These Elections Will Test the Convergence’s Validity and Future
The president of the Sandinista Renovation Movement,
one of the parties in the National Convergence that has been
allied with the FSLN since the 2000 municipal election campaign,
shares her reflections on this year’s municipal elections,
how the Convergence candidates were chosen,
their points of unity and her critique of
the national political culture.
Dora María Téllez
The National Convergence is an alliance of political parties, groups and individual personalities.
The parties include the FSLN and the MRS, both of which are Sandinista, the Christian Democratic Union (UDC) and the Christian Unity Movement (MUC), a party with an evangelical base. There’s also a segment of the Nicaraguan Resistance Party, headed by Elia Galeano, sister of Franklin, who was head of the Resistance when it demobilized. These are the most organized forces. Then there are some Conservative groupings and personalities such as Miriam Argüello, and Liberal groupings and personalities such as Julia Mena. Another grouping is Arriba Nicaragua. And finally, there are various personalities without political affiliation such as former boxing champion Alexis Argüello.
In the November 7 municipal elections, the Convergence will be running candidates for mayor and deputy mayor under the FSLN’s red and black banner. FSLN members will be heading the ticket as candidate for mayor in 87 of the country’s 152 municipalities, while members of the allied forces of the Convergence will be in the top slot in the other 65. Of the total 304 candidates for these top two local government posts on the FSLN ticket, 157 are from the FSLN’s allies in the Convergence. Breaking that down into its representative groupings, 13 are from the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), 35 are Liberals, 13 are Conservatives, 19 are from the Christian Unity Movement, 16 are from the Nicaraguan Resistance Party, 7 are from the Christian Democratic Union, 4 are from the North Atlantic Autonomous Region’s indigenous movement and 50 are independent local leaders not linked to any party.
The Convergence is a new ideaTo understand the value of this alliance, the first thing you have to consider is that Nicaragua has no tradition of lasting political alliances. What we’ve had up to now are fleeting deals, stopgap measures of convenience, electoral coat-tailing alliances that quickly fall apart. The FSLN never really worked with an alliance until it began to build the National Convergence.
The alliance that brought the FSLN to power split into two or three parts after 1979. It had been based on the objective of overthrowing the dictatorship, and wasn’t programmatic. After that larger grouping suffered its first crisis, the FSLN maintained an alliance during the early eighties with the Conservatives of Córdova Rivas, the Popular Social Christian Party and a fraction of the Socialist Party, in what was called the Patriotic Revolutionary Front. While it lasted formally until 1990, it had virtually dissolved much earlier.
Then there was the alliance that brought Violeta Chamorro to power: the National Opposition Union (UNO), which included 14 political parties and various personalities. It split the day before Chamorro took office, with one group supporting the more reconciliatory position of the President and her top minister, Antonio Lacayo, and the other backing Vice President Virgilio Godoy, a hard-liner. And that was only the first rupture; afterward it went on splintering, because it had been built around the single objective of defeating the FSLN in the elections. The same thing happened with the Liberal Alliance, which lasted through the 1996 presidential campaign and barely a year after; basically until Alemán started sweeping his allies out of the posts he had given them.
The origins of the ConvergenceThe Convergence started with a rapprochement between the Christian Democrats and the FSLN around the municipal elections in 2000. This included certain negotiations over posts and some programmatic negotiation. By the following year’s presidential elections, the Convergence had begun to expand, each new force or personality climbing on board after bilateral negotiations with the FSLN. This scheme of parallel negotiations persisted even after the presidential elections, but more global agreements on the alliance’s political nature and some minimum programmatic foundations have gradually replaced it. The issue of how these agreements would be expressed electorally remained unresolved over the years.
While that initial design has lasted until today, there have been difficulties due to disagreements about political aspects, about what the FSLN or other parties or groups in the alliance do or don’t do. I think the fundamental thing is that we’ve been forging agreements about political conduct, but it’s always been on the go, in the midst of the difficulties that one comes up against in a country like Nicaragua.
