Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 153 | Abril 1994



Atlantic Coast: Another Disaster?

It would be risky to extrapolate the case of the Atlantic Coast in 1994 to that of all of Nicaragua in 1996. Even if the election in 1996 were “between Sandino and Somoza”, it won’t be that way, although it was this time on the Coast.

Judy Butler

No event in the Atlantic Coast has ever received such attention in the Pacific as the recent election of new governments in the North and South Atlantic Autonomous Regions (RAAN and RAAS)-save Hurricane Joan, which flattened the southern part of that region in 1988. Could this turn out to be another such tragedy?

Even before the campaign formally began in January, most of the media as well as the national parties running candidates for the two Regional Councils were defining this election as a litmus test for the 1996 presidential race. It was more for this reason than any other that all eyes were on the coast for so many weeks. Was this a correct assessment? And if so, what color did the litmus paper turn?

Nuts and Bolts Of the Elections

The elections took place on Sunday, February 28, in 485 polling places located throughout this vast and barely accessible zone. Despite technical advances available to the Supreme Electoral Council in Managua, the CSE was only able to announce complete results for the urban electoral districts in the pre-dawn hours of Monday. Given the distances of some polling places, the very last holes were not filled in until Wednesday.

Over the course of those three days, there was a lot of confusion in the media, particularly among some Sandinista radio correspondents. Their main error in commenting on the first returns seems to have been that they did not quite understand how the machinery they were watching actually runs.

Throughout Sunday night and Monday morning, several reporters called their stations to enthusiastically announce that "the Sandinistas are leading the race in both regions!" And, indeed, an overall tally of the returns coming in to the Regional Electoral Council offices from various districts in the capital of Bluefields and Puerto Cabezas gave the FSLN a genuine majority. But apart from the fact that this didn't hold up in all outlying districts, the journalists' interpretation was wrong even at the outset.

According to the 1987 autonomy law, the governments in these two regions are made up of 45 directly elected council members, 3 each from the 15 electoral districts in the respective region. Once these Regional Councils have been elected, heir members elect a Regional Coordinator, popularly known as "governor," from among their own number. In other words, it is not a presidential-style election, in which the candidate with the most votes wins. It is more like legislative elections, in which pulling down a majority in one district is of no help in another.

Another factor the journalists failed to take into account was that not even a respectable majority in a single electoral district automatically guarantees more than one of its three seats. Particularly given the abundance of candidates this time, everything depends on the distribution of the other votes.

It Rained Candidates

One novelty of the autonomy law is that the elections are not restricted to political parties. Local organizations can also put up candidates if they get the requisite number of signatures in each electoral district in which they want to run. The main idea behind this was recognition of the different ethnic identities in the coast. Costeños have traditionally argued that they don't feel represented by the national parties, so this provision at least gives them the opportunity to elect an autonomous government made up of people who reflect their local or ethnic interests.

As a result, five local associations and six parties plus the UNO coalition ran candidates in the RAAN this time. In the RAAS, there were eight parties (plus UNO) and five associations. Except for the Miskito organization YATAMA, which had candidates in both regions, the local organizations were different in the two cases.

Who Passed The litmus Test?

Despite such a crowded track, it was predicted from early on that the race would be between three horses: The FSLN, YATAMA and the PLC, with UNO trailing a distant fourth.

And so it was, although with important differences between the north and the south.

Perhaps the best way to appreciate how well these horses placed is to compare this race with the first one for autonomous government in 1990, in which all but the PLC ran. At that time the PLC chose not to test its luck alone, since the presidential elections were held at the same time. (The autonomous governments are elected every four years, and the central one every six, meaning that the two races only coincide once in twelve year.)

As can be seen at a glance, the FSLN lost a few of the seats it won in each region four years ago, in part due to recontra activity in outlying electoral districts where it had swept the elections in 1990. (These and other aspects will be analyzed in greater detail in a future issue of envío).

But the big losers were YATAMA in the north and UNO in the south. And this "dark horse" who left them eating dust? None other than the party of Managua mayor Arnoldo Alemán, who is already warning up for his own 1996 presidential race.

Although it was a substantial victory for a party that had no presence in the coast whatever until less than two years ago, it wasn't as sweet as Alemán would have liked. Instead of doing in his arch-enemy the FSLN, which is his greatest ambition, he almost annihilated his real ally (UNO, to which the PLC still belongs) and his potential one (YATAMA, whose internal split was exacerbated when the PLC made Stedman Fagoth, leader of one of YATAMA's major factions, its own top candidate in the Miskito district of the upper Río Coco).

Will It Be a Real Council This Time?

Those who designed the autonomy law did not conceive of the regional government as a classic "western" division between legislative and executive branches. The idea was more like an indigenous assembly, in which the Council as a whole discusses and reaches consensus about how best to carry out the tasks for which it is responsible, and the Regional Coordinator is charged with overseeing the fulfillment of this consensus.

But that did not happen with the first government. UNO's absolute majority in the south, combined with the inexperience and docility of most majority bench members in both regions, allowed the two regional coordinators to go over the heads of even their own councilors. Neither coordinator ever even provided the financial reports solicited in the resolutions that the FSLN finally convinced the majority benches to pass.

