PLC: The Resounding Winner
The final official results were long delayed, and an exhausted population is still awaiting more detailed figures from the Supreme Electoral Council. Nonetheless, we can glean a large part of what the voters had to say from the numbers now available.
José Luis Rocha
The politics of Alcolea perfectly reflected its people’s inertia and distrust. It was a politics defined by its two strong leaders, a fight between two opposing bands known as the party of the Mice and the party of the Owls. […] The Liberal cacique of the Mice’s party was Don Juan, a barbaric, despotic man, corpulent and brawny, with the hands of a giant, who treated people like a conquistador when he came in to run things. This huge Mouse did not dissimulate like the Owl; he grabbed what he could, without bothering to decorously hide his thefts. Alcolea had grown accustomed to the Mice and the Owls and considered them necessary. Those bandits kept society afloat, sharing out the loot; each had a special taboo for the other… (Pío Baroja, El árbol de la ciencia or "The Tree of Science.")
Any similarity between this 90-year-old image of Alcolea and Nicaragua’s current electoral scene is purely coincidental.
Fear won out over desperationThe Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) proclaimed the Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC) ticket of Enrique Bolaños and José Rizo as the new President and Vice-President of Nicaragua, with 56% of the valid vote. Daniel Ortega and Agustín Jarquín, the FSLN candidates, obtained 42%. According to the CSE, there were 2,997,228 registered voters for the November 4, 2001 elections, a 9% increase over last year’s number. With 249,024 newly registered voters since the November 2000 municipal elections and 576,161 more than in the last presidential elections in 1996, there was plenty of room for surprises going into the 2001 elections. And surprises there were. The PLC’s margin of victory over the FSLN was 16 times greater than its slim margin last year, and nearly double its margin in the 1996 elections. The newly registered voters contributed to such striking differences.
It was reasonable to expect some changes in the correlation of forces between the municipal elections and the presidential elections, but few people expected the changes to so overwhelmingly benefit the PLC. The departments with the strongest percentage growth in registered voters were Jinotega (14%), the Río San Juan (12%) and the South Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAS) (11%), three of the departments where the FSLN was most soundly defeated. The anti-Sandinista feelings prevalent in these regions were presumably related to the registration frenzy.
During the campaign, political analyst Arturo Cruz frequently described the elections as a conflict between "the vote of fear and the vote of desperation." For many, the fear was related to the possibility that the FSLN would return to power; the desperation, to the hunger and unemployment aggravated by PLC policies and corruption. It appears that fear won out over desperation by a surprising margin, well beyond what any of the surveys predicted. It also won out over political apathy, a dangerous tendency to which the Nicaraguan electorate may be inclined, as the municipal elections revealed.
In the last survey before the elections, 38.6% of those polled said they intended to vote for Bolaños. On election day, however, he won 56% of the valid vote, or 40.5% of the total number of registered voters. Some 37% of those polled had said they would vote for Ortega, but he only won 42% of the valid vote, or 30.5% of the registered voters. These figures suggest that some of the voters planning to abstain turned in the end to the PLC. They also reveal a drop in the Sandinista vote, perhaps due to the Armageddon effect: after the events of September 11 and the attacks on Afghanistan, people had new reason to fear the validity of the barely veiled US threats against a Nicaragua governed by Daniel Ortega. Still, the fear of war, shortages and confiscation was palpable even before September 11. This fear is an ideological gene with a remarkable capacity for survival that is being transmitted from generation to generation. Only a very detailed study could have revealed what percentage of the recently registered voters inherited it. And it is not merely a generational issue, since the last batch of newly-registered voters included people who have long been of voting age and probably decided—or were convinced—to register because of their fear of an Ortega victory.
The FSLN has never been further from electoral victory than it was this year, despite the use and abuse of Barbie’s favorite colors; despite the Convergence that brought together former adversaries like Agustín Jarquín, Azucena Ferrey, Miriam Argüello and Antonio Lacayo and top-ranking PLC members Sergio Quintero García and Eddy Gómez, who had fallen out with Alemán; despite the promised production bonds and sugary slogans like "love is stronger than hate." Although the FSLN made many changes, it didn’t make the one many people were hoping for most: a change in candidate. Ortega’s continued presence was a bad omen, announcing that any other change would be no more than cosmetic.
