The Electoral Process Advances, But Abstention Encourages Intervention
The process leading to Nicaragua’s November 4 elections has picked up momentum in the last thirty days as the legal framework has been defined and the spectrum of political parties that will participate or abstain has become clearer. The medium- and long-term plans of those who advocate participation and those who call for abstention show the deep-seated contradiction that engulfs Nicaragua and, to varying degrees, the entire region: national self-determination vs. US military intervention.
This close relationship between the electoral process and political strategy means that what is happening now regarding elections is the key to analyzing and understanding what lies ahead. The Nicaraguan elections are intended to legitimize the reconstruction process of the last five years that is built on a mixed economy, political pluralism, a nonaligned foreign policy, and broad grass-roots participation. Abstention is one attempt to delegitimize the Nicaraguan experiment, for rejection of the present model means a return to the past.
For the last two months, our analysis of the national picture in Nicaragua has focused on the struggle for the country’s freedom and against its destruction. Counterrevolutionary offensives, US military maneuvers in the region, the mining of Nicaragua’s ports, the economic and financial boycott and the attempts to isolate Nicaragua internationally were indispensable to past analyses, just as the question of electoral participation and/or abstention is indispensable to the present one.
The Nicaraguan elections have acquired greater significance because of both the parallel electoral process in the United States and the upheaval taking place throughout much of Central America. The long history of US domination in Central America is now being challenged as part of the region openly confronts this historic injustice. It is therefore understandable that Central America is a controversial issue within the United States and even a campaign issue in the US presidential race.
In order to examine the numerous events of the past month in a systematic way, this article will deal with four general areas: progress in the electoral process, the return of Arturo Cruz in a political attempt to undermine the elections, abstentionism as a prelude to intervention, and possible events between now and November.
Progress in the electoral processUntil July, the electoral process was in its gestation period, with the passage of an electoral law, the creation of electoral commissions, etc. Since then, especially with the registration of 1.6 million citizens in over 4,000 voter registration centers, the elections have come to life for Nicaraguans. Now the process has moved into its last stage. Four events marked this transition: the approval of amendments to the electoral law; the almost total lifting of the State of Emergency; the end of the registration period for political party candidates and voter registration.
Approval of amendments to the electoral law: esponding to proposals introduced by two different opposition blocs—one made up of parties belonging to the Ramiro Sacasa Democratic Coordinating Committee, now known as the Nicaraguan Coordinating Committee (CDN), and the other comprising the Nicaraguan Socialist Party (PSN), the Independent Liberal Party (PLI) and the Communist Party (PCdeN)—the Council of State debated proposed amendments from July 10 through 13. Although the law had only been passed in March of this year, the FSLN agreed to review it in order to increase support for it and improve it in any way possible. Carlos Núñez, president of the Council of State, did, however, make clear that some articles of the law were not subject to change, such as the date of elections and the offices to be filled (the presidency, vice presidency and 90 seats in the constituent assembly).
The reforms proposed by the two blocs reflect their different attitudes toward the current political situation. While the CDN proposed revisions in more that 130 of the law’s 154 articles, which actually would have meant writing a new law, the PSN-PLI-PCdeN bloc made suggestions designed to improve the law, not throw it out.
After a heated debate, changes were made in 34 existing articles and 6 new ones were added. The most important changes include expanding the Supreme Electoral Commission (CSE), the final authority on electoral matters, from three to five members. The two new members would be chosen by the Supreme Court from a list of nominees submitted by the National Political Parties Assembly (ANPP), which is made up of one member from each legal party and one representative of the government junta. The amendments also broadened the ANPP’s role as adviser to the CSE. The duration of the campaign was adjusted slightly to make it exactly three months long—August 1 to November 1. Other changes were increased state and private TV and radio time for political publicity; an increase in the state’s donation to each party’s campaign fund from six to nine million córdobas; authorization for candidates to be away from their jobs for campaigning activities; authorization for candidates to appoint observers to all electoral entities except the CSE central office. An important change was made regarding the composition of the new National Assembly, which will replace the Council of State. There was approval of an FSLN proposal to incorporate into the Assembly all presidential and vice presidential candidates who receive a certain minimum number of votes. This is in addition to the originally stipulated 90 elected members of the Assembly. This measure will assure broad representation of the most capable members of each party in the drafting of a new national constitution.
