The Clouds in the Electoral Skies
Today’s clouds are threatening to rain on tomorrow’s hopes,
and the different ideologies don’t account for what’s happening. It should be the time for ethics, but the calendar says… ah yes, it’s just election time.
With less than a month to go before the elections, ominous clouds have gathered in Nicaragua’s skies. Snapshots of this densely overcast horizon give some idea of where Nicaragua stands as it readies for the first municipal elections in its history that are not combined with other, more overshadowing races.
No ado about somethingIt has been a long time since Nicaragua enjoyed a moment that could not be characterized as critical. Crisis has become so commonplace in all arenas—political, economic and social—that the concept is losing its meaning. The setting for the municipal elections is no exception, thanks to the Banco Intercontinental (Interbank) scandal, which exposed very worrying aspects of the nation’s fragile economy and very murky activities by some of its actors. For all that, it appears that nothing will happen, at least in terms of rectification, punishment or even honest admission.
The greatest economic swindle in the country’s living memory may simply end by giving the swindlers a coat of legal varnish that socially legitimizes them, at least formally. How could this happen? Easy. The swindlers are effectively untouchable because of their strong links with other powerful economic and political actors of different stripes and ideologies—including religious ideology. In addition, wars, extreme poverty and the cases of sudden and extreme accumulation of wealth have been pulling the country apart for some time now, causing us to lose our capacity to act and reflect on alternatives.
The fortune built up by the Centeno brothers—the culprits who defaulted on a massive Interbank loan that vastly exceeded the bank’s legal lending margin—defies explanation, as does the capital that their business consortium accumulated in only ten years. Denunciations by hundreds of workers who received stocks in "worker-owned" companies in the nineties and feel they were manipulated by the brothers into selling out cheap or else were outright evicted reveal at least some of the legal subterfuges used to amass this fortune.
The particular financial fraud that caused Interbank to go under was colossal and the "shell game" accompanying it pathetic. The operations discovered—or in some cases still only intuited—by journalistic and financial investigators trying to determine which shell has the money under it reveal even greater proportions to the scandal’s already gigantic size and are giving it sharp new angles. These operations include invented exports, nonexistent marketing distributors, paper companies, hidden triangulations, African connections and fictitious pledge bonds. The close relations with FSLN leaders enjoyed by some of the protagonists of varying ranks in these swindles are public knowledge.
The US$100-million "hole" left in the economy by this chain of swindles has had serious ripple effects. The financial scandal and accompanying revelations have damaged the entire national banking system, seriously exposed the state insurance company, put the country’s structural adjustment successes at risk and delayed the partial writing off of Nicaragua’s foreign debt within the HIPC initiative.
The increasingly weakened national judicial system does not seem up to either questioning or firmly and honorably dealing with such a huge crisis. But there is always the PLC-FSLN pact, which handles things its own way. It guarantees impunity by negotiating any new balances of political and economic power between the two rival groups, then "legalizing" what they negotiate either de facto or de jure.
And indeed, despite pressure from the international financial agencies to liquidate the bank, its stockholders, also linked to the FSLN leadership, got the Appeals Court to order the Superintendence of Banks, which has been directly intervening in the bank’s operations for two months, to cease any liquidation attempt. Instead, it was announced on October 8 that the Banco de la Producción (Banpro) will absorb Interbank, reportedly making Banpro the country’s most powerful bank.
The Appeals Court order may also serve to block any hearings against either the Centeno brothers or Inter-bank’s directors. To pay off Interbank’s debt with the Central Bank, which had to back the equivalent of US$63 million in savings withdrawn when President Alemán’s indecorous public announcement of the intervention sparked a stampede, the Centenos’ personal and business holdings began to be embargoed. The brothers have announced that they will obtain a US$70 million credit line from an "economic group in the East" to pay off their debts "as soon as our image is cleaned up in Nicaragua and in the world."
Those in the know thus say that most likely the crisis will all come to nothing, that it is already being sewn up. This mixture of resignation, passivity, powerlessness and complicity has shaped a particularly critical moment for Nicaragua, under whose cloud the municipal elections are being played out.
