First Identikit of the Four Bands
This year’s electoral line-up is now official: four bands are within striking range of the coveted presidency. What we don’t yet know is the political, economic, social and cultural score
each is proposing as its particular marching music—i.e. its program, though all of the major candidates have hummed a few bars for us. Until we know their vision of the future, there’s no public debate—without which polls mean little.
One definition of band is a musical group, with its repertoire, instruments, fans, managers and patrons. Another is a group organized to commit evil deeds and illicit actions. In the current electoral scene, both meanings weave together, making it hard to distinguish wheat from chaff, bands from bands, with everyone aspiring to that third band for which they all claim to be willing to sacrifice so much: the presidential band, or sash. It’s equally hard to analyze the abrupt lurches observed in the different bands in recent months. But despite every-thing, we can now attempt to put together a first identikit of each electoral aspirant.
The end of the bipartite scheme?Four alliances and one party will be competing in the November 5 elections. In 1996, we were treated to 23 options, but all except 2 were also-rans. The choice was between the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) and the supposedly very anti-Sandinista Consti-tutionalist Liberal Party (PLC), with the “anti” vote giving us Arnoldo Alemán by a good margin. In 2001, in line with the anti-democratic electoral law designed by President Alemán and FSLN leader and perennial presidential candidate Daniel Ortega to eternalize the bipartite system that favors them both, only 3 boxes remained on the ballot: Alemán’s PLC, Ortega’s FSLN and the Conservative Party, which proved to be little more than a witness to events.
This year, though the same elector-al law remains in force, the Sandinista/anti-Sandinista bipartite system forged by Alemán and Ortega has divided like two amoebas, doubling both choices. Although serious obstacles remain, this fracturing is very positive in that it gives the electorate a chance to try out voting “for” rather than just “against.” Will it turn out that way? The path is full of both political and emotional pitfalls, but it’s also very promising in that it could begin to change the closed institutional panorama into which the Ortega-Alemán pact has sunk the country.
It’s not at all sure that the electoral results will mark the beginning of this change, or even that all four options will make it to election day. A lot could happen between now and that Sunday in November, including the unification of the two anti-Sandinista groups, or the elimination of the Sandinista group that is taking on the FSLN. Politics in Nicaragua is often as slippery as it gets anywhere in the world.
Actors, colors and alliancesThe FSLN is going into the elections backed by what Ortega’s wife and campaign strategist Rosario Murillo has dubbed the “Great Nicaragua Triumphs Alliance.” While it features the FSLN’s traditional red and black, it continues to emphasize the strawberry ice cream pink lavished on palm tree trunks and telephone poles in 2001, while artist Murillo also throws in any other shade of the palate that suits her whim according to the moment and event. The FSLN is allied with various politicians and other personalities from the political rainbow Murillo is depicting (Conservatives, Liberals, Social Christians and the Resistance—nee “contras”), plus a faction of the indigenous Caribbean coast party Yatama, including two of its historical leaders and arch-enemies, Brooklyn Rivera and Stedman Fagoth.
The FSLN offshoot that is vying for the Sandinista and generally progressive vote is the MRS Alliance, consisting of the Movement for the Rescue of Sandinismo, founded over a year ago by former Sandinista mayor of Managua Herty Lewites, and the Sandinista Renovation Movement, a party founded after a number of intellectuals and other professionals split from the FSLN in 1994 in opposition to the authoritarian styles and procedures that are now suffocating the party. The alliance has adopted the MRS’ orange flag, with its familiar image of Sandino’s sombrero. Also participating in this alliance are the Socialist Party, the Civic Action Party and various social groups, the most organized and belligerent of which is the Autonomous Women’s Movement.
The PLC is running under its all-red “unstained” flag and a less ample alliance than the one that brought Alemán and Bolaños to power in 1996 and 2001, respectively. It currently includes the Christian Way and factions of the Conservatives, APRE, the Resistance and other Liberal parties.
The PLC offshoot, fed up with the hyper-corruption institutionalized during the Alemán government and the illicit actions of the Alemán-Ortega pact, is the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN). It is running as the ALN-PC Alliance, in which the main force is the Conservative Party, with his official seals. Also participating are other Liberal party factions, a sector of the Resistance and a sector of APRE. ALN-PC is flying the Liberal red flag adorned by what appears for all the world to be a white Nike symbol.
