to be lacking.

Since the essential problems that the Chamorro government faced when it took office remain unresolved, the level of social and political polarization also remains at best as it was at the start of her administration. Social and political exclusion has worsened under her administration, despite the extensive but incomplete disarming of the irregular forces, ample but also incomplete freedom of expression, the economic growth since 1994 still weak and insufficient and abundant foreign aid. This exclusion has prevented her government from fulfilling its self appointed historic task of reconciling and reconstructing the nation, calling on all active forces to pitch in.

Before going any further, it is necessary to identify the major actor that, from the wings, will direct the course of the electoral campaign. This point of departure for the current options is the oligarchy, which has used Violeta Chamorro's electoral victory in 1990 as an opportunity to reverse the grassroots gains achieved during the Sandinista revolution. This reversal process, which is far from consummated, has been carried out with the collaboration of the Sandinista leadership, in exchange for the government's agreement to keep the rightwing radicals in its UNO coalition out of government. The grassroots, ever more dispersed and atomized, has been left to watch these events from the side lines.

The Two "Piñatas"

The Chamorro government betrayed the popular longing for a broad national reconstruction accord. This was undoubtedly due in part to the revanchism of some small intransigent groups in UNO, but the basic reason was the official silence on abuses committed in both the outgoing Sandinista government's "piñata" and in the new government's own piñata its privatization of state assets. The fatal flaw in both processes was not the transfer of public goods to private hands per se, which could have pursued justifiable social ends. It was that, given a feeble judicial framework, they benefited a minority already enriched through public posts. The majorities who had justly benefited from the earlier redistribution of property became hostage to this abusive minority. This sparked a cancerous spread of both public and private corruption throughout the body politic that decimated any possibility of a national understanding among equals, since it redivided the spheres of political influence among the quick witted who got rich through corruption, the traditional wealthy and the straight and narrow "fools" now an endangered species even in the general population.

The desires for social redemption have also been tossed aside, and few are losing any sleep over it. Since the only operative rules are force and imposition, the credibility of the many agreements signed since 1990 has been seriously undermined, as has respect for established norms. In the concrete case of the property problem, the legal absurdities that have been implemented were attempts to "amend" other legal foolishness, in a game with many interests and little respect for either the letter or the spirit of law. Without the rudder of trust, the political game has drifted into a predatory practice without principles, in which there is no room for altruism and no possible cooperation among rivals. Frivolity as a political attitude and cynicism as the politicians' philosophy have taken possession of a country in which the wounds of war and inequality are still raw.

The dominant economic and political power groups have repeatedly shown that they are not up to the country's challenges. Enmeshed in the process of rapid accumulation begun almost a decade ago, they have no time, vision or desire to assure a democratic environment. Doing so would mean moderating their appropriation of assets and earnings, which would affect their short term profits. Through both legal and illicit means, these various groups have been putting themselves in the best position possible, appropriating all the assets, capital, social base and foreign support that they can. Their earnings are too attractive to let go of for reasons of collective survival. The party is going full blast and they're going to enjoy it while it lasts. And they won't have to pay the piper because after them comes the deluge.

There's No Left Option

Despite such a wrenching change in the rules of the political game, an important fact is that the grassroots movement has not been as smashed as its predecessor was by Somoza García in the 1930s. The population is debilitated, both by the betrayals and political defeats and by the unemployment and impoverishment, but it is not yet politically decimated.

The population, largely made up of youth with no prospects today, wants to exercise its vote to effect a peaceful change that would hamstring the parasitic immediate interests of the profit hungry economic groups. But the possibility of this is very limited. The work done by the FSLN leadership in these years has eliminated the left option from these elections, if one understands left as clear representation of and participation by the grassroots, unquestionably nationalist politics, a broadening and consolidation of democracy and a renewed and efficient state dedicated to development with social inclusion.

It is precisely the absence of clear grassroots representation that still gives the artificial stability generated through confrontation and the manipulation of democracy a lease on life. The identification of the "left" with a Sandinismo riddled with "piñateros" and responsible for the violent disturbances triggered by its "portable mobs" has discredited the left option. Consolidating democracy through processes of social and political inclusion is not yet included in the strategy of the self proclaimed left. The new Sandinista business owners and stock holders accept their left origins with increasing embarrassment, though they have not yet decided to discard their old symbols entirely.

