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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 234 | Enero 2001



Writing the Script for Nicaragua’s Election Drama

The movie theater is still dark, the electoral script constantly hanging. The lead actors think they know their roles, but with the plot barely defined so far, the film could have a tragic ending, or maybe a more existential one.

Nitlápan-Envío team

Political protagonists from a past we have yet to put behind us are again dominating Nicaragua’s silver screen as if history wanted to repeat itself. Over there is anti-Sandinista business leader and current presidential hopeful Enrique Bolaños, and there former President and still FSLN general secretary Daniel Ortega, who plans to run for President yet again. And waiting in the wings is former President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, who unseated Ortega in 1990 as the candidate with all-out US support. To complete the cast of yesteryear’s characters is the new US President, George W. Bush, heir of the Reagan-Bush years.

Although the names are the same, any similarity between the coming attraction and history will be purely coincidental. Even with this familiar cast from the eighties and nineties, the electoral drama for 2001 will be totally different because history never repeats itself. For one thing, Nicaragua is more impoverished and utterly exhausted. The outcome could be tragic, aggravating that poverty and exhaustion, but without falling into "happy ending" illusions, there is a slight chance that it could be more open. And therein lies the challenge of this presidential election year, the first of the new millennium.

A long, hot December

Immediately after last November’s municipal elections, without even pausing to catch its breath, the political class began feverishly and incoherently agitating around the formation of new electoral alliances, to define as soon as possible who would be included in the presidential/legislative cast of characters and who would be left out. Some of the alliances were natural, but others seemed to go against nature, contemplated only to get over or around the nearly impenetrable legal barriers to electoral recognition erected by the Liberal-Sandinista pact.

It was perhaps the most politicized December in the country’s history. Neither the celebration of the Immaculate Conception nor the Christmas festivities nor even the ringing out of the old millennium put a damper on the constant meetings—open and covert, formal and informal, prudent and reckless—engaged in by virtually all the country’s political actors.

Clear and present danger

The municipal election results, which favored the FSLN qualitatively and the PLC quantitatively, can be summarized as a sort of great "technical tie." The PLC won more of the small rural municipalities, but lost to the FSLN in 11 of the 17 municipalities that are also departmental capitals.

After two weeks of refusing to accept reality, the PLC directors had to admit that at least in electoral terms the Ortega-Alemán pact had functioned in Ortega’s favor. The Liberals recognized their failings: they did not select their monitors well and did not even bother to train them because they believed their own polls. In short, they were too long on triumphalism and too short on organization.

The FSLN more than made up for what the PLC lacked in organization, and since it has already announced that its eighteen thousand "electoral commandos" will grow to a powerful "army" of thirty thousand this time around, the FSLN is engaging in its own triumphalism. The Sandinistas proved not only more skilled but also shrewder throughout the process. It cannot be discarded—though also never proven—that the organization exhibited by the FSLN included mechanisms to ensure anomalies that would in turn ensure favorable results. One can assume that they are all still in place, waiting to be used again in the next elections.

The close figures in so many municipalities and the organization and efficiency demonstrated by the FSLN’s electoral commandos during the voting, the recount and the sizeable street demonstrations mounted to pressure the Supreme Electoral Council to release the official results all served to alarm Nicaragua’s traditional big capitalists. Along with President Alemán and his Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC), they read the results as an announcement that the FSLN—and more specifically Daniel Ortega—could come back for a rerun in government. While aware that such an eventuality would augur no "revolutionary" changes in today’s unipolar world, the mere possibility of any uncertainties and risks to their interests—which do not always coincide with those of the Sandinista capitalists in Ortega’s circle of power—spurred them into action.

Like the US government, Nicaragua’s oligarchic establishment does not sit down at the gaming table with only one deck of cards. Their first measure was to tone down the alarmist anti-Sandinista declarations with which they had first greeted the electoral results. The next one was extreme and much more controversial: an alliance, agreed to in December, between the Conservative Pellas family—by far Nicaragua’s wealthiest—and Liberal President Arnoldo Alemán.

