Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 237 | Abril 2001



The Election Flick: Sets and Scenes

One thing is already quite clear about Nicaragua’s future perspectives: it’s better that three run in the election race and not just the two in the pact.

Nitlápan-Envío team

With the beating sun soon to give way to the pelting rains of Nicaragua’s tropical "winter," several different scenarios are still being scripted for the electoral film, and the cameras are about ready to roll. If it is a three-party race, a second round between the FSLN and one of the other two—Liberals or Conservatives—is almost a sure bet. And if there is a run-off round, it is an equally sure bet that the FSLN will not win it. If, on the other hand, the competition is only between Liberals and Sandinistas, one of the two, by definition, will win on the first round. Whichever one it is, the campaign is bound to be polarized and hard-fought. And if, as some are predicting, the results are very close, it could spark instability and violence no matter which side wins. Equally, independent of the presidential winner in such a two-horse race, the National Assembly would be exclusively divided (or shared, depending on how one looks at it) between Alemán and Ortega supporters—the ideal set for a sequel to both their pact and today’s dearth of good governance.

Two polls with crucial takes

Before the pact, a presidential candidate needed 45% to win in the first round, since a country with more than two parties renders an absolute majority highly unlikely. It is well known that Daniel Ortega’s main objective was to get that percentage lowered, since it was out of his reach as the FSLN’s lead vote-getter. The pivotal agreement in the Ortega-Alemán pact was thus that a presidential candidate would have to get 35% plus a 5-point lead over the second-place candidate; otherwise 40% was required.

The polling firms CINCO-M&R and CID-Gallup have just concluded the first two national polls on voter preferences for the possible presidential candidates. Both showed the Sandinista National Liberation Front’s Ortega in first place and the CID-Gallup poll showed the Conservative Party’s Noel Vidaurre surprisingly neck and neck with the Constitutional Liberal Party’s Enrique Bolaños while the CINCO-M&R poll put Bolaños ahead of him by 7 points.

The polls also register a lower abstention rate than the over 40% that characterized the municipal elections, with 21.1% and 14% respectively of those polled telling CINCO-M&R and CID-Gallup that they would not vote for any candidate. If all three candidates remain in the race, Bolaños would benefit from the abstention, while it would favor Ortega if only he and Bolaños run.

It is no surprise that polls show the FSLN leader with the highest support "floor." Numerous polls have consistently demonstrated that, although Ortega is the political personality with the highest negative rating among the population, he also retains the largest sure vote. This expresses the quasi-religious projection of the revolution’s achievements and glories of the eighties onto Ortega by roughly a third of the population.

The most surprising result of these two inaugural polls is the solid floor upon which PC candidate Noel Vidaurre is launching his campaign. The explanation has little if anything to do with the candidate’s charisma, which is about on a par with Al Gore’s, but rather with the electorate’s seemingly widespread interest in finding a desirable and viable alternative to the parties in the pact.

The PC would force a run-off

For the camera crew to start rolling the film, they need to know if the PC’s star is going to feature in the movie or not, something that has been touch-and-go from the first casting auditions. Fearful of an FSLN win, the extremely wealthy Pellas family withdrew its long-standing financial support from the PC to back the PLC, and the PLC did everything it could (at least on its own terms, if not on the PC’s) to get the PC to join ranks as well. Despite the arm-twisting from both quarters, the Conservatives decided to go it alone, organizing their own electoral alliances.

The above-mentioned national polls—conducted shortly before Holy Week, the traditional time for intense and unholy political negotiations—only confirm the obvious: the PC’s participation undermines the PLC by splitting the rightwing vote and pulling any number of undecided, anti-Sandinista and anti-pact votes. If the figures do not shift, the elections could end up in a three-way technical tie, ensuring a second round in which the Conservatives would play an extremely pivotal role. Perhaps even more important in the end, it would ensure a more balanced National Assembly, undermining the possibilities of Alemán and Ortega using it as a battleground for new pact skirmishes.

Two supporting actors could steal the show

To keep the figures climbing by capturing more and more "center" votes, the PC will have to do some major fundraising and consolidate Vidaurre’s leadership (the good news for the PC is that his negative image is as low as his charisma). Its leaders must quickly shed their elitist tendency and shore up the party’s weak organization and grassroots links. But if it really wants to expand its votes enough to win, it has to put a lot of work and thought into building an all-embracing third-way alliance. The trouble is that it would have to be open to the participation on equal footing of Sandinistas disaffected by the turn the FSLN has taken in the past decade. While open-minded Conservatives briefly dreamed that such an alliance with former President Violeta de Chamorro heading its ticket could lead to victory, they were outvoted by their anti-Sandinista colleagues, who break out in hives at the mere thought of such an alliance.

