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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 269 | Diciembre 2003



Why Two Petty Peddlers Wanted to Buy Electoral Time

The first visible expression of the now failed Ortega-Alemán pact Act II was the decision of those two caudillos to reform the Constitution to allow them to put off the 2004 municipal elections and hold them with the national ones in 2006. What motivated these two small-time peddlers to commit such an outrage against local democracy?

William Grigsby

The recent attempt by Daniel Ortega and Arnoldo Alemán to reactivate the pact they originally hammered out to manipulate the 2001 elections demonstrated the same perverse lack of respect for the country’s institutions as its predecessor. Based on personal considerations and party strategies, both men were on the verge of meddling with the independence of the municipal elections, one of the main legal mechanisms underpinning local government autonomy.

They joined forces with the idea of crushing a fundamental requirement to allow local governments to acquire their own dynamic, removed from the ups and downs of national politics. The PLC and the FSLN wanted to put an end to the only recently required independence of local elections for mayors, deputy mayors and local councilors, fusing them definitively with the general elections. The idea was to tag the November 2004 municipal elections onto the November 2006 general elections, at the same time extending the municipal authorities’ term of office from four to five years, so that the municipal elections would always coincide with the general elections.

Their attempt ended in failure for now, because the pact negotiations went awry before they could push through the last-minute vote before this year’s legislative session ended. Since the approval of two sessions is required for a constitutional reform, next year’s municipal elections, at least, will remain unscathed. Nonetheless, as nothing in today’s Nicaragua can ever be safely called a closed issue, it is worth examining the consequences these constitutional reforms would have had, as well as the main reasons motivating the parties’ respective caudillos to agree to them.

There wasn’t enough time

People in the municipalities haven’t even had time to savor the difference between electing all of the country’s authorities—local, legislative and national—at one sitting and being able to choose their mayors and councilors in elections exclusively dedicated to local authorities. The constitutional reform effectively separating the two events by reducing the municipal term of office to four years and the presidential term to five was only passed in 1995, and didn’t affect the combined elections of 1996. The first and so far only independent municipal elections were held in 2000.

The main arguments wielded by the caudillos to justify suspending the November 2004 elections were both economic and situational, but the decision to constitutionally prolong the local authorities’ term of office, and thus re-fuse all of the country’s electoral processes was rather more profound. This change, which came very close to happening, would have had a disastrous effect on the aim of depolarizing local affairs, which is a real political requirement if the communities are to prosper.

A contradictory opinion

The statement of motives attached to the constitutional reform bill signed by 27 Liberal and 38 Sandinista legislative representatives on November 29—three days after Alemán was rather absurdly put under “municipal” arrest—and presented to the plenary on December 2, argued that suspending the upcoming municipal elections would save Nicaragua around US$17.8 million. This money, it claimed, could be earmarked for “programs with a social impact that are so greatly needed in our country.” The statement added that “there is also consensus” that canceling the municipal elections “does not contradict the process of strengthening the municipal governments, but, on the contrary, buttresses and deepens it.” Thus, they argued, extending the period local authorities serve to five years “will substantively contribute to that process of strengthening the municipal governments.” Contradictorily, however, the legislators added in the same statement that “the system of holding public posts for differentiated periods… is important for democracy and the process of institutionalizing the Nicaraguan state.”

Despite the importance they claimed to give to this matter, they noted that “the communications media and different public opinion forums” had originally pointed out “how costly the application of such a system is for the weak Nicaraguan economy.” In order to further deflect the blame and justify the cancellation of a system they had previously praised, they also attributed the idea to “the different political and social sectors” and “representatives of friendly countries.”

A half-truth and the
abuse of Caribbean autonomy

Legislators from both groups manipulated the half truth that extending the period from four to five years would improve the possibilities of the municipal government teams doing a good job and more effectively fulfilling their campaign promises. But the advantages implied by extending the term of office was neutralized by the idea of fusing the municipal elections with the general ones. If the real intention had been to strengthen the local sphere by stretching the term, the reform could have postponed the elections for a year—until November 2005—rather than combining them with the general elections. This would have extended the local authorities’ term of office to five years, in line with that of the national authorities, but with a year’s difference between them. What both sides were really aiming for, however, was precisely to strip the municipal elections of that independence.

