A Respectful Message to The Sandinista Movement
Why were the MRS electoral results so much lower than expected? And how did Daniel Ortega get so much Sandinista support,
considering his political trajectory over the past few years?
These questions are easy, but their answers are complicated.
Looking at Nicaragua and Sandinismo from physically far away
but close to its people’s causes, I’ve put together a few responses.
I think the vote for the MRS Alliance was considered and rational. It was a difficult vote for a part of the elector-ate because it required a psychological and emotional split from their “birthplace.” Another intellectually mature segment that might have voted for the MRS wasn’t able to make this split, particularly once the polls showed Daniel Ortega the probable winner. The vote for the MRS was the thoughtful vote of people who had critically analyzed the FSLN’s drift. For that reason it was probably concentrated in educated sectors: academics, university students, technical and professional groups, feminists... Did the MRS root itself enough with the grass roots? Did it overcome its urban tendencies?
The challenge: Getting past the electoral focus We can find several reasons for the MRS results being less than expected. It’s a young movement that hasn’t been able to show enough credentials to earn the “useful vote.” Its most important asset, electorally speaking, was the late Herty Lewites, who had won municipal elections and earned a name as a man who got things done. One of the MRS’ weaknesses was to promote its political discourse through the internet and the print media, communication spheres inaccessible to the grassroots majority. The division of the Liberals into two almost equal camps made Ortega’s possible triumph more believable, producing the effect of “this time we can actually win” and pulling potential MRS votes back towards the FSLN. An external factor also favored Ortega: the changes in Latin America, in particular Chávez’s support for the FSLN with promises of cheap oil and other donations.
These and other reasons seem to be behind the MRS results, which, although not good, weren’t that bad. The MRS will have a limited voice in the National Assembly, but there 200,000 valid votes support those representatives, which is no small thing from such a small electorate. What is still needed, as Mónica Baltodano said when she went to vote, is for the MRS to consolidate its project beyond the elections, maturing it into a project for society with a clear vision of how to work with civil society.
Daniel Ortega: A providential voiceThe FSLN, with Daniel Ortega in the lead, made a bargain in 1998 with Arnoldo Alemán, the corrupt, convicted and jailed former President, in order to force a bipartite system and divvy up judicial power in a way that would permit both men to protect themselves from crimes committed. With that, Ortega took a giant step, and not the first one, towards selling out his principles. Nevertheless, he won with majority support from Sandinista voters.
The FSLN’s results highlight the fact that people’s behavior, beliefs, self-image and emotions are dynamic. The best critical discourse can fall flat in the face of popular reality. Frequently, rational political debate fails to attract the grassroots majority, which feels and perceives reality through the prism of other priorities.
The material conditions of life for the majority of urban and peasant sectors had an undeniable weight in deciding how to vote. The urgent need to improve those conditions made many of the poorer voters look towards Daniel Ortega as a providential voice: they delegated their destinies to him, at least in the short term. The impulse of a good part of the population living in extremely precarious conditions was to project an imagined reality, in some cases idealizing the past, and in others who didn’t know that past, thinking of it as something that needed to be recovered.
That past lives on in the voteNicaragua’s difficult living conditions have fostered collective attitudes about following a leadership that describes a simple, understandable path, even though the speeches of those leaders may contain great rhetoric and even base themselves in traditional conservative religious values. Ortega has exploited the most traditional side of those who live in poverty and need to trust in someone. Survival is achieved through ideas, images and feelings that eschew the rational as something only for those in less precarious living conditions.
As the Spanish thinker Eugenio del Río has written, idealist and emotional movements are at the source of seismic social events, great convulsions in society and electoral manifestations. It’s thus possible that in Nicaragua’s case not even the present conditions can explain everything. There’s also a conglomeration of historic components: desires for vengeance, frustrations, unfulfilled longings, dissatisfaction... As Gustav Landauer has said, “The past is in the present, alive, rushing into the future at each moment; it’s movement, journey.” The past is translated into dreams, resentments, illusions, fits of madness... Each person looks at the past with his or her own eyes; what is seen and reacted to may not coincide with what was.
