Surprises and Special Effects On the Way to Election Day
The election flick is on its final reel.
With only weeks to go before November 5,
the special effects increased, as was to be expected.
Here’s a rundown of some of the main special effects
and surprises observed up to October 10.
After a long hiatus in his public declarations about national politics and the electoral process, the US ambassador in Nicaragua, Paul Trivelli, announced in early September that there would soon be “surprises.” The surprise Trivelli was referring to, the one he hoped for and that the US government had been working on for many months, was the Liberal Right unifying behind a single candidacy, preferably that of US favorite Eduardo Montealegre. In the event the only thing surprising about his announcement was it never panned out. But there were many other surprises and special effects.
For unity and for fear Fear of a victory by Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) candidate Daniel Ortega has mounted as election day nears and he has maintained his lead in the polls. The campaign propa-ganda of both Montealegre’s National Liberal Alliance (ALN), and its right-wing rival, the Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC), was designed to polarize the race and thus stimulate what many Nicaraguans consider a “useful vote.” For the past 16 years it hasn’t meant simply resisting the temptation to throw one’s vote away on a lost cause or even voting for the lesser of evils, but rather voting for whichever candidate is most likely to beat Ortega, full stop. Violeta Chamorro, former Managua mayor Arnoldo Alemán—despite his well-known record of corruption in that post—and business leader Enrique Bolaños all made it to the presidency largely on the basis of such “utility.”
This year the greater fears of an Ortega win gave rise to new and improvised eleventh-hour initiatives aimed at eliminating any ambiguity about which candidate of the “demo-cratic forces” guarantees a more “useful” vote—more specifically, forcing the reunification of the Liberals, now obstinately split into pro-Alemán and anti-Alemán factions. (At the same time that this uniquely Nicaraguan concept of a useful vote entered the political lexicon, the rubric “demo-cratic” came to be understood as any force opposing Daniel Ortega and the FSLN.) On September 19, the American-Nicaraguan Chamber of Commerce proposed a national poll just between Montealegre and PLC candidate José Rizo to find out which one the popula-tion saw as most useful. The loser would resign his candidacy. It was clearly a desperate idea: with the ballots already printed and even in-cluding a photo of the five presidential candidates, the withdrawal of one of the two anti-Sandinistas would create so much confusion that it would have little chance of channeling all anti-Ortega votes behind the other one.
Montealegre, trusting the polls that have shown him in second place for months, agreed to the idea, while Rizo rejected it. The following day, a group of citizens that some media described as “notables” took up the business leaders’ initiative and “with the greatest patriotic vehemence” exhorted the candidates to accept it. Arguing that MRS Alliance candidate Edmundo Jarquín also belongs among the “democratic forces,” they proposed that he be included as well.
Both initiatives were stillborn.
Burton and ARENA In a last desperate US attempt to promote the useful vote, Republican Dan Burton, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, came to Nicaragua. He exerted pressure in private conversations and even warned in a public appearance of the risk to Nicaragua’s relations with the United States were Ortega to win. On that occasion he offered an unjust recap of everything that happened during the eighties, minus one crucial detail—the lead role his government played in financing, strategizing and unrelent-ingly spurring on the devastating counterrevolutionary war that caused the lion’s share of the disasters de-scribed in his insipid words.
come to Managua
In addition to these fruitless US efforts—which in the recent tradition of arrogant Republican meddling only coalesced the pro-FSLN vote even more—continual private meetings have been held among the region’s economic elite. Alexander Segovia, a Salvadoran who has just completed a pioneering investigation on the now regionally integrated economic groups currently dominating Central America, told envío that “Nicaragua’s election is the political event this elite is following with the greatest nervousness and anxiety.” Leaders of El Salvador’s ARENA party, which is angling to become the privileged interlocutor for the United States in the region, headed up insistent negotiations in Managua to bring about anti-Ortega Liberal unity.
The Pellas group The only Nicaraguan economic group participating in this select regional economic club is the one headed by the Pellas family. The fortune of Carlos Pellas, who heads the 50 companies controlled by the group, is estimated at $1.5 billion. In 1996, Pellas, traditionally a supporter of the now foundering oligarchic Conservative Party, bankrolled Arnoldo Alemán’s candidacy in exchange for letting Conservative businessman Enrique Bolaños share the ticket. Alemán won. In 2001, Pellas offered the PLC his backing again, this time in exchange for Bolaños heading the ticket. Alemán agreed, despite contradictions between him and his erstwhile Vice President. And Bolaños won.
finally declares itself
Speculation has been rife for some time now that Pellas, himself also a banker, was supporting the PLC this year as well, fearing competition from rival banker Eduardo Montealegre in the presidency. But he finally put an end to the rumors on October 4, when he declared during a working dinner with big business leaders that having analyzed the proposals of all the parties in the race he had concluded that “the ALN’s government plan offers the business sector the most tranquility.”
