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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 278 | Septiembre 2004


Central America

The Northwest, North and Center North: Electoral Analysis and Forecasts

The upcoming municipal elections mark the second time they have been held independently of the presidential ones. This will help us see voters’ real interest in local affairs. The following brief analysis forecasts a few of the results we can expect.

William Grigsby

The elections to decide who will run Nicaragua’s 152 municipalities will be held on November 7. And while the politically important Managua municipal government will continue to be the center of attention, other important contests include the remaining 14 departmental capitals, the capitals of the two Caribbean coast regions and a further 20 municipalities with over 40,000 inhabitants. The 13 registered parties and alliances know that while it’s important to win the greatest number of local governments possible, they also know they’ll achieve greater impact by controlling the most densely populated and those with the greatest financial resources.

What has changed four years on?

In the 2000 municipal elections, marked by an abstention rate of over 44%, the Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC) took 94 municipal governments with 636,865 votes, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) 52 with 618,821 and the Conservative Party 5 with 68,183. Although the Liberals won the vast majority of the country’s rural areas, the FSLN took the main urban centers, among them 11 of the 17 municipalities that are also departmental capitals, including Managua. This means it has been governing almost 60% of the national population for the past four years, thanks to the Conservative Party, which, while winning fewer than 3% of the municipal governments, siphoned off enough of the votes that had gone to the PLC in 1996 in places such as Managua, Matagalpa and Chinandega to stop the Liberals from winning them again. Mapping the areas taken by the different parties during both those elections clearly demonstrated an anti-Sandinista feeling in the zones most seriously affected by the war and economic crisis of the eighties.

So just how much has the situation changed four years on? The most important change is the array of parties. Only four competed in 2000, thanks to the Ortega–Alemán pact. In contrast, nine parties and four alliances will fight it out this time, including three from the Caribbean autonomous regions. Each was assigned a numbered box on the ballot (see table on this page).

There’s no guarantee that the abstention rate will fall. These are only the second municipal elections held independently of the general ones—the first were in 2000—and will be crucial in measuring the degree of civic interest in local affairs. Those in 2000 were influenced by the devastating effects of the PCS-FSLN pact, which both removed dozens of small parties from the democratic equation and rescinded candidates’ right to run independently, under the “popular subscription” mechanism, if they could present a petition backing their candidacy with a set number of signatures. This time around, more parties have been allowed to participate again, although the popular subscription mechanism has not been reintroduced.

The campaign officially opens on September 26, 42 days before election day, but all of the parties and alliances started producing different kinds of propaganda months ago in an effort to win over the undecided. According to the polls, 40% of the over 3.25 million registered voters have still not decided, and they are concentrated in Managua, the departmental capitals and the 36 municipalities with over 40,000 inhabitants—in other words, predominantly municipalities currently run by FSLN mayors.

There will be 10,477 voting stations, with a maximum of 400 voters assigned to each and an average of 316. Among the 3,306,305 eligible voters, over 300,000 will vote for the first time this year, either because they were under the legal voting age of 16 during the last elections or because they only managed to get their voter registration card in time to participate this time around. Some 200,000 voter identity cards have not yet been collected from the municipal offices of the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) across the country, according to its magistrates (all seven of whom have hung on to their posts despite severe criticism for corruption and/or political partiality). Many of these cards probably belong to people who have emigrated to Costa Rica, where 679,122 Nicaraguans reside legally and many others illegally, other Central American countries or the United States.

PLC vs. FSLN and the
ins and outs of alliances

One political incentive to vote could be to use the ballot box to express dissatisfaction with the performance of Enrique Bolaños’ government, but even when that is not the case, the two main parties, the FSLN and the PLC, will probably be the biggest winners. The elections provide a measure of their respective strength against each other and, perhaps more importantly, against the government. One of Alemán’s main objectives is to crush the governing “party”—the Alliance for the Republic (APRE), created after Bolaños’ anti-corruption drive led the PLC to declare itself in opposition even though Bolaños won the 2001 presidential elections on its ticket.

APRE is a sui generis hodgepodge of Liberals, Conservatives and former FSLN sympathizers whose common denominator is that they reject Liberal caudillo Alemán and back Enrique Bolaños. Those involved with APRE hope to create a “third way” alternative that demonstrates enough strength in these municipal elections to cut some deal with the PLC for unifying the anti-Sandinista vote in the 2006 general elections, with the shared objective of stopping the FSLN from taking power. APRE is strong enough at least to give the FSLN and PLC a run for their money in the race for Managua and the other 20 important municipalities, but it would be surprising if it bettered the 5 local governments currently run by the Conservative Party, which is now part of APRE.