The choice of expelled PLC founder José Antonio Alvarado as Vidaurre’s running mate seeks to guarantee the PC much of what it needed to turn its strong kick-off into continued campaign growth. Alvarado assures organization and his important political and business contacts in the United States guarantee funding. In addition, his charismatic personality and projection of political ethics ensure votes from both Liberals sick of the current President and fence sitters who appreciate his conciliating and pluralist spirit. If the elections were genuinely transparent, the Vidaurre-Alvarado ticket, which brings together new representatives of the "historic parallels" of Conservatism and Liberalism, could push the PLC into third place with little trouble.

An Oscar for political cross-dressing

The PLC wanted the film shot on only two sets: that of a PLC-PC alliance and that of the FSLN. Although the alliance failed through the PLC’s unwillingness to meet the PC’s demand for electoral law changes, Alemán got the next best thing: a split PC. Several PC leaders decided on a personal basis to back PLC candidate Enrique Bolaños, himself historically a Conservative, arguing the need to "unify the democratic vote against the FSLN." Equally fallaciously, they argued that "Bolaños is no Alemán." Another sector of Conservatives, those from an alliance known as ALCON, based on traditional sectors from various rural zones, have continued to offer the PLC their total support.
Not yet satisfied, the PLC set out to sow more discord and confusion among traditional Conservative voters and the undecided by signing on recently resigned PC president Pedro Solórzano, Nicaragua’s homegrown Forrest Gump. The PLC wanted Solórzano’s "youth and popularity," to use Alemán’s phrase, while Solórzano wanted the PLC’s power to represent the interests of the Pellas family, which has financed his personal political career to date. Thus was born the Alemán-Solórzano alliance, following Vidaurre’s election as the Conservatives’ presidential candidate, with Solórzano high enough on the list of Liberal National Assembly candidates to ensure him a parliamentary seat.

Solórzano is no longer the fresh-scrubbed, seemingly idealistic businessman do-gooder who entered Nicaraguan politics a few years ago with popularity ratings through the roof. After the Alemán-Ortega pact prevented him from running as the PC candidate for mayor of Managua by the crudest and rudest trick imaginable, Solórzano took out TV ads in which he physically drew a fat line between those in the pact and those not, between the corrupt and the uncorrupted. He is now peddling his "discovery" that a new line has to be drawn in these elections. According to him, this one separates "totalitarianism" from "democracy." He explains that it was his "concern about the course of democracy" that led him into talks with Arnoldo Alemán, in which he recognized "important changes" that justify putting his youth and popularity at the PLC’s disposal. In what has become a veritable Easter Parade of political cross-dressing, his is perhaps the most spectacular.

What do the PLC scriptwriters want?

The greatest surprise of the polls—the number of voters willing to bet on the PC even before it breaks from the campaign gate—sparked real alarm in the ranks of the governing PLC. They see it as indispensable that the state institutions at the service of their party prevent Alvarado, Alemán’s three-time minister (of government, education and defense, respectively), from sharing Vidaurre’s ticket. The plot that Alemán began to hatch some months ago to keep his former ally off the set—that he did not resign his US nationality in time—is now ready, but it will cost the PLC dearly and gain sympathy for the PC.

Furthermore, Alvarado is not the only problem. The PLC needs to keep the Conservative Party itself from running, as was its objective in the municipal elections. International pressure and the savvy-thinking FSLN magistrates in the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) stepped in then to ensure that the PC was included and more pressure is predictable from the United States and other international quarters this time since they are helping finance these elections.

Excluding Alvarado requires cooperation between the Executive Branch, through the Ministry of Government, and the Electoral Branch, in other words the CSE, while getting the PC out of the race only requires that the CSE reject enough of the support signatures the party must present by mid-May. With the CSE "taken over" by the PLC and the FSLN, the two parties in the pact, the PC’s liquidation needs to be "pacted."

And what do the FSLN scriptwriters want?

What’s in it for the FSLN to back the PLC’s objective this time around? Does the PC’s participation help the FSLN and the circle that controls it or not? In the municipal elections, the FSLN encouraged the PC’s participation because it clearly helped the FSLN win the Managua mayoral seat and many other strategic ones. This time around, the calculations are not so straightforward.