The fifth box is occupied by the Alternative for Change, a party founded a few years ago by dissidents from the evangelical Christian Way party and a few stray Sandinistas, which first went under the name Christian Alternative.
Left and RightsNone of the candidates uses the traditional left-right classification. The two alliances on the right have preferred to use—and abuse—the term “democratic forces,” a concept employed originally by Washington to refer to anti-Sandinistas, or more specifically, those opposed to Daniel Ortega and his contemporary antics.
The FSLN prefers to speak as a representative of “the poor” and to capitalize on the rise of the Latin American Left through speeches and by opportunistic sidling up to their leaders. With Latin American public opinion unaware of what has happened in Nicaragua in recent years or of the decomposition of Daniel Ortega and the FSLN, both are still seen by many as the only valid representatives of the Nicaraguan Left.
As for Lewites, Ottón Solís, the head of Costa Rica’s Civic Action Party, defined him during a recent visit to Managua as “democratic center-left,” a concept never before used in Nicaragua’s political pigeonholing. Sólis, a dark-horse presidential candidate who lost his own country’s March elections by only a hair, thus breaking that country’s traditional bipartite system, is reportedly offering solidarity campaign assistance to the MRS Alliance candidate.
It falls to the MRS Alliance to present itself as a Left with ideas, attitudes, examples, messages and proposals favoring social justice and national sovereignty, cutting a wide swath from the neoliberalism installed through programs and ministries—and especially in people’s minds—over these long years. If it can, it could attract the Sandinista voters who reject the control of Ortega and his coterie over the FSLN, as well as a majority of the independent voters who aspire to a more equitable society and a state willing to create the mechanisms and opportunities to achieve that equity.
The Ortega-Morales Carazo ticketDaniel Ortega has been the FSLN candidate in all five presidential elections in Nicaragua since the overthrow of Somoza, this one included. He won by a wide margin in 1984 but has since been defeated by the three successive candidates of a united Right.
Although he lost the presidency in 1990, Ortega never lost power due to his mastery at exploiting the contradictions and conflicts created by the governments of Chamorro, Alemán and Bolaños, negotiating, pacting and accommodating the FSLN as the “opposition” party to these three expressions of the Right in power. Many today consider Ortega, supported by the small group around him, to be the most powerful man in Nicaragua given the control he has attained in the state institutions.
Ortega still enjoys the nearly religious following of a sector of Sandinistas who admired him during the revolutionary years of war and economic crisis. Without being explicit about it, he is asking the electorate to give him a second chance, so he can show what he can do governing in time of peace. This “second chance” moves the Sandinista electorate at the same time as it panics the anti-Sandinista electorate. In an attempt to mitigate that panic, Ortega promises a government “of unity and national reconciliation.”
After his astounding reconciliation with Cardinal Obando, Ortega has selected Jaime Morales Carazo as his running mate. Morales Carazo is a banker, was the civilian chief of the contras in the eighties, Alemán’s right-hand man for many years, drafter of the PLC statutes and one of the main Liberal ideologues behind the heinous PLC-FSLN pact that began to be hammered out in 1997, the year Alemán took office as President. He began to distance himself politically from Alemán only when the United States did, once Bolaños came to office and launched his “war on corruption.”
Despite this trajectory, Morales’ candidacy was immediately accepted by the FSLN’s “hard core” voters, since they have come to consider any decision Ortega makes as another brilliant “strategic move” by their indisputable leader (“he knows what he’s doing”). While Morales Carazo won’t bring him any more votes, Ortega hopes that, as a skilled negotiator among the elites, he can build bridges with big national capital and especially the United States. It’s much harder to figure out why Morales Carazo accepted Ortega’s offer. His own explanation is that he was chosen and accepted because he detected “an opening and a more pragmatic and Christian conception of reality” in Ortega and the FSLN.