Although there have been no real ideological changes and the country remains polarized between the FSLN and the PLC, the general panorama appears to favor a repeated Sandinista triumph in most of the biggest population centers. The FSLN will probably also take 20 to 25 of the 94 smaller municipal governments currently under PLC control, ending up with 70 to 75 local administrations across the country.

This year, the FSLN is running some candidates from the Convergence, an alliance with the FSLN formed for the 2001 presidential elections, which, as hodgepodges go, is not unlike the one that makes up APRE; it ranges from famous figures who opposed the revolution during the eighties to former FSLN members. The Convergence, however, has a much heavier concentration of Sandinistas because their current party affiliation, the Sandinista Renovation Movement, allied as a party, not as individuals. The Convergence has consolidated itself over the past three years and is providing the candidates for important municipalities such as Masaya, Granada, Jinotepe, Rivas and Juigalpa. In many towns and cities, in fact, the candidates running on the FSLN ticket are not even from the Convergence, but are rather important local figures, some of them traditional Liberals.

The PLC has not only failed to preserve its alliances with the Christian Way, a number of different Liberal factions and the Nicaraguan Resistance, but is itself running as a divided force under Arnoldo Alemán’s unhealthy leadership. Alemán made sure he personally designated each and every candidate, guaranteeing that only his unconditional supporters would run, even at the risk of losing certain municipalities, as appears likely in Chinandega.

The FSLN is also favored by the deterioration affecting the image of Enrique Bolaños’ Liberal government, which almost 70% of the electorate perceives negatively. But perhaps the most important element in the FSLN’s favor is the excellent performance of its municipal governments during the past four years. With few exceptions, the Sandinista-run mayor’s offices have done a very good job, something explicitly recognized by the citizens of many municipalities, including Matagalpa, Estelí, Managua, Nagarote, El Viejo, Tipitapa and San Rafael del Sur. The success of these outgoing administrations makes the work of trying to convince voters much easier, as the campaign can promise that a new FSLN administration will keep up the good work. The one exception, perhaps, is Managua, where mayor Herty Lewites has chosen to milk the applause for his good administration for his own benefit rather than the FSLN’s.

The municipal governments elected on November 7 will have far more resources with which to improve their municipalities than in the past. This year the municipalities started receiving 4% of the national budget and that will rise to 10% by 2010. The governments elected four years ago started out only receiving about 1% in central government transfers.

The following is an examination of the prevailing electoral conditions in the country’s northwest (León and Chinandega), north (Madriz, Estelí and Nueva Segovia) and center-north (Matagalpa and Jinotega) departments and their main municipalities, against the backdrop of the above-mentioned conditions.

The northwest: A Sandinista fiefdom

Nicaragua’s northwestern region (León and Chinandega) has been the FSLN’s main electoral bastion. The FSLN currently runs 11 of the 13 municipalities in Chinandega (it only lost Cinco Pinos and Santo Tomás del Norte, both of which border Honduras) and 7 of the 10 municipalities in León (losing in La Paz Centro, Achuapa and El Jicaral). In the general elections the following year, the FSLN topped its performance in 2000 by winning an absolute majority in both departments, despite losing by 14% on the national level. The only other department where this was repeated was Estelí.

Chinandega: Big problems

Because of their importance, the most hotly disputed municipalities in Chinandega will be the departmental capital (also called Chinandega) and Corinto, which has Nicaragua’s main port; the FSLN holds the advantage in both places. While it could retake Cinco Pinos, it will have its work cut out winning Santo Tomás del Norte. It is also in danger of losing Posoltega, as the Sandinista mayor elected two years after Hurricane Mitch is reputed not to have made the best use of the funds that followed the devastating mudslide that put that tiny municipality on the world map.

In Chinandega, the country’s fourth most populated city, serious internal divisions led to the FSLN’s mayoral defeat in the 1996 elections. In fact, two Sandinista candidates ran that year, one for the party and another as a popular subscription candidate. There was a real chance of something similar happening in 2000 until Daniel Ortega stepped in to impose businessman Carlos Alemán as the candidate for mayor, even though he was not a party activist. Alemán won, as voters punished the PLC for its terrible municipal administration.

Carlos Alemán’s main merit as mayor has been his honesty. People in Chinandega City comment that he didn’t need to steal anything because he or members of his family have won the lottery jackpot four times and have invested the money well. After the previous Liberal administration under Rodolfo Gríos spent four years plundering the municipal coffers, leaving the municipality with a debt of over US$2 million according to the 2000 exchange rate, Alemán’s administration mainly concentrated on paying off debts and maintaining the basic infrastructure.

