Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 279 | Octubre 2004



The 2004 Municipal Elections: Final Forecasts

Who will win Managua? What level of abstention will there be? What novelties will the Caribbean coast elections bring? And what political map will the elections bequeath us? These are the final forecasts on the eve of voting.

William Grigsby

Less than a month away from the November 7 municipal elections, there appears to be little enthusiasm among potential voters. The positions of the different candidates have been overshadowed by party disputes and daily conflicts between the executive and the other branches of state and among the main political groupings. This and many other realities are reflected in the opinion polls and the views of many specialists, who talk of a generalized feeling of bitterness and frustration among the electorate that will probably result in abstention rates similar to, if not greater than, the 44% registered in the 2000 municipal elections.

Turning Managua into a metropolitan area

As happens all across Latin America, the fight to win the municipality that houses the capital city is concentrating the main efforts and resources of all the parties involved, not to mention most of the media coverage. With almost 1.4 million residents and over 650,000 voters, Managua is not just coveted for its national influence, the psychological impact on society of a victory there or the formidable political platform it provides for anyone who becomes mayor, but also for the sizable financial and material resources it provides. According to official figures, Managua’s municipal government income represents 1.2% of the country’s GDP. In a country in which half of the population survives on the equivalent of less than $2 a day, Managua’s municipal GDP is the highest in the country at a per-capita rate of US$680. In 2003, Managua had a US$48 million budget, almost 5% of national state spending.

The problems facing the municipality of Managua are complex. It’s not just the challenges of administrating a large city, but also of laying the foundations for turning Managua into a metropolis. The metropolitan area would include the urbanized municipalities of Tipitapa, Ciudad Sandino, Mateare, El Crucero and Ticuantepe in the department of Managua, as well as Masaya and Nindirí in the department of Masaya. In ten years’ time, this sprawling zone will have approximately 2.2 million inhabitants and its various municipal governments will jointly have to assume the everyday tasks corresponding to them, such as garbage collection and transport, and to develop single strategies to resolve the big problems they have in common. One crucial challenge for Managua’s next municipal government is to head up a joint effort with the other seven mayors to create a development plan for this greater metropolitan area.

With the exception of FSLN candidate Dionisio Marenco, none of the other candidates for mayor of Managua appears to be taking this question into account or even to have perceived the sheer scale of the tasks pending. But even Marenco is offering little more than a few ideas on transport—creating a train link between Granada and Managua—and insisting in some of his speeches on common water supply and garbage problems—by 2007 the capacity of the capital’s current wells and other water sources will be exhausted, while Managua alone already produces 400,000 tons of garbage a year.

Too little housing and too much garbage

Even ignoring the fact it’s part of a metropolis, the city of Managua still has many unresolved problems. The following figure among the most important: 90% of the road network is past its useful life and cannot support the daily transit of 130,000 vehicles transporting 2 million people from the city and outside; the legalization and provision of services for over 400 squatter settlements; the construction of low-income housing to reduce the overwhelming deficit; the application of a comprehensive plan to reduce the growing public insecurity; the chaotic collective transport situation; the unhygienic conditions of most of the capital’s marketplaces; and the shortage of cemeteries.

An official Managua municipal government report drawn up in 2003 notes that: “The tendency of urban growth has been horizontal and dispersed, concentrated in large areas of waste land in the city’s eastern sector, where growth is predominantly spontaneous with high population density and the prevailing trend is self-construction.

“The emergence of spontaneous settlements has been caused by the lack of housing programs aimed at the middle and lower classes, as well as other political and socioeconomic factors. Most of these settlements are located in high-risk areas (on seismic fault lines or bordering drainage channels), with right-of-way and in some cases property conflicts, as well as in places inappropriate for housing, according to the soil use classification in the current Zoning and Soil Use Regulations for the Municipality of Managua. Housing is one of the most sensitive problems facing the capital’s population. A full 60% of the population lives in overcrowded conditions and 50% of the housing is considered inadequate. Managua has approximately 196,862 houses and a deficit of 45,428.”

Garbage collection is another enormous problem for the capital. As the same report puts it, “The disorderly disposal of solid and liquid waste is a source of environmental contamination and of all kinds of vectors that affect the citizens’ health. On top of this is the fact that the final disposal of these wastes is carried out in open dumps without any kind of treatment. There is a weakness in the legal framework regulating this system due to a lack of regulation and definition of standards. The city’s disordered growth, its high population density, the lack of any garbage-handling culture among the inhabitants and the municipality’s limited technical and material resources for adequate waste collection and treatment are just some of the factors influencing the worsening of this problem.”

