Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 170 | Septiembre 1995



The Electoral Process: For Elites Only?

Although the political class is irresponsible and civil society is weak, the electoral process can provide time and space for society to debate national problems and provide answers to the poor majority.

Nitlápan-Envío team

The political agreements that put an end to the crisis generated by the constitutional reforms also paved the way for defining electoral alliances. In fact, the first act of executive legislative consensus in the calm after that long storm was the election of new Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) magistrates, who will be responsible for administering the rules of the electoral game. The most controversial issues are rules for use of the media, foreign campaign donations and absentee balloting by Nicaraguans residing abroad.

The choosing of the magistrates revealed the clearest of the pre electoral trends: to undercut some of the advantages of Arnoldo Alemán, mayor of Managua, leader of the Constitutionalist Liberal Party and presidential candidate of the four party Liberal Alliance. One way was by leaving his alliance unrepresented on the CSE. But after his first critical comments, Alemán shrugged off the maneuver saying, "It doesn't matter if we don't have magistrates on the Council; we'll have well trained auditors at all the ballot boxes to see to it that no one steals our victory."
Diverse political and social forces these days are trying to figure out ways to narrow the clear lead that opinion polls give Alemán. They know that a significant part of the population sees him as the only hope for significant change, "something new" that responds to its desire to put an end to over 17 years of war, instability and economic suffering. But they also know that sentiments change, that today's electoral preferences could be different in a few months. They further know that the bulk of the over 40% "undecided" vote will cast its ballot for the candidate who guarantees economic peace (food and work) and social peace (personal safety). The move to seek alliances is a way for other parties and potential candidates to convince the public that they, too, can guarantee works of progress and a climate of stability and order, as Alemán is promising.

As the still unofficial campaign gathers force, the profile of at least four political options and their potential sympathizers can already be detected:
1. Presidential minister Antonio Lacayo's "National Project," supported by big business and most of the Chamorro administration's own officials. It also seems to enjoy the tacit support of sectors of international cooperation that fear the disruption a major change of administration could cause.

2. The Liberal Alliance, with Alemán as its undisputed candidate, backed by Nicaraguan entrepreneurs living in Miami, a number of agricultural producers, professionals, small and medium local business owners and urban informal sectors. It may also be joined by the Nicaraguan Resistance Party, which represents some, though not all, of the former "contras."
3. The FSLN, with sympathizers among farm and factory workers, the unemployed, part of the urban informal sector and the Sandinista business grouping.

4. The alliance, still in the definition stage, headed by the new Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) and the Christian Democratic Union (UDC). It could be joined by the Social Democratic party known as the Nicaraguan Democratic Movement (MDN), the Independent Liberal Party (PLI) and even a Conservative party faction called Conservative Popular Action (APC) even though APC leader Miriam Argüello's own presidential candidacy was the first to be formally announced. This alliance would be backed mainly by professionals, intellectuals and small and medium business.

Most of the dozen or so other minuscule parties will probably line up behind these options, though there are signs that the remaining Conservative factions might forge a fifth alliance and try to woo the PRN away from Alemán.

Government of Unity: A Common Denominator

Although the projects of these options have yet to be fully unveiled, one common denominator has already emerged among all four: the proposal for a government of "national unity." On July 11, when Alemán formally proclaimed his candidacy to the 2,500 delegates to the Liberal Alliance convention, he said he would seek a government of reconciliation and national unity. The Liberals' "pre campaign" slogan is: "For change without violence. One Nicaragua for all." In his effort to present a moderate and attractive image, Alemán has been denying any link to Somocismo and has put his rabid anti Sandinista discourse behind him.

Alemán, however, has thus far been unable to attract either the PLI, which has already announced current Vice President Virgilio Godoy as its "pre candidate," or the PRN. There are also signs of tensions between his supporters in Miami his financial base and those in Managua over the distribution of Cabinet posts should he win. Professionals and business leaders in the Supreme Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP) met Alemán with some coolness when he went to discuss his alliance's economic proposals. COSEP fears both the competition of Somocista business interests in Miami and the interests of the middle sectors the Liberal Alliance is targeting in its campaign.

