Nicaragua’s Municipal Elections: The Good, the Bad and the Uncertain
The long-awaited and much-feared year 2000 drew to a close in Nicaragua with municipal elections that can be read in various and even contradictory ways. They justify some hope but also some well-founded uncertainties. The parties that ran, those prevented from running and those wanting to run in next year’s elections are all faced with an extraordinary challenge…
as are their grassroots supporters.
Nicaragua’s November 5 municipal elections came to a lamentable finish, with the governing Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC) leaders putting off recognition of the results for several weeks. In the meantime, they used all manner of tricks and treats to resist having to accept results in strategic municipalities that favored their partners in the infamous pact—the opposition Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN).
In a highly charged atmosphere in the early hours of November 28, the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) finally announced the definitive results. Although it came a full 23 days after election day, the announcement still beat out the final decision in the unprecedented US electoral melee in Florida. Between the publication of preliminary results on November 11—also days later than expected—and November 28, the top echelons of the PLC and the FSLN engaged in more or less tense negotiations over particularly close races. As a pressure mechanism, the FSLN’s electoral commandos organized rallies, marches, barricading of highways and taking of departmental and municipal Electoral Councils in some of the disputed municipalities—among them Matagalpa, Jinotega, Ocotal, Jalapa, Somoto, Condega and Diriamba. This tactic culminated with a nighttime demonstration in Managua led by FSLN secretary general Daniel Ortega on November 27, the date on which the CSE had promised to announce the "official" results. Later that night, shortly before the CSE’s detailed reading of them, Ortega elbowed his way into CSE headquarters to make his power felt, milking a moment in which the government was clearly losing control of the situation.
The relative winners and losersIn a strictly quantitative analysis, the PLC looked like a winner. It not only won the largest number of mayoral races, but also increased the overall number of municipalities it governs from 91 to 94 and got more valid votes than the FSLN, though only by little over one percent. These data, however, hide the fact that it lost 11 of the 17 departmental seats that it controlled, including Managua. The PLC won in the more rural municipalities and the FSLN predominated in the urban ones.
The bigger winner was the FSLN, not only due to its victory in Managua but because it won the other departmental seats that the PLC lost as well. This means that it will go into next year’s general elections with its new municipal mayors governing 60% of the national population instead of the 25% the party had in the last four-year term. This qualitative victory far overshadows the fact that it won exactly the same number of municipalities it had in 1996 (52), despite its boast that it would win 70.
Considering that the eligible voting population has increased by over 300,000 since 1996, it is relevant that both the PLC and the FSLN obtained fewer total votes than they got in 1996 despite their extremely costly campaigns. This popular backing for the two main parties was not lost to other parties, however, but to abstention.
The only two other national parties on the ballot—the Conservative Party and the Christian Way (Camino Cristiano–CC)—were at an institutional disadvantage since Sandinistas and Liberals utterly controlled the electoral structures; both made a much poorer showing than expected. The Conservatives, who won five mayoral seats, including their historical stronghold, the departmental capital of Granada, put the best spin on their showing that they could. They claimed they were big winners because the 14.5% of the vote they won this year was exponentially higher than the 2.7% they pulled in 1996, when they did not win any municipality. The Christian Way, which has a strong base among evangelist churchgoers and surprised the country in 1996 by rising from nothing to third place, barely got the 4% of the valid votes needed to retain its legal standing this year. After an almost invisible campaign, it won no mayoral seat and dropped from the 28 Municipal Council members it won around the country in 1996 to only 13 this year. In Managua, its candidate was the controversial and pugnacious Sandinista radio personality Carlos Guadamuz, whose defeat was predictable ever since he was dropped by the FSLN’s powerful machinery, and especially after Daniel Ortega evicted him from the popular Radio Ya. (See "Defeats and Victories" in this issue for a thorough analysis of the electoral data.)
The big loserThe big losers in the race were the government, identified with the PLC; the PLC, identified with the political line and caprice of its honorary president, Arnoldo Alemán; and Alemán himself, President of the Republic, who abandoned the duties of office to relentlessly campaign across the country. Once the ballot counts were tallied, PLC dissidents and political analysts of all stripes began laying the blame for the PLC’s electoral losses squarely on President Alemán, listing his corrupt activities and those of his family and inner government circle along with his anti-democratic and capricious personal naming of candidates. They also mentioned his constantly derisive attitude toward all adversaries, using unethical language that the virtually inoperative Office of Electoral Ombudsman never even warned him about much less censured.
