Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 244 | Noviembre 2001



General Elections 2001: The Predicted, The Unpredicted, The Uncertain

With the days preceding the elections plagued by anxiety, expectation and fears of varying degrees and sources, the big surprises on election day were the huge turnout and total calm. In the long "day after" that ends with the inauguration next January, expectations are mixed with uncertainties.

Nitlápan-Envío team

Nicaragua’s general elections were held on Sunday, November 4. For months, polls had shown Enrique Bolaños and Daniel Ortega neck-and-neck in a race for the presidency, and voters believed them. The priciest elections in the world—each vote cost $30, according to the treasury minister—also threatened to be one of the most hard-won in Nicaraguan history, with analysts predicting tensions, negotiations and likely violence due to the nearly-stationary technical tie.

Such a dangerous situation, which stemmed from the forced two-party structure imposed by the Liberal-Sandinista pact, was defused over the course of election day. Paradoxically, it had produced an unimagined boomerang effect: visions of the quarrels such close results could trigger along with a Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) campaign push to get out the vote in the final days seem to have galvanized voters. And this massive turnout created another unexpected result: governing party candidate Enrique Bolaños won by a far greater margin than even he had predicted. With an optimism shared by few of his backers, Bolaños had been insisting since September, when he finally caught up with Ortega in the polls, that he would beat his adversary by 8 points. He did it by 14. (For detailed election results and analysis, see "PLC: Resounding Winner of the Elections and the Pact" in this issue.)

The most positive aspects

Perhaps the greatest surprise of all was the notable calm throughout election day, with virtually no violent incidents reported then or in the days that followed. The huge turnout plus the tolerant acceptance of the results by both winners and losers are the most positive aspects of an illegitimate electoral process born of the pact between Ortega and President Arnoldo Alemán but baptized in the end in the cleansing river of voters.

The pact, which somehow invested the elections with the importance of a life-or-death dispute, together with the expectations and tensions accumulated over a year of electoral controversy in the media and in the streets of people’s communities, had stirred up voters. Most of the traditionally large number of fence sitters made their decision much earlier this year than in other campaigns over the past decade. And as the final battle grew nearer, both Ortega’s FSLN and Alemán’s PLC whipped up their respective members with repeated alerts about the likelihood that the other side would commit fraud.

The tension mounted as both parties subjected their activists, voting monitors and lawyers to rigorous training to avoid getting bested in a fraud game. All were urged to keep their "swords sharpened" to defend each vote at the ballot box, during the counting and transmission of the results to the computing center in Managua, and above all during the tabulation of the final results. A late-blooming fear voiced by national and international observers and echoed by the CSE, Nicaragua’s fourth branch of government, was that the election results could unleash a "war of challenges." Assuming an extremely close count in most voting centers, the loser’s obvious script called for challenging the results and demanding a recount—the South Florida syndrome. The more the challenges, the longer the delay in announcing the results; and the longer the delay, the greater the probability of violence. The Liberals’ comfortable margin of victory over the Sandinistas preempted this risky scenario, with its accompanying acts of violence and under-the-table negotiations.

Calling out the army

With only three days left before election day, a new twist complicated this tense scene: on Thursday, Ortega announced that President Alemán had decided to call a Cabinet meeting on election day afternoon to decree a State of Emergency and suspend constitutional guarantees. Alemán later declared that his "hand would not tremble" in doing so. Ortega took it a step further, however, claiming that the President planned to annul the elections as well. OAS Secretary General César Gaviria and former US President Jimmy Carter, the two most distinguished international election observers, joined national figures in unanimously and publicly criticizing the possibility that this measure would actually be taken.
As if confirming Ortega’s worst-case scenario, Managuans awoke the next day to find tanks stationed in the baseball stadium and thousands of soldiers armed with automatic rifles on the streets protecting strategic points. Many of those called out in this planned joint operation with the police force had totally covered their faces in black and olive green greasepaint and some were barely visible under the picturesque and surely sweltering camouflage gear used for special operations: actual greenery from head to toe. They remained deployed through election day Sunday, but far more discreetly, having traded in their bush masquerade for regular uniforms.

Was the objective of this maneuver to guarantee security, intimidate or dissuade? Probably some of all three. The high turnout suggests that the voting population felt more secure with the display of force while the groups that had planned to create street disturbances were likely dissuaded by it. As for intimidation, Sandinista leaders complained after the defeat that the military presence was a conscious effort to pull votes from the FSLN by "recalling the years of war."

Fraud forestalled

Nearly ten thousand national observers deployed for the November 4 elections, far more than ever before. The most distinguished group is the civil society coalition known as the Ethics and Transparency Civic Group, formed shortly before the 1996 elections, which accounted for nearly half the total number. Their contribution was decisive in ensuring that the election period preceded well this year.

An announcement by Ethics and Transparency in the weeks before the elections that it would do a quick count of the results of the presidential balloting in 10% of the polling places (amounting to some 300,000 voters) had a particularly stabilizing effect. It used a new system designed by Neil Nevitte, an electoral expert from the University of Toronto who has worked with "ET" since its inception, that virtually guaranteed there would be no fraud and helped deter any temptation to try. After winning a dispute in which it insisted on providing a copy to all seven CSE magistrates rather than just the president, Roberto Rivas, ET turned in its quick count results at 3 am on November 5. While the CSE prohibited their immediate publication, the quick count’s margin of error was later shown to be no more than 0.14% relative to the first official results released 10 hours later, thus proving its importance to the transparency and reliability of the results.