The almost total lifting of the State of Emergency: This was announced by Daniel Ortega on the fifth anniversary of the revolution, and formalized on August 6 by government decree. The State of Emergency, in effect since March 1982, had been a key issue for the political parties, most of which had called for its revocation. Until the July 19 announcement, it was expected that a partial lifting of the State of Emergency would take place only in non-conflictive areas of the country. However, the criteria the government used were not geographic—regions of conflict vs. regions of peace—but rather the type of restriction involved. On July 19, freedom of travel inside the country was reestablished, as was freedom to hold public assemblies, demonstrations and rallies. On August 6, the right to strike was restored, as was the legally guaranteed protection of civil rights, although the latter was not restored retroactively. Freedom of the press was also reestablished, with the exception of information affecting national security. On the same date, the government promulgated Decree No. 512 regulating economic information. Still in effect is the suspension of Articles 8 and 11 of the Fundamental Statute—individual liberties and rights of a citizen under arrest—but only in regard to Articles 1 and 2 of Decree 1074, which sanction crimes against public security, treason, espionage and terrorism.
Also on July 19, the Amnesty Law extended to peasants who have joined the ranks of the counterrevolution. The extension means that until the November 4 election day they may lay down their arms and return to their normal life without penalty.
These measures mean that the State of Emergency Law has been almost entirely lifted. This restoration of civil liberties will hopefully stimulate participation in the electoral process.
End of the registration period for political party candidates: The electoral calendar stipulated that all parties wanting to register candidates had to do so between May 25 and July 25. After that, registered parties could withdraw their candidates to form alliances with other parties until August 4. These deadlines were extended (in some cases by days, in others by hours) in an attempt to accommodate the ten legally recognized parties and encourage their participation. According to the law, parties that declined to register forfeited the legal standing and rights granted them by the electoral law, thus positioning themselves outside of Nicaragua’s political life.
Seven parties had registered by the deadline, and three others (the Social Christians, Social Democrats and Constitutionalist Liberals) chose nonparticipation. The three abstaining parties, together with a dissident and not legally recognized faction of the Conservative Party, are members of the CDN.
Although contradictions were evident within the CDN, particularly from sectors of the Social Christian Party that favored participation, the closing of registration drew clear lines between participants and abstainers. An amendment to the law could still make possible the participation of all or some of the CDN parties, but there are objective limitations due primarily to the printing and distribution of ballots and other materials.
Voter Registration: This was done between July 27 and July 30, days designated as paid holidays to make it easier for people to register. Registration was the culmination of a gigantic effort that began from zero in April. The multiplying principle developed during the Literacy Crusade was used to train registration workers. More than 3,000 full-time workers for the Electoral Commission and the regional and zonal commissions prepared 8,500 precinct workers and their alternates. Some 15,000 election police were also trained. This means that more than 45,000 persons were directly involved, the majority of them volunteers.
One of the first tasks was to find neutral sites for the registration/polling places. Approximately 4,000 schools, clubs, health centers and private houses were designated for this purpose. Over 100 centers could not open because of the military situation.
The final figures indicated that nearly 1.6 million eligible voters registered, an estimated 93.7% of the population over age 16, according to INEC, the Nicaraguan Bureau of Census and Statistics. This was a considerable success for the Electoral Commission as it is one of the highest registered voter rates in Latin American history.
The huge voter registration turnout has substantial political importance. Since only those who are registered can vote, a high number of voters in November will indicate acceptance of the elections. In this context, Sandinista leaders considered registration the “first electoral victory,” not only because of the large turnout but also because of the organizational efforts that made the success possible. These efforts included the work of registration personnel, as well as of the grassroots organizations that have been educating people about the electoral process for the last few months.
The CDN parties waited until two days before registration to support participation, which it announced through the opposition newspaper, La Prensa. This same paper refused to run the Electoral Commission’s paid ads listing the locations of polling places.
The fact that the members of the CDN coalition did not meet until 48 hours before registration opened indicates that they did not take participation very seriously, even though they claim that between 60 and 70% of those registering did so out of support for them. While paradoxical, their seeming endorsement of registration is consistent with their abstentionist plans. If they encourage a large registration, and it is followed by a much smaller number of voters on November 4, they will be able to capitalize on that to reinforce their position.
As we have seen, the electoral process is now firmly under way. The revision of the electoral law was an important demonstration of commitment to clean and fair elections, especially under the difficulties Nicaragua faces. The almost total lifting of the State of Emergency was extremely important. Although certain restored rights are only indirectly related to the electoral process, they will no doubt help create a more favorable atmosphere. All legal political activities of registered parties are permitted, and sanctions are to be applied only in the event of counterrevolutionary political activity. The parts of the State of Emergency Law dealing with the military situation remain in effect because the war continues. Government Junta Coordinator Daniel Ortega emphasized on July 19 that the State of Emergency will end as soon as the Reagan Administration stops its aggression.