Since the grassroots sectors cannot count on a leftist way out of the mess, they are in a situation of knowing what they don't want, but not how to get what they do want, particularly since they are dispersed and without leadership. Since the organized social forces are still marginal and not politically active enough to generate a change of their tired old leadership, the grassroots has no choice but to accommodate to the existing options to achieve, even if only partially, its objectives. And by constitutional definition, the existing options are found only within the political parties. The formation of electoral social movements via signature petitions is possible only for municipal government candidates or, in the case of the Atlantic Coast, for the autonomous regional governments (which are not up for reelection this year).

This situation puts the upcoming elections in an antagonistic contradiction between the population's aspirations for change and improvement and the capital hungry "vampire elites" who are banking on continuity with no undue ruckus.

The Big Guys Still Aren't Sure

Even though the grassroots sectors are not clearly represented, and as a mass of voters range between a forced swing to the right, indefinition or abstentionism, and a staunch left nucleus, the dominion of large financial and commercial capital is not clearly assured either. Financial capital's political control is indirect and its continuity is not guaranteed, since today's politicians are not legitimate representatives of big business only of its clients. Big business has not had time to dedicate itself directly to politics, and most of the politicians from the professional and middle strata only aspire to make their fortunes and eventually become entrepreneurs too. Thus even politicians from notable families must now yield to the swarm of new colleagues representing the multitude of micro parties and empty shells of labor and producer associations.

As long as the political system is simply a way to become a prosperous new entrepreneur through corruption and influence peddling, traditional big business is not so sure it wants to throw its support behind maintaining that system. Although it has directly benefited from today's economic policies, conflicts of interest and excess competition could sooner or later undercut its current profitability, achieved through manipulation of those policies.

The big bankers and business leaders have in their favor that they are more cohesive as a group, and enjoy the confidence that the unrestricted bonanza of these years has generated. In many respects, they have more capacity for maneuver and more opportunities than other groups. But since they have been absorbed in reinstalling themselves in the country, they have not managed to put together a solid political representation of their interests within the party system. Only now are they turning to the "political market" to pick through the political representations that already exist based on buying and selling influence. The political class is thus now being besieged by representatives of the different kinds of capital groupings in the country: the traditional, that of piñata origins, that of the privatizations, drug capital and foreign capital.

Big business is still wavering in assessing the lesser of evils, knowing only that continuing in this way will lead to a clash with the new, even more voracious capitalists. Its basic preference would be to go on taking advantage of the bonanza until the collision occurs, since any change would bring even more uncertainty particularly if the population's aspirations to redistribute some of the new wealth are strong and would imply at the very least an immediate halt to its privileges. But if change is hardly its first choice, the proposal of new capital isn't either: to suspend, defer or alter the elections and create a "democratic" artifice in its place. That, too, would make continuation of the accumulation process and economic consolidation very unstable, particularly since Nicaragua does not appear to have any Fujimori figure waiting in the wings. Big capital would only consider supporting this proposal if forced by otherwise irremediable circumstances for example by virtue of a massive democratic vote in favor of change. Even then, it would probably try to swim with the current and preserve its privileges as much as possible, unless the social and political chaos reached major proportions and this extreme option received the blessings of the United States.

So Vote For Whom?

By the look of things today, the fundamental contradiction between those who own capital and those who don't has shifted toward an opposition between owners of a lot and owners of a small or medium amount. Behind the scrim of the electoral game the two financial choices boil down to these: consolidate oligarchic power or interrupt this accumulation process by the intrusion of a rightwing populism that wants to redistribute to smaller owners whose accumulation has been blocked in recent years or who have become frankly impoverished.

There is a general awareness that the current state of things is economically, socially and politically unsustainable, and the trends toward social and political instability that this breeds are very dangerous. The Chamorro government is delegitimized because it has not improved the population's standard of living. One poll after another shows a growing intention to vote and indicates that the population wants to exercise that vote to throw out the Chamorro administration and all it represents in terms of social insensitivity and penury in the midst of luxury for a few. This negative assessment of her government is reflected in the consistently low ratings for former Minister of the Presidency Antonio Lacayo's National Project (PRONAL).

