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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 270 | Enero 2004



The 2004 Municipal Elections: Is the Die Almost Cast?

The main outlines of the electoral scenario are now sketched in, offering a glimpse of what could follow November’s municipal elections. But we should always remember to expect that the unexpected might happen in Nicaragua

William Grigsby

It was no sudden attack of “democratitis” that made Arnoldo Alemán, Daniel Ortega and Enrique Bolaños back down from their attempts to strip the 2004 municipal elections of their independence and tack them on to the 2006 general elections. But whatever the motive, it is good news that the municipal elections will be held this year and that the Supreme Electoral Council is already calling on the country’s almost 3 million registered electors to go to the polls on Sunday, November 7, to elect the mayors, deputy mayors and councilors for the 152 local governments.

A different panorama,
three actors and a foreign referee

Most of the main outlines of the electoral scenario have already been sketched in, although we live in a country whose political dynamics are so incredibly intense that what’s true today could be undone tomorrow. While such imponderables make it premature to anticipate results, the kind of panorama that could emerge in less than 300 days time is discernable.

The electoral obsessions shared by the PLC and FSLN were signed and sealed in the 1999 pact hammered out between their respective leaders, Arnoldo Alemán and Daniel Ortega, then delivered by their respective National Assembly benches in a particularly specious brand of bipartisan rubber-stamp legislation. Their strategy was to impose themselves as the only political alternatives, in one blow eliminating almost all party competitors and removing the right of citizens who are not party activists to stand as independent candidates. For good measure, they shamelessly divvied up between them the decision-making posts in key institutions such as the Supreme Electoral Council and the Supreme Court.

Five years later, the panorama is a little different. While the pact’s political and legal atrocities are still essentially in force, the 2004 municipal elections could see the participation of around 30 parties that had previously lost their legal status, the Liberals are divided and society as a whole appears to be terminally fed up with the small-minded, corrupt and ambitious political class and an economic system that, while preaching welfare for all, has sunk the country into misery and desperation.

There will be three main horses in the upcoming municipal race—the government’s Grand Liberal Unity (GUL), the Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC) and the Sandi-nistas (FSLN), while the most notable also-rans will be the Conservative Party, Christian Way and the National Unity Party (formerly Movement). And for the umpteenth time in Nicaraguan history, the US government will referee with its customary fairness: razor claws to some and slaps on the back for others. For several months now, guidelines handed down by the delegates of the fanatical group currently directing US foreign policy have been tainting all of the moves by Nicaragua’s dominant political forces.

FSLN and PLC: 2004’s projections based on 2000’s results

There are several different interpretations of what a party needs to feel it has won the municipal elections. In the 2000 municipal elections, the Sandinistas won 52 municipal governments, the Liberals 94 and the Conservatives 5. Qualitatively, the FSLN came out on top, as it carried not only 11 of the 17 departmental capitals, but also 17 of the country’s 25 most populated cities. As a result it is currently governing over 60% of the national population. Those elections confirmed the Sandinistas as a hegemonic force in urban areas and the Liberals as such in the countryside. For the Liberals, then, it’s not enough to hold onto the relatively small rural governments they currently control; they need to win the greatest possible number of departmental capitals, particularly Managua, away from the FSLN. Home to a fifth of the national population, Managua will be the main battle; whoever wins it will be able to claim having won the elections as a whole. For the Sandinistas, it is a matter of life and death, in part because keeping it would be seen as rewarding Mayor Herty Lewites’ conciliatory administration and would put the FSLN in pole position for the 2006 presidential elections. For the same reasons, losing it would be catastrophic. As long as they win Managua, the Sandinistas would probably be content to simply hold the municipalities they currently control and with the help of their allies in the Convergence take a handful more.

It is still impossible to say with any certainty whether the Liberals will end up going into November’s elections divided into two forces—the PLC, controlled by the Alemán family, and the GUL, the recent creation of President Bolaños and his friends. In any event, it is most likely that the Sandinistas will repeat their 2000 triumph in the 11 departmental capitals they currently govern and take another 3. They could also win up to 60 or 70 of the smaller municipalities (compared to 41 in 2000).

The most crucial factor in enabling the Right to win a greater number of municipal governments and regain control of Managua, Matagalpa or Chinandega, for example, is not so much Liberal reunification, but simply that all of the anti-Sandinista forces agree to single candidates. This was demonstrated in 2000, when the candidates from the Conservative Party, and to a lesser extent from the Christian Way, took enough votes away from the PLC to give the Sandinistas a victory in at least 30 of the 52 municipalities they won.