Making use of its reestablished press freedom, La Prensa resumed an all-out attack against the government, the FSLN and the mass organizations, clearly demonstrating the lack of censorship to both Nicaraguans and visitors.
The breadth of the political spectrum also became clear. The traditional Liberal and Conservative parties are represented, as are a Social Christian Party and various leftist parties. Two of the leftist groups are strongly opposed to FSLN positions. This gamut of options contradicts US propaganda that the CDN coalition is the only alternative to the Sandinistas. The CDN has placed all its bets on Arturo Cruz, who is presently the visible projection of the abstentionist position.
The return of Arturo Cruz: The CDN’s abstentionist decision is intimately linked to the political strategy that Arturo Cruz brought with him upon his return to Nicaragua. Cruz came from Washington, where he has lived for many years, working for the Inter-American Development Bank. In recent months, efforts have been made on the international scene to portray Cruz as the synthesis of the Nicaraguan opposition. A graphic illustration: During the weekend of July 14-15, the Social Christian Party, perhaps the most influential in the CDN, elected its slate of candidates headed by Adán Fletes. One week later, Cruz returned and replaced Fletes as the CDN’s presidential candidate, bumping Fletes to a position as his running mate.
A political attempt to undermine the elections
From the moment he arrived, Cruz appropriated the conditions of the December 28, 1983, CDN document, which he summarized in nine points. It was clear that the preconditions of the Cruz-Fletes ticket were, in reality, an abstentionist position. This was most evident in Point No. 9, which called for a national dialogue with all political parties and movements, including the “armed rebels.” The other points can be synthesized as follows: 1) separation of party and state; 2) abrogation of laws violating human rights; 3) suspension of the State of Emergency; 4) enactment of an amnesty law; 5) respect for freedom of religion; 6) freedom to unionize; 7) autonomy of the judicial system and 8) legal guarantee of civil rights.
If there had been any real interest in participation, these points could have been incorporated into a campaign platform and not made preconditions. What reaction would the Democratic Party in the US produce by stating that it would only participate in the November elections if Reagan agreed to change his Central American policy?
Moreover, a look at the government’s July 19 and August 6 announcements shows that many of the CDN demands have already been met or are open to discussion with the FSLN. However, this is not true of dialogue with the armed contras, to whom the Sandinistas attribute 7,000 deaths in the last three years as well as a role in the 50,000 deaths caused by the National Guard during the last two years of the Somoza regime. The Sandinistas’ unbending principle has been never to allow a return to Somocismo. However, the spirit of reconciliation has been evident in the abolition of the death penalty, which immediately followed the July 1979 victory, the amnesty for peasants involved with the contras, the commuting of the sentences of Miskitus convicted of contra activity, as well as the amnesty just extended until November 4 for all except contra leaders.
With a certain lack of straightforwardness, Cruz and the CDN tried to present themselves as peace advocates—the other facet of the international image Cruz was trying to project. But reality was quite different. The negotiations proposed by Cruz and the CDN did not make them neutral observers but rather allies of the anti-Sandinistas. It was not coincidental that, two days after Cruz’s arrival in Nicaragua, the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN) and Revolutionary Democratic Alliance (ARDE) announced their merger in a press conference in Panama. Both Robelo (ARDE) and Calero (FDN) stated their support of Cruz’s candidacy, and he, in turn, confirmed at press conferences in Managua his close friendship with Edén Pastora, his participation in the formation or ARDE, his decision to make a trip through Europe with Robelo and Pastora and his implicit acceptance of Calero’s endorsement.
For the first time in five years, a political leader arrived in Nicaragua and tried from inside the country not only to unify the internal political opposition but also to move it closer to the Somocista contras and Robelo’s forces. It is difficult to see the CDN and Cruz as Nicaragua’s peacemakers, even though much effort is being spent outside the country to do just that. Inside Nicaragua, the CDN’s precondition of dialogue with the contras shattered whatever hopes it had of broad-based support and, for the most part, left it with the most reactionary sectors of Nicaraguan society, headed by COSEP, the private-enterprise association.
