Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 100 | Noviembre 1989



The Electoral Process Gears Up

Envío team

The electoral process currently underway in Nicaragua is the path that could well lead the country to the "firm and lasting peace" that first seemed possible over two years ago with the initiation of the Esquipulas peace process.

Four important steps were taken this month: registration began for the February elections; the different parties began to more clearly define their electoral strategies; the economic situation continued to stabilize; and in the international arena wider space was created for the regional peace process in Central America.

US says UNO is Number 1

All the electoral advances made this past month took place against the backdrop of a still undefined US policy towards Nicaragua after February 1990. It remains unclear whether the US will finally lay rest to its military option in Nicaragua after the elections, along with the economic embargo and the ongoing, systematic attempts to destabilize the revolutionary process.

While the post-February options for the US remain undefined, the Bush Administration has been quite clear about its policy vis-à-vis Nicaragua’s elections. The Administration has taken a very high profile in its avid support of the UNO alliance, and generously supplemented its considerable moral support with millions of dollars, hoping to thus assure the FSLN's defeat in February. President Bush asked Congress for $9 million to finance the Chamorro-Godoy campaign, and when Congress initially balked, Secretary of State James Baker made similar petitions to the governments of Japan, West Germany, France, Great Britain and Austria.

The final decision in the House of Representatives was to send the $9 million to the UNO campaign, using money approved in the so-called bipartisan aid package of April that had not yet been handed over to the contra forces. Along with this $9 million in overt aid, the covert aid that has already come into Nicaragua and will surely continue to arrive must be taken into account.

Some of the covert aid has made its way to Nicaragua in diplomatic luggage. Farid Ayales, the Costa Rican ambassador to Nicaragua, has been mentioned as one of the key diplomatic channels, although he denies involvement in any such activity. Newsweek reports that $5 million, destined for "internal expenses" run up by the UNO, has already come into the country by covert means.

The Nicaraguan electoral law stipulates that half of any assistance—in the form of money or material objects such as vehicles or computers—with a value of over $20,000 must be given to the Supreme Electoral Council's (CSE) Democracy Fund to cover the considerable costs of the electoral process itself. CSE President Mariano Fiallos, however, notes that as of mid-October, this fund was still empty. In the wake of the revelations pointing to the millions of dollars received by the UNO, Fiallos has reiterated that all foreign assistance to the electoral process should be "public and legal."

Even as the United States openly declares its intervention in the Nicaraguan elections, the Administration is officially insisting, as Bush told Jimmy Carter, that it will accept the electoral results "if they are free and fair."

Several signs point to the fact that the military option in Nicaragua is continuing to lose strength in the United States. The contra offices in Miami have been closed, as has their radio station "Liberación," founded by the CIA in 1987. Most of the contras' political leadership has returned to Nicaragua, and is directly involved in the UNO campaign.

Even those who remain outside Nicaragua are doing their part for the UNO campaign. Ex-National Guard Colonel Enrique Bermúdez, still based in Honduras, says "The commandos {contra soldiers} are giving the peasants guidance about who they should vote for." This "guidance" has been at gunpoint, accompanied by threats and intimidation. Religious workers in Nicaragua's central regions have told envío that the contras are openly campaigning for UNO. The contras also tell peasants that they have "machines" for finding out who votes for the FSLN.

Registration: The whole world is watching

In accord with the agreement signed by the country's 21 political parties on August 4, the registration process for the February elections was set for the first four Sundays of October. Because Nicaragua does not require citizens to carry uniform identity cards, the registration process is especially essential to guarantee a clean electoral process. There is no up-to-date census of the Nicaraguan population, so the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) is working with the 1984 electoral statistics as a base. The CSE calculates that between 1.8 and 1.9 million Nicaraguans are eligible to vote.

The CSE set up more than 4,394 voter registration centers throughout the country. It has carried out a broad publicity campaign throughout September and October to inform people that voting in February—both their right and duty as citizens—must be preceded by registration in October. Along with the CSE, each of the political parties has worked to make sure that people register. The FSLN did so by house-to-house visits in each of Nicaragua's regions. The Catholic Bishops' Conference also called on all citizens to actively participate in the electoral process. The Swedish government financed all the printed material necessary for the registration process.

