Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 320 | Marzo 2008



Lots of Clashes, Little Light And Still No Way Forward

“With their clashes, political parties produce the light that marks the way.” Arnoldo Alemán’s PLC and Eduardo Montealegre’s ALN opened their unity agreement in January 2008 with that grandiloquent phrase from the Liberal Manifesto of 1910. This month has seen many clashes and embraces between those two parties as well as defensive comings-together and offensive breakings-apart among all the political parties, but they don’t indicate any course.

Nitlápan-Envío team

The Ortega-Murillo government has definitely reorganized the set on the country’s political and economic stage, transforming whole areas and redecorating others. What it has yet to do is present a clear script for the country, even a short play for the next two or three years.

Various and differing tendencies can be discerned, however. For example, there’s the state inefficiency due to excessively centralized decision-making; the use of state mechanisms to consolidate economic groups linked to the governing FSLN; the “judicializing” of politics—in which the courts reward friends and punish enemies; and of course the intensified use of political patronage to reconstruct the FSLN as a party and increase its electoral and social base. As all these tendencies point toward the installation of an “institutional dictatorship,” they have sparked worry and uncertainty on all sides.

With this as the backdrop, we began to perceive several months ago that voters would use November’s municipal elections not only to elect 153 new mayors, deputy mayors and Municipal Council members, but also to register their judgment of what will be nearly two years of the Ortega-Murillo government. According to the latest national public opinion poll (CID Gallup, February 16-22), the positive opinion of Ortega’s administration fell 12 more points just since last November, bringing the 51% support he enjoyed a month after taking office down a total of 22 points—a record for any administration since 1990. A full 67% of all those polled now believe the government is on the wrong road, and 45% of the declared Sandinistas agree. To forestall the upcoming elections being a similarly negative referendum on his administration, Ortega decided to start moving things around on the electoral stage as well, seeking to win the elections before they are held. As detailed toward the end of this analysis, he did so surprisingly, quickly and astutely, hoping to scuttle the fragile unity agreement signed by the warring Liberal parties.

The two halves
of the Liberal world

It was the division of the Liberals into former President and now convicted felon Arnoldo Alemán’s Constitutional Liberal Party (PLC) and former banker and now alleged felon Eduardo Monte-alegre’s National Liberal Alliance (ALN) that allowed Daniel Ortega to win the 2006 presidential election with only 38% of the votes. Between them, the two Liberal candidates pulled 54%.

That split was largely motivated by the unbridled corruption Alemán had institutionalized within both his party and government during his seven-year stint as mayor of Managua (1990-1996) and his five years as President (1997-2001). A fleeting crack in Nicaragua’s culture of impunity that resulted in Alemán’s 20-year sentence in December 2002 on several counts of embezzlement and laundering of state resources, has slowly eroded his leadership even within the PLC.

Montealegre v. Alemán:
Distance and distrust

After he was expelled from the PLC for speaking out against the corruption, Montealegre formed the ALN in 2004 and ran a very pricey media campaign in that year’s municipal elections. The new party distanced itself from Alemán’s PLC with modernizing rightwing neoliberal positions, a more urban and technocratic style, and an anti-pact and anti-corruption line. He was rewarded with significant backing from both the United States and national and Central American business groups. A former banker and economic minister in both the Alemán and Bolaños governments, Montealegre is short on grassroots charisma, but he found a way to capture the discontent sparked by Alemán’s corruption and the political confusion his six-year pact with Daniel Ortega projected onto the anti-Sandinista banner, monopolized by Alemán since 1990. Largely because the ALN pulled a lot of votes away from the PLC, the FSLN was not only re-elected to the Managua mayor’s office in 2004 but won another 86 municipal governments—including the most prosperous and populous ones. From that moment on, the FSLN’s electoral strategy has centered on maintaining and intensifying that split.