The failure of the CDN to register before the deadline made clear Cruz’s determination to use abstention to undermine the whole electoral process. It is not surprising that La Prensa has been adopting the COSEP line and supporting the abstentionist position for the past several months. Faced with unfavorable internal odds—defeat at the polls would eliminate the CDN’s self-portrait as the alternative to he Sandinistas—the opposition parties in the CDN prefer being martyrs to the cause of democracy, victims of an election in which they “could not” participate. This position also raises questions outside Nicaragua as to just how much support the CDN really has, while enabling it to continue giving the impression that it is receiving strong support. This reasoning makes the CDN’s political suicide inside Nicaragua less significant, even though it entails loss of rights as a party, loss of electoral law benefits and a reduction in political and organizing space inside the country. More importantly, it nullifies an aspiration fundamental to all political organizations: that of taking power. This political suicide is apparently less disagreeable than a resounding defeat at the polls, a clear possibility judging from the CDN’s limited effectiveness at drawing crowds. Only 400 people turned out to welcome Cruz at the airport, according to the July 24 issue of La Prensa, which the next day reported that no more than 2,000 attended the CDN “event” with Cruz at Managua’s Cabrera Theater and only 30 professionals participated in Cruz’s meeting with CONAPRO, the association of professionals.
Abstentionism: Prelude to interventionThe CDN’sbstentionism implies its rejection of Nicaragua’s institutionalization. “Traditional” democratic elections would insure the irreversibility of the new order. On the contrary, if the elections appear to have little validity, if dialogue and pacification of the country are not accomplished due to “Sandinista intransigence,” and if the contras continue to be presented as “freedom fighters,” then the only way to resolve the “serious Nicaraguan crisis”—and to some extent the Central American one, since the Salvadoran guerrillas are presented as an extension of the Sandinistas—and save the country from communism will be, as in Grenada, direct US military intervention. Reagan’s fondness for this scenario was evident this month when he met with Caribbean leaders, praised the invasion of Grenada, and mentioned the need to save Nicaragua. A “lack of freedom and democracy under a totalitarian regime” would certainly lend support to his rationale.
Sandinista leaders have accused the CDN of maintaining an unpatriotic attitude that increases the possibilities of intervention. The situation is further complicated by the internal situation in the US during its own electoral process, which will culminate on November 6. Democratic Party leader Jesse Jackson recently stated that he had no doubt Reagan would intervene in Central America if he felt his popularity was slipping. In that case, the intervention would be an electoral card aimed at winning prestige and recovering enough power to avoid a defeat at the polls. In contrast, another Democratic leader, Gary Hart, said he doesn’t doubt the likelihood of an invasion in Central America if Reagan wins the November elections. According to Hart, Reagan would interpret his victory as an endorsement of his plans for resolving the increasingly conflictive and unmanageable regional situation.
Under the hypothesis of a short-term intervention, which seems more likely because of the complex Salvadoran crisis and Duarte’s inability to resolve it, the CDN position works as a “political infantry” or advance operation. How much room will the CDN have to maneuver now that it has committed political suicide? What possibilities are there for it to aspire to political power in Nicaragua? Absolutely none, except that of representing the “alternative to Sandinismo” and the “normalizing option” after a military intervention. This explains how the similar goals of the CDN and the contra groups would fuse into one operation, with the FDN and ARDE intensifying military aggression and the CDN increasing internal pressures. Just as Reagan’s plans for intervention need delegitimizing abstentionist support, the CDN needs intervention to regain political power. The result is a dangerous mutual dependency that could be extremely costly to both the Nicaraguan and American people.
There are some hopeful signs that may discourage interventionist plans. One of the most significant is people’s continued participation in Nicaraguan political and community life. The huge attendance at the fifth anniversary celebration on July 19, during a time when food shortages and the increased military draft were being felt strongly throughout the country, indicated substantial continuing support for the revolution. According to international press estimates, 300,000 people attended the celebration. (La Prensa reported 50-60,000). They came to celebrate, not to accept magic formulas that would make the difficulties vanish.
The no less massive turnout for voter registration demonstrated a great willingness to participate in civic activities. It is not easy to erase the bad memories most Nicaraguans have of decades of fraudulent elections. It is amazing that a country with enormous military and logistical problems succeeded in conducting a voter registration that has surprised European experts and dismayed the Reagan administration.
Possible events between now and NovemberFor several reasons, the next few months could be very difficult for Nicaragua and the region:
Election possibilities in Nicaragua are becoming more clearly defined and polarized toward participation by a majority of Nicaraguans and abstention by Cruz and the CDN.
The situation in El Salvador is increasingly conflictive, with greater military capability demonstrated by the guerrillas (e.g., the Cerrón Grande Operation) and an equally significant erosion of Duarte’s effectiveness in his role as the US hope for success in that country.
US intervention seems more and more probable, and the administration’s policy in the area is becoming a campaign issue in the US.