The PLC won despite the coffee crisis, the famine in several rural areas, the corruption, the bank failures, the thin dribble of social investments, daily denunciations of the huge salaries pocketed by top Liberal officials, and the pact with the FSLN to split powers between them that were still in the hands of other political forces. The Liberals won despite President Alemán’s uncouth, vulgar way of treating diplomats, journalists, opposition figures and dissidents in his own party.
It won with the shameless support of US ambassador Oliver Garza, who went so far as to accompany Bolaños on a tour to distribute aid to peasant farmers affected by the drought. He made no secret of his support for Bolaños, a man who symbolizes anti-Sandinista sentiments not only because of his habitual confrontational language but also because of his role in the 1980s at the head of the business association COSEP. Garza’s statements and activities were clearly aimed at Nicaraguans with relatives living and working in the United States, who receive the dollar remittances that are so vital to their families’ survival and cover a good chunk of the country’s trade gap.
The pact was misguided A centerpiece of the FSLN’s strategy in the pact with Alemán had been to make constitutional reforms that would increase its chances of winning in the first round. The FSLN knew it could only win in a first round, with the anti-Sandinista vote divided. A very important key to understanding the course and results of these elections was thus the collapse of the Conservative Party, which brought the feared scenario of a second round, of "everyone against the FSLN," into the first and only round. It was precisely the scenario the FSLN had so resolutely sought to avoid.
and the FSLN paid dearly for it
The Conservative Party was unquestionably its own worst enemy, and no less so considering that its suicide may have been fed by external funding. With their interminable internal fighting, the party’s own leaders battered the aging structure of that anachronistic organization, fit only for a museum of history, until it finally collapsed. In the hypothetical case that Noel Vidaurre had stayed on as the PC’s presidential candidate and held the 16.5% share of the vote attributed to him in a February 2001 survey, the FSLN might have found its path to victory, though the possibility of panic triggering a last-minute migration of votes from the PC to the PLC cannot be ruled out. As it was, the PC watched its share of support plummet from 13.3% to 4.5% between June and August of 2001, by which time it was on its fourth presidential candidate. Bolaños’ popularity grew from 28.8% to 38.8% during the same period.
The fear gene is a powerful one. If the Sandinista vote is a captive, disciplined vote, the anti-Sandinista vote is no less so. This was confirmed by a series of surveys done in the final weeks before the elections, which found that the percentage of Nicaraguans who said they would never vote for Daniel Ortega was consistently around 40%.
The FSLN refuses to admit its defeat. It has tried to portray the 363,438 more votes it received than in 1996 and the 297,496 more than in the 2000 municipal elections as signs of progress, even triumph. These figures admittedly represent a 66% and 48% increase, respectively, but they do not reflect any closing of the gap with the FSLN’s arch rival; in fact, the PLC upped its number of voters 77% and 91% between the same sets of elections. These increases are not even fully explained by the 24% increase in the overall number of registered voters from 1996 to 2001 and 9% increase from 2000 to 2001. What they mainly express is the degree to which the FSLN and the PLC benefited from excluding all other political options, pillaging an electorate forced to choose from a menu that included only two dishes.
Read through this prism, the figures in fact show that the FSLN paid a very high price for a pact that it and its candidate were unable to exploit to the degree they had calculated. The FSLN, even knowing it can only win in a multi-party scenario, decided to gamble on the opposite policy with the pact, slashing the number of options and facing off against its biggest rival. A gross mistake. By annihilating political pluralism, the FSLN only fueled a polarization that disgusted many of its erstwhile supporters and strengthened its rival, which became the chief beneficiary of voters deprived of alternatives.
As the charts show, the PLC has consolidated its electorate. It no longer runs as the Liberal Alliance, but still obtained a greater share of the registered voters in 2001 than in the two preceding elections, increasing the size of its lead over the FSLN from 8 points in 1996 to 10 points this year. The results of the 2000 municipal elections, when the PLC was barely 1 point ahead, led the FSLN leadership to hope that they were closer than ever to returning to power. But as already shown by the 1996 elections, when the Liberal Alliance obtained many more votes on the presidential ballot than on the municipal one, presidential elections feed polarization. And polarization has clearly benefited the PLC.