On October 1, the first day of registration, more than 375,000 Nicaraguans, about 20% of all eligible voters, registered to vote. Registration day was characterized by the tremendous, highly visible, presence of foreign observers (see "Election Watch," this issue), most of them from the Organization of American States and the United Nations. OAS General Secretary João Baena Soares visited a number of registration centers in and around the city of León. Other OAS observers visited 1,000 centers, while the UN mission, known in Nicaragua by its acronym ONUVEN, observed the registration process at 1,000 centers.

Although the process went off with relatively few hitches, a number of accusations were tossed back and forth among the different parties. Baena Soares characterized the problems that did occur as "administrative anomalies" and praised the process as a whole.

The second registration day, October 8, was somewhat more problematic. Federico López, FSLN head of Region IV (Masaya-Granada), accused UNO of deliberately provoking fights and confrontations in and around a number of registration centers on Saturday and Sunday. Many of the US dollars flowing into the country have gone to pay UNO "activists," either in cash or material goods, and there is concern that this will lead to increasing tension during the rest of the electoral process and on election day itself.

Political parties take stock

Two days before registration began was the filing deadline for all presidential, vice-presidential and National Assembly candidates. This process was much more tension ridden and conflictive than the registration process itself. Each party filed its national slate of candidates on September 29, although most parties have yet to announce their municipal candidates.

The Nicaraguan population will be able to choose from four broad political options in February: the UNO, which wants to roll back and essentially destroy the revolution; the center parties, which seek to reform it; the left wing parties whose goal is to redefine it; and the FSLN, which aims to consolidate its longstanding revolutionary program.

National Opposition Union (UNO). The serious internal conflicts plaguing this alliance as it tried to come to an agreement on its presidential and vice-presidential candidates were repeated as even more rancorous disputes broke out when the slate for National Assembly had to be drawn up. The tensions emerged as each party in the alliance, with its own interests at heart, vied to put as many of its own members on the list as possible. The trick was not only to be named to the slate, but to be placed in a high enough position to assure a seat in the National Assembly.

The infighting led to serious splits among the UNO parties. By the time the dust had settled, the Popular Social Christian Party (PPSC) had decided to abandon the UNO and enter into an alliance (however shaky) with its former rival, the Social Christian Party (PSC). PPSC head Mauricio Díaz attacked the UNO's candidate selection process and criticized the UNO for receiving funds from the same government "that has been waging war against us for the last eight years."

The most pro-US parties within UNO (including some that helped form the far-right Coordinadora alliance in 1984) emerged with the strongest positions, while the so-called "micro-parties" (tiny center and rightwing splinter parties) and the now three parties left of the four that participated in the 1984 elections, had to be content with disadvantageous positions on the final slate of National Assembly candidates. Some of these parties can only hope for one legislative seat in the February elections, at best a minimal presence on the national political scene.

As most of the UNO parties (except for the three that took part in the 1984 elections) have gone more than 20 years without participating in an election, it's nearly impossible to estimate with any accuracy the possible social base any party might be able to count on.

The clearest individual winner was Alfredo César, former member of the contras' political leadership and currently secretary of the tiny Social Democratic Party (PSD). César heads the UNO list for Managua's National Assembly representatives. He is said to be gunning for the presidency of the National Assembly, a position currently held by FSLN National Directorate member Carlos Núñez. César is also the one who controls the opposition purse strings, administering all US money coming into the UNO coffers.

The glue that keeps the fragile UNO alliance together, however precariously, is nothing more than US financing. Everything indicates that this is an alliance functional solely for the electoral period. When the elections are over, the coalition will surely fall apart from the force of internal squabbling as each party moves to defend its own interests. Clearly revealing the interests she represents, Violeta Chamorro kicked off the pre-campaign period in Miami where she sought both financial and political support from the Somocistas and other Nicaraguans in self-imposed exile there.