Taking these three factors into account, it is possible to envision some probable moves by the CDN and its allies during the coming months:
Against Nicaragua’s electoral process: The abstentionist-interventionist plan will find its space for political activity inside Nicaragua severely limited. The CDN will not have legal standing. Its small social base will be left out of the electoral process. Thus there will be an increase in the number of provocative acts such as in Matagalpa and Chinandega, when CDN partisans attacked members of the Mothers of Heroes and Martyrs who were demonstrating against the proposed dialogue with the contras. In the future, the authorities and mass organizations will probably react to similar acts with strong measures, thereby feeding the fire of those making charges of unfair elections. The CDN will attempt to minimize the costs of not participating by trying to prove that elections were neither free nor democratic. The better they play that card, the better the US will be able to use it.
Outside the country, enormous energy will be expended to encourage criticism and condemnation of Nicaragua’s institutionalization. Spokespersons for anti-Sandinista groups will increase their visibility in the US, presenting themselves as “victims of totalitarianism,” and will try to neutralize or win the support of the Socialist International by stepping up efforts in Europe. There will be pressures on international bodies to denigrate the Nicaraguan elections.
Against the role of the electoral process as a defense measure: More energy will be invested in achieving the functional unification of the CDN and the armed counterrevolutionary groups. Cruz, the FDN and ARDE have all shown signs of moving in this direction. Militarily:
a. The contras will intensify their operations in the most conflictive regions of the country. It is not impossible that propaganda campaigns and terrorism may begin in the cities in an effort to increase unrest and interfere with elections. Attempts may also be made to restructure the “internal front,” i.e. the counterrevolutionaries’ urban network.
b. US military presence in the area will be consolidated, as previewed by the new “Lempira” US-Honduran joint military maneuvers begun in July, the presence of the aircraft carrier Kennedy in the vicinity of Nicaragua, etc.
c. Special commando operations (speedboat attacks, selected bombings, etc.) could also be resumed.
d. Different interventionist options will continue to be developed. One option, which would have support among certain sectors in the US, is a “low-intensity war,” which would include increased use of Special Forces against the Salvadoran guerrillas and more secret operations in the style of the “covert” war against Nicaragua.
Against the increased prestige Nicaragua will gain through wide voter participation: Those favoring the abstentionist-interventionist plan will try to isolate Nicaragua even more to avoid dealing with the contradictions pointed out by Central America’s progressive and revolutionary sectors that see Nicaragua as a model of participation and democracy.
Attempts will likely be made to strengthen the El Salvador-Honduras-Costa Rica bloc using the most anti-Nicaraguan sectors inside each of those countries. In El Salvador, efforts will be made to push Duarte into verbal attacks against Nicaragua for its alleged support of the guerrillas. A taste of this was Duarte’s decision to bring the matter before the International Court in The Hague. In Costa Rica, all kinds of pressures will be applied to those who advocate sincere neutrality. The Chamber of Commerce moved in that direction this month by presenting President Monge with a series of conditions that include breaking relations with Nicaragua. In all probability, the hardliners will be reinforced and will launch strong attacks against Nicaragua in an effort to discredit the elections.
Against the increased recognition from Contadora that will follow the elections in Nicaragua: Those involved in the abstentionist-interventionist plan may try again to neutralize the Contadora efforts, perhaps through attempts to create a strong El Salvador-Honduras-Costa Rica bloc along the lines laid out in their document of April 25, 1984 (see envío 35).
It is likely that the CDN will try to influence the Contadora countries, especially Colombia and Venezuela, in an effort to tarnish the image of the Nicaraguan elections. While ignoring the differences in the two situations, the anti-Sandinistas will present the talks between Colombian President Betancur and the Colombian guerrillas as an example for Nicaragua.
It is also possible that pressure will be put on Contadora to discredit the elections in the name of internal reconciliation, with accusations that the Sandinista government is uninterested in reconciliation.
The Nicaraguan elections force all sectors of society to take a position in favor of one of the two diametrically opposed poles. From now on, political activity will accelerate in Nicaragua. Those who prefer to cut themselves off from the country’s political life will try to make gains in military and international areas, even at the cost of assuming anti-nationalist positions. They will have an influence on those outside Nicaragua who cannot always keep their finger on the political pulse of this process.
Not even the most tenacious efforts, however, will succeed in convincing those outside the abstentionist-interventionist circle that they are the promoters of peace and democracy in Nicaragua. The FDN, ARDE, Pastora, Cruz and the CDN speak of peace but promote and carry out aggression.
In the fast-changing situation in Nicaragua, this present assessment may need to be modified. A few days ago, spokespersons for Calero of the FDN announced that they were withdrawing their demand for dialogue as proposed by Dr. Cruz. This leaves the way open for maneuvering to begin to reopen party registration. If these moves are unsuccessful because of technical difficulties or other factors (e.g., time required for printing ballots), the accusations of anti-democracy and intransigency would be launched with renewed vigor against the Nicaraguan government.