In last year’s municipal elections, the PLC surpassed the FSLN by only 18,944 votes. Based on these results, the FSLN calculated that with its organized and efficient "electoral commandos," a good campaign and an adequate dose of propaganda on the corruption of the Liberal government, its victory was assured. Not even in their most Dantesque nightmares did Sandinista activists imagine the PLC winning 301,446 more votes and a 16-fold increase in its margin over the FSLN. This impressive ascent was made possible not only by barring all other political options but also by the considerable fall in the abstention rate, a fundamental ally of the FSLN in the 2000 municipal elections.
Winners and losers of ticket-splittingPresidential elections in Nicaragua trigger a high turnout and a polarized vote. When they are held at the same time as municipal or legislative elections, these two features affect those other ballots as well. In both 1996 and 2001, the PLC benefited from that spillover. Most PLC voters who were motivated to turn out by the high stakes involved in the presidential race cast a straight party ticket, swelling the PLC’s totals in these races too.
Polarized multiple-ballot elections can also encourage a different phenomenon: crossover voting, or ticket splitting, where voters choose one party for President and another for the municipal government or National Assembly seats. The PLC has also benefited from ticket splitting. This year, its presidential ticket attracted 83,987 votes more than its slate of legislative candidates. Many Conservatives apparently chose to cast their vote for Bolaños rather than their own party’s presidential candidate, knowing full well that Alberto Saborío had no chance of winning and wary of dividing the anti-Sandinista vote and thus increasing the FSLN’s chances for victory. It is also likely that some PLC voters decided to boycott Alemán’s hand-picked slate of representatives, and that some independent voters who turned out basically to vote against Ortega had no confidence or interest in any of the legislative slates.
The FSLN’s electorate is more disciplined and perhaps less open to other options, so its numbers were closer: the slate of representatives received 14,163 votes less than the presidential ticket, a drop of only 1.5%, compared to 7% for the PLC.
The Conservatives may have lost the most from the crossover vote. While its legislative slates won 105,130 votes, nearly 5% of the total, its presidential ticket obtained only 29,933 votes, 1.4%. According to the CSE’s interpretation of a new legal disposition requiring parties to obtain at least 4% of the vote, the PC lost its legal status based only on the presidential returns. Adding insult to injury, the PC won only 1 seat out of 90 in the National Assembly, due to the way seats are assigned.
A look back at the 1996 elections, in which the presidential, legislative and municipal elections were held at the same time, reminds us that the split ticket this year was by no means a new political phenomenon, as some analysts claimed. In fact, there was more crossover voting in 1996 than in 2001. This was to be expected, since more political parties participated in the 1996 elections, including popular subscription associations that were only eligible to run on the municipal ballot and pulled a considerable number of votes, especially in Managua. Viva Managua, organized by Pedro Solórzano, who is now a PLC ally, won 98,424 votes in 1996, while Herty Lewites, who won the Managua mayoral race last year for the FSLN, pulled 46,963 with his Movimiento Sol in 1996. The wide array of options that year meant that the two largest parties obtained far fewer votes in the municipal elections than in the polarized presidential elections: 20% fewer for the FSLN and a whopping 31% fewer for the Liberal Alliance. The same was true for the 1996 legislative ballots, where, for example, the Sandinista Renovation Movement’s slate pulled 15,124 votes more than its presidential ticket, and PRONAL’s slate won 31,391 votes more. The new Electoral Law, however, excluded all of these parties and associations from the 2000 and 2001 elections, which restricted opportunities to cross vote and made voters much more likely to vote a straight ticket, as intended.
Where the FSLN and the PLC The FSLN obtained more votes than the PLC only in the departments of Estelí, Chinandega and León, and in the latter, traditionally an FSLN stronghold, it did so by little more than 6,000 votes. In the other departments, the PLC beat the FSLN, and only in Carazo and Madriz was its lead under 6,000 votes. In several departments the margin was very different from the predicted neck-and-neck race: Masaya (20,234 votes), Jinotega (28,365), Boaco (29,486), Chontales (31,195), Matagalpa (42,490), Managua (52,423) and the RAAS (58,062). The PLC’s margin over the FSLN in each of these departments was much greater than its total margin nationwide in the 2000 municipal elections.
won the most votes
The RAAS, which has the fifth largest number of registered voters, placed fourteenth as a source of votes for the FSLN. Something similar happened to the PLC in the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN), which is in eighth place for number of registered voters but placed fifteenth as a source of votes for the PLC. In this region, abstention outweighs all other factors, affecting Liberals and Sandinistas as well as the regional parties election after election. But the results could also be seen as a way of punishing the PLC for reducing the space available to regional parties during the autonomous Regional Council elections and preventing their participation in the 2000 municipal elections, albeit with FSLN collusion.