A call to arms

Since President Alemán had played a major role in his party’s candidate selection and campaigning, the Liberals’ relative defeat visibly weakened him, both in government and in the PLC. It also shattered his cherished dream of replacing the presidential elections with elections for a Constituent Assembly, which would leave him as head of the PLC bench and thus give him a way to dodge the constitutional prohibition of consecutive reelection without having to sit out a term without power. With a real shot at the presidency, the FSLN no longer has anything to gain by negotiating its votes to pass the required legislation.
But Alemán bounced back quickly and ably, shoring up his control of the PLC to weather both the electoral setback and the wave of criticism against his pact with the FSLN that crashed down after the elections. As always, anti-Sandinismo was the glue he used. He had little trouble getting the leadership to understand that only a political-economic pact with Conservative capital and an electoral alliance with its political expression—the Conservative Party (PC)—could assure the Liberals victory in the first round in what promises to be a bruising presidential contest. Alemán clearly needs this alliance; after spending months insulting various Conservative leaders, he virtually begged for it in numerous public events. While he has other motives, his main argument was that he wanted to unite the "democratic vote" to prevent the return of the "dark night"—his favorite euphemism for the FSLN’s return to government, borrowed from a speech made by Pope John Paul II on his last visit to Nicaragua.

Much ado about nothing

The Conservatives did poorly in the municipal elections, although the results look pretty good next to their showing in the 1996 presidential elections. The problem is that some interested national and international observers—fed by the majority of the media—had exaggerated expectations. It was generally predicted that the Conservatives would pull most of the votes of that majority that rejects the FSLN-PLC pact and is fed up with party bosses and their impunity and corruption.

But either these voters do not represent the "center" label they have been given or the PC is not the center they are looking for, because they did not fulfill the prediction in the slightest. Voters casting anxiously about for an alternative—call it a "third way"—did not sense one in the PC, and their instincts were not wrong. The PC has no desire to fill that role itself and its leaders helped scuttle the third-way alternative that had already been created. Those who sympathize with a third way tended not to vote, bringing the abstention rate up to over forty percent nationwide, unprecedented in the nation’s history.

The Conservatives’ role in the elections was not totally inconsequential, however. They split the rightwing vote, which was precisely why the Sandinista magistrates in the Supreme Electoral Council let them on the ballot, against Alemán’s wishes. It doesn’t take much imagination to see that the PC would play exactly the same role in the presidential elections: modest results would give it a few seats in the National Assembly but favor the FSLN by pulling votes away from the Liberals.
Although the PC has a slot on this year’s presidential ballot, it has no candidate capable of giving the Sandinistas and Liberals a real run for their money. PC president Pedro Solórzano was crudely prevented from running for mayor of Managua—and very probably winning—last November, and would undoubtedly be stopped again if he tried to run for president. The government has even been preparing a slightly more sophisticated excuse this time; in a classic example of the pot calling the kettle black, it has filed charges against him for influence peddling. One of the main arguments of Conservatives advocating a broad anti-Sandinista alliance with the PLC is that no other Conservative candidate has any chance of winning.

The Devil’s advocate

It was in this context that Carlos Pellas, whose family money keeps the Conservative Party afloat, approached President Alemán about putting together a PC-PLC electoral alliance to prevent the FSLN’s return to government. This powerful business executive was moved by fear but also by crude pragmatism. In addition to eliminating the risk of an FSLN victory, he could avoid spending more money on the Conservative Party, which has no grassroots base, no political identity, no organization and no viable candidate that would be allowed to run.

Before the municipal elections, Pellas repeatedly announced that he had decided to participate actively and openly in politics by financially backing the PC. After the elections, his participation took the form of cutting all support to the PC to force its directors to accept the alliance with Alemán, who assured Pellas the economic Cabinet posts in a new Liberal government, thus guaranteeing big capital an economic policy with clear rules and fewer discretionary abuses.

However much both sides needed the PC-PLC alliance, it was cast in harsh black in the electoral script. High-profile Conservatives argued that, among other problems, it would trigger memories of the spurious milestone pacts with Liberal governments—including Somoza’s—pockmarking their party’s history, opening them up to accusations of playing the same old destructive game just to maintain quotas of economic and political power.

PC opponents to the alliance—and even its proponents—also worried that the line separating it from corruption was very fine. They feared that the PC would lose all credibility by allying with the same party that signed a pact with the FSLN and with the man who has led the most corrupt government in the country’s history. The Alemán government’s flaunted corruption has repeatedly shocked the country and the international community. Its "mafioso management" of the state is no secret to anyone, and there is wide-ranging consensus, shared by both the outgoing and incoming US administrations, that Nicaragua could not survive another bout of it. Considering this, the most visible condition set by the Conservative business and political representatives favoring the alliance is that Alemán rid his party and candidate slates of those of his friends most obviously involved in scandalous corruption cases.