A discourse with The current climate of economic recession favors demagogic populism and shortsighted paternalism in the electoral campaigns and in the candidates’ image projection. Even the Centeno brothers have gotten into the act. After only one day of prudent silence when the crisis broke, Alex and Saúl Centeno have not stopped talking to the media, on the defensive and the offensive. In a paid report that appeared in the weekly newspaper Siete Días at the end of September, for example, the following declarations establish less than sublime bridges to the anti-oligarchic electoral discourse of both Liberals and Sandinistas, thus evoking one of the pact’s "economic underpinnings":
"There are some who do not want to accept that people without illustrious surnames can play in the same circle as big business. The sly attacks on the origin of our capital are coming from some five oligarchic families that cannot forgive the descendents of a humble but hardworking peasant, Miguel Angel Centeno, for having built up such capital based on tenacity and hard work. In 1938 our father sowed the seed that germinated decades later in what we now possess, which can only be called into question by those who believe that one can come into money only by being born on Granada’s Calle Atravesada... We are not leaving Nicaragua. We will face this whole avalanche of putrefaction that they want to heap on us. We are convinced that the truth will out eventually."
A grim economic panoramaNicaragua is not competitive. Its production costs are too high and basic inputs and fuel were very expensive even before the current round of petroleum price rises. Corruption, too, has its costs, making everything more expensive and in shorter supply. The trade deficit is enormous, national savings are scant and the córdoba is overvalued. The institutions are not consolidating but just putting up the appearance of doing so. The only progress is in material and moral poverty and in the obscene and selfish wealth that offers "handouts" to avoid having to deal with the challenge of equity.
Interbank bankruptcy made this already difficult situation even worse by severely eating into the Central Bank’s international reserves and increasing public spending to "save" Interbank’s depositors. In addition, the municipal elections have received no international financing and foreign aid disbursements are shrinking as a warning to the government over recent corruption scandals. International coffee prices have fallen, seriously adding to the existing financing shortages affecting coffee production. This set of problems is putting the current harvest at risk and will have an even more serious impact on the next one. It is estimated that 97% of the coffee farms in the northern area of the country are not functioning normally, and in some coffee zones 50% of the harvest could be lost due to lack of financing. The drought that ruined the crops in the first round of planting this year was followed by flooding caused by Hurricane Keith in areas that have still not recovered from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Mitch almost exactly two years ago.
A "party boss" cultureThe anti-democratic attitudes that are such a part of Nicaragua’s caudillista or "party boss" culture are alive and well in the campaigns. Because these are local elections only, various civil society organizations have made laudable efforts to promote a new civic consciousness among the populations of a sizable number of municipalities. They are trying to encourage people to get to know their candidates and their programs, understand the power that the Municipal Law gives them and embrace the need to participate not only by voting but also by collaborating with and even exercising their right to oversee those they elect.
The parties themselves have made no such efforts. Their candidates monotonously ask for people’s votes in exchange for food, T-shirts, sheet metal roofing, entertainment spectacles or paternalistic visits laced with empty promises, thus reinforcing the traditional culture that has characterized national politics for centuries.
Though it can be predicted that the November 5 elections will produce many Municipal Councils with members from all four parties running, the campaign is not preparing the population to cope with a democratic structure that represents its pluralistic reality. Not only that, it is buttressing exclusionary positions—Vote for X for mayor because if you vote for Y it will just split the vote and we will end up with Z!—when all three will probably end up working together. The crudest expression of this traditional confrontational trend was the message of the PLC’s vice mayoral candidate in Managua: there has to be a huge turnout for the Liberals "to eradicate Sandinismo from Nicaragua, just as we eradicated screw worm!"
Some key poll resultsThe battle for Managua is the decisive one, given the implications that the results could have on national politics a few months down the line, when the presidential elections roll around. An M&R pole done in the capital at the end of September, a little over a month before the municipal elections, showed FSLN candidate Herty Lewites as the virtual winner, with 38% of the intended vote. This strong preference goes well beyond the FSLN’s consistent captive vote of 20-25%. In fact, if he were running for President and his percentage in this poll held nationally, it would be enough to win, since one electoral reform to emerge from the FSLN-PLC pact allows a candidate to win the presidency with 35% of the vote on the first round. Lewites’ popularity can be attributed to his non-confrontational style and his avoidance of any appearances together with Daniel Ortega, who has racked up the highest unfavorable poll rating of any political personality over the past couple of years.
