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  Number 296 | Marzo 2006
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Nicaragua

Coast Elections: Whose Temperature Was Taken?

How will both the organizational work and the outcome of the recent autonomous elections on the Caribbean Coast influence this November’s general elections? Whose temperature did that electoral thermometer take? The following are some initial impressions in response to these questions.

Nitlápan-Envío team

On March 5, voters on the Caribbean side of Nicaragua had their fifth opportunity to elect the 45 Regional Council members in what is officially called the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN) and the 45 in the South Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAS). Never before, even in the historic first autonomous elections of 1990, have these races received so much attention from the media and national and international observers.

Most of the time politicians from the Pacific view the coast as a strange and faraway world of little political interest, but with these elections their meddling reached new heights, fueled by unusually high expectations. Although the coast electorate only represents 10% of the national total, national politicians wanted to project the results there as a trial run for November’s national elections. But is the coast really a valid thermometer for measuring November’s national temperature?

Just before election day, Alta Hooker, rector of the Caribbean Coast University (URACCAN), urged the Managua-based political parties to show more respect for the coast’s electoral process, to stop thinking of the regional elections as a mere dress rehearsal for November, ignoring the agenda of coast problems drawn up over the past year (whose contents she discusses with passion and experience in this issue’s “Speaking Out”). “The regional elections are held to spotlight the indigenous peoples,” she said, “but the national parties are pushing them into the background.” She added that only Yatama and PAMUC, the coast’s two regional parties, are denouncing this abuse and disrespect toward the coast.

Many reasons for the
high abstention rate

Although civil society, the coast’s two universities, community media and speakers at various forums and other events in the region urged voters to turn out, abstention continued its upward trend. In 1990, the year the FSLN lost the national government and the coast elected its first autonomous one, abstention was 21%, only 7% higher than the national average. By the second regional elections in 1994 it had climbed to 34%, by the third to 40% and by the fourth to 50%. This year, 55% of the region’s 226,000 registered voters stayed home, but that’s actually an improvement over the municipal elections two years ago, when the abstention rate hit a record 60%, presumably reflecting voters’ disenchantment with the national parties’ indifference and the insensitivity of the central government, which in the end holds most of the power.

Nonetheless, calling failure to vote “abstention,” understanding it as a conscious decision to reject the political options offered, doesn’t do full justice to the reality. For one thing, the electoral lists on the coast are far overdue for a thorough clean-up, and hopefully such repeated abstention will hurry the process along. An audit of those lists by the Institute for Development and Democracy (IPADE) just before the elections detected a huge number of people known to be deceased or who couldn’t be located anywhere, whether because they are dead, in prison, moved to an unknown address or are in another country. It concluded that the real tally of eligible voters should be about 180,000, a full 46,000 fewer than the current list. That alone accounts for 25% of the “abstentions” without even looking for probable political cause.

Another problem is simply the difficulty of getting anywhere on the coast due to washed-out roads and inadequate public transport. From this perspective, the limitations of a Nicaraguan state whose territorial fragmentation still prevents it claiming the status of national state, deserves a share of the blame for the low participation.

All this said, we can also fairly attribute at least part of the abstention to coast people’s indifference, weariness, apathy or indignation toward politicians and their parties. The national parties dominate the regional elections through their size and resources, not because they understand the first thing about the coast or even really care.

At least with respect to abstention, then, the coast doesn’t provide a reliable forecast of the probable climate of November’s elections. The traditionally low turnout of coast voters, for whatever reasons, is not reflected in the traditionally high voter participation in national elections in the Pacific half of the country, which is the envy of much of Latin America and should certainly put the United States to shame.

No earthshaking changes

Continuing the pattern of the past 15 years, the PLC and the FSLN split the bulk of the votes between them. They are far and away the two largest national parties and the most entrenched among coast voters due to their ongoing presence, manipulation and resources, not to mention the slow-to-change political culture. The PLC led by 13% (some eleven thousand votes more than the FSLN), far better than the party itself had anticipated, giving it 18 Regional Council seats to the FSLN’s 15 in the RAAN and 22 to the FSLN’s 12 in the RAAS. Conversely, the FSLN won fewer seats than it had expected, fewer than the polls predicted and one fewer than in 2002, despite spending over $1 million on its campaign this time.