Herty lewites’ legacy and
Nicho Marenco’s resumé

Managua’s citizens widely approve of current FSLN mayor Herty Lewites’ performance. The reasons include an administration free of corruption scandals; appreciable investment in infrastructure works (streets, bridges, roundabouts, monuments, parks) thanks to a 50%-plus increase in ordinary income; its inversion of the relation between capital costs and current costs (30/70 up to 2000 and 58/42 in 2003) and its success in energizing international relations, which landed soft loans and the donation of appreciable monetary and material resources, including dozens of garbage trucks by Japan. A particularly popular feature is that by May this year it had provided deeds for 11,287 lots and houses in settlements and low-income neighborhoods.

But Lewites has not been able to complete his main projects. He hasn’t even started the coastal road along Xolotlán (Lake Managua), and will be lucky if he is the one to inaugurate the lavish Acoustic Shell, a recreational complex including a theater and exhibition halls with an estimated price tag of US$600,000 originally planned for completion by December 2003. The main headache during his administration, however, has been collective urban transport. The interests of powerful transport entrepreneurs sheltered behind the cooperative system have proved to be an unbreach-able barrier and Managua continues to suffer from terrible bus and taxi services.

On the political level, Lewites’ performance has been disparate. While he has been a non-confrontational mayor, “everybody’s mayor” as his slogan put it, he has opposed citizens’ participation at all levels of municipal administration. The former has resulted in an excellent public image and won him many new friends, including President Enrique Bolaños and different financial and commercial groups. The latter has earned him the resentment of community leaders as his government has implemented works according to its own criteria, without necessarily resolving the main problems facing local inhabitants.

Meanwhile, Lewites has distanced himself from his party in all senses, particularly after May 2003, when Daniel Ortega announced Dionisio Marenco as the party’s candidate to replace him, without consulting Lewites on the matter. Since then relations have grown increasingly tense, to the extent that he is now openly considered a “traitor” not only by the upper party echelons, but also by the mid-level structures and a growing sector of the Sandinista grass roots. And while he has never broken with his party, Lewites hasn’t allowed the FSLN to capitalize on his success, which has compounded the difficulties for Marenco, who also suffers limited charisma, the stigma of forming part of the intimate circle of advisers to Sandinista caudillo Daniel Ortega and no previous experience in municipal affairs.

Who is the mayoral favorite?
and with how many councilors?

Despite everything, the division of the anti-Sandinista vote into seven different groupings and the solidity of the FSLN vote strongly suggest that Marenco will be elected mayor of Managua. He has also become the favorite thanks to the lucidity of his ideas, his unusually non-confrontational discourse and intense house-to-house propaganda work, all of which have contributed to the widely held perception that he is the most capable mayoral candidate on offer. He has even succeeded in getting people to forget the never substantiated media accusations that he was somehow involved in February’s murder of journalist Carlos Guadamuz.

All of the national parties and alliances are running candidates for the Managua slot, but all polls published so far show only three with any possibility of winning. With just a few weeks before polling day, it appears to be a two-horse race between PLC candidate Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Barrios (22-35%) and Marenco (25-42%), with Alejando Fiallos, who is running for the Alliance for the Republic (APRE)—the political grouping formed by President Enrique Bolaños—unable to hit the 20% mark. Former Sandinista Edén Pastora, running on the Independent Liberal Party ticket, is pulling between 4% and 8% of the votes, while the other five candidates have managed only 5% to 6% among them.

A separate question is how the capital’s Municipal Council will turn out. According to article 18 of the Municipalities Law, “the government of the municipalities corresponds to a Municipal Council of a deliberative, normative and administrative nature, which will be presided over by the mayor.” It also establishes that “the highest normative authority of local government is the Municipal Council, which will be responsible for establishing the fundamental guidelines of municipal administration in the municipality’s economic, political and social affairs. The Council exercises functions of control and supervision over the mayor’s administrative actions.” So according to law, the real power lies in the Municipal Council and the mayor can only govern effectively if he or she has a majority there.

Managua’s Municipal Council, the largest in the country, has 18 councilors, plus the mayor, who is a fully entitled council member, with the option of an extra, deciding vote in the case of a tie. The number of councilors awarded to each party is proportional to the percentage of votes received by its slate of Council candidates. In the 2000 elections, the PLC came away with 29.19%, the FSLN with 44.01% and the Conservative Party (PC) with 25.23%, thus with the FSLN obtained eight councilors, the PLC six and the Conservatives four. If the latter two groups had joined forces under an anti-Sandinista philosophy, the FSLN would have found itself unable to govern. In fact, Lewites has managed to govern thanks to an alliance between the eight Sandinista councilors and one of the Conservatives, Guillermo Suárez Rivas, who is recognized as an upright and progressive citizen. But it appears that the parties and the citizens themselves have forgotten about this particular reality. Both the election campaign and the public projection of the candidates are exclusively focusing on those running for mayor and deputy mayor, and few even know who is on the party slates for councilor.