The M&R poll also revealed unexpected support for Conservative candidate William Báez, the Chamorro government’s social action minister. Báez has come up from nothing to 25.6% in only six weeks of campaigning, after the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) disqualified the party’s original candidate, Pedro Solórzano, on a trumped-up technicality. Báez has thus at least knocked PLC candidate Wilfredo Navarro, with 21.8%, into third place, while other polls suggest that he could even be in the lead by virtue of a "technical tie," taking into account the margin of error. All this suggests that these last days will see a hard-fought contest—or even fraud.
Báez’s surprising upward surge in the polls is largely due to repeated endorsement from Solórzano, who, contrary to Ortega, gets the highest favorable vote of any political personality and is viewed today as the potential presidential front-runner. Báez is also the only one who refers to the pact and corruption, and is recognized as a capable and honest professional.
In Navarro’s case, the open backing that President Alemán consistently expresses does little more than guarantee him the Liberals’ own captive vote. Saddled with the current government’s plummeting prestige and popularity and lacking any real charisma or ideas of his own, Navarro is unlikely to break through this barrier.
A Lewites victory would make Daniel Ortega even more obsessive about his own presidential candidacy while intensifying latent fears of the FSLN’s return to power in the 2001 elections. It would unite all anti-Sandinista forces and provide more substance and force to Alemán’s anti-Sandinista discourse and the Conservatives’ anti-pact discourse. It could also strengthen the new alternatives—the National Unity Movement (MUN) and the Democratic Liberal Party (PLD)—if they can avoid being thrown into the pit of exclusion by the CSE.
Forced two-party systemThe most solid public objective of the PLC-FSLN pact was to use the Electoral Law to force a two-party system that excludes any other political option, whether large, medium or small, that is not offered by these two "grand" parties. Repeating the polarized scene between Sandinismo and anti-Sandinismo, as in 1996, is one of the implicit aims of the two parties. Nonetheless, the dispersion and confusion characterizing the current political panorama is causing this forced two-party system to evolve, in both Managua and some other municipalities. In yet others, a more historic two-party system—the Conservative-Liberal one—is again taking hold. Meanwhile, the hardcore anti-Sandinismo that gave Alemán his 1996 victory and has kept the PLC glued together is showing itself four years later to be much more influential than the PLC had imagined. This polarization suits the FSLN fine.
Only certain parties are campaigning in many municipalities. And in many a victory for the Conservative or Christian Way candidates would reflect a genuine base and could not be particularly interpreted as a punishment vote against the PLC-FSLN pact. In Managua, in contrast, voting for the Conservatives could be interpreted as exactly that: a response to its slogan calling on voters to "punish the pact and corruption." Voting for Báez could additionally serve to upset the political panorama going into the 2001 presidential elections.
A limited spectrumThere is no left option on the ballot this year. Many grassroots Sandinistas, who automatically vote FSLN, do not see it that way however. They still perceive the FSLN as a leftist party that is confronting Nicaragua’s traditional right wing, which though divided between Liberals and Conservatives, these Sandinistas judge as the same. Many grassroots Liberals, in turn, perceive the race as a new chapter in the fight against a Sandinista return to power, and thus regard the Conservatives as traitors to this "just cause." Both Alemán and Ortega induce these false perceptions, but neither Lewites nor Báez are buying in.
A more realistic perception suggests that, among the three options with any possibilities, the election in Managua is essentially a choice between pact and anti-pact. More exactly, it is a choice between a structural project based on corruption and tied up in the exclusionary PLC-FSLN pact and an anti-pact posture that so far seems little other than a vote-getting slogan, though it could open cracks in the political cloud cover if it were to triumph. That the only anti-pact option on the ballot is the Conservative Party is not only due to the CSE’s arbitrary elimination of others, however. It is also due to the Conservatives’ own exclusionary sectarianism. They actively helped destroy the other, more pluralist and attractive anti-pact option represented by the "third way" alliance, first under the umbrella of the National Democratic Movement (MDN) and, later, when the MDN’s leaders were coaxed away, under the Sandinista Renovation Movement’s banner.