Nonetheless, we have not yet seen the full extent of the power groups' ability to contain this sentiment in favor of change. Despite the population's negative view of the Chamorro administration, people are not clear what real alternatives they have. Many voters are still undecided about whom to vote for and why, since there is no tidy political grouping that could coalesce the force for change. None of the key actors have yet shown the ability to shift the polls clearly in one direction. The political system itself has blocked mediation so as to self perpetuate political profitability and restrict the citizenry's participation. Most serious is that the antagonism incubating in the wanton accumulation process does nothing to help rebuild the country on a foundation of broad social harmony.

Five Criteria for Recognizing the Options

The two major options facing the electorate imply serious consequences for the course that the country will take in the coming years. These two options can be understood better by contrasting the political parties according to five criteria:

1) the position each has on the property issue, and particularly on each of the two piñatas;
2) its level of acceptance of or linkages to the new capital generated by these two privatizations, concretely the capital of FSLN leaders and that of the current government's friends and officials;
3) its position toward the overweening management role of international financial organizations such as the IMF and World Bank and toward the economic policy endorsed in their Enhanced Structural Adjustment Facility (ESAF);
4) the level of support it expects from commercial and financial capital, especially from the private banks;

5) the degree of participation the population can expect to have in the electoral and decision making processes.

The Continuity Option

The positions supporting this option imply that the property problem would not be resolved, that the cases of abuse and illicit appropriation in the framework of the existing laws would remain intact. The de facto situation would continue, in which the powerful interests that were confiscated continue progressively evicting the small property holders who were legally and justly benefited. The powerful abusers of the Sandinista piñata would remain untouched despite their illegality and the privatizations carried out by the state holding company CORNAP would be declared unauditable. The huge debts of current government officials and allies with the state development bank (BANADES) would end up being pardoned in a possible privatization of this institution.

With respect to the new capital groups, the interlinking of mutual interests with traditional capital would pave the way for definitive acceptance of the next generation of these nouveau riche.

With respect to relations with the IMF and World Bank, the new government would remain obedient to the adjustment packages and try to superficially fulfill them without committing itself to them seriously. This symbiosis between a government known for squandering and inefficiency and the international lending agencies would keep the economy stagnated indefinitely. Within this scheme, financial and commercial capital would continue to be the main beneficiaries of the dividends of the country's "Africanization."

Finally, the "restricted democracy" scheme would be maintained, with the perspective of reinforcing the political system's authoritarian features.

The Change Option

This option implies a clear break with this scheme. In the first place, the change would have to assure the property rights of all those who were justly benefited, without turning to reviewing cases as a pretext to contravene the spirit and letter of the existing laws. Change implies eliminating all the legal nonsense in the general framework of a Property Rights Law that legalizes all cases under review and subsequently puts them in order as expeditiously as possible.

This ordering of property rights requires punishing the abuses of both the Sandinista piñata and the Chamorro administration's privatizations. In many of these cases the sanction would be flexible, allowing the illegal appropriation to be legalized through purchase of the property at its real market value. If the property holder does not take advantage of this, the next step would be legal eviction proceedings. The Chamorro administration itself would also have to be audited, which would lead to innumerable legal disputes. Undertaking these two actions implies counting on clear and massive political support, not because it would be a massive witch hunt but precisely because only a few selective "exemplary punishments" would be possible or even needed in this reconciliation ritual, and none of the guilty, however few they may be, would be a willing scapegoat.

A genuine "revolution of honesty" would also imply punitive action against the new capital that has emerged from the privatizations. Intolerance toward theft also involves intolerance of the thieves. A relationship between a government of change and the two categories of "piñateros" would hence be very difficult. Social and legal pressure on this new capital would tend to force it to straighten out many of the irregularities it has committed. To be effective, such pressure would involve a cultural change in the administration of public affairs, openly combating corruption and influence peddling, as well as effectively punishing the worse abusers. The power of influence that these small groups of violators have could only be confronted with a massive civic movement that challenges their power with the strength of grassroots mobilization. This phase of mobilization and forced realignment of the correlation of forces in the power structure would also necessarily imply a period of instability and friction until the forces of change are settled in.