Ideological preferences notwith-standing, big national, regional and international capital is already poised to negotiate with a possible Ortega government. They don’t believe the propaganda being peddled by Ortega’s adversaries that he would repeat the economic policy errors of the eighties. A demonstration of the business elite’s confidence that things won’t change significantly if Ortega wins is the stability of the banking system only months away from the elections, in contrast to the significant withdrawals of savings deposits from Nicaraguan banks in 1996 and 2001, when there were also fears of an Ortega victory. Nor have the important agribusi-nesses, big national commercial capi-tal or investors in the free trade zones given any signs of pulling up stakes in the eventuality of an FSLN govern-ment.
It is no secret that big national and foreign capital would immediately cut a deal with the head of a new FSLN government if he would pledge to comply with three conditions: honor the current agreement with the IMF, name economic and financial Cabinet members with a well-known pro-market trajectory, and not use the state institutions to exercise intimidation and repression, as happened in the eighties. The FSLN has reportedly already agreed to the first two.
The Right’s divisions The Liberal Right’s split into the PLC and the ALN, an option fabricated from the offices of the Bolaños government that has fared better than two earlier attempts, is an expression of the erosion suffered by Arnoldo Alemán since he was convicted of major acts of corruption after leaving office in 2001 and sentenced to a 20-year prison term, pending appeal. In the ensuing years both the US and Bolaños governments have underscored Alemán’s corruption in their ongoing attempt to get the PLC to abandon him or vice versa. While it was abundantly clear well before this year’s elections that both that attempt and the efforts to reunite the Liberals had failed, the anti-Ortega “useful vote” could prove a way to successfully crown both efforts.
will be put to the test
November 5 will test the tradi-tional political culture in which Nicara-guans are seemingly still very tolerant of corruption as long as its their caudillos that are practicing it. Alemán’s leadership is by no means exhausted among the bedrock Nicaragua popula-tion that is Liberal by family tradition or anti-Sandinista by dint of its experiences in the eighties. Much of the peasant population continues to shrug off his corruption with the comment “Sure he stole, but he got things done.” The things he got done were schools, roads, health centers, gaudy fountains in the middle of Managua…. Never mind that he did most of them with generous interna-tional funding following Hurricane Mitch, or that even some of that generosity got siphoned off for a palatial terrace for his tax director’s vacation mansion.
Nor is Alemán’s leadership ex-hausted among an important circle of PLC leaders, many of them at the top of their party’s legislative slates and thus with a good shot at winning thanks to Alemán. These are the people he favored with his government’s corrup-tion yesterday to secure their loyalties today.
The split in the Right in these elections is also the chronicle of a strategy foretold. The leadership Alemán still retains over the PLC, its structures and so many of its leaders, militants and grassroots sympathizers, despite everything, allowed Ortega to use his control of Alemán’s case (the FSLN’s National Assembly votes that stripped Alemán of his parliamentary immunity, the trial headed by a Sandi-nista judge and the sentence she skillfully handed down) to keep political tensions within the PLC stirred up. With the control the FSLN has acquired in the judicial branch, specifically in the courts handling Alemán’s case, Ortega has kept the Liberals divided right up to the end of the electoral race, which has done more than anything else to put him within reach of victory on November 5.
The elections will test the depth of the Right’s split, the erosion of Alemán’s leadership and the relative weight of the PLC’s patronage and perk system vs. the ALN’s program to “modernize” the country. They will also test which functions best: the PLC’s experienced party machinery or the new support networks, similarly based on clientelism and lavish spending, that the ALN has promoted all over the country.
The “Talavera maneuver”The irreconcilable Liberal split accen-tuated a “political turncoat phenom-enon.” Throughout the campaign PLC deserters shifted to the ALN and ALN fugitives scurried back to the PLC almost on a daily basis. At the begin-ning, each such excursion became a campaign news flash that briefly bolstered one of the bands. Nonethe-less, with time and endless repetition in which it became impossible to tally the net winner, these special effects lost their initial impact.
The real surprise in the turncoat category came at the ALN’s expense, when the FSLN seduced its national legislative candidate Salvador Tala-vera—president of the ALN-allied Resistance Party—and four other former contra leaders to switch to its Great United Nicaragua Triumphs Alliance. Talavera appeared in an FSLN campaign event on September 15, where he announced his backing for Ortega. The two then co-signed a “peace agreement” on the FSLN, Resistance Party and Nicaraguan flags, which they turned over to Cardinal Obando several days later. The ALN had hardly got over its initial shock when Talavera added insult to injury by declaring that, although he supported Ortega, he would not remove his name from the ALN’s legislative slate. While other surprised contra leaders criticized Ortega’s well-organized scheme and furiously accused Talavera of betrayal, the Supreme Electoral Council found a legal loophole to endorse the latter’s highly irregular and two-faced behavior.