This led to strong accusations of corruption, among other problems, in both regions. In the RAAN, YATAMA "governor" Leonel Pantin (currently the local PLC head) was finally replaced at the end of 1992 by Alfonso Smith, YATAMA's representative in the National Assembly. He, in turn, has triggered such widespread suspicions of corruption that most people believe him responsible for the fire that, in a matter of minutes, turned the government offices in Puerto Cabezas-and all the documents filed there-into ash the very night of the elections.

Consensus Government Or Party Absolutism?
The PLC won enough seats in the RAAS-if UNO's are added-to again govern without paying any attention to the Sandinista bench. And despite a remark to the contrary by one local PLC official, the PLC is unlikely to change such an advantageous governing style there, since the opposition is now divided among four benches.

All of the other councilors put together would still need at least one UNO bench member on their side to get a majority vote on important issues--assuming anything is put to a vote. Getting the PLC to govern with even a minimum of democratic consensus will also depend in part on how much pressure the population is willing to exert to avoid a repetition of the lack of accountability that so harmed the region over the past four years.

Things look a bit more difficult for the PLC in the RAAN, both because of the party's tie with the FSLN and because the majority of the new YATAMA councilors belong to the Brooklyn Rivera faction. Alemán has not ruled out the possibility of an alliance with YATAMA, but nor has he suggested it with any enthusiasm. In the search for allies to break the tie, it remains to be seen if Rivera's age-old conflict with Stedman Fagoth will outweigh his hostility toward the Sandinistas. At least in his comments the first few days after the elections, Rivera seemed more conciliatory toward the FSLN.

The PLC would be making a big mistake if it thought it could count on the loyalty of Fagoth and other YATAMA members of his faction who won seats on PLC's ticket. Loyalty has no place in Fagoth's scheme of things. The only reason he didn't run as an FSLN candidate was because it refused to give him the all important top listing on its slate in his district.

But the PLC is hardly ingenuous, and is looking for a tidier solution. On March 2, the very day the CSE announced the complete but still provisional results (the ballots had not yet been recounted in Managua), the PLC announced that it already knew of a number of anomalies in the tallies done at various polling tables in the RAAN. Once corrected, according to ghe PLC officials, three FSLN seats will pass to the PLC. (When the official recount is finished, the parties have five days to present any complaints, and the CSE has another ten to rule on them.)
For its part, the FSLN political commission in the RAAN issued a formal proposal on March 3 for a "government of coast unity." As the first step toward this goal, the FSLN proposed the creation of a government transition commission, following discussion of a number of issues by the regional authorities of all parties that won seats.

Among the themes the FSLN listed for this discussion were personal security for the region's population, labor stability, a proportional distribution of posts on the new Regional Council's board of directors and election of the Regional Coordinator by consensus. The inauguration of the new governments and the announcement of who will occupy these key positions is May 4.

A Preview of 1996?

It is much easier to see how far a horse has come than to predict how far it will go, particularly because a lot of bridges over very turbulent waters must still be crossed in the next two years. One such bridge is the FSLN's extraordinary congress in Many and the party's capacity to forge a solid, consensual and viable electoral program for 1996. Another is the changes (for better or worse) that are bound to take place in the critical economic situation. Yet another is the unfolding of the new political accords that are currently isolating the ultra-right remnants of UNO (in which Alemán's PLC is a flagship member). Then there is the lawsuit that has been filed against mayor Alemán himself for misuse of municipal government funds. And these are only the bridges already visible on the horizon.

RAAS voters roundly rejected the four-year administration of outgoing UNO governor Alvin Guthrie. (Recently expelled from the Social Christian Party, Guthrie put together the local organization called ADECO, which won only one seat). But they did not make the mistake of separating the man from the governing coalition-at least in name-to which he belonged in Managua.

By taking away 18 of the 24 seats they had given UNO in 1990, voters in the RAAS also sent a strong message to the Chamorro government, which has crassly violated both the spirit and the letter of the autonomy law in every way imaginable. In its own way, the RAAN's electorate sent the same message to Managua by voting YATAMA out of office, since Brooklyn Rivera has headed the central government's do-little Institute for Autonomous Regional Development for four years.

On the other hand, the majority of costeños have apparently still not forgiven the FSLN for its errors as government, despite the promises of its candidates to defend autonomy and make it effective. In this economically beleaguered region, a significant number of people seem to have voted with their empty stomach and not with their costeño soul. The $300,000 that the PLC is reported to have spread judiciously around the coast before and during the campaign made many people recall that, for them, life wasn't all that bad under Somoza. The forgot for the moment that the Liberals were the ones who "reincorporated" the coast militarily in 1894 and voted against their new autonomy law in the National Assembly nearly a hundred years later.

Given the vacuum of reliable alternatives, many preferred to give the Liberals another chance. But it would not be risky to bet that, by 1996, they will repent having voted for the PLC if, despite all its electoral promises to the contrary, it reverts to form and does what it pleases with the natural resources the coast has not already lost, with the bill to regulate the autonomy law-which has still not been passed by the National Assembly-and with any number of other things.

In the final analysis, as even some political leaders began to publicly admit in the last days before the elections, it would be dangerous to extrapolate the case of the entire nation in 1996 too much from the Atlantic Coast case in 1994. Even if 1996 turns out to be an election of "Sandino against Somoza" nationally, as FSLN general secretary Daniel Ortega predicted the day after this vote, it won't be because that is what it was on the coast this time or should be the next. Costeño Sandinistas know that the coast has another reality. That's why they have proposed that, in the FSLN Congress in May, there be a discussion of granting the party its own "autonomy" on the coast.

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