With respect to the international financial institutions, the forces of change would not promote either an unlimited rupture or blind obedience. Making use of these organizations' own charters, it would try to engage in ordered and intelligent negotiation within the framework of a genuine and widely shared national development strategy. Exercising its rights as a member country of these institutions, Nicaragua would aim to move its relationship with the IFIs from dictate fulfillment to international server member within the United National system. This step would not only mean progressing out of the country's current relationship of economic tutelage, but could even contribute to the reform of these organizations internationally.

To be consistent, the project of change would introduce a better negotiated scheme of commercial opening and control over imports. Without directly affecting the private banks or scuttling their functioning, it would correct the pro finance bias of the current adjustment, as well as the direct and indirect subsidies that the financial sector receives.

As one of the wealthiest sectors, it does not require particular state incentives to function. A neutral policy would be implemented toward this sector, avoiding the emergence of new oligopolies that torpedo competition and the free mobility of the factors. Obviously, the financial sectors could initially resist the loss of privileges by the commercial banks and importers; the response to this resistance would not be to clamp down on the banks, but to lift the entry barriers put up by the private financial sector in order to promote the intermediation and development of the capital market, which is still insufficient in Nicaragua.

Finally, change also implies culminating the process of democratic consolidation, making this political system an irreversible conquest of all of society. The authoritarianism of the presidency would be eradicated by fulfilling the main pending political tasks broadening the spaces of participation for the citizenry, completely reforming the political system through the establishment of a social rule of law, subjecting popular representation to the scrutiny of the voters, free political competition and the establishment of the Republic with a genuine balance of power among the branches of state.

This program of change would be incomplete without decided support for investment in human capital, improving the educational system, renovating civic values and reestablishing the state's role of social leveling by supporting the "viable poor" with concrete programs that combat poverty and generate opportunities for work and for accumulation by small business.

Both Options Generate Crises

Both of these options contain a high component of instability. Continuity could be imposed in two ways: 1) a closely scrutinized electoral victory, in which the array of alliances manages to beat out the forces of change through confusion and blackmail exercised by threatening greater political instability, or 2) an interruption of the democratic consolidation process through electoral fraud or a forced pact in the face of uncontrollable chaos. Both ways would generate instability and grassroots rejection in a very short time since neither provide a response to the main problems affecting the population. Since the central problems of continuity are the squandering of foreign resources, corruption in public affairs and the economic policy's demonstrated inability to achieve reactivation with tangible benefits for more than just a few, the victory of this option, however it occurs, would lead to a canceling of the democratic opening and to greater social conflict.

For its part, change can only come via democratic consensus and a clean and massive victory at the polls and could go forward only by centralizing the popular mandate in a political force able to deal with the resistance from power groups that are unhappy with the electoral results. This path thus also leads to a bifurcation.

In one direction, the force of change would not need to ally with big capital, which fears change even more than it fears the predatory appetite of the new capital. The voters' support would be massive enough to break down the most powerful resistance to change coming from the power groups. This scenario would imply serious instability at first, generated by the power groups themselves. Faced with this, big capital could be expected to sacrifice its current allies from new capital without a backward glance, and make the adaptations required to coexist with a political force that, though plebian, would have a rightwing ideology: absolute defense of private property rights and liberal democracy. Nicaragua's move to the right would be the fruit of a desperate movement of its people to find a better life, an alternative it no longer finds in the bourgeoisified political leadership that capitalized on left rhetoric. Support for Liberal presidential candidate Arnoldo Alemán by significant grassroots sectors would be a direct consequence of the Sandinista leadership's capitulation to the current government.

The second fork in the path is less favorable. The change would be progressively weakened due to an insufficient accumulation of political capital and resources by the forces that promoted it and to strong resistance by new capital in alliance with traditional big capital. In this scenario the new government would have to implement measures that contradict its electoral platform: it would sanction the property law and leave the most scandalous cases of abuses in impunity. There might be symbolic punishments, but only for a few from both piñatas who had already fallen from grace. Continuing to pursue change would imply the logic of a war of positions, in which the new government would have to simply administer the crisis and patiently accumulate enough resources and organized social support to very gradually dislodge the elements of continuity.