Alemán and his loyal followers, on the other hand, blamed the losses on the Conservatives and the media for "exaggerating" governmental corruption. Some even blamed Oliver Garza, the US ambassador in Nicaragua, presumably for the same reason. A full week after election day, in a sui generis meeting held with Nicaragua’s Catholic bishops and priests, President Alemán admitted to one error. "We committed the sin of ingenuousness," he confessed to the clergy, acknowledging that the Sandinistas had been more astute than he.
Other reasons for the PLC’s defeat include its serious and very public internal divisions, the erosion that any incumbent party suffers, particularly in such an impoverished country, and its ever less functional anti-Sandinista discourse at a time when over half the population does not remember or never lived through the Sandinista revolution or the war that was its undoing.
Obsolete discourse... One poll done during this year’s electoral campaign showed that whereas a third of all Managuans defined themselves as anti Sandinista in 1996, when the Liberal Alliance dripped with an ultimately successful anti-Sandinista rhetoric, only one in seven did so this year. Independent of the increasing obsolescence of that discourse, however, the war of the eighties is still fresh in the minds of a significant part of the population, particularly in the rural areas, and the Liberals did everything they could to keep that ghost alive. They hammered on voters to recall the military service, the ration cards, the scarcities, the uncertainties and the difficulties the population had to bear during a war that ended ten years ago in a Nicaragua and a world that no longer exist. Although the FSLN obviously has no desire or ability to make revolution and there is no cold war to support a counterrevolution, a lot of people, mainly poor peasants living in the former war zones, voted to prevent the return of the nightmare they previously suffered. It is yet another index of their isolation, impoverishment and feelings of helplessness.
and "works of progress"
FSLN candidates, in contrast, asked voters to give their party "another chance, this time with no war" and many urban voters as well as some rural ones decided to do so. Both the polls and the election results themselves showed that Nicaraguans want peace, and peace includes less aggressive language and more respectful and moderated styles. Many of the winning candidates across the political spectrum were elected for precisely that language and style.
If one prong of the Liberals’ campaign image was largely off base, their other one—the government’s "works of progress"—pulled significant votes, again largely among the rural population. Even though the new highways, roads, bridges, schools, wells, housing projects, electricity and in some cases telephone installations are largely the international community’s response to the sweeping damages of Hurricane Mitch, the government has accompanied them all with big billboards showing them as government projects. It is not a lie, since the government is normally the national counterpart of such projects by definition, but is only nominally the truth.
Furthermore, the more informed urban population appears to recognize these projects as the responsibility of any government, not a "favor" from a good one. To try to break down that more sophisticated urban view, the government organized what it called a "Works Fair" in Managua—paid for with taxpayer’s money—as part of the Liberal mayoral candidate’s campaign. It seems not have had much effect.
Conservatives reap ambiguous resultsAlthough it fell embarrassingly short of its proclaimed aspiration of winning 60 mayoral seats, the Conservative Party came out of the elections a net winner. It is back on the political stage, from which it had all but disappeared, and won enough votes (over 13% of the total) to guarantee its slot on the ballot in the upcoming presidential elections.
For all that, the PC’s defeat in Managua, where its president and original candidate Pedro Solórzano had out-polled all other comers, as well as the few municipal governments it won (5), put it in a very weak position for next year’s elections. It is virtually assured that some new flimsy excuse will be found to eliminate Solórzano from running again, so the history of these elections could very well be repeated. The PC went into the municipal race against the will of President Alemán and the calculations of the PLC strategists. If it had not been for the power of international pressure and the astute skills of the FSLN representatives in the Supreme Electoral Council, it would never have happened, because the objective of the PLC-FSLN pact was to eliminate all real competitors (not to mention each other, if possible). The international community’s objective, in contrast, was to give the Conservatives a chance to demonstrate their ability to coalesce the opposition to the pact around their party. Once the FSLN had sided with the PLC to redline Solórzano—the real threat to both—out of the race, its objective became to split the vote driven by fear of its return to power.
