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  Number 182 | Septiembre 1996
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Nicaragua

The Campaign Starting Gun Has Been Fired

Whoever comes out as winner will spend his five years in office establishing the bases for overcoming the country’s crisis. Since resources are scarce, the bases must be honesty and efficiency of administration, and above all ability to mobilize people so that they participate in governing.

Nitlápan-Envío team

Nicaragua's official electoral campaign--at 75 days, one of latin ameri ca's longest--was officially kicked off on August 2. For the most important parties, however, the date was a mere formality since they have been campaigning for well over a year now.

Two thirds of those willing to say who they will vote for lean to either Arnoldo Alemán's Liberal Alliance (40%) or the FSLN (30%), according to the latest Borge & Associates poll, published in June but done before the list of presidential candidates had been finalized. Since none of the other 22 parties or alliances running for president has yet broken out of the pack, the other third of voter preference is spread thinly among a number of them. Those with more presence, organizational capacity or resources are fighting hard for the third place slot. If any one of these parties--most of which loosely refer to themselves as the "center"--manages to makes a strong showing as the third choice, it will be in a strategic position should a second round of voting for president become necessary, as many believe it will.

Meanwhile, as the countdown to October 20 began, the political dimension of a number of seemingly technical problems began to emerge more strongly in this highly polarized environment.

Leaders, Not Programs

Everything indicates that the majority of the population will vote for leaders and not for either ideologies, which are thoroughly diffuse in this campaign, or for programs, which are barely being discussed. Even those programs that have been made public have serious holes in their economic proposals, which is the most transcendental issue if things are to "change." In the case of the Liberals, Alemán enjoys clear personal leadership. The red and black party's leadership structures are much more substantial, although Daniel Ortega also enjoys significant personal draw.

The recent exclusion of banker Haroldo Montealegre, Liberal Unity Party (PUL) candidate and director of the rightwing newspaper La Tribuna, eliminated another strong candidate in the anxious contest to head the center slot. As had earlier happened to Antonio Lacayo of PRONAL, Alvaro Robelo of Arriba Nicaragua and Edén Pastora of the Democratic Action Party, Montealegre was prohibited from running by the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) on August 7, given late emerging evidence that he had once taken out citizenship in the United States, which does not permit dual nationality. Montealegre blamed the CSE decision, which he called "arbitrary," on Alemán's Liberals and on Jorge Mas Canosa, president of the influential National Cuban American Foundation, which is supporting Alemám from Miami. The elimination of Montealegre both strengthens the bipolar dynamic of the elections and further clears the track for other candidates claiming centrist positions, in particular Alfredo César (UNO 96), Sergio Ramírez (Sandinista Renovation Movement) and Noel Vidaurre (Conservative Party).

Why Postpone the Elections?

As the formal campaign got underway, everything seemed calm, but only for a moment. What appeared a solid road, albeit with potholes, suddenly began to look like it had been built over quicksand, into which anyone could sink with little warning.

Just a week after the starting gun was fired, several of the bigger "centrist" parties made public a joint proposal to postpone the election date two or three weeks. For its part, the FSLN even threatened to withdraw from the race altogether.

The parties complain of being affected by a number of serious delays. For one thing, the presidential candidate list had not yet been firmed up by the time the campaign started--the information on Montealegre was slow in coming and he personally denied its validity--while the CSE's review of the thousands of other candidates at all levels was not even finished by the time envío went to press. In addition, much of the media, particularly television, had still not set fees for publicity spots.

The most rankling issue, however, was that the government had not yet provided the state funds to which the candidates are entitled to help finance their publicity, or even assigned the amount. By law, the parties should have received a total of 15% of the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) budget between July 7 and 19. It is estimated that most of the 33 parties will cover an average 25 50% of their campaign expenses with these state funds. Although this money is not as important for big parties and alliances like the FSLN and the Liberal Alliance, it is a life and death matter for the small "center" parties.