Some three thousand international observers also registered. The largest groups included the European Union with 160 observers, the official OAS mission with 70 and the Carter Center with 50. This doubled the number that came to Nicaragua for the 1996 elections and quintupled the 1990 number.

Former US President Jimmy Carter, who has personally observed all of Nicaragua’s elections since 1990, first made headlines this time when he questioned the interventionist declarations of various US officials opposing the FSLN candidate. He also expressed his "major disappointment" with the CSE’s politicization and party identification: "There are three magistrates who owe complete loyalty to the FSLN, three who are completely loyal to the PLC, and there is the president, Roberto Rivas, who is supposedly neutral, but that is not clear to me."

Post-voting scenarios

One of the favored parlor games in the weeks before the elections was a variant of "Can you top this?" in which the topic was post-voting scenarios. One of the most frequently voiced hypotheses was based on the conflict said to be incubating between Bolaños and Alemán. The explanation for the friction between them includes their very different governing styles and the fact that Bolaños was not Alemán’s own choice. Big-money backers forced him to accept Bolaños, historically a Conservative, to counter a feared victory by Ortega with an efficient politician and put a halt to the economic avarice of the mafioso ring surrounding Alemán.

Considering all this, the hypothesis was that Alemán privately preferred Ortega to win, because that would allow him an ultra-opposition leadership role in the National Assembly, where he has a lifelong seat thanks to the pact. That, in turn, would pave the way for his reelection in 2006, when he will again be constitutionally eligible. Alemán would only be able to "facilitate" Ortega’s victory if the results were a near tie, and such a scenario augured a preamble of street violence as a test of strength culminating in another pact-agreement, as before in the name of governance. It was never made clear if this vision of violence involved the FSLN’s electoral commandos squaring off against the armed institutions of the state or the army stepping in to quell skirmishes between activists of the two parties.
In any event, "Bolaños has to get an unassailable margin of votes to be assured of holding onto his win," Liberal writer and jurist León Núñez commented to envío three months before the elections. "If the vote is very close, the FSLN won’t let him walk off with the victory, and at that point Alemán could order his magistrates in the CSE to recognize the FSLN as the winner. That possibility might even be sewn up already." The 14-point spread forestalled such a risky plot, if it in fact ever existed. It can thus be argued that it was not the army that put a stop to the predicted violence, but rather the voters’ clear preference for one candidate over the other.

A motivated electorate

Over the course of the registration to run in these elections, the Supreme Electoral Council had calculatedly extirpated all parties, alliances and presidential hopefuls that could give the PLC and the FSLN any real run for their money. It only spared the Conservative Party (PC), whose international connections protected it from the guillotine. Once the final contestants were known, it became obvious that the FSLN’s chances at victory depended on a high abstention rate and a PC strong enough to split the rightwing vote with the PLC. By the same reasoning, the PLC needed a weak PC and strong voter turnout to win. The 44% abstention rate in the November 2000 municipal elections thus haunted Liberals and buoyed Sandinistas.

The analysis that apathy and abstention favor the FSLN is grounded in the belief that this once-revolutionary party can count on a more solid, conscious and disciplined vote because Sandinista political culture is more committed. The idea that the Sandinista voter is determined and the non-Sandinista voter isn’t is in turn grounded in the traditional Left’s disparaging of the poor—who in Nicaragua’s case make up over 80% of the electorate—when they don’t do what it has established as politically correct. Various leftist analysts have gone so far as to claim, for example, that the FSLN would win if it rained on election day because not many Liberals would go out to vote while no Sandinista would dream of staying home.

These elections showed that Nicaraguan voters of all political persuasions are in fact prepared to make the sacrifices necessary to express and defend their convictions. Touring the streets on election day, there was no missing the polling places: they were distinguished by long lines of people standing patiently for hours, usually in the hot sun, but in some areas getting drenched with rain. Entire extended families of at least three generations were a common sight and the number of third-age people was particularly notable. Teenagers (voting age is 16 in Nicaragua) could be seen helping grandparents and even great-grandparents, some of whom were crippled and in wheelchairs. The lines also moved at a snail’s pace, with the process for each voter slowed by the party monitors and even CSE officials themselves—all of them members of one of the two big parties—who watched each other’s every move like hawks.