The city’s growth in recent years has been spectacular but chaotic. According to the last national census, the municipality had 118,078 inhabitants in 1995. In the nine years since then, the population has grown by 32.64%, reaching a total of 156,617. Of this population, 71% lives in the city’s 35 urban neighborhoods and 29% in the municipality’s 25 rural districts.

Chinandega has serious social and structural problems, including a disordered and unhealthy central market, an obsolete road network, ruined rural roads, chaotic urban growth, mounting public safety problems and prostitution. The outgoing mayor has been unable to tackle any of these problems, and they should form the basis of any party’s platform, including the FSLN’s.

The FSLN and PLC candidates in Chinandega

Julio Velásquez Bustamante, a former tax office employee born in the rural district of San Benito who has twice been elected as municipal councilor, won the FSLN’s primary elections, beating out Isaac Travers Zeledón, who has strong social influence thanks to his work as Red Cross president and his commercial and sesame businesses. Velásquez represents the party apparatus and has served as Municipal Council secretary in the current administration, a post that has enabled him to project himself and earn the sympathy of key sectors, such as local merchants.

Velásquez also had the total backing of the party apparatus, strictly controlled by FSLN legislator Marcelino García, currently quite a tycoon in the department of Chinandega thanks to his absolute control of all the businesses left in the hands of local unions following the privatization accords of 1990 and 1991. While Chinandega’s population doesn’t question the Sandinista ticket, many wonder if the FSLN wouldn’t have a better chance of winning an absolute majority if the ticket were reversed, with Travers running for mayor and Velásquez for deputy mayor.

On the PLC side of things, the sector faithful to ex-President Arnoldo Alemán opted for Ileana Morice Thompson, a bilingual executive secretary who is over 70 years old. Educated in the United States, Thompson was deputy mayor during Gríos’ corrupt administration and is married to one of Alemán’s most trusted followers in the department, National Assembly representative Noel Pereira Majano. Although famous for her anti-communist stance, Morice has recently taken to railing against the rich, whom she identifies as the founders of Bolaños’ APRE alliance.

Morice’s running mate is Bayardo Romero, owner of the city’s main supermarket, among other commercial businesses. In 2000, when Romero’s costly primary campaign to win the FSLN candidacy came to nothing, he ran as the Christian Way candidate, pulling in over 6,000 votes, almost 21% of the total. Fully aware of how disastrous Griós’ Liberal administration was, although as his deputy mayor she did nothing about it, Morice insists she is honest and never stole anything. To her credit, she also admits that the current Sandinista mayor is honorable and has run a good ship.

APRE in Chinandega City

The mayoral candidate being pushed by APRE’s “rich” is Iván Orlando Vaca Martínez, a prosperous cattle rancher and grower with no previous political experience, whose running mate is Edgar Altamirano Sobalvarro. Ironically, the main strength of this ticket is also its most serious weakness: the political backing of the Bolaños government. It does not help that the candidates are financed by Piero Cohen, a shady businessman who has made an appreciable fortune out of family remittances through a US transnational company. Although it is rumored in Chinandega that the US Drug Enforcement Agency has been investigating Cohen for years, it has never been proved that his businesses are linked to money laundering activities.

Cohen has been one of the main supporters of the Bolaños government—even lending the President his personal helicopters to travel to more remote areas of the country—and was this year named concurrent ambassador to Israel. Two years ago, indigenous and peasant communities from various municipalities in the neighboring department of León, especially those from the municipality of Malpaisillo, accused the government of authorizing Cohen to divert the flow of the Río Galileo to water his own pastureland, seriously affecting local biodiversity and the lives of thousands of peasant families in Villanueva, Telica and Malpaisillo. Apart from Cohen’s capital, Vaca has received almost unanimous backing from the municipal and departmental commercial and agricultural bourgeoisie.

There are also another six candidates, running for six other parties and alliances in Chinandega City: violinist Tomás Mairena for the Somocistas of the Nationalist Liberal Party; Oswaldo del Corazón Bonilla for the Christian Way; Salomé Carranza Mejía for the Christian Alternative, a Christian Way splinter group; lawyer Luis Urbina Lara, who “valiantly” kidnapped Nicaragua’s diplomatic personnel in Costa Rica over ten years ago, for the Independent Liberal Party; Santos Acosta, for the Nicaraguan Resistance; and the recently-married former priest of the El Calvario Church, Álvaro Dávila Martínez, for the Liberal Salvation Movement. None of them has any chance of actually winning, or of offering any real competition, but they will draw some votes away from the PLC and APRE—whether enough to do either of them specific damage remains to be seen. Although to a lesser degree, Dávila could, in turn, harm the Sandinistas, his reputation for benefiting young people when he was a priest might attract the youth vote.