The alliance’s first big problem has been—and still is—ensuring a shared conviction within the FSLN that the alliance is valid, valuable and useful for both the FSLN and the Convergence. An important current within the FSLN leadership, from the top right down to the base, doesn’t think it necessarily strengthens political capacities. They see the Convergence as a useless nuisance because the FSLN can come up with the votes it needs to win on its own. The other important current, the one that sees the alliance as valid, valuable and useful, even necessary, believes that isolated and without an alliance the FSLN will never be able to break through the anti-Sandinista barrier that it comes up against everywhere.
Agreements for the municipal electionsBetween these two positions, of course, there are many nuances, and both the resistance and the support are expressed in very different ways. The most consistent resistance has come up around the agreements and the organization related to this year’s municipal elections. The FSLN and its allies in the Convergence signed an electoral agreement that was very novel and very complex for all involved. We agreed that nearly half the candidates for mayor and deputy mayor would be for parties, forces or individuals linked to the Convergence and the other half for the FSLN. We also agreed that competition for municipal councilors would be open.
were the acid test for the Convergence
Within this overall accord, the first thing we decided on was what we call “the yoke”: in the municipalities where the mayoral candidate is from the FSLN, the candidate for deputy mayor will be from the Convergence, and vice versa, except when there are requests from local leaders. That agreement was hard to reach. Hammering out an understanding on participation in municipal elections is a lot harder than in the national ones because you’re touching each group’s local leadership. And “touching” the power group dominating the FSLN’s local leadership in each municipality was no joke. Each one had to be convinced that the agreement had a function, a purpose, at the local level that merited active support and collaboration to make it viable.
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. Forging an alliance at the national level involves maybe 10 leaders finding common ground and case closed, but alliances in the local sphere are far more complex to work out. They’re about local rivalries, about the particularities of each leadership group, about caudillo fiefs, about family structures, about historic, traditional power structures… It’s unbelievably complicated! That’s why the agreement around these municipal elections has undoubtedly been one of the Convergence’s hardest tests.
Changes in the FSLN’s Taking on this agreement obliged the FSLN to make some internal changes that were already brewing but were precipitated by the alliance. For example, they changed the way of electing their own candidates, shifting from non-binding consultations to primary elections. Up to now, the FSLN has held consultations with its local grass roots, but the party’s municipal and departmental assemblies then had the right to select a different candidate. This generated tremendous conflicts because whoever controlled the structures controlled the municipal assembly and could override the consultation results.
candidate selection process
The FSLN primaries now have two new positive characteristics. First, the primary is decisive, and no assembly can change the result. And second, the primary is an open election in which not only party members but all citizens can participate by just presenting their voter identity card. This means that the candidates have to seek support beyond just the party membership; controlling the structures no longer guarantees victory. They have to go out into the street and drum up votes, and this obliges them to mount a campaign that reaches out to other sectors of society.
The allies’ candidate selection mechanismsWe in the Convergence had to decide on our own candidate selection mechanism, which presented us with both a dilemma and a challenge: either we handpicked them the old-fashioned way, or we put them through a sieve. We decided on a mixed formula: all candidates for mayor and deputy mayor corresponding to the Convergence in departmental capitals—we got those in which the FSLN had a history of losing—would be decided by polls. The other, smaller municipalities that fell to us would be decided by primaries. If the MRS, the MUC and the Christian Democrats all had pre-candidates in San Juan de Oriente, they would all run in a primary and the winner would be the candidate.
For the polls, we contacted an independent organization, the UCA’s survey center, run by Manuel Ortega. Rather than questions, we used the intention-to-vote method. Each Convergence member presented its candidates for a given municipality and a ballot was then designed so that those surveyed could mark their choice and deposit it in a “black box,” like in a real election. The selection of the sample, the date and the mathematical processing was left up to the center; all we did was provide the list of candidates. We did it this way because we were interested in getting a clear idea of public opinion in the departmental capitals that the FSLN had always lost. And there were enormous surprises, including candidates who ran far in the lead even in long lists of candidates. We thus learned a lot about which people had accumulated prestige.