The hidden vote

Ortega had enjoyed his significant early lead over Bolaños until July, when polls showed the PC’s strong third-place rating start to plummet and undecided—and even pro-abstention—voters precociously taking sides. (See "The Road to the Elections Was Paved with Fraud" in this issue for an explanation of the PC’s reverses.) Bolaños was the main beneficiary of both phenomena, with the gap closing to a technical tie by September that remained virtually unchanging until the elections.
As the campaign created an increasingly polarized two-party race with strong feelings motivating voters to declare themselves earlier than usual, things began to look dicier for the FSLN, although the relatively stagnant tie prevented pollsters from venturing any predictions. A number of them instead turned their attention to ferreting out any "hidden vote" within the small pool of remaining undecideds and abstainers, to see how the tie might be affected.
All polls done in Nicaragua since the 1990 election campaign show that non-Sandinismo (which includes the smaller but far more vocal group that proudly identifies itself as anti-Sandinista) is more solid and widespread than Sandinismo. If a third of the population is faithful to the myths, rites, messages, worldview, ethics and personalities that each individual identifies as Sandinista, the other two thirds have not shared this loyalty for some time, if they ever did. There are a lot of justifiable reasons for this, ranging from the pragmatism that seeks the lowest degree of uncertainty for reasons of sheer economic survival to the disaffection caused by the scandals of all kinds staining the curriculum of many current FSLN leaders.
A hidden vote against the FSLN—or perhaps only against Ortega—was thus found to be lurking in the intentions of the 12%-15% who in the last surveys told pollsters they were still undecided. Similar sentiments and convictions could be found among those who claimed they planned to abstain then at the last minute decided to vote, and cast it for Bolaños rather than waste it on hopelessly trailing Conservative candidate Alfredo Saborío.

If many undecided and abstaining voters kept their plans to themselves in 1990 out of fear, this time it may have been the shame of appearing to sympathize with Alemán’s party, whose corruption and bumbling makes Nicaraguans feel ashamed. In the end, however, the majority of voters conscientiously chose stability rather than bow to the desire for reelection of someone they consider a risk for the country, with neither the credibility nor the demonstrated capacity or willingness to address Nicaragua’s enormous problems.

Perhaps the most crucial factor in the FSLN’s loss was its own candidate. Polls over the years reveal that while Daniel Ortega continues to be the most popular leader among the Sandinista grass roots, he is increasingly unpopular among Nicaraguan society as a whole. In the face of this evidence, the fact that the FSLN permitted him to be its candidate for the fourth straight time, the last three of them consecutive losses, smacked of suicidal obstinacy.

As a figure, Ortega polarizes society, unifies the Right, divides the Left, is ethically and politically vulnerable and personally evokes painful memories of traumatic times for many people even while symbolizing for others a lost time of hope and the briefly-held power to transform. Ignoring all warning signs, Ortega imposed his candidacy with a messianic determination only hours after FSLN candidate Herty Lewites won the Managua mayoral race last November with a public style and qualities virtually the opposite of his.

Similarities and critical differences in the campaigns

As befits Nicaragua’s strongly presidentialist, party-boss political culture, the electoral campaign of both Liberals and Sandinistas centered exclusively on extolling one’s own presidential candidate and smearing the other’s. The PLC’s vice presidential candidate José Rizo and his FSLN counterpart Agustín Jarquín might as well not have existed. They were neither praised by their own party nor attacked by the opposition. The National Assembly candidates, hand-picked by Alemán for the PLC slates and by Ortega for the FSLN, were similarly spared the mudslinging. But the similarities stopped there.

The main thrust of the PLC’s campaign was to paint Bolaños as a distinguished and honorable representative of the traditional oligarchy, slowly separating him from corruption-tainted Alemán, even though he served as Alemán’s loyal vice-president for four years, only resigning to launch his own campaign. With both Ortega and Alemán susceptible as "known evils," the task was to portray Bolaños as an untested option, independent of his former boss, President Alemán, who was worth the risk. It was a "what you see is what you get" campaign: a tough-minded, firm-handed septuagenarian businessman and politician with a persuasive voice. This owner of multiple successful haciendas, faithful to wife and family, was prepared to make a deal with Nicaragua’s voters: he would provide work and he would demand it, give and take, one hand washes the other. This positive masculine, patriarchal image was the mate to Violeta Chamorro’s positive feminine, matriarchal image in 1990. A traditional figure with a somewhat anachronistic charisma, Bolaños was cut to order for the political imagery of a country with a rural culture in search of an efficient but beneficent squire.

The party on the other side of the street used a different marketing strategy and a very different image. Designed on the defensive, the FSLN put its money on esthetics, downplaying the party’s traditional red-and-black fighting colors in favor of painting anything that would hold still with undulating colorscapes of sunshine yellow and sunrise pink. Appealing to forgiveness, God and "love not hate," Ortega was packaged as someone he never has been, either for his supporters or his detractors. The party pushed the idea that to "believe in Daniel," to accept that "Daniel deserves a second chance," was in and of itself to opt for a political program touted in the campaign’s pie-in-the-sky catch phrase "The Promised Land." Embarking on this pseudo-religious journey, the FSLN diluted its history, principles, style and proposals to try to hide not only the problematic history of the eighties, but also the party’s limitations in the nineties and the real problems overwhelming the country as it enters this new century. The election results cannot be laid exclusively at the feet of these campaigns, since other domestic and international factors strongly intervened, but it is fair to conclude that, even other factors considered, voters appear to have found Bolaños’ "I am who I am" more credible than Ortega’s "I’ve changed."
Meanwhile, the Conservative Party, running a distant third, was plagued with external pressures and internal crises that resulted in a last-minute change of presidential ticket and weakened it as an electoral option. Its final presidential candidate, Alberto Saborío, ran an austere campaign with a coherent but not very snappy discourse that focused on inviting voters to fight for institutionality as a way for the country to climb out of poverty.