According to a recent opinion poll done in the city, the FSLN candidate is currently attracting 42% of voters, the APRE candidate 18% and the PLC candidate 10%. In the 2000 elections, the FSLN pulled 39.7%, the PLC 29.4%, the Christian Way 20.8% and the Conservatives 10.08%, out of 30,197 valid votes, with an abstention rate of approximately 35%. The next year, the FSLN significantly increased its percentage of the 54,278 voters who turned out for the general elections: to 50.07% (27,177).

This year there are 86,432 registered voters, 45,000 of them women. If the abstention rate from the last municipal elections is repeated, some 48,000 of those will actually get out and vote. Based on these calculations, and bearing in mind that there are three important forces in contention and six others that will siphon some votes off one or another of them, 19,000 votes should be enough to win, with around 24,000 absolutely guaranteeing the mayor’s post. According to the local poll, the FSLN has the votes in the bag.

León: 25 years Sandinista

The FSLN has governed León, the country’s second largest city, for 25 years, and it seems very unlikely that the Liberals will snatch this strategic piece from it this time around. Urban León changed a great deal between 1990 and 2000, although the work done during those years doesn’t seem to have been continued over the last four, because Mayor Denis Pérez Ayerdis has concentrated on the rural communities, where there have been noticeable changes.

The municipality of León covers 820 km², with 22% of its almost 200,000 inhabitants living in 26 rural districts and communities and the rest in the city’s 90 neighborhoods. The FSLN has won an outright majority there in the three municipal elections held since 1990. In 2000, it did so with 53.77%, while the Liberals managed 40% and the Conservatives and Christian Way couldn’t even muster 6% between them. It should also be mentioned that those results included an abstention rate of over 45%.

In addition to unemployment and poverty, the main problems facing the municipal government are the deplorable state of the streets in the historic center, a huge domestic debt weighing the municipality down since 1990, particularly in the area of social security; urban public transport; a deficient sewer system; and a growing shortage of drinking water, particularly in the outer neighborhoods and rural districts. There is also an enormous municipal payroll of 728 employees, a quarter of them supernumerary, a 54% rise over the 472 employed eight years ago, in 1996. Meanwhile, the latest available figures show that the budget rose from 40.5 million córdobas in 1996 to 136 million in 2001.

Using foreign funding—León has sister city links with Utrecht, Holland; Salzburg, Austria, Hamburg, Germany; Oxford, England; Lund, Sweden, and Zaragoza, Vilafranca del Penedés and Alicante in Spain—Mayor Pérez has built hundreds of low-income houses and dozens of schools and health centers in rural León, even though this is not the municipal government’s responsibility. He has also substantially improved the rural road network. Similar work has also been done in a significant number of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. But Pérez Ayerdis has totally neglected the streets in the city’s historical center, whose Cathedral and theater are just two of the magnificent buildings cherished by León’s population because of the prestige they bestow upon the city and because they are tourist spots and thus a source of income for many families.

The PLC and FSLN candidates for León

The Sandinistas elected journalist and lawyer Tránsito Téllez their mayoral candidate, with Dora María Gurdián Ortiz, from one of León’s traditional oligarchic families, as his running mate. Although the combination still raises a few eyebrows, the ticket has generally been well received in León.

At 36, Téllez is recognized as a man from a poor background who made his own name for himself in his chosen profession, studying law in Saturday courses while working as a radio reporter. Over the last eight years, he has worked as the municipal government’s public relations chief and has therefore collaborated closely with the last two mayors, allowing him to build up a good knowledge of the city’s problems. His friends, however, say that he has a certain streak of intolerance and is allergic to criticism. Gurdián is from one of the León families that made its fortune during the cotton boom between the fifties and seventies. Ramiro Gurdián, diehard enemy of the revolution and former president of the Supreme Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP) is her brother. In the 2000 elections, she ran for mayor for ALCON, the Conservative faction closest to the PLC, and is the founder of both the National Women’s Coalition and the Nicaraguan Women’s Forum.

The PLC candidate for mayor of León is legislator María Eugenia Sequeira, who ran and lost in 2000. Second in command of the PLC parliamentary bench, Sequeira has demonstrated unflinching loyalty to party boss Arnoldo Alemán. She is the daughter of veteran Somocista and former mayor Gustavo Sequeira Madriz, who in the last 25 years has ranged from being an activist in the Sandinista Defense Committees to an organizer of the doomed National Project party of Antonio Lacayo, Violeta Chamorro’s son-in-law and presidential adviser.