The FSLN is fully aware that it can only win the presidency on the first round. The PC’s participation could smooth the way for that by dividing the rightwing vote, but it could also pull enough centrist votes that would otherwise choose the FSLN over the PLC that it would force a second round. The FSLN also knows that if it pits its forces against both the PC and the PLC and wins the necessary margin on the first round, its victory would be more legitimate. If, on the other hand, it has to go to a run-off, its defeat would also be greater and Daniel Ortega would be finished. And, or lose, the FSLN would be saddled with a more complicated legislative body. The ideal for the FSLN is a presidential victory and a National Assembly split between two parties. The next best thing is to lose the presidency but have the two parties with two years of pact negotiations under their belts comprise the National Assembly.

Three film sets or only two? The electoral and post-electoral scenarios depend to a very large degree on that key question. The answer will only be known in May, when the rains have hopefully begun to reduce the suffocating heat wave. The PLC’s desire is unambiguous: only two. The FSLN’s preference is less clear. Whatever steps—prudent or mistaken—that the two parties in the pact decide to take in this chronicle of an announced exclusion, only intense pressure from the international community can thwart them.

The Liberal set: Operators on alert

Minimizing the results of the first two polls, as well as private PLC ones that also show Bolaños trailing both Ortega and the Conservatives, President Alemán boasted that his former Vice President will win the elections with 53% of the votes. It is a prediction that implicitly involves the PC’s exclusion.

The PLC only wants to pit its forces against the FSLN. To prepare itself for this duel, it has now concluded an alliance with the Christian Way (CC) party. While the CC stands to gain some legislative seats and preserve its legal status with this deal, it declared that it decided in favor of the PLC because its members "heard in the United States that if the FSLN won, the government of Bush Jr. would not recognize the result." The PLC is also allied with a sector of the Resistance Party, certain Conservative sectors and segments of Social Democratic and Social Christian parties (PAN, MDN, UDC, PSC), all of which have lost their legal standing to the Supreme Electoral Councils new exclusionary rules. Alemán is unsurprisingly presenting this conglomerate as "the great alliance of the democratic vote."

The PLC is not just relying on alliances. It is making preparations that it neglected in the municipal elections, strengthening the training of its table monitors and organizing itself better for what it euphemistically calls "defense of the vote." The PLC knows that the FSLN’s sure vote is more solid than any other and that Sandinistas not only vote with discipline but with mystique, come hell or high water, while non-Sandinista voters are more lax and inconsistent. Faced with the evidence of this from the municipal elections, the PLC is adjusting all possible mechanisms to avoid losing a single vote.

The CSE’s disposition to establish the identity/voter registration card as the only valid document for any public transaction as of April 1 is part of the same strategy. The announced objective of reorganizing the nine general departments that make up the CSE ensures that such sensitive areas as computer information, land registry, electoral rolls and the civil status registry of individuals are headed by Liberals. These departments were ceded to Sandinistas when the two parties to the pact "took over" the CSE and the Liberals are convinced that this is how the Sandinistas "got one over on them" in the municipal elections. Bolaños never tires of repeating that there will be cars, trucks, ambulances and even stretchers if need be to get voters to the polling tables on election day. This discourse grows out of the fear that it could happen again, and aims at creating a climate that ensures the party’s vote, particularly in the rural zones where the PLC has its strongest support, as amply demonstrated in the municipal elections.

A fat shadow lurks behind the screen

As the incumbent party, the PLC has the resources of the state at its disposal, and has good organizational machinery, albeit less skilled than the FSLN’s. Its vice presidential candidate José Rizo demonstrates more charisma than the originally Conservative businessman Enrique Bolaños, who is very old for a country in which the youth in the 16-25 age group have the voting numbers to decide the election.

The biggest drag on the Bolaños-Rizo ticket is the fat shadow of President Alemán lurking behind the screen, not altogether unlike the profile of Alfred Hitchcock, at least physically. Five years of Liberal government, the image of government corruption engraved in the electorate’s mind, Alemán’s constant declarations confusing the state with the PLC and himself with its candidate and his flaunted iron grip on the party could convince all but the faithful to vote for the Conservatives. The population that fears Daniel Ortega, or fears the US reaction to an Ortega victory, could see the PC as an alternative anti-FSLN ticket that ensures less corruption, less mafia and new leadership. It is not for nothing that the implicit pro-PLC electoral slogan is "Bolaños isn’t Alemán". If Arnoldo Alemán draws up the list of PLC legislative candidates out of his circle of loyal followers, however, it will be very hard to convince voters of the veracity of this slogan.