This month, UNO vice presidential candidate Virgilio Godoy faced new problems within his own party, the PLI. Seven PLI leaders, including one of the party founders, Juan Manuel Gutiérrez—so pro-US that he actually traveled to the States several years ago to ask for direct military intervention—accused Godoy of poor management and manipulation in his handling of funds sent to the PLI by a West German foundation. Godoy responded by expelling the leaders involved; they, in turn, have appealed to the National Council of Political Parties (CNPP).

In spite of all these contradictions, UNO has managed to remain fundamentally intact. While this is an achievement in itself, the weaknesses of the alliance and its clear dependence on foreign funding have given UNO a none-too-positive image among undecided voters. UNO can count on only one sure source of votes: the most anti-Sandinista and pro-US among Nicaragua's population.

Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). While UNO is dangerously fractured, the FSLN has impressed observers with its cohesion and unity. On September 24, it held a national convention—complete with balloons, whistles and campaign songs—in which the presidential, vice-presidential and National Assembly candidates were announced. To nobody's surprise, Daniel Ortega and Sergio Ramírez will again head the FSLN slate. A number of well-known Sandinista leaders were chosen to run for National Assembly seats from around the country.

The convention was preceded by a series of small meetings held at both the municipal and regional levels to hear suggestions from Sandinista party members and supporters. Thus, the platform and candidates emerging from the convention were the result of a long consultation process reaching to the far corners of the country and taking in all social sectors.

The most important element of the Sandinista platform is that it takes peace as a given, even though the party is clear that several important steps have yet to be taken. The platform looks toward a future of peace with economic development as a priority, promising improvements in education, health and transportation, as well as in basic physical infrastructure.

The platform neither exalts the recent past, characterized by the heroic, yet tremendously costly, victory over the contra forces, nor engages in a detailed analysis of the present. It instead looks to the future, asserting that with peace, many things long postponed will finally be possible.

Center Parties. In this group, envío includes the Democratic Conservative Party (PCD), the Liberal Party for National Unity (PLIUN) and the Social Christian Party (PSC). The Christian Democrats of the PSC were strengthened this month with the visit of former Venezuelan President Luis Herrera Campíns, a noted international Christian Democratic figure. Herrera Campíns recognized Erick Ramírez' PSC as the legitimate representative of Christian Democracy in Nicaragua, and pledged financial assistance to it from the Christian Democratic International.

The PPSC split from UNO and subsequent decision to join forces with the PSC also strengthens the Social Christian Party. This alliance will be felt most strongly in the country's Pacific region. At the same time, the Social Christian presence on the Atlantic Coast received an important boost when Miskito leader Brooklyn Rivera—who recently returned to the country after laying down his arms—declared that his Yatama group will also throw its lot in with the PSC. Rivera had been courted by UNO, but his decision, along with the other events of this month, could help convert the PSC into the FSLN's most potent opponent. Rumors circulating around Managua suggest the possible return of Edén Pastora, and his former armed alliance with Rivera has led to speculation that he, too, could opt for the PSC.

The PSC has also been talking to the PCD, the party that took second place in the 1984 elections, as well as with the PLIUN. They are hoping to reach some sort of agreement by which each party would help each other in the municipal elections, also scheduled for February 25.

While the centrist parties show signs of united efforts, the tiny leftwing parties continue to work in isolation on the margins of the Nicaraguan electoral process.

Economic health and public opinion

The most recent opinion polls published by the independent research center Itztani show that, if the elections were to be held now, the FSLN would win. Among those polled who declared party affiliation, the FSLN has about two-thirds support. However, 28% of those polled either did not respond to this question or are still undecided. This group has steadily declined since the flurry of polls began some months ago, and the country's economic situation will undoubtedly be a crucial factor to those who have yet to make up their minds.

The economic plan undertaken in January of this year has been successful in two of its key objectives: containing inflation and increasing exports. Inflation rates for the last three months have been single-digit: 8.5% for July, 5.3% for August (the lowest in nearly three years) and 8.8% for September. The cumulative rate for the January-August period is 832%, a very low rate compared to the dizzying annual rate of 36,000% in 1988.