Will voters tow the party line?

Some specialists consider it possible that voters won’t necessarily tow the party line for both mayor and councilors in these elections, which could leave the new mayor without a majority in the Municipal Council. Furthermore, it is by no means certain that the victorious mayor will have a majority in the Council even if voters do vote a straight party ticket for both councilors and mayor. As things currently stand, it appears that Marenco will win the mayor’s office with 42-45% of the vote—although Sandinistas swear they will pull over 50%—against 32-38% for the PLC and 15-22% for APRE.

This means that even if voters don’t vote for the mayor of choice and the councilors of party tradition in significant numbers, the FSLN would end up with 7-8 councilors, the PLC 5-7 and APRE 3-5, a Municipal Council nearly identical to the present one. Marenco would thus have to pursue the same strategy as Lewites, guaranteeing the vote of one or two councilors from the other benches, or else forge an alliance with one of the groups.

Managua’s eight other municipalities

As expected, local realities are weighing much more heavily than national political disputes in the other eight municipalities in the department of Managua. In the last elections, the FSLN won five of the them municipalities and the PLC three. (The table in the previous column shows the comparative results of the 2000 municipal elections and the 2001 presidential elections in the department as a whole).

In Tipitapa, the country’s sixth most populous municipality, voters will be using their vote first and foremost in judgment of the administration of current FSLN mayor César Vásquez. Opinions are divided between those who enthusiastically approve of it and those who question, above all, the lack of solutions to the most serious problems in the urban area: the bad state of the roads, the lack of parks and recreational options for young people and children and the lack of sewer and drinking water systems. People in the municipality’s rural communities (15% of the population) judge Vásquez’s administration much more generously, mainly due to the repairs made to almost all of the rural roads and the mass installation of wells and drinking water systems.

The FSLN won Tipitapa in 2000 with 50.46% of the votes. The PLC managed 37.9% and the Conservatives 7.51%. Although he has six of the ten votes in the Municipal Council, Vásquez has governed for almost his entire period through consensus. This has allowed his party to neutralize any criticism from the current candidates, and is why all of those aspiring to replace him are stressing that they will continue the work he initiated. It will be a battle between Liberals and Sandinistas, and while the FSLN could hold on to the government, it will be hard pushed to repeat its absolute majority.

In Ticuantepe, San Rafael del Sur and Ciudad Sandino, the respective Sandinista mayors Manuel Salvador Ampié, Noel Cerda and Manuel Pinell have done notably good work, as recognized by people from all sides. There is thus a good chance that the FSLN will win again in those three municipalities, while the Liberals are the favorites in Mateare and Villa El Carmen and they might just win in San Francisco Libre for the first time. In El Crucero, Social Christian politician and former contra leader Azucena Ferrey is running for the FSLN through its alliance with the Convergence. She will be slugging it out with the pro-Alemán PLC candidate Carlos Hernández, and it is difficult to forecast a winner there.

On the departmental level, APRE’s votes in the capital could allow it to emulate the Conservative performance of 2000, while the Liberals will find it hard to attract more than 35% of the votes and the FSLN will probably improve on the 44% it drew in the last two elections. The FSLN should therefore win in Managua and at least another three municipalities and the Liberals in two. In the other three the results are still too close to predict.

Granada, Diriá, Diriomo, Nandaime

There are four departments in the Pacific strip south of Managua (Masaya, Carazo, Rivas and Granada), with the most important part of the population located in their capitals (Masaya, Jinotepe, Rivas and Granada, respectively), as well as the cities of Nindirí, Diriamba, La Concepción, Masatepe and Nandaime, all with over 30,000 inhabitants. This area, known as Region IV during the 1980s, concentrates almost 900,000 inhabitants, over 520,000 of voting age. (A comparison of the voting patterns in all four departments during the last two elections is shown in the table below.

Along with the country’s central zone, this is where the pro-Bolaños alliance APRE is its strongest. In fact, APRE has a very good chance of winning Granada—traditionally associated with the Conservative Party, which is an active part of the alliance—and of disputing Masaya, although it appears that the PLC will hold onto its municipal government. In Rivas, where the Liberals will almost certainly triumph, APRE could force the FSLN into third place. Meanwhile, in Jinotepe, where the Sandinistas are firm favorites, APRE could just squeeze out the PLC and come in second.