The delay of over a month sparked interminable debates among the CSE, the Ministry of Finances and the parties. The first conflictive issue was the base on which the 15% should be calculated. The CSE has three different income lines: one for its ordinary administrative functioning, one specifically for the elections (both of these financed by the central government budget), and one for international donations. The finance ministry first said that the candidates would receive a total of $2 million, basing it only on the domestically financed election budget, and tried to tie any increase to legislative approval of its new and controversial tax bill. The parties demanded triple that amount and took umbrage at the blackmail attempt.

Another contentious issue was the definition of what constitutes a "parliamentary" party, since, according to the new electoral law, they receive a bigger cut. The finance ministry finally authorized the CSE to issue about $4 million to the parties, the first half of which was to be turned over to them in mid August. The amount for independent municipal candidates from what are called popular petition associations had not been issued or even defined by that time. There are 53 such associations.

This long delay was largely what prompted the move by a number of the centrist parties to propose that the elections be postponed a few weeks, although the fact that the CSE is also way behind on issuing the ID voter registration cards was also a factor for some. The proposal enjoyed a few days of momentum, then hit several major snags that augured its abandonment: first, it was not clear that the votes could be found to pass the necessary reform to the electoral law, which requires more than a simple majority due to the law's constitutional status; second, the idea was opposed by several influential figures, not the least of them Cardinal Obando y Bravo, who warned that dragging out the campaign risked making it more dangerously contentious.

The technical causes of the various delays were shot through with assumed and real political elements, which seriously frayed tempers. The executive branch attempted to use the financing issue in particular to coerce solutions to its liking on other highly controversial issues: the tax bill, the 6% for the universities, the election of new Supreme Court justices and even the election of the new Human Rights Solicitor.

The CSE Falls from Grace

The FSLN not only disagreed with postponing the elections, it threatened to pull out of them entirely, though not for the same reasons. On August 9, the FSLN published an official protest regarding what it called the "partiality" and "passivity" of the CSE's actions.

The partiality charge referred to the inhibition of some candidates and not of others (several candidates of the Liberal Alliance that had been challenged on the grounds of having another nationality were not excluded, while Alemán himself had been challenged for not having resigned his position as Managua mayor within the time required by law). It also referred to the CSE's selection of its own new departmental presidents. The FSLN complained that the CSE assigned Liberals to head up its offices in Managua, Matagalpa and Jinotega, where 42% of the electorate lives; and assigned Ramírez's MRS, of which CSE president Rosa Marina Zelaya is a member, to head those in Masaya, Granada and Carazo, with 14% of the electorate. The FSLN, still the most powerful single party in the country (while the Liberal Alliance has a 10 point lead in the polls, it is made up of 4 parties and several party fractions of various stripes), got León and the sparsely populated Río San Juan and South Atlantic Autonomous Region, totaling only 11% of the voting population.

The passivity accusation referred to the CSE's failure thus far to respond to FSLN charges against the Liberals. Among these charges are that several FSLN members have been killed in the north to the shout "Long Live Alemán," that there was allegedly fraud in the ID carding process in Jinotega, that Liberals have been discovered buying the one time voter registration cards issued in municipalities where the ID process could not be employed, and that they tried to bring in electoral propaganda materials donated by Taiwan without paying taxes. The Sandinistas' list of irregularities not dealt with by the CSE is long.

The issue that called the CSE's prestige into question even more widely was its decision to assign the printing of the electoral ballots to INPASA, a company that offered far and away the most costly bid, ignoring two far lower ones. Once a state company, INPASA was responsible for printing the 1984 and 1990 ballots. The other two bids were submitted by El Amanecer, a printing company belonging to the FSLN, which has done several jobs for the CSE already and is of recognized quality, and El Mercurio.

This political scandal, which had been brewing for weeks, broke on August 7 when, despite mounting opposition from a number of quarters, the CSE publicly announced that it had selected INPASA to print the nearly fifteen million ballots (six for each of the over two million potential voters). Its bid price, which the CSE had apparently not questioned, was for over 61 million córdobas (about $7 million), while the bid from El Amanecer, an FSLN print shop, was reportedly around 14 million córdobas, and the one from El Mercurio, owned by La Prensa, was even a bit lower. After the offices of the Comptroller General of the Republic--revitalized and relegitimized after the election of Augustín Jarquín to head it--recommended that the CSE accept one of the two lower bids, INPASA inexplicably dropped its own bid to 27 million. (Paper for the ballots is not included in the bids, since Finland is donating it, while Canada is donating the cardboard for the ballot boxes and indelible ink to stain the finger of those who have voted.)