Talavera fended off the criticism raining down on him from all quarters by declaring that he and Ortega hadn’t signed “an electoral alliance but rather an agreement to avoid war.” His newfound closeness to the man who headed the government he had waged war on in the eighties was a dirty maneuver by the FSLN, but dirty is as dirty does, and it was very effective. Not only did Ortega surprise the ALN and make it look the fool, he also gave his PLC partners an important argument for their final campaign propaganda: Watch out Liberals, a vote for the ALN is a vote for the FSLN, because the ALN is “infiltrated” by Sandinistas. Many of the Resistance Party’s estimated 70-90,000 voters could return to their 15-year-old alliance with the PLC based on just such an argument. Part of the FSLN’s electoral strategy in maintain-ing the division between the two Liberal parties is always to favor the PLC, since the Ortega-Alemán pact is still operational despite being put on hold—at least publicly—for the electoral campaign.
Another aspect of that strategy is Ortega’s repeated refusal to participate with other candidates in any TV, radio or live debate. Instead he has held “pilgrimages” and political-cultural soirees with captive audiences all over the country in which the speeches by the candidates are laced with religious references. They always speak of unity, love and reconciliation, key words in the party’s rosy campaign, directed by Ortega’s increasingly mystical artist wife, Rosario Murillo.
Buying hearts and mindsThe Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) Alliance has been gradually but continuously increasing its poll ratings despite not having the economic power of the other competitors, despite the control the parties to the pact have in the electoral branch and, most import-antly, despite the unexpected death on July 2 of its presidential candidate and initial inspiration, Herty Lewites. With so many handicaps, the very existence of the alliance and the support it has been able to build is one of the novel features of this electoral process.
Watching the MRS grow and win over a portion of its captive vote, the FSLN has gone out of its way to seek turncoats among those competing under the orange banner with a black Sandino sombrero, offering them money or the resolution of personal, job-related or legal problems. Or they take a negative approach, suggesting that scholarships might be canceled or taxes raised. Or else they play real hardball, making nighttime visits to threaten and blackmail.
According to former FSLN National Directorate member and current MRS legislative candidate Víctor Hugo Tinoco, “There’s not a single munici-pality in which the FSLN hasn’t wanted to buy off our people.” The Alliance’s presidential candidate has stated that “people tell us that they can’t openly show their support for us. In all the cities they’ve told us they’re being threatened by the mayor’s offices. They’re the same tactics the Somocistas used.”
When these efforts failed to pro-duce the desired results, Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo spread the rumor of a “second Talavera maneu-ver”: the FSLN’s final surprise would be Carlos Mejía Godoy, the MRS Alliance’s vice presidential candidate, rejoining the FSLN with his accor-dion and his prestige. But that didn’t quite go the way the Ortega-Murillo pair would have liked either. In a public letter to both of them, Carlos responded unequivocally: “It is insistently circulating in various media that I’m the next MRS Alliance militant who will enter happily into the pro-Daniel ranks. In the name of God, the Country and my family, I demand that you take my name off the list of turncoats who without an iota of dignity are selling themselves to the highest bidder.
“You’re investing your ideological and doctrinaire talent in a despicable bid for people’s minds, turning the his-toric FSLN into a Sandinista National Prostitution Front…. Daniel and Rosario: As you didn’t accept the dignified political debate that Mundo Jarquín proposed [in a letter sent to Ortega on September 18, to which he never responded], I publicly challenge you to a moral debate in the place of your choice. You set the time, day and television channel. As Sandino said to the Yankee mercenaries: ‘I’m right here waiting for you’.”
On September 13, four of the presidential candidates (Eduardo Montealegre, José Rizo, Edmundo Jarquín and Edén Pastora) partici-pated in a televised debate jointly organized by the Spanish version of CNN and Nicaragua’s Channel 2. Ortega refused the invitation, de-scribing CNN as “at the service of the politics of confrontation and death.” The format was very rigid and the questions very general. The only question of the dozen asked by the two interviewers that produced any clear differences among the candidates referred to their opinion about what is known as “therapeutic abortion,” which is currently considered legal in Nicaragua if the mother’s life is at risk. An estimated 17 million Latin Ameri-cans all over the continent saw the debate.