The reform proposal to postpone the next elections in the autonomous Caribbean coastal regions, scheduled for March 2006, by eight months so that they, too, would line up, was an outrageous affront because it was formulated without even consulting the legitimate authorities of the North and South Atlantic Regions. For 16 years, people on the coast had waited for the politicians in Managua to approve the proposed regulations of their Autonomy Statute, which as a result became increasingly outdated. Now that the regulatory law has been given its first general approval, the two party pachyderms decided entirely on their own initiative to present a constitutional reform bill to postpone the Caribbean elections, thus giving a crystal clear signal of just what coast autonomy means to them.
If the “pacted” constitutional reform had come into being, paragraph 4 of article 178 would have read as follows: “The period for the municipal authorities will be five years, counted from the time they are sworn into office before the Supreme Electoral Council.” The bill’s authors then invented a new article, 202, which read as follows: “This time, the Municipal Councils, Mayors and Deputy Mayors elected on November 5, 2000, and the members of the Autonomous Regional Councils, will continue to exercise their functions in an interim capacity once their mandate has finished until the new authorities who will replace them take office in January 2007 in the case of the local governments, and May 4, 2007 in the case of the members of the Caribbean governments.”

Voting along party lines

Just before the November 2000 municipal elections, the main candidates of the four participating parties—the PLC, FSLN, Conservative Party and Christian Way—signed an “ethical letter” promoted by the United Nations. In it, they stated that the opportunity of separately electing the municipal authorities implied that the election would focus more directly on the candidates, “on their proposed plans and programs and on the community’s personal knowledge of each of those candidates.”

This is one of the main advantages of holding independent local elections. In the 1990 and 1996 elections, when national and local authorities were elected on the same day, it was virtually impossible for voters to really learn about the proposals for improving their municipalities, as all attention was focused on the debate among the presidential candidates. And when it came to voting, most people did so right down party lines, without bothering much about who they were actually voting for, which is an expediency encouraged by the fact that one votes for a party slate rather than an individual in any event. As a consequence, the results for the national authorities and the municipal authorities were practically identical.

What happened in 2000

In the 2000 municipal elections, which were held independent of the general elections for the first time in the country’s recent electoral history, participation was not as massive as had been expected; the abstention rate was 42%. Paradoxically, the reasons given by many of those who didn’t vote included several related to the municipal context. According to a study published in June 2001 by the CINCO research center, “Over a third of those who abstained said that none of the candidates in their municipalities deserved to be elected mayor.” Among the reasons given were that they do not fulfill their promises, are not honest or the last mayor was bad and the next will be no better.

In another CINCO study a few months later, almost 80% of the abstainers who were surveyed said they planned to vote in the November 2001 presidential elections. The study hypothesized that this could have been because the voters saw little use in municipal change unless accompanied by a change in the central government.

“In short,” added the study, “disinterest and political rejection (47.2%) is the main reason for not voting. In other words, this is a conscious abstention.” How many have now realized their usefulness, changed their opinion and would now be willing to vote for a change in local authorities? If the constitutional reform had been implemented, with all of its pernicious consequences, we would have been denied the possibility of finding out if any progress had been made in this respect.

The CINCO survey concluded that corruption, ineffectiveness, impunity, the pact of 2000, the party leaders’ hand picking of candidates and other political realities generated a lack of credibility among the parties and distrust of them, which was the main reason behind the low appraisal of mayoral candidates and the high abstention rates.

Despite all of these limitations, however, many Nicaraguan citizens did participate actively in the 2000 municipal elections for the first time, from the election of party candidates—despite the handpicking—to the subsequent distribution of work among those elected. Voters knew who was standing for mayor, deputy mayor and councilor and had an opinion on whether or not they possessed the right leadership qualities, were honest and had good intentions. Based on these important criteria, they decided to give a particular candidate their vote, or simply decided not to vote. In either case, voters were motivated by their knowledge of the local context.

Limiting and truncating a novel process

This municipal independence would have been truncated had the pact had its way. By fusing the municipal elections with the general ones, a large part of this process would have been limited or hidden behind the party contest to capture the presidency and a majority of National Assembly seats.