Yatama came in third, winning 12 seats in the RAAN and a record 6 in the RAAS. It is one of only two regional parties and the only one deeply-rooted in the traditional coast population, particularly among Miskitus in the RAAN, but also among mestizos and Afro-descended activists in the RAAS, where the indigenous population is much smaller. The Multiethnic Party for Coast Unity (PAMUC), the other regional party, didn’t even pull enough votes this time to keep the one seat it won in the RAAN in 2002.

Yatama’s sizable bloc of seats in the RAAN Regional Council makes it an undisputed power broker, as neither the PLC nor the FSLN could push anything through without its support. The RAAS is a bit more complicated as banker Eduardo Montealegre’s Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance-Conservative Party (ALN-PC) pulled 5 seats. The PLC, just shy of an absolute majority there, only needs to woo one vote away from either Yatama or the disaffected Liberals who went with Montealegre. Conversely, all FSLN, Yatama and ALN-PC votes would be required to block it. Both the FSLN and the PLC have spoken of allying with Yatama to create a government—i.e. decide the 7-person executive board—and then govern.

Debut of the Sandinista
and Liberal breakaways

Although coast people want responses to their long list of age-old and current important problems, the majority of those who vote still apparently believe that the two main national parties, which have been accruing even more power for the past six years through their pact, are the only ones that could possibly respond. This perception is fed by the control both parties maintain over their elected representatives during each regional government’s four-year term, starting with selection of the candidates themselves—people without firm positions who are willing to put the party’s national interests over the struggle to construct true coast unity.

This year, however, the Caribbean elections saw the debut of two new national options that are seriously challenging these two parties. The Liberals not beholden to former President Arnoldo Alemán and his PLC competed under the red banner of the ALN-PC. And the Sandinistas disaffected with Daniel Ortega and his fierce grip on the FSLN competed under the orange banner of the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), the 1995 split from the FSLN that is now part of the Herty 2006 Alliance headed by former Sandi-nista mayor of Managua Herty Lewites. The MRS offered its electoral slot because the CSE has not yet registered the Herty 2006 Alliance.

In the Liberal ring,
the PLC won

The ALN and the PLC were the most insistent about using the coast elections to show each other who was who. Montealegre wanted to demonstrate to Alemán how many Liberal votes he’d picked up from a PLC that remained staunchly loyal to former President Arnoldo Alemán even after his conviction in 2002 for embezzling and laundering state funds. And the PLC wanted to prove how loyal its Liberal voters in the Caribbean region have remained. Traditional Liberalism has always won a majority in the coast and the PLC has been heir to that vote since it first ran there in 1994.

US Ambassador Paul Trivelli, credentialed in Managua last year, kept a close watch on this intra-Liberal dispute, incessantly interjecting his own unsubtle declarations to reflect Wash-ington’s determination to reunify the Liberals behind a single anti-Sandinista presidential candidate in November. The PLC, which chafes at every anti-Alemán remark emanating from the Embassy, wanted to show Trivelli that it still runs a powerful electoral machine despite its political erosion and a significant financial shortfall now that Alemán is no longer siphoning off government funds for party use. It also wanted to impress upon him and his bosses that an anti-Sandinista victory can only be guaranteed climbing on the PLC bandwagon. For his part, Monte-alegre needed to accredit himself with both the nation and Trivelli as the only anti-Sandinista able to prevent the Ortega presidential victory so many fear.

The PLC’s total of 40 Regional Council seats between the two regions make the ALN-PC’s 5 in the RAAS look pretty paltry, particularly since they cost Montealegre dear. He personally campaigned hard, traveling the coast from stem to stern and reportedly spent over US$2 million. What effect will the PLC’s universally unexpected strong showing have in Washington and on the Liberal rank and file in Nicaragua?