Alemán had no choice but to accept a certain level of purging. Within his party itself, there is growing awareness of the damage caused to the PLC by the corrupt functionaries in Alemán’s closest circle. It even caused the desertion of PLC founder and former government minister José Antonio Alvarado.

Patriot games

Despite these correctives—fewer corrupt people and less corruption in government—the Conservatives opposing the alliance continued to fear that it would destroy the PC. And they were right: public opinion showed immediate signs of disenchantment.

They put forward two alternatives. The first, proposed by former PC president Noel Vidaurre, was to go it alone, but this is a very fragile plan given the PC’s lack of money and popularity and the risk of being eliminated by the Supreme Electoral Council. The second was to open the Conservative slot on the ballot to a broad anti-pact and anti-corruption alliance. The idea was to make it a magnet for dissident Liberals and Sandinistas as well as the gamut of small parties eliminated from the electoral arena by last year’s changes to the Electoral Law aimed at forcing a two-party system.

This was the cue in the electoral script for Violeta de Chamorro to come on screen, with all the bearing of a grand dame. On January 10, in an act commemorating the 23rd anniversary of the assassination of her husband, Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, she made an important speech, which included the following comments:
"Only four years after laying down my responsibilities as President of the Republic, I feel that the democracy for which we struggled so hard has been rolled back a long way.… Today the nation’s political life turns on the capricious will of two caudillos of doubtful commitment to the democratic cause. In recent years, Nicaragua has been dominated by a pact repudiated by all of us who are democrats. Far from being a national agreement, at the service of the nation’s interests, it was a deal cut between two caudillos who put their own personal interests on the table. They made a pact to protect their wrongdoing with impunity, regardless of the cost to the country’s institutions and prestige."
Calling on Nicaraguans to renew their "commitment not to let our hope be wrested away," the former President hinted at the possibility of running for reelection at the head of a national anti-pact alliance. Among her qualifications is the fact that she beat out Enrique Bolaños in a fight for the candidacy on the opposition UNO alliance ticket in 1989 then defeated Daniel Ortega in the following year’s elections.

The winter of their discontent

The PC, bereft of the financial backing it had received in the municipal elections, met on February 2 to analyze the alliance offered by Alemán. In that meeting, Pedro Solórzano irrevocably resigned his presidency of the party in rejection of the alliance—a right-minded gesture, but also a calculated attempt to keep the political-electoral capital he had accumulated in strategic reserve. Split among the three electoral strategies (compete alone, in alliance with the PLC or in a broad anti-pact alliance), the PC tried to buy time and improve its public image by conditioning the PLC alliance on reforms to the Electoral Law prior to the upcoming elections.
National and international criticism of the exclusionary reforms agreed upon in the FSLN-PLC pact have been unanimous from the day the reformed law was promulgated last year. They grew even stronger following the municipal elections, when their limits and dangers became so evident. At the end of December, the Carter Center called the law "closed and excluding," and was particularly critical of the bi-party appointments to all top decision-making posts in the Supreme Electoral Council from the national level right down to the polling tables. Since the Carter Center’s recommendations were made during the US electoral crisis, FSLN and PLC politicians not only paid no heed but even ridiculed them.
The new reforms proposed by the PC included repealing the requirement to present voters’ signatures for registering candidates, canceling the punitive conditions for establishing electoral alliances and turning the CSE back into a professional institution by de-politicizing the naming of officials. All parties except the two that designed the law favor reforming it, but doing so requires 57 votes in the National Assembly. In a bid to win wavering Conservatives over to the alliance, the PLC announced that it would pledge its 36 votes for the reforms if the PC can nail down the remaining 21. Back when the PLC had 42 seats and the FSLN 36 out of a total 93, that would have been a pure grandstand gesture, but the PLC has since lost 6 of its votes to dissidence. That brings the total of "independent" seats to exactly 21 (only 3 of which belong to the Conservatives), so those who want to reform the law have a real chance. Given the recent tradition of vote peddling, however, the bidding could go pretty high if some opportunist legislators decide to play hard-to-get.

The same day the Conservatives were debating what to do, Violeta Chamorro publicly came out in opposition to the PC-PLC alliance. But money talks, and Pellas family money is the oldest, solidest and most abundant in Nicaragua.

