Casting Nicaragua’s Electoral Flick
Is there still enough time, space, desire and drawing power
to build an alternative to the pact’s two-party system? If not, we may be moving dangerously close to the nihilism bred of having no one to vote for, and from there to more violence.
After a first draft of the electoral film’s script was hammered out between December and January, these past two months have been dedicated to signing some of the stars and auditioning possible co-stars and supporting actors. No concern whatever was displayed about the bit players, those anonymous people who come and go around the edges of the action, serving on occasion as a chorus—or, in this case, as the electorate.
The cast is still incomplete, and time is running short: the Supreme Electoral Council has just published the electoral calendar that culminates with the general elections on Sunday, November 4. In May, aspiring parties and alliances must turn in the signature petition required by law. In July, they must register all of their presidential and legislative candidates.
The baitNo matter how often President Alemán declares that the Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC) has put together an all-star bill (Enrique Bolaños-José Rizo), the Liberals can’t seem to shake their fear of taking on the powerful FSLN at the box office alone. They admit that their allies in the pact and rivals at the ballot box have a proven malicious skill and worry that they are so organized that no "stars" and no observers specializing in fraud detection will be enough to tip the balance back in favor of the PLC.
Nor did the Liberals want the Conservative Party (PC) to run alone, since it could pull away enough anti-Sandinista votes to make the difference between victory and defeat for the PLC. The possibility that Violeta de Chamorro would head up a great alliance opposing both the pro-Alemán and pro-Ortega blocs caused even more angst in the PLC ranks. Liberals extolled former President Chamorro’s merits, but slyly suggested that "as a symbol of democracy, she should not erode her prestige by getting back into politics," while at the same time urging that the PC enter into an electoral alliance with the PLC. Enrique Bolaños, Alemán’s Vice President, had been selected as the PLC’s presidential candidate precisely to encourage such an alliance since he was a long-time Conservative before throwing his hat in the Liberal ring.
The PC’s financial straits after the Alemán-Pellas alliance put an end to its allowance from the Pellas family coffers makes running alone a pipe dream. That problem, combined with political ambition and a persistent anti-Sandinista blind spot, made the Conservatives more open to the PLC proposal: to join ranks behind Bolaños, ostensibly "one of them," to coalesce the anti-Sandinista vote—which the PLC has undertaken to baptize as the "democratic vote." In exchange, the PC would get sure-win billing for some of its legislative candidates on the joint slate and was promised Cabinet posts and a number of embassies.
Nonetheless, a number of public opinion polls showed little support for such an alliance, and the ensuing internal debate split the already fractured Conservative Party. One group, unconvinced by the Bolaños bait, was aware that allying with an Alemán-dominated PLC would only reaffirm the PC’s historic reputation as a sell-out party, and doom any "born again" argument for a long time to come. The other, more opportunist group—largely recent arrivals who do not feel the stain of its history so strongly—bit the apple.
It was here that we left the scriptwriters last month: Pedro Solórzano, Nicaragua’s own Forest Gump, had just resigned the PC presidency, supposedly to conserve his somewhat inexplicably accumulated popularity as the good guy in the flick. But only days later he was found auditioning before Alemán for a starring role in the Liberals’ electoral plot, presumably to write his way back into the Pellas-Alemán economic one. At this complicated crossroads, the PC as a whole opted to stick to the middle: avoiding either a definitive yes or no to Alemán’s alliance proposal. Instead, it presented a counterproposal: it would join the alliance if and only if the electoral law was substantially reformed in time for the upcoming elections.
The conditionThe exclusionary objectives of the electoral law resulting from the Alemán-Ortega pact have been strongly called into question both internationally and nationally for being so at odds with political pluralism and democracy. The new law was designed as an impossible obstacle course to disqualify any parties, alliances or candidates that might pose a threat to the parties in the pact. Since various polls have shown that reforming this law has strong consensus among the citizenry, the Conservatives had the perfect weapon: taking up electoral reform with the Liberals would raise their prestige as politicians with a national vision. In addition, as the reform was such a complex issue, it could drag on for weeks and provide a test of the Conservatives’ maneuvering room with the Liberals.