By the 2006 presidential elections, the ALN got more votes than the PLC, which was enough for the FSLN to win in the first round. The FSLN has openly confessed to using all means at its disposal to keep the Liberals divided for those elections. Alemán’s decision not to leave politics and his dread of serving time in prison made the task all the easier. He has continually sold his party’s legislative votes to Ortega in the hopes of buying his definitive freedom, in the process weakening the PLC’s reputation and exacerbating the Liberal split. Anytime Alemán threatened to bolt, Ortega used the FSLN-dominated Managua Appeals Court to jerk his leash (that court only recently ruled on Alemán’s appeal, over five years after the original verdict). Nica-ragua’s political culture doesn’t go in much for debating ideas. Because it prefers insulting, undercutting and backbiting, all these years of division have produced other splits and new leaders (although never other programs), deepening personal rivalries and mutual distrust within the Liberal camp. Such splits are hard to patch up; reconciliations are usually ephemeral.

The CENI scapegoat

With the split becoming ever more lopsided due to Montealegre’s steadily growing leadership, it has finally become necessary for the FSLN to cut him and his party down a few pegs, too. The tactic has been to paint him as virtually the only person responsible for the illegality-riddled issue of CENI bonds by the Nicaraguan Central Bank (BCN) during the Alemán government, following the collapse of five banks.

Montealegre does have a few things to answer for—possibly in criminal and certainly in ethical terms—in connection with the CENIs, but he had no known role whatsoever in either the bank failures themselves or the decision to let the BCN “pay the piper” for them. He was a small link far down a long, heavy chain of people of all political stripes who were responsible for what is today a huge and largely illegitimate domestic public debt, as economist Adolfo Acevedo describes in detail in an article on the CENI debacle in this issue.

Reality notwithstanding, this electoral year opened with the Ortega-Murillo government making Monte-alegre the primary target of both a ferocious, outrageously exaggerated media campaign and an inter-institutional investigation ostensibly launched to “get to the bottom” of the case. Portraying him as a criminal in the same league as Alemán and threatening him with a trial and conviction is all about perpetuating the split and rebalancing the two Liberal halves.

Contradictions or
just a 3-ring circus?

The propaganda against Montealgre—and briefly also against Jaime Chamorro, director of the conservative newspaper La Prensa—grew more severe by the day. The excuse for targeting Chamorro was simply that he was on the board of Bancentro, one of the banks that benefited from the CENIs at the time, but since no other board members have been named, he sees it as harassment of his opposition newspaper.

As for Montealegre, he was being vilified for heading up the renegotiation of the CENIs as head of the Bolaños government’s Treasury Ministry. Yet at the very same time, Central Bank President Antenor Rosales was quietly doing exactly the same thing again—even though some argue that only the treasury minister has the legal faculty to renegotiate state debt.

Also at the very same time, Julio César Arias, a judge very tight with the FSLN upper echelons, ordered Rosales to suspend payment on that debt, which a smiling Rosales refused to do, citing the relevant laws. And in yet another part of this three-ring circus, while Daniel Ortega was announcing he would “honor” the CENI debt to avoid affecting Nicaragua’s image, Public Prosecutor Armando Juárez and Attorney General Hernán Estrada, both from the FSLN inner circle and close to the presidential couple, announced they were launching an investigation to declare the CENIs and the “illicit enrichment” derived from them illegal. They were also brandishing laws, but there was no smile on their faces.

And to complete what one MRS legislative alternate suggested would be “a great piece of theater,” Sandinista legislator Gustavo Porras, speaking in his role as head of the National Workers’ Front (FNT), demanded that the money earmarked for payment of the CENI debt be used to create a workers’ bank to manage their social security funds. Surveying all these mixed signals, the chairman of the National Assembly’s Economic Commission, Francisco Aguirre Sacasa, charged that they were sending “bad messages” to the International Monetary Fund and investors in both Nicaragua and the rest of the world. He angrily snapped that the governing party could do with some “adult supervision.”