Then, on July 19, during the FSLN's celebration of the 16th anniversary of the revolution, Daniel Ortega told the crowd of 40,000 that the FSLN needs an electoral victory in 1996 to consolidate the party and guarantee continuity for the revolutionary changes of the 1980s. Using moderate language, he called for unity between the Sandinistas of the FSLN and those of the MRS, and promised a government of national unity if the FSLN wins the elections. The FSLN dismisses Alemán's Liberals from such a government on the grounds of being "Somocistas," just as Alemán dismisses both the FSLN and Lacayo's National Project on the grounds that both are "piñateros" that is, both have dipped into the public coffers.

The FSLN strategy seems much like the one it undertook at the end of the 1970s to defeat the Somocista dictatorship, seeking alliances with both grassroots sectors (Ortega stressed women and former peasant combatants on both sides in his speech) and middle strata and business sectors. Evidence of this strategy came in media reports as envío went to press in early August that the FSLN had offered the candidacy to Mariano Fiallos, an ideal choice to forge such a broad alliance given his impeccable record as head of the CSE since its creation.

Ever since Lacayo's National Project was premiered with such fanfare in May, its supporters have held many rounds of meetings in the departmental capitals, and it is the only campaign to already have major electoral propaganda running in the media. Minister of the President Antonio Lacayo, who refuses to accept the new constitutional inhibitions on his presidential candidacy, has also been traveling around the country trying to build support for the National Project, which is not yet registered as a party. On July 27, Lacayo officially announced that he would leave his government post on September 7 to dedicate himself to political activity, leaving unclear exactly what that activity might consist of.
The National Project is being sold as the center ("far from the extremes that have done so much damage to Nicaragua"), distancing itself both from the extreme right (Liberals = the Somocista past) and the extreme left (FSLN = the Sandinista past). It is using incumbent control of state resources to build political clientele in both the countryside (the agrarian titling program financed by the World Bank and the barely two year old National Rural Development Program financed by the Interamerican Development Bank) and the cities (the job programs of FISE and the public works programs of the Municipal Development Institute).

Meanwhile, the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) presented the Council of Political Parties with the documentation necessary to register as a new party. MRS leader Sergio Ramírez reiterated his aspiration to run for president, and claimed that the MRS already had some 18 20,000 affiliates around the country by the end of July. He also spoke on several occasions of a "center" alliance of the five parties that worked most closely to push through the constitutional reforms (MRS, UDC, MDN, APC and PLI). The day after Daniel Ortega offered the MRS an olive branch in his July 19 speech, another MRS leader brushed off any possibility of an alliance with the FSLN, preferring to be identified with this center right grouping.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Nicaragua is today between the rock of the upcoming electoral campaign and the hard place of a national agenda overburdened with neglected economic, legal, institutional, social and ecological problems. Since these problems will be almost impossible to solve in the remaining months, the new government will inherit them with its victory. Although the space between electioneering and the country's real problems is cramped and uncomfortable, it leaves room for the development of at least two different scenarios.

The first scenario is that of a polarized and elitist campaign; the other is the opening of a space for the consolidation and greater participation of civil society. Which one predominates will depend on the decisions made by both the political class and those who represent organized civil society.

The Elitist Scenario

In this scenario, the relative calm following the storm of the constitutional reforms would be whipped up again by the hurricane force gale of a polarized electoral campaign. Such a campaign would allow the elite minorities to further consolidate their existing monopoly in the organization of political power and the concentration of wealth. Their internal conflicts and agenda of confrontation have nothing to do with the welfare of the majority; it is all simply about readjusting quotas of power among themselves.

If these conflicts prevail and this agenda is imposed, the spot that the new Sandinista economic elite occupies in society today might be guaranteed; or the status of the traditional oligarchic groups that never left during the 1980s might be assured; or the way might be opened for the return to Nicaragua of the families most closely linked to Somocismo including Somoza's own nephews, who have already come back "to see what's happening." But no improved access to power gained in this manner would mean anything good for the population.

In this scenario, the focal points of debate would be Somocismo vs. Sandinismo, corruption and respect for property. Within this, the hottest issues would be the piñata of some Sandinista leaders, Chamorro administration abuses in the privatization process, and whether or not to return the properties of the thousand Nicaraguan exiles who later became US citizens.

