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  Number 280 | Noviembre 2004
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Nicaragua

The Electoral Test: A Ray of Hope on a Dark Horizon

Nicaragua’s political conflict went international just before election day, and then again right afterward when Donald Rumsfeld and Dan Fisk paid a surprise visit to “interpret” the electoral results. But we have our own interpretation of their main novelty, a thin ray of light on an otherwise dark horizon.

Nitlápan-Envío team

Nicaragua’s November 7 municipal elections gave the FSLN and its ally the National Convergence a major victory and the PLC a serious defeat, while relegating APRE, the governmental option, to a distant third. The finishing order had been widely predicted; the surprise was in the magnitudes. The FSLN’s victory both quantitatively and qualitatively exceeded even its own triumphal projection that it would win 25 municipalities more than in 2000. The PLC and APRE also exceeded the forecasts: both suffered far greater defeats than predicted.

The results have had a notable impact on the country. They leave the feeling that while the stage is the same, a good part of the sets and backdrop have been changed. The two following articles in this issue offer figures to better explain the FSLN-Convergence’s victory and some pointers for a more thorough overall analysis of the results.

Test, plebiscite, referendum?

Less than a year ago, President Bolaños had at least one thing in common with former President/perennial presidential candidate/FSLN general secretary Daniel Ortega and former President/now convicted felon yet still PLC leader Arnoldo Alemán: all three favored suspending the municipal elections for two years, until the 2006 general elections. For largely different reasons, none of them wanted to be subjected to the isolated test of the municipal ballot box. In the end, also for largely different reasons, they all accepted the challenge: each would show the other who was who.

Bolaños defined the elections as a kind of “approbatory” plebiscite on his administration and “against the caudillos,” violating the electoral law several times in striving to make this objective a reality. Ortega defined them as a “referendum against corruption.” Alemán didn’t define them at all, but he was perfectly aware in his hospital room-jail that his freedom was in the balance.

The interpretations begin...

With the provisional results in and a few municipalities still too close to call, the interpretations began. Should such favorable results for the FSLN and the Convergence be read as support for caudillo Ortega? Should such unfavorable ones for the PLC be read as a vote against corruption? Should the PLC’s loss of so many municipal governments be understood as a distancing between the Liberal grass roots and Alemán’s leadership? Ideologized and “transcendental” explanations of what happened based on corruption, caudillos, the pact, democracy, institutionality and a raft of other topics could blur the simplest of all interpretations: the effect that good candidates with local prestige have on a given municipality.

These were only Nicaragua’s second municipal elections held separately from the presidential ones. Wouldn’t it be better to focus the reflection and the interpretations not from Managua and the media, but from and onto the local reality in order to understand what actually happened?

Democracy in grave danger?

The municipal electoral results that Ortega and FSLN analysts have come to view as the greatest Sandinista triumph since July 19, 1979, were a mere blip in the international news. In fact, the world’s media networks gave more space to the eruption of yet another political crisis right before the elections because “democracy was in grave danger.”

Was it really? Words can specify, suggest, transmit, explain, communicate. But documenting the dynamics of any given month in Nicaragua tests the use of words, and shows the limits of conventional political phrases in this country. It’s important to give words such as “grave,” “danger” and “democracy” a wide berth. In the run-up to the elections, when our crisis went international, the media produced sentences such as “The President of the Republic calls on the nation.” But what does President Bolaños really preside over? Is Nicaragua a republic or just a territorial jurisdiction that has so far failed to coalesce into a republic? Do the five million people who do not yet move within “a common framework of aspirations and memories” really live in a nation?

Waiting for the
other shoe to drop

When, with US backing, President Bolaños decided to go after Arnoldo Alemán and the corruption he had institutionalized during his term, the Sandinista judge who heard the most important case against Alemán and sentenced him to 20 years in prison also determined that electoral crimes had been committed. She ordered further investigation into those crimes, which involved nearly three dozen top PLC leaders, not to mention Bolaños himself.

These crimes have been the object of a “judicial investigation” ever since, but that language, too, has its own special code—in this case it means political horse-trading among the Alemán, Ortega and Bolaños camps. This case has followed the same seesaw route as all the others in the “war on corruption” over the past couple of years. It is a route in which both the crimes and their perpetrators are front page news for a few days, then fall from sight, only to be aired again when and if the political moments, opportunities, tactics and use value dictate.