This is precisely why US commanders have taken charge of Nicaragua’s domestic politics. While Colin Powell and his Cuban-American band in the State Department—those same wonderful people who brought us the war of aggression against Nicaragua in the eighties—are delighted that the governments elected between 1990 and 2001 have come from their circle of influence, they are determined to cut Sandinista influence down to a minimal expression, if not politically eradicate it. That overriding mania is why they openly leaned on the Liberal representatives to agree to the new parliamentary leadership, are encouraging the removal of Sandinistas from the judicial branch and are even willing to free the mega-corrupt Arnoldo Alemán. And the Nicaraguan army’s Sandinista roots are the original sin compelling these same people to promote its humiliating unilateral disarmament, despite the fact that it is the most upstanding, untainted, constitutionally-committed military force in the region.

It remains to be seen what the United States will do to get the Conservatives and other rightwing forces to climb on board. The FSLN’s gains in the 2000 municipal elections encouraged them to promote a single candidate in the 2001 general elections, when acting through Carlos Pellas—the all-powerful richest businessman in Central America—they sacrificed Conservative candidate Noel Vidaurre, even when the polls were showing he had the support of a fifth of the electorate. In exchange, Pellas was able to impose his candidate, Enrique Bolaños, on Alemán. Given the greater complexity of local elections, it will be very hard for the United States to impose single slates of anti-Sandinista candidates. What it might do, however, is promote an agreement among the rightwing parties to withdraw their respective candidates in municipalities where they have no real possibility of winning, or defer to the candidate registering highest in the polls.

What are Alemán and Bolaños after?

Aside from doing the US government’s bidding, Alemán and Bolaños have their own particular political needs, which create a difficult, although not necessarily conflicting, situation. The elections could be an ideal way to demonstrate which of the two currents has the backing of the Liberal grass roots, but the opportunity to play out this test will depend on how much pressure for reunification Washington exerts on the Liberals.

Both sides want to show which is the most powerful or most attractive to the citizenry, and both will do everything possible to demonstrate it. Each side has a respectable force behind it: Alemán has the party machinery and Bolaños is backed by US money and patronage. The PLC would prefer to go to the elections without Bolaños and his friends because, quite apart from the political vilifying that doing so would imply, the new mayors and the resources they administer would remain under PLC control. The President, on the other hand, is willing to consider reunification on the condition that he have at least partial control of the choice of candidates, the administration of the funds and the electoral strategy.

Alemán and Bolaños have conflicting criteria for selecting candidates, particularly those who will head the slates since the first on any list is an almost sure winner. The main criterion for Alemán is unconditional loyalty, demonstrated among other things by not being in the current government’s employ. For Bolaños, loyalty is demonstrated in exactly the opposite way. A proposal was voiced from the PLC ranks that candidates be elected via polls, bearing all comers in mind, regardless of their loyalties to one band or the other. And although the author of that novel idea was virtually trampled on for his audacity, it was later heard from the offices of “commander” Barbara Moore—the US ambassador—that this would be the Solomonic solution.

President Bolaños is using his privileged access to public funds as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the PLC. Alemán’s party is financially dry as it is now bereft of state resources and can no longer demand bribes from foreign investors, rely on the generosity of business leaders grouped in the private enterprise umbrella group COSEP or dip into Managua’s municipal coffers as it did when Alemán was mayor. Since it doesn’t have the capacity to organize a system of party dues to finance the electoral campaign, it will have to depend on whatever resources it might be able to extract from the National Assembly it now controls and on the personal fortune Alemán acquired while in office, but some of the latter is frozen and the rest has been somewhat shrunk by the costs of his legal defense.

The government has concealed millions in the budget

Bolaños, meanwhile, does have money available to him. He has backing from big financial capital and the rest of big business, headed up by the powerful Pellas group, and if that isn’t enough, he is as willing to use public funds to finance his campaign as Alemán was, first as mayor of Managua and then as head of state.

Since the end of last year, when Bolaños presented his national budget bill to the National Assembly, several independent economists have been accusing the government of deliberately concealing fiscal income amounting to at least a billion córdobas (nearly US$637,000) in the budget; they suggest that one of the reasons is to set money aside for the electoral campaign. University lecturer and doctor in economics Nestor Avendaño explains how the money is concealed: “The government has budgeted tax collection at 10.196 billion córdobas for 2004, the equivalent of US$640 million, equal to approximately 15% of the GDP. This percentage suggests that the projection for 2004 is incorrect, given that lsat year’s tax burden was around 16.4% of the GDP.”