As in 2000, the second most disputed place after Managua will be Granada. In 2000, the Conservative Party’s 34.75% of the vote was enough to give it victory, with the FSLN attracting 31.81% and the PLC 30.95%. This time around APRE is represented by Dionisio Cuadra Shultz, a business executive from an aristocratic family. The PLC Liberals have selected Saraberta Arévalo, whose candidacy has been strengthened thanks to the use of public charity to attract votes. The FSLN’s Convergence alliance is running Álvaro Chamorro Mora, a candidate with Conservative roots who was the city’s last mayor during the Somoza dictatorship and is a brother of the current mayor. Although he is an acceptable candidate, the FSLN has a very weak structure in Granada, where its leaders have so little influence that they were unable even to complete their list of board candidates for all the voting centers. According to various sources, any of the three candidates could win, with a slight advantage going to the PLC in view of the corrupt administration of the current Conservative mayor and the anti-Sandinista leanings of most voters.

Whoever wins will have to make alliances to govern and get the needed votes from the ten municipal councilors, four of whom will probably be from the party that takes the mayor’s office, with three each going to the other two.

There are four other municipalities in the rest of the department of Granada. There is a similar situation to Granada in the municipality of Diriá, currently governed by the PLC, with APRE apparently enjoying a slight advantage. The FSLN might hold on to the municipal government in Diriomo and support from the rural population could allow it to retake Nandaime, which it lost in 2000.

Masaya: One enigma and several predictions

In Masaya, the rural area and the indigenous neighborhood of Monimbó hold the key to which of the three main candidates comes out on top. In 2000, PLC candidate Carlos Iván Hüeck, with a pro-Somoza background and pro-Alemán present, won the race on the back of the rural vote (21% of the electorate), despite losing in the urban area. He attracted 40.65% of the vote, the FSLN 37.57% and the Conservatives 15.17%. But the Liberals are deeply divided this year, which could favor Convergence candidate Orlando Noguera, from one of the city’s most traditional families and with a good reputation as a capable professional. Both the FSLN and APRE, which is running Filadelfo Ramírez, can only be helped by the disastrous performance of Mayor Hüeck, whose term has been spattered with constant corruption scandals.

The candidate running for the former contras’ National Resistance Party (PRN) is Jorge Luis Gutiérrez, who was on the verge of being the Sandinista candidate and might pull enough votes from either the FSLN or the PLC to be decisive. However, Liberal candidate Gloria Guevara, a passionate member of an evangelical church and until recently Hüeck’s deputy mayor, has seen her initial disadvantage shrink due to the work of the evangelical churches. It isn’t clear, however, if this will be enough to allow her to retake the mayor’s office or if either Noguera or Ramírez really has a chance of winning.

In 2000, the PLC won six out of nine municipal governments in the department of Masaya, with the FSLN taking the remaining three. As in the municipality of Masaya, the key element in all eight others in the department will be the behavior of the Liberal vote. If it divides between the PLC and APRE, the Convergence is likely to take several historically Liberal governments as well as hold on to Masatepe. The Sandinistas will probably win Catarina, Tisma, Niquinohomo and Nandasmo. The Liberals will have a real struggle holding onto Nindirí and San Juan de la Concepción and will comfortably win San Juan de Oriente. There is still a major question mark over who will win Masaya.

Carazo: Jinotepe, Diriamba, San Marcos...

In the 2000 municipal elections, the FSLN lost three of the four municipalities it was governing in the department of Carazo, including the capital city of Jinotepe, a renowned Sandinista bastion. On that occasion, ailing Tomás Guevara—over eighty years old and the city’s last Somocista mayor—came away victorious with 50.16% of the votes. But Guevara opted for President Bolaños when the conflict broke out between him and Alemán while the four PLC councilors passed over to the opposition. Left no choice but to ally with the FSLN bench, Guevara has just about managed to keep his administration going by using his “double” vote as mayor. In recent years, that marriage of convenience has also become a partnership for corruption, the last example of which was authorization for a free trade assembly plant zone on the site of the city’s main water deposits in exchange for US$20,000 for each of the five councilors who voted in favor.

The Sandinistas proposed a candidate from the Sandinista Renovation Movement, one of the parties in the Convergence alliance. Businessman Álvaro Portocarrero, known as “Chimín,” has the virtue of uniting the vast majority of the Sandinista grass roots, after their division and the subsequent abstention of many led to the FSLN’s loss of Jinotepe in 2000. Portocarrero should win comfortably and could even achieve an absolute majority over Julio Hernández of the PLC and Miriam Álvarez of APRE. Despite enjoying a great deal of prestige, Álvarez is suffering from a late-starting candidacy and overwhelming discontent with the current mayor, among those protected by President Bolaños.

Thanks to its economic importance and even larger population, Diriamba is as important as Jinotepe. In 2000, the Sandinistas managed to take the government away from two consecutive Liberal administrations by just 219 votes, pulling 40.49% to the PLC’s 39.12%. FSLN Mayor Manuel Cruz’s formidable administration and the characteristics of current candidate Fernando Baltodano—a member of one of the local coffee-based bourgeoisie families—should ensure the FSLN control over the municipal government and possibly give it an absolute majority.