The instability that would grow out of such tensions would not only be at the beginning, but would be a constant throughout the new government's term. Lacking the capacity to politically secure its power, the government would move between the need to fulfill its electoral promises and that of cohabiting with the ever challenging forces of continuity. The political opening would freeze over at its current levels and the popular mandate would be harnessed to the conditions set by new capital. Tendencies toward the political system's "internal balkanization" would become stronger, wresting away even more of the remaining coherence and strength of a political system locked into a situation in which democracy is not consolidated. This would facilitate the continuation of the tutelage relationship with the international financial institutions, limiting anti poverty actions to focalized programs and maintaining the priority of stabilization over the need for economic growth and massive job generation.

The country's immediate future is caught in these dilemmas. No option has a clear road free of conflicts, instability or social and political antagonism. There is no room for illusions. Generally speaking, royal roads don't exist and even less so in political and social systems that are in transition like ours. Reality shows us that no clear conditions exist for either change or continuity. There is too much immaturity in the political system for the radical version of either of the two options. Continuation leads directly to the "Africanization" of the country and to its later "Lebanonization." It is a sure recipe for ongoing explosiveness in the social conflict. Change, even though backed by the population's aspirations, will encounter strong resistance from the minority power groups. If it comes "all at once," it presumes an initial stage of great instability which would only become manageable, without suppressing the conflict, through a new social consensus about what kind of country and society should be built. If it is an ordered and slow change, it will, like all intermediate solutions, partly postpone the problems and partly resolve them, but at the cost of greater tensions and pushing and pulling in the government administration.

The indispensable variable at this crossroads is the action of the citizenry. Lacking organizational form, people will tend to express themselves spontaneously and ephemerally. Only a renewed grassroots movement, autonomous from current party expressions and constituted as a permanent centralizing pole, could play a decisive role in renewing the national political culture.

Who Are the Continuists?

The positions and current dynamics of the different political forces provide the basis for these scenarios. Seen from their possible historic actions, these political forces basically present a dual configuration, even though all speak of change, of fighting poverty and pulling the country out of its stagnation and poverty. Beyond their speeches, the groupings that are emerging and those already acting present seemingly surprising alignments.

Passionate defenders of continuism are not found only in the ranks of new capital represented by the FSLN leadership or by Antonio Lacayo's PRONAL. The majority of those vying for the political "center" are openly or shyly grouping in the continuist direction. In fact, recent attempts to put together a charismatic candidacy before whom both Lacayo's and the FSLN's kingmakers would bow points in that direction. The basis of an accord with such a charismatic leader would leave the abuses of the two piñatas and the excesses committed by the Chamorro government untouched. The philosophy is simple: why cry over spilt milk? The problem is that this isn't a simple operation of turning over a new leaf to gain stability. The property issue is a still open account that generates instability and polarization.

The elitist right is disposed to reach a political arrangement with both the FSLN and PRONAL. This is consistent with the aspiration of traditional big capital, which desires neither change nor more political instability. Nonetheless, it is in no hurry to nail down this arrangement with either of them, since it is trying to get maximum mileage out of any such pact without getting locked into a clear and formal alliance that would put it in the same photo with politicians repudiated by broad segments of the population. It needs "new faces" to legitimize an agreement among such disparate forces. So far, none have been found, and the clock is ticking. The Supreme Electoral Council has set May 17 as the final date to register parties, alliances and candidates for the ballots.

The Conservative party and the notable families linked to it have tried to capitalize on the Catholic Church's support for the "reconciliation of the Nicaraguan family" by also playing this card. But the Conservatives, still split and unable to cement their "great green alliance," have moved too hastily with a unity formula. The triumph of the young businessman Noel Vidaurre and poet Pablo Antonio Cuadra's withdrawal from the electoral race smack more of defeat than victory, and show the extreme weakness of the Conservatives, who are wavering between discovery of their own charismatic figure and their propensity to pact. Behind the Conservative gamble to come to terms with a stable system to "administer the crisis" and guarantee continuism is the fear of big capitalists such as the Pellas family, whose situation would worsen if change were to occur. In this dynamic, big capital is in no great rush to arrange a beneficial deal.

Who's in the Center?