Adolfo Acevedo, another well-known economist who is currently an adviser to the Civil Coordinator, confirmed this. According to Acevedo, “The projected tax collection can in no way be correct. It’s fraudulent. The program with the IMF is based on the tax burden remaining relatively stable during 2004 relative to 2003—in other words, 16.5% of the GDP. The projected drop is quite simply impossible. Following the 2003 tax reform, it was even expected that annual tax collection would increase by 1.2% of the GDP, which effectively exceeded the collection goals agreed with the IMF in August 2003, yet this is a projected drop in the 2004 budget equivalent to 1.5% of the GDP. This would only be hypothetically possible if there were a drastic economic contraction, but not with the predicted growth in the GDP. In fact, the least that can be expected is for tax collection to increase in proportion to the current GDP, keeping the tax burden stable. That’s what the empirical evidence suggests, without exception, throughout the world, including our country. It’s a basic rule. There is no way there can be such a drop in tax collection as a proportion of the GDP.”

Acevedo calculates that “if we apply the nominal GDP growth rate of 9.9% to the 2003 tax collection, it gives us a minimum expected collection of 11.2 billion córdobas for 2004, which would incidentally be equivalent to 16.5% of the GDP. In fact, while the government is budgeting just under 10.2 billion córdobas in tax collection, the target for 2004 agreed on with the IMF was 11.35 billion córdobas. In other words, the government is budgeting over a billion córdobas in collection less than the minimum expected and the target agreed with the IMF.”

The government evidently decided to conceal this amount with the IMF’s express consent. So the question is, what will it be used for? There are three possible answers: to finance the Liberals’ electoral campaign, regardless of which group ends up being backed; to be embezzled and distributed among those in power; or to be magically conjured up in the middle of the budgetary implementation and assigned to the government’s political priorities, such as paying bankers the interest due on the domestic debt. There may even be a fourth possibility: some combination of the above three.

A breath of fresh air from the municipal governments

Other elements that the President will surely exploit include projects implemented with fiscal funds through the Emergency Social Investment Fund or other governmental bodies with a municipal presence. These will be used in an attempt to influence the electorate in specific municipalities, in accord with his party interests and how the campaign develops.

Bolaños also has another magnificently handy tool at his disposal: assignation of the foreign resources earmarked for the municipalities. The Sandinistas recently charged that the government’s Municipal Development Institute (INIFOM) had shared out some US$3 million donated by Holland for municipal investments, favoring Liberal-run local governments. Although the official behavior was nothing new, the reaction of the country’s mayors, grouped together in the Association of Nicaraguan Municipalities (AMUNIC), certainly was. Pro-Alemán, pro-Bolaños, Conservative and Sandinista mayors alike rejected the government’s political criteria and demanded that distribution be proportional to the population and income of each municipal government. AMUNIC’s decision is much more important than it may first appear, as it reflects a newfound maturity among local leaders. This is undoubtedly an encouraging development, a breath of fresh air in the stiflingly chaotic national political situation. It also vindicates those voices in society that have been vigorously opposing postponement of the municipal elections because it annuls their independence from the general elections. These reactions demonstrate that the nature and dynamic of national affairs are different than local ones—which have been growing increasingly less polarized.

The Alemán factor and the US and GUL calculations

One sector of GUL leaders, including INIFOM president Alejandro Fiallos and Eduardo Urcuyo, who is in charge of the telecommunications regulatory agency (TELCOR), does not expect that Washington will veto the participation of two Liberal groupings. They believe that their US patrons will leave them enough maneuvering room, given that the presidency is not at stake in this year’s elections. But one thing seems certain: if the GUL and the PLC go their separate ways, the GUL candidates would have a very hard time winning a single municipal government, which would be a humiliating defeat for Bolaños. The problem is not that his group lacks supporters, but that the historic behavior of the party rank and file in Nicaragua is to end up voting for those proposed by their party. And the Liberal party with vastly the most grassroots support is Alemán’s PLC. The most optimistic Bolaños supporters are hoping to win over a third of the Liberal electorate and thus stop their PLC adversaries from exceeding or even equaling their 2000 results. According to their calculations, this would put them in a better position to later negotiate with Alemán over control of the party and candidacies for the 2006 presidential and legislative elections, even at the price of Sandinista municipal victories.

The key factor here is whether Alemán goes free or remains in prison. Up to now, Bolaños has said he will not support any exoneration of his former political mentor, whether through parole, pardon or a judicial ruling. But following General Collin Powell’s visit to Managua, the US Embassy has been eloquently and embarrassingly silent on the Bolaños administration’s fight against corruption. Various sources have revealed that Ambassador Moore has discussed the political conditions under which the Liberal caudillo would be allowed to go free. The US government is apparently convinced that Alemán has won the internal battle of the Liberals and is so strong that it would be impossible to think about winning the elections without taking him into account.