The Conservatives did not cave in to either the pressures or the flattery—not to mention probable "indecent proposals"—exerted by the PLC in its last-minute effort to hook the PC into an "anti-Sandinista alliance." While their decision was guided by good political calculations, it was lavishly laced with arrogance. After dexterously destroying the Third Way and legitimating the exclusionary electoral rules by participating in the elections, the PC attempted to present itself to the national community, and even more to the international community, as the only valid and respectable opposition to the pact and corruption. The results negated its arrogance, since it was abstention, not a vote for the PC, that most visibly expressed rejection of the pact. In addition, the PLC machinery proved to be a more powerful and better-organized bearer of the anti-Sandinista mantle. And the reason for that is not just that it is greased from the institutions of the state. It is also more popular than the Conservative oligarchy’s machinery, which is fueled by elitist strategies that know how to call on the business classes and the media, but seem not to have a clue how to rub elbows with real people.
The leitmotif for the campaign of the Conservative candidate for Managua, businessman and Nicaraguan Development Institute president William Báez, was the idea of "drawing the line" on both the pact and corruption. But while corruption ended up punished in Managua—or at least voters decided on a change after two successive Liberal mayors tainted with it—the pact was a non-issue. The PLC was the target of the punishment, but the beneficiary was not Báez, with his limited charisma, his undefined proposals and the tint of anti-Sandinista confrontation that put him in the same campaign camp as the PLC. Báez enjoyed Pedro Solórzano’s endorsement as well as public support from former President Violeta de Chamorro—who still wins all personality polls by the greatest margin in years—and retired general Joaquín Cuadra, the National Unity Movement’s presidential hopeful. It was not enough, however, because Báez himself failed to seduce an electorate more interested in proposals than definitions, and more in favor of pros than cons.
The best and the worstOne very positive aspect of the elections is that they happened at all; for months it was not a foregone conclusion given the vicissitudes of the PLC-FSLN pact. Even more positive, albeit now a virtually traditional expectation, was that voting day unfolded with very few incidents at the local level. It was also positive that local debates about local problems actually took place and got national media coverage; even if only fleeting, this shift of focus from the Managua-centric vision of the political and electoral situation was a breath of fresh air.
Perhaps the most positive aspect of all was that several new leaders of various political stripes, known and respected by the population, emerged and won in these municipal races. And in a significant number of municipalities, the closeness of the results promises pluralistic governments with a relatively even distribution of power, which hopefully will contribute to the depolarization that the country so desperately needs, although it could just as easily lead to exclusionary municipal-level mini-pacts. The fact that the population only had to elect local authorities and not national ones as well made these elections a more direct, sovereign and responsible exercise of voter selection. It was a sorely needed democratic training exercise.
On the negative side, there were significant disturbances in the North Atlantic Autonomous Region in the lead up to the elections, when the indigenous party YATAMA demonstrated in the streets of Puerto Cabezas for a week to protest its exclusion from the race by the CSE. On election day itself, the protest took the form of massive, but mainly peaceful abstention. (See article on YATAMA in this issue.)
The most negative thing, however, was the post-election attitude assumed by the authors of the very pact that had tainted the electoral process. President Alemán and his circle of loyal party leaders irresponsibly refused to accept defeat graciously and even worse, to reflect responsibly on, the reasons for some of their defeats. Daniel Ortega and his circle blindly failed to read the messages in their party’s victories. Both attitudes, similarly tinged with triumphalism and a total absence of self-criticism, ratified the "original sin" of these elections—the famous pact sealed by two caudillos who suffer a similar political pathology involving an anti-democratic conception of power and an exercise of leadership that is damaging to the country.
A wimpy CSE just The CSE had predicted being able to announce the preliminary results by approximately 10 p.m. on election night itself. When by the next morning it only had final tallies from some 3-5% of the polling places in most municipalities, the results of international observers’ quick counts and the parallel counts that party monitors in the over 8,000 voting tables phoned into headquarters began filtering out.
stands and waits
Arnoldo Alemán reacted heatedly to these non-official results and to the profile of PLC losses that was beginning to emerge. "The true results will appear on the flip side of the tortilla," he warned ambiguously. When the interminable recounts that ensued did not give Alemán what he was looking for, he began negotiating changes in the results with the FSLN, and when that did not reap all he wanted, he opted to challenge the results in a large number of the disputed municipalities. In a country infinitely less stable than the United States, the tense anticipation resulting from the CSE’s delayed publishing of the final results followed by the utter chaos due to the PLC’s backroom maneuvers to reverse some of its defeats created disorder and even violence in various municipalities. All of this intensified the country’s already poor governability levels.