The terminators

The Pellas-Alemán alliance does not mean that the FSLN-PLC pact has disappeared or even stopped functioning. Its essence—exclusion—is still necessary to both parties until they toe off again at the polls this coming November. And the pact mechanism guaranteeing the bipartisan sharing of the branches and institutions of state is a consummated fact with lamentable daily expressions in the Supreme Court’s aberrant resolutions, the clear omissions of the Comptroller General’s Office, and the legislative branch’s inertia. The pact destroyed what little institutionality had existed in government; no institution is spared its virus and none of the possible outcomes to the electoral drama can be scripted without considering it.

As evidence of this, the pact went back into action in early January, after the Pellas-Alemán alliance was already in effect. Claiming "strict adherence to the law," all three FSLN magistrates on the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) plus one from the PLC denied legal status to the National Unity Movement (MUN), thus eliminating it from the presidential race. Although alleging that this "third way" option headed by former army head Joaquín Cuadra, himself a Sandinista, had not met certain formalities, the decision was evidently political. The magistrates postponed announcing it for nearly two months after the MUN turned in the required paperwork—plenty of time to correct a formality or two.
According to Cuadra’s denunciation to the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (CENIDH), his party’s exclusion must logically have an agreed-upon tradeoff: could it be to later exclude any Conservatives opposing the PLC-PC pact from running candidates as an independent option? The tried and true method so far has been to disqualify enough of the signatures that new parties or alliances must submit to register candidates.
So while the FSLN will benefit from the MUN’s exclusion, the PLC will benefit from excluding any PC breakaway group. And if the PC opens itself up to a genuinely broad anti-pact alliance, then both main parties would gain from quashing it. If, however, Violeta Chamorro runs as the alliance’s presidential candidate, the CSE would find it almost impossible to deny it a place on the ballot given her backing among the international community. Nicaragua’s presidential elections will obviously be much more vulnerable to international pressure and observation than last year’s municipal contest. It is also obvious, however, that international observers will be unable to get a grip on the fraudulent procedures assumedly already installed in the electoral mechanisms. And this can only favor the FSLN because of its greater levels of organization.

Sense and sensibility

Before the Pellas-Alemán alliance appeared on the horizon, Alemán had anointed Iván Escobar Fornos, president of the National Assembly since 1997, as his successor. From that kingpin legislative post, Escobar had offered daily proof of his total docility towards any decision coming down from the President. But the alliance with the Conservatives forced Alemán to change all that. Although loathe to do so, he grasped that he would have to improve his party’s image regarding corruption—if not democracy—in order to make its electoral future less adverse and guarantee its alliance with the Conservative business right.
The PLC was the first political bloc to define its presidential ticket. On January 28, the Great Liberal Convention confirmed Enrique Bolaños, Alemán’s own Vice President for the past four years, as its candidate, with Liberal coffee magnate José Rizo as his running mate. Historically a Conservative, Bolaños joined the PLC barely a year ago. He is old and confrontational, thus hardly an attractive proposition for a country whose voters are for the most part young and tired of confrontation. But he is otherwise cut out for the new stage of Alemanism. He can pull the votes of a significant sector of traditional businesspeople because they still consider him untainted, and he can polish up the government’s image with the international community for that same reason. He is also ideal because his highly charged and provocative language, even if so fundamentalist as to be obsolete, snarls the electorate in the old anti-Sandinista trap.

In his acceptance speech on January 28, Bolaños claimed that he was not confrontational and held no rancor, even if he had ample reason. He promptly went on to demonstrate the contrary: "I have never used a weapon, never killed, tortured, hit or raped anyone." The final tag on his list of virtues made it clear that he was obliquely slamming his presidential opponent Daniel Ortega, whose stepdaughter accused him several years ago of sexual abuse in a case that has been blocked from getting to court.

Meanwhile, the Christian Way Party is actively seeking an alliance with the PLC and, in January, the PLC established one with the Nicaraguan Resistance Party (PRN), which until the end of December had headed the self-styled Alliance of National Hope. That alliance had attracted various party fractions as well as individual FSLN and PLC dissidents, the most important of whom was José Antonio Alvarado, who expelled from the PLC and formed his own Democratic Liberal Party.