And in the Sandinista ring,
truth vs. hunger for power

Just as the PLC was running against both “turncoat” Montealegre and the FSLN, Ortega was competing with both the PLC and the MRS. He wanted to show his former Sandinista comrades, who chose to pull out of the Convergence alliance that contributed so much to the FSLN’s 2004 municipal victories to back Lewites, that he is still lord and master of the Sandinista electorate.

Lewites and the other members of this new Sandinista alliance robbed Ortega of any such glory by not engaging in his game. This was the only national group whose leaders realistically and even humbly declared from the outset that they had no roots or party structure in the Caribbean. Lewites himself admitted that his alliance was participating only because the exclusionary Electoral Law, born of the pact, would otherwise block his participation in November’s national elections. He acknowledged as he launched the campaign that he didn’t know the coast and hoped to use the opportunity to get closer to its population. It’s the only group in Nicaragua’s entire political class with the courage to say the unvarnished truth, and it deserves credit at least for that.

Running an austere campaign, they predicted that winning one Regional Council seat in the RAAS would be a significant victory. They didn’t even get that. For these reasons, it doesn’t seem realistic to apply the regional thermometer readings to the national results in the Sandinista corner. Any arrogant declaration by Daniel Ortega and the FSLN leaders to the contrary is merely a way to divert attention from the party’s poorer than expected showing.

November’s elections could
endanger the bipartite system

The 1998 pact between Ortega and Alemán locked their followers into a single project of institution-sharing and complicit corruption that has continued to this day, albeit with some ups and downs. In public, the upper echelons of both parties have jointly backed important decisions: constitutional reforms, the creation of institutions, new laws, reforms to old ones, appointments to high posts and approval of all measures required to make the global capitalism project being imposed on Nicaragua function as its planners and beneficiaries envisioned. In private, they’ve gone a step further, jointly engaging in many businesses.

Nonetheless, the pact has always given way to a free-for-all scramble for votes at election time. Each band fires its best shots—notwithstanding rumors of jointly rigged election results in 2004 to prevent Bolaños’ APRE experiment from winning in close municipal races. Bolaños handily won the 2001 presidential elections on the PLC ticket, only to be stopped at every turn by the PLC-FSLN lockstep voting in the National Assembly. The PLC also did well in the 2000 municipal elections while the FSLN’s alliance with the Convergence surpassed even its own optimistic expectations in the 2004 ones. Once each election had updated the correlation of their forces, they went back to business as usual: devising ways to acquire and share even more power between them, which their legislative benches then ratified into law. Now, in 2006, election fever has returned, with November’s presidential race following on the heels of the coast’s elections What retooling can we expect before November as a result of the outcome on the coast?

The coast elections are particularly unhelpful as a thermometer this time because of the novel political situation. The profound Liberal division between the PLC and the alliance around Montealegre plus the very real and serious rupture of Sandinismo create a peculiar and unprecedented election profile in a country polarized for the past 25 years essentially between one Sandinista and one anti-Sandinista option. Nothing in the coast elections cast doubt on the likelihood of four serious candidates competing in the November elections: two Liberal ones and two Sandinista ones. While nationally this endangers the very bipartite basis of the pact, it matters little on the coast.

Shifting sands in the CSE

Election day transpired without none of the violence or disorder predicted by some. Tensions in the last few days of the campaign reached such a pitch, however, that President Bolaños warned he would decree a state of emergency if necessary. Pure razzmatazz.

The tension was largely due to a political conflict raging in the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) since January, which could last until the November elections, or even get worse. The roots of this conflict lie in the 1999 pact-inspired decision to increase the number of CSE magistrates by two for a total of seven, of which Alemán and Ortega each got to pick three of their most loyal subjects. They further agreed that Roberto Rivas, Cardinal Obando’s favored protégé, would be the seventh and would preside over the CSE, tipping the scale when needed.

From the outset, the PLC magistrates divvied up the electoral branch’s administrative departments, handing out jobs to friends and relatives. Like bees to honey, they were attracted to all the financing that passes through these departments, since Nicaragua’s elections are the most expensive in all of Latin America. (The coast elections, which are admittedly complicated by difficult terrain and huge distances, cost the state $8 million.) Using better sense, the FSLN magistrates took charge of the technical departments: computing, voter registration, electoral rolls; in short, anything to do with organizing the elections. Having gained experience, they now control the electoral process.