The most Liberal departments, according to the percentage of registered voters who voted for the PLC, are Chontales and Boaco (54%), Matagalpa (49%), the RAAS (46%) and Jinotega (45%). Peasant farmers in all these departments were affected in the 1980s by expropriations and abuses of power and the war was especially harsh. The least Liberal departments were Estelí (35%), León (34%), Chinandega (33%) and the RAAN (27%). Except for the RAAN, these have traditionally been FSLN strongholds.
The most Sandinista departments were Madriz (39%), Estelí (37%), Nueva Segovia (36%), León (36%) and Chinandega (35%). While these are perennially sure sources of votes for the FSLN, it is worth noting that, except for Estelí, even the most Sandinista departments were more Liberal than Sandinista in these elections. And while the FSLN won over 37% of the vote in only one department, the PLC won at least 37% in all but four departments.
The charts below show the FSLN’s and PLC’s share of the votes in the last three elections in each department, which are ordered differently for each party, according to the results of the 2001 elections, to show the pattern of each. As can be seen, the FSLN’s pattern is more consistent than the PLC’s, another sign of the consistency of its base.
It is also interesting to look at the increase in the vote share between one election and another. Between 1996 and 2001, the PLC significantly increased its take in several departments: the RAAS and Matagalpa by 20 points, Managua and Nueva Segovia by 17 points, Boaco by 16, and Río San Juan by 14. Between 2000 and 2001, the most significant increases for the PLC were in Chontales by 30 points; Boaco by 27; Masaya by 22; Managua by 21 and Matagalpa by 20.
The FSLN’s gains have been much less spectacular. While the PLC’s vote share rose over 10 percentage points in 10 departments and over 17 points in 3 of them between the 1996 and 2001 elections, the FSLN gained more than 10 points only in Matagalpa, Managua and Jinotega, with increases of 14, 13 and 11 points respectively. And it loss ground in the RAAS. Despite the high abstention rate in the 2000 elections, which was clearly overcome in the 2001 elections, the FSLN increased its vote share by over 10 points between them only in Chinandega (by 13), Masaya (12) and Granada (11).
Although the CSE has not yet released the figures by municipality, it appears clear that the urban vote did not favor the FSLN as much as last year’s municipal elections led people to expect. It did not happen even in Managua, where Sandinista mayor Herty Lewites has become the most sympathetic and photogenic mayor in the capital’s history. People in the cities voted for stability. Nonetheless, the FSLN won a larger percentage of the valid votes in Managua than it did in 1990 and 1996, which shows that it has been able to maintain and increase its base.
A typical abstention rateThe day after the elections, CSE president Roberto Rivas announced that the turnout in these elections had topped 90%, one of the highest rates ever. Winners, losers and observers all concurred. Nonetheless, with the CSE’s results and the list of registered voters in hand, a different picture emerges, suggesting a much more typical abstention rate of around 28%. What explains the difference? The bulk of the problem lies in the voting rolls. In a country where deaths often go unreported, the rolls cannot be kept current despite the fact that the CSE started with a clean slate as of 1993, when it instituted the linked voter registration/ID card system. It is also important to note that the rolls include Nicaraguans who have migrated abroad since registering and are thus unable to vote, which tends to swell the apparent abstention rate. That is particularly the case given that hordes of Nicaraguans have gone illegally to escape the economic crisis, and have certainly not advised the Civil Registry of that move. The final polls showing a combined abstention and undecided rate of between 12% and 15% give us a clue to voters’ actual performance, but all we can say for sure is that the real rate lies somewhere between Rivas’ estimate and the numbers obtained from the official CSE figures, which we use here.
According to them, 835,015 registered voters—28% of the total—did not vote or annulled their ballot, by mistake or by choice. This percentage is considerably below that of 2000, when the combination of abstention and null votes totaled 44%, but almost 4 percentage points above the final 1996 abstention rate, which even included all the ballots that went missing the day after the elections.
