Government/Opposition Accords Prepare Terrain for Elections
At the close of a marathon National Dialogue, the Nicaraguan government and the opposition political parties signed a crucial series of agreements dealing with the electoral process on Thursday morning, August 4 (see "Political Agreement" in Documents section, this issue). With the campaign due to kick off officially on August 25, the government, political parties and the Supreme Electoral Council had spent the previous 23 hours in a "National Dialogue" to iron out details of the electoral process.
The accord deals with all aspects of the electoral process, ranging from modifications of the electoral law to a government agreement to suspend the military draft from September 1 through the elections next February. Observers to the dialogue included the United Nations, the Organization of American States, the US-based Center for Democracy, the Nicaraguan National Assembly and the Supreme Court.
President Ortega announced the dialogue in early July. The government announcement and the dialogue itself were taken in response to opposition demands. After the February Presidents' summit resulted in moving the elections forward to February 1990, Ortega met with opposition parties in bilateral discussions to hear their views on suggestions for revising the electoral and media laws. Many of the suggestions were taken into account in the new laws. Criticisms remained, however, and the National Dialogue was the government's attempt to listen and respond. While the parties pretended surprise at what they termed the Sandinistas' newfound seriousness, the dialogue and resulting agreements were only one more of the now long list of Sandinista concessions made in order to reach a lasting peace.
The agreement positively influenced the Central American Presidents' summit held in Tela, Honduras, on August 5-7. The first article of the agreement calls on the five Presidents to approve a plan for the demobilization, relocation or voluntary repatriation of the contras in Honduras, following guidelines set out in the Costa del Sol agreement signed by the Presidents in February. That was just what happened—the region's heads of state signed a detailed accord outlining the process for the contras' demobilization by early December (see "The Month" in this issue).
The importance of the contras' demobilization before the elections cannot be over-emphasized. Religious workers in rural areas frequented by contras have noted that as early as July, contras were telling peasants that they had ways of figuring out who votes for the Sandinistas, and that anyone doing so would be promptly killed. The inevitable result of contra presence in the mountains would be that peasants would have to choose between voting and staying alive—most likely increasing the abstention rate considerably.
FSLN opens with concessionsPolitical party leaders from across the political spectrum agreed that the National Dialogue had been an unprecedented coming together of radically divergent views. "The achievement was to have carried out a negotiation process where both the government and the opposition had to give and take," said Julio Ramón García Vílchez of the Social Christian Party shortly after the dialogue.
The first party to present its proposal in the dialogue was the FSLN, represented by Vice-Coordinator Bayardo Arce. Arce addressed just one point, the military draft. Noting that it would be impossible to dismantle the EPS while the contras continue to be a military force in Honduras, he proposed that the draft be suspended from September through the elections.
Some sort of suspension or ending of the draft has been an opposition demand for some time, and almost all the parties had listed it among their proposals. Each party was willing to accept the FSLN's proposal, although they recognized that the government would ask for concessions from the parties in return.
It asked for only one. Looking toward the imminent presidential summit in Honduras, President Ortega urged the parties to unite with the government and publicly demand of the Central American Presidents a concrete and immediate plan for demobilization of the contras. As the dialogue continued into the evening, the government granted more and more of the opposition demands while continuing to push for that crucial point, agreed to in principal in February's presidential summit.
Party positionsEach party at the dialogue—the twelve in the National Opposition Union (UNO) represented by five members, eight other opposition parties, and the FSLN—was given a chance to present its own proposals regarding the electoral process. As the parties made their statements, the current alliances and divisions became increasingly clear. UNO, as the representative of the far Right, emphasized its view that the government was seeking a propaganda coup rather than real reform. Other rightwing parties not in UNO, such as the Democratic Conservative Party and the Social Christians, expressed concerns and demands similar to UNO, but clearly apart from UNO's political alliance. The demands of the three parties to the left of the Sandinistas were far different, calling on the government to severely limit any concessions to the "bourgeoisie."
As the parties listed their concerns and demands before the government, certain issues surfaced repeatedly. Almost all of the demands were included in the final document. Some, such as having international observers throughout the election process, were already contained in the existing electoral law, but were restated in the dialogue. Indeed, the UN and the OAS both had official observers at the dialogue itself.
The demands covered general amnesty for remaining political prisoners, guarantee of no more confiscations, putting the media law under the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) instead of the Interior Ministry, taking two security laws off the books that have been used for prosecuting suspected contra collaborators, moving forward the inauguration to April 25, and details of the electoral process. Among the demands not addressed in the agreement are a private television station and voting outside of Nicaragua. Some issues were partially addressed: a restructuring of the CSE (an advisory commission was formed) and photo IDs (they will be used in the 1996 elections).
The Left signs separate agreementThree parties to the left of the FSLN—the Revolutionary Unity Movement (MUR), the Popular Action Movement (MAP-ML) and the Revolutionary Workers Party (PRT)—joined to condemn what they termed "bourgeois democracy." Carlos Molina of the MUR demanded that "the powers of the past should return to their graves."