A calculated crisis

In February, the Comptroller General’s Office (CGR) ordered President Bolaños to fill out a form reporting on the origin of certain checks worth several million dollars used to finance his campaign. Pressed to respond, Bolaños refused three separate times. On October 7, exactly a month before the elections, the CGR issued a resolution administratively fining Bolaños two months’ salary and requesting that the National Assembly remove him from his presidential post for having violated the CGR’s organizational law.

Back before the elections, few doubted that there was some undeclared or undeclarable management of the campaign finances that led to Bolaños’ electoral victory. But the CGR’s resolution led many to suspect that, independent of any legal justification, its issuance was timed to ensure the shared PLC-FSLN goal of undermining APRE’s electoral showing.

An overreaction

Seemingly genuinely unnerved by the possibility of being removed from office, Bolaños, as always, ran for international help: he summoned the other Central American Presidents to Managua to back him up, which they promptly did. Together they took an even more extreme measure: they asked the Organization of American States to intervene, appealing to the Democratic Charter “for normalizing institutionality when it is at risk.”

In record time, after meeting in an “urgent” extraordinary session, the OAS sent a special mission to Managua on October 18-19 in the name of “preventive diplomacy.” That was when the world became privy to news clips about our “grave” crisis. The fact that the OAS is headquartered in Washington DC and that the US government, which strongly supports Bolaños, has hegemony over its 34 member governments contributed greatly to the swift response, the support for this endangered President and the echo heard round the world. The OAS mission spent some 30 of its 48 hours in Managua meeting with the different actors in the crisis, all of whom are some of the best actors around. At the end, the mission left the impression of having gleaned that this was not quite such a grave crisis after all.

Bolaños staged a “reality show”

Feeling buttressed by the OAS, Bolaños used the crisis to influence the electoral campaign. With the mission still in Managua, he invited the diplomatic corps, the army and police chiefs of staff, hundreds of public officials and, via television, the entire population, to his official explanation of the origin of the checks for his electoral campaign.

The event was a more theatrical than informative rendering of what the President called a “coup plot.” The contents were presented in a confusing if spectacular reality-show format, far less serious than the issue deserved. The script the President had prepared to accompany his wide-screen data show was superficial and laced with epithets, while his smug facial expressions, self-serving arguments and occasional ridiculing tone made light of what he himself had played up as a “grave” crisis. The real objective of the show became clear in the final minutes, when it turned into an explicit—and illegal—state campaign event in favor of Bolaños’ political option, represented in the municipal elections by APRE.

The “day after”

With that, election day was upon us. Once the results were in, nothing further was heard—at least for now—about “firing” the President or about the commission that would supposedly study the Comptrollers’ resolution “in accordance with the law.” APRE’s meager showing, which some interpret as rejection of the Bolaños-US political project, was at least symbolically as good as removing him from office.

There was also no more talk about a national dialogue or wrangling over who would mediate it. The political scene had changed: now, in addition to controlling all but 6-8 National Assembly seats, the FSLN and PLC took first and second place in the municipal elections, giving them a strong argument that they are the true representatives of the people’s will, not President Bolaños. They have since wasted no time in introducing a constitutional reform bill into the Assembly that will shift a number of executive attributions—among them the ratification and dismissal of ministers and ambassadors—to the legislative body and strengthen legislative power in the appointment of high-ranking posts in the state institutions. The bill has been ready since well before the elections and already has more than the 56 votes needed to pass constitutional-level legislation.

Without respecting a decent mourning period for APRE’s defeat, the US government expressed its concern over the FSLN’s favorable results by sending none other than US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to Nicaragua for a 24-hour visit. And right on the heels of the visit by that merciless promoter of the war on Iraq, Under Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere Dan Fisk came for a slightly longer stay.

Both came to pump up Bolaños—which they euphemistically termed providing “full backing to Nicaraguan democracy.” Both came to demand destruction of all remaining SAM-7 surface-to-air missiles, stockpiled since the eighties by Nicaragua’s army, as a clear sign of US dominion over the region’s only armed forces not commanded by and responsive to the traditional Right—or as they termed it, to express “shared concerns for regional security in the struggle against terrorism.” Both also came to prevent another possible Sandinista victory in the 2006 general elections—despite all evidence to the contrary, they called their meddling “support for the reunification of the democratic forces.”