An historic opportunityWilliam Báez’ candidacy will clearly pull more votes away from the Liberals than from the Sandinistas. Alemán wanted to eliminate the Conservatives from the ballot through the same signature verification process that got rid of others, but the FSLN magistrates in the CSE skillfully handled the international pressure to keep them on. The FSLN claims it is not worried about Báez, but it is hard to imagine that his victory would be tolerated if he gets the majority of Managua’s votes on November 5. The pact would not permit it and the fraud machinery would roll into action. In any case, the conditions are created for the same disorder that reigned in the 1996 elections, and in such a turbulent river, the only winning fishermen would be the forgers of the pact. The question is, which one will haul in the biggest catch?
The Conservative Party (PC) is facing an historic opportunity even if, as looks most likely, it does not win in Managua. Preserving its age-old traditions, encouraging the historic dispute with its historical Liberal rivals and rejecting all Sandinistas, even those critical of the FSLN, will not help the Conservatives decipher today’s challenges. It is a bit ingenuous to imagine that a passing opportunity like the one the Liberal-Sandinista pact offers could lead the Conservatives beyond their sectarian and arrogant mentality, but they will only move forward if they can shake off these vices.
The "open-door policy" announced by PC President Pedro Solórzano might seem encouraging, but it is not enough. Entering through an open door only to find oneself inside a house whose rooms are closed off by the same excluding padlocks that led to the pact outside would be very disillusioning.
The Conservatives should not think they represent the whole opposition and all Nicaraguan capital just because they got on the ballot, have a tradition that goes way back, have attracted old and new capital and have in Solórzano a homegrown Forrest Gump on an irresistible roll. If they fall into that trap they will squander a real opportunity to welcome on board a large number of dispersed and honest people with constructive energy who no longer feel represented by any other choice on the ballot.
Fraud by numbersWhat began with fraud will probably end with fraud. It kicked off with the PLC-FSLN agreement to reform the electoral law. Next, the two parties to the pact split the CSE magistrate seats and other electoral authority posts between them. Then came the signature verification process, which decapitated parties right and left, as it were. Other arbitrary actions that eliminated candidates and options followed on its heels.
Once the track had been cleared of most parties and candidates, particularly the most threatening ones, the CSE was seriously questioned about a potential fraud that could even include the decision to print the ballots in the CSE itself rather than entrust this task to a private company. Anomalies have also been pointed out in the electoral rolls, the preparation of voter-ID cards and temporary cards, the propaganda it tries to prohibit and the indolent way it tolerates the President’s interference in the electoral process. For some months now, various opposition parties have been warning that on election day itself the real fraud will take place in the central computers, not at the polling booths. The Organization of American States’ electoral observer mission, which is not known for its belligerence, arrived in Managua on September 28 with two computer experts prepared to review and control the CSE’s system. Mexico’s famous "computer crash" of a few elections ago offers the reminder that we should also be ready for electronic fraud.
Costly unpopularity Arnoldo Alemán’s party is coming into the municipal elections with its lowest popularity rating ever. This trend is unlikely to reverse itself, and in fact seems to be worsening. The chain of corruption scandals and abuses of power, aired daily by virtually all the mass media, have put the PLC in an unenviable spot. The PLC has shown no signs that it is willing to rectify its shameless offensive to institutionalize corruption and demoralize virtually all of society, particularly the youth.
On September 25, the Office of Comptroller General (CGR) finally responded to repeated media denunciations of the state energy utility’s board for indemnifying executive president Edgard Quintana with nearly US$200,000 when he voluntarily left his post. The CGR resolved to apply an administrative sanction against the ENEL board members but determined that President Alemán should apply the sanction—which can range from a fine of one to six months of salary right up to dismissal—against "Tiger" Quintana, who enjoys the President’s trust. Because it is so close to the elections, the President had to make Quintana return most of the "appreciation" for his services—he kept $30,000—but did not feel compelled to relieve him of his post as the PLC’s national electoral campaign chief.