While political commentators and party spokespeople of all stripes have had a field day with the scandal, the most belligerent politician has been MRS presidential candidate Sergio Ramírez. Early on he warned that if the CSE chose El Amanecer, he would challenge the decision on the grounds that the FSLN could organize an electoral fraud through its printing company. The FSLN, in turn, charged that INPASA is an MRS print shop, and more specifically that one of its stockholders is Rosa Marina Zelaya's husband Jorge Samper, the legislative candidate heading the MRS slate for Managua as well as its campaign manager for the capital. While Samper denies any involvement with INPASA, the CSE has been less than forthcoming in its justification for having chosen INPASA. (The solution to the suggestion of fraud possibilities has been dealt with by having party monitors present during the whole printing process.)

The appearance of political more than technical motivations in the CSE decision has tarnished the widely recognized credibility that this last branch of state has managed to maintain as one by one the others discredited themselves over the past few years. The CSE's peak moment of respect had come just weeks before the scandal broke, with its decision to prohibit the presidential candidacy of the powerful Antonio Lacayo, which most observers had predicted would be politically impossible.

Nothing is Impossible

Both the FSLN and the disqualified Montealegre explain the CSE's controversial actions as the result of a secret alliance supposedly being forged between Arnoldo Alemán and Sergio Ramírez. How is such an alliance explained? Pragmatism. After showing Alemán that he can influence the CSE, Ramírez would try to take the lead in the political "center," from which he could guarantee the FSLN's defeat and control the Sandinista bench in the future legislative body. He has already shown real political skills in the National Assembly, which was significantly buttressed by the constitutional reforms he had a major role in pushing through. The fact that this new strength has not yet been very perceptible is due to the Framework Law, agreed to in mid 1995 to end the standoff between the legislative and executive branches regarding the reforms, but that agreement expires with the next government.

The political panorama is too complex and too rife with strange interests for any hypothesis to be dismissed as impossible. It would be unrealistic at this point to claim that any business in the country is free of political interests, or conversely that any candidate is not backed by strong economic interests.

The FSLN fears that Alemán could capitalize on the votes of the candidates disqualified by the CSE and could even garner the 45% of the votes required to win on the first round. That fear is based on the most recent Borge and Associates poll showing that Alemán now has 40% of those polled who intend to vote. But the same poll also shows Daniel Ortega as the presidential candidate who has registered the biggest increase in electoral preference in the last two months. For the first time, Ortega pulled in 30% of the voters polled, after hovering at 20 25% for the last year.

July 19: Seventeen Years Later

The FSLN kicked off its electoral campaign with a bang on July 19, with the celebration of the 17th anniversary of the revolutionary triumph. The multitude that filled the traditional Plaza of the Revolution that morning--reportedly some hundred thousand people--was the biggest that the Sandinistas had drawn since that historic rally to close its tense electoral campaign on February 21, 1990. The event this time was yet more proof of the FSLN's effort to present a new image of political strength and maturity that will guarantee reconciliation and national stability if it comes to power. This image is also being expressed in its carefully and well designed media spots, which refer to "Daniel: everyone's government," and in its candidates' public statements.

The anniversary event had all the trappings of a classic campaign. For the first time in the history of July 19 events, Ortega was accompanied on the stage by his wife Rosario Murillo and several of their children. Both Daniel and Rosario were dressed in white rather than the traditional red and black party colors. The other Sandinista commanders, too, including Daniel's brother Humberto, retired head of the army, have abandoned their olive green uniforms. Slogans alluding to the party's guerrilla tradition were replaced by doves and flowers, which were released into the air. Ortega shook hands, held babies and referred in his speech to the United States as the "great neighbor," with which the FSLN "is ready to continue working in a framework of respect, equality and justice."