Has Nicaragua’s ship come in?In addition to these maneuvers, the FSLN brought other surprises to the electoral film’s finale. On Saturday, October 7, a barge with 84,000 gallons of Venezuelan diesel arrived at the river port of El Rama on the Caribbean side of the country. It was the first shipment responding to an agreement between the Venezuelan state company PVDSA and the Sandinista mayor’s offices to sell Nicaragua 11 million barrels of oil at preferential prices. This shipment arrived almost six months after the agreement signed by Daniel Ortega and Hugo Chávez in Caracas and is little more than a symbolic palliative because it only covers a day’s consumption by just one of Managua’s electricity generating plants.
After battling with President Bolaños—who at first resisted accept-ing any solidarity from Chávez—Daniel Ortega and Dionisio Marenco, the Sandinista mayor of Managua, announced that there would be more before November 5, presumably to fend off skepticism that the oil offer would only materialize if Ortega wins. As an important piece of this new relationship with Venezuela, Ortega announced that a branch of the state-run Bank of Venezuela would also set up shop in Nicaragua once he wins the presidency.
The economic improvements that would spring from Venezuela’s dis-counted oil, its new bank, the fertilizer already being sold at favorable prices to the country’s agricultural producers, active trade and solidarity to cover Nicaragua’s enormous social needs, have become one of the focal points of the FSLN campaign.
As a counter-argument, the MRS leaders’ Sandinista Manifesto, addressed to the FSLN grass roots, stated: “Some compañeros say that if you vote for the FSLN, the generosity and solidarity of Venezuela and Cuba will help us climb out of our poverty and improve health care and education. They must recall that the generosity of these two sister countries has always been and will continue to be with our people and not with a single group.”
The pact and its dismantling will be put to the testThe FSLN and the PLC will test their strength on November 5 against the ALN and the MRS, both of which arose in 2005 in opposition to the havoc wreaked by the pact. Some call them the “emerging” forces. The denun-ciation of the “dirty pact” and offer of a “clean pact with the people” has been one of the MRS Alliance’s main cam-paign points, while the ALN denun-ciation focuses mainly on cleansing Liberalism of Arnoldo Alemán’s taint so it can again be the anti-Sandinista standard bearer.
But the pact alone doesn’t explain the profound impoverishment and lack of opportunities that so many Nicara-guans are currently experiencing. Nor does it explain the massive migration to Costa Rica, the project to turn the country into one giant sweatshop or the concentration of wealth in the financial sector. All this is explained much better by the neoliberal economic model, constructed by the last three govern-ments, always with the participation of a sector of FSLN leaders who benefit from the model.
The pact does, however, explain the deep institutional crisis that has been fostering increasing impunity for the upper political and economic eche-lons of the PLC and FSLN. The pro-posed dismantling of their pact will necessarily be a complex, step-by-step operation that could take years, depending on how many representa-tives in the National Assembly after the elections will join forces to undo its effects.
Is a change of economic course being put to the test?Dismantling the pact alone won’t be enough to eradicate poverty or halt emigration or even turn education into a national priority. All of this will depend on the transformations made to the current economic model.
If a genuine change in Nicaragua implies both rolling back the pact and transforming the neoliberal economic model and culture currently domin-ating our society, what volition exists to undertake this change and what capaci-ty do the “emerging forces” have to push it through? There’s no doubt that the ALN will stick with the current economic model. After all, its leaders and candidates were responsible for installing and consolidating it in the country. The other anti-pact force, the MRS, talks of important changes to the model, some of which it has announced, and the leftist credentials of its leaders and legislative candidates suggest it could be more than just talk.
The CENIs: A Damocles’ swordThe MRS seems to be the most intent on changing course. It also seems to be least shackled in the task of dismantl-ing the pact.
One of the most drawn-out special effects throughout the electoral film has been the suspense created around the case of the CENI bonds, which represent the bulk of the domestic debt. Many of those responsible for this debt’s unjust weight in the national economy are ALN, PLC and even FSLN leaders. Although Montealegre obvious-ly isn’t the only one responsible, he bears his share of the blame, contrary to his protestations, and the issue has dogged him throughout the campaign. While his party’s electoral propaganda focused on disqualifying Ortega for “the long dark night” of the eighties, the PLC hits a raw nerve by discrediting Montealegre over this complex econom-ic problem.
The information, suspicions and accusations that he was linked to the apparently fraudulent issuing of these bailout bonds following the bank col-lapses of 2000 have been kept con-stantly in the media and in the sights of the Comptroller General’s Office, the Public Prosecutor’s Office, the courts and the National Assembly—all of which are governed by the pact. The electoral campaign has revealed that if Montealegre were to win, he would immediately find himself caught in the pact’s nets. In particular, he would be hostage to the courts, which are controlled by Ortega and to a lesser extent Alemán.