The strategic importanceIn my opinion, this switch to primaries and polls is a first crucial step within a democratizing process. I think it’s strategic, because it establishes a way of breaking with caudillismo as a structural phenomenon in Nicaraguan politics and opens the way for the kind of grassroots leadership that can mobilize locally. The primaries and polls oblige local leadership structures not only to have good relations with their leaders but, more fundamentally, to get on well with their electoral constituency. From looking towards the leader or the structure, they have to start looking at the voters.
of these new methods
Another very important and also strategic factor is that these methods put an end to that fatal old method of negotiating candidates and municipalities between political leaders. It stopped each ally in the Convergence from going separately to the FSLN to plead for this or that municipality, which was the method Alemán used in the Liberal Alliance: ‘Look, I want the mayor’s office in such and such municipality…’ ‘Okay, then, you take that one and you guys take the other one,’ like it was a box of assorted chocolates. That kind of divvying up also later erodes respect among the allies, as you could come and pressure me by saying, ‘I gave you this, so now give me that.’
The MRS has candidates running in 13 municipalities and they all won the right to be there, whether through a poll or a primary. We also had losers in some municipalities, and that was very healthy too, because all MRS candidates who lost are perfectly clear about the problems they came up against.
Those agreements around candidates didn’t function perfectly, of course; there both problems as well as progress. In some places, we couldn’t register candidates at all, but in others, such as Boaco, the FSLN leadership was open to the alliance, convinced that they need it. As a result, the Convergence is putting up a good fight in Teustepe and in Boaco, with support from local Liberals, Conservatives and dispersed Sandinistas—all without party ties. Jinotepe is another case, an exception, where the FSLN said: “We don’t want the candidacy for deputy; it’s better that the Convergence take it, too.” So the mayoral candidate is from the MRS and his running mate is an independent Liberal, yet the FSLN structure is campaigning for both candidates; it’s a completely new experience for them, and it isn’t very easy to assimilate. In the end, each case was different, and the electoral results will prove whether the alliance made sense, was useful and has a future. So far, we know we’ve cultivated some spaces that the FSLN didn’t have access to alone. That in itself is important evidence for the vast majority of people in the FSLN.
How we deal with differencesThe conceptual and operational difficulties we’ve come up against, those we’re still having and those we’ll face in the future are quite normal. 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. For example, local campaign committees decide the use of funds, coordinate campaign activities and even design the concepts behind those activities; and in some committees the coordinator is the FSLN’s political secretary and the campaign chief is from the MRS, making it very complicated to maintain the balance. We in the MRS believe that our candidates have to get out and work with the segments where the FSLN isn’t strong, but some people in the FSLN don’t view it that way; they find it weird to see Convergence candidates chatting up Liberals or Conservatives. But that’s precisely the pluralist nature of the Convergence: it has different expressions that can reach out to a diverse and plural electorate.
We’re not trying to blend all our differences in the Convergence until we’re the same or similar. The whole point is to maintain our plurality, in other words to offer ourselves to the public the way my mom served fruit compote: she cooked and served all the fruits separately and each of us took what we liked and mixed it on our own plate according to our own taste. That way, each fruit maintained its original flavor. Alliances shouldn’t stew in the same pot until they lose their different identities. An alliance is precisely that each member maintains its identity, and divergence positions on issues can be expressed publicly.
Some interesting initiatives have already emerged. For example, in Teustepe we have something called the Convergence Youth, which is a youth movement not identified with any party, but rather with the idea of the Convergence as a whole and everybody in it. They identify with the Convergence as an alliance and not with any specific force.
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. I believe that once the local leaderships and the people start breaking such conditioning, the parties will have to change and society will become more democratic; it will stop being in the hands of a few powerful people. Naturally, though, the very flexibility we’re creating adds to our difficulty in increasing the Convergence’s institutionality.
Who will survive the municipal elections?At least one result of the upcoming municipal elections is already predictable: it will reduce the spectrum of political parties. In the last municipal elections, only four national parties plus a couple of regional parties on the Caribbean Coast were permitted to participate thanks to the FSLN-PLC pact. But earlier this year the Supreme Electoral Council finally lifted the imposed restrictions and we again have some 40 parties. After these elections, only a dozen or so will be left, because those who aren’t participating will lose their legal status, and the current Electoral Law makes it so hard and so expensive to create a new party that it almost forecloses on anyone doing it.