Dump Arnoldo or else

Nicaraguan Defense Minister José Adán Guerra proudly declared that Rumsfeld’s “mere presence” in Nicaragua “tells us that Nicaragua is an important country for the United States and an ally in the face of new threats.” Just before Rumsfeld’s arrival, PLC and FSLN legislators pushed through an arms law that, among many other dispositions, transfers decisions on acquiring or destroying national weaponry—of course, including the controversial SAM-7s—to the National Assembly. Ignoring the new law, speaking in English and without apparent army backing, President Bolaños promised Rumsfeld that as commander-in-chief of the armed forces he would personally see to the total destruction of the missiles “in the name of Nicaraguan sovereignty. ”

Fisk’s visit was less symbolic and his messages more explicit. He met with President Bolaños and with the leaders of both the PLC and APRE. This same high-level Bush administration official had already come to Nicaragua over a year ago, with the modest mission of Alemán’s caudillista grip on the PLC and Daniel Ortega’s on the FSLN. When that project failed to produce the resounding success the US is accustomed to achieving with its bald interference in other countries’ domestic affairs, Fisk’s boss, Colin Powell, came himself, which only made more of a tangle. This time, with Washington disconcerted by the FSLN’s resounding electoral victory, the defeat at the polls of Bolaños’ “struggle against corruption” and the frequent alliances of convenience between FSLN and PLC legislators to change the Constitution and any other laws that occur to their bosses, Fisk returned with half of his original two-pronged mission. Framing it in diplomatic terms, he let it be known that the United States will support the PLC and work for reunification of the anti-Sandinista forces if Arnoldo Alemán pulls out of the political game. Framed in the more strong-arm terms that characterize the newly buttressed Bush administration, it was an ultimatum: unless the PLC dumps Alemán, there will be no more support.

With a united
anti-Sandinista opposition…

Arnoldo Alemán’s ongoing role as one of the three figures that head today’s warring poles of power in Nicaragua is unarguable. Two years ago, when he was indicted on numerous counts of corruption, embezzlement and money laundering committed while serving in the presidency, he was offered a choice that most self-serving and newly well-heeled politicians would have no trouble selecting from: exile or prison. With surprising vigor and tenacity, Alemán picked prison. The majority of the PLC leaders and legislative representatives opted to stand by him and have been fighting for his release ever since. But the keeper of the keys is Daniel Ortega.

One of the many significant elements to analyze in the overall electoral results is the fact that if the anti-Sandinista forces had united as one single opponent, the FSLN-Convergence would only have won 49 of the 87 mayor’s offices it actually got. In other words, a key political factor in the FSLN-Convergence victory was the split in the anti-Sandinista vote, or, more specifically, in the Liberal vote. Since 1990 the PLC, under its leader Alemán, has been the main magnet pulling together anti-Sandinista interests and emotions, but it is now splintered into several Liberal electoral fractions again.

The FSLN strategy was to feed this division with continuously shifting declarations and both political and judicial maneuvers. But it didn’t stop there. It also involved an unscrupulous and unethical violation of laws, manipulation of institutions and a strong dose of lies and bribery. And all told, it reaped magnificent results.

Dilemmas, dilemmas...

With the key to Alemán’s freedom in Daniel Ortega’s able hands and with the US support that so dazzles and enraptures PLC leaders now contingent on following Dan Fisk’s suggestions-pressures, it remains to be seen which way those leaders will turn: will they save themselves or keep trying to save their leader? Now that the electoral results have put Ortega in an even more privileged position and President Bolaños in an even weaker one, we are entering a political period in which the dilemmas and the seesaw maneuvers will surely multiply, keeping analysts and the merely curious free from any risk of boredom.

The US government, which two years ago backed the “exile or jail” option for Alemán, may well dangle it before him again to break through a deadlock fed by the PLC politicians’ surprising loyalty to him and his own real leadership with the Liberal grass roots. If the US re-offers this alternative, Ortega just might give it the nod, even at the risk of facilitating anti-Sandinista unity into a single Arnoldo-free bloc, because it would reduce the current political cost associated with his detention and the otherwise-inevitable cost of eventually releasing him back into political society. A good way to package such a decision would be with the religious arguments of “reconciliation,” “pardon” and “love” that now form part of Ortega’s thematic lexicon after forging what appears to be a strategic alliance with the Catholic hierarchy.