Something similar occurred with Byron Jerez last April. After being forced to leave his post as head of the state’s tax division due to international pressure around his involvement in the "check scam," Alemán kept him on as PLC treasurer. He will also be a top-of-the-slate candidate for the National Assembly next year, thus guaranteeing his future immunity.
Following the revelation of this scandal, the media has reported similar "severance fees" for other departing top-level officials in the presidential circle: the former director of the telephone utility, the former president of the state lottery, the former president of the state cement company, the former customs director… Most of these people have gone on to run for elected office or to work in the PLC campaign. The scope of the Quintana scandal and this chain of subsequent revelations led the National Assembly to draft a bill to prevent outgoing legislators, mayors and municipal councilors—all directly elected posts—from being indemnified upon leaving office.
It is abundantly clear that media denunciations have played a major part in accomplishing even the little that has been done to slow corruption. What the media’s arduous work has been unable to do is wring even a drop of shame out of those PLC officials accused of corruption. Not one of them acknowledges any errors, much less criminal activity.
Growing Liberal fearEven with its thousand and one problems, Managua is the plum for the Liberals. The polls indicate, however, that it will be a hard one to pluck. Losing in Managua means breaking with ten consecutive years of Liberal administration and, worst of all, could risk losing the general elections. It would force Alemán to change his strategy and perhaps throw him back on his idea of holding elections for a Constituent Assembly instead.
With the visible—that is, institutional and legal—part of the pact consummated and the two parties to it now squaring off to measure their respective strength in the electoral campaign, the Liberal ranks have the untenable sensation that the Sandinistas have "taken them for a ride." It is not just paranoia. In a society dominated by fear and corruption, the FSLN’s "militarized" electoral organization augurs good results. Fifteen thousand former members of the army and state security at the command of ex-security chief Lenín Cerna do not constitute your run-of-the-mill campaign machinery.
The PLC has no match for that. Alemán’s name may be plastered over all the highly visible infrastructure works sprinkled lavishly through the countryside thanks to international post-Mitch financing, but rural highways, bridges, roads and schools do not necessarily guarantee votes in a country where one strong tropical storm is enough to start undoing what was done. The Liberals, knitted together largely by their hackneyed anti-Sandinista fervor, government posts and perks—or the promise of same—cannot hold a candle to the Sandinistas, experts in organization, discipline and conspiracy, more able politically and more loyal to symbols and myths.
It goes without saying that in such a macho, confrontational political culture, the smell of the Liberals’ fear stirs a large part of the Sandinista grassroots into action—even those critics who identify themselves as the "FSLN Left." The possibility that the FSLN could defeat the PLC moves them to close ranks around the party’s red and black banner, even in the knowledge that it has been usurped by Ortega and his business backers.
The FSLN breaks new groundIf the FSLN can win Managua, various departmental capitals and significantly more of the remaining municipal governments than the 52 it now administers, it will put the Liberals in a tough spot. Among other things, such results would have favorable repercussions for the FSLN within the pact: it could negotiate the remaining agenda items with more force, or even go for more.
To improve its chances both now and in the general elections, the FSLN urgently needs to move beyond the circle of its 20-25% captive vote, upping it to at least the 35% that was agreed to in the pact negotiations with Alemán. The most visible step in this direction was formalized on September 29, when Daniel Ortega and former Comptroller General Agustín Jarquín, who heads the Social Christian Union (USC), signed the first phase of a political-electoral alliance. In this agreement, all FSLN mayors who are elected pledge to respect a series of principles having to do with participation, ethics and transparency in their municipal administration. In exchange, the small Social Christian base and more importantly Jarquín himself pledge to support and work for the FSLN candidates. Other commitments and decisions will be established only after the municipal elections.
The FSLN-USC alliance—some refer to it as the "pactlet"—is presented to society as a gesture of tolerance and new understanding between historic enemies, but it was born of the need that Ortega and the FSLN upper echelons have to repackage their discredited image. Unlike typical electoral alliances, Jarquín’s role is not so much to deliver votes as to be a kind of "internal comptroller" who will guarantee—particularly to the international community—that the FSLN will jettison the corruption and impunity that form the basis of its pact with the PLC upon taking power.