So who will be left? Apart from the FSLN, the survivors from the Convergence will be the three other parties that signed the alliance: MRS, UDC and MUC. The surviving unaligned national parties will probably be the Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC), the National Resistance Party, the Christian Way, the Christian Alternative (a split from the Christian Way), the Independent Liberal Party and the Liberal Salvation Movement (a PLC breakaway, which is now competing at the PLC’s worst moment of division and erosion). Then there’s the new Alliance for the Republic (APRE), which is working well and attracting an important part of the electorate in many places around the country, so it should come up with good electoral results. The only registered party that signed the alliance with APRE was the Conservative Party, so it will survive. In the Caribbean region, PAMUC and Yatama will survive.
This reduction of the spectrum of parties could force more stable forms of alliance, with fewer, more representative political groups. Under those conditions, they could start reconfiguring the country’s entire political-electoral scene.
Taking the life-or-death drama out of electionsFor many of those who opt for the Convergence this time, it will be their first experience marking the FSLN box on the ballot, and will help people lose their fear of “Sandinismo.” One Liberal leader from the Convergence in Teustepe told me that some people from his community asked him: “They won’t bring back the draft, will they, if the candidate we’re supporting wins?” And he responded, “Haven’t you noticed that there’s a Sandinista mayor in Managua and there’s no draft?” This fear is logical in places like the department of Boaco, where there hasn’t been a Sandinista mayor in 14 years, since the war. People remember that the last time there was a Sandinista mayor there was also war. That fear existed in the last municipal elections, too: “What will happen if Herty Lewites wins the municipal elections in Managua?”
Four years ago you had to work through that fear, convince people that nothing earth shattering would happen if either Herty or Wilfredo from the PLC won; you would just have different mayors, for better or worse. As people begin to perceive that nothing spectacular will happen by voting for a particular person other than a change of municipal authority, they can make decisions with their vote. And if it turns out bad, they simply won’t vote for that party or that candidate again.
The really phenomenal thing that’s happening in Nicaragua is that elections are changing from life or death issues into ordinary events, ordinary decisions. It’s a major political objective to take the drama out of elections, especially in municipalities that have these historic, knee-jerk fears. Doing so helps democratize the country.
One advantage for the Convergence is that, by and large, the Liberal municipal governments elected four years ago have been a disaster, and people everywhere regret having voted for them. In contrast, the vast majority of Sandinista municipal governments have been run very well, very transparently, without vengeful or politically discriminating behavior. There have been a few cases of corruption and thievery, but they’ve been the exception rather than the rule. Zeledón in Matagalpa, Valenzuela in Estelí, Centeno in Ocotal, Herty in Managua, are Sandinista mayors who have given municipal administration a lot of prestige. And there have been many other good FSLN mayors in the smaller municipalities as well.
Learning how to lose, how to winIntroducing new selection processes for municipal candidates, with all these positive consequences, could contribute to democracy in other ways as well. Sooner or later, the Liberals are going to have to accept primary elections, because such an important change can’t take place in one of the country’s two major forces without affecting the other one. They will have to accept primaries if they want to halt their grassroots erosion, which can be seen everywhere and is at least partly because Liberal supporters have to accept handpicked candidates. Primaries bring increased responsibility, not only among electors but also among the elected, because if handpicking candidates is replaced by primaries and I lose, who am I going to blame? This is particularly important in Nicaragua because no one loses an election here; it was always stolen from them. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about Miss Matagalpa or Miss Nicaragua, or about the municipal government or the presidency. Not one single Nicaraguan has ever lost an election; it was always stolen! That’s how we are: we haven’t learned how to lose and we always blame our defeat on something external; it’s always someone else’s fault.
and how to think long term
We have to learn how to lose. And we have to learn how to win. Because another problem in Nicaragua is that we act like the world ends today if we lose a primary; it’s a drama of spectacular proportions! But politics is the art of the long haul and tenacity is the most important virtue for defeating adversity. There is little long-term vision in Nicaragua, including what it means to lose an election. I lost? So be it; I’m already preparing for the next opportunity, because more people know me now, I’ve already done part of the propaganda work, I stumped a good part of the municipality, I know who supported me… I wouldn’t support any losing candidate who tucks his tail between his legs, goes home and starts badmouthing the winner. The art is to learn to say, “I lost and I’ll support the winner.”