Grassroots behavior isn’t the simple mechanical reflection of specific material living conditions. The world of ideas and collective feelings is an independent sphere in which material needs and very different sentimental needs and spiritual longings are translated in a complex way. There’s an important connection between the material world and the world of ideas that can be expressed in different forms—sometimes by taking the streets, sometimes by a rebellion, a revolution, and other times by following a leader, or a resurgence of the traditional or the religious. Grassroots demonstrations can appear to be one thing or its opposite: looking forward or looking backward.
It’s a reality that slips through our fingers, a subjective world one can’t reach only with rational discourse. It’s necessary to get close, know it face to face, live in it and immerse oneself in it to be able to understand it. It’s necessary to discover this subterranean river of dissatisfactions, longings, anguish, dreams and the search for happiness, even if on the wrong path.
The left has to propose new lifeThe “dissatisfied people” decided to vote FSLN instead of MRS because they live in a state of emergency and needed an option with the possibility of winning, because the FSLN represents a known quantity and an idealized past, whereas the MRS is something new and uncertain. The priority for the grassroots majority is poverty, unemployment and hunger, while they see their rights, democracy and gender equality as far less important topics.
We of the Left thus have to be able to connect with that emotional world and see people as more than electoral numbers so we can propose a new society, a new culture, new human relationships and a new world of sentiments. We can’t just propose an economic program and more political democracy; we also have to propose a new life.
We talk a lot about a “popular project,” about working with the people, about social movements, but we do it in an excessively political way, knowing little of the reality behind what we see. Sometimes we make “the people” into a myth, when in reality we see that the majority are frequently conformists or vote for the Right or for populism. We need to make an effort to construct a discourse, a proposal for daily life and an electoral program that take into account the different human dimensions and that people can hear as a politics of life.
We can only do that if we genuinely get right up close to people and to those always nameless aspirations, that joy we human beings pursue even without knowing what it consists of yet try to find in the individual or family sphere, or in the collective one.
That satisfied leftFrom my critical position towards Daniel Ortega and from my closeness to the MRS as an ethical and political effort by non-corrupt Sandinistas, I have to say that I’ve been perplexed by the analysis and reactions of a good part of the Latin American Left. It has supported Daniel Ortega from two positions: not knowing or not wanting to know about his political and moral corruption; or knowing but deciding that for all that he’s “one of ours.” I’ve detected a common point in both positions: the only important thing is to win one more government for the Latin American fight again neoliberalism.
Besides the fact that it isn’t clear at all that Daniel Ortega will fight against neoliberalism, the Left has an essentially economistic view of neoliberalism. It’s the same old position that ignores the multilateral nature of the fight and of any project for society. No matter that Daniel Ortega has become corrupt and his social message is now permanently polluted if he speaks out against imperialism in his rhetoric and has his picture taken with Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro.
The problem extends throughout the Left. Have we abandoned the idea of building a new society to concentrate solely on the economic battle and on images? Is criminalizing therapeutic abortion, which had existed legally for more than a hundred years in Nicaragua, a trivial thing? Does the Left that supports Ortega not care? If that’s true, it means there’s a huge conservative spirit in the traditional Latin American Left. If the moral quality of the Left doesn’t seem important, then its social plan isn’t important, nor is its opportunistic behavior. The only important thing is to win elections, as if that guaranteed all the urgently-needed change.
And now?What do we do now? How will the MRS conduct itself politically in the National Assembly? How will it communicate with people? Will it be a discourse for the consumption of identified MRS voters or for more essential, bottom-line Nicaraguans? A new social base will have to be built, starting from the electoral base it achieved. People should keep seeing the MRS close by, at the door of their home, to show confidence and demonstrate that it’s a movement for the future. The MRS should quickly examine the results and make its conclusions: to build a long-term political movement; to establish a parliamentary and communication strategy; to break ground on building a broad grassroots base. Now, without the urgency and limits of the election campaign, there’s time to make this road, which Nicaragua so sorely needs.
Iosu Perales is a political analyst, author of Los buenos años:Nicaragua en la memoria.