Most other political expressions are empty shells for rent, such as Tablada's Socialist Party, or empty shells with purist principles, such as Miriam Argüello's Conservatives or Virgilio Godoy's Independent Liberal Party. UNO 96 is a new electoral alliance announced on March 10 by Alfredo César, its self proposed presidential candidate, head of the Democratic National Party (PND) and one of those most visibly responsible for the crisis and subsequent break up of the 1990 UNO coalition. The other two members of the alliance are the Nicaraguan Democratic Movement Social Democrat like the PND and the Conservative Action Movement (MAC).

The Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) has been forced into this same game, since, like all these other small parties, it is trying to occupy the non existent political center. Without clear social bases and subject to political opportunism despite their either pragmatic or highly principled rhetoric, all these parties are tending to cave in to one of the main forces under the threat of ending up on the sidelines of the political arena. They are forced into the political alliance game by their own numerical weakness and their lack of clear support from any of the business groups.

Lacayo's PRONAL and the Arriba Nicaragua Movement of banker Alvaro Robelo are two cases meriting special mention. Like the MRS and the Christian Democratic Union (UDC), both of these groupings decided to situate themselves in the center and try to gather the small reformist parties around them, consolidating an alliance with the business class. Unlike so many other micro parties, they are not after a multi party alliance. There are two reasons for this: one is that both want to appear as a new political force that is an attractive option for change, and the other is that they don't need these alliances because they are financially self sufficient. Both have managed to quickly set up national political machines by providing jobs to "followers" staffing local campaign offices. Today's unemployment level makes it easy to find such hangers on, but the problem is that they don't put much conviction into their political proselytizing it is in direct proportion to the size of their paycheck.

Of the two, Robelo's group has had more success so far, mainly because he has mounted a good publicity campaign and was virtually unknown until just a few months ago. The "mystery" of Robelo's background makes his surprising candidacy as attractive as it is dangerous.

PRONAL, on the other hand, has been burned as a political option by Lacayo's bull headed authoritarianism. Legislators from various parties got so fed up with the executive legislative battles that they took their revenge through the constitutional reform inhibiting his candidacy as a relative of the incumbent. That move, in turn, so enraged the executive branch that it came close to wiping out the institutionality of the state altogether. Though that did not happen, serious damage was done to these fragile institutional structures and its aftermath is still bogging down the development of the elections.

The protracted muscle flexing by both branches over the inhibitions eroded Lacayo's image even more, leaving him unattractive to big capital as the champion of the continuity and stability they want. He is seen as one more member of the large club of politicians who would rather lead the country over the cliff than give up one iota of power. Despite Lacayo's presidential delirium, he will probably have to settle for pulling the strings from behind the stage, putting aside his own candidacy and seeking an alliance with other political forces favoring continuity.

The FSLN's Dilemma

Finally we come to the two biggest forces in the country, both with populist characteristics, although in the FSLN's case now without the clearly anti oligarchic bent of candidate Arnoldo Alemán's Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC).

Neither the FSLN nor the Liberal Alliance controlled by the PLC has a clearly defined profile with respect to the social control that traditional capital can exercise over them. In the FSLN's case, its piñateros and even its more legitimate new capitalists have a contradictory relationship with traditional capital; they are both partners and rivals at the same time. Alemán's Liberals have less interests in common with big national capital and are rather associated with US Cuban and Somocista capital in Miami.

The FSLN houses a leadership bourgeoisified by the piñata and a huge base of unemployed and desperate poor spread throughout the country, who still see in Sandinismo a hope for the return of the good times of state paternalism. The FSLN leaders, like those of PRONAL, are concerned to preserve their acquisitions and are proposing a "national accord" as a mechanism to legitimize their accumulation. That is why this powerful rich minority of the FSLN is making all the key decisions regarding the elections. It shares big capital's interest in continuing to enjoy its use of the status quo while trying to maintain its quotas of power in different state institutions.

The FSLN will hold its second ordinary Congress on May 4 5, in which 600 delegates (450 to be elected for the purpose on April 20 21 and 150 who will participate by their own historic right) will elect the party candidates for President and Vice President of the Republic and the 20 national, or at large, National Assembly legislators. They will also ratify the departmental and local candidates elected in the party primary held in February. The FSLN is taking the longest time to decide on its presidential candidate of any party. The competition for the presidential candidacy between Daniel Ortega and human rights activist Vilma Núñez has taken on new importance after a poll done in March showed that the distance between Liberals and Sandinistas would close by almost 10 points if Núñez were the FSLN candidate.