Ortega proposed an ethical pact that would include a commitment to accept October's electoral results, of which Cardinal Obando y Bravo would be the guarantor. He also again called for "national unity" against what he termed Alemán's "Liberal Somocista project." The concrete meaning of this call became clearer in the speech of the FSLN's vice presidential candidate, cattle rancher Juan Manuel Caldera.

Referring to his identity as an independent producer, Caldera said, "Many of us fought the Frente, and many Sandinistas fought us. We fought over property, over wealth, over economic repression. I was confiscated by the Sandinista government. But we Nicaraguans can't live in the past. We have before us the imperious need to reconcile and forget the past's resentments of social class." Appealing to nationalist sentiment, he added that "Nicaragua is a mother that is sick and needs all of her children to produce. Because only production will make us free."

Caldera, who for some positive and some negative reasons is like a masculine version of Violeta Chamorro in the 1990 campaign, defined himself as non Sandinista and proposed an alliance between the country's productive capital and the FSLN. "The government of the alliance between producers and Sandinistas," he specified, "is not a government for condoning debts. It will be a government to help producers be able to pay, to make profitability in our productive activity possible so we can fulfill our commercial and banking obligations."

The Sandinistas are putting their trust in this alliance to wage their battle with the Liberals and outstrip them in rural votes. It must convince the bulk of the peasantry that the war and state control of agricultural production and marketing will not return. It is the job of the FSLN's vice presidential choice, Juan Manuel Caldera, to create this new image of Sandinismo in the countryside. It is anything but an easy task, since polls show that, were the elections held now, Alemán would get a full twice as many votes as Ortega in Jinotega, Matagalpa, Boaco and Chontales.

"Providence Gave Us the Center"

The plaza was crammed with young people from Managua's poor neighborhoods and from other parts of the country, an indication that the FSLN has succeeded in renovating its base with a numerous segment of the grassroots electorate. The young are seriously hit by unemployment and the dearth of any opportunity to live with some economic dignity. The FSLN promises work, education and health care for all; "These things are going to return," says the Sandinista propaganda. Such promises are music to the ears of the most impoverished sectors of the population. They remember that, despite the war, they had education, health, jobs and hope in the 1980s, all of which they lack today.

With the strategy of moderating its discourse and promoting national unity, the Sandinistas are in fact proposing a "center" alternative. "Here," said Ortega in his July 19 speech," all the other parties have been running around looking for the center. But Providence gave the center to the Frente Sandinista." He was referring to the fact that the FSLN got number 12 in the drawing for the positions that the 24 parties and alliances will occupy on the electoral ballots. "We are the point of convergence so that the votes of all Nicaraguans come to us," Ortega said. "As Sandino used to say: 'neither extreme right nor extreme left. Our motto is one single Frente.' And one single Frente is the motto of the Sandinista National Liberation Front."

Guadamuz: The Loose Cannon

The FSLN's centrist positioning is not free of theoretical and practical contradictions, if one considers its deeply rooted exclusionary ideology of the 1980s and its dual discourse during the Chamorro years. So far the major exception to the new FSLN tone is the controversial Carlos Guadamuz, director of the popular Sandinista radio station Radio Ya, elected as the candidate for mayor of Managua in the FSLN's internal primaries in April.

Guadamuz is the prototype of a Sandinista leader who has forged his undeniable base of popular support through confrontational and populist language. This language is the mirror image of that used by Arnoldo Alemán to forge his own sizable base of grassroots support.

Over the years Guadamuz has sparked one conflict after another with his radical allegations, including the sexual slur against Sergio Ramírez's daughter that provided the justification for Ramírez to finally split with the party. He has been reigned in more than once for his rabble rousing declarations, but the National Directorate came down on him extremely hard after he made acrid criticisms of the FSLN leadership for not supporting his campaign and refused to transmit the July 19 act on Radio Ya. This fiery insubordination sparked a serious conflict within the FSLN, requiring an urgent meeting and Daniel Ortega's direct intervention. Going against the opinion of all the other Directorate members, some of who wanted not only to pull his candidacy but even to expel him from the party, Ortega decided to give "one last chance" to the man who was his prison cellmate in the 1970s. Guadamuz asked for forgiveness in the meeting and publicly promised to forego his constantly confrontational attitude. Almost no one in the FSLN believes this will be possible, given his personality and his history.