The CSE’s silent passivity in the face of these highly suspect delays and recounts expresses one of the pact’s most damaging consequences. The bi-party seal imposed on the CSE has annulled its once-professional leadership, turning this branch of government into an institution that only serves by standing and waiting for the two parties’ leaders to send their decisions down to their respective magistrates.
The eerie if highly exaggerated coincidence with the US electoral crisis gave the CSE its best albeit most ridiculous alibi: if this can happen in the world’s most democratic and powerful country, why not in Nicaragua? Even considering all the challenges of the results that the PLC filed in numerous municipalities, the long delay in Nicaragua was not only less explicable than in the strange US case but also infinitely less explained to the waiting public. The CSE that put together these elections offers no guarantee of transparent or technical solutions to the problems that precede, accompany or follow any electoral contest, least of all those that could emerge in the next presidential race. The CSE’s challenges were not only technical and political, but in the final analysis ethical, and the institution was not up to any of them.
The polls missed the Most polls measured only the voting intention of Managua’s electorate, and were largely on the money this time. They only made one big error, in Managua as well as in the rest of the country: the abstention rate. Although the number of those undecided—not only about whom they would vote for but even whether they would vote at all—started out very high in early polls, the percentage consistently shrank over time. That encouraged even the most cautious pollsters to estimate that final abstention would not exceed 30%, which is still significantly higher than in all national elections since the 1979 revolution. Nonetheless, despite the CSE’s catchy musical jingle in its media spots urging people to vote, nearly 45% of the nation’s registered voters stayed away.
abstention by a mile
Any analysis of the results must take into account that abstention "won" the highest percentage in every single one of the country’s 151 municipalities. There are many explanations for this, as in any other election, and particularly one where the only thing at stake is municipal government. The article in this issue titled "Who Abstained and Why?" offers hypotheses on these explanations as well as a profile of potential abstainers based on a survey by the Central American University’s polling institute IDESO.
Whatever the reasons for the high abstention rates in every department, they are very significant in a country in which people turned out in droves even during the falsified election exercises held during the Somoza family dictatorship; voters viewed them as a kind of fiesta, much the way they do religious processions. In recent times, the high turnout has had a more unique motivation in Nicaragua than in most Latin American countries: people came to believe that they could actually change things with their vote. This electoral faith is based on experiences such as 1990 when the votes changed "everything" and 1996 when they changed almost everything. One could argue that the high abstention this time indicates that voters did not feel motivated because they have begun to lose faith in the power of the vote—or perhaps even in the utility of believing one can change anything.
How did the pact At one point, it was thought that the municipal elections might serve as a kind of plebiscite on the PLC-FSLN pact, perhaps through a protest vote for the Conservative Party, as it consciously encouraged. While that did not materialize, one can hypothesize—though not prove—that the high abstention rate may have been a protest vote in sheep’s clothing.
figure in all this?
Another way to express rejection and disenchantment is purposeful annulment of one’s ballot. On November 2, the Sandinista Renovation Movement, excluded from the race by one of the CSE’s arbitrary decisions, called for people to annul their vote "as a way of protesting against this fraudulent and non-democratic electoral process." While for the first time in recent history isolated data on annulled ballots has not been released, discussions with numerous people who worked the voting tables suggest that it was not particularly significant.
Even though the FSLN’s victories must be measured against the high abstention rates and the near-ties in most of the important municipalities, they call into question the analyses stressing the rejection that the pact had triggered among the Sandinista grass roots, if not among Liberals. Reality demonstrated that the FSLN commanded the most disciplined and solid vote in the elections and that the pact carried little weight in it.
Any attempt to explain why is only an approximation, but it would appear that most Nicaraguans have only a few minimum "democratic demands." Their "political" expectations at the moment of voting are far less important than the reprehensible economic crises battering them. Climbing out of incredibly difficult family and personal economic situations is far higher on their wish list than having institutions that are more independent or participatory spaces for controlling the way the authorities run government. Very few have yet realized that the poverty will continue to get worse without healthy and independent institutions; the FSLN structures have never included the link between institutionality and overcoming poverty in their education.