Among the most significant changes in the Conservatives’ proposal was elimination of the bi-party politicization of top posts in the regional, departmental and municipal Electoral Council headquarters as well as at all polling tables. It also called for restoration of the popular subscription associations so independents could run and for reinstatement of parties that had lost their legal status due to arbitrary CSE decisions.
The ploy failsGiven the splits in so many legislative benches, the Liberals would have had little difficulty pulling together the 57-vote qualified majority needed to pass the reforms in the National Assembly. Speculation went on for weeks about whether the reforms would even get that far and, if they did, by how many votes—and whose—they would be approved. There was also speculation about whether the Conservative leaders were only demanding the reforms or sought "something else" behind the scenes; and about whether they were buying time or the Liberals were stringing them along with a sterile task that would erode their party and reveal its internal fights to public opinion.
To avoid such erosion, the PC set March 4 as a deadline for the PLC to decide about the reforms. As co-designer of the law’s exclusionary character, the PLC obviously had no interest in opening the law back up, so it first argued that the pressure of the electoral calendar made it impossible to approve the changes in time for this year’s elections. To avoid appearing a spoilsport, President Alemán also designated a commission of Liberal jurists to study the Conservative proposal; on March 1, these specialists in interpreting laws the way the President wants them to found that the proposed reforms were not viable because they contradicted the Constitution. The fact is that they were not viable because they were significant enough to affect the PLC. The next day, following a 15-8 vote of the PC’s leadership body, the party announced that any possibility of an alliance with the PLC was closed.
With the alliance crossed off the PC list of possibilities, two others remained. One would be to run virtually alone, with its own candidates and a few insignificant allies. The other would be to use its slot on the ballot as a magnet for a "universal" coalition of political parties, groups and personalities that oppose the Ortega-Alemán pact and were arbitrarily written out of the film by the CSE.
The debate over these options deepened the fissures in the Conservative Party, at which point President Alemán explained with his characteristic snide grin that the alliance the PLC was seeking had not exactly been "with the Conservative Party, but with the Conservative family." He thus let it be known that his objective had been to divide this family, and he succeeded.
In 1999, PC leaders had played a determining role in perverting the Movimiento Patria. Later, they were instrumental in destroying the Third Way, which sought to participate in the municipal elections through an alternative and representative center-left national alliance that included Sandinistas critical of the FSLN. The Conservative Party managed to get on the municipal ballots only thanks to international pressure and the self-serving support of FSLN magistrates on the CSE, but even after obtaining this "privilege," the PC was not broad-minded enough to make room for an extensive and representative alliance. Instead, it engaged in a simplistic anti-Sandinista discourse that belongs to another era, showing that it suffers the same hegemonic and excluding tendencies as the two parties to the pact that it so bitterly and "democratically" criticizes.
A different condition; This history and the ambiguity of the PLC-PC conversations did little to enthuse Violeta de Chamorro about heading up a PC coalition. On February 8, she sent a message to the media letting it be understood that she might be willing to accept the PC presidential candidacy, but only if it would turn its ballot slot into a genuinely universal anti-pact alliance.
another ploy fails
The most significant part of the message was the following challenge: "The Conservative party…has the great historic opportunity to offer its ballot position, in an act of patriotic generosity, without conditions of any kind, to achieve a great anti-pact unity." A long, expectant month ticked by in which the PC offered no signs of acting on any such unconditional offer to other parties. Therefore, on March 7, despite an UCA poll showing a clear possibility that she could defeat both Bolaños and Ortega, Chamorro declined the candidacy that the PC directors had come to offer her. Was it definitive? "My heart dictates it," she said.
That night, the top circles of both the PLC and the FSLN breathed a collective sigh of relief. No prima donna would steal the camera from their stars and the PLC would not be stuck with the messy but necessary task of prohibiting Chamorro’s candidacy—not that it was unwilling or had much trouble digging up an excuse. None other than President Alemán had already warned that the Conservative Party’s own by-laws required a candidate to be an active member for at least a year before registering to run, a requisite Violeta Chamorro did not meet.