Fear and loathing
on the campaign trail

A lack of free choice characterized the whole electoral process from start to finish. The basic assault on voter freedom, however, had come in 2000, when the PLC and the FSLN joined forces to approve a scandalous new electoral law and CSE structure that then eliminated all but one of the dozens of old and newly formed parties and alliances. With the two parties freed to run virtually unopposed, voters found themselves limited to choosing the lesser of two evils.
Fear—or fears, to be more exact—also characterized the electoral process. The Liberals fed the fear of Ortega winning by inducing the idea that Nicaragua would mechanically return to the war, food rationing, shortages and the other myriad problems of the eighties. The Sandinistas fed the fear of Bolaños winning by painting him as the front man for the mechanical continuation of the Alemán government, which would be the final blow for the poor.
But these were not the only fears and the media news and campaign publicity were not their only propagators. Electoral activists themselves can also exercise intimidating pressure. Which triggers more visceral fear: a Liberal TV spot evoking images of war or a Sandinista "electoral commando" known by the local population as vengeful and aggressive? With both sides making a calculated effort to polarize the entire electorate, both forms of pressure were strongly felt. The only solution for a voter in such a setting is to stoically endure the campaign, say whatever the campaign canvasser or pollster seems to want to hear and take refuge in the ultimate secrecy of the vote.

Like father, like son

In 1990, when President Bush’s father was in the White House, his administration did its part, both openly and behind the scenes, to see that Daniel Ortega did not win Nicaragua’s elections. First President Reagan and then his successor had invested Ortega with the bloated image of a nemesis. He was the feared "dictator in green fatigues and designer glasses" who would and could invade the United States via Harlingen, Texas. Nothing—not the money of Iranian arms dealers and US taxpayers nor the lives of Nicaraguans on both sides of the war—was spared to bring him down.

The current Republican administration has inherited this visceral aversion not only to Sandinismo, but first and foremost to Daniel Ortega, who still symbolizes this enmity from the past that the US Right will never forget or forgive. This year, declarations by visiting top-ranking State Department officials, bolstered by US Ambassador Oliver Garza’s attitude and remarks here in Managua, again constituted interference by the most powerful country in the world in the internal electoral process of one of the most impoverished countries on the continent. They had the same temerity of many of their predecessors to justify US disregard for any country’s sovereignty other than its own in the name of democracy. (See box below for excerpts from an article by Duncan Campbell on the subject that appeared in The Guardian of London a few days after Nicaragua’s elections.)
The September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, which Nicaraguan society and the media on both sides analyzed with notable superficiality, gave both US fundamentalism and Nicaragua’s Liberals an unexpected leg up in their fear campaign against Ortega. State Department officials were not too busy trying to drum up international support for their war to place him, without benefit of hearing, on the other side of Bush’s "us-them" ultimatum. For its part, the PLC lost little time saturating TV with spots linking Ortega to international terrorism and stressing the danger that his victory would represent for Nicaragua. It was an easy shot, given that some of Ortega’s friends overseas have long been one of his best-known weak flanks, but it was also, as the author of the Guardian article noted, a cheap shot.

While this campaign unquestionably damaged the FSLN, it also had a certain boomerang effect. Questions in the campaign’s final polls seeking to measure the credibility of these messages and their impact on voters indicated that two thirds of those polled disagreed with such publicity and did not view the FSLN as related to terrorism. At the end of the day, however, there are indications that a number of voters, Sandinistas reportedly included, took the US threat seriously. The Reagan-Bush duo had already proven beyond a shadow of a doubt what it was prepared to do when it did not want a given government to remain in power, and its second generation has reinforced the evidence with its merciless attacks on Afghanistan’s population.

Is it really about love and hate?

Any political party has the responsibility of running the least vulnerable candidates possible, and countering any attacks it thinks could be damaging with a credible and coherent discourse. The FSLN did not opt for this path, either before September 11 or afterward. It chose instead to paint more tree trunks pink and add more sugar to the pap it was peddling, immediately stringing Managua with pink banners painted with yellow flowers and the slogan "Love is stronger than hate." For a brief and admittedly joyous moment, Managua looked like Haight-Ashbury during the reign of the flower children. The problem is that we are not living in the naïve 1960s; we are in the throes of the new millennium’s political cynicism.

In various declarations, Ortega’s wife Rosario Murillo, the designer of this campaign, quoted Gandhi and Mother Theresa of Calcutta, trying to insist that love was the FSLN’s political proposition. It was in that same spirit that she sent an open letter to Laura Bush asking for the United States to help put a stop to what she called the Liberals’ "electoral terrorism" in Nicaragua. But this whole thrust boomeranged as well, because it made people remember precisely what the FSLN was trying to make them forget.

On election day, the FSLN candidate’s particular expression of "love" proved not to be stronger than the "hate" it was trying to counteract. But is what must be overcome truly some unfounded, irrational hate? So far, the FSLN has again shown itself reluctant to analyze its defeat self-critically.