This ticket was announced in an Extraordinary FSLN Congress held on May 28 in the Rubén Darío National Theater to ratify the list of FSLN legislative candidates. Rosario Murillo opened the act with a message that included the following statement: “We are not politicians in the classic or traditional, eroded, devalued, exhibitionist and frivolous sense of the term. We are idealists, poets, human beings who come and go with a revolutionary purpose.” She added that “we will promote the art of living as Christ commanded: loving, pardoning, reconciling and uniting to serve, to complement and complete ourselves.” Daniel Ortega also read the FLN program, which lasted two hours.
How does the FSLN plan to reconcile the pragmatism with which it molds itself to circumstances and acts within the framework imposed by power and the Christianity that uncompromisingly questions order and power from a commitment to truth and justice?
The José-José ticketThe PLC, which has been both the FSLN’s partner through the pact since 1999 and its rhetorical rival in each new electoral race, is the political grouping that has undergone the most public convulsions during the choosing of presidential and legislative candidates. After its sui generis primary, Alemán gave his blessing to a presidential ticket of Bolaños’ erstwhile Vice President, José Rizo, and erstwhile ally, José Antonio Alvarado.
Rizo and Alvarado are both popular within the PLC. Both were co-founders and initial organizers of the PLC, along with Alemán. They are politicians with an institutional trajectory and recognized activism within their party. Both held different posts during Alemán’s term and both began to criticize him when he fell into disgrace during the first year of the Bolaños administration due to the acts of corruption he committed while President. Rizo was Bolaños’ Vice President and Alvarado joined APRE, an alliance Bolaños founded in an attempt to erode the PLC after becoming President. Alvarado even made noises about running for President on the APRE ticket.
But in one of the most considerable about-faces of these turbulent times, they both went back to the fold as the electoral deadline approached, recognizing the tried and proven persistence of Alemán’s leadership and above all the real possibilities of a PLC victory on the back of its impressive organizational machinery. The PLC’s very favorable results in the autonomous government elections on the Caribbean coast in March, despite all predictions to the contrary, gave wing to their already optimistic perceptions.
Rizo and Alvarado are proposing a “social liberalism,” as opposed to the financial neoliberalism so severely executed by Bolaños and touted by ALN-PC candidate Eduardo Montealegre. How will the PLC define this brand of liberalism, and where exactly will they put the social emphasis?
The Montealegre-Cajina ticketThe PLC’s main rival isn’t the FSLN, its partner in institutions and businesses, but the ALN-PC, the political grouping that has emerged from growing levels of discontent and dissidence within the PLC. This dissidence is caused by disagreement over the way the party is being led, Alemán’s un-shakeable control over it and the national and international consequences of maintaining a prisoner sentenced for corruption as its “maximum leader.”
The erosion of Alemán’s leadership as a result of his own acts and a US campaign to destroy it has fed the conviction that the PLC is an expression of the past, and that both liberalism and the broader anti-Sandinista electorate need new faces and a less corrupt, more modern Right. The ALN-PC has successfully tapped into this growing sentiment.
The ALN-PC’s presidential candidate, banker Eduardo Montealegre, was a minister during the administrations of both Alemán and Bolaños, with the latter slowly molding him as his successor in government. While Alemán tried to shove him out of the PLC, he stayed as long as he could, working the whole time to “de-Alemánize” the party. When that proved impossible, he finally decided to found the ALN, which Bolaños declared to be the continuation of his government. Monte-alegre is also the candidate favored by the US government.
Bolaños also tried to de-Alemánize the PLC, on whose ticket he had won the presidency, but all attempts failed. First he created the Grand Liberal Union, but that was a fiasco. Next he founded the ephemeral Alliance for the Republic (APRE), which gave its own collective lurch this month when some of Bolaños’ government officials split away from it to join the ALN band and others opted to return to the PLC. Bolaños immediately punished the latter by dismissing them from their government posts. The greatest lurch, however, came from José Alvarado himself, who went from APRE presidential candidate to being the “other José” on the PLC ticket.
To balance his image as an elitist, high-profile banker, Montealegre selected a completely new face as his running mate: Fabricio Cajina, a successful agricultural producer with influence in wide areas of rural central and northern Nicaragua and a proven local leader, having run a successful administration as Conservative mayor of San José de los Remates in Boaco.