One of Washington’s envoys has even supposedly told President Bolaños in private that he ought to reconsider his position, given Alemán’s total control of the party and his unassailable leadership among the Liberal grass roots. The official allegedly told Bolaños that the “democrats” need Alemán’s influence to stop the Sandinistas from winning ground. Based on this premise, the State Department apparently reached an agreement with the PLC not to meddle in any legislative or judicial initiative aimed at exonerating Alemán. But it did so on two conditions: that both the party and its 42 parliamentary representatives back all of the executive branch’s initiatives and that, once free, Alemán let Bolaños govern unhindered. Quite apart from the severe consequences for the country’s democratic life and for Bolaños himself, Alemán’s release and exoneration would be an unequivocal sign that only one Liberal party will be contesting the elections on November 7.

While the United States makes up its mind...

While the United States was making up its mind, the two Liberal groupings have already launched multiple candidacies in each municipality. In Managua, the PLC candidacy is being disputed by both Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, Jr., a minister and an ambassador in the Alemán government, and Víctor Guerrero, a parliamentary representative more closely linked to Alemán, with whom he was implicated in acts of corruption while working under him when Alemán was mayor of Managua in the early nineties. Both Chamorro and Guerrero need Alemán’s express approval and both know what is required of them to achieve his much-desired blessing. Bolaños’ supporters have proposed Leonel Téller, a former representative and an ambassador during the Alemán government before he was dismissed. Although each of these three hopefuls has financed polls to make him appear to be in first place, the fact is that none has enough charisma and personal electoral capital to impose his candidacy in either the PLC or the GUL, let alone as a single Liberal candidate.

The PLC leaders closest to Alemán are warning that their leader will endorse no one until the die is cast; in other words, until it is known for sure whether there will be unified Liberal candidacies. Of course, Alemán sees his own liberty as nonnegotiable and his decisions will be directly linked to achieving it.

What will all the other parties do?

If the Liberals are to make headway against the Sandinistas, it is not enough to present single candidacies; they must work out some deal with the Conservative Party (PC), which will try to hang on to the five municipalities it is currently governing and could win three to five more, mainly in the departments of Chontales and Boaco. The Conservatives are also aspiring to equal or improve their results in Managua, although the final decision is not up to their leaders, but rather their owners, the Pellas family, which will also be acting in line with US interests. In 2000 businessman William Báez, the Conservative candidate, managed to pull 25% of the Managua vote, exploiting the rightwing electorate’s discontent with the Alemán government, marked as it was by the embezzlement and squandering of money.

The Conservatives have two possible options for forming an alliance: with the Liberals, if they run as a united front, and with Bolaños if the Liberals go into the elections divided. Their positive showing in Managua in 2000 is their main bargaining chip in negotiations with the Liberals, although the most probable scenario is that they will decide their alliances according to the municipality, rather than at the national level.

The fourth rightwing political party with its own electoral capital is the Christian Way. Its leaders, headed by Reverend Guillermo Osorno, are fierce defenders of Alemán and passionate supporters of the United States. They gave their best showing in the 1996 general elections, when they managed to attract over 4% of the votes and set up their own parliamentary bench. But neither in that year nor in 2000 were they able to win even one municipal government. In the 2001 general elections they ran as part of the PLC-headed Liberal Alliance and ended up with four parliamentary representatives. Although there is no perceivable growth in their electoral strength, their traditional voters could make the difference between victory and defeat for the Liberals in at least a dozen municipalities. It is most likely that Osorno will decide to negotiate Municipal Council candidates with the PLC, and the most that he can hope for are some candidacies for deputy mayor.

There are around twenty other rightwing parties, but they will have a hard job even finding candidates for more than half a dozen municipalities. They will almost certainly try to tag on to one of the national groups and form alliances whose only advantage would be the appearance of strength provided by the alphabet soup.

A new actor with no roots and a coastal one with plenty

The new force emerging on the electoral stage is the National Unity Party, whose founder and solitary leadership figure is retired general Joaquín Cuadra Lacayo, former head of the army and one of the most distinguished guerrilla commanders from the anti-Somoza struggle. Although his party managed to nominally organize leadership boards in all municipalities as required by the electoral law, it still lacks grassroots support and its participation in these elections will be crucial in determining its political future.