Then in October 2002, Ortega initiated his “reconciliation” with the cardinal and official Catholicism. With that, Roberto Rivas began to move closer to the FSLN, giving it the added advantage of a four-to-three vote over the PLC at decision-making time. Since January of this year, that alignment has become so complete it can no longer be explained by the Ortega-Obando “reconciliation,” itself not very explainable.

Uncertain days in the
run-up to the elections

Rivas’ alignment with the FSLN infuriated and disconcerted the PLC magistrates, who in January began to express their fury by boycotting session after session, preventing the quorum needed to make important decisions in the run-up to the coast elections. They charged that the FSLN magistrates were cooking up electoral fraud and planned to give it a test run on the coast then apply it full scale in November. They insisted that the Sandinista-headed CSE departments had been turned into the FSLN’s electoral “command post.”

At times the tone of their denunciations was so strident and bitter that one doubted whether the regional elections would end up being held at all. The conflict climaxed with unusually indignant declarations from the normally measured René Herrera, the only politically capable PLC electoral magistrate. He claimed that Daniel Ortega’s control over the CSE had reached such a point that it would be better for all magistrates to resign their posts and simply proclaim Ortega President of the Republic, thus saving Nicaragua the high costs of November’s elections.

At a clear disadvantage in all technical-organizational decisions on the regional elections, the PLC threatened to pull out and refuse to acknowledge their results. That was when talk began to ratchet up of violent disturbances on election day and massive challenges at all electoral tables the next day. But there was no hint of any of this on March 5. An apparently fragile consensus was finally reached.

The coast elections haven’t seen so many national and international observers since 1990. The main national ones, with dozens of volunteers, were Ethics and Transparency, IPADE and the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center. CEDEHCA, a coast human rights NGO, also had observers in both regions. Among the international observer teams were the Organization of American States, with 23 observers, and the Carter Center.

Does the electoral branch
have any legitimacy left?

If the CSE’s credibility and reliability were already scraping bottom, the disputes accompanying the preparation of the coast elections relegated it to the pits of national public opinion. Nonetheless, the complete order surrounding the elections, with no gross anomalies, works in its favor.

A question barely being voiced is how much the CSE’s lack of prestige will affect November’s elections. Will the coast experience improve the institution’s standing? Before those elections, various sectors of civil society plus every party except the FSLN demanded that all CSE magistrates resign immediately afterward to allow the electoral branch to be restructured from top to bottom before November. Given the normality observed in the coast, will this demand still find backers? Even after the elections, PLC leaders offered their National Assembly votes for the appointing of new magistrates.

Is its crisis real
or only apparent?

At the center of the CSE crisis were and perhaps still are PLC fears of an FSLN-organized fraud and perhaps even of the FSLN’s electoral strength in the country as a whole. While such fear is fair enough given the FSLN’s control of both the voter registry and the electoral lists, how much of the crisis was real and how much only apparent? In other words, was it a genuine expression of the electoral free-for-all the pact permits, a fleeting fur-flying rivalry between two foxes that hunt together the rest of the year? Or was it evidence of what’s bound to happen when any fox is assigned to run the henhouse? Or could it just have been the PLC paving the way for its possible failure in the coast due to either its own electoral performance or the split anti-Sandinista vote?

Whatever the case, the smooth elections undeniably surprised the PLC. Now that it has demonstrated its continuing strength on the coast despite everything, what can we expect to happen next? Will the five Council members that Montealegre’s ALN-PC won in the RAAS be grounds enough for the PLC to keep up the clamor about possible fraud in November?

Alemán’s freedom
in exchange for what?

Could the PLC-FSLN wrangling in the CSE also be pure theatrics to mask one of the key deals rumored to be wrung from the Alemán-Ortega pact—Ortega’s presidential victory in exchange for the appeals judges he controls letting Alemán walk due to “insufficient evidence” once the November elections are over? Or might there now be a new twist—Alemán’s freedom even before the elections in exchange for blocking Lewites’ candidacy in a joint operation between the Comptroller General’s Office, which Alemán controls, and the judicial branch, which Ortega dominates?