A polarized electoral process with such an ideologized agenda would be divorced from the population's concerns: food, work, security, efficiency of the state institutions. And it would prevent the participation of civil society. The impoverished majorities have no time for such politics; they are disillusioned by both the Sandinista experience and the Chamorro Lacayo years and have no institutional channels to express their interests.

If this ends up being the electoral process, this polarized agenda will overshadow any other and the rock of the elections will force the country to turn its back on the urgent but hard economic and social tasks. To mention only a few of the casualties, there would be no serious public debate about economic policy; a potentially positive renegotiation of the foreign debt and the ESAF agreement with the World Bank and IMF would be put aside; and credit for production would be cut even more. The hard place would loom even more towering and could come tumbling down on everyone.

The constitutional reforms, which give the National Assembly new ability to participate in drafting the 1996 budget and influence in such key economic issues as the tax and labor codes and the laws that must be passed to regulate commerce and industry, would be neutralized by the tense campaign atmosphere. There would be a danger that the elections could force the legislators to pass legislation too heavily influenced by the moment, and thus of little use for the institutional modernization the country needs. The even greater danger would be that the legislative debates would not take into account the sentiments of the majorities, since they would be seen only as pawns in the internecine fights within the political class.

Analysts who believe this pessimistic scenario to be the only one possible have already begun disparaging the elections. Some even suggest that the best thing for the country would have been to move up the elections, so as to clarify the new rules of the game and get on with it. Freed of the rock, the country could then deal with the hard place of its needs. This posture reflects a rhetorical lament about the errors of our political class more than a serious proposal, since the pending tasks prior to the election (voter IDs, ballot printing, etc.) technically prevent any such proposal. But the most serious aspect of this pessimistic analysis is that its critique of the elites ends up being elitist since upper echelon intellectuals are the ones denouncing the upper echelon politicians.

The Scenario with Civil Society

The second scenario is less laced with pessimism because it focuses on Nicaraguan civil society's capacity to struggle for its own interests and needs in the electoral race. The transcendental break with a historically powerful presidency resulting from the constitutional reforms and the space opened by a better balance and healthier competition between the branches is not a victory of the upper echelons, even if they are the ones who achieved it. It represents a demand for democratization backed by Nicaraguan society, albeit silently and passively. The new balance of power an indispensable if insufficient basis for modernizing the state could thus turn modernization into a heated issue of such a public debate. In this scenario, the reforms could give the elections greater possibility of public debate than has existed in any previous elections in the country's history.

All opinion polls show that the population wants more debate, less centralization of power and more individual freedoms. These features perhaps express the maturity of a population that voted with bullets against the Somocista dictatorship in 1978 79 and knew how to use the ballot box against the FSLN's top down style in 1990. The lack of credibility of the parties and the state institutions seriously limits the possibility that these new values of the citizenry will find vehicles for expression and exercise, but no candidate can ignore these aspirations of the electorate. They could well force empty rhetoric that no longer convinces anyone to be translated into concrete projects that must be publicly debated. In such a scenario, the hard place (unemployment, poverty, personal safety, longing for democratization) could begin to act as a counterweight to the electoral rock.

Up to now, the strategy of the politicians and their parties seems to be to sound out adherents and spread the vote out in the first round so as to negotiate clearer alliances and hopefully impose hegemony in the second. But the indecision of much of the population reflected in today's polls is not due to political unclarity; it reflects a lack of any electoral option offering viable solutions to the national problems and so many personal and family problems. Any party that can convince the population of its capacity and authority to deal with the serious weight of the national crises just might get elected in the first round.

Officialdom vs. the Citizenry

There is no longer enough time before the elections to deal with modernizing the state even if the capacity existed, which it does not. In fact, the rock of the elections has already rolled into place: one constitutional reform requires mayors, ministers, vice ministers and other high government officials who choose to run for office to resign their posts a year prior to the elections. Over 20 state officials and some 50 mayors are in this position. On August 7, 24 ministers and vice ministers filed suit with the Supreme Court claiming this reform is prejudicial. Antonio Lacayo is also expected to turn to the Supreme Court in his fight against the reform preventing his presidential candidacy as an in law of the incumbent.