The next day she wrote an open letter to the nation explaining why she had declined the Conservative Party’s offer, at the same time reaffirming that Nicaragua needs "a third alternative that imposes itself over the corrupt system established by the two caudillos in the pact." She gave only one reason for her decision, and it was obvious, visible and lamentable: "I proposed to the Conservative leaders and to all the political forces that favor unity to work tirelessly, putting party interests aside, to create the longed-for unity…. It is with concern that I see that this unity has not come about." She again warned the PC: "If a party continues acting alone, or closes itself up inside its own circle in a small and limited alliance, leaving other forces outside, it will never manage to turn into the democratizing hope that we so need at this crucial moment."
A whole nation or only part?Since January, the most visible promoter of Violeta de Chamorro’s candidacy was former Army chief Joaquín Cuadra, who after his retirement last year formed and headed the National Unity Movement (MUN), denied legal status by the CSE on its typically arbitrary grounds. Cuadra’s belligerence as ad-hoc casting director on Chamorro’s behalf—imposing an agenda and a timetable on the Conservatives and pressuring them with daily public declarations—triggered no little rejection in the already divided PC ranks. It also sparked suspicion on all sides because of Cuadra’s well-known links with Daniel Ortega, but reports are that Chamorro herself had encouraged her friend to push for the unity that might tempt her to risk her prestige in a new political adventure.
Rejection of Cuadra’s bullying does not fully explain the PC’s consistent refusal to include Sandinismo in any national "third-way" alliance. This exclusion is incompatible with a national vision, with any project put forward by those claiming to be "concerned for the nation."
The Nicaraguan nation can be neither understood nor led without taking Sandinismo into account. Confronting the FSLN in the name of "democracy," without making any distinction between it and the rest of Sandinismo, only helps maintain Alemán’s anti-democratic impunity. The Conservative leaders simply argue that there should be "no return of the dark night of Sandinismo," while they should be adding with equal vehemence that we need no more "gloomy days of Alemanismo" either. Nicaragua’s recent history must be reinterpreted honestly, critically and ponderously if we truly want to work for a nation-building project. In this historic review, Sandinismo has to be separated from the current project of the FSLN’s leaders. It is unacceptable to let today’s FSLN and its corrupted leadership be Sandinismo’s only representative in the national reality.
DisappointmentOn February 25, 11 years to the day after Daniel Ortega lost the 1990 presidential elections to Violeta Chamorro, the FSLN Congress ratified this two-time loser (he lost again in 1996 to Alemán) as the party’s candidate yet again. The more than 700 delegates also rubber-stamped without discussion all legislative candidates elected in the FSLN’s internal consultation the previous month, despite its highly questionable transparency.
Ortega’s candidacy was an object of debate right up to its ratification, not by non-Sandinista public opinion in general, which had long since assumed he would be the candidate, but by sectors within the FSLN. Just before the Congress, a dozen FSLN members, including National Directorate member Víctor Hugo Tinoco, members of the Sandinista Left such as Mónica Baltodano, and still others, among them Vilma Núñez, who belong to no particular tendency, released a document titled "The Road to Victory." Clearly alluding to Daniel Ortega, the document states that "the majority of us are dissatisfied with the management of the party and are questioning a leadership eroded by its erratic decisions, unethical actions and the incoherence of its political activities." The signers offered various proposals to the Congress: a debate to find another presidential candidate; the inclusion of National Assembly candidates representing all currents of opinion within the FSLN, Sandinismo as a whole and the FSLN’s allies; and the search for a patriotic alliance around truly democratic and popular programs.
The media gave the document major play but it had no impact whatsoever on the congressional delegates, who had been hand-picked to make the Congress nothing more than an act of enthusiastic anticipation of the FSLN’s victory and exaltation of Daniel Ortega.