The ALN’s gamble with this selection is clear: appeal to the most hardcore PLC vote—that of the rural Liberal grass roots, the anti-Sandinista vote of the peasant zones. Cajina appears to be the only vice presidential candidate with vocation and experience to design and oversee a rural development program, a task that previous governments have tended to ignore. But it’s not at all certain he’ll get the chance to do it. Given Monte-alegre’s track record with the past two governments, we can imagine that he’ll try to rally people around more of the same neoliberal policies, only insisting more strongly on a non-corrupt neoliberalism.
The Lewites-The FSLN’s great obstacle to a first-round victory in the coming elections—if, of course, the Liberal Right remains divided into the two groupings—is the MRS Alliance. The stone in Ortega’s shoe is a Sandinista one.
Mundo Jarquín ticket
This emerging group is a short-term electoral project that aspires to be a long-term political project. Of all the bands, this is the newest. And of all the tunes they are beginning to toot, its is the only one that sounds leftist. This alliance emerged unexpectedly a little over a year ago, based on the indisputable popularity achieved by Herty Lewites when he was mayor of Managua last term, thanks to his strong performance in the post and his talent as a conciliator. For the first time since 1990, a Sandinista in an important position of power had a consensus that earned him sympathies among non-Sandinista sectors and even some anti-Sandinistas. It was an opportunity begging to be exploited.
Lewites and other Sandinistas decided to go for it. But when Lewites announced that he would compete in the FSLN’s presidential primaries, Ortega and his iron circle made sure it didn’t happen, even though Lewites had been a party member for 25 years and had lost a brother in the anti-Somoza insurrection. Ortega’s authoritarian aggressiveness triggered unexpected and growing support for Lewites among dispersed Sandinistas who had long since distanced themselves from the party. They came together around the opportunity Lewites represented, scandalized by the lack of ethics and political coherence of many FSLN leaders or simply rejecting Ortega’s fourth presidential candidacy. Until then, most of these disillusioned Sandinsitas had “closed ranks” at election time, voting for Ortega as the lesser of evils.
Lewites is finally someone they could actually vote for with a clear conscience—he is widely recognized for “doing things” and for “living up to what he says.” He sought a running mate from the Sandinismo of the eighties and found an old and proven politician, whose long absence from Nicaragua makes him new to the majority of voters between 16 and 35 years old.
His choice was Edmundo Jarquín, an internationally respected professional who was a legislator and an ambassador during the revolutionary government and Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) official since the nineties. He is also the son-in-law of former President Violeta Chamorro.
Jarquín resigned his IDB post and bought a one-way ticket back to Nicaragua. His eloquent and impassioned declarations upon arriving in the country in mid-May gave the MRS Alliance more seriousness and solidity.
The MRS Alliance presented both Jarquín and its slate of legislative candidates on May 21 before some 7,000 sympathizers from all over the country. The banner adorning the stage read, “The only clean pact is a pact with the people.” At the same event Lewites, Jarquín and all the legislative candidates signed a public commitment to cut their salaries in half if elected and dedicate the savings to social spending.
Lewites announced that Jarquín would be the coordinator of his govern-ment’s social and economic Cabinet. Of all the vice presidential candidates, Mundo Jarquín seems the most capable of designing a program of social justice and national sovereignty acceptable to the international financing agencies that could extract Nicaragua from its shameful place as the continent’s second most hungry and impoverished country, only after the tragic Haiti. But for this to be its marching tune, the program needs to be defined without ambiguities, because the best Nicaragua could get from the IDB is a more decent neoliberalism. Nothing more and nothing less.
The Alternative for Change, which was part of the MRS Alliance for a few months, decided to go it alone with yet another perennial presidential candidate: former Sandinista commander and also former contra commander Edén Pastora—the once-dashing Comandante Cero. His running mate in this new episode of political adventurism is Mercedes Tenorio, a nurse.