It is also to deliver the endorsement of the Christian Democratic International, to which his party belongs. Christian Democrats are in power in several Latin American countries now, and their dream for Nicaragua may in fact be modeled after Chile, in which Christian Democrat Eduardo Frei governed in an alliance with the Socialist Party. Be that as it may, the Christian Democrats of America do not have a reputation for being soft on the Left, so their support for Jarquín’s pursuit with the FSLN, which he seems to have acquired after meeting with several international representatives, is an important part of what he brings to this deal.
If in some months, an Ortega-Jarquín presidential ticket grows out of this alliance, as the speeches and applause by those participating in the announcement of the alliance tried to induce, Jarquín will face another immense challenge. It will be to convince citizens who saw him as Nicaragua’s last moral bulwark that his willingness to gamble on this alliance does not imply a divorce between his private and public ethics. It is a risky gamble: Jarquín could rapidly erode all the ethical capital he has so carefully built up over the years at such cost, beginning the eighties jailed by the Sandinista government for his critical opposition and ending the nineties jailed by the Liberal government for the same reason.
It is also a strange gamble. Daniel Ortega, protected by his parliamentary immunity from having to face criminal proceedings for the serious sexual crime he has been accused of, is the most pathetic exponent of this dangerous divorce. Jarquín would argue that today’s particular two-party lock on the country obliged him to at least pursue the invitation to negotiate with the FSLN in the hope that its need for his ethical endorsement could produce concrete and enforceable commitments to reform within the party. To sit this one out, in his view, would be to contribute to the consolidation of the PLC’s dictatorial tendencies. Minds more steeped in the cynicism that the recent years have brewed would claim that his acceptance of this role can only be explained by the pragmatism that the impatient search for power triggers, even when understood as a desire to serve one’s people.
One question will The PLC’s erosion, coupled with its fear of being defeated, tricked and outdone by its partner in the pact, explain in part why, so soon before the elections, there are still rumors that the government could decide to suspend or postpone them.
remain till the end
On September 27, FSLN legislator Víctor Hugo Tinoco, commenting on the National Assembly’s notable sloth—vacations starting in mid-July and lasting through August, and a single plenary session lasting all of 15 minutes during the whole of September—did not discard the possibility that it was calculated. He suggested that it might have been "part of a desperate government plan to create uncertainty and chaos in an attempt to suspend the elections, as the PLC is anguished by the fact that it is going to lose many municipal governments and then the general elections."
Inexplicably, no line for the municipal elections has ever appeared in this year’s national budget, and no donor country has given the government so much as a dollar to finance them, despite the government’s repeated requests. Financing elections with national resources is a heavy additional burden for such an economically over-dependent country, not to mention one whose economy is suffering the effects of the Interbank financial scandal. While that argument may not be enough to justify suspending or delaying the elections, it could serve the government to justify imposing limits on the few international observers who come if they dare criticize the disorganization or lack of transparency likely to occur that day. How easy it will be to retort that if they were not willing to pay the piper, they cannot be choosy about the tune.
Uncertain participationThe possible level of abstention is another unknown. It could even depend on the climatic conditions. On November 5, the country, or part of it, could be suffering some tropical storm or even hurricane—or the effects that follow in its wake as was the case at this very time in 1998, with Mitch.
In the municipal elections, where no minimum percentage is required to be elected, a high abstention level will not make any difference in the results. A repeat performance in the general elections, however, while favoring the pacting parties who have a certain guaranteed captive vote, could make it difficult for the PLC or the FSLN to reach the required 35% of the valid votes needed to win in the first round.
Naturally, a significant abstention or annulling of votes in these municipal elections will tarnish the legitimacy of the election results, particularly since the electoral process itself has already been tarnished by the authorities conducting it, who did not come into it with much legitimacy in the first place. In 1996, when the choices were clearer and the setting itself less confusing, the CSE reported that 27% of registered voters either did not show or annulled their vote. But, for reasons only known by it, the CSE included in that category all those whose vote was annulled for them by poll officials who threw whole sacks of ballots into ditches and went home in disgust. The 1990 elections offer a more reliable yardstick with just under 14% abstention.