This limited popular awareness of the pact’s institutional consequences worked to the FSLN’s benefit. While the population did not pardon the PLC’s corruption, its vote for the FSLN instead of one of the anti-pact candidates expresses that it did pardon the pact, failing to perceive that its essence is shared corruption.
While the pact was being consummated, the Liberal grass roots took little notice of its political consequences. Following the adverse electoral results, however, they began to fear that the "explanation" for the losses was to be found in the pact: the Sandinistas had "hoodwinked" the PLC and Alemán himself. Alemán even encouraged this view with one of his more whimsical remarks, which left him looking utterly ridiculous as people recalled his earlier defense of the pact. He had argued that it was needed to provide "good governance" in the country, but from a PLC point of view, what has happened is precisely the opposite, as the municipal results are beginning to awaken the possibility of the return to national power of the "ungovernable" Sandinistas.
If a significant anti-pact protest vote cannot be demonstrated, it can be fairly asserted that the election results help stunt the growth of any critical awareness of the pact’s negative effects on democratic institutionality and the political culture. Ortega and other FSLN leaders had justified the pact by arguing that its only purpose "is to be able to return to power." In the view of a good part of the party’s grass roots, the elections amply "demonstrated" that explanation. Furthermore, the fierce rivalry between the FSLN and the Liberals once the PLC refused to accept its defeats convinced many at the base of an even more harmful idea: that there is no pact anymore.
Banking on hope?The FSLN’s victory in Managua and 51 other municipalities—a large number of them strategic given the size of their population and their productive activity—can be explained many ways. The most eloquent seems to be the impoverishment to which the "democracies" of the nineties (the Chamorro and Alemán governments) have subjected the majority of Nicaraguans. People have suffered so many shortages (of credits, land, education, health, housing and the like) for so long without seeing any future opportunities that they opted for change. They also risked "hoping against all hope," to use biblical language, for that social agenda and vocation for justice and equity that so many people knew and recognized in the FSLN of the eighties and still detect in many of its local leaders, despite so many genuine disappointments.
The FSLN’s ten years of military organization from the eighties, tested and strengthened by the contra war, shook off a long lethargy and reacted efficiently—aided by the invaluable resources of experience and new financing—to send an "army" of ninety thousand Sandinistas out into the field, as party monitors at polling tables and elsewhere as activists and canvassers, local strategists and the like. In a country so disorganized and unsystematic and after two governments so notably lacking in social sensitivity, a show of order and a promise to fight poverty combined to provide the FSLN important victories. This same combination, which will remain intact over the next months, could give the FSLN a victory in the November 2001 general elections. Alemán is quite aware of this and is prepared to do whatever necessary to prevent it.
Many people who left the FSLN did so because they have not seen it as the embodiment of Sandinismo for some years now, while critical, "dissident" Sandinistas still within the party do not feel represented by it. Some of them voted for the FSLN and others did not. Given that the Ortega brothers and their circle of powerful allies have such an iron grip on the party, its electoral victories cannot be interpreted simplistically as a triumph of Sandinismo. The FSLN’s carefully organized and successfully implemented electoral strategy may well contribute to consolidating the party’s "business Right," which promoted and benefits from the pact, liquidating the more democratic and grassroots-based tendencies that have hung in with the FSLN.
Is Managua the prelude For reasons having more to do with calculations of the sheer size of Managua’s burgeoning population than with precedent, winning the Managua mayoral race is viewed as the forerunner to winning the presidential elections. It would thus be a huge mistake to exclude the high abstention rate from the analysis of this year’s race.
to the presidency?
Managua is unquestionably the FSLN’s most important victory—in both real and symbolic terms. FSLN candidate Herty Lewites won 44% of the municipality’s valid votes, compared to 29% for the PLC, 25% for the PC and 1.6% for the Christian Way. Everyone saw Lewites as a good candidate, and he revealed during the campaign that he was also an excellent politician. His non-confrontational style, his openness to everyone, allies and adversaries alike, his tolerance and wealth of proposals, his eternal good humor, his presence in front of the media all helped him capture far more than the FSLN’s captive vote, which does not extend beyond 20% of Managuans.