In a country with over a century of polarization into two bands—pro-Yankee and anti-Yankee, Liberal and Conservatives, or more recently Liberal and Sandinista—in which disputes over political power are a daily and passionate affair, the municipal sphere has always been blurred and relegated in terms of both party priorities and citizens’ concerns. People prefer to inform themselves, discuss and debate about which party or candidate ought to control the presidency, rather than analyze the proposals of those aspiring to the mayor’s office or the leadership qualities of the neighbor who is standing as a candidate. Paradoxically, while all of this should be much more important to people given that it affects them and their families directly and immediately, it is lost in the barrage of arguments and counter-arguments about the national future related to the general elections.

In that same unique electoral experience of 2000, we could see that, although the political parties sometimes employed anti-democratic procedures to elect their candidates, they actually engaged in a different dynamic. Among many other novel initiatives, they paid for local surveys, held meetings to determine municipal priorities, evaluated the work of the outgoing municipal government and designed proposals in consultation with their members. The constitutional reform threatened to annul all of these processes.

Something money can’t buy

Constructing citizenship necessarily involves civic participation and the best sphere for practicing and fostering such participation is the municipal arena, as has been demonstrated in many parts of the world. It’s not something that can be decreed, but requires a process involving multiple factors, including independent municipal elections.

It’s true that each election requires a huge budget. But if we apply the laws of the market and try to analyze the cost-benefit ratio, we would surely conclude that each election represents an investment rather than a cost. This is because elections produce governance—in the best sense of that overused word—as well as increasing the political qualities of citizens and improving the possibilities of the democratic development of society as a whole. And, as the ad says, that is priceless. Taking the purely budgetary argument wielded by the PLC and FSLN to its logical extreme, all elections should be cancelled until the country achieves economic stability, as they will always involve multi-million-dollar expenditures.

But even the supposed lack of money is questionable. Independent economist Adolfo Acevedo states that the government is concealing “very important resources” in the 2004 budget. He believes that “income is being concealed to avoid honoring constitutional budgetary allocations and to ensure it remains free of the enormous pressures exerted by sectors that, beyond the executive’s absolute priorities, are completely or relatively marginalized in the budgetary allotments.” To this should be added another important fact: “if the culmination point of the HIPC [initiative for highly indebted poor countries] is going to release some additional resources, there should be enough money to honor such a constitutive action of democracy as holding elections.”

To return to my earlier point, if the two caudillos were really interested in “strengthening” and “deepening” local government, and if there really are no resources either nationally, due to budget austerity, or internationally, because the donors are getting fed up, they should have proposed postponing the elections for one year to provide time to come up with the required resources. But this would have preserved the independence of the municipal elections in years to come, and that is the last thing Daniel Ortega or Arnoldo Alemán are interested in doing.

It was Bolanos’ idea

Liberals and Sandinistas both correctly argue that they weren’t responsible for the original idea of postponing the municipal vote until the 2006 general elections. Rather it was the brainchild of President Enrique Bolaños, who tried to sell the idea first to the pro-Alemán Liberals, but they weren’t buying. So he then went to Sandinistas, who accepted the idea as part of a broader agreement.

Bolaños had several objectives in proposing to postpone the municipal elections. The first was strictly political and included a large dose of personal vanity. The President has been trying for months to organize an electorally competitive party following the failure of his attempt to take control of the PLC. But despite all the resources he has invested, public funds included, he has still not been able to pull it off. It is not at all realistic to think that in the space of just a year his embryonic party, grandiloquently known as the Great Liberal Unity (GUL), will be strong enough to win a decent share of the local governments. Everything appears to point to its overwhelming defeat, with victory shared by its two bitterest enemies, the Sandinistas and pro-Alemán Liberals in the PLC. The other objective of Bolaños’ malformed brainchild was to reduce social discontent by using the limited money saved by not holding the municipal elections to satisfy the demands of various sectors and institutions.

On October 24, following a meeting with Inter-American Development Bank representatives, Daniel Ortega presented the President’s proposal as his own. Everything was running smoothly until just a week later, when the United States government dispatched Colin Powell—on a whistle stop visit to Managua—to order Bolaños to back out of any agreement with the Sandinistas, including the idea of shifting the municipal elections.