What will the percentage be in 2000? It needs to be kept in mind that if political parties in a country like Nicaragua are increasingly like high-paying employment agencies, electoral campaigns here and nearly everywhere else in the world are a lot like entertainment spectacles or sports competitions. The call to fanaticism and loyalty to one’s own colors eventually dulls or even buries doubts, apathy and suspicion. In Nicaragua’s case, the FSLN commands this kind of uncritical loyalty more than any other party, so generalized apathy will favor it.
Getting off to a bad startThe electoral campaign officially kicked off on September 21. The FSLN and the PLC had, of course, begun much earlier in Managua and various other municipalities, and especially in the national media.
At the start of the race, President Alemán, also honorary PLC president, set the worst individual example of electoral ethics. Unable to hide the fear that William Báez’s candidacy had created within PLC ranks, he crudely disqualified the Conservative candidate in an interview by claiming that he had had a "nervous breakdown" upon leaving Nicaragua "after falling out with Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas." Alemán went so far as to claim that Báez’s family had been obliged to seclude him in the basement of a house in Washington for three years, and, lest anyone should miss his point, he added that someone with such a history was incapable of assuming such a demanding post. Perhaps he was still chafing at the resolution several legislators submitted to the National Assembly that he himself be removed from office due to mental incapacity.
Only days before this interview, representatives of all four political parties running in the municipal elections had, at the urging of the United Nations Development Program’s office in Managua, signed a Letter of Ethics. The obvious goal was to promote democratic conduct by getting the parties, their candidates and members to pledge to respect others’ opinions and abstain from offending, slandering or disqualifying their adversaries.
The Letter of Ethics was drafted in the framework of a project called Transmission of Local Governments 2000, which the UNDP is sponsoring to help form and inform both the citizenry and the candidates so that the transition of municipal authorities will strengthen local power and citizen awareness. In the first national encounter of mayoral candidates, Carmelo Angulo, the UNDP resident representative in Nicaragua, implicitly chided President Alemán for his disqualification of Báez and his other partisan interference in the process. "Not only candidates, but also the parties’ national political leaders," he explained, "committed themselves to maintaining a respectful attitude toward their adversaries, and toward their private life and personal profile. All people, of whatever level, must be respectful.’
On September 26, Báez and his wife publicly denied the President’s claim and the Conservative Party leadership requested that the CSE judge the President for slander under the Electoral Law. The CSE did nothing, and former health minister Martha McCoy, debuting in her new post as presidential spokesperson, outdid herself by issuing a communiqué stating that the President had nothing to retract because his remark never offended either Báez or his family.
Meanwhile, the CSE itself gave the worst institutional example of electoral ethics by censoring a Conservative Party TV spot in which Solórzano draws a line, reminding viewers of the one arbitrarily drawn just in front of his house when Alemán gerrymandered the new municipality of El Crucero to disqualify him as a mayoral candidate for Managua. Solórzano’s line, however, separates "the sons of the pact and corruption from those who are honest" and asks people to vote for the Conservatives. Apparently, the PLC and the FSLN, measuring the strong impact of the spot, had insisted on suppressing it. The censorship sparked strong public discontent and the CSE had to backpedal, using various formalities before finally retracting its decision as if it had never been made. It was a clear triumph for the media, which echoed the public outcry against all censorship.
Three clouds must Analyzing these last days before the elections, "political meteorologists" report three elements "clouding" the consciousness of both individuals and social groups: sectarianism, opportunism and pessimism.
be cleared away
The political environment makes it easy to get swallowed up in these clouds. Ideologies no longer offer guidance in envisioning constructive ways out of the deep national crisis. Ethics will have to be the measure to get us all past the sectarianism of seeing honesty only among "my people," the shortsighted opportunism that the whiff of power always generates, and the pessimism that prevents us from being able to look beyond today’s dismal news and imagine fairer weather ahead.