Perhaps the intense humid heat that annually
accompanies Holy Week in Central America
explains the mirages that pass for reality
in this political moment.
March revealed desperation among the actors dominating the nation’s political stage. Hovering over their heads is the National Assembly’s still pending appointment of two dozen top government officials whose constitutionally mandated terms are soon to end or have already ended. And the results of the Caribbean regions’ election of their new, not-so-autonomous governments have finally been announced, weeks after all the votes had been counted.
Meanwhile, all of us, actors and spectator-voters alike, are moving inexorably toward the next electoral moment. A year and a half still separates us from the general elections of November 2011, but the heat, desperation and thirst are already beginning to produce mirages.
Still no white smoke So far eight top-ranking officials whose terms variously ended in December, February and April have opted to obey the illegal presidential decree of January 9, 2010, that keeps them in their posts, ignoring the Constitution. One Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) magistrate, four of the five comptrollers and three Supreme Court justices are still actively arbitrating in their respective institutions and collecting their salaries. Several of the remaining 17 have packed up their belongings and gone home, while others still have another month or two left.
from the National Assembly
In all these months, not one wisp of white smoke has been sighted from the National Assembly, which is responsible for appointing their replacements. While we can assume that the Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC) is negotiating the final list with the governing Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), jurists have not tired of stating that, given the illegal status of January’s presidential decree, nothing the entrenched officials are doing or undoing has any legal value. They argue that the officials are usurping functions and can be tried for it.
A barometer in the coast While these negotiations are advancing in secret and the legal debate about the presidential decree is continuing unabated, all open and covert political movements—the negotiations and the debate included—are already directly related to the next general elections. What did the March 7 elections on the Caribbean Coast tell us about 2011?
Some hoped it would tell us the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) was making an effort to get its act together and recover something of its credibility lost to the November 2008 fraud. But rectification by the CSE was as notable by its absence as white smoke from the National Assembly.
Just as before, the delivery of ID/voter cards to coast voters was late and party-biased. And just as before, the country’s two experienced election observer organizations—IPADE and Ethics & Transparency (E&T)—were denied accreditation, so again both stationed their volunteers outside the door of all polling places. Only the regional rights organization CEDEHCA, which has long had close links to the FSLN, was allowed inside. And the only outsiders who witnessed the regional elections were the five members of a technical—not observation—mission of the European Union, which was on the ground a couple of weeks before the elections with the sole purpose of reporting to the EU authorities.
In addition to the fact that the voter roll still hasn’t been cleaned of deceased or migrated voters, some of the same irregularities that altered the results in 2008 were again witnessed by E&T and IPADE. In fact, there were a couple of new twists this time. One was that the CSE refused to let journalists from the two national dailies, La Prensa and El Nuevo Diario, attend the press conferences in which it announced the nearly definitive results and assigned the seats. Another was the use of non-indelible ink to mark voters’ thumb, making it easy for them to vote more than once. All of this, stated IPADE in its final report, was the fruit of “party control of the electoral structures, which remains the system’s crucial problem.”
At the last minute, the CSE, belatedly seeking to improve its image with a view to 2011, invited the Organization of American States’ political affairs secretary, Dante Caputo, and ferried him around to make spot visits to several voting tables on election day. Upon leaving the country, Caputo announced that he hoped the OAS would be allowed to observe the 2011 elections.
This would be useful to the government, if it wants to legitimate a second FSLN mandate. But while the OAS brings at most a hundred or so observers, who tend to drive around in groups of two or three spending perhaps half an hour in a handful of polling places, IPADE and Ethics & Transparency have thousands of trained volunteers—enough to be in each polling place from start to finish.
The on-again, off-again Four alliances plus three national parties with no presence in the coast ran candidates in the regional elections. The latter virtually emerged from thin air and obtained election results to match.
On March 14, a week after the elections, Arnoldo Alemán’s PLC and Eduardo Montealegre’s We’re Going with Eduardo Movement (MVE) announced that they had signed a Liberal unity agreement following months of mediation by Abelardo Mata, the bishop of Estelí, who will act as guarantor of whatever agreements they reach. Although this unity process was underway well before the coast elections, the PLC and the MVE ran against each other. Only sadly deluded voters believed the two organizations thus represented two distinct projects to resolve the real and interminably serious problems of the coast or that their respective candidates and alliances were decided on the basis of such projects. They ran separately merely to measure their respective strength, calibrate who best attracts the anti-FSLN sentiment and demonstrate which one should be anointed head of the opposition and the presidential candidate to face off against Ortega in 2011.