In any case, Alemán should have no cause for complaint whatever the results of the election. Thanks to the pact with Ortega, he has a lifetime seat in the National Assembly, which guarantees him immunity, impunity and an assured post as head of the PLC bench, directing legislators who will almost certainly be his buddies. From this cushy and important position, the President can play out his hidden strategy for continuing in power, and plan his presidential comeback in the subsequent elections. A weak executive branch presided over by Bolaños and a legislative branch split in two and presided over by Alemán would provide the ideal stage for new acts of the pact with Daniel Ortega who, if he does not win the presidency will surely be the FSLN’s bench chief. The only possibly worse scenario would be an executive branch presided over by Ortega and a legislative one run by Alemán.

The FSLN’s set has a high floor but a low ceiling

While polls show Daniel Ortega in the lead, the FSLN appears to have little maneuvering room to clear the bar that separates the 25-30% sure vote of its sympathizers from the 35-40% needed to win on the first round. Daniel Ortega’s preaching only convinces the already converted and does not show signs of being able to capitalize on any more of the justified discontent with the incumbent government’s corruption.

Ortega’s candidacy is so polarizing that it has little chance of increasing the intent to vote for it, no matter how religious the electoral packaging in which the Sandinista candidate is presented or how attractive its public program. Daniel Ortega’s personal charisma with the party grassroots is what sets the floor so high, but it is also a large part of what keeps the ceiling so low. Just as the implicit slogan for pulling in the votes of non-Alemán Liberals is Bolaños isn’t Alemán, the equivalent in the FSLN is Ortega isn’t the FSLN, even if it does seem like it. Maybe the better implicit slogan would be After we win, we’ll get our act together.

Despite all the organized and unorganized disagreement about the anti-democratic imposition of Daniel Ortega’s candidacy and of the legislative candidates on the FSLN’s slate, almost all Sandinistas, whether pro- or anti-Daniel, within the party or long out, will predictably close ranks in November and vote for the FSLN. But even with this virtually guaranteed reservoir of votes, Daniel Ortega cannot break through the ceiling and touch victory. Naturally, the FSLN will be counting on the skills of its electoral commandos’ organized activity to raise the ceiling until it hits the longed-for percentage agreed to a year ago.

Agustín Jarquín: Star of the cast

Immediately upon learning the results of the two polls on March 29, Daniel Ortega finally decided who his running mate would be: former Comptroller General and Social Christian leader Agustín Jarquín. He chose Jarquín after discarding the candidacies of business leaders linked to the FSLN, certain that they could do little to contribute the votes that the FSLN needs to win on the first round.

Despite the fact that some months ago Jarquín vowed that he would not run with a man he judged to have too little social consensus and considered a loser, he agreed to be on the FSLN ticket. It is known that the FSLN has promised Jarquín’s Social Christians that through the vice presidency they can coordinate the social Cabinet ministries and the area of external cooperation in a future Sandinista government.
Gambling on Jarquín expresses how crucial, and how difficult, it is going to be for the FSLN to raise the ceiling as high as it needs to go. With Jarquín, the FSLN hopes to reduce the extremely high fear level that Ortega’s candidacy triggers in both the national and international spheres. Jarquín, who always emphasizes the FSLN’s social sensibilities in his public declarations, is stepping onto the Sandinista set as a guarantee of lower quotas of corruption and higher quotas of economic rationality. Through his figure, the FSLN will seek to alleviate the political and financial uncertainties generated by the possible return to power of an FSLN presided over by Daniel Ortega. The importance of ethical uncertainties and Jarquín’s power to assuage them are less clear.

How many non-Sandinista votes can Jarquín pull? It remains an open question, but in the CID-Gallup poll, the former hero of the fight against corruption got 34% unfavorable, 25% favorable—which is a fall of a few points from several months ago—and a strikingly high 41% that doesn’t know what to think of him. The tense and prolonged push-and-pull period of discussions between Jarquín and Ortega does not seem to have helped the former comptroller’s prestige beyond the Sandinista grassroots, and even that is uncertain. Instead, it eroded his well-earned prestige as the head of a state auditing institution that tried to do its job and as the standard-bearer in the battle against a pact that unrecognizably distorted his institution and even landed him in jail for several months.
Jarquín’s challenge will be huge. His controversial gamble will only have made any sense if the FSLN wins and he can demonstrate a new way of making politics from his post as Vice President. For the moment, his challenge is no less huge: raise the ceiling on Ortega’s candidacy.

Better three than two

The voting population, increasingly corseted and hence asphyxiated by the laces of the pact is challenged to reflect on what the future has to offer. At least for the coming two months, its challenge will be to help guarantee that there are at least three sets in the electoral film, three boxes on the presidential ballot of November 4. However short of desirable they may be, three is better than two for Nicaragua’s immediate future.

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