Despite its founder’s Sandinista origins, it is politically center-right and Cuadra’s business partnerships with certain bankers have also been transferred into the political sphere. In Managua, the party is running Rafael Córdova Álvarez, a young lawyer and former official at the Office of Comptroller General. Politically conservative, Córdova has distinguished himself through frequent appearances on television and in the newspapers thanks to a discourse critical of the Alemán-Ortega pact, supportive of the government and opposed to Alemán’s corruption. He would have a hard job pulling 5% of the votes.

In the Caribbean coast regions, where things are very different, other political forces will also play a part in the proceedings. The autochthonous regional parties permitted in both the North and South Autonomous Atlantic Regions (RAAN and RAAS, respectively), particularly Yatama, are capable of disputing certain municipal governments. In the 2000 municipal elections, Yatama was unable to take any of the six local governments in the RAAN, where it has its greatest strength, due to the Supreme Electoral Council’s illegitimate decision to disqualify it, leaving the way clear for the Liberal candidates. The result, however, differed from Alemán’s original expectations. The army had to be called in to deal with the justifiable fury of the local people and guarantee that the elections would be held and the Caribbean regions registered an abstention rate of over 60%.

In the forthcoming elections, Yatama hopes to win Bilwi (Puerto Cabezas), the capital of the RAAN, in what promises to be a tough battle against the Sandinistas, with whom they will also lock horns for control of Waspán, the municipality for the Río Coco indigenous communities, and Bonanza, a mining municipality further inland. The Liberals will be their main opponents in the municipality of Prinzapolka, while Waslala, the westernmost, essentially mestizo municipality in the RAAN, will be disputed by all three of the main national parties—Liberals, Sandinistas and Conservatives—while the FSLN will surely repeat its 2000 triumph in Rosita, another mining municipality.

In the RAAS, it is less likely that the local forces will be able to displace the national parties, with the exception of Corn Island and Pearl Lagoon, although they have appreciable support in Bluefields and Kukra Hill, where the Liberals and Sandinistas are also strong. In the rest of the Caribbean region, the Liberals tend to clean up in Bocana de Paiwas, La Cruz de Río Grande, El Tortuguero, Muelle de los Bueyes, Nueva Guinea and La Desembocadura de Río Grande, almost all of which have predominately mestizo populations of relatively recent arrival.

Mixed tickets: The Sandinista electoral strategy

On the national level, the only center-left force is the FSLN. And while the top leadership may dispute that political definition, which has been the subject of extensive essays and analyses, its grassroots base is undeniably defined as anti-imperialist and even socialist in the broadest sense of the word.

This year, for the first time since it lost office in 1990, the FSLN has adopted an electoral strategy and designed a plan of action in advance. The strategy is based on the party’s alliance with the National Convergence, which is made up of a handful of small political groupings, including the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), born of an FSLN split following its 1994 congress, and the Social Christian Party, plus an appreciable contingent of former contra commanders. The main Convergence figures include former Sandinista guerrilla leader and health minister Dora María Téllez; former comptroller general Agustín Jarquín Anaya, a Social Christian who is currently Ortega’s alternate in the National Assembly; Conservative lawyer Miriam Argüello, a former National Assembly president; and former world boxing champion Alexis Argüello. An interesting side note is that the last three in that list were all adversely affected by decisions taken by the Sandinista government. Jarquín and Miriam Argüello were both imprisoned for six months for organizing a demonstration during the state of emergency in the late eighties, while Alexis Argüello had all of his properties confiscated due to his links with the Somoza dictatorship.

The Sandinista leadership has made two fundamental decisions for these elections, the first within their own ranks and the other related to their allies in the Convergence. Internally, general secretary Daniel Ortega has taken it upon himself to clearly signal his personal choices as candidates in those municipalities considered key election targets, such as Managua, León and Matagalpa. He has also drastically reduced the ambit from which candidates can emerge, under the strict control of retired colonel Lenín Cerna and his dreaded party apparatus. Although the FSLN has theoretically retained the mechanism of primary elections, previously known as the Popular Consultation, which will be held on different dates during March, each departmental party structure will be responsible for filtering potential nominees, who then must be approved by the national command headed by Ortega and Cerna. While the fundamental requirement will be loyalty to the general secretary, the leadership will have to indulge certain colleagues, such as Tomás Borge, and will have to bear in mind the interests of departmental-level power groups in order to satisfy all appetites, maintain internal cohesion and ensure that everyone gets down to work on the electoral campaign. On the departmental level, for example, the matter of an old and fierce battle involving Cerna on one side and CSE magistrate Emmett Lang and parliamentary representative Elías Chévez on the other will have to be carefully negotiated in Managua.