The Electoral Law reforms agreed to by the two caudillos in 1999 give the presidency to any candidate who wins 35% of the votes in the first round as long as he or she also has a 5% lead over the runner-up. Ortega can only win in November if the Liberal split holds and he can force the Sandinista vote to unite around his own candidacy. Alemán’s imprisonment foments the Liberal division because the PLC keeps putting his freedom above all other concerns. But even if he’s released in the last months before November, that split is also guaranteed by the blind loyalty or fear this still-powerful caudillo inspires among a broad sector of Liberal voters, as indicated by the coast campaign, where the PLC played a tape recording of speeches by Alemán especially prepared for each district and neighborhood where campaign rallies were held.

The PLC strategy: An open primary and fear of Ortega

The PLC’s presidential candidate on November’s ballot is still unknown. Given the party’s erosion, fissures, lack of financing, disadvantages in the CSE and persistent pressure from the United States, it has been operating since January under a two-prong strategy aimed at uniting the wide gamut of Liberals under its banner. The first prong was an effort to demonstrate flexibility by promising primary elections and encouraging the dissident presidential hopefuls to compete alongside its own eight aspirants (all confessed Alemán loyalists). In addition to ALN-PC candidate Eduardo Montealegre, two pre-candidates are vying for the slot on the APRE ticket: José Antonio Alvarado (pro-Alemán) and one-time ambassador to the United States Francisco Fiallos (anti-Alemán). PLC leaders also invited all dissident Liberals outside the PLC to participate in these primaries, voting for the candidate they consider best able to defeat the FSLN, then rejoining the fold come what may. The other prong was simply to reiterate ad nauseum the argument that Ortega’s victory is assured if the anti-Sandinista vote is split in November.

The primaries were called in part to erase the image that Alemán would hand-pick the PLC candidate, but that image didn’t die easily given that the strategy was designed in Alemán’s hacienda-prison in meetings he chaired.

Alvarado, who has been begging Alemán for the candidacy, immediately accepted the offer to run in the primary, while at the same time declaring the need for anti-Sandinista unity. “If we don’t unite, we’re sunk,” he repeated every chance he got, to which the others chorused, “An election with four bands is a sure victory for Daniel Ortega.”

Montealegre just as immediately rejected the PLC offer. His firm ratification of his candidacy on the ALN-PC ticket was a major signal that a four-horse presidential race is the most realistic possibility for November. But that isn’t saying much in a country with so many imponderables and so much theater; no script can ever be considered final until the performance begins.

Four bands and a “wedge”

With the answers of both Montealegre and Alvarado already in, the PLC scrapped the open primary idea following its surprisingly positive electoral victories in the coast. Claiming lack of money, it announced that the PLC convention delegates would choose its presidential candidate on April 2.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that a two-horse race (Ortega and Alemán’s stand-in) will ensure perpetuation of the oh-so-well-known PLC-FSLN political pact and neoliberal economic model. If there are three horses (Ortega as the only Sandinista candidate and the Liberal opposition divided), Ortega is almost sure to get the 35% he needs. The only possibility of wedging open the closed political-institutionality set up by the pact is if both sides go into the elections split. If Lewites were to win, we could expect at least some minimal changes in the incredibly unjust situation to which we’ve become resigned. Even if he were to lose, the National Assembly might just cease being a cozy club where the two big party benches show up simply to ratify into law the schemes cooked up by their party bosses.

The FSLN strategy is
fueled by two rumors

The Montealegre-PLC split is indispensable to Daniel Ortega’s electoral strategy, thus Montealegre’s refusal to participate in the PLC primaries was a welcome sign to him. With the anti-Sandinista split still holding, Ortega must now turn his attention to the other big obstacle to his return to the presidency: the split on the Sandinista side.

Lewites has warned several times, most dramatically and most recently on February 23, the 72nd anniversary of General Sandino’s assassination, that “Daniel Ortega is desperate, and he’s capable of having me killed.” At least for now, the FSLN structures are limiting themselves to spreading two rumors among both the Sandinista electorate and the independent voters he’s competing for with Montealegre.