Assuming that all these officials will indeed have to be replaced, the possibility of modernizing the institutions and dealing with all the national problems becomes even more remote. Nicaragua's historic lack of qualified executive personnel has always favored personalist managerial styles at all levels of society; there is no reason to expect that to change in the year leading up to the elections.

Notwithstanding that, the main element of any modernization of the state is not the brilliance or capabilities of officialdom, but the interest and participation of the citizenry. The electoral process offers genuine space for public debate, a complement to the elitist character the constitutional reforms have had so far. Making a change as deep and historical as the reforms is necessarily a process lasting decades, not months. The elections offer a climate for initiating that process, in which the starting point is recognition that any democracy in which the citizenry does not control its political class is illegitimate.

Property: the Centerpiece
The particular interests of the candidates and their strongest backers are inextricably linked to the thorny property issue, which unfortunately makes any discourse about the well being of the nation a rhetorical cover up for concern about the well being of a few individuals. Resolving this issue before April 1996, the official opening of the electoral campaign, would thus be the cornerstone of the second, more optimistic scenario. Eliminating this issue from the electoral agenda would take much of the ideological bite out of politicians' discourse style. The political class could focus on drawing up electoral programs that contain concrete governing and economic proposals for public debate. This would allow the forces of civil society to more openly and clearly discuss their own agenda with the politicians. This possibility is not only desperately needed by the nation at this juncture in its history; it also coincides, already or potentially, with the electoral interests of most parties.

On July 5, the United Nations Development Program hosted a meeting at Nicaragua's luxurious Montelimar beach resort between the country's main political and social leaders and former US President Jimmy Carter to forge some consensus around this conflict ridden issue. The basic points of the "Montelimar Consensus" were to: 1) respect the small houses, lots and lands covered by laws 85, 86 and 88, promulgated by the outgoing Sandinista government (larger properties must be purchased from the state); 2) create special courts to settle disputed cases; and 3) rapidly and fairly compensate those who were confiscated and use the earnings from privatizing TELCOR to revalue the bonds many were issued as indemnification. In her address inaugurating the event, President Chamorro said, "I do not want to leave the next government this huge cross, which has been the most difficult for me to bear in these five years." The Association of Confiscated Owners rejected both the event and the consensus points. Arnoldo Alemán was the only invited leader who did not attend, though he later said he agreed with all accords except the one requiring Sandinista elites to pay the 1992 registered value of the state properties they acquired in the piñata. Consistent with his Liberal backers in both Miami and Managua and with the electoral populism characterizing his campaign, he wants these handsome properties to be purchased at today's market value.

The agreement regarding laws 85, 86 and 88 signified a definite separation between the just redistribution of property to benefit the poor and these properties that a minority of Sandinistas redistributed to themselves. In exchange for this, the FSLN backed off of its opposition to privatizing TELCOR, which will probably increase the current tensions within the FSLN.

Where Do Interests Lie?

After this first step at Montelimar, the interest each political actor has in actually implementing a solution to the property conflict remains to be weighed. In political terms, doing so is a life or death issue for the Chamorro government and its National Project. President Chamorro would go down in history as having pulled off one of the most difficult transitions in Latin America's political history, and Antonio Lacayo would go into his campaign with new trophies to present as a conciliatory center alternative between Sandinismo and Somocismo. No one can hold a candle to the President for her transition from war to peace or from hyperinflation to price stability, even though the Sandinista government took the first steps in negotiating with the contras and attempting to implement a neoliberal anti inflationary adjustment, both in 1988. But the crowning achievement of the transition will be the resolution of the property issue, when it happens.

MRS leader Sergio Ramírez and the National Assembly have both announced that the priority task in the coming months will be to pass a property law that puts this conflict to rest once and for all. The MRS will make this issue a central point of its campaign, to distance itself from the "piñata" of its former soulmates. As a first and symbolic step, Ramírez announced that he is giving up the spacious house he received during the early 1980s; it will be turned into a children's center.

