On Red Alert
Will next year’s electoral process,
culminating in November’s presidential elections,
be the “civic fiesta” these events are always touted as?
As this period approaches, the warning signals are increasing,
in the full spectrum of meteorological alert colors.
The intensity and persistence of the rains that have fallen almost daily since mid-May have produced human, social and material disasters in nearly all of the country’s municipalities. It is calcu-lated that the housing of over 75,000 people has been damaged or destroyed since the rainy season began. As of October 7, 67 people had died, with imprudence causing many of the deaths, and some 10,000 people, most of them from Managua, had taken refuge in the 129 shelters the government activated around the country. A measurement of Managua’s Lake Xolotlán done on September 30 showed that it had risen over four meters, already reaching the record level caused by Hurricane Mitch’s rains in 1998. That level will take years to drop.
While the country’s newspapers, radio and TV news programs led with reports of the many disasters being wrought by those interminable rains, Magistrate Roberto Rivas, the highly criticized head of the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE), announced that he was now ready to convoke the next elections. On the warning scale of national politics, Rivas’ announcement triggered yet another red alert.
A chain of alertsThe upcoming electoral scenario just keeps on getting tenser, with people already primed for problems by the major electoral fraud the governing party pulled off in November 2008 in order to wind up with some forty highly suspect mayoral seats, some of them the most important in the country. Then there’s the green alert indicating the CSE’s failure to update the electoral rolls and the orange one represented by the electoral branch’s party-biased, discretional and disorderly issuing of ID cards, which also serve as voting cards.
A yellow alert had already lit up in July 2008, when President Daniel Ortega first announced his desire to run again as an incumbent, even though the Constitution prohibits more than two terms in office, which must not be consecutive. Since then, Ortega has pulled out all the stops to get this obstacle overturned by the qualified majority a constitutional reform requires in the National Assembly (56 votes). In July of this year it was widely rumored that he would officially and formally announce his candidacy during celebrations of the 31st anniversary of the revolution. But the announcement was never made because he still didn’t have the parliamentary backing.
The possibility of Ortega getting the votes to reform constitutional article 147, which is the only legitimate way he can run for the sixth consecutive time in the hope of a third term in office, runs out this December 15, when the National Assembly closes this year’s session, since a constitutional reform also requires a “yes” vote in two consecutive legislative sessions. That fast-approaching date presages a new red alert on the political calendar, if indeed Ortega persists in dedicating his government’s energies to clearing the way for his reelection.
And these signals?Data on the support for or rejection of Ortega’s continuing presidential aspirations are shifting. In all polls up to now, a majority of Nicaraguans has opposed Ortega’s reelection. In a recent one, though, a majority went for a variation on the theme: a deal allowing him to to run if he would guarantee free, transparent, suitably observed elections.
Once majority support for that idea became known, the business sector offered Ortega a similar but tougher exchange: the votes for a constitutional reform that would legalize and legitimize his candidacy in exchange not only for transparent elections but also for another constitutional reform that would change the majority required to win the presidency on the first round back up from 35% to 45%. Is national exhaustion with the ongoing debate about reelection the reason for this shift in opinion or is it the certainty that Ortega would be defeated under these conditions?
On the other side of the street, a majority of those who vote for the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), which has been a minority within the national political spectrum since 1990, always backs Ortega’s repeated candidacy. But in various polls over the past two years, the name of another highly respected, long-time FSLN leader has been cropping up: Dionisio Marenco, the former and very popular mayor of Managua (2004-2008), who has now been given the cold shoulder by those who control the party. Marenco appears as a good presidential candidate in the FSLN’s own polls, even though he has repeatedly said he is not competing and would only run under the party’s red and black flag. Does he get such high ratings just because people like him, or is a sector of the FSLN really convinced he would put together a more coherent and inclusive Sandinista government, one with greater national consensus and a better future than has been seen with Ortega?