The Convergence worked

The FSLN’s strategy to keep the anti-Sandinista forces divided contributed significantly to its own victory. But in a horizon as dark as Nicaragua’s today under the shadow of the Ortega-Alemán institutional-legal pact and Bolaños’ economic-financial project in which both other parties participate to a greater or lesser degree, the most notable aspect is not the FSLN’s impressive win. It is rather the ray of hope offered by an attentive reading of other, perhaps more significant and novel elements in this municipal race.

The victory belongs to the FSLN, to its machinery, its structures, its resources, its election monitors, its organization and its discipline, not to mention its cunning. But it also belongs to the Convergence. In only 3 of the 87 municipalities won by the FSLN was the mayor/deputy mayor ticket made up exclusively of party militants. In 17 municipalities, including the departmental capitals of Masaya, Granada, Boaco and Jinotepe, the elected mayor is from the Convergence, and in the remaining 66, the deputy mayor belongs to these FSLN allies.

The Convergence candidates came from an array of political and ideological families—Liberal, Conservative, Evangelical, Social Christian, former contras of the Resistance, Sandinistas in the breakaway Renovation Movement, independent Sandinistas who separated or were separated from the FSLN, and above all local leaders with no formal political history of any stripe. They are men and women with local roots, prestige and a known trajectory of honesty, and were chosen by either survey or direct primary from the best that each of these “families” had to offer in each locality. And for a change, they were competing not against but alongside FSLN militants who for the most part were also chosen in open and binding primaries. One has only to tour the municipalities won by the FSLN-Convergence to feel the joy and hope and to understand the election results not as a referendum or plebiscite on a given national project, or a pumping up of one caudillo over another, but as a local decision in favor of attractive tickets of candidates recognized by the population.

The Convergence earned its stripes

The National Convergence didn’t exist as an alliance in the 2000 municipal elections and was irrelevant and diluted in the general elections the following year, with no visible expression other than former comptroller general Agustín Jarquín, a Social Christian, as Daniel Ortega’s vice presidential running mate—a ticket that attracted more perplexity than votes. The Convergence as such had no profile, enjoyed no credibility. In fact, even the FSLN structures pooh-poohed it, considering it a “club” of loose politicians with no future, a handful of “old crazies.” When it wasn’t being disparaged, it was ignored. But now that the FSLN has won 7 more municipalities than its own most optimistic, triumphal prediction, the Convergence, which head 17 of the winning ticket, will have to be taken into account.

This time around the alliance translated into “yoked” candidacies—an FSLN candidate for mayor with a Convergence running mate or vice versa—all around the country, but most importantly in anti-Sandinista municipalities where the FSLN structures have never previously had a chance since 1990. It represented a reencounter between dispersed Sandi-nistas and those who are still part of the structures, and a first-time encounter between the latter and non-Sandi-nistas, even one-time anti-Sandinistas. The 149 Convergence candidates brought new electoral campaign styles; new, more pluralist discourses; new, more varied profiles; and new visions and hopes. During the electoral campaign nobody in the national media talked about this alliance, but municipality by municipality, the electoral results suggest that it’s worth viewing as a ray of hope on our dark political horizon, although like everything else in contemporary Nicaragua, it isn’t a sure bet.

It wasn’t easy

This alliance was no easy achievement. If the FSLN hadn’t loosened up its sectarianism to accept “the yoke” and the consequences and accompanying challenges of welcoming these candidates from outside its walls, nothing would have functioned. The debate within the FSLN was intense, as was the effort the Convergence made to prize open its own space.

Former comandante/health minister/National Assembly representative and current Sandinista Renovation Movement president Dora María Téllez is one of the crafters of this electoral alliance with its novel and successful characteristics. As she admitted in a talk with envío, published in our October issue, “It was really hard! The resistance didn’t just come from above: it came from 152 different places at the base, each one expressed in a different way…. It isn’t easy for a party like the FSLN, which has maintained hegemonic convictions, to swallow that its candidates could be from other parties and that its structures have to get out and campaign for people who aren’t from the party—or worse yet, who left it…. Ours is a very flexible model that brings lots of problems but also advantages. And it’s positive because it breaks with our traditional political mold, in which people remain trapped in the idea that if I was born a Liberal I’ll die a Liberal, no matter what.”