The silence of the lamb

Ever since Bolaños failed to wrest the UNO’s presidential candidacy away from Violeta Chamorro in 1990, he has been obsessed with the dream of sitting behind the presidential desk. The arrogance implicit in Bolaños’ euphoria ever since he was nominated could act against him, reducing his already questionable charisma among an electorate in which gray hair, anti-Sandinista sentiments and executive lunches do not predominate.

Bolaños is not an unconditional Alemán ally and his anti-Sandinista sentiments have little in common with Alemán’s, which are laced with whims, fickleness and pacts. Nonetheless, Bolaños’ willingness to remain silent about presidential corruption and the nil role played by the Integrity Commission he chaired as Vice President suggest that having him in the President’s office would guarantee what matters most to Alemán: impunity for his ill-gotten gains, which is the main reason he wants to be reelected in 2006.

The PLC ticket was completed with José Rizo, who has a lot of party organizing experience and a more modern conception of politics. After Alvarado was expelled from the PLC, Rizo could be heard expressing subtle criticisms of Alemán’s administration and personal caudillo behavior. Days after the convention, Rizo declared that he was willing to resign his place on the ticket if the Conservative-Liberal alliance demanded it.

The power and the glory

An Alemán undermined by the municipal results and a PLC increasingly fed up with his constantly imposed whims created a correlation of forces within the party that forced Alemán to allow the convention delegates to nominate the ticket by secret vote. But two weeks later, in a convention in which the vote was not secret, he balanced out this concession by imposing the slate for all the party’s directive posts. This dual action in Alemán’s last year in office—opening up the presidential ticket while closing down the party—suggests where his priorities are as he prepares to leave office.

Alemán not only had to give up his Constituent Assembly idea and accept a presidential ticket that was not exactly what he had planned. He also had to give the PLC’s National Executive Committee a facelift, dismissing very close friends from directive posts because of their involvement in scandalous acts of corruption. He thus got rid of Byron Jerez and Edgard Quintana of check-scam fame, but kept others such as René Herrera and Martín Aguado, putting together a party directorate that should remain loyal to his leadership.
Alemán will leave office in January 2002 and move straight into a lifetime seat—armored with immunity—in the National Assembly as a curious gift from the FSLN in the pact. Once there, Alemán is sure to head the Liberal bench, whose other members will have been handpicked by the National Executive Committee of a party still dominated by caudillismo.

Although Bolaños will want to and should get out from under Alemán’s shadow if elected President, Alemán will continue to wield to enormous power within his party, the legislative branch and the country as a whole. From these spaces, he will dedicate a good part of his energy to preparing for reelection in 2006.

Gunfight at the OK corral

The candidates in next November’s elections seem wedded to the political script of the past two decades, particularly the polarizing campaign scenes between Sandinismo and anti-Sandinismo, in which voters are exhorted to vote against someone rather than for something. One bad guy in this shoot ’em up plot is Enrique Bolaños, whose farms were confiscated in the eighties and who was copiously indemnified in the nineties even though the Sandinistas had returned most of his properties while still in office. Interpreting the 1979 revolution with an ideologized, black and white discourse, he repeatedly proposes the irresponsible idea of dissolving Nicaragua’s army strictly because of its Sandinista origins. His opponent in the other black hat is Daniel Ortega, symbol of everything Bolaños has so ardently fought against for two decades. As if caught in an interminable historical loop, society will yet again be assaulted by the now obsolete arguments that saturated the war years.
The FSLN’s triumphal interpretation of its municipal victories—particularly Managua, the most significant win—propelled Daniel Ortega to announce his candidacy only twelve hours after the Managua results were released. From that moment forward, the mass media were witness to an intense two-month debate about the advisability of Ortega running for President for a fourth consecutive time.

The untouchables

The minority of Sandinistas who are still in the FSLN and the majority who have left it and are now dispersed and confused about what to do have all questioned Ortega’s candidacy in depth because it could mean losing the FSLN’s edge. With very few exceptions, however, these critical Sandinista voices went no further. Regrettably, they failed to question his demonstrated anti-democratic authoritarianism and lack of political scruples or his tarnished private ethics. Challenging him as a candidate while continuing to raise him up as the "unquestionable leader" of the FSLN only bolsters his already considerable power, which he abuses with such impunity, and undermines the credibility and space that Sandinistas have earned and deserve.

