Students Test Electoral Waters
Nicaraguans were given a preview of the upcoming February 1990 general elections on the nation's college campuses on May 17 and 18. In what has been called the presidential election in miniature, students cast their votes for a president and a vice-president to head the XII Conference of the Nicaraguan National Student Union, UNEN.
The universities have been a bastion of Sandinista support since well before the 1979 triumph; candidates of the FSLN's youth movement have never lost a campus election against the weak and usually spiritless opposition. This year's campaign, however, featured a particularly heated contest between the Sandinista Youth (JS-19) and three opposition groupings spanning the political spectrum. Those who got the 5% of student body signatures necessary to field candidates were FUN-OJO, or University Front, and the Organization of Opposition Youth, which together represent mainly the views of the rightwing opposition umbrella Coordinadora; Acción, a student party linked with one of the Social Christian factions; and the student wing of the leftist Revolutionary Workers' Party (PRT).
Though the race was more polemic than in the past, the Sandinista Youth's slate of "María and Mario" (María Ramírez for president and Mario Chamorro for vice president) won an overwhelming victory with 63.4% of the votes. Second place went to AcciOn with 18.8%, followed by FUN-OJO with 11.5%, and PRT with 6.3%; the JS-19 thus beat the opposition on the left and the right by an almost two-to-one margin. Not counting 529 nullified votes and 1,118 abstentions, 15,083 effective votes were cast, or 68% of the student population, which numbers nearly 22,000.
The Sandinista Youth victory was not a clean sweep, however, as Acción took several university departments and schools. While the vote for the JS-19 nearly equals the FSLN's 67% in the 1984 general elections, it is not as high as it has typically received in past student elections, when it ran virtually uncontested from the right. Acción presidential candidate Fanor Avendaño commented: "Our participation in this campaign has been healthy, because we consider it to have opened a space in the university, which is a symptom of the national democratic process. An abstention on our part would have been an error, since [the election] has converted us into a force, an option."
Commentators on both the right and left conceded that the elections were free and fair. The National Electoral Committee of UNEN supervised the campaign. Balloting at 39 polling stations throughout the country was secret and direct, watched over by observers approved by all the parties involved. Oscar Orozco, vice-presidential candidate for Acción and himself an observer, stated that "the voting was clean and honest, within the legal framework; we cannot speak of fraud." Partly as a result of the success of this electoral process, Dr. Rodolfo Sandino Argüello, Dean of the Law Faculty at the University of Central America and a head of UNEN's National Electoral Committee, was named on June 8 as the "notable" non-partisan member of the Supreme Electoral Council for the national elections as well as its vice president. His selection for that controversial slot indicates his integrity in the eyes of both the government and the opposition in handling the student elections.
Contentious IssuesThe campaign was rife with controversy that occasionally exceeded platform promises for the future. As on the national level, where the right has argued that the military not be enfranchised, the student right also challenged who should have the right to vote. Major disagreement centered on the opposition's claim that students in the Preparatory Faculty and Saturday Courses were not actually university students and therefore ineligible. These courses of study had been established by the revolution to aid the children of disadvantaged families and members of the military so they could receive an advanced education. As part of the higher education subsystem, they were determined technically eligible to vote. In the words of a "prepa" student, "they are denying not only our right to vote, but also to study, because they know we are the children of workers, who support the revolution and struggle for a better future for our people." When, as expected, these schools voted overwhelmingly for the Sandinista Youth, La Prensa decried this "fraudulent" vote of the "military and militants."
Also of note was the divergence in style between the opposition and Sandinista Youth platforms. Both Acción and FUN-OJO offered such crowd-pleasing propositions as better parking, better libraries, better food in the cafeterias, a 100% increase in teachers' salaries and the abolition of military service. JS-19 countered that these ideas were unrealistic given the current economic crisis, and that the opposition did not seem to realize that the country was still at war.
For its part, JS-19 proposed the creation of a System of Academic Regulations for each of the 13 higher education centers, greater student involvement in university decision-making such as the appointment of faculty and courses of study, maintaining grants and adjusting them for inflation, and freedom of teaching and expression of ideas. The will to listen and respond to students' needs was also stressed, as the students themselves are the real base of the student movement. On the military issue, JS-19 maintained that defense was still vital to the survival of the revolution, but that students in the army should be called up with the academic calendar in mind to allow them to finish their courses. JS-19 candidate María Ramírez stated that together, "students, teachers and University authorities must improve the quality of teaching, so that the new professionals, with their technical skills and with love, could contribute to the development of the country."
The presidential candidate for Acción, Fanor Avendaño, came under sharp criticism for leaving the country in the midst of the electoral campaign to search for funds in the United States. FUN-OJO was accused of accepting money from the United States Information Agency, whose logo appeared on some of their electoral material. But despite this commonality in sponsorship and the goal of defeating the Sandinista Youth, the two opposition parties were unable to forge an alliance. At one point, Acción rejected an offer by FUN-OJO for such an alliance, saying that this latter party was too tied to its parent "Group of 14" opposition parties. Avendaño claimed that while he considered himself a Social Christian, no party controlled him. In the end, Alejandro Ortega of FUN-OJO blamed the electoral loss on the opposition's lack of unity and accused La Prensa of being Acción's "official voice," featuring more stories from their point of view. Ortega proposed that the University Front, FUN, continue as a student organization to counter the accusation that the opposition only appears every two years for the UNEN elections.
First woman presidentIn winning the election, María Ramírez became the first woman to head UNEN. A 22-year-old biology student and the daughter of Nicaraguan Vice President Sergio Ramírez, she has served in literacy and coffee brigades and was the president of the Federation of Secondary Students in 1985. She is known as a hard worker and even takes the bus to school, not relying on her family name or wealth. Her political style focuses on the forging of consensus and achieving results through pragmatism. Still, she is quite firm where she stands: "I am a Sandinista, and in the principles of Sandinismo we are to represent the interests of the people. It's not a question of playing political games to get votes." The significance of this election for the general election was not lost on her either: "This triumph reinforces popular support for the FSLN and its youth branch, as a prelude to the February 1990 presidential elections." As such, she considers the participation of the opposition students as setting an important precedent.
All sides, not just the Sandinistas, seem to hope that the open spirit of debate in the micro-level of student elections will encourage the democratic process in the February national elections. Even though La Prensa pointed out what it believes were incidents of "irregularities," it conceded that the Sandinista Youth won the elections, if mainly due to opposition disunity and lack of effective organization. The naming of Dr. Sandino Argüello to the Supreme Electoral Council appears to be a sign of confidence in the student electoral process and a wish to see this duplicated in February. Of course, the student elections were not subject to as much international manipulation as the general elections will surely be. In this respect, the lesson from the students may only have limited application where the political game has much higher stakes.