Criteria, conditions and conceptions

The FSLN also drew up regulations establishing the formal and political requirements for competing. Article 21, for example, says that only FSLN members with ten years of uninterrupted membership can stand as pre-candidates for mayor or deputy mayor, while those who want to run as councilors and alternate councilors must have seven years. Article 45, in the chapter on disqualifications, was copied from the regulations that governed the 2000 and 2001 internal elections and allowed the purging of leaders and activists opposed to the pact. It states, “All members of the Sandinista Front who violate the statutes, who attack or denigrate the party, its institutions, its leadership and its members in general, through whatever verifiable means, lose their party rights.” But who determines the difference between criticism and attack, between questioning and denigrating? And what are the parameters for measuring its verifiability?

One more pearl. Article 29, which establishes the formal requirements for pre-candidates, places affiliation to trade union organizations “recognized” by the FSLN on the same level as party activism. It states that militancy can be proved by presenting a reference from one’s respective political secretary, or failing that, by “presenting written proof of having been an active member of a union organization recognized by the National Sandinista Council, signed by the national secretary of said organization.” This article reveals the conception still prevailing in the top Sandinista leadership regarding the hierarchy of the social movements and the fragile autonomy of those whose leaders are party activists.

Defining FSLN and Convergence candidacies

With respect to its allies in the Convergence, however, the FSLN has imposed pragmatic candidacy selection criteria. Thus in those municipalities where it won the last elections or lost by less than 5% of the votes but had previously been in control, a Sandinista will head the ticket with an ally standing for deputy mayor. Combined criteria—including polls—will be applied to select the ticket in municipalities that the FSLN lost by between 5% and 10% in the last elections. In all cases where it never won and lost last time by over 10%, the allies will provide the mayoral candidates.

In cases in which an ally is supposed to head the ticket, it is still possible that a Sandinista or an independent might do so, as the text uses the phrase “the alliance will be favored,” a term that is not at all binding. And given that the National Convergence is never mentioned by name, the door is left open for the selection of personalities with no traditional links to any party. On the compensatory side, it is established that the departmental leadership “will be able to propose to the Ad Hoc Commission that the ticket consist of two allies in those municipalities in which it is in the FSLN’s interests to pursue that electoral strategy.” It will also “be able to propose alliance candidates for mayor in municipalities governed by a Sandinista, but where it is considered that an alliance candidate is the best electoral option, with the position of deputy mayor going to the FSLN.”

The regulations state that “the Ad Hoc Commission will be formed on the national level to bestow backing in the case of alliance candidates for the post of mayor or deputy mayor.” It “will be presided over by the general secretary of the FSLN and coordinated by the Department of Organization, and will include the head of the Department of Organization [Lenín Cerna], the departmental political secretary, a representative from the National Convergence, the national Organization executive [retired general Álvaro Baltodano], the FSLN’s representative to the Convergence, the municipal political secretary and the president of the Legal and Ethical Affairs Commission.”

The following mechanisms have been established for selecting alliance candidates for mayor and deputy mayor: “a) the alliance candidate runs in the primary elections on a closed ticket with the Sandinista candidate; b) the alliance candidates participate in the primary elections on separate ballots [in which] the definitive ticket will consist of the first-place alliance candidate and the first-place Sandinista candidate; c) in those municipalities where there are difficulties for the alliance candidates to accept running in the primary, the mechanism of selection by poll can be used. The candidate who ends up in first place will be included on the definitive ticket alongside the winning Sandinista candidate in the primary elections; and, d) consensus mechanisms in the Ad Hoc Commission.” In contrast, it decrees that “the candidacies for councilors are open. Alliance candidates who fulfill the requirements established for the allies can participate in the primary elections under equal conditions.”

The FSLN gets 71 mayoral candidates and the Convergence gets 69

In line with these criteria, the FSLN reserved the right to head the tickets in 71 municipalities, including eight of the departmental capitals it is currently governing: Ocotal, Somoto, Estelí, Chinandega, León, Managua, Matagalpa and Puerto Cabezas. The other municipalities are Jalapa, El Jícaro, Telpaneca, San Lucas, Las Sabanas, Condega, Pueblo Nuevo, San Juan de Limay, San Nicolás, El Viejo, Chichigalpa, Somotillo, Villanueva, Posoltega, Puerto Morazán, Corinto, El Realejo, San Francisco del Norte, San Pedro del Norte, Cinco Pinos, Malpaisillo-Larreynaga, La Paz Centro, Santa Rosa del Peñón, Quezalguaque, Nagarote, El Sauce, El Jicaral, Achuapa, Telica, Tipitapa, Ciudad Sandino, Mateare, San Rafael del Sur, Ticuantepe, San Francisco Libre, Masatepe, Niquinohomo, Tisma, Catarina, Diriamba, San Marcos, Dolores, La Paz de Carazo, El Rosario, Diriomo, Nandaime, San Juan del Sur, Cárdenas, Altagracia, Belén, Tola, Potosí, La Libertad, San Ramón, San Isidro, Tuma La Dalia, Muy Muy, La Concordia, Puerto Cabezas, Waspán, Bonanza, Rosita, El Castillo and San Miguelito.