Crossed wires in the government? Displaced interests of the FSLN’s business group? Pressure on the bankers so Rosales could cut a better deal? A tough stance to coincide with the International Monetary Fund’s pending arrival? Or just media theater, with each actor playing the role assigned by the presidency? The appearances of the President, his wife and their team on flower bedecked dais-altars are so theatrical one could be excused for thinking that their other officials are just part of the play.

Ortega giveth and
Ortega taketh away

Rosales’ renegotiation with the bankers culminated on February 27 with a another 1% drop in the interest (Monte-alegre lowered it 6.9%, from 15.3% to 8.43%), an additional 2-year extension of the payment period to a total of 12 years (Montealegre got a 5-year extension) and—no small thing in an election year—a reduction of the payments for this year to free up a few million córdobas more for social spending.

BANPRO and BANCENTRO, the two CENI holders, accepted the deal because the mere act of concluding negotiations with them would mean the Sandinista government had legitimized the entire CENI debt, including the controversial, allegedly illegal part. They also accepted because President Ortega’s January threat not to honor the CENI debt and even to withdraw all government deposits in both banks hurt their international ratings, making external financing more costly for them.

Both President Ortega and Rosales backpedaled from that threat, arguing that only by paying would the government maintain credibility and be able to issue new bonds to finance other debts. It has since been learned that the government will place these new bonds at an interest rate that will compensate the banks for the 1% they lost in the renegotiation. With one hand Ortega taketh away and with the other he giveth; more proof that one of his government’s strongest alliance is with national finance capital.

A political tit-for-tat

For most of the five years since a Sandinista judge sentenced Alemán, he has served no time in prison. Save a few weeks behind bars and a full three months in an expensive hospital suite following minor surgery on two fingers, he enjoyed house arrest on his luxurious hacienda until Ortega changed his house arrest to “country arrest” early last year. A savvy Ortega even allowed him to tour the country in continual political activity, which exacerbated the Liberal split.

Early last December, when the Supreme Court justices loyal to Alemán raised a fuss about a late-night unilateral legal maneuver by their FSLN colleagues on the definition and sphere of action of the Councils of Citizens’ Power, President Ortega’s central political project, Alemán’s leash received more than a summary jerk: he got tethered to a pole. The FSLN-dominated Appeals Court rejected his appeal, upheld his 20-year conviction, extended it by ruling that the different sentences would be served consecutively, confined him to house arrest again and formally notified him of a summons on the suit against him, his wife and father-in law in Panama for laundering Nicaraguan state money through personal accounts in that country.

Alemán quickly got his justices to back down and support Ortega’s project, and he was soon engaging in pro-PLC political activities across the country again, while the Panamanian summons was tossed back into the drawer where it had been previously been abandoned. Alemán is starting to look less like a convicted prisoner and more like a trained dog.

Amnesty in sight?

In the first months of this electoral year, the Ortega-Murillo government has been giving even stronger signs of its determination to create an institutional dictatorship, based on the control of most state institutions that has resulted from the pact with the PLC. Those signs gave new impetus to an initiative by PLC leaders to push a legislative decree of “general amnesty and national reconciliation” through the National Assembly.

While the idea was to free Alemán from his abusive “jailer,” the PLC-designed bill covered Montealegre and both their families as well. In fact, the original text, which was later modified, would have detained any judicial process already underway or yet to be initiated against dozens of former state officials accused of acts of corruption.

The amnesty was also an electoral strategy: including both Alemán and Montealegre would favor Liberal unity, stanch the wounds and eliminate Ortega’s dual blackmail. With the two biggest Liberal factions reunited, they would defeat the FSLN in the upcoming municipal elections.

Alemán says yes,
everyone else says no

Amnesty for Alemán has been an on-again, off-again project for years now, depending on the political moment. Alemán never wanted it before now, because even though it means a pardon and full freedom, it also means recognition of the crime committed. He always aspired to being absolved in the courts due to “lack of evidence,” but that ideal has gone up in smoke over time. This time he jumped at the idea: “Arnoldo Alemán’s case is eminently political,” he declared to assembled journalists in the third person. “Yes, Arnoldo Alemán should be given an amnesty.”