On October 4, Montealegre em-ployed a dramatic special effect by formally announcing a plot by the Comptroller General’s Office and the National Assembly to humiliate him and confuse voters by manipulating the case of the CENIs. The machination, he said, came from the “black hand of the pact,” which was using these institutions to manipulate investi-gations, resolutions and sentences. Montealegre went so far as to state with great concern that this “black” hand—any relation to the “invisible” one that so cruelly regulates the market’s supply and demand?—wanted to disqualify him from participating in the November 5 elections.
Authorities from the pact-domin-ated institutions and the other parties in the race took the sting out of Montealegre’s accusations, pointing out it would be impossible at this point to disqualify any candidate. Nonethe-less, the pressure being put on Monte-alegre with respect to the CENIs when he’s only a candidate suggests what’s in store should he actually win the presidency. The CENIs would be left hanging over his head like Damocles’ sword throughout his mandate, with the case activated or deactivated at the convenience of the interests behind this “black hand.” And those same interests will continue managing state institu-tions, courts and judicial decisions for a long time independent of the electoral results until the pact is finally broken up and its results reversed.
This is very similar to what Presi-dent Bolaños experienced due to the accusations of electoral crimes against him and a number of his officials by a Sandinista-dominated court in the second year of his term. The same “black hand” squeezed a good number of returns out of its handling of that case. The likelihood of this future renders voting for Montealegre “useless” because he would be in the hands of the courts and other institutions controlled by Ortega, putting the executive branch and its new government in an all too familiar and desperate situation.
Bolaños’ canal surprisePresident Bolaños also wanted to pull a surprise out of his hat before leaving office. With great pomp and ceremony he announced a project to construct an inter-oceanic canal across Nicaragua that would compete with the Panama Canal.
If implemented, it would be the most important engineering work in the nation’s history and, according to Bolaños, “would bring an economic ebullition never before seen in Central America.” Its cost is estimated at US$ 20 billion and the construction time at 12 years. If actually built this time, it would culminate a string of dreams and projects that started over 500 years ago, when the Spanish conquerors sought the “dubious strait” in our lands.
Bolaños made the announcement during the Seventh Conference of Defense Ministers of the Americas, held in Managua in the first days of October. Among the representatives from 34 countries was the controversial US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who made no public reference at all to Nicaragua’s electoral process, even though one would have expected such a fearful government official to warn of the grave consequences of an Ortega victory.
Ever poorerBolaños announced the future canal with the same triumphalism with which he has stated that poverty has been reduced during his mandate, which is simply not true. envío got access to the preliminary official data of the latest household survey con-ducted by the Nicaraguan Institute of Statistics and Censuses (INEC) in October 2005, which has international cooperation worried.
The survey shows that virtually half of Nicaraguans are still poor, just as they were in the first survey of this kind in 1993. The most significant finding is that despite the flight of so many poor to Costa Rica and other countries in search of a decent living, and despite the remittances they send back to the family they left behind, the number of poor in Nicaragua not only didn’t shrink, but rose by 322,000 between 1993 and 2005. About a third of these became poor and stayed poor during Bolaños’ term. His government has not wanted to release this docu-ment just yet for obvious electoral reasons. Will Bolaños turn the presi-dential sash over to his successor without sharing and reflecting on these data with society?
The parable of the boulderWe can’t leave the issue of pre-election day special effects without mentioning Cardinal Obando. Many in Nicaragua remember the “parable of the viper” he offered during his homily in the Managua Cathedral three days before the 1996 elections. One of the big issues that year was whether Daniel Ortega had changed or even could change to fit the new times. A variation on the frog and the scorpion story, the parable opens with two peasants walking down the road when a snake implores them to help it because it’s so cold. The trusting and charitable peasant picks it up and puts it inside his shirt to warm it up, deaf to the warning of his companion that snakes are snakes and can’t be trusted. The snake bites him and he dies, Q.E.D. For some analysts, that viper story did more than anything else to throw the useful vote Alemán’s way.
A lot has changed since that after-noon, not the least of which is the close alliance between Ortega and the cardi-nal initiated in July 2003 and ex-pressed in public acts ever since. Given that the two men’s political and “spiritual” messages appear in full agreement, there was some speculation about whether or not there would be a new parable in these elections. There was, although this time it was not part of a homily.