In the other six municipalities, a heated internal party dispute in San Marcos should lead to the FSLN’s defeat for the first time since 1990, and it is almost certain that the APRE candidate, businessman Leopoldo Zepeda, will come out on top. APRE is also favored to win in Dolores and La Paz, while the FSLN should retake El Rosario and Santa Teresa, and the PLC should hold on to La Conquista, where it traditionally wins an absolute majority. In sum, the Sandinistas will probably win four municipal governments, with APRE and the PLC likely to take one each and dispute the two others.

Rivas, Tola, Altagracia, Moyogalpa...

The city of Rivas will probably remain under PLC control. Its candidate, radio personality René Martínez—the man heard shouting out “Ar-nol-do, Ar-nol-do, Ar-nol-do!” during every party event—has charisma and support in poor neighborhoods thanks to the charity work he does as part of his radio program. The Sandinistas are in danger of being pushed back into third place, despite fielding Auxiliadora López, a candidate with an impeccable background. The problem is that the electorate there is strongly anti-Sandinista and will probably prefer to give the job to businessman Miguel Ángel Mora, who is running on the APRE ticket.

One curious detail about the Liberal candidate is that days after the triumph of the Sandinista revolution in 1979, he changed his second surname from Somoza to Sandino because he was afraid he would be shot, and he used his job in the state radio station to revile the counterrevolution. As soon as the FSLN lost power in 1990, he befriended Arnoldo Alemán and reinstated his maternal surname.

If he wins, Martínez will have a tough job ahead of him as the city has been practically abandoned by current mayor Mauricio Urtecho, also an Alemán supporter. There is no market, the streets are like lunar landscapes and the municipality lacks productive businesses, which leaves most young people no other alternative than to cross the nearby border into Costa Rica in search of work.

The PLC will be defeated in the two municipalities on the beautiful island of Ometepe, as the Sandinistas should hold on to Altagracia and APRE to Moyogalpa (taken by the Conservatives last time around). The FSLN is in danger of losing control of San Juan del Sur, due to discontent among its rural base with the party’s mayoral candidate Eduardo Hollman. It could also lose in Cárdenas, due to the deficient way Mayor Luis Argueta has been running things. In both cases, the PLC could benefit. The FSLN should win Belén, Potosí and this time around it should also win Tola with Loyda García Obando, who had victory snatched away from him by the PLC in 2000 thanks to brazen electoral fraud. Alemán still has extensive and valuable agricultural properties there. APRE has a good shot at winning Buenos Aires and the PLC will almost certainly hold on to Jorge. So the tally is that the PLC will probably win two municipal governments, the Sandinistas four and APRE two, with another two too close to call.

Juigalpa: The secret’s in the water

Boaco and Chontales are two ideologically conservative and anti-Sandinista departments, as demonstrated by the results of the last two elections (see following table). Because of this tradition, it was a big surprise in 2000 when the FSLN won the municipal government in Juigalpa, the capital of Chontales, though by a relatively slim margin: 39.65% against 33.33% for the PLC and 24.82% for the Conservatives. This year the only reasons the FSLN could end up winning would be the repeated division of the anti-Sandinista vote in these elections combined with another, even more serious problem.

That problem is the household water and sewer systems, both of which require millions in investment. A year ago, FSLN mayor Erving De Castilla started the internationally financed construction of an aqueduct to bring water from Cocibolca (Lake Nicaragua). Because the project’s donor organizations have reasonably enough conditioned their continued support on continuity in the municipal government’s plans, people in Juigalpa are openly commenting that it will be necessary to keep the Sandinistas in office. Juigalpa is also facing exponential growth: the city has doubled its population in just ten years, mainly due to migration from the highlands of peasant populations whose lands have been taken from them by the market.

In addition to the good administration provided by De Castilla, a teacher by profession, the FSLN is favored by the fact that its new candidate, Rito Siles, has the best personal characteristics of any in the running. He was the city’s last mayor during the Sandinista era and his administration is generally positively remembered, though some reproach him for having appropriated several municipal possessions. The PLC candidate, Calixto Bonilla, got the nomination thanks to his intransigent pro-Alemán vocation, although the PLC grass roots criticizes his lack of merit. The landowning bourgeoisie, which has a great deal of influence on local society, looks down on Bonilla’s humble origins and limited education. But if they aren’t happy with him, they’re even less happy with APRE, given that the vast majority of Juigalpa’s Liberals are diehard Alemán supporters.