What are the real reasons for linking the elections?

Political opportunism. The international financial organizations were blocking the Sandinista representatives’ attempts to increase social spending in the 2004 national budget, particularly to meet the just demands of the country’s public school teachers, universities and health workers. Those same social sectors had also secured the backing of the Liberal representatives, who were interested in winning their sympathy as part of their strategy of opposition to President Bolaños. In this context, it was in the interests of both groups to use the millions of córdobas that would be saved by suspending the elections to honor the political commitments they had made to these particular sectors.

Financial reasons. The Liberals no longer have a sure source of money for an electoral campaign. First, the business class has lined up behind Enrique Bolaños, given the total support the United States has shown him, and no longer appears as willing as it was in the past two elections to part with its money to finance the PLC, blackballed by the US government due to its leadership’s illegal activities. And second, the PLC Liberals no longer control the public coffers. Alemán’s 1996 presidential campaign was financed by public resources from the Managua municipal government, which he had siphoned before leaving the mayoral office to run for President. Then in the municipal and national elections of 2000 and 2001, the PLC’s respective campaigns were financed from the national coffers. But now the party has lost control of the capital and declared itself in opposition to the national administration, despite the fact that it was elected under the PLC banner.

The Sandinistas are even worse off in this respect. They have never enjoyed the support of the business world, let alone the United States, and while they have their own business apparatus, it is just not capable of financing three consecutive electoral processes: the 2004 municipal elections, the March 2006 Caribbean coast elections and the November 2006 general elections. They currently control 11 of the 16 departmental capitals—including Managua, by far the most powerful—but their hands are tied because the communications media are closely watching the activities of their mayors and any lapse would be ruthlessly denounced.

Political strategy. Both parties have suffered political erosion in recent years: the PLC due to its divorce from the government and the accusations and trials against its corrupt leaders; and the FSLN due to its support of the government’s neoliberal economic plans and the deals it has cut with its Liberal colleagues. Both groups fear that this erosion will be reflected at the ballot box. The Liberals are also facing a division not only within the party, but also among their traditional voters—between the pro-Alemán and pro-Bolaños factions. While the GUL is not a major contender, the votes it could pull could mean the difference between winning and losing a municipal government, particularly in Managua, where the Liberals lost out in 2000 precisely because a third candidate, from the Conservative party, wrested almost 25% of the votes from them.

Another factor in their political strategies is that after the Supreme Court reinstated the legal status of over 25 political parties last year, both forces risk losing voters if they don’t quickly and skillfully create a policy of alliances capable of stopping any dispersion of their votes. In this respect the Liberals are facing the greater danger, as most of the parties in question, while very small, are on the right of the ideological spectrum.

Ortega doesn’t have the same fears, because of the alliance with the National Convergence that he has maintained ever since the 2001 elections, although it is still more like a club of political figures than a grouping of quantitative political forces. In private, pro-Ortega leaders are questioning the electoral value of these figures and fear that they could generate more problems than votes.

The FSLN recently agreed to let its allies stand as candidates for mayor in half of the country’s 152 municipalities and for deputy mayor in the other half. But those candidates will not necessarily come from the groups within the Convergence, because the FSLN has its eye on prestigious citizens from the municipalities, who typically have no party affiliation. Ortega knows that his hard-line supporters in those municipalities where Sandinistas won’t be standing for mayor—such as Masaya, Boaco, Granada and Rivas—are unhappy with this alliance-building decision and are unlikely to throw themselves wholeheartedly into the municipal election campaign, let alone the national campaign.

The FSLN has another problem: time. Herty Lewites, Managua’s Sandinista mayor, needs a far-reaching project with an electoral impact, but has had neither time nor money to conjure one up. With the exception of Matagalpa, the same is true of the rest of the departmental capitals governed by the FSLN, which puts these electorally strategic areas at risk.

A final political problem for the FSLN is the unfavorable composition of the current Supreme Electoral Council. The majority of its national magistrates are Liberals, as are the departmental council authorities and, more important still, the technical voter card issuing and electoral roll structures. The only hope of resolving this disadvantage lies in buying some time to renegotiate the whole composition of the electoral branch with the PLC Liberals.