Little numbers The many polls attempting to define the Nicaraguan electorate’s statistical panorama all forecast a very close race, albeit with their own variables. And all consider that a second round is a distinct possibility, even though a candidate only needs 35% of the valid votes to win on the first round, as long as the runner up is at least 5% behind. The latest national polls are showing that not even the front runner would get 30%; the undecided or “hidden” vote is still hovering around 20%; and Daniel Ortega and Eduardo Montealegre are in first and second place, respectively.
that speak volumes
Will the narrow differences forecast in the polls end up facilitating that “fine-spun fraud” that some analysis are warning the FSLN will implement to tip the election results in its favor? It certainly has the opportunity, since it controls the relevant technical divisions in the electoral branch: computer data inputting, ID/voter cards and electoral rolls, and electoral mapping.
A profile of the Nicaraguan electorate by the polling firm M&R shows that 40% of the voting population is Sandinista. This, however, doesn’t mean that all are current FSLN militants, much less that they are part of the coterie of fervent Ortega supporters. It doesn’t even mean they’ll vote for him this year. The other 60%, according to M&R director Raúl Obregón, comprises all those who are consistently either anti- or non-Sandinista.
Given that Daniel Ortega was the first candidate out of the gate, he appears in the polls with 24-28% of the decided voters. This represents his “solid” vote from Sandinistas. He’ll find it particularly hard to break past that limit this year, mainly due to the appearance of Herty Lewites, although he has not been helped by his own ambiguous, shifting, forked-tongued, dual morality style of leadership. In May, Obregón calculated that Lewites had already siphoned off 10-12% of Ortega’s electorate.
Without assigning percentages to the “solid” Liberal vote, Obregón believes that emotional loyalty to the FSLN’s red and black colors is stronger than that to the PLC’s solid red flag. As of May, he estimated that Montealegre had eaten away 10% of the PLC’s traditional voters.
Obregón insists that these elections will be decided by that 60% of non-Sandinistas who have never voted for Daniel Ortega and never will. Preventing the Ortega band from winning will be enough incentive to lead at least some of them to choose whichever of the other three options (Montealegre, Rizo or Lewites) they feel has the best chance to defeat Ortega. He also claims that this 60% includes a group—he prudently avoided risking a guess as to its percentage—that is well informed about the pact’s influence on the national crisis. Those people will never vote for Rizo either, leaving Monte-alegre and Lewites as their only options.
FSLN: “Strategic” listsThe vote for National Assembly representatives will be even more crucial than the presidential vote, due to the institutional crisis provoked by the pact. Only with a majority of anti-pact legislators will it be possible to roll back the agreement between Ortega and Alemán. Those determined to “undo such injustice” are only to be found in the MRS Alliance and—dare we hope?—in the ranks of the ALN-PC. The polls so far suggest that they will not win enough seats between them in the new National Assembly for this to happen, since changes to constitutional-rank laws require more than a simple majority vote.
On May 31, the four bands officially registered their list of legislative candidates. In a sign of the erosion the FSLN is suffering, only half of the militants who had voted in the 2001 primaries bothered to turn out for its internal primary elections this year. Ortega again made a few adjustments to the results, but without generating any visible discontent, partly because everything he does is viewed by party loyalists as “strategic” and partly because most of those who don’t feel that way have already distanced themselves from the party either emotionally or physically.
Legislators who are unconditional Ortega followers and are running for reelection ended up mixed together on the FSLN slate with equally loyal cadres from the party structures and local leaders—some linked to the National Union of Farmers and Ranchers (UNAG). A few political figures from what is left of the FSLN’s Convergence alliance—which until recently included the MRS—are also on the list, such as Social Christian Agustín Jarquín, Conservative Miriam Argüello and Liberal Julia Mena, all former opponents of Ortega.
PLC: tension-making listsThe PLC legislative slates, selected in departmental conventions, were similarly tweaked by Arnoldo Alemán to make way for allies to whom he had made commitments and to keep unconditional loyalists in their posts: his daughter, his father-in-law and party leaders pledged to the interests of the “maximum leader.” All this gave rise to disputes between the Rizo-Alvarado ticket and Alemán, whose negotiations got very tense. In the end, Alemán succeeded in imposing his loyalists, to guarantee his own political survival and perhaps even a future presidential candidacy, and to guarantee those elected the immunity-impunity that’s one of he perks for all parliamentary representatives.