In the rest of Chontales the Convergence candidates only have any real possibility of contesting the municipal governments of La Libertad and perhaps Acoyapa, and even there it’s limited. The PLC ought to take Villa Sandino, El Coral and El Ayote with little trouble at all. APRE will probably win in Cuapa, Comalapa, Santo Domingo, Santo Tomás and San Pedro de Lóvago. In short, APRE should end up with five municipal governments, the FSLN with between one and two and the PLC with between three and four.

Boaco and Río San Juan

The PLC shouldn’t have too much trouble winning most of the six municipalities in the department of Boaco. Although the Sandinistas are running an excellent candidate—rancher Vivian Orozco—for the capital, the population of Boaco City is a captive vote for the PLC and is almost certain to elect Ligia Carolina Henríquez as mayor. APRE should hold onto the mayor’s office in San José de los Remates and has a good chance of winning Camoapa. The only municipality where the Sandinistas might be able to put up a fight against the Liberals is San Lorenzo.

In the department of Río San Juan, the least populous in the country (96,000 inhabitants), only three of the six municipalities will see any real competition: the capital city of San Carlos, San Miguelito and El Almendro. In 2000, only 21,629 inhabitants exercised the right to vote, with the following results: PLC 50.37%, FSLN 37.75%, Christian Way 6.71% and the Conservative Party 5.18%. A year later, 32,831 people voted in the presidential elections. That time around, the PLC received 63.65%, the FSLN 35.06% and the PC 1.29%. This year 52,852 citizens are eligible to vote, 22,910 of them in San Carlos.

In Sandinista-held San Carlos, the race will be between the FSLN and the PLC, with the other parties doing well to break the 5% mark. The administration of Mayor Luis Coronel has been mediocre and even controversial in the past six months. The main problem is the terrible state of the streets. People are criticizing Coronel for deciding to repair the main streets—including the one that passes in front of his house—during the rainy season, which lasts for nine months in that southeastern Caribbean corner of the country, doing all of the works at once during the electoral campaign. Both main contenders are fielding young candidates, with Marisol McRea standing for the FSLN and lawyer Carlos Olivas for the PLC. In 2000, the FSLN won the mayor’s office by just 31 votes (47.7% to the PLC’s 47.36%). This election looks set to be just as hotly contested, although the PLC does appear to have a slight advantage.

Things will also be close in San Miguelito, although the PLC has gained an advantage in recent days thanks to its union with the National Resistance Party, whose candidate stood down. The main contenders in Almendro, meanwhile, are the PLC and APRE, with the PLC in the lead. The PLC should easily take Morrito as well as San Juan del Norte, which is the least populated municipality in the country with just 322 inhabitants. And finally things will be as hotly contended in El Castillo as in San Carlos.

Abstention in the Caribbean coast?

In Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast, expectations are very low for these elections. Only 37% of registered voters turned out for the elections of the two autonomous governments in 2002, while abstention levels in the 2000 municipal elections and the 2001 presidential vote were 58.5% and 56.5% respectively, the highest in the country. One of the few novelties this time compared to 2000, which might help reduce the abstention rate, is the participation of Yatama, the party of the Miskito people, which was stopped from participating in the last municipal elections on a technicality many believe to have been an expression of the FSLN-PLC pact in the Supreme Electoral Council.

Generally speaking, coast people are tired of participating in elections that come around every two years at least—this is their ninth election in 14 years given that the autonomous government elections every four years are staggered with the four-year municipal elections and seldom overlap with the five-year presidential sequence. Even more to the point, they don’t feel that elections amount to much, since the national parties (which are increasingly dominating the autonomous elections as well) don’t reflect, understand or even care much about their interests while the regional parties have little influence, few resources and scant accumulated experience. Meanwhile, the situation faced by the different indigenous and Afro-Nicaraguan peoples in the North and South Atlantic Autonomous Regions (RAAN and RAAS, respectively) gets worse with each passing day.

This year the political map produced in the North Atlantic Autonomous Region should be qualitatively different, given Yatama’s participation. In 2000, abstention levels in municipalities with an indigenous majority exceeded 75%, partially reflecting an organized boycott. In the port city of Bilwi—known as Puerto Cabezas by the mestizo population—only 5,078 people voted out of an electoral roll of 27,500, an 81.5% abstention rate. According to Supreme Electoral Council figures, 201, 997 citizens are over the voting age of 16 in the RAAS and 122,773 in the RAAN, but only 85% have taken the trouble to acquire the identity card required for voting.