In 1990, the FSLN, with Ortega as its presidential candidate, argued that it lost the elections because "people went to vote with a pistol to their head." Voting for Violeta Chamorro was the only way to end the war. It was a valid analysis as far as it went, but the FSLN had already made enough mistakes to help explain the defeat.
In 1996, the FSLN, again with Ortega as its candidate, explained its loss by accusing the Liberals of "stealing the elections from us," but never offered any evidence other than isolated anecdotal incidents of petty fraud. Its unwillingness to democratize party structures and inability to offer coherent opposition to the Chamorro government or renew its work with the people, not to mention the "piñata" committed by select party members departing government and their later ostentatious life styles and murky business deals explain its second loss better.
Five years later, the FSLN, still with Ortega as its candidate, has lost again. Four days after the elections, Ortega complained that the problem this time was "the infamous terror campaign that prevented people from choosing freely." A minimally realistic analysis would have to start with his decision to pact with Alemán rather than oppose him, giving the notoriously corrupt President even more maneuvering room instead of trying to corner and expose him. An even more honest explanation would also have to include his policy of excluding any different opinion or leader within the party, the Zoilamérica accusation, the voracity of known Sandinista leaders in the agrarian counter-reform underway and still more new murky business deals.
Attributing the party’s three-time defeat exclusively to external causes, even given the unconscionable US interventionist policy, discredits the intelligence and will of Nicaraguan voters and magnifies the electoral campaign’s effects out of proportion. In no country, least of all Nicaragua with such a politicized population, does an electoral campaign, however much of a spectacle it may be, take place in an historical vacuum, isolated from what happened yesterday and the day before and from what people think is to come.

Worse yet, such attribution to outside influences only puts off the necessary and ultimately inevitable self-critical debate within the FSLN. If this self-searching does not take place soon, the party will end up consolidated as the permanent runner-up, replacing the Conservatives as the "second force on the right." Apart from giving the country away, this would relegate Sandinismo—which is much more than the FSLN, even if it did not seem so during the elections—to nothing more than an indispensable benchmark for understanding a period of national history.

Would the new Bush administration have exercised so much pressure to defeat the Sandinista candidate this time had it been someone other than Ortega? We’ll never know. We only know that changing anti-democratic US interventionism is a lost cause, while changing the FSLN candidate was and remains a necessary one.

"The Convergence"

A couple of months before the elections, the FSLN presented itself to the electorate as the National Convergence, the name it gave to the set of electoral alliances it had been signing with political personalities and groupings. The groundbreaker was the alliance with former comptroller general Agustín Jarquín—who got the slot as Ortega’s running mate—and other Social Christians, signed just before last year’s municipal elections. Others disqualified by the CSE started climbing aboard this year once the polls indicated a probable win by Ortega. The group that drove the most principled bargain was the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), which had broken with the FSLN in 1995 under former Vice President Sergio Ramírez’s leadership. Under Dora María Téllez’s, it negotiated a deal whereby the FSLN would accept its programmatic points and include it at the decision-making table.

The last to join was Antonio Lacayo, Violeta Chamorro’s son-in-law and minister of the presidency during her term. The deal was signed on October 22, and that same day Ortega announced that Lacayo would be appointed foreign minister if the FSLN won. Violeta Chamorro expressed surprise at the decision and kept her distance. Lacayo explained that his motivation was the "nervousness" he perceived in the US government at the possibility of an Ortega victory. Picking his words with the care of a seasoned diplomat, he synthesized what his foreign policy would be should the FSLN win: "My mission as chancellor of the Nicaraguan government will include developing the best relations between Nicaragua and the United States that two sovereign countries can aspire to have. In the context of the world we now find ourselves living in, it will be my responsibility to guarantee Nicaragua’s full incorporation into the international coalition against terrorism, in which we will work shoulder to shoulder with the people of the United States."
After the electoral defeat they did not expect, the FSLN’s allies in the Convergence made an announcement no one expected: that the alliance had not been a simple electoral recourse, but a political alliance, a bet on the future, and they would remain united. When Ortega made his appearance to recognize his third electoral defeat, it was as captain of this new ship, surrounded by Convergence members. "He has come out of this stronger," commented his most loyal supporters.

What does it bode?

Did a tactic turn into a strategy? If so, to what end? Is it a means to initiate the FSLN’s renovation or the most elegant way to cover over Ortega’s humiliating loss? MRS president Dora María Téllez, one of the most enthusiastic promoters of this political project, discusses its significance in detail in the "Speaking Up" section of this issue.

There are more questions than answers around the Convergence so far, and it is only logical that there would be so much uncertainty. Will the FSLN structures, long under the thumb of "Danielismo" and years of his personal control of all decisions, be able to undertake the political adventure that such an alliance implies? Will local FSLN leaders, mini-caudillos in their own districts, educated in the idea that those who "haven’t gotten their fingernails dirty" have no right even to an opinion, respect the lines of work emanating from the pluralism that such an alliance suggests?
How will the long-postponed internal disputes within the FSLN, which have to do with deeply questioning Ortega’s leadership and facing up to the stultifying emotional and political consequences of this leadership on the Sandinista grass roots, be developed and resolved from here on out? Will the task of consolidating the Convergence be the FSLN’s excuse to stay where it is, prolonging existing attitudes and leaderships within the party? Will Ortega try to make his new leadership role in the Convergence a substitute for the FSLN’s needed renovation, which ought to involve an "internal convergence" with the various currents coexisting within the FSLN as well as the Sandinismo dispersed in and even beyond the MRS?
All these questions are important not only to the FSLN and Sandinismo, but also to Nicaragua as a whole, which needs Sandinismo and needs democratic parties. The problem is that as long as the FSLN has Sandinistas hostage, Daniel Ortega has the FSLN hostage and perhaps even some interest groups within the FSLN have him hostage, an issue so crucial to the whole nation will not get the attention it requires.