Question of faithDaniel Ortega is afraid of losing for the third time, as his adversaries have so often predicted. Lacking the gallantry to decline the candidacy, however, he has decided to face the risk with faith, a religious faith. One of the less-than-lilting slogans that debuted in the Congress was "United Nicaragua is the Promised Land, a refulgent future with President Daniel." Meanwhile, Managua was bedecked with banners full of flowers and slogans such as "Go forward my people, God willing!" and "Together we are the life, together we are the Promised Land!" The campaign song, which also premiered at the Congress, has the rhythm of a Negro spiritual used for cleansing sessions. With the repeated chorus "Let it be!" the Argentine singer Piero’s smooth voice embraces the electorate with the words of this novel "program": "I need to go from madness to peace, from darkness to light, from the unreal to the real…"
This was opening night of what promises to be a very syncretic campaign: spiritual, pseudo-religious propaganda to pull votes, and military tactics to "defend them." In such an impoverished and directionless country as today’s Nicaragua, this syncretism could harvest abundant votes for the FSLN during the 75-day campaign to which the abusive and haranguing political class will subject the country.
Tryouts for co-starAlthough the FSLN’s presidential candidacy was not open to discussion, there was debate around the naming of Ortega’s running mate. For weeks, the most likely co-star was considered to be former Comptroller General Agustín Jarquín, whose Social Christian Unity signed an alliance and electoral convergence—what is being called the "new majority—with the FSLN for the municipal elections last year. It was learned later that part of the trade-off for Jarquín’s national and international prestige would be the vice-presidential candidacy for him and an unspecified number of legislative candidacies for other Social Christian leaders. What was known from the beginning was that it was also in exchange for the FSLN adopting the plan of governability that Jarquín had been working on for months.
While Jarquín was preparing himself as the most likely vice presidential candidate, the FSLN was expanding its roster of allies in the electoral convergence: the evangelicals of the Christian Unity Movement (MUC); banker Álvaro Robelo who offered the "seal" of Arriba Nicaragua, the party he founded in 1996; a Resistance Party splinter group and a group of coast politicians headed by former Miskito military opposition leader and current PLC legislator Stedman Fagoth.
Right after the Congress, Ortega announced that his running mate would be revealed in April, and that he had expanded the repertoire, not discarding the casting of any political or business leader. There was talk of Liberal dissident José Alvarado, of Conservative Pedro Solórzano, of businessman Manuel Ignacio Lacayo, of the unclassifiable Álvaro Robelo... "We are sending out feelers in various directions and cannot rule anyone out," said Ortega, taking on the role of casting director.
Bye, bye, supporting roles!The discussion of Ortega’s supporting cast got really heated right before the Congress. Speculation raged not only about his vice-presidential running mate but also about whether the FSLN would open its slate of legislative candidates to its allies. How many candidacies should they be given, why give them any, had they requested them beforehand or not, did they merit them and if so why…? The biggest issue was who among those elected in the FSLN’s popular consultation would be tagged to give up their spot to the allies.
A natural aspiration of any Nicaraguan politician is to head a party’s departmental slate for a National Assembly seat—which means a sure win. Being a legislator in any country provides a platform for debate and decision-making around fundamental legislative initiatives and for pushing a political program. This post, fundamental to representative democracy, allows politicians to make good on their vocation as public servants. But in countries like Nicaragua, such posts also offer among the highest income opportunities, not only in salary but also in the accompanying perquisites and chances for trips and future—or concurrent—business deals. It is not easy to give up the idea of being a National Assembly representative.
Those who insisted most on being candidates were the Social Christians from Jarquín’s group. The debate was tense, moving from closed-door meetings to the media, and went on way too long. In the process, the image of the man who as comptroller general had been a nationally and internationally recognized example of coherence and honesty deteriorated even more than it already had as a result of his decision about the FSLN leaders’ show of arrogance is that they are over-confident of victory, thanks to the well-trained electoral apparatus they have organized, which already proved its effectiveness in last year’s municipal elections.
Damp powderThe segment of the "Conservative family" that did not go over to the PLC decided to participate in the elections by forming "another" Liberal-Conservative alliance—one distanced from the corruption surrounding Alemán and crew. It thus put together a presidential ticket headed by controversial PC leader Noel Vidaurre, whose hegemonic and protagonist tendencies have a lot to do with why the party has not opened up to a pluralist alliance. His running mate is José Antonio Alvarado, the great PLC founder and subsequent dissident, who after being expelled last year created another Liberal party that the CSE excluded from participating. While Vidaurre was busy paving the way for his candidacy from even before the Alemán-Ortega pact and more recently seeing to it that the Violeta Chamorro option would not bear fruit, Alvarado was holding meetings in his house, speaking to the press, seeking funds and visiting diplomats. It was a two-track effort: to turn the idea of a universal ballot slot headed by Chamorro into a reality and, in case that failed, to move the alliance with Vidaurre forward.