In 2001, Sequeira took control of the PLC in the department of León, after Alemán cleared out the entire previous leadership in reprisal for not beating the Sandinistas despite enormous funding passed to them from the presidency. She chose veteran Somocista and powerful León merchant Víctor Manuel Miranda Vargas as her running mate.

Two “special” candidates

Another two candidates could potentially win an important percentage of the electorate. The first is the APRE choice, Francisco Argeñal Papi, a former senator and Somoza strongman in León from the end of the sixties to the overthrow of the dictatorship in 1979. The Sandinistas have always considered him responsible for many war crimes and even view it as a mistake not to have settled scores with him during the heat of the final insurrection.

Papi—as he’s known—is 80 years old and boasts that he will win 10,000 votes thanks to his 250 godsons who, themselves no spring chickens, have children, grandchildren and extended families that will place their cross in box number 10, the one assigned to APRE. Paradoxically, his running mate is Juan Toruño Calderón, a tenacious anti-Somocista activist who fearlessly used the microphones of his radio station—Radio Darío—to denounce the atrocities committed by the dictatorship in general and Papi in particular.

The other important candidate is Luis Felipe Pérez Caldera, who was the FSLN’s mayor of León for almost ten years and whose administration played a key part in attracting foreign cooperation and forging sister city links. The people of León still appreciate those years, but many Sandinistas have never forgiven him for deserting the party in 1995, while still mayor, to become one of the founders of the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS). Such resentment will only increase now that he has agreed to run on the Independent Liberal Party (PLI) ticket, backed by a group of professionals and former Sandinistas grouped together in the United for León Movement. Pérez Caldera’s running mate is Ulises Somarriba, a León man through and through and son of one of the PLI’s founders.


Based on an electoral roll of 126,705 voters, almost 68,000 of them women, and calculating abstention in line with the national average in 2000, it will take around 37,000 votes for the FSLN to repeat an absolute majority and at least 30,000 to win a simple victory. Some think that while it will win again, it won’t get an absolute majority and will have to dispute all its votes with the PLC. The FSLN’s own predictions are that it will attract 35,000 votes. This appears realistic, particularly bearing in mind that it got over 43,000 in the last presidential elections.

As in 2000, six municipalities in the department of León will be very closely disputed. The PLC might win in La Paz Centro and Santa Rosa del Peñón and could lose in Achuapa, El Jicaral and Telica, while El Sauce should continue to be governed by the FSLN. In the other four, Nagarote, Malpaisillo, Quezalguaque and León, the Sandinistas should win with relative ease.

The center-north and the Segovias

The main theater of all the wars waged in Nicaragua since the time of General Augusto C. Sandino was in what is still known as “the Segovias” (now the departments of Madriz, Nueva Segovia and Estelí) and the center-north (Matagalpa and Jinotega). Since 1990, the rural vote in these two regions has been predominantly anti-Sandinista, with the exception of the department of Estelí, and since 1996, it has been overwhelmingly for the PLC, which won as high as 84.75% of the votes in Ciudad Antigua and 70.39% in La Trinidad. Meanwhile, the FSLN governs the big population centers (Estelí, Somoto, Ocotal, Jalapa, Tuma La Dalia and Matagalpa). In Jinotega City, the PLC beat the FSLN by just 474 votes.

It is in these five departments of the center-north and the Segovias that the PLC will suffer most from the rupture of their alliance with the Resistance (the former contras). Although the Resistance Party won’t win many municipal governments, it does have a strong electoral following that will almost certainly drain votes from the PLC and prevent it from taking various municipalities. In these departments, as in Chontales and Boaco, it will be interesting to see just how much the FSLN’s allies contribute, particularly those who have come over from the Resistance and the Liberals.

Matagalpa-Jinotega: An overview forecast

In the last municipal elections, the PLC won 9 of the 13 governments in the department of Matagalpa, 5 with an overall majority, and 3 of those with over 60% of the votes. The FSLN repeated its absolute majority in San Ramón and Tuma-La Dalia, and in San Isidro and Matagalpa, the division of the anti-Sandinista vote between Liberals and Conservatives spelled defeat for the PLC. This year, the panorama is even less favorable, first because the Resistance has a lot of support in many municipalities and is running its own candidates this time and, second, because APRE could provide real competition here. This means that the anti-Sandinista electorate will have to choose from three appealing options, each of which could possibly beat the FSLN if not competing with the other two, thus almost inevitably dividing what was previously considered the “Liberal” vote.