On September 18, during one of his ongoing encounters with Ortega, the cardinal offered us the following gem: “Once upon a time a man going down a solitary highway came upon an enormous rock left there by the rain. He got out of his car and tried to move it so he could pass, but the boulder was too heavy and he couldn’t budge it. Along came another man in his vehicle. He got out and tried as well. Useless: he couldn’t budge the boulder. A third man arrived and then a fourth. But nothing happened until a fifth man came along and said, ‘Why don’t we join forces? Together we can move this boulder and continue on our way.’ The five men grabbed levers and, working together, rolled the boulder off the road. I believe there’s strength in union. I take a good view of all efforts that are made for peace and reconcili-ation.” With five candidates in the elections, only one of whom has made unity, peace and reconciliation one of his campaign’s rosy slogans, it was pretty easy to identify Daniel Ortega as the parable’s fifth man.
Is a cultural issue If the parable of the boulder was an individual initiative by Cardinal Obando, the Catholic bishops as a whole, together with a sector of evan-gelical churches, were also intent on making a racket at the peak of the electoral process. On October 6 they organized a massive march against therapeutic abortion in which thou-sands of students, including very young ones, were bused in from the Catholic schools and walked through the main streets of Managua together with the faithful from churches and parishes chanting “Abortion is murder!”
being put to the test?
Hundreds carried placards with the logo of a fetus inserted in a tear. In addition to the Catholic Church’s traditional, endlessly repeated and hardly evangelical railing against abortion, this icon is the symbol of a new devotion currently being encour-aged by the Vatican and the powerful and well financed “pro-life” movement. The demonstrators probably have no idea that it’s based on the ludicrous “revelation” of a clairvoyant from Cleveland, who claims to have received the following message from Jesus Christ: “Abortion is a grave crime. The heavens cry for this huge sin. Unless this crime against life is reversed, you will continue seeing many forces of destruction around the world in the form of both wars and natural disasters. I invite you to offer prayers and sac-rifices and to work against abortion, artificial birth control and the morning-after pill because they are all sins against life.”
The objective of the march was to present 200,000 signatures to the National Assembly demanding the elimination from the Penal Code of the right to therapeutic abortion, even though it has been on the books for over a hundred years. The petition calls for any abortion—including in case of an ectopic pregnancy, or one resulting from the brutal rape of a young girl—to be penalized with up to 20 years in jail for both the patient and the doctors who perform it, thus exceeding the sentence for the rape itself or even for homicide. Only 17 of the 191 United Nations member nations still penalize thera-peutic abortion.
The National Assembly board received the bishops and pastors leading the march and welcomed their petition, violating the constitutional principle of a secular state by pledging to fast-track it to the plenary so that therapeutic abortion would be legally penalized in the briefest time possible. The National Assembly has never received the Gynecology and Obstetrics Society of Nicaragua, 90% of whose nearly 200 members oppose elimina-ting therapeutic abortion as an option when the mother’s life is in grave danger.
In the Assembly hall, the represen-tatives of four of the five parties in the presidential race—the FSLN, the PLC, the ALN and the Alternative for Change (AC)—offered their votes to back the petition, even though it is a frontal attack on the life of women with high-risk pregnancies and of girls who end up pregnant after being raped.
During an earlier meeting with 500 Assemblies of God leaders on September 13 and accompanied by his wife, Daniel Ortega signed a document prepared by that denomination, which also proposes penalizing therapeutic abortion with a minimum of 20 years in jail, and once again placed the FSLN’s 38 legislative votes at the disposal of any parliamentary initia-tive to that effect. Assemblies of God representative Elizabeth Rojas, one of the organizers of the national march against therapeutic abortion in alliance with the Catholic bishops, commented: “It was surprising how he accepted it, spontaneously and solicitously.” She said Ortega had assured them that his signing did not respond to electoral motives. The document, which PLC candidate José Rizo had endorsed days earlier, calls abortion “an atrocious murder” that violates the American Convention on Human Rights.
The anti-abortion march The bishops insisted that the march was religious and not political, but if that’s the case, Christian prudence should have counseled against holding it so close to the elections. The issue needs to be discussed in a less politi-cally contaminated setting because it is so intertwined with religious culture, with positions that reveal our ideas about life, liberty and even God. But clerical opportunism unfortunately prevailed over Christian prudence. It should also be acknowledged that MRS Alliance presidential candidate Ed-mundo Jarquín’s support of thera-peutic abortion on August 10, in answer to a journalist’s insistent questioning, had already put this sensitive and complex theme into the electoral debate.
was a political march
For all this, and not just because some marchers wore t-shirts with party colors, the march was unquestionably political and party-oriented. Both the FSLN and PLC presidential and vice presidential candidates participated, while the Sandinista mayor’s offices and ALN structures collaborated with transport and propaganda. During the march itself, Cardinal Obando rammed home the message that adorned the whole march route, advising his flock not to vote for any candidate that supports therapeutic abortion. In case anyone might be confused about whom that referred to, other banners read “Abortion is ugly” (“the ugly one” being the affectionate nickname with which the MRS campaign propaganda has positioned Jarquín among the voters).