Several of those imposed by Alemán are PLC leaders whose US entry visas were canceled due to acts of corruption. The battles over the candidate selection affected the cohesion of the PLC structures, sparking discontent and even dissidence, starting in Granada. The battles also resulted in the grotesque spectacle of seeing a convicted and ostensibly imprisoned felon like Alemán appearing in all the media, giving declarations, participating in political meetings and analyzing the dynamics of the electoral moment.
ALN-PC: a pro-Bolaños slateAlthough the ALN-PC held costly primary elections, they were only for show, because Montealegre and his circle—the “We’re with Eduardo” Movement—then also tweaked the slate, giving preference to unelected candidates, among them some 20 of President Bolaños’ officials, thus confirming that a Monte-alegre government will be little more than the continuation of the current one. The biggest complaints were raised over the inclusion of Bolaños favorite and one-time presidential hopeful, Pedro Solórzano, best known as the founder of the annual Ben Hur cart races, but now characterized for his inefficiency as transport minister and alleged acts of corruption.
The ALN-PC was the last to register its candidate slates on May 31. Up to the last minute, Montealegre was making all manner of offers in an attempt to bring the José-José band and other pro-Alemán leaders over to his side. He was only successful with Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, who suddenly started exalting the ALN-PC instead of the PLC.
MRS: Leftist slates? The MRS Alliance hastily put together its slate of departmental legislative representatives, based on surveys and bilateral contacts with those who are beginning to clamber aboard its bandwagon. The list isn’t as refreshing as hoped, or promised, with respect to young people and women with a history of public participation. There are also ethically questionable candidacies, such as Lewites’ own brother.
Both nationally and in Managua, the Alliance slate, however, features such distinguished historic FSLN leaders as Dora María Téllez, Luis Carrión, Mónica Baltodano and Víctor Hugo Tinoco, as well as distinguished business leaders like Manuel Ignacio Lacayo and William Téfel.
The FSLN’s assets The Ortega band’s most important asset is the 87 sitting Sandinista-Convergence municipal mayors (out of a total of 153), which include 95% of the departmental capitals and cover 87% of the voting population. Most of these municipal governments are functioning to the population’s satisfaction and there are already some indications that they will actively push Ortega’s candidacy. When Enrique Bolaños won the presidency in 2001, the FSLN was only governing in 40 municipalities, albeit with a majority of the more populated departmental capitals even then.
Another big advantage for the FSLN is its control over the technical departments within the Supreme Electoral Council, with all that implies in terms of handling vote-deciding procedures. Yet another important advantage is the electoral fuel implied by President Chávez’s promise to send Nicaragua 10 million barrels of oil—the country’s entire annual consumption—at solidarity prices.
The oil, promised in April, has not yet arrived because the Bolaños government has not decided—mainly due to ideological obstinacy—to facilitate either its storage or its distribution through Petronic, the state company. Ortega has promised that the cheap oil will begin to flow if the FSLN wins. What more concrete and attractive promise could one ask for, given that the entire population is aware that the country’s economic crisis—one that much of the population is suffering very personally and very severely, with no apparent end in sight—has been caused precisely by the rise in international oil prices?
Daniel Ortega could also enthuse people by promising to resolve the serious health problems affecting the majority, since he can count on the Cuban government to make good on his promise. What campaign promise could be more sensitive than this? And it’s a credible one: the Cuban government is already collaborating with doctors in Venezuela, Bolivia other countries and the “missions” designed by Chávez could be exported to Nicaragua.
Also in the FSLN’s favor is its proven organizational powers and the indisputable discipline of its remaining militants. And last but not least, even abstention will favor it, because its disciplined militants are more likely to turn out come rain or shine.
...and its liabilitiesThe party’s main disadvantage is its candidate. Daniel Ortega consistently pulls a negative opinion of around 60%, which could grow, generating very active antibodies and mobilizing fears of all kinds and sizes that will be hard to dispel.
And who will benefit from Cardinal Obando’s support? In the days following Holy Week, the cardinal was asked in a television interview if he believed Daniel Ortega was sincere in saying that he had reconciled with the Catholic Church because he was a changed person. Obando answered that “anybody can change, can convert. King David himself, who had killed and committed adultery, repented and ended up a saint, because the Lord does not disparage a contrite and humbled heart.” Implicitly supporting Ortega, he added, “Nicaraguans will vote for the candidate who is concerned about health, about literacy, the candidate who above all takes an interest in people with the least resources.” On June 3, Ortega and his wife, accompanied by running mate Jaime Morales Carazo and his wife, visited Cardinal Obando to seek his “blessing” for the FSLN’s government program, which Ortega summarized as a “preferential option for the poor.”