The PLC ran in an alliance with a couple of small regional parties and the MVE with the always slippery Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN), founded by Montealegre but now run by Liberals who often side with President Ortega. While neither Montealegre nor Alemán ran for office on the coast, both made fleeting appearances, each surrounded by his own gang.
Despite the unity process, the latent division became more bitter just before the elections when the PLC began to charge that there would be a “technical fraud.” PLC leader Wilfredo Navarro accused Montealegre of being in cahoots with the ALN to support a fraud plotted by the FSLN to give the governing party more Council seats in the two regional governments at the cost of the PLC. The insult was double-edged, as that is exactly what the PLC had done in 2008, resulting in Montealegre’s loss of the Managua mayoral seat. The show of bitterness continued with mounting vehemence after the elections until finally the “offended” PLC called off the unity with Montealegre while the ink was still wet on the deal.
Technical fraud or not, abstention wonSetting aside irregularities, inconsistencies and possible fraud, the big winners of these sixth Caribbean elections were apathy and disenchantment. With the exception of just a few of the 15 electoral districts in each of the two autonomous regions, these attitudes kept 67% of the registered voters home.
For varying reasons, abstention has been increasing every four years since the first regional elections in 1990, reaching 56% by 2006. The increase in political indolence this year seems mainly a response to the discredited CSE, although it is always a way to express displeasure with the regional authorities, who respond more to the interests of the national parties that promote them than the needs of the communities that elect them.
On March 26, ahead of the dates established by the electoral law, the CSE presented what it’s calling the final results, even though they are questioned totally by the PLC and partially by E&T and IPADE, and listed the names of the 45 new Regional Council members in both regions. In the north the FSLN won 22 seats, significantly increasing its weight in the regional government compared with four years ago, when its 15 seats and the 12 won by the regional indigenous party Yatama allowed the two parties to form a governing alliance. This time Yatama got 13, while the PLC dropped from 18 to 10.
In the south, which Liberals have controlled since the first autonomous elections in 1990, the PLC was awarded 20 seats, the FSLN 19, its ally Yatama 3, the ALN 2 and the Alliance for the Republic (APRE) 1. In 2006, the PLC won 22, the FSLN 12 and Yatama 6, while the then brand-new ALN, founder Montealegre at its head, won the other 5.
The PLC charged it had been robbed of 4 seats, but we’ll never know. The day after the elections, the CSE had nearly 97% of the votes counted, but only provided total votes for each of the participating parties by region, not electoral district, making it impossible to see what percentage of the votes would be required to win one of the three seats in each district. And now the CSE is only publishing the names of the respective winners and their party affiliation by electoral district, still not showing the number of votes cast per party in each district, as has always been the case in the past.
Optical illusionsWhile on the one hand Nicaragua is fighting and struggling for Central American integration, on the other it is the least territorially integrated country in the region. The Caribbean Coast is practically half of Nicaragua’s total land mass, yet there is a scandalous inequality in infrastructure and opportunities between the two halves. By way of example, there are 20,000 kilometers of paved roads on the Pacific side while only 80 kilometers have asphalt on the Caribbean side. That same disproportion has historically been found in all other areas: health, education, decent housing, electrification, potable water, poverty, job opportunities… And there is still no coast-to-coast highway or deep-water port on the Caribbean side, which all neighboring countries with Pacific and Caribbean coastlines have had for decades.
It remains to be seen what the new coast governments will do in these four years to achieve greater regional autonomy, which is barely in effect even on paper. What is already clear is that the coast elections helped the PLC fabricate a mirage, an optical illusion.
For the Caribbean elections, the PLC, which continues to obey its political boss Arnoldo Alemán, projected the optical illusion of a deep fissure in Liberal unity provoked by Montealegre and his group. The poor performance of the PLC Regional Council members and the erosion of Alemán’s party in traditionally Liberal areas are real. Also real was the PLC’s electoral campaign, which once again paid little attention to what is happening in the Caribbean, further weakening it at the polls; and the CSE’s irregularities, which left the FSLN in a better position. What is an illusion, a pretext, is the PLC leaders’ presentation of “scoundrel” Montealegre as an “appendage” of the FSLN conspiring against them in a fraud with the governing party.