The CSE at work

The CSE did not release the final results or proclaim the winners until November 22, nearly three weeks after the elections. When its resolution finally did appear, it was tainted by the fact that only the four magistrates who answer to the governing PLC had signed it. The law requires the signature of at least five magistrates, but the three who obey the FSLN declared the resolution null and walked out of the session despite having made a gentlemen’s agreement with the international community in September that they would not break quorum.

The Sandinistas claimed 2 legislative representatives more than the 38 they received. They alleged—unjustifiably, based on a literal reading of the law—that the CSE prejudicially applied the procedure for assigning seats in the South Atlantic Autonomous Region and Boaco, where the FSLN did not obtain the electoral quotient established to get a seat automatically on the first count.

The PC suffered an even worse fate, but in this case with the complicity of the FSLN. The PC pulled under 1.4% in the presidential voting, but ticket-splitting by a number of voters gave it over 4.6% on the legislative ballots. Some argued that, in simple terms proportionate to the number of elected legislative seats (90), the PC should have gotten 3 seats. It only claimed 2, and the CSE only recognized 1, in Managua. Furthermore, without engaging in the open process required by the new electoral law, the CSE repealed the party’s legal status on the grounds that it had not polled the 4% required to maintain its standing.

The PC rejected the decision and announced that it would take the issue to the Supreme Court. The party’s presidential candidate, Alberto Saborío, accused the CSE of wanting to "force an unhealthy two-party system that perpetuates the polarization and the fear vote." Edgard Paguaga, a PC director and national voting monitor, added that this same system of two-party control of all electoral branch structures severely affected the PC in the municipal elections last year as well. He charged that the "PLC and the FSLN reached an agreement to strip us of 7 mayoral and over 40 Municipal Council seats we had won around the country."

Poverty vs. corruption

Independent of who won, Nicaragua’s new government would have continued down the neoliberal path with little economic maneuvering room. Nicaragua has to reach agreement with the International Monetary Fund on a new structural adjustment program in which its internal deficits are a matter of record and the weight of the foreign debt conditions everything. But if the room for fighting poverty is limited, the new government has real possibilities of maneuvering with some success in the fight against corruption.

This is the great challenge for the incoming Bolaños government. It can only respond slowly to the expectations of more jobs and social improvement awakened by his campaign, but it can move much faster on his anti-corruption promises. It can stop the squandering, promote austerity, slash the mega-salaries of top officials and put a stop to the nepotism, the immunity-impunity and the disrespect for the rule of law. It can start untying the pact’s knots, looking into some of the largest corruption scandals of recent years and punishing their authors. Taking the first such concrete steps could begin to roll back the corruption institutionalized by the Alemán government and the Liberal-Sandinista pact. Will he want to do so? Will he be able to?
The expected close results would have meant a weak mandate, no matter which candidate won. But Bolaños’ mandate is not weak. Even if it resulted partly from fear of Ortega returning to government rather than wholehearted support for Bolaños, it should not encourage the irrational anti-Sandinista attitudes that a segment of Liberalism is so fond of brandishing. Since his mandate also grows out of the needs and urgencies felt by a largely impoverished population that saw him as a more credible administrator, the new President should begin to provide some answers to increase that credibility just as soon as he takes office.
It is particularly significant that Bolaños also owes this mandate to the perception that he has the will and the desire to punish corruption, particularly that which has characterized the Alemán government. In his most important campaign speech, on October 18, he made an abrupt about-face in the calculated prudence that had characterized his statements up to that point, addressing what he called "the three great vices of our political and social culture: corruption, perversion in the use of power and caudillismo."
With noticeable determination, he announced that "neither Enrique Bolaños nor José Rizo nor Arnoldo Alemán nor Daniel Ortega will be above the law" in his government. He also promised to investigate the bankruptcy of Interbank, BANADES and BANIC, which respectively involved the economic power groups of each of the three previous governments.

These words and his slogan "Neither piñata nor check scams!" in the closing campaign speeches in Managua and Masaya, referring to the Sandinista government’s major scandal in the first reference and the Alemán government’s in the second, won him last-minute confidence and the votes of a number of still-undecided. Had he been totally even-handed in his slogan, he might have included the Chamorro government’s selling of state companies to friends and relatives at bargain-basement prices, which was its particular contribution to the bleeding of government coffers.

Good economic signs

Some differences in the economic terrain will be seen very quickly if austerity is installed as the trademark of the new public officials, another aim to which Bolaños pledged himself. The economy has already given its first positive signs, confirming what a majority of the electorate intuited: that his election in itself could bring some relief given the total confidence he inspires in national and Central American, particularly Salvadoran, capital and the multilateral financing institutions.

In the first two weeks after the elections, the capital that had started fleeing Nicaragua after the scandalous bankruptcy of Interbank began flowing back in massive amounts. This return, unthinkable if Ortega had won, meant immediate improvement in the financial system, boosting the country’s scarce international reserves and making it possible to lower interest rates on the state’s CENI bonds and provide cheaper credit.