Early surveys predicted that the number of people who would abstain from voting, together with those who were undecided and might abstain, would be higher than they were this time. Fear seems to have been an effective motivating force of history. It shook people out of their political apathy, which is a virus spread by the pact and other deceptions that threatened to endanger the functioning of the system itself, even though it was induced to fit perfectly into the system’s workings.
Where the abstention rate was highestThe departments with the highest abstention rates were the RAAN (51%), the RAAS (40%), Río San Juan (35%), Rivas (32%) and Chinandega (31%). The tendency to abstain is a long-standing and still growing phenomenon in the first three of these departments, but a recent one in the last two. Matagalpa, on the other hand, which had the fourth highest abstention rate in 1996, had the second lowest in 2001: barely 17%. Its abstention rate fell 22 points from 2000 to 2001, while the rate in Jinotega fell by 15 points.
It is important to note that these two departments were strongly hit by the crisis stemming from the collapse of international coffee prices. In the months leading up to the elections, displaced coffee workers flooded into the cities in search of work and food. Many analysts thought they would punish the PLC for its callous response to their plight, but it appears that their memories and fears were stronger than their hunger, since the war left wounds in these same departments that have not yet healed. It may also be that the palliative measures Bolaños promised in his campaign heartened them more than those promised by Ortega. In any case, the fall in the abstention rate coincided almost exactly with the PLC’s gains.
Some disgruntled voters opt to cast a null vote (damaging their ballot or leaving it blank) as a more militant political statement than abstaining. The highest percentage of null ballots are typically deposited for the Central American Parliament (PARLACEN), an unequivocal sign of the voters’ opinion of it as distant, ineffective and very costly. In 1996, for example, 91,587 null votes (4.95%) were cast for President and Vice-President, but the number shot up to 117,506 (6.39%) for PARLACEN representatives. The problem with both abstention and annulling one’s ballot as a political statement, however, is two-fold. First, it is impossible to distinguish intentionality from apathy in the case of abstention and from error or confusion in the case of a null ballot. Second, as of last year’s municipal election, the CSE no longer provides figures on these two phenomena; they must be found by subtracting valid votes from registered voters, which only gives a lump sum, diluting any possibly discernible message even more.
Doing this math ourselves, the below chart shows the combined percentages of abstention and null votes by department for the presidential race this year.
A two-color National AssemblyThe National Assembly will be made up of only two colors—the PLC’s "unstained" red, as Alemán is wont to describe it, and the FSLN’s red-and-black—with an insignificant speck of green from the PC’s sole representative. The PLC clearly came out ahead in the election of representatives by department, thanks to the way the reformed electoral law allots seats for each party’s "leftover" votes once the quotients that automatically earn a seat have been subtracted. The PLC obtained 53% of the valid votes, but 58.6% of the departmentally assigned seats; the FSLN won 42% of the vote and was assigned 40% of the seats; and the PC won nearly 5% of the vote but only 1.4% of the seats. Thus out of the 70 representatives elected by department, the PLC got 41 and the FSLN 28. The PC ended up with 1, for Managua, where its candidate got 36,508 votes, 26,129 more than were cast there for the party’s presidential ticket.
Managua, which contains 26% of the country’s registered voters, was especially important to the PC, accounting for 35% of its votes for both President and the National Assembly. It was less important to the other parties, representing 25% of the PLC’s votes and 28% of the FSLN’s. The PC was no doubt helped in the capital by the media’s constant denunciations of the problems wrought by the Liberal-Sandinista pact, which the PC played up in its campaign, presenting itself as the only alternative to the pact. Another factor here was the PC’s lack of financial resources and organizational structure to give the two bigger parties more competition in rural areas once its wealthy Pellas family backers had switched to the PLC and its candidate, erstwhile Conservative Enrique Bolaños.
The once variegated anti-Sandinista vote in rural areas is now Liberal red. As long as people view the PLC as the only party sufficiently well consolidated to confront the FSLN, the party will remain the predominant force in the National Assembly at the expense of political pluralism.
The PLC won more representatives than the FSLN in all departments except Estelí, Chinandega, León, Madriz, Nueva Segovia, Masaya and Rivas. Of those departments, the FSLN won more than the PLC only in Estelí, one of its traditional political strongholds, and tied with it in the others. The FSLN did not win a single representative in Boaco, the RAAS or Río San Juan, departments where it has not managed to raise its head since the 1990 elections. Despite the coffee crisis and the predictions of several prominent political analysts, the PLC won 4 seats in Matagalpa, compared to 2 for the FSLN. It appears that hunger is politically colorblind, with voter choices based on more structural, historical or emotional issues.