The PC’s participation in the elections does not mean it will compete as a third-way option; it will not pull any votes beyond the limited center-right. Although the Vidaurre-Alvarado ticket is not a winner, it is very much to the FSLN’s liking because it will split the anti-Sandinista and Liberal votes.
Alvarado has strong appeal with a to ally with the FSLN. It must be recalled that when Jarquín made this choice back in September 2000, he repeatedly stated that he would never be Daniel Ortega’s running mate. The reasons he gave publicly were that Ortega’s acceptance was limited to sympathizers of his own party, thus making him a losing candidate.
The debate changed course when Ortega stated days after the Congress that the only legislative candidates on the FSLN lists would be the party members already elected in the popular consultation, all of whom are known for their loyalty to whatever he says. He advised that the Social Christians and other allies would be limited to posts in a future government–if the FSLN won.
The questionThe FSLN leaders’ crude handling of the Congress, the triumphalism that characterized it, the show of intolerance, the disrespectful declarations about their allies, the aggressive discourse of both Ortega and Tomás Borge, full of empty rhetoric, makes one wonder why the FSLN refuses even to think about changing. It flaunts the fact that it has not changed and rashly sows fear in national and international sectors about Ortega’s return to government.
One possible explanation is that even while Daniel Ortega is playing to win, another sector of the FSLN may be playing to lose, disinterested in holding the reins of executive power in a country as non-viable as this one, but interested in legislative seats. From there, they can control important arenas of political and economic power already agreed to in the pact, and gain access to new ones, which is why they do not want to share any of their seats with allies.
Another, more likely hypothesis certain sector of the PLC, but for all that, the ticket is very fragile. President Alemán prevented Alvarado from participating some months ago on the grounds that that he had supposedly not renewed his Nicaraguan nationality and thus could not run for high public office. Although Alvarado later won a legal victory against this capricious plot, Alemán ignored it, declaring that "if he stands as a candidate, we are going to prohibit him."
Another contender for In the 45 days of these dizzying casting tryouts, the Christian Way Party (CC), which also has an assured ballot slot, briefly offered it up as a universal anti-pact slot, but this evangelical party doesn’t guarantee enough solidity for a pluralist project of this type. Its leaders have been too ambiguous and its legislators have sold their votes for Arnoldo Alemán’s Liberal project too often. Nonetheless, electoral casting in Nicaragua is so full of surprises that the CC leaders declared they had met with representatives of no fewer than 24 political organizations to "hear input and suggestions."
the universal slot
It is most likely that the CC, like the bulk of the Resistance Party that did not hook up with the FSLN, will join up with the PLC, as Alemán himself has insistently announced. In exchange, directors of both parties will get on the PLC’s legislative slates and both parties will be allowed to preserve their legal status.
Violence in the streets?Three presidential candidates are on stage at the moment: Bolaños, Ortega and Vidaurre, of whom the only unremovable one is Ortega. Meanwhile, the co-stars are still auditioning. Since the ending of this flick is much more important than the opening, any part of the script could be rewritten, including Violeta Chamorro’s refusal. So far, the film’s plot promises little suspense but a possibly violent ending. The PC cannot possibly win alone, either with Noel Vidaurre or with someone else, but it has a good chance of preventing the PLC from obtaining a margin of victory over the FSLN that would avoid a second round.
The PC’s participation favors Ortega, as will the probable abstention motivated by the lack of a third-way alternative. The ceiling of the FSLN’s sure vote makes a "technical tie" with the PLC more likely than victory by a wide margin. Following a drawn-out, aggressive and polarized campaign, the possibility of a narrow victory by either the FSLN or the PLC could put the country at the cliff’s edge of violence. If the winner gets at least 35% but fails to put a 5-point spread between it and the runner-up, a second round would be required between the two. The writing and casting of that possible scene remains for the coming months.