Some believe Jarquín “lost” the elections the day he justified thera-peutic abortion, while others consider that his comments actually attracted more votes. In any event, Jarquín reiterated “in all conscience” his support for therapeutic abortion only hours after the march. Will the issue, which unexpectedly entered the cam-paign through various doors—Jarquín’s initial frankness, his political rivals’ opportunism and the religious hier-archy’s irresponsibility in organizing a march promoting intolerance in full knowledge that it would be politi-cized—prove to be a decisive issue on voting day?
The Güegüense’s suprise And what surprise has the MRS Alli-ance prepared for the close of its campaign? None. There are no special effects from the orange corner. They trust that the secret vote itself will provide the surprise and that at the moment of voting, the principle of “alone with my conscience” will break through the fear gripping many voters in these elections.
That fear is real because many people feel pressured to vote for one of the two parties to the pact by the setting they dominate, the power they exhibit, family tradition or even that old saw that it’s better the devil you know.... The “useful vote” is also motivated by the specific fear that Daniel Ortega could return to government. There’s even a new fear this time around because for many Sandinistas these elections have meant an emotional break with their historical, family and sentimental loyalties to the FSLN.
The MRS Alliance is ending its campaign by urging “Don’t be afraid… The vote is secret… You can give the surprise!”, confident that the spirit of the Güegüense lurking in all Nicara-guans will provide the final surprise.
Will Daniel Ortega win?The accumulated electoral history of each polling place, each neighborhood, each municipality and each department allows some numerical forecasts to be made. And given that the FSLN has always run the same presidential candidate, its electoral history provides a more precise reference than in the case of other parties, even the PLC, which is the only other one that has participated in all elections since 1990.
Daniel Ortega got 40.8% of the votes in 1990, 37.8% in 1996 and 42% in 2001. This historic record, maintained in three diverse and adverse circum-stances, gives an idea of his chances of winning this time, when he only needs 35% plus a 5-point lead over the second-place candidate to win. The difference this year is that there are three rival options with real possibili-ties, two of them vying not just for the anti-Daniel vote but for the whole anti-Sandinista vote, and one vying for the clean Sandinista vote, the anti-pact vote and the vote of those who want good, socially-conscious government for a change.
Although a little lower this time, Ortega’s share of the vote is still very solid. But unlike 1990, 1996 and 2001, when the FSLN only had one other rival capable of capturing all or nearly all of the remaining 60-70% of the vote, it’s harder to predict what final decision will be made by those who swear, poll after poll, that they’ll never vote for Ortega.
Will the “useful vote” prevail? Will it give the victory to Montealegre, who is running second in the polls? Will the anti-pact discourse of either “emerg-ing” party convince enough voters with their anti-pact discourse or will the PLC-FSLN bipartite custom prevail? Will the traditional political culture, based on caudillismo and a Mayor Daley style of government, be the deciding factor yet again? Will there have to be a second round for the first time ever? At the end of the day, what will motivate voters when they step into the voting booth alone with their conscience at the end of a peculiarly hard-fought electoral campaign with such complex political dynamics?
Will there be fraud?The other great unknown isn’t political; it’s a mixture of technical, administrative and organizational. Will there be fraud? In this same issue, Roberto Courtney, executive director of Nicaragua’s Ethics and Transparency Civic Group (E&T), analyses the course that a possible “fraud route” might take.
Thanks to the changes in the electoral law growing out of the pact, the FSLN has been controlling the critical departments of the electoral branch with the kind of political military organization it knows so well. Months ago, when the electoral process first got underway, the MRS denounced that it was a victim of “low intensity fraud,” which consisted of an unfair and disproportionately low participa-tion in both the Departmental and Municipal Electoral Centers and final-ly was concretized in the dispropor-tionate presence of “second members” linked to the FSLN in the polling places. The ALN made a similar charge. The FSLN is using the small AC party, whose candidate is former Sandinista Edén Pastora, for such maneuvers.
Dealing with this machinery and organization makes the situation “really hairy,” as Nicas would say. But electoral observers and monitors have put a positive spin on it after seeing the problems close up: “Hairy, but combable.” Nearly 13,000 national and international observers will be keeping a close eye on the November 5 elec-tions, a record number in Nicaragua’s electoral history. Most are national observers, headed up by E&T (whose motto is “We’re your eyes”) with 11,000.
The largest international observer mission is that of the Organization of American States, with 168 partici-pants, followed by the European Union. “Nicaragua’s elections will be the most intensively and extensively observed by the OAS,” said Dante Caputo, who is heading its mission. The OAS observers arrived in Nicaragua at the end of September and will remain until the entire electoral process is wrapped up.