As for the FSLN itself, its post electoral interests will determine its openness toward negotiating a solution to the property conflict before the elections. The FSLN leadership, individually and collectively, cannot run the risk of Alemán winning the elections without having an internationally validated solution nailed down beforehand, particularly since the army is no longer totally under FSLN control and the US right could well sweep the Democrats out of the White House in the 1996 elections. In addition, carrying the albatross of the piñateros around its neck during the whole campaign is hardly in its political interest.

The only way the FSLN could win an overwhelming victory for the properties privatized to farm and industrial workers as the Area of Workers Property and those of the cooperative movement would be to sacrifice the personal economic interests of some of its leaders. Taking this step would quell all arguments by the oligarchic sectors that back the National Project and benefited from the Chamorro administration's own piñata of properties privatized through CORNAP. The FSLN's ethical authority will depend largely on the willingness of some of its leaders to trade their own economic interests for the political interests of Sandinismo.

Both for this very reason and because he could lose part of his financial base, Alemán does not favor a rapid and definitive solution. His singular opposition is what gives the "all against Alemán" tint to the search for a solution to this issue, the election of CSE magistrates and the alliance building trend in a large part of the political class.

But the fact is that even Alemán could benefit from a final solution to this issue. Putting it off makes him even more vulnerable to the accusation that he wants to help Somocistas recover their properties and reintroduce Somocismo into the country. Distancing himself from the defense of a few justly confiscated families would give prestige to the Liberal campaign and offer unassailable proof of Alemán's claim that himself he is not a Somocista.

Last but not least, the Clinton administration, the US Embassy in Managua and AID have put a premium on an acceptable electoral process and a final solution, whatever form it may take, to the property issue. Carter's protagonist role in the Montelimar forum are due less to Nicaragua's needs than to domestic US policy and the Democrats' need to respond to the criticisms of Senator Helms and his ultra right constituency. The Clinton administration is far less interested in a few hundred new US citizens claiming their old properties in Nicaragua than in valid elections that provide continuity to the country's democratic transition. The IMF and World Bank are giving the Chamorro government their full support to facilitate the electoral process, and the Clinton administration has put a solution to the property issue on its priority list to use as a pressure point on the Nicaraguan government in future negotiations with those two international financing institutions.

Opportunism and Opportunity

An election is always an opportunity for the poor in any part of the world, not because it can change their destiny or that of their country, but because they get short term benefits from the electoral patronage system that is part of how parties and candidates function. Politicians need bodies at their rallies and those bodies have more or less urgent needs and desires. Elections everywhere are thus laced with greater or lesser doses of opportunism, but they are also opportune moments for debates, criticisms and proposals among political leaders, organizations of civil society and the masses.

A cornerstone of democracy and of the articulation of diverse social interests is found in the efficacy of these exchanges. The electoral scenario we are about to enter depends not only on which political class is more or less responsible, but also on whether unions, special interest organizations and non-government organizations are more or less responsible and able to present proposals to the politicians instead of just criticizing them or asking favors of them. What will today's civil society offer Nicaragua's politicians beyond its critique and mistrust?
Nicaraguan civil society is still very weak and is one of the main causes of the political class' irresponsibility. This weakness has two roots: the excessive polarization of its organizations and confusion about what roles these organizations should play. It is well known that Nicaragua's unions, NGOs and other social organizations have generally functioned as transmission belts for the parties. Furthermore, the confusion of roles fostered in the union movement by the privatization to workers of properties that gave rise to the Area of Workers Property (APT) set back its capacity for protest, proposals and dialogue with the government and the business sector. The problem of the Farmworkers Association (ATC), the Sandinista Workers Confederation (CST) and UNAPA, the organization that oversees the APT, is not only tied to the corruption of certain leaders; it is structural. Progressive thinking in the international union movement agrees that the death of independent trade unionism occurs when a union attempts to be both boss and representative of workers. In such an impossible situation, even the most honorable leaders fall into sin.

As for the NGOs, the politicization and lack of combativeness of many of them toward both the state and the parties have undermined their creativity and led them to devote their energies to replacing the state in its functions, filling the holes left in the wake of triumphant neoliberalism.