Political pluralism lostIn addition to the National Assembly representatives elected by department, another 20 are elected from nationwide, at-large slates. On the nationwide ballot, the PLC won 11 seats and the FSLN 9. Another two seats, not elected at all, will go to the two parties’ strongmen: Ortega, who earned one as the second-place presidential candidate, and Alemán, who will now enjoy a seat for life, thanks to article 133 of the Constitution as reformed by the pact. In all, the PLC will have 53 representatives, the FSLN 38 and the PC 1. This gives the PLC 11 more in the newly-elected National Assembly than it had in the outgoing one, while the FSLN will only have 2 more—yet another sign that the pact overwhelmingly benefited the PLC.
The big loser here is political pluralism. While the new Assembly will have only 1 representative who is neither Liberal nor Sandinista, the outgoing one had 15. The evolution of the political situation may, however, lead to some unexpected changes in the current balance of forces. Various subgroups could split off from the two big benches, along with many more permutations to form tactical alliances. On the PLC side, there will Alemán’s unconditional supporters, timid newcomers, those open for sale to the highest bidder or most powerful boss, the Christian Way allies who ran on the PLC slate but are now distancing themselves somewhat in a belated struggle for their own identity… And which way might the FSLN representatives turn, if they turn at all? While the strong power of the President in Nicaragua could serve as a catalyzing agent that allows Bolaños to exploit fissures among the presumably faithful representatives hand-picked by Alemán, it is less likely that differing positions will emerge in the Sandinista bench, made up entirely of Ortega’s unconditional supporters.
Women in the new AssemblyThe new National Assembly will have a better gender balance, with 20 women representatives, almost 22% of the total, exactly twice as many as the outgoing legislature. The PLC’s departmental slates included 16% women candidates and its national slate 25%. But only one woman appeared in one of the top five slots on the national slate, giving her a chance of winning.
The FSLN’s slates were more equitable: a uniform 30% of the candidates on both slates were women, two of whom ran in the first five slots on the national list and two in the first five slots for the department of Managua. This stronger presence is due in part to Sandinista women’s insistence that their party honor the spirit and not just the letter of a change in its statutes before the 1996 elections to guarantee their more equitable representation by establishing a 30% quota system. That year, party leaders angered the women candidates by putting many of them below the lose-line on the slate, as the PLC did this year; this time the Zoilámerica issue presumably made such a tactic untenable.
Some 25% of the PC’s candidates were women but none in top slots. Its only representative is thus a man.
In sum, 6 of the 53 PLC representatives are women, barely 11%. In contrast, the FSLN will have 14 women, or 37% of its bench. The number of women elected to the Assembly by the PLC was far below its proposal, while the FSLN elected more than its quota requires by putting more in winning positions.
Of Nicaragua’s outgoing 20 PARLACEN representatives, 8 were women (40%). Only the FSLN slate maintained this proportion, with 3 women candidates in the top five slots. The PLC, in contrast, ran only 1 of its 5 women candidates "above the fold." The PC’s offer was even less respectful of women: none of its 4 women candidates were in the first five slots.
Four women were elected to PARLACEN, 1 for the PLC and 3 for the FSLN. Thus, while women’s presence in the National Assembly doubled as a result of these elections, it was halved in PARLACEN, with the proportion falling from 40% to 20%. As in the National Assembly, the difference between the two party’s benches is striking: only 9% of the PLC’s PARLACEN representatives will be women, compared to 33% of the FSLN’s. Again, it seems clear that the PLC was not particularly concerned about placing women in winning slots. Unfortunately, a concern for improving the numerical gender balance appears important to only one party, and even then for reasons that may or may not have a lot to do with newfound concerns about gender equity.
The parties on the Caribbean CoastWith only 3,520 votes for PAMUC and 11,139 for YATAMA, the only two regional parties on the Caribbean Coast did not obtain a single legislative seat. YATAMA, formed in Honduras in 1987 as an amalgam of various Miskito military organizations that were themselves heir to earlier ethnic movements, was instantly the strongest party on the coast when it went civilian in time for the 1990 elections. It did not prove its merit when it enjoyed the plurality of seats in the first autonomous government in the RAAN that year, however, and has since fallen ever shorter in offering any program that the coast population can identify with. It has always had many factions, with frequent in-fighting and self-serving, opportunistic leaders who cook up alliances that do not enjoy the backing of the Council of Elders.