The paradox is that now that the financial system has money again, it has no functioning institutional channels or capacity to put it to work in the form of credit for the productive activities of small and medium producers. Even if the new government demonstrates the sensitivity to such production that the outgoing government lacked, it will take time to create and consolidate these channels. In the meantime, the best solution would be to strengthen the existing networks, made up of nearly 170 micro-credit agencies and credit and savings cooperatives working all over the country.

The outgoing Alemán government should have negotiated a new structural adjustment program with the International Monetary Fund by now, but could not because it failed to comply with the conditions of the terminating program. One of the main obstacles was the unacceptable level to which the international reserves had fallen through both the capital flight and the Central Bank’s outlays to keep the failed banks from defaulting on depositors.
On November 18, two weeks after his victory, President-elect Bolaños traveled to Washington, DC, with the "clear mandate" he began talking about the day after the elections and tangible proof of the confidence deposited in him: the refilling bank vaults. President Bush received him the day after his arrival, and two days later he met with Secretary of State Colin Powell, who publicly assured him that "the United States will be at your side supporting your efforts and will do everything possible to work with the international financial institutions and other organizations to create the conditions that will help attract private investments to Nicaragua."
This promise of total support in Nicaragua’s dealings with the IMF and World Bank was yet another triumph. And in fact, Bolaños, accompanied by his future economic Cabinet ministers, held a first round of talks with directors of the IMF, Inter-American Development Bank and US Agency for International Development in Washington.

Powell also put significant emphasis on the corruption issue, telling reporters that "we talked about his plans to contend with Nicaragua’s economic problems, and most important we evaluated the central motive behind his election: to bring Nicaragua more democracy, freedom and rule of law, and an end to corruption." With this backing, the Bolaños government should be able to speed up the culmination process that will allow Nicaragua full entry into the initiative for Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) next year. That would help alleviate the serious fiscal deficit and let Bolaños fulfill some of his campaign promises related to improvements in health and education.

The shadow in the wings

The election results can also be read as a rejection of the two party bosses who hammered out the infamous anti-democratic pact that shaped these elections. The FSLN had always defended the pact as the only way for the Sandinistas to return to government. It used a two-part argument: first, that they needed to have "our people in there as CSE officials so they won’t be able to steal the elections from us again"; and second, that "with a lower percentage required to win, we can get around the anti-Sandinista vote." The strategy was a failure, at least in part because it attributed the previous losses exclusively to external causes. The final score is that Ortega lost the elections, Bolaños won them and Alemán came out ahead with the pact.

In fact, the greatest post-election problem is the ominous shadow of Alemán trying to perpetuate himself on the fragile national stage. The new post he wangled for himself in the pact—a non-elected lifetime National Assembly seat—guarantees him five years to continue amassing his fortune and imposing his will from his anticipated assumption of the legislative presidency before running for reelection as President in the 2006 elections.

Days before the elections, Alemán, suffering from what Bolaños himself jokingly referred to as "the syndrome of those leaving power," charged that there was a conspiracy against him. The very day after the elections, Alemán started making outlandish declarations that sparked confrontations, as if already throwing around the weight he will enjoy in the National Assembly. He announced, for example, that he would push through a law against press freedom, arguing that there is a "monopoly on public opinion," but had to retract his statement in response from pressure from all social sectors. He further announced that he would promote a law to fire corrupt judges, until the Supreme Court reminded him that this would mean usurping its exclusive attribution. He then tried to decree an emergency and even suspended a trip to El Salvador, alleging that a "bloodbath" was being prepared to override the electoral results and assassinate Bolaños.

Uncertain and fragile scenario

Alemán already controls half of the Supreme Court justices and the Liberal bench of legislators in the National Assembly, whom he picked himself, and has designs on controlling the legislative body from the post of president of that branch of government. With all this power, he aspires to control the executive branch as well. Bolaños will face a very complex challenge as he tries to stop, neutralize or coexist with this avaricious, authoritarian, arbitrary and sometimes screwball power-monger.

The political chess game will be intense. If Bolaños manages to pull away a sector of the 53 Liberal legislators, and it is an open question whether he could do it without either bribing or blackmailing them, the resulting three benches would give a somewhat more open dynamic to the new Assembly. Could such a fragile scenario be stabilized? And which of the divided Liberal benches would the 38 Sandinista legislators support: the pro-Bolaños one or the pro-Alemán one? Sandinista leaders have often said that Ortega negotiates more comfortably with Alemán than with Bolaños.

This context makes it impossible to discard a second stage of the Alemán-Ortega pact, whose scope and duration were never clear in its first stage. The thrust of such a new round of agreements would be to hobble the executive branch and perhaps even cut Bolaños’ term in office and transform the new Assembly into a Constituent. This scenario, which is the worst imaginable, is possible if we recall that the basis for the pact was and remains the divvying up of the territories of corruption, impunity and power between the two parties, the two political and economic cartels. Will Daniel Ortega’s current need for the Convergence, which has made clear that it would reject any new round of the pact, prevent him from falling into this temptation?