His victory, however, is not explained only by this new leadership style or by some renewed confidence in the FSLN among Nicaraguans, a willingness to give it "a second chance," as Sandinista candidates asked for. Before all that came the exclusion of Solórzano. In addition, the abstention favored the FSLN, which has the largest pool of disciplined voters, and even leading the most cynical observers to wonder if the Sandinista party had any role in inducing the high rate.
Ten years of Liberals in the Managua mayors’ office also played no small part in Lewites’ win. First had been the then-popular Arnoldo Alemán (1990-1996), of whom people said "sure he steals, but he gets things done." He was followed by Roberto Cedeño, one of the least charismatic politicians in the entire country, who feverishly laced the capital with traffic circles, six-lane highways and gaudy shopping centers. While this may have attracted the votes of a few big investors, the masses of poorer Managuans sensed more of a solid savior in Lewites than in any of the other candidates. These majorities are burdened with taxes, overwhelmed by problems they have no way of solving, surrounded by garbage uncollected because the dirt roads in their neighborhoods are too deeply rutted for the trucks, besieged by unruly teenage gangs and plagued by insecurity even in their own homes and neighborhoods. Perhaps they took the advice of Cardinal Obando, who this time forewent the temptation to deliver some thinly veiled parabola aimed at steering the vote to or away from a given candidate and limited himself to recommending that people vote "for the lesser of the evils."
Herty Lewites is now saddled with the huge responsibility of demonstrating through a transparent, efficient and new style of administration what he himself has been claiming: that the FSLN "is different" and that "99% of the people in the FSLN have changed." From his spot on the most visible stage in the country, it falls to him to help the FSLN recover credibility and to depolarize society so it can move beyond the obsolete, absurd and damaging struggle between Sandinismo and anti-Sandinismo that has become a trap benefiting only a few leaders on both sides.
Alemán, fearful that Lewites’ projection will catapult the FSLN to the presidency in 2001, will be capable of any maneuver to trip him up and prevent any success that could serve this purpose. Alemán has already threatened to prevent Lewites from taking office and even to jail him for a loan taken out by the Ministry of Tourism when he headed it, just before the Sandinista government left office, which Alemán claims was for Lewites personally and has never been paid back. Apart from the fact that the amount pales in comparison to the huge embezzlements committed with utter impunity by Alemán’s own officials over the past five years, Lewites has publicly demonstrated on several occasions since the accusations began, with documentation, that Alemán has his information wrong.
Daniel Ortega’s Lewites was also seen as a good candidate—or the lesser of evils—because he sought to demonstrate his independence from the FSLN elite and from Daniel Ortega himself. Ortega also gave Lewites a wide berth during his campaign in the capital, although he did get personally involved in some rural areas, where the FSLN has a larger captive vote and the myth of his leadership is still more intact than it is in Managua.
shadow falls long
As feared, Ortega immediately read the FSLN’s victories around the country—even in Managua—as a clear signal that the conditions now exist for the FSLN’s return to government. Worse yet, he publicly interpreted them as a personal "call" to "take up the challenge" of running as the FSLN’s presidential candidate in 2001. No one was expecting Ortega to open fire so quickly, but there he was, responding to news-hungry journalists and trying to preempt by intimidation any other daring challenger from within his party. This premature launching of his candidacy damaged Lewites and encouraged the irrational anti-Sandinismo that so easily flares up and consumes a sector of both the poor majorities and the wealthy minorities.
It is no small thing that a wide array of the FSLN’s leaders and even its bases are convinced that the FSLN will go down to a third consecutive defeat if Ortega runs again. Only a minority in the party, however, dares to go beyond that and publicly question not only his viability as a candidate but also his political and private ethics as a party leader. Few are willing to accuse him openly of heading up a pact based on destroying and corrupting institutions and political life in general, and of hiding behind his parliamentary immunity to avoid responding to the charge of incest and sexual abuse brought by his stepdaughter nearly three years ago.