Long-term vision is essential for Nicaragua’s economic development and for our own political evolution. We have to cultivate that vision, because we look neither backward nor forward in Nicaragua. And since we have no long-term hindsight, thinking no further than yesterday or even today, we also have no long-term foresight, no vision of the future. Nicaraguan sociologist Andrés Pérez Baltodano talks about how we’ve been deliberately forgetting, erasing our memory. We choose the easiest path. I have to resolve my political enmity with the guys from the Resistance? Okay, I erase the war and, bingo, we’re friends! And those from the Resistance do the same with us: they just erase or block out everything. But we don’t accumulate experience that way, we don’t recapitulate our history, and thus we learn nothing from it.
It’s a national vice: Nicaragua starts over every five years. President Bolaños is a magnificent and daily exponent of this vice. Anything he does is happening for “the first time in the history of Nicaragua.” He has an astonishing zeal for being a groundbreaker, and there are people who believe what he says because we erase the past so much that we forget everything.
What we want in our candidatesWe’ve talked about the mechanisms we agreed to for selecting Convergence candidates; but what political content have we agreed on? We established various criteria. We want municipal governments that are aboveboard and transparent, that continue the administration provided by the FSLN governments when they produced good results. We want unitary municipal governments, with no discrimination for political or any other reasons, governments that genuinely represent the whole community. We want municipal governments with a participatory dynamic, where the authorities don’t shut themselves up in an office to draft their plans, but discuss the development programs with the community. We want municipal governments whose plans are aimed at community development that doesn’t just involve paving streets, but introduces dynamics that help generate jobs. We want municipal governments that are concerned with wiping out poverty. We know we aren’t going to eliminate poverty, but we want our governments to be able to channel all possible resources into reducing it. We’re already training candidates in all of these criteria.
One advantage for the newly elected authorities is that they’ll have more money than municipal governments have ever had, because the new law obliges the executive to earmark 4% of the national budget for them. Naturally, each candidate will have to come up with a program based on local particularities and local resources and organizations. There are places, for example, where people are demanding a free trade zone for maquilas. So the work plans of those municipal governments will have to be geared towards creating the right conditions for attracting these assembly plants for tax-free re-export. Our view is that the jobs these maquilas provide are only temporary and is particularly hard work, but when people have no employment and see jobs almost instantly created in a free trade zone in a neighboring municipality, they want one too. That’s the reality we have today; such are the conditions of poverty we’re experiencing.
The Convergence cannot, must not design or run the municipal programs from the top down. The essence of municipal autonomy is that local leaders work on their programs locally. We’ve insisted on the importance of the mayors’ offices opening up job opportunities and providing cultural and sports recreation for young people. That’s as far as we can go. Each municipal government will figure out how to do it in their day-to-day administration. In general, cultural and sporting activities are marginalized because people have demanded other things. If we want the municipal administration to pay attention to municipal libraries, for example, we first have to mobilize the community. If people mobilize to get a road built, the mayor will feel pressured to do something about it. Likewise, if young people in the community mobilize to have a library and demand that the mayor get even two computers with an Internet connection, that pressure could make it happen.
The importance of civic participation Another essential criterion we’ve laid out is that the mayors’ offices should open up to more public participation in administration, in control and in oversight. But this doesn’t depend only on the municipal authorities. It also depends on the dynamic of the community itself. The new Civic Participation Law, together with its regulatory law, will notably facilitate this kind of participation.
The law establishes that residents can form sectoral or area associations in any community, without needing to request legal status from the National Assembly. They only have to complete a few steps to be recorded by the Municipal Council. The municipal government is then legally obliged to permit their participation in affairs that concern them, those having to do with the area or sector they represent.