The great enigma: The PLC’s main advantage over its Liberal rival, the new ALN-PC, is its proven organizational machinery, which is particularly good in rural areas. Its disadvantages have to do with the erosion this machinery suffered following Alemán’s conviction and all the other ills related to his fall from grace—particularly the fact that the US government has spent the past four years trying to destroy him.
Does the PLC want to win?
The PLC’s position toward the FSLN in this electoral race is an enigma. Does the PLC want to beat its ideological adversary and pact partner or does it want to let Ortega win the presidency?
For the past couple of years, León Núñez, a former PLC convention delegate and self-styled political “soothsayer,” eschewing the designation “analyst,” has defended a novel thesis, now bolstered by Alemán’s direct interventions in the selection of the party’s presidential and legislative candidates, which has caused confusion and discontent in the Liberal base. Núñez believes that Alemán is intentionally weakening the PLC’s presidential chances to facilitate victory for Daniel Ortega, who has promised him that if he wins he will ensure the definitive overturning of Alemán’s conviction due to “lack of evidence.” This maneuver is well within Ortega’s power because he controls the Appeals Court, and this is the form of liberty Alemán most desires, since it would wipe his slate clean and restore all his civic and political rights.
Much of what we’re seeing in the PLC today seems to corroborate this hypothesis, which if true would constitute the greatest advantage Ortega could ever hope for in these elections. Does anybody in the PLC share this plan or is it being cooked up in the back room of Alemán’s hacienda-prison?
Whether there is any fire behind the smoke signals Núñez claims to be reading, the José-José band is faced with the dilemma of letting Alemán’s leadership and decisions prevail, which consolidates the PLC’s solid vote but weakens the two candidates, or cutting themselves loose from Alemán, which would give them credibility but deprive them of that PLC vote and the backing of the party structures.
To buttress his hypothesis, Núñez claims that something similar already happened in 2004 with Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Jr’s candidacy for mayor of Managua on the PLC ticket. Alemán ordered the PLC structures not to lift a financial or political finger in support of his campaign, all to ensure the victory of Sandinista candidate and Ortega sidekick Nicho Marenco—another deal presumably cooked up in the back room with Ortega and for the same purpose.
Núñez predicts that Alemán will do the same thing to the Rizo-Alvarado ticket he did to Chamorro. It would cost Alemán little political power, since he will still personally control the entire PLC legislative bench, which can be expected to be sizable. This suggests a dual campaign in the PLC: a strong one for the legislative candidates who would remain loyal to Arnoldo Alemán and the structures that support him, while the campaign for José-José would be cut adrift. Given nearly all voters’ tradition of voting a straight party ticket, however, it will take more than benign neglect of the presidential ticket to throw the elections to Ortega without risking the loss of votes for the PLC legislative slates as well.
Apart from what such a hypothesis says about the willingness of both Ortega and Alemán to see the country as nothing more than a pawn in their personal power game, it raises yet another peculiar image: for the past four years, Ortega has presumably dangled the possibility of this no-strings attached liberty before Alemán like the proverbial carrot before the donkey’s nose, always the same distance away. Is the donkey really so desperate for his freedom that he’s willing to continue giving power to the carrot dangler, despite the humiliation this brings with it? Or is he inured to humiliation because he and Ortega have reaped so much combined power through the pact that on balance he has gained more than he’s given away? One way or another, we will finally know the answer to this enigma in only a few more months.
ALN-PC: Money and media The ALN-PC’s main asset is the degree to which it is capitalizing on the PLC’s erosion. Another is the modernity projected in the deceptively youthful faces of 51-year-old Montealegre and 46-year-old Cajina. Two even more important advantages are the hefty campaign coffers they have access to, and the backing of the two largest rightwing media. Montealegre, a millionaire banker, is financing his own project. But he also enjoys the backing of big national and Central American capital, which is counting on him to defeat Ortega. Meanwhile, La Prensa and Channel 2 have openly backed Montealegre. La Prensa is Nicaragua’s most read newspaper and Channel 2 has the largest audience and geographic reach of any national channel. In a country where most voters can’t read but are increasingly abandoning the countryside for urban life and thus have more access to television and its ability to impose ideas and images, Channel 2’s support could be determinant.