The FSLN bench naturally opposed it, demanding it be passed as a law rather than a decree if passed at all. That way Ortega could veto it. Montealegre rejected the whole idea as well, arguing that he doesn’t need a pardon for a crime he didn’t commit. Many in the ALN, however, saw it as a good way to remove the Damocles sword of the CENI investigation hanging over his head.

At the end of the day, the PLC met unanimous rejection from the country’s two human rights associations and other relevant organizations and personalities it consulted, given that there is no armed conflict in the country to justify it. It would only consolidate the traditional culture of impunity, because those who would be pardoned committed common and not political crimes. Furthermore, it was an initiative for specific individuals, the two rival Liberal leaders being manipulated by Ortega.

An IMF mission
checks out the situation

In early February, when the amnesty was being floated, the economic situation was very tense. January’s inflation had exceeded 1.25% and oil prices were still rising, hitting new records and pulling the price of everything up with them. The International Monetary Fund mission that arrived at the end of the month came to review not only the quantitative targets of the program signed with the government, but also the performance criteria and how to adjust the program to the new realities: the deceleration of the US economy and the dizzying rise in oil and food prices. While these factors are triggering inflation all over Central America, Nicaragua’s figures are the worst in the region.

According to the IMF, Nicaragua is more greatly affected because other factors are also at play here, including the effects of Hurricane Felix and heavy rains in other regions of the country in the third quarter of last year and the fact that some basic foods, beans among them, are now being produced for Venezuela. Although that country is buying black beans, not the favorite Nicaraguan red bean, the production shift is creating domestic supply shortages.

Representatives of the Civil Coordinator told the IMF about other, more subjective elements growing out of the political tensions, economic uncertainties and contradictory government announcements. They also questioned the IMF’s ongoing pressure to freeze the salaries of public sector doctors, nurses, police, teachers and technicians as an anti-inflationary mechanism. The Coordinator has been demanding the government come up with a medium-term salary policy.

The magnitude of
Venezuelan cooperation

The IMF also came to analyze whether the Venezuelan money from the advantageous oil deal Chávez provided his ally Ortega, which is circulating through the presidential coffers with no control or transparency, is contributing to the inflation. Top Ortega government officials have shrugged off demands from different sectors for transparent handling of these resources and some even deny that they qualify as “cooperation” at all, arguing that they are private Venezuelan investments in Nicaragua governed not by profit but by a desire to “help a brother people.” By this logic, there’s no reason to incorporate them into the budget.

The IMF has asked the government for more detailed information about Venezuela’s cooperation because such a large amount (some $400-500 million annually) has macroeconomic repercussions that have to be evaluated. The IMF called for the money earmarked for public investments to be recorded in the public budget and the part that is private sector investment—as the government alleges—to be clearly recorded in the balance of payments. At present no public control or scrutiny is possible as nothing is recorded anywhere.

Humberto Ortega’s
latest political cameo

With the political and economic atmosphere both tense and confusing, former army chief and FSLN national directorate member Humberto Ortega returned from the political wilderness on February 6 with a two-page ad in both national newspapers urgently calling for “concertation now” in the name of “our martyrs”—mentioning only assassinated newspaper owner and journalist Pedro Joaquín Chamorro and Humberto’s brother Camilo, who fell in the anti-Somocista insurrection. Both have been dead for 30 years now.

The retired general has cultivated the image of appearing suddenly in times of crisis, although as even he admitted, this doesn’t mean he’s not a daily adviser to his brother, the President. This time he chose Ash Wednesday to call for “reflection.”

In his ad, he called for “the agreements needed to guarantee a national stability that strengthens the country’s governance to improve the efforts being made to surmount the most critical and urgent problems affecting the whole population.” He proposed that “under the initiative of the President of the Republic, the leaders of political, economic, social, spiritual and media power agree to concrete measures that moderate the passion of this year’s municipal elections.”