Farmers, Bakers, Coffee Growers and Port Workers

Various experiences of civil society in July made some of these problems evident. Despite the justice of their cause, the prolonged "squat in" by hundreds of farmworkers on and around the Central American University campus to demand titles for their land and credits to produce was weakened by the excess politicization of their leaders (who are also FSLN leaders in most cases), without winning any of their main objectives. But they are not the only agricultural producers who lack access to credit to produce and invest. With preparation for the second planting already underway, the government has cut credits even more drastically than for the first planting, particularly affecting small and medium growers. The Union of Farmers and Ranchers (UNAG) and other rural associations have been unable to put together a solid movement to gain access to credit, because they, too, are divided by their leaders' conflicting political interests.

The 5,000 Nicaraguan bakers who strongly protested the disproportionate rise in the cost of flour decreed by the four companies in Nicaragua that import and process wheat including what comes in as donations have found no support from the rest of society. It is another demonstration of civil society's weakness or fatigue in the face of a government and a group of elites who control the country. Without intervention by the government and civil society to force these four companies to negotiate with the bakers' association, myriad small bread businesses will be forced to either close down or raise the price of a product that is a basic item in the diet of the poorest. This weakness undercuts any ability to pressure for a credit line to import flour from other Central American countries whose prices are lower despite the international price increase for wheat because they do not share Nicaragua's oligopolist structure of flour companies or government complicity with them.

Like many other productive sectors, Nicaragua's bakers' association is a victim of the government's pact with an oligopoly and is isolated from other producers' organizations and the NGO federation at a moment in which those most affected are the poor. The case of the wheat oligopoly, repeated in numerous branches of the economy, illustrates how much damage the government alliance with these few powerful producers does to the national economy as a whole.

Not even the coffee growers, whose association is the most combative in Nicaragua, have been able to establish alliances with other organizations to bolster their struggles. Not a month after the political agreement was finally hammered out for implementing the constitutional reforms, one of which removes the executive branch's discretionary ability to levy taxes, the administration violated that accord with a new decree charging the coffee growers more taxes than other sectors. To do this, it used a fiscal charge system implemented by the Sandinista government in the hyperinflationary period, but totally unjustifiable today. The coffee growers have been forced to file suit against the decree, when they should have been able to find national consensus in favor of sitting down with the government to negotiate a better solution. Such an approach would have involved persuading the government to assume a more pro investment posture toward the coffee growers' exceptional earnings due to good international prices. As it is, the government is just interested in increasing its ability to pay on the priority back debt.

July's only effective protest was the six day strike of the Corinto port workers, who were demanding better wages and the firing of several top level officials of the state port authority. Why was their strike effective? Because paralyzing the country's main port affected the economic interests of Nicaragua's biggest entrepreneurs and because unions of various political stripes found unity by depoliticizing their struggle at the outset.

The Agenda of the Poor

The protests and proposals that civil society makes during the electoral campaign could play an important role in triggering a debate within society about the transcendental issue of the distribution of wealth in the country. But these protests and proposals will be ineffective unless the unions and other organizations shake free of the political parties.

Nicaragua's population is quite aware of the reconcentration of wealth taking place in the country and the exclusion suffered by the majorities.
The 40% "undecided" are not hapless poor with no political awareness; they are poor yes, but they are in search of solutions to their poverty. Their silence and passivity is a traditional indigenous style of exerting political pressure, as well as a wise and rational attitude in the face of civil society's demobilization and disunity. The missing ingredient is not awareness but channels for meaningful action among the organizations supposedly representing their interests. The political class will only be forced to provide responses rather than rhetoric if these organizations take on the difficult task of working through their accumulation of old and more recent baggage, so they can begin thinking clearly about concrete and realistic proposals that could be inserted onto the national agenda.

The courageous declarations of some bishops and pastors, who have presented an "agenda of the poor," permits a tentative prophecy that parishes and churches might take up the role of being such an organizational channel, a space for debate during the electoral process.

Civic movements are emerging in Latin America that are monitoring elections, denouncing governmental corruption and impurities in the electoral process and even intervening in that process by laying out programs of interest to the excluded sectors. Conditions exist in Nicaragua to make the next elections a time and a space for strengthening civil society as well. Many want the floor and have something to say.

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