The unity of Sandinismo under the party’s red and black flag, or an alliance between Sandinismo and other progressive social sectors under this banner, which is a more pragmatic goal, seems a remote idea. Nonetheless, the FSLN’s electoral wins force it to reflect on that possibility and offer both the FSLN and Sandinismo as a whole an historic opportunity. Honest Sandinistas both within the party and now dispersed outside of it are the ones truly called on to "take up the challenge." They may find in the joy of the electoral victories the inspiration needed to undertake the enormous struggles required to democratize the party and halt a greater involution in its structures, currently dominated by those loyal to the Ortega wing. Will there be enough time, space and energy to engage in this huge effort? Nicaragua’s immediate future depends to a large degree on how they set off on this challenge and respond to this opportunity, which is as complex as it seems impossible.
Whither the Left and Right?Meanwhile, the results have obliged all participating political forces, not to mention those that did not participate, to review their strategies for the November 2001 general elections in depth. In the first moments, the outlook appeared pretty dismal, particularly since President Alemán persists in his idea of replacing the presidential elections with those for a Constituent Assembly. The PLC defeats in Managua and in most of the country’s other strategic races have encouraged this obsession anew and fired up his dangerous style of continually stirring up conflicts to his own ends. Alemán is perfectly capable of forcing a climate of destabilization and chaos to achieve his objectives and attract the FSLN leadership involved in the pact to this initiative.
If we understand by Left a conviction and a willingness to view reality in all its growing complexity and diversity to be able to respond by including spaces in which there is room for all, and if we understand by Right the opposite attitude, which simplifies, reduces and thus excludes, the multifaceted results of the municipal elections should lead to some very rich reflections. In the months preceding the presidential elections, we should push for informed debates and the opening up of spaces among Sandinistas, Liberals, Conservatives and all the other parties, whether or not they have their legal status.
If more tolerant, inclusive and visionary "Lefts" come out triumphant in these debates and struggles, and if the force of public opinion succeeds in getting the current Electoral Law reformed, lifting the exclusionary privileges given to only two parties, Nicaragua will come out the winner. And if all that happens, the general elections next year will be viewed as an important contribution in the tremendously difficult process of building our new democracy. We will ring out the year 2000 with this hope.
Recapping the Electoral Pre-Fraud
The "fraud" that the FSLN’s electoral commandos and the PLC’s activists committed on election day, that which their two parties negotiated before publication of the preliminary results, and that which the PLC attempted with some successes before publication of the definitive results all demonstrate the pact’s dangerous nature. These two parties, which are rivals to the death, have managed to come together to exclude all other contenders. It is useful to recap for readers the "pre-fraud" that was put in place over the course of this year based on agreements reached in their pact.
The pact’s first public expression was an ad-hoc reform of the Electoral Law agreed upon by the two parties for application during the March 1998 autonomous government elections on the Atlantic Coast. With a few variations, these are the reforms that were officially consummated on January 18, 2000, when a whole new electoral law was given final passage together with constitutional reforms also agreed on in the pact.
In early 1996, Mariano Fiallos had resigned as CSE president, motivated by reforms to the then Electoral Law that the coalition of smaller parties dominating the Assembly at the time had pushed through hurriedly for that year’s elections. Fiallos particularly questioned the backward step represented by politicizing the leading CSE structures to the detriment of their professional and technical development. At that time, the FSLN and the PLC opposed the measures, despite the fact that, as the largest parties, they divvied up between them the most important new appointments at the departmental level. This year’s electoral reforms did not remedy the problem but rather worsened it.
The fundamental problem with the new Electoral Law is that it has taken that idea a radical step further. Not satisfied with just appointing people to the electoral structures from lists provided by the political parties rather than from a pool of professionals, all electoral structures, from the magistrates right down to the polling tables have been transformed into two-party bodies. A bipartisan stamp has thus now been imposed on the electoral branch as well as on other state branches and institutions.
The bipartisan stampThe new law increases the number of CSE magistrates from five to seven, with no other aim than individual economic gain for the PLC (four positions) and the FSLN (three positions). On February 1, the National Assembly appointed Silvio Américo Calderon, a Liberal, and Emmett Lang, a Sandinista, to the CSE. Three days later, Rosa Marina Zelaya, who had headed the CSE since Fiallos’ resignation, was removed from her presidential post by a vote of five out of the seven magistrates. Roberto Rivas, who is closely aligned with Cardinal Obando, was elected the new president. As part of the pact it was also decided that Zelaya and the three other existing magistrates leave their posts in July 2000, a year earlier than the term established in the Constitution. Zelaya took this decision to the Supreme Court alleging unconstitutionality, but the case was never heard. The four new replacement magistrates—two Sandinistas and two Liberals—assumed their offices only three months before the municipal elections.