In subsequent declarations, Ortega said that his objective was to create a “political center of coexistence in which there must be room for us all,” and a “government of inclusive national unity.”

Was the situation now so divisive and unmanageable that it merited his reappearance, publicly projecting himself again as the great strategist to analyze what was wrong with his brother’s government? Did he say anything in public that Daniel hadn’t already heard in private?

His call was naturally followed by numerous analyses of the nature of an authentic “concertation” and speculation about his hidden meaning and true intentions. Despite an inherent dose of skepticism, virtually all analysts and politicians applauded a possible con-certation. One of the first was Alemán, who declared that as “a soldier of the fatherland,” he was ready to participate and negotiate some social agreement. He made these declarations after visiting Cardinal Obando, who has been very close to President Ortega in recent years, to check out the possibility that an amnesty to benefit him might form part of such an agreement. But not a single word came from the presidential offices, adding more question marks to the real meaning of Humberto Ortega’s initiative.

Who needs good governance?

While Humberto Ortega was proposing good governance, his brother’s government team was proposing that the donor community stop tying its aid to good governance. The government is also insisting that cooperating countries transfer to the national budget all funds earmarked for specific projects or directly handed over to civil organizations.

The unwillingness of many cooperating countries—especially those of the European Union—to abandon the requirement of good governance (transparency, controls, civil society participation, independent judicial branch, respect for human rights, institution-ality) has stagnated the dialogue between them and the government. As a result of this friction no development plan has yet been designed as a frame of reference for cooperation. Such a plan is a basic requisite to both guide and increase that cooperation and for a consultative group the Ortega government plans to pull together in October of this year, at least in part to request aid to reconstruct the northern Caribbean region, hit by Hurricane Felix in September of last year. Over six months later, the devastated communities are still in an emergency situation, lacking the much needed attention from the central government.

An arbitrarily
imposed speed-up

It was in this difficult context that Daniel Ortega decided to start “winning” the municipal elections early. This time the strategy was implemented not by the Supreme Court, which was last month’s favored institution, but by the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE)—another branch of state the FSLN controls thanks to the pact with Alemán and the over two-year-old “reconciliation” between Ortega and Cardinal Obando. The pact determined that the CSE would have a 5-person collegial executive body with two seats each for the FSLN and the PLC, plus one for the cardinal’s protégé Roberto Rivas, who was also made the CSE president. The late-blooming “friendship” between Ortega and Obando determined that Rivas now votes unconditionally with the FSLN on any issue.

On February 11 the CSE made a surprise announcement that it was bringing parts of the electoral calendar forward by between two and four months. Any party alliances would have to be registered by March 3 and all slates for the nearly two thousand candidates running for municipal office would have to be submitted within another six days. In the 2004 municipal elections these deadlines were May 7 for alliances and July 16 for candidates.

Closing access to the ballot eight months before the election was a low blow, which Rivas justified on the grounds of the CSE’s limited funds and the need to organize everything with greater calm—arguments to which no one gave much credence. The CSE stuck to its decision despite protests from all parties except the FSLN, which countered that the others were just poorly organized and not very serious.

Speeding up the process left little time for the political parties seeking to block an FSLN victory to conclude their political negotiations. It foreclosed on slower, well-debated processes, forcing hasty decisions and hand-picked candidates and accentuating conflicts. The speed-up also suited the FSLN, which was experiencing tensions over its own candidates. A deadline from above would impose discipline.

Montealegre left
twisting in the wind

By forcing quick decisions, the hope was to undermine the PLC-ALN unity agreement to combine forces in the municipal elections that had been signed in January despite grave tensions and mutual distrust. Demonstrating that Ortega’s appraisal of their lack of seriousness and organization was not entirely unfounded, the wrangling continued. Eduardo Montealegre had set his sights on running for mayor of Managua and Arnoldo Alemán was blocking him at every turn.