While all other parties called for general amnesty, and the government agreed to it in a timetable linked to the contra demobilization, Bonifacio Miranda of the PRT declared, "We want to put all the contras and Somocistas back in prison rather than let more out," and referred directly to Fernando Agüero, leader of the Conservative Social Party and known for his collaboration with Somoza in a 1967 massacre. Agüero was never jailed in Nicaragua, but his return to political activity has caused some to say the Sandinistas are being too lenient with former contras or Somoza cronies.
The three leftwing parties refused to sign the full dialogue agreement, stating as their primary objection the government's commitment to general amnesty. Instead, they signed a separate document covering three points: that the Honduran government demobilize the contras, that the US government respect Nicaragua's national sovereignty and prohibit CIA intervention in the electoral process, and that workers be guaranteed the democratic exercise of their rights.
The final documentThe final agreement signed by the 18 remaining parties grants the majority of the demands of all the parties. The following summary of the agreement explains what each aspect entails.
Military draft. The draft will be suspended from September 1 to February 25, meaning that parties cannot accuse the army of conscripting their activists.
Amnesty. Those prisoners who have already been recommended by the Nicaraguan National Assembly Human Rights Commission for release will be released. Others convicted under security laws will be released when demobilization is completed.
Security law. The government agreed to abolish the Law for the Maintenance of Order and Public Security (after going through the legal process with the National Assembly). Opposition leaders have charged that the law is used to convict suspected contra collaborators without proof. International Human Rights Organizations have also criticized it.
Police law. The government agreed to abolish this law (through the National Assembly). On the books since Somoza's time, this law gives the police the right to jail anyone for up to six months without trial on charges of vagrancy, drunkenness or disturbing the peace. It has been criticized for granting the police judicial powers.
Media law. The CSE will now administer the law, which at most allows for a three-day suspension for the most serious and repeated violations (see "Nicaragua's New Media Law," July envío). The opposition's chief objection to the media law approved in May of this year was that the Ministry of the Interior would administer it, opening it to accusations of being controlled by a military body.
Television. More, and subsidized, access to TV for parties' electoral campaigning. Inauguration. Moved forward to April 25, two months after the election. (See document for explanation of constitutional implications.)
Confiscations. A commitment that there will be no property confiscations for political motivations.
Electoral law. Thirty details guaranteeing open elections including the following:
* Parties have access to voter registration lists 60 days before elections.
* Public buildings cannot be used in the electoral campaign.
* Poll-watchers will be allowed to inspect ballot boxes before voting begins.
* Anyone can conduct opinion polls up to 30 days before the election. Questions and methodology must be published.
* Indelible ink on fingers of those who voted to prevent repeat voting.
* Parties will form an advisory commission to the CSE.
* Official observers will be guaranteed access to all aspects of the electoral process (already part of the existing electoral law).
And what did the government gain in return for its concessions? All political parties, including those led by former contra figures, joined together in making an international call to demobilize the contras before the elections in order to be able to carry out free and open elections. "We want peace in Nicaragua," Silviano Matamoros, of a Conservative faction within UNO, told envío after the dialogue. "Nicaraguans are dying, and we as the opposition have a responsibility to add our grain of sand to the peace process." In addition, the political parties requested that "all governments with interest in the Central American region" abstain from covert activities in the elections, and send aid through legal channels instead. The clear message to the US administration to cease covert activities is significant, since some of the signatory parties could be expected to receive covert aid.
"These are concessions in function of a higher interest," said President Ortega in his closing speech at the dialogue, "which is to achieve peace for the Nicaraguan people. I don't see these concessions as putting in danger the basic gains of July 19, 1979."
Reactions positive across party lines"It has been a common struggle. The government, the FSLN, the opposition political parties, both those not in the UNO and those of us in the UNO, worked together to reach these agreements that are transcendentally important for peace in the country and for an electoral process on acceptable terms." So said Elí Altamirano, leader of the Communist Party and member of the rightwing UNO, just after the signing of the agreement on August 4.
Many had expected the dialogue to be similar to the one that took place in 1987 and 1988, where 26 sessions did not lead to even one agreement. Observers of the political process in Nicaragua suspected before the dialogue that UNO planned to walk out soon after the talks began. Their opening statement supports this; after listing their series of demands, they denounced the dialogue as a propaganda ploy by the Sandinistas to gain points before the Central American summit. "It is our opinion, Mr. President," read Silviano Matamoros, "that this dialogue tries to present an appearance of flexibility and fulfillment of electoral guarantees and democratization promises, when really you only want to impose rules that help the governing party.”
UNO did not walk out, however, because it rapidly became apparent that the government was serious about reaching an acceptable agreement and that its commitment extended to making serious changes in the electoral process, as evidenced by the initial agreement to suspend the military draft. Given the extent of the government's clear willingness to "give and take," the opposition had no pretext for walking out.