Participatory democracy has two faces: that of the political leadership and that of the community. We’re proposing that our candidates cultivate participatory democracy through their actions. This, of course, is very different from the current government’s attitude. The Bolaños government is anti-participation. It is a consulting government, but it only consults by contracting consultants, while neither fostering nor permitting participation. Participatory democracy has an institutional and a social component as well as a political component. If the community doesn’t organize itself to participate, there will be no participatory democracy.
The Civic Participation Law establishes some watchdog mechanisms. But such oversight requires a lot of organizing, because it’s a complex task that includes monitoring both physical works and money. And it also means acting on what is found. Once we’ve made more progress in democratizing, we’ll have to start discussing the mechanisms for revoking the mandate of municipal authorities—and national ones for that matter—when it’s merited. We’ve advanced quite a bit in Nicaragua with respect to oversight, particularly with the media’s huge contribution to ongoing vigilance. The problem now is what to do afterward: how do we get rid of some official who doesn’t come out clean?
I believe that one of Latin America’s great democratic victories has been Venezuela’s referendum. Independent of who won it, the revocation referendum in itself is a success. And it has raised the question across Latin America of whether we’re capable of introducing such referendums into our Constitutions for local and national authorities. This isn’t parliamentarianism or populism. It’s democracy.
Will the Convergence survive?The next question we’ll have to ask ourselves after the municipal elections is whether the Convergence will survive. We’ve made it since the municipal elections four years ago, and through one presidential election. But will we survive these?
The FSLN hasn’t stopped discussing it. Many Sandi-nistas say that winning with the Convergence will only be a pseudo victory. I don’t know about that, but I personally prefer winning with my friends than losing alone. The FSLN hasn’t won in a huge number of municipalities for 14 years, and has recently lost control of some others, including the Sandinista bastion of Jinotepe. It lost municipalities in Nueva Segovia in 2000 that it had never lost before. Does it want to win them back? Does it prefer to lose Jinotepe alone or win it with its allies? That’s a major dilemma for a party like the FSLN, and was the big debate within the party in the run up to these agreements. The FSLN now has 52 municipalities while the PLC has been increasing its number of municipalities since 1990. Will it only be a pseudo victory now if the alliance wins more than 80 municipalities? That’s what the FSLN had to decide, and it chose to win with its allies. That is long-term vision.
The challenge now is whether this kind of alliance can stabilize. It remains to be seen, because this is the first political negotiation in Nicaragua that has produced this design for an electoral alliance. The questioning about a pseudo victory can’t be definitively answered until we see the municipal elections results. If the FSLN ends up with the same 52 municipal governments it won in 2000, the Convergence is useless. If we win more, if the votes increase, it has a purpose. If frightened voters don’t learn to vote for their preferred local candidates in this election because they’re in the box with the FSLN banner, it’ll be harder for them to learn next time around; and there will be other difficult rounds, such as the presidential elections, which are more polarized and complex. Who will the Convergence back in the presidential elections? This is another dilemma we’ll gradually be working through.
We Sandinistas faced the same decision in 1977, 78, 79. When the model of a broad anti-Somocista alliance was proposed, many Sandinistas also considered that it would only give us a pseudo victory, that it wasn’t the total victory we aspired to. But could we have overthrown the dictatorship without such an alliance? Would we have been able to isolate it nationally and internationally? I was in on those discussions, and I’ll tell you frankly that we wouldn’t have been able to do it. We can’t erase our memory; we have to remember and learn the lessons provided by history and life.
We wanted to contribute more democratic candidate selection mechanisms to these elections. Nothing more. We’ve sought democratic mechanisms so that candidates aren’t handpicked by party authorities or simply the fruit of the power circles’ will. In those places where we win, the next challenge will be governing for the next four years, because it takes more than just improved candidate selection methods to ensure good municipal administration.
Much remains to be done. The programmatic and political validity of this alliance is still to be tested in these municipal elections and in the daily political conduct of its members. What we know now is that we have good candidates who could be good at running municipalities.
I believe that the Convergence has been gaining credibility, although there are still people who believe that the alliance isn’t credible because the FSLN has too much weight; they want the FSLN to have less power. I don’t think it’s an issue of reducing its 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 and that’s what we’ve done in the municipal electoral campaign. I’m very optimistic about the results of this alliance for Nicaragua.