In another surprise move, Ortega did his bit to back Alemán’s efforts. On February 20, the day after the CSE had withstood all attempts to overturn its new calendar, it announced it was withdrawing recognition of Monte-alegre as ALN president, recognizing Alemán pawn Eliseo Núñez instead. Montealegre was left twisting in the wind with no party and no spot on the ballot. He was suddenly faced with a bitter dilemma about how and with whom to negotiate his Managua candidacy, aggravated even more by the fast-approaching deadline for registering candidates. The only thing the CSE didn’t take away was his position as head of the group he himself had dubbed “We’re going with Eduardo” in 2006.

Two options, two blocs

For the next 10 days the FSLN watched on in amused silence as the other parties engaged in a desperate whirl of offers, meetings, conditions accepted in minutes, decisions overturned in hours, contradictory declarations… The flurry of options flying around in those days essentially narrowed down to two: create either an opposition bloc against the FSLN, which would include the PLC, or an opposition bloc against the pact, which would mean going up against both the FSLN and what remains of the PLC that is still loyal to Alemán.

The first option seemed fragile, given the brief precedent of the “Bloc against the Dictatorship,” formed in November by all opposition National Assembly legislators—PLC included—in response to the government’s arbitrary actions, most of which at the time revolved around the Councils of Citizen’s Participation. While that bloc had already begun to unravel over the Christmas vacation with all the off-camera deals over eggnog, its demise became public on February 12 during the budget debate. ALN Liberals and PLC Liberals, both of whom had defiantly pledged to make major changes in Ortega’s neoliberal budget, approved it in minutes with just cosmetic changes. Only the three Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) represen-tatives kept their promise to oppose it.

Montealegre runs on the PLI...
...Oops, no, the PLC ticket

With the entire political class frantically debating the pros and cons of cobbing together some sort of bloc, Arnoldo Alemán saw his chance to pay Ortega back for all the jerking of his leash and recover some political esteem. Renouncing his chosen candidate for mayor of Managua, he invited Montealegre to run on the PLC ticket and waxed eloquent about the opportunity to consolidate Liberal unity.

Montealegre wavered at first. On February 27 he “firmly” announced that he would run on the ticket of the much smaller Independent Liberal Party (PLI). But four days later he buckled. After hours of meetings dominated by Alemán, “We’re going with Eduardo” went with Arnoldo, agreeing to run their candidate on the PLC ticket with Alemán loyalist Enrique Quiñónez as Montealegre’s running mate. Announcing his decision only hours before the CSE deadline, Montealegre had to admit there were also economic reasons, as big national capital was backing the offer to scud back under Alemán’s tent.

This fragile unity
can still be toppled

The stated aim of the newly “united” Liberals is to win not only Managua, the most politically and economically important municipality, but also over two-thirds of the other municipal governments. They announced they had not only agreed to run together in the elections but also to vote together in the National Assembly, which if it happens will put an end to Ortega’s power in the legislative branch through the PLC pact.

While this unity is still riddled with distrust, one can envision agreements to get Alemán his amnesty, freeing him from his jailer’s manipulations, and to prevent Montealegre being stripped of the immunity that protects him from standing trial for the CENI case.

The Ortega-Murillo government’s institutional machinery will naturally attempt to topple this fragile unity in an unrelenting war of attrition. Even though the Liberal anti-Sandinista unity is held together with chewing gum and baling wire, it endangers the municipal victories the FSLN is counting on. And if Alemán breaks his leash, it could even mean the end of Ortega’s determined attempts to legalize his own right to reelection.

Where was the MRS
in all that frenzy?

There were those in the MRS, led by the MRS Alliance’s 2006 presidential candidate and the party’s current political coordinator Edmundo Jarquín, who were banking on the anti-pact bloc and wanted to be part of it. Jarquín justified his position by comparing today’s dangerous political moment with that of 30 years ago, which motivated all of Nicaragua’s opposition political forces to create a bloc against the Somoza dictatorship.