Personal reasons. Both caudillos have their sights set on the presidency in 2006, and each faces his own particular difficulties in this respect. Alemán has to shake off the recent conviction and still-pending trials related to his pillaging of the public coffers, and find a way to overcome the aura of corruption surrounding him. Even if the courts ultimately absolve him from any responsibility, ten months would be a very short time to rebuild his image and avoid an electoral setback in 2004, which would in turn seriously dent his hopes of being re-elected in 2006. Alemán also needs time to rebuild his relations with the business sector and the United States.

Ortega’s problems are of a different nature. First, he needs to maintain iron party discipline among his followers, who control the whole FSLN structure. He can achieve this relatively easily during a single electoral process, but things get trickier with two. Worse still, his personal influence is decisive in selecting the different candidates, but the political price of designating all the municipal and legislative candidates at one time would be very high for him.

Ortega knows that the machinery under his control is still not effective enough to turn him into an election winner, and that any slip-up in the municipal elections would cause considerable damage that would be hard to repair in just two years. The caudillo himself has accused the FSLN’s departmental leaders of what he feels to be opportunism. According to Ortega, they exploited his frequent tours of the country to guarantee victory in the municipal elections, but once ensconced in the mayors’ offices they failed to act with the same determination in support of his presidential candidacy.

Finally, Ortega knows that Sandinismo in its broader sense—those Sandinistas no longer participating in the FSLN structures—would be relatively happy to vote for the FSLN in the municipal elections, but would think twice about doing so in the general elections if he stands for President again—an intention he has already announced on several occasions. The fusing of both elections would not eliminate this risk, but would significantly reduce it.

Ortega’s surprisingly overriding motiveAs surprising as it may sound given Ortega’s activities over the past decade, his most singular motive is the urgent need to reduce the polarization of society. Following the 2001 elections, Sandinista sociologist Orlando Núñez abandoned his critical discourse and is now back as a card-carrying intellectual of the pro-Ortega wing of Sandinismo. He argues that reactivation of the pact is a skillful and strategic move by the FSLN because it will depolarize the electorate. According to Núñez, Liberals and Sandinistas now appear to be united not only in their internal political decisions, but also in their reaction to imperialist interference.

Núñez’ explanation is frankly questionable, particularly bearing in mind that both forces were united in their original pact during the 2000 elections, and it did nothing to depolarize the voters. This evidence aside, if Ortega is to increase his possibility of winning—and for him winning is all that really matters—he does need to minimize the polarization and persuade the electorate and the United States that his candidacy is not a threat to the system. In other words, he needs to convince people that there is not much difference between Alemán and him, which, while not necessarily untrue, is quite a twist of fate!

Ortega uses what happened during the 2001 campaign to justify his “depolarization strategy.” At the time of Noel Vidaurre’s resignation as the Conservative Party’s presidential candidate, Ortega was sitting pretty in first place ahead of Enrique Bolaños. According to the polls, Vidaurre had 16% of the vote, and had even reached a high of 20%. But following his resignation in May 2001, the polarization started up and Ortega began the steady decline that ended with Bolaños’ victory with a disastrous 16-point spread. The massive electoral participation and the strange happenings on election day itself can also be explained by the hysterical polarizing call sent out by the forces of the Right, supported by the United States and the Catholic hierarchy, to impede the return of what the Pope once famously termed the “dark night” of the Sandinista revolution. The reactivation of the pact would have neutralized both problems, according to Ortega’s singular depolarizing strategy.

The logic of two petty peddlersThese are the most visible reasons that led both caudillos to seek to suspend the municipal elections. Neither is at all interested in local logic, or what the consequences would be for the municipal dynamic. Both have a mercantile vision of politics and—like all rightwing politicians and ideologues—see elections as merchandise in a market known as democracy. From that point of view, their logic makes sense, and as petty peddlers, they seek to pay less and reap a greater profit. Although the reactivation of the pact has failed for now, it has demonstrated once again the true colors of two caudillos who don’t think twice about abusing institutions or twisting legality, as long as they continue to command in Nicaragua, from below, from above, or even from a prison cell.

William Grigsby Vado is a Nicaraguan journalist.

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