The PLC is projecting that confabulation and allegedly deep split to justify its bilateral negotiations with the FSLN to divvy up power quotas between the two for five more years. This will involve sharing out the top posts pending assignation, choosing magistrates to ensure a CSE very much like the current one—which the FSLN will continue to control—and beginning to set the stage set for the 2011 elections with the PLC and Alemán dominating the opposition. In summary, to activate a new episode of the pact with the FSLN.
Candidate Alemán This PLC plan became much clearer when Alemán sought to milk Montealegre’s alleged complicity even more during a gathering of his rural rank and file in Boaco, a traditionally Liberal zone, on Sunday, March 21. In his speech, Alemán threw his hat into the ring for the 2011 presidential elections. Although he concretely announced that he would run in his party’s proposed July primaries, he left no room for doubt that he plans to head the “democratic forces” and lead a “united opposition” against Ortega in 2011.
Imitating Daniel Ortega in the 2006 campaign, Alemán asked for “another chance” to govern. He also parodied none other than Martin Luther King, with his continual reiteration of “I have a dream.” Unpacking the stuff of that dream, he outlined an “agreement with the nation,” promising “a country of proprietors,” a “government of deritocracy ”without “godfathers,” an “educational revolution,” the building of five schools a day…
Has that past really passed?The PLC leaders had announced that Alemán would show his “muscle” in Boaco by pulling between 15,000 and 18,000 followers. By all accounts, however, no more than 3,000 turned up, many already sporting red t-shirts with the next electoral campaign slogan: “Arnoldo’s back.”
The day before the rally, civil society, concerned about the covert negotiations between the PLC and the FSLN to split up the 25 government posts, called for a demonstration it dubbed the “march of the brooms” to sweep away corruption and demand that the legislators select the best possible new officials. Both Alemán and Navarro ridiculed civil society and the march, which drew barely 2,000 people. A bust, then, for both sides.
Civil society lacks the organized strength to bring people out, while Alemán has suffered real deterioration within his own organization and machinery. Ironically, Alemán’s erosion is based less on his documented corruption while in government than on the consequences of the political pact he made with Daniel Ortega in 1998, while still President, which translated two years later into damaging reforms to both the Constitution and the Electoral Law.
Alemán had no choice but to refer to that agreement in Boaco, as it is what is most undermining him with his rural base, but he avoided the hated word “pact,” which has a long string of hugely negative connotations in Nicaraguan history: “I leave behind me all the errors, inexperience or unfinished issues of my first term in office and at the same time, with the shout of ‘enough!’ I leave behind all the old agreements that may have been forged in past periods. They were different circumstances, passing situations that no longer exist. That past has now passed; this is my new commitment to Nicaraguans and to Nicaragua. My only agreement will be with Nicaragua!”
A never-ending story?The kindest thing that can be said about Alemán’s self-proclamation as presidential candidate is that it’s premature, although he’s already been beaten at that game. His announcement in Boaco came six months after the even hastier announcement last October of an illegal judicial ruling allowing Daniel Ortega to run for reelection. This haste, which reflects a desperate determination to close the pass to any debate, consultation or alternative possibility, reveals both leaders as two sides of the same coin.
They have needed each other for years and that need is only growing. Ortega needs Alemán as a contender in 2011 and Alemán needs Ortega as a rival. Several polls indicate that of the various rightwing figures listed by the media as opposition “leaders,” Alemán is the only one Ortega could beat.
For his part, Alemán not only desperately wants this “second opportunity” to dip into the executive branch coffers again; he also knows that his best hope of keeping the remaining untried accusations of corruption shelved is to turn the bipartite pact with Ortega into a never-ending story.