Other leaders of the MRS Alliance and a group of young people who joined it to renovate and rescue Sandinismo, rejected that path out of hand. How, they argued, could a movement of Sandinista origins possibly back such a distinguished representative of the neoliberal Right as Eduardo Monte-alegre? Furthermore, why even consider doing so if the MRS Alliance pulled over 100,000 votes in Managua in 2006, despite so many obstacles that year? Those votes could multiply given the ambiguity displayed by Monte-alegre, who agreed to run on Alemán’s ticket after the briefest vacillation, despite all the bad blood between them.

In sum, the first group argued that the unquestionable priority for Nicaragua right now is to defeat Daniel Ortega and break up his institutional dictatorship project. The latter stressed coherence and principles, arguing that the priority is to keep growing and be there over the long haul.

In the end, Montealegre’s decision to let his political ambitions lure him back into the PLC fold, protected by Arnoldo Alemán, cleared up the debate up for the MRS. It will run alone, aiming its campaign at both the Ortega-Murillo government’s attempts to install an institutional dictatorship and its disastrous pact with Alemán, which paved the way for this dictatorial possibility.

The Conservative Party will also go it alone, and for the same reasons, although that decision caused an open split in Conservative ranks, with the dissidents “going with Eduardo” over to Alemán.

Elements to watch for

This first pre-electoral assault by the budding institutional dictatorship raises a number of issues to watch for over the upcoming campaign period. There’s no doubt that the Ortega-Murillo government’s attack strategy will include a raft of new tactics, while its defense strategy will beef up its powerful electoral network a thousand ways.

Alemán has improved his situation vis-à-vis his jailer as well as within the PLC and liberalism in general. He has already announced plans to campaign across the country on behalf of Liberal municipal candidates, although some Liberals have suggested he skip Managua to avoid further tarnishing the image Montealegre has cultivated as a knight in armor against corruption.

Montealegre’s decision to line up “Going with Eduardo” behind the PLC ticket has delighted the Liberal grass roots, but triggered disgust and rejection among those who considered him an anti-pact leader. In response to his critics, Montealegre is brandishing a new slogan: “Defeating Ortega is defeating the pact.”

Referendum, election
or abstention?

The decision of both the MRS and the Conservative Party to go it alone opens new opportunities to both political groups. In round numbers, a third of the Nicaraguan electorate has given the Sandinista/anti-Sandinista polarization a wide berth and could be considered independent. It remains to be seen whether either of these thus far unbesmirched parties can attract them.

What will weigh most in the minds of those voters in November: Rejection of both caudillos? Derailing Ortega’s institutional dictatorship? Or will the appeal of specific local candidates outweigh either of these two national issues?

Could apathy, disillusionment and fatalistic passivity toward politics and all politicians carry the day? In the latest CID-Gallup poll, only 12% of those surveyed believe the opposition has ideals or is fighting for the good of the country. A combined 64% views the opposition as riddled with personal interests, sell-outs, opportunists, and divided or only united to fight against the FSLN. While much of the population is fed up with politics and politicians, they have even less use for the opposition figures than for Ortega. The President’s personal popularity rating (47% favorable) was topped by only one other public figure (Managua’s Sandi-nista mayor Dionisio Marencho, who pulled 50%). Below Ortega were Cardinal Obando (39%), Liberal opposition leaders Eduardo Montealegre (37%) and Arnoldo Alemán (20%) and the President’s wife, Rosario Murillo (26%), whose popularity fell 10% since November. If there is a low turnout, as is often the case in municipal elections, it will favor the FSLN, which is a master at getting its faithful out to vote.

Nothing is written in stone

Although things are beginning to shape up, nothing is written in stone yet. Part of it is now written on paper, but in Nicaragua the ink soon fades or is erased by pragmatism. In the end, many papers fly off on the winds of forgetfulness and sloth.

It will be the economic crisis and the political uncertainty that will write straight on crooked lines and crooked on straight lines. There is still ample time to read and interpret what these lines will tell us.

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