The PLC should win fairly comfortably in Ciudad Darío, Río Blanco, Waslala, Matiguás and Rancho Grande. It may also hold on to Sébaco—although there is great enthusiasm for FSLN candidate Melanio Escorcia in certain important sectors. On the other hand, the PLC may lose Terrabona to APRE or the FSLN and it appears that the FSLN will take over from the PLC in San Dionisio and Esquipulas. The FSLN, in turn, should hold San Ramón, Tuma La Dalia and the departmental capital relatively easily. It will compete head on with the PLC in San Isidro, where the FSLN has the relative advantage of the current FSLN mayor’s acceptable performance. So the PLC appears certain of winning five municipal governments and the FSLN four, while the other five will be hotly disputed.

In the department of Jinotega, the most that the FSLN can expect is to take back La Concordia and maybe even win the departmental capital. APRE could also win there, but it is still most likely that the PLC will repeat its triumph in all seven of Jinotega’s municipalities.

Matagalpa city: On the verge of collapse

As with most of the country’s urban centers, Matagalpa City has experienced disproportionate growth. Just 15 years ago, Solingalpa was a small peripheral community, but now it’s a sprawling residential complex divided into five neighborhoods. The hills around Matagalpa are almost completely populated and the pressure on water, electricity, sewer and transport services, as well as streets and other infrastructure, is becoming too much for the municipality to bear.

A total of 148,462 inhabitants live in the municipality’s 620 square kilometers. At least 40,000 of them are peasants who have migrated in the last 12 years from communities in the department’s mountainous zones, above all due to the coffee crisis. The municipality now has 48 neighborhoods, 10 middle-class residential areas, the Solingalpa residential complex, another neighborhood that has been subdivided into three, 14 squatter settlements, 14 subdivisions of lots controlled by the municipality and 4 rural districts covering 61 communities. The complexity of such a structure has left the municipal government’s financial and material capacity on the verge of collapse.

With the water problem finally resolved after ten years of work funded by foreign cooperation (water is now pumped in from Sébaco, as the municipality’s own sources are contaminated and insufficient), Matagalpa’s main problem is urban planning, housing construction and legalization of the settlements. This includes the long-overdue task of improving the road infrastructure and extending public services to the third of the population that is currently not covered.

Mayor Zadrach Zeledón has done an extraordinary job. Having reached consensus with different sectors on the work plans, he managed to increase tax collection significantly, multiplied foreign cooperation and presided over an effective administration that has responded to a large part of the citizens’ basic demands. Recognition of his positive influence is one of the few things that most Matagalpans seem to agree about. This has left the door wide open for the FSLN not only to repeat its victory, but even to win with an absolute majority.

The contenders to watch in Matagalpa

Although certain sectors are suspicious of FSLN mayoral candidate Nelson Artola, his running mate Gonzalo Navarro, a former member of the now-defunct Nationalist Liberal Party, should help him neutralize such resentments and gather votes. The city-born Artola is a lawyer specializing in constitutional law. He has held positions of power since 1990, when he was sent to San Ramón on a party mission and stayed to win the mayor’s office. His administration there was notable and is still fondly remembered by the inhabitants. Thanks to his work between 1990 and 1996, that municipality has turned into a real Sandinista bastion and the FSLN has won an outright majority in election after election. Artola has since been a parliamentary representative for two legislative periods, gaining certain media notoriety for his strident public declarations.

The PLC, meanwhile, has chosen Horacio Brenes, brother of Matagalpa’s bishop, Leopoldo Brenes. In 1996 Brenes ran for a local popular subscription movement, but was defeated by the PLC. In 2001, he ran for the PLC and lost out to the FSLN. A public accountant by profession and born in the city, Brenes is now a prosperous businessman who enjoys relative prestige among Matagalpan society’s middle and upper classes, although his two electoral defeats undermine his candidacy. More damaging still is his running mate, Modesto Lagos, an inveterate Somocista whose vulgar language and behavior have earned him the antipathy of large sectors of the citizenry.

The pro-Bolaños APRE alliance has selected gynecologist, lawyer and psychologist Julio César Pastora, who was born in Ciudad Darío and has lived in Matagalpa for 35 years. His running mate is Celestino Reyes Blandón. Although Pastora has never been a militant of any political party, he used to be close to the PLC, but distanced himself following the corruption charges against Alemán.

A fourth candidate who should be borne in mind is former Sandinista leader José (better known as Chepe) González Picado. He was the FSLN’s departmental secretary in Matagalpa until 1998 and one of the strongest opponents of the radical changes proposed by the FSLN’s democratic left tendency following the 1996 elections, when he was elected departmental National Assembly legislator. After distancing himself from Daniel Ortega, González was one of the four legislators to vote against the constitutional reforms forged by the pact the FSLN negotiated with Alemán. Following the 2001 elections, he left the party and dedicated himself to his private business interests until he surprisingly accepted an invitation from parliamentary representative Orlando Tardencilla to run as the new Christian Alternative party’s candidate for mayor in Matagalpa.