The allies from the National Convergence, meanwhile, will head the mayoral ticket in 69 municipalities, including four departmental capitals that the FSLN has never won: Boaco, Rivas, Masaya and Granada. The other municipalities are Quilalí, Wiwilí-Nueva Segovia, Murra, Mozonte, Ciudad Antigua, Macuelizo, Santa María, Totogalpa, San Juan de Río Coco, Yalagüina, Palacagüina, La Trinidad, Santo Tomás del Norte, Villa Carlos Fonseca, El Crucero, Nindirí, San Juan de Oriente, La Concepción, La Conquista, Diriá, Moyogalpa, San Jorge, Buenos Aires, Nueva Guinea, El Rama, Muelle de los Bueyes, Acoyapa, Santo Tomás, Villa Sandino, Santo Domingo, Comalapa, San Pedro de Lóvago, El Coral, San Francisco de Cuapa, El Ayote, Camoapa, Teustepe, San Lorenzo, Santa Lucía, San José de Los Remates, Río Blanco, Sébaco, Rancho Grande, Terrabona, San Dionisio, Matiguás, Ciudad Darío, Waslala, El Cuá Bocay, Wiwilí-Jinotega, Santa María de Pantasma, San Sebastián de Yalí, San Rafael del Norte, San José de Bocay, Siuna, Prinzapolka, Paiwas, La Cruz de Río Grande, El Tortuguero, Laguna de Perlas, Corn Island, Desembocadura de Río Grande, Morrito, San Juan del Norte and El Almendro.

It has yet to be decided who will provide the candidates in the three other departmental capitals currently under FSLN control—Juigalpa, San Carlos and Bluefields—as well as Jinotepe, a departmental capital that the FSLN lost for the first time in the last elections—and Jinotega—where it has always lost by a narrow margin. Also on the undecided list are the municipalities of San Fernando, Dipilto, San José de Cusmapa, Nandasmo, Santa Teresa, Esquipulas and Kukra Hill.

A big challenge for the Convergence
and a new possibility for the FSLN

Beyond legitimate questioning of the authoritarian procedures employed by the FSLN top leadership, severe ideological reservations about the interests it is effectively defending and its pendular positions on the country’s economic and political situation, it must be admitted that Ortega and his group have acted astutely and very pragmatically on this particular occasion. And in so doing, they have challenged the Convergence to demonstrate that they are more than just a group of brilliant personalities. In the strategy that has been drawn up, the allies are obliged to win at least a third of the municipalities where they’ll top the slate, particularly the four departmental capitals that the Sandinistas haven’t won since 1990. If they do so, they will create a privileged position from which to negotiate joint slates for National Assembly representatives with Ortega for the 2006 elections and possibly even fight for the presidential nomination. But if they fail, the FSLN will be in a position to cast aside with little explanation a group of allies considered a political burden by an important sector of the party and a bunch of opportunists by others.

The two main groups in the Convergence, the Social Christians and the MRS, are in the best position to exploit the doors opened by the FSLN and place their main cadres as candidates for mayor or deputy mayor, posts they could then use to help catapult their growth as parties. Paradoxically, neither of these two political groupings has enough grassroots support in most of the municipalities where they will head up the municipal tickets; both are strongest in the west and Managua, where Sandinista power is indisputable.

The alliance provides the Sandinistas the possibility of governing peasant-based municipalities where they would have trouble making any real advances on their own in the medium run. This is partly because of the still-fresh memories of the war of the eighties and the FSLN’s disastrous agricultural policies, and partly that they have been unable to put together a national policy aimed at defending the interests of peasants and agricultural workers.