The principal tool that has been used to reduce inflation is drastic cuts in state spending—a 51% cut from 1988 figures. Defense spending dropped from 62% to 36% of the national budget.

Some positive results can also be seen In the export arena. Production of agricultural exports increased, with an emphasis on recovery and increased productivity in both traditional categories (coffee, cotton, banana, tobacco, sugar and beef) and nontraditional ones (for example, sesame).

Despite increased production, the drop in prices for traditional exports bodes ill for the Nicaraguan economy. Nicaragua stands to lose millions of dollars due to the recent drastic drop in international prices for coffee, the country's key export crop.

At the same time, the country must deal with the ongoing recession and economic contraction—all too visible in the deterioration of real salaries—that has hit the industrial sector particularly hard. In other words, the concrete successes of the economic plan are accompanied by equally tangible, and very high, social costs.

A number of unknown quantities remain that could determine the ultimate success or failure of the government's economic plan, few of which are likely to be resolved before the elections. To work, the economic plan needs substantial foreign financial backing. At this point, the government doesn't even have the cash on hand to finance the elections.

The second conference of European countries, which was to be held in October (the first took place in Stockholm in May), has been postponed until after the elections. Everyone, for whatever reasons, is holding off on financial decisions in anticipation of the election results.

Nicaragua, however, needs funds before the elections to deal with the annual year-end crisis that stems from several structural factors: paying out the so-called "thirteenth month" (an extra month's salary as Christmas bonus); a big jump in the influx of dollars to the country as relatives abroad send larger than usual Christmas cash gifts; remaining payments due export producers, and so forth. In addition to all these factors, the economy this year is under special stress because of the electoral campaign itself. If significant foreign assistance is not forthcoming, the government's economic plan could face a severe crisis, perhaps impossible to resolve.

In recent weeks, President Ortega and other high-level government officials have visited a number of countries, including some where the possibility of assistance to Nicaragua has never been explored. The countries include Japan, China, Libya, Kuwait, Qatar and other Arab nations.

If the positive economic trends noted to date as a result of the FSLN's economic plan continue to unfold, the government could go into the elections with a significant advantage. But a serious setback, like that seen in June, could cut dangerously into the margin the FSLN will need to win.

Peace at hand, but the war goes on

In the midst of all the unfolding electoral events, the contra forces continue to make their presence felt in the Nicaraguan countryside. Peace is not yet a reality, and Nicaraguans are still dying on a daily basis.

In recent days, 12 peasants from different areas around Nicaragua (including San Rafael del Norte, Quilalí, Pantasma and Cuapa) have been savagely tortured and killed as part of the contras' most recent campaign of intimidation. The approximately 2,000 contras currently operating inside Nicaragua are dedicating themselves to this activity—characterized by the FSLN as "electoral terrorism"—designed to assist the "civic contras" of the UNO, along with ambushes and attacks against the Nicaraguan army.

It remains to be seen whether the December 8th deadline (set at the August summit meeting in Tela) for the final demobilization of the contra forces will be met. The International Commission for Support and Verification (CIAV) was officially formed on August 25, bringing together some 700 OAS and United Nations officials whose job it is to oversee the demobilization and repatriation of the contra forces.

The United Nations Central America forces (ONUCA), the peacekeeping forces of the United Nations, have also begun their work of patrolling conflictive borders in the region. This month, the Honduran government said it would ask the UN to use force in dislodging the contras if their forces refuse to leave on December 8 as stipulated by the Tela accords.

The CIAV, which is to take a census of the contra forces in Honduras (estimated at between 6,000 and 10,000 armed troops), has called the demobilization process "difficult and complex" and warned that flexibility must be the watchword in the weeks to come.

Even with all the obstacles, the possibility of continued war in Nicaragua is still declining. A number of unanswered questions remain—with one major variable being the United States, which funds both the armed contra forces and the UNO electoral slate, and to date has not taken the necessary steps to make the peace dreamed of in the Esquipulas peace accords a reality.

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