The first is that Lewites will be inhibited from running. The other is that his dissidence isn’t real; he’s just clowning around, and in the end he and Daniel will cut a deal and whoever has supported Herty will get hoisted on his own petard. Both rumors, which Lewites is starting to hear everywhere he goes, are geared to dissuading fence-sitters from supporting him. It’s a bloodless attempt to both kill political support for Lewites and deactivate dissident hearts and minds.

November’s crucial dispute

Ortega and his wife/campaign spokesperson Rosario Murillo repeatedly claim that “conditions are now in place for an FSLN victory in November.” For his part, Lewites swore on February 23 that “Daniel Ortega won’t win, either by hook or by crook.”

The only real chance of changing Nicaragua’s future for the better appears to lie in the battle between initiating the rescue of Sandinismo through the new alliance organized around Lewites and ensuring the continued stranglehold on it by Ortega’s FSLN. The coast election thermometer gave us no reliable reading on this dispute.

A very dangerous fever

Nonetheless, the coast elections could yet signal a new bout of electoral fever. The FSLN’s loss to the PLC there could push Sandinista leaders to take desperate measures to keep the Herty Alliance 2006 from weakening them even more between now and the national elections. The coast elections revealed the FSLN’s vulnerability and the specter of inhibition or the use of any other legal or illegal mechanism to exclude Lewites can’t be discarded in Nicara-gua’s political imbroglio during this uncertain electoral year.

Since even the slightest political temperature can quickly spike into a delirious fever in a country like Nicaragua, Lewites is entering a dangerous period for both his political movement and his personal safety. He knows it, and so do the rest of us. Expressing that possibility here and keeping it in the public spotlight is one way to prevent any power-driven fever from becoming lethal.


The Reactions of National Winners and Losers

The PLC: The party’s national leaders and spokespeople appeared satisfied with the high number of votes and Council seats the party pulled in the north and the south. They announced they would ally with Yatama in both regions, an obvious snub to Eduardo Monte-alegre, forced out of the party and into the creation of his own alliance with other disaffected Liberals plus the Conservative Party. Lest their point be missed, the PLC leaders also censured Monte-alegre’s Liberal Alliance for splitting the anti-Sandinista vote. While they found no fault with the electoral process, despite having previously insisted that the FSLN was organizing widespread electoral fraud, they said they would continue to insist on restructuring the electoral branch.

The ALN-PC: Eduardo Montealegre, the presidential candidate for this alliance and former finance minister in both the Alemán and Bolaños governments, said the ALN-PC exceeded its expected number of votes (it got 10% of the total valid votes, but only won Council seats in the RAAS). In his view, the PLC didn’t run against the FSLN in these elections, but rather against his alliance and him personally. He said the ALN-PC plans to improve its strategies in the forthcoming general elections.

APRE: For his part, José Antonio Alvarado, iced by Alemán several years ago for daring to challenge the caudillo’s leadership and now a presidential hopeful on the APRE ticket, called the PLC and ALN victories a “triumph of Liberalism,” and a clear sign of the need for all Liberals to unite against the FSLN. That triumph did not extend to APRE, which barely attracted any votes in the coast elections.

The FSLN: Given the party’s disappointing results, FSLN leaders diplomatically called the elections “a triumph of autonomy”—which it considers to be represented by Yatama and their own party. They affirmed their hope to continue the party’s alliance with YATAMA and thus govern in both the north and the south, applauded the Supreme Electoral Council’s performance and referred to Herty Lewites’ Movement to Rescue Sandinismo in the following terms: “We’re not surprised by the Caribbean Coast peoples’ evident rejection of minority groups that, having excluded themselves from Sandinismo, tried to sow confusion and deceit among their communities, receiving the most complete rejection as their only response.”

Movement to Rescue Sandinismo: Herty Lewites, the movement’s presidential candidate, accepted its poor results—fifth place in number of votes and no Council seat. He insisted that these results are no benchmark of what will happen in the Pacific in November, instead opting to view the upcoming general elections very optimistically.

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