Who is UNO?Six months remain, however, until the elections, and many people continue to watch UNO's participation carefully. Even other opposition party leaders outside of the UNO have expressed doubts about UNO's long-term commitment, saying it might abstain as did a segment of the opposition in 1984.
UNO is a reincarnation of the Coordinadora, a rightwing alliance of parties, unions and the business association COSEP formed in the early eighties. Its brief presidential candidate was Arturo Cruz, who later admitted that the US Embassy had all but told him to refuse to participate in the elections in a blatant attempt to delegitimize them. Given this history and recent Bush predictions of electoral fraud, UNO's existence raises questions of a repeat performance and suspicions that UNO will look for any way to discredit an election it will be hard put to win.
Of the three parties in the Coordinadora in 1984 (the Coordinadora still exists but is not taking an active role in the elections), two are in the UNO (the Social Christians were expelled in June over a dispute about nominations for the Supreme Electoral Council). Four parties that were never in the Coordinadora and did participate in the 1984 elections are now members of UNO, including the supposedly leftist Socialist and Communist parties, together with five parties that formed since the 1984 elections. Where UNO's support lies beyond the leadership core thus remains to be seen as the campaign develops.
The unfolding campaignThe 21 legal parties in Nicaragua descend from four tendencies; Conservative, Liberal, Social Christian and radical Left. The splits have resulted more from individual conflicts within the parties than anything else, making it hard to distinguish 21 political platforms. However, these four tendencies do not necessarily match up with current political alliances—the largest alliance, the 12-party UNO, has as members three of the four Liberal factions, four of the six Conservative factions, three of the four Social Christian factions, and two of the six so-called left factions. The political origins of the UNO parties, ranging from the Communist Party to the Conservatives, thus have little to do with current political alliances.
With so many legal parties in Nicaragua, the question arises as to whether anyone will be able to make sense of the electoral campaign once it begins. Indeed, two hours of the 23-hour dialogue were spent resolving a dispute within the Democratic Conservative Party (PCD). The PCD split again recently, and one faction wants to join UNO while the other does not. In its initial presentation, UNO included the PCD among its list of member parties. Clemente Guido, representing the faction outside of UNO, registered a loud protest, until UNO finally agreed to list only the legally registered parties, since the new faction of the PCD has yet to go through the legalization process.
Party leaders expressed new willingness and commitment to participate in the election after the dialogue. Julio Ramón García of the Social Christian Party (PSC) told envío, "We don't plan to abstain. We don't want to fall in the trap of developing activities to declare an a priori fraud, and be marginalized from the process." The PSC abstained from the 1984 elections as a member of the Coordinadora, and currently has no seats in the National Assembly, and therefore no role in government. The Christian Democratic International, to which the PSC is affiliated, has urged the party to participate in the elections.
No political parties, as we go to print, have announced their presidential candidates yet. Few will even identify specific political platforms, though UNO emphasizes its commitment to private enterprise and "Western-style" democracy.
The Social Christians claim that "our electoral support is found precisely in that large mass of floating voters who don't want to vote for either the Right or the Left, but are looking for something new." Nonetheless, the number of people who are actually found in that large mass of undecided voters remains to be seen. The tenth anniversary of the Sandinista triumph, held July 19, drew over 300,000 people—one third of Managua's population. Despite the shattered economy and the slim hope for short-term relief, the FSLN continues to be the most popular party. Political infighting, lack of a coherent political platform and questionable connections to the contras and the US administration all take away from the opposition parties' support.
With the Central American Accords newly signed, it also remains to be seen if the contra demobilization plan will go as scheduled, resulting in the final demobilization by early December. And opposition party leaders are quick to point out that the bulk of the dialogue agreement depends on government actions. "Now we know what type of elections we will have, at least in theory,” noted Matamoros. "We are fully willing to accept the conditions of an election that we hope will be peaceful and democratic." But as García noted, "The big question the opposition has is, will the Sandinista government comply?” Given their record up to now with the reformed electoral and media laws and the recent concessions, the Sandinistas' commitment to carry out the reforms offer little justification for such doubt.
Supreme Electoral Council training citizensThe Supreme Electoral Council is the body in charge of all election details. At this point, before the campaign has even begun, it has four primary tasks: training poll watchers, civic education, preparing the registration centers and providing access to all parties for complaints or problems.
Training of Poll-Watchers. The initial training of poll-watchers began in late July with a six-day national workshop attended by 100 people. The CSE noted at the start of the National Dialogue that only ten parties sent representatives to the training, even though all parties were invited. The national workshop will be followed by nine regional workshops to be held in mid-August and 650 workshops at the municipal level. The CSE hopes to thus train 50,000 people in non-partisan poll watching. The OAS Inter-American Commission for Human Rights has been invited to come to Nicaragua and help in the training.
Civic Education. Civic education, using public service announcements to educate the citizenry about the election process, has already begun. Newspapers have begun publishing CSE announcements like "In order to vote for peace, first you have to register."