Although its support has eroded, the FSLN still has a broad, faithful and nostalgic base that will come out and vote. The FSLN leaders are ready to do anything to legitimize or at least legalize the two piñatas, but this requires willingly blind and mute bankers and oligarchs. The FSLN leadership's relationship with traditional capital is tense since it is based on blackmail and complicity: stability in exchange for forgetfulness. The FSLN's problem today is how to preserve its base's intention to vote if it enters into a clear alliance with the oligarchy and/or Daniel Ortega is not the candidate of this alliance.

Could Liberals Be the Change?

Alemán's Liberals represent middle sectors, professionals and a grassroots population that is also impoverished and desperate given the lack of alternatives. The politics of confrontation is still yielding dividends with this base, since it feels bitter toward the piñateros of both the FSLN and PRONAL, whom it blames for all its problems. Big capital does not trust these Liberals given their unpredictable authoritarian and anti oligarchic bias, to say nothing of their international links to powerful Cuban capital in Miami. As the real force for change, the Liberals are, at least for now, out of favor with big capital.

To win and reach some arrangement with big capital, the Liberals need broad voter participation, an open electoral process and a discourse of change backed by concrete proposals to improve employment and well being. They began moderating their confrontational discourse some time ago, which suggests some uncertainty about their chances of winning the presidency in the first round. They have thus begun to contemplate the possibility of winning in the second round, when all the votes for those who compete alone or in small losing alliances have been cleared away. If the Liberals pull a good margin (35 40%) in the first round, many of these losing forces will opportunistically climb on their bandwagon, leaving the FSLN and PRONAL out in the cold. If they get under 30%, an anti Liberal bloc could form.

There are many open questions about how the Liberals could assume an option for holistic change. It would first need a clear win in the first round. Winning in the second round would necessarily lead to more permeable political considerations by the forces of continuism. But even with a first round victory, it is not clear that the Liberals would push for an effective democratic opening, since that would to some degree dilute its direct power as a political apparatus though gaining it more legitimacy and leadership. This very broadening of democracy, together with the necessary modification of public affairs and economic policy decisions, is precisely what big capital fears. If the Liberals reconcile with big capital early in the game, all the hopes of the grassroots sectors will be blocked.

The worst risk facing an option for integral change would be an inability to pull together the grassroots sectors of different ideological bents to work side by side reconstructing the country. Any party skew in the new government would only generate greater conflict among the population, which in turn would only benefit the wealthy.

The first task of a government committed to change would be to take possession of the state apparatus and redirect it to the service of the popular mandate. This implies proceeding immediately to modernize, and reform the state, making it clear that the government is authentically national, not the tool of any small but well situated pressure group, such as that of the confiscated, the piñateros or drug money.

Alemán should be prefiguring within his own party the kind of state that he wants to install to achieve the changes the population craves. This is not yet clear, and his candidacy could end up being nothing more than an option for window dressing change.

Is Local Government The Only Hope?

This leads us back to the representation trap generated by the current political system. With access to electoral nominations and public posts limited to parties, the possibilities of democratic expression are restricted to certain interests. Since this is not true for local government, this could possibly be a hope for greater democracy, both participatory and representative.

Putting all its trust in one party basket has not produced good results for the grassroots in the past. The citizenry should have the opportunity to dialogue with all political forces and show enough strength to require the winner to fulfill the mandate given it at the polls. Pledging itself to a single party coopts and sometimes even annuls the spirit of the popular mandate. In the best of cases, this mandate is traded for substitutes such as more jobs, but not for a better quality of life or for political autonomy.

The electors, instead of expecting the miracle of a great leader or party or state that will resolve everything for them, should trust only what they are capable of effectively demanding, through organization and work. In some sense, the next elections are not about voting for the best candidate, but for the least defective one. The population should strengthen its organizational levels, first to prevent the possible suspension of the elections, second to make its vote count at the polls on October 20, and finally to make the next government work for it every day of the next five years, when Nicaragua will be entering the second millennium.

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