This controversy about the party’s presidential ticket led to the decision to settle it through the same kind of "popular consultation" of party militants, sympathizers and interested citizens at large that was held prior to the 1996 elections. Two alternative candidates came forward: economist Alejandro Martínez Cuenca, who was Minister of Planning during the Sandinista government, and Víctor Hugo Tinoco, currently a National Assembly representative and FSLN National Directorate member who was active in the anti-Somoza struggle and gained broad experience in international relations during the eighties.

In mid-December, meanwhile, retired army chief Humberto Ortega, economically the most powerful voice in the FSLN, entered the debate. In a widely disseminated open letter, he questioned his brother’s candidacy based on what he saw as the real risk of defeat by an anti-Sandinista rightwing coalition unified by fear of the FSLN’s return to government. He also disqualified Tinoco’s candidacy but said nothing about Martínez Cuenca.
The contradiction between the two brothers was not a fake, as some claimed, and unleashed a major power struggle within the FSLN structures. For Humberto Ortega’s purposes, it does not matter whether the FSLN wins or loses, as long as it is not his brother who takes the fall. It is clear to him that Daniel’s electoral defeat would not only affect the "Danielismo" that now controls the FSLN, but would extend to the more wide-sweeping political-economic concept of "Orteguismo."

Against all odds

It is abundantly evident that Daniel Ortega’s candidacy is polarizing Nicaraguan society, while helping unify the forces of the Right and divide those of the Left. Having said that, it must also be said that the terms Left and Right are used here for relative identification purposes only. In today’s Nicaragua, concepts, people and things are getting more confused every day.
"Daniel is our candidate," Arnoldo Alemán chanted defiantly and with pure burlesque. But Daniel Ortega imposed his candidacy despite Alemán, his brother, the debate unleashed within his party and society and his falling popularity in the polls—in other words, against all odds. To help him out, his loyal circle advanced the date of the consultation to January 21 to limit the alternative candidates’ campaign possibilities.

When Mónica Baltodano, José González and Angela Ríos went to register as aspiring candidates for the National Assembly, they were prevented from doing so. They are three of the four members of the current FSLN bench in the Assembly who verbally opposed and refused to vote for some of the FSLN-PLC pact legislation. The challenge to their candidacies was the first sign that there would be no surprises in the consultation results.

Ortega’s display of economic power in Managua was impressive, with banners, posters and, most importantly, abundant costly propaganda in the media. The day of the consultation itself abounded with irregularities and anomalies, especially in the capital. For all that, the number of people who turned out to vote in the consultation fell below expectations, based on how many had participated in the 1996 consultation, how many had registered as FSLN members in 1994 and even population growth.

The man who would be king

It was clear from the outset that Daniel Ortega could win the consultation even without any irregularities. A good sector of the Sandinista grass roots lives its belief in Sandinismo as a "religion" and sees Daniel as a demigod who inspires fear and demands fidelity. Nonetheless, the consultation demonstrated that this mystical thinking is losing ground. Despite all the obstacles, Tinoco and Martínez Cuenca captured the sympathy of 45-55% of Sandinista voters in Managua between them. Although this was hardly enough to win, it does significantly call Ortega’s candidacy into question.
The official results hid this reality, giving Ortega 71.9% of the votes naturally. In the voting to select legislative candidates, on the other hand, there were major tradeoffs. Following the announcement of official results for 97% of the polling places, the final figures were altered to favor candidates loyal to the Daniel camp. This means that the FSLN bench in the National Assembly will be at least as pro-Daniel as it has been this term, if not more so.

All the President’s men

Tinoco, Martínez Cuenca and many of the legislative candidates booted out despite having won denounced the consultation’s lack of transparency and blamed the party’s electoral structures and Ortega himself for it. Ortega tacitly admitted that there had been problems, but limited himself to blaming "weaknesses of the system" for what had happened. On February 25, the FSLN Congress—whose delegates are totally dominated by the pro-Daniel circle—will ratify all the results of the questionable consultation and select Ortega’s running mate from among a gamut of aspirants.

Among these are Álvaro Robelo, a controversial figure with whom the FSLN established an alliance at the end of January. This banker-politician founded the short-lived party known as Arriba Nicaragua in the 1996 elections and was its presidential candidate until disqualified for having forsaken his Nicaraguan nationality by taking Italian citizenship. The FSLN is also maintaining its "electoral convergence" with former Comptroller General Agustín Jarquín and a group of Social Christian leaders. Jarquín threw his hat into the FSLN’s presidential ring in January, with the support of his family and a group of friends. Meanwhile, the FSLN is also engaged in a convergence with the Christian Unity Movement (MUC), a split from the Christian Way party. MUC head Reverend Omar Duarte is another aspiring FSLN vice-presidential candidate, as is Sandinista businessman Manuel Coronel Kautz.