There are both experienced and new personnel in the CSE. Some senior technicians and professionals remained in their jobs with the change of magistrates. Economic gains such as raises, vehicles, etc., were offered to cajole them into staying and guarantee their loyalty to the new high-level political decisions. This loyalty is manifested either by carrying out such decisions or by being strategically absent when they are to be made. Those who did not "cave in" were replaced by people loyal to the new FSLN and PLC magistrates.
Narrowing the field by hook or by crookThe new law was put into effect for these municipal elections, eliminating in one fell swoop the possibility of running under popular subscription associations, a democratizing option introduced in the 1990 Electoral Law to widen the citizenry’s spectrum of options in municipal elections and promote local leadership. In a political environment such as today’s, marked by a serious erosion of parties and leaders, eliminating popular subscription candidates and validating only those from the parties’ closed slates is equivalent to excluding some of the best potential candidates.
To narrow the field even further, the reforms imposed almost impossible requirements for registering parties, participating in the elections and forming alliances. One requirement is that a new party must gather a number of signatures of registered voters in support of its legalization equal to 3% of the total number of registered voters in the previous election—in this case the 1996 general elections. Two parties (one Evangelist and one Liberal) and two alliances (one Sandinista-center-left and one Liberal-Resistance) collected the necessary signatures, but procedures for verifying them had not been established as part of the law. A verification procedure administered arbitrarily by the CSE—for example ruling ex post facto that people cannot sign more than one party’s petition—eliminated all four applicants in what qualifies as "the first electronic fraud committed in Nicaragua." In addition, the CSE cancelled the legal status of the already-existing parties in the excluded alliances because they did not participate in the current elections (more to the point, they could not, given the thumbs down on their alliance). They are thus formally excluded from electoral participation under their current name—and effectively, by extension, from the political scene—for the next four years.
On August 8, the CSE unanimously decided to exclude front-running Conservative Party candidate Pedro Solórzano from the ballot in the Managua elections. How did they do that? In 1999, after he had declared his candidacy, Managua was divided into three municipalities (Managua, El Crucero and Ciudad Sandino), with the line between Managua and El Crucero arbitrarily drawn in front of Solorzano’s house. The CSE then retroactively applied the Electoral Law to eliminate him from the race by arguing that he lived outside of the capital.
Such pre-election "fraud" in preparing for the municipal elections went hand in hand with fraudulent activities in preparation for next year’s presidential elections. In the latter camp, the CSE excluded the Democratic Liberal Party (PLD), recently created by dissidents from Alemán’s party and led by former minister José Antonio Alvarado, in a manner that bordered on the absurd. It also laid the groundwork for excluding the National Unity Movement (MUN), another threatening new party, this one headed by retired army chief Joaquín Cuadra, although the decision was postponed until January.
This exclusionary policy implemented with such firmness by the FSLN and PLC magistrates in the CSE functioned very effectively in the municipal elections. Although the Conservative Party drove a tiny wedge into the bi-party system forced by the pact, the country was essentially divided in two, with quasi-ties between the PLC and FSLN in the total number of votes and even in the number of votes in most departments and municipalities.
Can any of the victories of Liberal and Sandinista candidates be explained without mentioning the prohibition of Solórzano in Managua and the exclusion there and elsewhere of the center-left option represented by the Third Way and of the non-Alemán Liberal option represented by José Alvarado? Not even the FSLN’s sizeable triumph in Managua can be explained without recognizing this previous clearing of the field.
The post-count tug-of-war between these two lead parties in the municipal, departmental and national electoral structures after election day and the unjustified delay preceding publication of the definitive results fanned the fanaticism of one part of society and disgusted another. With the remarkably close figures lending themselves to both fights and negotiations, it was clearly demonstrated that the only thing both parties agree on with respect to electoral issues is the exclusion of other serious competitors. Everything else was left to the luck of the draw or to the dirty tricks each group could come up with either to win or to make the other lose.
Diverse representatives of the international community have both publicly and privately questioned the new anti-democratic constitutional and electoral reforms. No international financial support was provided for the municipal elections.