Forecasts for Matagalpa

While the main contenders will be Nelson Artola and Horacio Brenes, each could see its respective votes diminished by the campaigns of Pastora and González. It will be hard for the PLC to defeat the FSLN, above all because the vast majority of the population is satisfied with the job done by Mayor Zeledón.

After the Conservatives divided the anti-Sandinista vote in the 2000 municipal elections, the Liberals were able to unite it again in the 2001 presidential elections. But even then, the FSLN came out on top, increasing its number of votes noticeably in the municipality. The electoral roll for these elections shows 85,426 registered voters, of which probably 48,000 will vote. The Sandinistas thus need at least 22,000 votes to hold onto the municipal government, and probably 25,000 to ensure an absolute majority. The events of 2001 would appear to guarantee the FSLN such a victory.

The Segovias: An overview forecast

In the department of Nueva Segovia, the FSLN appears to have enough in its favor to hold on to the municipal government in Ocotal, although it will be hotly disputed with the Liberals, as has been the case in previous elections. Four candidates (from the FSLN, PLC, Resistance and APRE) have a chance of winning in Jalapa, the other numerically important municipality, which is also currently in FSLN hands. It is very probable, however, that the Sandinistas will win, although they are wracked by bitter infighting between the current mayor and the candidate picked to replace him, who served as mayor from 1996 to 2000. What makes it probable that the FSLN will keep control of the municipal government is mainly the dispersed nature of the anti-Sandinista vote.

The FSLN also has a real possibility of retaking the municipal governments of Dipilto, San Fernando and El Jícaro, which it used to govern then lost. The Nicaraguan Resistance could win in Quilalí and is competing against APRE for control of Wiwilí. The PLC should win without too much trouble in Mozonte, Murra, Ciudad Antigua, Macuelizo and Santa María.

So the Liberals appear to be heading for a minimum of five and a maximum of eight of the twelve municipal governments, the Sandinistas for between three and five and the Resistance for one or two. But the sharp division of the Liberal vote between APRE and the PLC in this region could allow the FSLN to take control of the most hotly disputed municipalities.

In Madriz the conditions are right for the FSLN to hold onto the capital city of Somoto. On the back of two consecutive successful administrations, the FSLN could repeat its surprising victory of 1996, when it also won five of the nine municipalities. The FSLN candidate for Somoto is Marcio Rivas, who has close links with cooperation organizations, which are a key element in financing the radical transformation that the city has been experiencing. Rivas has also made novel proposals, such as renouncing his salary during his four years in office if elected.

The FSLN also has a good chance of retaking San José de Cusmapa, as its candidate there is María Elena Díaz, who is president of the indigenous community. She has also been a teacher and midwife to generations of local people. The FSLN could win Yalagüina and Telpaneca but will have to put up a good fight to win San Lucas and Las Sabanas.

The contest in San Juan de Río Coco is tougher to predict. Hundreds of former Resistance members—contras— and their families settled in this area between 1996 and 2000, changing the correlation of party forces to such a drastic extent that the Sandinistas suffered a resounding defeat in the last elections. But they voted Liberal in those elections, something that will not happen this time around as the Resistance Party is running its own candidate. The big question is whether they will have enough strength to beat the FSLN. As things now stand, the FSLN could win a minimum of three and a maximum of seven of the nine local governments.

In the department of Estelí, the PLC stronghold is La Trinidad, where it always wins by well over 60%. In 2001 it took the municipal government with 70% and the following year attracted 75% of the votes in the presidential elections. The Sandinistas, meanwhile, always win by an outright majority, albeit not as great a one, in the departmental capital and in Condega.

The contest has been very close in the other three municipalities. Last time around, the Liberals took San Nicolás by a difference of just five votes, Pueblo Nuevo by less than 300 and San Juan de Limay by 204. It could be a similar story this year, with either of the two main political forces winning these municipalities. The PLC is helped by the fact that APRE has had little impact on Liberal voters in these areas and will probably end up a marginal political force.

The important municipality of Estelí

Like the other departmental capitals, the city of Estelí has outgrown its natural limits with peasants flooding in from the rest of the Segovias. According to municipal data, the city’s population has tripled in the last ten years, while figures from the National Institute of Statistics and Censuses (INEC) show that it rose by 267% between 1971 and 2004. The municipality covers 796 km², with its 125,853 inhabitants organized into three districts in turn divided into 22 residential units—containing 64 neighborhoods and 7 urban communities—and five rural zones that include 16 rural districts, 121 communities and 108 hamlets.