The ALN-PC’s greatest disadvantage is the explicit support it is receiving from President Bolaños and the implicit support of many of his officials. Considering that the Bolaños government has squandered its original popularity over the past five years and is leaving office with strong levels of rejection for its coldhearted application of neoliberal economics, the notion that the young oxen will plow the same furrows is not a very heartening one.
In May, during a meeting in Vienna between the European Union and Central America, Bolaños finally threw his support openly behind Eduardo Monte-alegre in an interview with Nicaraguan newspaper, El Nuevo Diario: “I haven’t directly supported any candidate, but if I have to light candles to the Virgin, I would do it for that option,” he told the interviewer. “Montealegre’s fraction is the closest to the type of government that the Nicaraguan people chose in me. It’s not continuism, because that would only happen if I stayed in the presidency, but it is following the same model of economic, social and political development. Eduardo has more or less the same conception.”
Montealegre also earns low marks from discerning voters who worry about someone who has been so close to both the corrupt Liberal Alemán and the insensitive neoliberal Bolaños for so many years without a word of criticism.
MRS: The Sandinista rootLikewise, Herty Lewites’ closeness to Daniel Ortega for even more years, during which he said nothing about his abuses of power, hangs over his candidacy like a dark cloud. The silver lining is that this indicates that the healthy Sandinista vote is more discerning than any other, resisting cynical acquiescence to corruption as “business as usual.”
Another disadvantage for the MRS, in whose ballot slot Lewites is running, is its lack of economic resources, which it is trying to compensate for with voluntary activism. The silver lining of this is that it gives the group the opportunity to act independently, without having to play the tune of those who pay the piper.
The brightest light comes from the Sandinista dissidents who have been climbing onto his bandwagon. For the most part they are either clean or far less splashed by the mud of the past, although any political project has its opportunists. The image that Lewites himself projects also helps: he openly admits to having undergone a significant change of attitude after experiencing Ortega’s ruthless authoritarian-ism firsthand when he attempted to use the party primaries to challenge Ortega’s rule and ideas. Lewites’ good-humored personal style, which connects with the poor without scaring off the rich, is another asset in his favor.
The MRS’ main asset is its still relatively pure Sandinista root—also one of Nicaragua’s most valuable assets because it embraces the best and the brightest ideas and values of social justice. It can be used to organize the desperation generated among Nicara-gua’s poor and miserable by the pitiless advances of the neoliberal model in the past three governments and the desperation generated among so many Sandinistas by the FSLN’s decomposition under Ortega’s control. Disillusioned Sandinistas, independent Sandinistas, independent non-Sandinistas and impoverished anti-Sandinistas are all potential Lewites votes, and they represent the majority of the country.
The MRS held its convention on May 20, a day before the MRS Alliance presented its presidential ticket, its legislative slate and its government program. At the convention, party president Dora María Téllez analyzed the candidates for the November 5 elections as follows: “Nicaragua needs a Herty Lewites, not an Eduardo Monte-alegre, who represents the interests of this country’s oligarchies and wealthy so they can do more of the same; not a José Rizo, who is in the shadow of the most corrupt caudillo in Nicaragua’s history; and not a Daniel Ortega, who represents the spirit of confrontation, the pact and corruption, and who has abandoned the roots of Sandinismo.”
Ten days later, the MRS Alliance presented a poll conducted early in the month by the US firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, in which Lewites was first with 28%, followed by Montealegre (27%), Ortega (26%) and Rizo (14%). Two polls conducted by national firms during a similar period show Lewites in third place, well behind Montealegre and Ortega, although they also register a larger undecided vote.
Will Lewites and his alliance be up to the challenge of firmly and genuinely representing the Sandinista root and creating enough confidence to capture this both desperate and cynical majority vote? Only continual critical support will push them to give it their all.