FSLN: A favorable setting

In addition to Ortega’s astute decisions, the FSLN also has a very favorable economic and social panorama, given the Bolaños government’s political ineptness, its objective decline and the division among the Liberals. The Sandinista caudillo also managed to exit gracefully from the renewed pact negotiations with Alemán in November and December when they threatened to backfire on him. It wasn’t that Ortega was unwilling to listen to repeated Liberal proposals to make a fresh start, but rather that he couldn’t reach an agreement on what he would get in return. While he maintained a dual policy for months, which even included declarations of sympathy for Alemán by certain recognized leaders, Judge Juana Méndez’s December 7 sentence and its subsequent ratification by the Managua Appeals Court in January have allowed Ortega to retrieve the anti-corruption banner, which he is almost certain to use for his own electoral advantage.

Meanwhile, the open US intervention in the country’s political affairs is allowing Ortega to unfurl his anti-imperialist banner again as well. It had been tucked away for years, as railing against Washington’s odious imposition of neoliberal economic policies as the modern way of pursuing its neocolonial conquest went against his group’s own economic interests.

FSLN: Clear victory or clear defeat

Given the current conditions, it would not be adventurous to state that if the Right goes to the elections divided in at least two camps (PLC and GUL) or even three (PLC, GUL and Conservatives), the FSLN has a real shot at repeating its victories in Managua, León, Chinandega, Matagalpa, Estelí, Somoto, Ocotal, Puerto Cabezas and San Carlos, and of retaking Jinotepe. Its allies will determine whether it holds on to Bluefields and Juigalpa and wins Jinotega and Granada, but even they will be hard put to win Boaco, Masaya and Rivas for the FSLN. Of the 25 most economically or demographically important municipalities, it is very probable that, in addition to the departmental capitals mentioned above, the FSLN will also win Jalapa, Corinto, Chichigalpa, Condega, El Viejo, Tipitapa, Ciudad Sandino, Masatepe and Nandaime. It might also be able to hold onto at least 30 other local governments and win some 12 to 15 new ones, particularly in the departments of Masaya, Carazo, Granada, Rivas and Matagalpa.

But if the Right unites, the FSLN is sure to lose, including in Managua. The main obstacle that the FSLN/Convergence alliance will have to overcome is hostile US policy. Even if the Right does go into the elections divided, it could do relative damage, given that with the obvious exception of Managua, this face-off doesn’t necessarily affect the electorate in municipal life.

“Managua, Nicaragua, is a wonderful town…”

In the coveted and much-disputed capital, the Sandinistas are favored by the good administration of Mayor Herty Lewites, whose most important contribution has been to do away with corruption as a style of government. Although some of his officials have not been free from justifiable accusations of suspicious operations, the mayor and the municipal government as a whole have managed to reverse the civic perception that the Managua municipal government is inevitably the way to enrich the ruling mayor and party. Lewites has also substantially increased tax collection, gone a long way towards resolving the garbage collection problem, rehabilitated thousands of kilometers of deteriorated streets, put great effort into maintaining the precarious balance established with the unions of all political stripes and known how to deal with the bothersome and at times intransigent urban transport companies.

Add to that the intelligent handling of his relation with Bolaños—they refer to each other as “my friend”—and his administration’s non-confrontational style, and it gives the FSLN an excellent starting point from which to regain control of the capital. While the Managua mayoral candidate designated by Ortega—Dionisio Marenco—is not a charismatic politician, a suitable electoral marketing strategy could neutralize this. Marenco will try to balance this negative aspect with his undeniable organizational capacity and his new municipal knowledge, the result of many months spent studying successful experiences in Brazil and other countries. His running mate, Alexis Argüello, on the other hand, is popular among the grassroots electorate, not only because of his extraordinary boxing career—the best in the country’s history—but also because of his humble origins and his permanent links to the popular sectors.

Judging by the 2000 results, if the Right unites, the FSLN will need to win in Managua by an absolute majority. The main obstacle to this will not be its ticket, its platform or Levites’ administration, but rather good, old-fashioned fear. The Right will once again play on the fears still latent in the collective memory of an important sector of the electorate. It tried to do so in 2000, and if we add the 29% that voted for the PLC that year to the 25% won by the Conservative candidate, we could even say that it succeeded.

A formidable opportunity for the FSLN

This electoral year also provides the Sandinistas an opportunity to reverse their pathetic political performance of the past eight years. This includes not only the real possibility of emerging as the strongest party, but also how it goes about doing it. As things are done back to front in today’s FSLN, an intense participatory process could be sparked among the citizens in each municipality once the candidates have been elected, in which they evaluate the outgoing administration and propose a new program for the incoming one. This would lay the foundations for people’s effective involvement in the management of their own local government and consolidate the democratic and participatory process, regardless of who then wins the elections. But will they prove capable of exploiting this formidable opportunity?

William Grigsby Vado is a Nicaraguan journalist.

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