The success of the FSLN’s municipal administration has been based on achieving consensus with all social sectors around the Municipal Development Plan and on intelligently channeling foreign cooperation funds. In the words of a mayor’s office report: “Estelí is the only municipality in Nicaragua where local development committees have been established in every neighborhood. Above these local committees are district councils in the urban areas and district and zonal development councils in the rural areas. The most interesting thing about this structure is that the coordinators of the three district development councils and five zonal ones also participate in the Municipal Development Committee, where the Prevention and Emergency Subcommittee functions.

“One of the factors behind the success of this munici-pality’s organization was the creation of a Citizens’ Participation Office in 1997. By institutionalizing participation, this office has promoted voluntary work and facilitated the population’s training on and incorporation into prevention issues. Political will has been fundamental in opening up this forum and creating a closer relationship between inhabitants and authorities. Today, the community participates in all stages of a project cycle, from its identification to its formulation and implementation. Such initiatives include constructing pedestrian footbridges, clearing drainage channels, dredging rivers, paving streets and reforestation and environmental improvement activities.”

“The best mayor ever”

Such community organization and participation has guaranteed the FSLN hegemonic political control in all of the elections. Francisco Valenzuela, with dozens of streets paved and curbed and the construction of bridges, latrines and a public drainage system, among many other advances. In addition, 21 tobacco factories have been established, 9 of them under the free trade zone regime, which produce over 350,000 cigars a day for export to the United States and Europe. There has also been considerable commercial growth.

One factor that some feel has contributed to such visible achievements in the city is that local inhabitants have won the main lottery prize nine times in less than two years. But the truth is that it’s the natural result of intense work that started with the Ulises González administration. The people of Estelí are in no doubt about who will win the elections—even Liberal leaders admit it through clenched teeth—and many say with real pride that Estelí improves with each mayor. It is commonly said that “Ulises was good, David Valdivia was better and Valenzuela is the best mayor ever. The next one will have to do even better.”

The main challenge for the next administration is to include the east-side neighborhoods into the city’s progress. These neighborhoods are on the other side of the Pan-American Highway, where sewage systems have already started to be installed with European financing. Young people are calling for more sports and leisure facilities, although they are already proud of their first division football and baseball teams. Ranchers and market sellers argue the urgent need for a new municipal slaughterhouse, as the current one is unhygienic and too small for the number of cattle slaughtered there. Another real need, particularly for working mothers, is an increase in the coverage of municipal nursery schools, as there is currently room only for 2,880 children in this age-range, less than half of those registered in the last census.

There’s no doubt who’ll win

The Liberals have put together a hard-line ticket headed by Rodolfo Castellón Mairena, known as Fito, who is the director of the Lion’s Club and a fervent Alemán supporter. His running mate is former Sandinista Roberto Rizo. Castellón was the presidency’s departmental delegate under the Alemán government and a key player in expelling from the PLC all those who had lined up behind President Bolaños’ project. So it is paradoxical to say the least that Castellón’s own daughter is APRE’s mayoral candidate. Doctor and psychotherapist Milagros Lucía Castellón is running with agricultural producer Noel Blandón Benavides and has the backing of the city’s richest families. APRE has the capacity to significantly diminish the PLC’s electoral pool of voters, but will find it difficult to compete with the Sandinistas.

In 2000, the FSLN received 54.75% (or 22,007) of all votes cast. In the following year’s presidential elections, it attracted 56.34% (28,904 votes). This year’s electoral roll includes 72,549 citizens over the voting age of 16, and it is likely that some 40,000 will vote. The FSLN has enough strength to ensure itself 25,000 votes, and could even repeat the total achieved in the presidential elections.

The FSLN has chosen engineer and outgoing deputy mayor Pedro Pablo Calderón as its mayoral candidate. He has also previously served as a municipal councilor and worked in the public works office. He is running with María Teresa Illescas of the Sandinista Renovation Movement, elected based on the results of an opinion poll. Illescas has worked as coordinator of the Community Nursery School Support Commission, which includes representatives from 12 NGOs and state entities.

Although fierce infighting in the FSLN’s primary elections left open wounds among those supporting the other three pre-candidates, Sandinistas will end up not only voting for their candidates, but also working hard to get out the vote. The big question for the FSLN is not whether it is going to win, but rather by how much. For the citizens of Estelí, the unknown quantity is whether Calderón will be able to improve on Valenzuela’s performance.

William grigsby is a Nicaraguan journalist. In the next issue, he will conclude his analysis and forecasts by examining the situation in the country’s southern, central and Caribbean regions, as well as the municipalities of Masaya, Granada, Tipitapa and Managua.

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