In January, even the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) initiated talks with the FSLN. It conditioned any electoral alliance more on programmatic changes than on power sharing: among others, liquidation of the institutional effects of the PLC-FSLN pact, reforms to the electoral law and to the law guaranteeing immunity to parliamentarians and top government officials, and an economic policy that responds less to the dictates of the IMF. The talks did not last long before being put "on ice."
The critical Sandinista currents remaining within the party, among them the "FSLN Left," find themselves once more caught in a dilemma. How do these dissidents canvass the party’s grassroots to vote for candidates chosen in a consultation that they themselves have called "an insult to one’s intelligence"?

The great dictators

When the Liberal Convention endorsed his candidacy on January 28, Enrique Bolaños announced the PLC’s project: to get "two for one" (double the FSLN’s votes) so it can change the Constitution and sweep the FSLN out of the institutions, turning them over totally to PLC appointees. In other words, its highly undemocratic ambition is to "advance" from the two-headed dictatorship fabricated by the pact to a single-headed one brimming with anti-Sandinista fanaticism.

Following the FSLN consultation, Daniel Ortega announced his project too: a "civic and democratic revolution" headed by the FSLN, which he said requires winning on the first round with a substantial majority—also two for one? Ortega specifically proposed changing the Constitution to "decapitate" the presidentialist model and lead the country to a European-style parliamentary system. In so saying, he conveniently overlooked the constitutional reforms already made in 1995 to strengthen the National Assembly’s power, which both the PLC and the FSLN opposed. Those reforms are not applied because legislators are elected on party slates rather than individually and answer to the caudillos of their respective parties.

If the electoral plot only has one of these two outcomes, the film could well end in a tragedy. The denouement of these presidential elections cannot and should not be so grandiose—no revolutions and no counterrevolutions. The best ending would be more modest: a government that begins to open back up the spaces in the institutions, the laws and people’s consciousness that the FSLN-PLC pact closed. Simply, start all over again...

The postwoman
always knocks twice?

After Ortega and Alemán—using like-minded anti-democratic methods—imposed iron-fisted control over their parties to maintain a correlation of forces favoring their leadership and legislative candidate lists, the remaining plot thread to be woven in was the Conservatives’ final decision.
The enormous privilege of having a place on the electoral ballot in the midst of an excluding pact gives the PC the possibility of contributing to another ending to the electoral movie. That possibility would come from using its ballot slot for an alliance genuinely embracing parties from the center-right to the center-left. With that, it could confront the pact and rescue institutionality with a program characterized by rationality and social sensitivity, both of which are extremely necessary virtues in today’s Nicaragua. For some, the only chance this option would have to both win and avoid being eliminated by the FSLN and PLC magistrates who control the CSE would be to have Violeta Barrios de Chamorro head the ticket.

And so it was that, after some cutting and pasting, she was written back into the script. Whether playing the powerful mother who can save the country from cunning and dangerous "fathers" as in 1990, or simply the most realistic and least evil of the possible outcomes in 2001, she could conceivably regroup those who disagree with the pact’s exclusion. This scene is not yet in the can, however. Negotiations over her candidacy continue as this issue of envío closes, and there are as many aspirants to be the power behind her throne—a slot held during her first term by her son-in-law Antonio Lacayo—as there are to be Daniel Ortega’s running mate.

Even if her entry into the electoral race means that old scenes—the war of the eighties and the dismantling of social benefits in the nineties—are revisited in the imagination of the electorate and society in general, it could still palpably alter the two-party system forced by the pact. With a team radically different from the cold and calculating technocrats who accompanied her in the nineties, demonstrating social insensitivity and voracity as they went after the booty of the state, Chamorro could beat both Bolaños and Ortega, even in the first round. From there, she could perhaps kindle a nationalist and pluralist spirit that might just reopen the padlocks the caudillos had snapped shut and begin to mend the destruction that the pact has caused to institutionality. She certainly could be expected to reinstill something of the tolerance and dignity she brought to the office during her first tenure. Then perhaps in the words of a famous Nicaraguan song, she could bring some light "to this people that so loves life."

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