These kinds of conflicts demonstrate the fragility of the Sandinista effort to project a new image and pull more votes than the Liberals, many of whose key personalities are at least as confrontational as Guadamuz. The problem goes deeper than image. Even if the Sandinista analysis is that nothing more radical than what it is proposing is even feasible in today's unipolar world, much of its base has not made that analytical leap. Proof of that is that Guadamuz has been running almost neck and neck with the lead candidate for mayor of Managua, the independent Pedro Solórzano, a soft spoken, rational and centrist businessman who argues--and demonstrates--that he feels a "mission" to help the poor get back on their economic feet.

Those in the "Center"

The FSLN's rise in the polls, though modest, contrasts with the population's coolness toward the parties that are fighting over the center lane on the electoral track. The latter have been thus far unable to formulate an attractive and coherent message.

Sergio Ramírez, the MRS' presidential candidate, has been unable to convince the electorate that still supports the FSLN that he is offering something different, or those who harbor resentments against Sandinismo that he is a Sandinista of a different stripe. This suggests that the renovations he claims to stand for are not the most important issues to the bulk of either Sandinismo's supporters or its detractors.

The message of Alfredo César, candidate of the UNO 96 alliance, is also not sufficiently geared to the grassroots level. It is rumored that he is the candidate viewed as most "potable" by those in Washington who still care anything about Nicaragua's political avatars.

So far most of these candidates have focused their media spots on TV more than radio, which has limited reach outside of Managua and a few other big cities on the Pacific. Future polls will reveal any change in their impact once they hit the stumps in the interior of the country.

The new political candidates are met with the same lukewarm response. Conservative Noel Vidaurre, for example, is emphasizing his personal honesty in his costly TV spots, but to little avail. It might have been better to put the accent on what the Conservative Party tradition represents. By doing that he could capitalize on the old support networks of this historical party, particulary in the rural areas.

Also in the center--if no more of it than most of the other parties claiming this ground--is PRONAL, but it seems unable to recover from the disqualification of its presidential candidate, Antonio Lacayo. His replacement, businessman Benjamín Lanzas, has none of the debatable charisma of President Chamorro's son in law.

All the candidates' campaign promises start from the false supposition that existing resources are sufficient to cover expenses and that policy changes will be enough to rapidly reactivate production. César, for example, has recently begun to promise that he can get $150 million to reactivate the economy with credits to the private sector. The promise all make is that, by assigning resources well, sound and tangible results can be achieved in the first two years of government, without abandoning price stability. This, however, is not possible.

The "center" calls both the FSLN and Liberal proposals extremist. But the outside conditions imposed on economic policy will moderate--and are already moderating--any real or desired extremism.

Lead candidate Arnoldo Alemán claimed in his first statements on the macroeconomic issue that he would continue the current government's policy of a sliding exchange rate. This pronouncement is a tacit acceptance, at least by him, of the rules of the game already set by the international financial institutions for whichever candidate inherits the presidential sash.

Liberals and FSLN: Common Recipes

The fact is that both the Liberals and the Sandinistas have taken great care in challenging these rules of the game and actually have very similar proposals for dealing with the country's economic problems. The common focal point of both campaigns for the rural zones is to expand agricultural credit and reorient the state development bank toward medium and small producers. They also both promise to do away with the payments required by "la Cobra," a harsh and unyielding program to recover this bank's arrears portfolio.

In his first tours of the official campaign--to Wiwilí and Matiguás in the north--Alemán began to promise the agrarian reform beneficiaries from both the Sandinista and Chamorro governments that he would respect and legalize their properties. The Liberals want to neutralize the general perception among these beneficiaries that an Alemán government will throw them off their land so it can be returned to its old owners. Meanwhile, Alemán has left to his running mate Enrique Bolaños--who, like Caldera, was confiscated in the 1980s--the task of calming his confiscated colleagues with the promise of juicy compensations for their lost properties. The Liberals know that market forces are already producing an agrarian counter reform with all due speed (see article in this issue of envío), so there is no point in incurring the high political cost of initiating a conflictive process to return the properties through state coercion.