It also wouldn’t have functioned if voters hadn’t seen something politically and ethically new in the tickets presented under the red and black banner that they trusted would translate into benefits for their municipalities. In the end, non-Sandinistas took a major step toward losing their fear of Sandinista stereotypes, dispersed Sandinistas recovered hope, party Sandinistas took a deep breath and plunged in, and, so far at least, everybody has come out winning.

“We have to cultivate it”

With this success, the National Convergence has drawn a hand with a victory ace and some major challenges for its mayors, deputy mayors and Municipal Council members around the country. The first challenge will be to achieve an honest, participatory and transparent municipal administration that makes a difference in localities that haven’t yet experienced it or to provide continuity to the responsible and intelligent administration of community problems by those outgoing mayors—most of them from the FSLN—whose good work was also a decisive factor in this electoral victory.

The second major challenge will be to use this new joint victory to help push for other positive changes within the FSLN, where Daniel Ortega has long been using his considerable power to push through decisions according to his own whims and those of his close circle. The first such change was the FSLN’s shift from non-binding consultations to real primaries to choose its municipal candidates. Even if the growing desire in the country to have individual candidates for National Assembly representatives—rather than party slates in which the candidates respond more to party commands than their own constituency—doesn’t come to pass any time soon, might the FSLN slates involve some formula that opens the Sandinista bench to Convergence candidates? Or might there now be a serious debate about the FSLN-Convergence presidential candidate for 2006, with the possibility of selecting someone with broader national appeal than Ortega—already a three-time loser?

These two challenges require ongoing, daily cultivating. They also require tenacity and, above all, exemplariness. Recognizing that the Con-vergence’s validity and future was also being put to the test in the municipal elections, Dora María Téllez made this comment: “There are still people who think that the alliance isn’t credible because the FSLN has too much weight; they want it to have less power. I don’t think it’s an issue of reducing the FSLN’s weight, but of increasing the specific weight of the allies and, more to the point, of the alliance itself. We have to cultivate the Convergence’s durability beyond these elections….”

Some see it as another
triumph for Daniel Ortega...

Many Sandinistas in the FSLN structure and many independent Sandinistas are interpreting the FSLN-Convergence victory as another triumph for Daniel Ortega, the former out of their triumphal habits and adherence to “the man” and the latter out of a certain fatalism and immobility they have internalized after years of fruitless struggles. It would be no surprise if Ortega himself fell into the temptation of interpreting this victory as a ratification of his presidential candidacy, which he has been announcing for over a year and made an extra effort to promote and consolidate during his active campaigning for municipal candidates around the country.

Those on the opposite side of the street are at least publicly reading the FSLN-Convergence victory the same way, but in their case to trigger fear of a possible Ortega victory in the 2006 presidential elections. Rumsfeld and Fisk came purposefully to heighten that same fear, and national anti-Sandinista analysts and media will do their bit to agitate it even more in the coming months.

We have another interpretation

We want to plant a seed of hope rather than fear. We believe the electoral results had more to do with the real country, the one of extreme poverty, than with the almost non-existent institutional country. They had more to do with the country relegated by the economic pact with the IMF than with the country modeled by the authors of the political pact. They had more to do with the perverse machinery of exclusion than with the perverse machinery of the pact. And above all, they had more to do with local interests and leaders than with national interests and leaders.

The novelty of the Convergence offers hope. It’s not yet a real opening of any kind, rather just a ray of light on the horizon. Whether it can be opened wider to let in more light and air will depend on many efforts and on a renewal of political ethics.

That ray could bring with it the traditional Sandinista values of social justice and national sovereignty, which are the raw materials of true development and genuine democracy. It could bring expectations we could all unite around, putting behind us the phantoms of war and the unfortunate and exaggerated prejudices engendered by that confrontation, replacing them with the possibility of working together with greater honesty for more basic and urgent requirements than most politicians have shown any interest in for some time.

We interpret the FSLN-Convergence victory under the red and black insignia as a new chance for the Sandi-nista family—which is much broader than just the FSLN—to summon its own dispersed energy and that of other political groupings around the country to work together for a more just and truly national project than the one currently imposed on us.

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