Although some doubt that Yatama’s participation will guarantee a massive turnout on election day, it will certainly animate the campaign. There is some discontent among the population following Yatama’s good results in the 2002 autonomous elections (almost 22%) that placed its candidates in the regional government, because rather than defend the Caribbean peoples, as they promised from the opposition, they have defending the central government. The clearest example was seen in the recent struggle to get Bilwi’s decrepit pier renovated and to guarantee fuel supplies, in which the regional government declared a state of emergency backed by both business and civic protesters, cutting off the region for six days. When the Bolaños government finally agreed to address the infrastructure demands but dismissed as Sandinista rabblerousing the serious social demands tacked on by some, Yatama’s main leaders broke the impasse by siding with the government. In fact, Yatama’s electoral victories in the RAAN, where the Miskito population is concentrated, have been on a downhill slide since the first autonomous .government elections in 1990, when this former armed Miskito organization fell just one person short of winning an absolute majority in the 45-member Regional Council.

Bilwi: All kinds of problems

Despite being elected by an effective minority of Bilwi’s voting population, Sandinista Mayor Guillermo Espinoza’s work in Bilwi has earned him second place among the best mayors in the country, behind Valenzuela in Estelí. Himself of mestizo origins, Espinoza has earned a great deal of appreciation even among the city’s large Miskito population, starting with the moment he took office, when he reduced his own salary and those of his councilors by half. Another example was when the municipal health inspectors found that his wife’s restaurant was selling underweight lobster: she appealed to her husband after inspectors ordered that the products be confiscated, but he ratified the decision.

Bilwi has all kinds of problems, but perhaps the most important challenges are the renovation of the pier, which is administered by the central government; drug trafficking and public safety; the construction of a new market; and plans to encourage small-scale and industrial fishing to provide jobs and energize the ailing port economy. This latter problem is further complicated on two fronts. First, the fishing banks are being exhausted to such an extent that the closed season has been extended from two to three months; and second, scuba fishing, particularly for lobster, generates serious health problems and could be outlawed, which would increase the already high unemployment levels.

The FSLN is hoping to build on Espinoza’s good reputation by running Afro-Caribbean candidate Loria Raquel Dixon for mayor. Dixon’s work over the past 20 years has earned her a great deal of prestige among all of the communities, regardless of their ethnic extraction. Her main rival will be the Yatama candidate, veteran Miskito leader Elizabeth Enríquez, who has also has a good image, but could suffer from the fact that her party is seen as defending the central government. The third main candidate is Emilio Pasquier, a mestizo running for the PLC, although polls show him far behind. No other candidate has any real possibility of competing, even PAMUC, the other regional party.

Siuna, Waspam, Bonanza, Rosita, Waslala...

The other two important municipalities in the RAAN region are Siuna, one of the region’s three mining areas, and Waspam, the “capital” of the Miskito-dominated Río Coco, which divides Nicaragua from Honduras in that part of the country. The PLC is currently governing in Siuna, where there is a predominance of mestizos, while the Sandinistas won last time around in Waspam, albeit with abstention levels similar to those of Bilwi. The FSLN appears to be the favorite in Siuna, due mainly to the Liberal mayor’s disastrous administration. In Waspam it looks like victory will go to Rubén Sujo Tucker, a prosperous half Miskito-half Chinese trader running for PAMUC, which has its greatest strength in that municipality. Yatama, meanwhile, is the frontrunner in Prinzapolka, also a largely river-based Miskito municipality.

The Sandinistas will probably lose Rosita, another mining region, to the PLC, due to the terrible performance of the current mayor, Róger Acevedo, but should hold on to Bonanza, the third in the mining triangle that also marks the homeland of the Sumo-Mayangna people. The PLC should win again in Waslala, although APRE is running a good candidate and the divided vote could just let the FSLN in. So the FSLN should win three municipal governments, with one each going to the PLC, Yatama and PAMUC and another too close to call.

Bluefields: The merits of the outgoing mayor

In 2000, FSLN candidate Moisés Arana was the surprise winner in Bluefields, the capital city of the RAAS. Since then he has earned prestige that should help the party make advances in other municipalities. Only 11,434 of the 25,000 registered voters participated in the 2000 elections, with the FSLN receiving 43.9%, the PLC 38.71%, Christian Way 6.35%, the Conservatives 2.45% and PAMUC 8.6%. The city currently has over 50,000 inhabitants, with 31,959 citizens old enough to vote. It is hard to imagine the actual number who get out and vote breaking the 20,000 mark.

Arana is a coast-born mestizo Catholic and fervent representative of liberation theology who has not only made honest use of the municipal resources, but has also carried out public works in historically forgotten sectors. He was responsible for the bridge linking Kukra River to the rest of the city and a bridge over the Río Maíz, and has plans to build five more in the immediate future. The old Somoza sugar-mill town of Kukra Hill is a Liberal bastion, but was ignored by previous mayors until Arana’s administration built 40 houses there.