Polls, predictions, prognosticationsThis year’s elections are being seen as a crossroads for Nicaragua, and it’s no exaggeration. The country will travel very different roads depending on which political alliance wins.
Will an Ortega victory change the course of the economic and social policies of the past 16 postwar years? Will the FSLN alter the model of representative democracy? Will Ortega geopolitically align Nicaragua with the radical Latin American Left? There are signs in both directions. And would a victory by either Montealegre or Jarquín open the way for the country’s political-institutional modernization, or for greater social and economic justice? How would victory for one of them affect the pact’s authors, Ortega and Alemán? And if either Ortega or PLC candidate José Rizo wins, will we see the continuation of the pact in a third edition?
Although a massive voter turnout is expected, there’s also marked skepticism about the real chance of the electoral results translating into any substantial improvement in the coun-try’s situation. The rigidity of the political structure set up seven years ago by the first edition of the PLC-FSLN pact and the economic restric-tions imposed on our country by its international dependence justify such skepticism. So do all the forecasts: the polls indicate that the FSLN and the PLC will probably maintain their combined control of the National Assembly, which of course will breathe new life into the pact.
If Ortega squeaks through on the first round or Rizo wins on the second, the pact will be consolidated. Some changes would be likely if either Montealegre or Jarquín wins in the first or the second round (Ortega is the only one everybody rules out as a potential second-round winner) because both would have their own party and legislative bench, unlike President Bolaños. But Montealegre would be an easier hostage to the pact than Jarquín, due to the pending CENI case.
On the other hand, whichever candidate is elected will have to negotiate the renewal of the structural adjustment agreement with the IMF to guarantee the continuation of foreign aid. The budget for the next three years depends crucially on the $1.7 billion already pledged by interna-tional cooperation in the framework of the existing IMF agreement.
Uncertainty reigns as the electoral movie starts its fadeNothing is certain as this edition goes to press just 25 days from November 5, except for one thing: all the energies, vanities, insecurities, good intentions, evil desires, prayers and curses that preceded the electoral period will start mixing together and accommodating themselves to produce a result that rather than resolving Nicaragua’s huge problems will give them new form. We’re not being rhetorical when we affirm what many are saying today from quite diverse interests: this electoral period is transcendental. It will crucially mark the next five years in this country.
Whose side is In mid-September, PLC presidential candidate José Rizo announced that he opposed presidential reelection and that the PLC legislative candidates have pledged to promote a bill in the new legislative session next year that would prohibit not only the consecutive candidacy of a past President, which is already law, but any repeat candidacy. Former President and current convicted embezzler and money launderer Arnoldo Alemán immediately defended both his own right and that of former President Daniel Ortega to run again. This fueled the speculation, circulating for months now, that Alemán favors an Ortega victory and is thus encouraging the continued Liberal split and torpedoing his own party’s ticket (Rizo-Alvarado). Once Ortega is again installed in the presidential office he would presumably return the favor by granting Alemán his freedom and the full restitution of his political rights, which would free him to run in the 2011 elections.
Alemán on, anyway?
Muddying the waters of such spec-ulation, Alemán recently exhorted his party’s candidates to take more than promises of works of progress to peasants in the impoverished rural zones. He urged them to take “a message of anguish” as well, alerting them that an FSLN victory would mean “another ten years of national tragedy.”
Sandinista Manifesto On September 25, leading Sandinista figures from the political and artistic worlds released a Manifesto directed to Sandinistas still grouped around the FSLN, calling on them to differentiate between “Danielismo and Sandinismo” and to vote for the MRS Alliance. Thousands of copies of the Manifesto, signed by Henry Ruiz, Luis Carrión, Víctor Tirado, Mónica Baltodano, Dora María Téllez, Víctor Hugo Tinoco, Hugo Torres, Ernesto Cardenal, Gioconda Belli, Sergio Ramírez, Carlos Mejía Godoy and his brother Luis Enrique Mejía Godoy, were printed for distribution among grassroots Sandinistas. They characterized the essence of the Daniel camp in the following terms: “They speak of democracy yet repress anyone who dissents from the general secretary’s dictates. They denounced the Free Trade Agreement yet raced to facilitate its approval in the National Assembly. They rail against neoliberalism yet calmly welcome all the International Monetary Fund’s conditions. They speak of honesty yet promote corruption as a system to buy hearts and minds. They speak of tolerance yet repress, threaten and blackmail anyone who opposes them. They speak of the poor while the upper echelons enrich themselves at the people’s expense. They speak of women yet disrespect them. They speak of Christianity yet their actions deny it.”
offers similar sentiments