No blank check for Bolaños

It is now up to Enrique Bolaños to distance himself in all the ways he can from the anti-democratic and damaging political practice of the two caudillos, Arnoldo Alemán and Daniel Ortega. And it is up to us in the media, civil society and the nation as a whole to back him in this undertaking, not giving him any blank check but granting him an initial vote of confidence.
Above all, it is our task to try to strengthen the social movements, making them more autonomous and better able to offer creative and constructive proposals. We must continue fighting to more effectively organize people, to reopen the spaces that the pact closed and inaugurate genuinely democratic processes of participation, because neither our votes nor the new government nor the opposition party will guarantee us those spaces.

Open Air Mass for Peace... or Politics?

On November 1, three days before the elections, Cardinal Miguel Obando celebrated a Mass for Peace under the palm trees outside the Managua Cathedral. Given his well-known last-minute influence, all ears were attentive. In his homily, he repeated the position expressed by the Bishops’ Conference in its pastoral letter on the elections, stressing that professional capacity, moral solvency and the candidate’s family behavior were fundamental criteria in deciding one’s vote. Priests had already been insisting on these points from the pulpits of their parishes.

The cardinal also emphasized that "in the current circumstances, we believe there is someone to vote for and we view the duty to vote as unquestionable." Enrique Bolaños attended the Mass, flanked by his family and Liberal politicians. Daniel Ortega also attended, similarly surrounded by family and Sandinista politicians. Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo both applauded the cardinal’s homily, despite its obvious backing for Bolaños and disqualifying of Ortega’s political, personal and family file.

The only presidential candidate who did not attend was the Conservative Party’s Alberto Saborío. "I’m an agnostic and I advocate a secular state," he explained, with the unvarnished approach that characterized his campaign, "and since it was a Catholic political Mass, I did not view it as honest to attend."

Getting the Right Result:
Nicaragua’s Election Showed the US Still Won’t Allow a Free Vote

During a recent television discussion in the United States chaired by veteran presenter Barbara Walters, the subject for discussion was the new national puzzle: why they hate us. The reason, suggested Karen Hughes, President Bush’s special counselor and his senior press officer during his election campaign, was that "they hate us because we elect our leaders." Voters in Nicaragua, queuing at the polls last Sunday to elect a new government, might have been forgiven a wry smile on hearing those words. While the United States government radar may seem to have been pointed in the direction of Afghanistan and the Middle East, the state department and many American politicians and officials still found time over the last few weeks to use money, free food and propaganda to try to influence the vote in Nicaragua.

Ortega’s political career since [1990] has disappointed many of his former supporters, not least because of the powerful allegations of sexual abuse by his stepdaughter, Zoilamérica Narváez. Few imagined he would ever again challenge seriously for the presidency. Then, earlier this summer, came the results of opinion polls in the local press: Ortega was running some six or seven percentage points ahead of his nearest rivals and might, it seemed, return to power.

The US dispatched a state department official who told the local chamber of commerce how damaging this would be to the country. Pressure was successfully put on the third party candidate, the Conservative Noel Vidaurre, to drop out in order to prevent the splitting of the anti-Ortega vote. The US ambassador, kitted out in a Liberal party baseball hat, embraced the Bolaños election campaign and invited the candidate to join him on an emergency food-aid distribution trip.

John Keane, the US’s acting deputy assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs, said last month that the Sandinistas included people responsible for "abominations" of human and civil rights. Such has been the official US rhetoric that former president Jimmy Carter, in Nicaragua to oversee a fair election, was moved to say last week: "I personally disapprove of statements or actions by another country that might tend to influence the votes of people of another sovereign nation." Jeb Bush, the US president’s brother and governor of Florida, home of one of the dodgiest election results in recent history, wrote an article in The Miami Herald last month in which he attacked Ortega because he "neither understands nor embraces the basic concepts of freedom, democracy and free enterprise." Bush Jr. added: "Daniel Ortega is an enemy of everything the United States represents. Further, he is a friend of our enemies. Ortega has a relationship of more than 30 years with states and individuals who shelter and condone international terrorism." The article was duly reprinted last week as an ad by the Liberal party in the Nicaraguan daily, La Prensa, under the headline "The brother of the president of the United States supports Enrique Bolaños."
Then, last week, three US politicians, Jesse Helms, the North Carolina Republican, Bob Graham [Democrat, Florida] and Mike DeWine [Republican, Ohio] put a resolution to Congress calling on the president to reevaluate his policy towards Nicaragua if the Sandinistas were to win—effectively suggesting the further impoverishment of an impoverished country if the wrong result came through. The resolution was duly reported in the Nicaraguan press. In the meantime, two of the architects of the illegal contra war [against Nicaragua] have returned from the elephants’ graveyard. John Negroponte, who had not noticed anything untoward when atrocities were being committed in Honduras during the war, was confirmed as UN ambassador within days of September 11 when the nation’s attention was elsewhere. Earlier, Elliott Abrams, who had pleaded guilty to lying to Congress over the conduct of the war, was installed by the president to head his "office for democracy and human rights." His criminal offense was described by White House spokesman Ari Fleischer as "a matter of the past." The Sandinistas, a small, disorganized party in one of the world’s poorest countries, posed no threat to the US. To link them to terrorism in the wake of September 11 was a cheap and dishonest shot.

Guardian Newspapers Limited (UK), 2001

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