It also totally redid the road leading to the Bluefields airport, enduring fierce criticism during the repair process and receiving unanimous congratulations after it was finished, constructed a boulevard, renovated the central square and, particularly in neighborhoods where people were forced to walk in mud, installed sidewalks using sea shells as a novel construction material. Most important of all for the inhabitants of this sea-level city, a desalinization plant is about to be installed along with a pipe network that will provide the citizens with safe drinking water for the first time ever. Despite the fact that locals say it rains “13 months a year,” the water problem is so serious that the state water company ENACAL has only 500 clients hooked into its unhealthy and sometimes fetid water supply. Others rely on individual rainwater tanks and/or wells, themselves often contaminated.

The FSLN candidate is Lawrence Omier, a relatively young man who was the city’s previous mayor under the PLC banner, despite receiving his political education within the Sandinista ranks. While his administration was not as successful as Arana’s, his Afro-Caribbean origins, his charm and his backing of sports should guarantee him the vote of his fellow Afro-Caribbeans, who usually decide who wins or loses in the city. APRE has chosen Alda Miriam Santamaría, who represents the city’s aristocracy and has no grassroots support. She also has a traumatic family history, as her father was murdered at his front door by a Colombian who then committed suicide. The PLC is running Luis Germán Gutiérrez, a peasant who recently returned from Costa Rica and has little possibility of attracting the grassroots vote.

South Atlantic Autonomous Region forecasts

In the other 11 municipalities in the South Atlantic Autonomous Region, it looks like the FSLN will retake Kukra Hill, snatched away by the PLC in 2000. The right conditions also exist for an FSLN victory in the municipality at the mouth of the Río Grande and it could win Pearl Lagoon, where its candidate is George Howard, who did good work as mayor of Corn Island before moving to this municipality some years ago. The PLC should win the other eight municipalities comfortably, including Corn Island and the big population centers of Nueva Guinea (even larger than Bluefields), El Rama and Paiwas. There the PLC’s main rivals are the APRE candidates, but they do not appear strong enough to deprive the PLC of any of these municipal governments.

A final forecast

Given the picture described above, the political map emerging from the municipal elections could look something like this: the FSLN appears assured of winning at least 57 municipal governments, the PLC 53, APRE 11, Yatama 1 and PAMUC 1. Another 29 municipalities are still up in the air, including four departmental capitals: Jinotega, Masaya, Granada and San Carlos (see table on the next page).

In August of this year, the CSE released the following information regarding voter identity cards:

Total number of citizens over 16: 3,306,305
Total voter identity cards manufactured: 2,897,161
Total voter identity cards issued: 2,684,435
Voter identity cards not yet picked up: 212,726
Supplementary documents not yet picked up: 107,689

Based on the more recent retrieval rate, it is fair to assume that the real electoral roll will be around 2,590,600 by the deadline for potential voters to pick up either their identity card or the supplementary document issued to allow citizens who lost or have yet to be issued their identity card to vote. This would already imply the effective abstention of 21.65% of the country’s eligible citizenry. Opinion polls put the probable abstention rate on voting day at between 25-35% of registered voters, so it is probable that roughly 1.8 million Nicaraguans will vote, or 55% of the total citizenry over 16 years of age. The FSLN could receive around 780,000 votes (45%), the PLC around 650,000 (36%) and APRE around 250,000 (14%). The remainder will be divided among the ten other parties and alliances.

By comparison, in the 2000 municipal elections, the PLC won a total of 636,865 votes (41.55%), the FSLN 618,821 (40.37%) and the Conservative Party 203,845 (13.3%), with 1,532,816 citizens exercising their right to vote and 44.26% abstaining for one reason or another.

The last elections under this electoral law?

These elections should be the last carried out under the current Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) leadership and the exclusionary Electoral Law reforms resulting from the PLC-FSLN pact. The 2006 presidential elections will be held under a law whose new reforms should include a reduction of the number of CSE magistrates elected in 2005. It is not yet clear whether the option of independent “popular subscription” candidacies be allowed back for future municipal elections.

So far, these elections have been the least polarized in recent years and there is no indication that this will change in the final days. The campaigns of all parties in the vast majority of municipalities have respected their rivals and the very real polarization pervading and contaminating almost all national issues has barely been perceptible. APRE is the only exception, and then only in Managua, where its candidate maintains a discourse aimed against the PLC and FSLN “caudillos” in an effort to claim the center ground for himself. And even that is tame stuff compared to some past election campaigns.

The relaxed atmosphere is also reflected in the total absence of incidents involving activists from different parties, which probably reflects the fact that genuine municipal matters have ended up imposing themselves on the contest. This mood, the prevalence of local over national issues and an electoral participation topping the 60% mark could force the caudillos to forget forever their unfortunate shared idea, aired less than a year ago, of depriving municipal elections of their independence by holding them together with the presidential ones so people would be more likely to vote straight party ballots.

William Grigsby Vado is a Nicaraguan journalist

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