The Alemán-More worrying than Alemán’s ambition is that an “opposition unity” ticket of Alemán and Montealegre began to take shape in some circles of economic and political power well before Boaco and even more so afterward. In fact some business leaders seem willing to finance it. Alemán is the one pushing it, proclaiming himself the “standard-bearer of unity.” The idea that this team could unify Liberals and defeat Ortega at the polls is gathering steam, based on the argument that, despite everything, Alemán is a political reality that can’t be ignored and the opposition must resign itself to the evidence that he can still seduce many Nicaraguans.
Although after Boaco Montealegre declared that he wouldn’t share a ticket with Alemán, he had said only a few days earlier that “it’s impossible to move from tradition to modernity if you don’t have a foot in tradition pushing yourself to modernity. Changes can’t be made so abruptly.” It was clear that the “foot in tradition” is his increasing closeness with Alemán, to the point of running on the same ticket. Despite all his lurching from one position to another, it’s hard to envision that Montealegre will end up with any other choice.
Is there any truth In line with the resigned acceptance that recognizes and can bring itself to accept Alemán’s traditional leadership is the “Cruz” thesis, propagated by the Ortega government’s former ambassador to the United States, Arturo Cruz, Jr. Going well beyond Montealegre, he argues that the tension between tradi¬tion and modernity is central in Nicaragua and that the traditional caudillismo—political strong-boss politics—is virtually insup¬erable at this time. Thus, modernizing this encrusted political culture is an effort doomed to Sisyphean failure.
to the Cruz thesis?
In his appearance at the Inter-American Dialogue on November 24, 2009, Cruz stated that “caudillista politics is still the dominant political expression” in a land where “there is a significant number of Nicaraguans, perhaps the majority, whose expectations are few and urgent. They are expecta¬tions that can be satisfied with a roof over their heads [more exactly with sheet metal roofing] and a daily bag of rice and beans.”
Some elements of recent history belie Cruz’s derogatory thesis. By the presidential elections of 2006, after the three dissimilar governments of Violeta Chamorro, Arnoldo Alemán and Enrique Bolaños, an initial rupture began to appear in Nicaragua’s traditional political culture. Liberal dissidence gelled around the ALN, with Montealegre at its head, while Sandinista dissidents strengthened the MRS under Herty Lewites’ leadership. Both Lewites and Montealegre came from the very bowels of their respective parties (the FSLN and the PLC) and defied them, if not fully, at least with initial steps.
The authoritarian caudillo parties (the FSLN and PLC) ran in those elections against somewhat more modern and democratic forces on both the right (ALN) and left (MRS). The United States threw its weight behind an ALN alliance victory, confident it would become the equivalent of the Salvadoran alliance ARENA, which over the nineties had made mincemeat of the caudillista National Conciliation Party.
Daniel Ortega won thanks to the Liberal split, but ALN candidate Montealegre beat out the PLC to take second place in the ALN’s first-ever national election and the MRS grew significantly, attracting 200,000 votes compared to the 10,000 it had pulled ten years earlier in its first electoral race. The start of a rupture in the political culture was a fact: the ALN and MRS were on the road to greater growth.
History’s refutationWith traditional authoritarianism in danger from what in 2006 were called the “emerging forces,” the caudillos made the drastic decision to eliminate them before they could continue growing. In February 2008, the FSLN-PLC pact availed itself of CSE administrative trickery to wrest the ALN from Montealegre’s leadership and turn it over to a group of Liberals who allied with the FSLN in exchange for perks. In May of the same year, another CSE trick cancelled the MRS’ legal status.
Despite this scorched earth tactic to continue fertilizing the caudillo tradition, Montealegre agreed to run on the PLC ticket with his MVE movement in the 2008 municipal elections, and was allowed to place many MVE candidates in important municipalities. The MRS, meanwhile, responded to what it saw as signs that President Ortega was constructing an “incipient institutional dictatorship” by asking its sympathizers to vote against FSLN candidates in all municipalities.
These two moves by the “emerging forces” were successful enough that the FSLN was obliged to pay a very high political and economic cost to claim at least 40 municipalities, including the capital—in which Montealegre himself was allegedly the winning candidate—and several major departmental capitals through a now well-documented electoral fraud. We soon learned that the fraud had been made possible by Alemán’s complicity with Ortega’s group at different levels of the CSE structure in order to defeat Montealegre and liquidate his movement.