In addition to these internal weaknesses, the party faces other hurdles. The distrust of traditional Caribbean Coast inhabitants toward the "Spanish" institutions and parties of the Pacific leads to a high abstention rate that paradoxically hurts the smaller ethnically-based parties most. Also, a party without influence in the executive branch is virtually powerless in a country defined by a strong presidency and a centralized state. The same holds increasingly true in the Regional Councils, which the burgeoning number of new mestizo migrants from the Pacific has converted into the same two-party structure found at the national level. The result has been YATAMA’s progressive decline and the failure of any other local options to coalesce.
Third strike, he’s outThe results of the November 4 elections can be read in many ways, and specialists in hermeneutics by the thousands are ready to do so. On the positive side, the elections can be seen an opportunity for the renovation of the Sandinista leadership and for the party to develop the full potential of the Convergence it hastily pulled together during the final weeks of the campaign. It is time for Daniel Ortega to accept that this was his third strike and he should make way for other batters.
Another reading is that the results express people’s desire to continue seeking stability, and may provide an opportunity for the executive branch to weaken the destabilizing pro-Alemán junta that controls the PLC. It is no accident that the day after the elections, evidence implicating Alemán in the check scam began to flood in, information that did not appear earlier so as not to damage the PLC campaign. Neutralizing Alemán would also be a way to clip the wings of the most corrupt FSLN sector, the one that negotiated with him so comfortably. The clearest indication of a possible renovation in the PLC will lie in Bolaños’ selection of his Cabinet.
Backing the dual societyOn the negative side, the election results bolster Nicaragua’s dual society. They send the message that things should stay as they are, that some will continue growing poorer every day while others enjoy more and more of the first world’s amenities: satellite and cell phones, high salaries, houses on the beach, luxury SUVs, shopping centers, etc. etc.
The results of the elections may also reinforce Ortega’s obduracy. It is entirely possible that the FSLN will again learn something from the mistakes of the past—this would explain Ortega’s conciliatory speech accepting his defeat—but nothing from the mistakes of the present.
In these elections people rejected not only a party’s candidate, but the whole of its leadership and leadership style. The Convergence was not credible because for the last 10 years, the FSLN has been ripping away at politicians, women, intellectuals and peasant farmers who could not find the least bit of respect within the party, let alone room to lay out their differences of opinion. The FSLN branded them, censured them, slandered them and lashed out against them, inordinately and mercilessly. For 10 years, the implicit slogan shifted from "only the workers" to "only the submissive will go all the way." The allies in the Convergence did not even obtain seats in the National Assembly; they did not negotiate with the possibility of defeat in mind.
The pact proved to be a resounding failure for the FSLN. Its most bitter fruit will be Alemán’s enthronement as head of his party’s bench in the National Assembly, perhaps even as Assembly president. The FSLN had convinced its grass roots that the pact would lead them to victory, but it red-lined the FSLN’s electoral balance sheet, with no black. Unfortunately, the open US support of Bolaños and efforts to inflame people’s fears may well allow the FSLN leadership to convince its voters that this intervention explains its defeat and thus shirk responsibility for it.
Another point on the negative side is that the results make for a dangerous alliance between the most powerful sector of private enterprise and the state. Is it really a good idea, one many applauded, to have private enterprise’s point man in the President’s office? Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman, who can hardly be called a leftist, wrote in his most popular book that the combination of political and economic power in the same hands is a sure recipe for tyranny.
And the future?Will the new government be able to guide Nicaragua in such a way that the next elections revolve around programs rather than passions? This would be the best sign of its success, the dawn of our political maturity. We would then stop voting for or against individuals, for or against political strongmen flattered by a cortege of unconditional followers, and would instead be working towards institutionality. Plato and Aristotle thought that the common good is obtained through the effective guidance of wise, honorable men, not through good political organization. Espinoza, in contrast, was convinced that the common good can only result from the agreement of the multitude on a set of laws applied with justice. Honest people and solid institutions: that’s the way we need to go.
José Luis Rocha is a Nitlapán-UCA researcher and member of the envío editorial board.