Liberals and Sandinistas also have a common recipe for combatting the unemployment that is particularly affecting the population of the country's main cities: a public investment program in infrastructure. This proposal has draw for both candidates, since both have recognized experience implementing such programs: Alemán did it as mayor of Managua and the FSLN did it during its presidential ad ministration.

The only substantive difference between the proposals of the two campaigns has been the FSLN's emphasis on access by the most impoverished part of the population to free health and education services. The FSLN proposes to resolve the problem of the fees that the Chamorro government instituted for both services by recalling that it already did it in the 1980s. The Liberals have virtually ignored the issue and, if they win the election, will probably continue the gradual privatization of social services initiated by Chamorro, with the backing of the World Bank. The most recent sign that the Liberals will continue the current government's social policy was the vote by their representatives in the National Assembly favoring the President's veto of the law assigning 6% of the national budget to the universities.

It's Not Just about Money

The promises to expand agricultural credit, invest in infrastructure and increase social spending are in open contradiction with the rules of the game for Nicaragua set by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in the Enhanced Structural Adjustment Facility (ESAF). Greater access to credit also faces a serious hurdle in the short run because the National Development Bank's network of branches and rural agencies has already been dismantled by the current government. In addition, the bank is virtually without funds due to its inability to recover the preferential credits provided to the country's large producers. These producers would also have a sizable capacity to negotiate on their own behalf with the new government, whether Liberal or Sandinista, given their tight links to both groups. At bottom, this target is very difficult to achieve: the international financing institutions want the state banking system privatized, and would probably include this measure as one of the conditions that Nicaragua must fulfill to get future loans in negotiations with the new government for the next three year ESAF agreement.

A serious public investment program would assume a short term increase in the fiscal deficit and the international institutions are not prepared to countenance this. They would react the same to an increase in social spending should the Sandinistas come to power.

The only formula that would resolve these conflicts would be a drastic reduction in military spending and an end to the widespread governmental corruption. This would genuinely separate national interests from the interests of the economic groups that milked the economic adjustment to their own advantage.

The issue, however, is not just one of money. Broadening the coverage and the efficiency of social services would be noticeably facilitated if the population could be mobilized to take a leadership role in these tasks and given adequate mechanisms. The same would occur in the case of public investments if they were channeled toward communal infrastructure and low cost housing. The Liberals have the ability to mobilize their own people, and the FSLN has even more, as the proven experience of the 1980s shows. The obstacle is that the ethical erosion of many leaders of both political groups and the likely post electoral continuation of the polarization could bog down any such effort.

The Debt Challenge

One of the next government's toughest tasks will be the renegotiation of the gargantuan foreign debt, which is smothering any possibility of the country's recovery. No candidate has mentioned this intricate issue, despite its importance.

Nicaragua's current foreign debt is about $10 billion ($2,474 per capita), the same amount that Violeta Chamorro inherited upon taking office, despite all the payments that have been made and all the cuts and pardons that have been negotiated. It represents over five times the 1995 Gross Domestic Product, according to the classifications of the IMF, on a par with such unsustainable countries as Burundi or Mozambique. The debt reductions that the government has been achieving in recent years have been nullified by the contracting of new loans.

In the short run, the most urgent problem for the new government will be to restructure the priority payment of $300 million annually to which Nicaragua is already committed as debt service payments for the 1997 2001 period. Until the already anemic country stanches this ongoing hemorrhage of its national economy, there will not be much in the way of resources for agricultural credit, public investment, or any social spending.

Neither the debt issue nor the other serious economic challenges can be resolved rapidly. The political strength of the election winner and the confidence level that the new President can generate will be determinant. Only a government of national consensus and with the capacity to defend the country's sovereignty will be able to deal with all these challenges. Whoever wins will probably use up all of his five years in government just trying to prepare the ground for honesty, efficiency and the grassroots mobilization capacity required to begin to resolve them.

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