In other words, had things followed their natural course, Cruz wouldn’t be putting forth his thesis with anywhere near the conviction that today’s main caudillos, Ortega and Alemán, have made possible.
Realities and mirages The Ortega government’s erosion is very real. In the latest national M&R poll (March 10-18), 62.2% of those polled state, as they have consistently done for the past eight months, that the Ortega government is going “in the wrong direction.” Even more (66.5%) say they won’t vote to reelect Ortega. The illusion is to believe that this conviction and discontent will accept any old thing in exchange—Arnoldo Alemán, for example.
It’s also real that 65.7% of those polled now feel “desperation” about the Ortega government, mainly because it hasn’t provided any answers to the main problem afflicting the majority of the population: the lack of opportunities for a fixed job. The illusion is to believe that such people will trust the Alemán-Montealegre duo to renew their hope in a growth in employment.
While the FSLN’s erosion, errors and imposed social control are real, so is the effectiveness, acceptance and recognition of the current government’s policies to guarantee free education and health care and improve public services. The effectiveness of these extremely sensitive issues has been recognized by over half of those polled. All that’s real. The illusion is to believe that this will carry no weight on voting day and that voters will see the Alemán-Montealegre ticket as an improvement on what they have received from this government, which is using state channels to amass a considerable amount of capital and consolidate a very powerful economic group that will give it enough resources to continue increasing its pre-electoral clientelist politics.
It’s real that the Ortega government is attacking democracy by violating the Constitution and laws and restricting civil liberties and civil rights without batting an eye. The illusion is to believe this behavior is the priority that will move voters.
It’s real that the opposition division favors Ortega’s continuation in power. The illusion is to believe that a Alemán–Montealegre unity will defeat Ortega, as is believing and trying to get others to believe that opposing Ortega is the same as promoting democracy, that unity against Ortega is unity for democracy, that fighting for quotas of political power—which is visibly the rightwing opposition’s priority today—is fighting for democ¬racy. It’s illusory to believe that any old unitary ticket will successfully challenge Daniel Ortega’s reelection.
Ortega: A sure victoryNicaragua has evolved. It’s illusory not to see that evolution. But it’s a mirage to believe that people can be convinced without a really alternative program, so far conspicuous by its absence, without a certain exemplariness in the leadership class and with only politicking, macho rhetoric and prayers for a divine miracle.
As the poll says, 56.6% of the population believes the opposition must unite and run with a single candidate in 2011. The political parties’ crisis of representation is real, with 57.7% claiming not to belong to any party and 54% defining itself as “independent.” The illusion is to believe that this majority will except the same “everyone against Ortega” used in 2008, no matter which candidate goes up against the FSLN. If Ortega runs again Alemán, Ortega will win. And if he runs against an Alemán-Montealegre ticket, he’ll still win, only adding more shame to the embarrassment that is national politics.
Furthermore, with these two men on the ticket, Ortega will find it more useful to unite the Liberals than to divide them, which worked for him four years ago, because Alemán’s presence will cause abstention to shoot up. In either scenario, with or without Roberto Rivas running the CSE, Ortega wouldn’t need fraud to legitimize his second consecutive mandate. Abstention would do it for him.
Alemán’s candidacy, in fact his mere presence in the campaign, will promote Ortega’s victory, whether because of the erosion of his calamitous leadership or the abstention it will trigger in those who years ago started their break with caudillo culture and have been forced to witness the abortion of the options that offered them a way to start building another political culture.
If Montealegre runs with Alemán, he will squander his political capital, which has been on a downhill slide for months. And if he does so because “he has a dream” that it will leave the former President washed up, making way for Montealegre as the single and invincible candidate that will defeat the FSLN in 2016, he’ll be helping to create even more violent and de¬stabilizing conditions than those that have us perceiving mirages on all sides.
Mirages can’t quench thirstA mirage is an optical illusion. Surrounded by special circumstances, the eye sees something on the horizon that doesn’t exist in reality. The current political circumstances are torrid and confusing; there’s a vast thirst for power and a disproportionate short-sighted anxiety to get to the “water” falsely glimmering on the horizon. Unable to quench the thirst for genuine justice and democracy of the majority of the Nicaraguan population, the Liberal politicians are trying to deceive with mirages, but it’s becoming an increasingly dangerous game.