At the point of collapsePolls come and go and neither trade-offs nor alternatives to his leadership have shaken Ortega’s reelection mania. In that determined frame of mind, after two years of failing to get the 56 National Assembly votes he needs to reform the Constitution, he decided to do an end run around that parliamentary body.
The institutional warning system has been beeping red alerts since October 2009, when, in a late-night unilateral meeting, the FSLN magistrates on the Supreme Court’s constitutional commission ruled that article 147 doesn’t apply President Ortega because it violates his human rights. Two months later came Ortega’s decree ordering the Supreme Court justices, electoral branch magistrates and a dozen or so other key appointed officials whose terms were up to remain at their posts until the National Assembly names their replacements. That assured he would get the people he wants in those posts one way or another. Since neither the FSLN and its allies nor the combined opposition has the required 56 votes, the two sides have to negotiate. If the opposition doesn’t cave in to his wishes, the decree allows him to stonewall, keeping the people already in those posts—who are totally to his satisfaction—at least through next year’s elections.
The opposition’s response was the Metrocentro 2 accords, in which all opposition parties and representatives of civil society and the big business sector agreed not to back the reappointment of any of the electoral magistrates responsible for the 2008 fraud. As the December 15 deadline draws perilously close, that retaining wall, such as it is, appears about to collapse.
By hook or by crookWith the deadline approaching, Presi¬dent Ortega exercised his control over the Supreme Court and the National Assembly directive board to provoke a sequence of red alerts. In so doing, he exacerbated the institutional crisis into which he has sunk the country, demonstrating desperation at not being able to legitimize his candidacy, and an obstinacy that is sowing winds without calculating the tempests he will harvest sooner or later.
Taking advantage of the long weekend produced by the national independence celebrations in mid-September, the FSLN representatives on the National Assembly board published a version of the Constitution in the official government journal La Gaceta that includes a transitory article that hasn’t been in force for 20 years. Ortega is now citing that article to validate the continuation of the justices and magistrates in their posts once their term is over. Never mind that this article was not included in any of the later published versions of the Constitution and thus has no legal value.
Only days later, the now 100% FSLN Supreme Court bench (one Liberal justice died, another left when his term was up and the remaining six who boycotted the sessions because the two FSLN justices stayed put when their terms ended were illegally replaced by FSLN associate justices) took advantage of more public distractions—in this case the disasters caused by the constant heavy rainfall—to rule that the President was right in the conflict between the executive and legislative branches over his decree. Basing themselves on the version of the Constitution just published in La Gaceta, they ruled the decree legal.
Both the rain and the red alerts continued over the ensuing days, with those same justices organizing an illegal plenary Court session to ratify the ruling of the earlier minority of justices, eliminating the offending article. In short, an illegally constituted court de facto reformed the Magna Charta, a faculty that legally corresponds only to the legislative branch.
Roberto Rivas, still acting as CSE president based on the illegal presi¬dential decree now “legalized” by La Gaceta and the Supreme Court, then put the icing on the cake by officially announcing the 2011 elections. That means he’ll be directing the electoral process. And days after that, he declared that he would honor the ruling “legalizing” Ortega’s reelection, mean¬ing that he will register him as a presidential candidate. A double-play red alert.
Suspicions and a surprise Although everyone could see each step in this sequence coming, the governing party’s unbelievable gall in implementing each of them did catch people off guard. Also surprising was the lassitude—or perhaps complicity—of the Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC) representatives on the National Assembly board and in the Supreme Court and the Supreme Electoral Council, all of them hand-picked by disputed PLC leader Arnoldo Alemán. They either allowed this to happen or at the very best made no effort to stop it from happening. The excuses they offered were weak and suspect.
The presidential decree keeping the two dozen top officials in their seats after their terms ended was issued nine months ago. In all that time, no negotiation has been possible between the executive branch and any group in the legislative branch thanks to the Metrocentro 2 accords.
Alemán, who has divvied up all these top posts with Ortega for the past 10 years with varying degrees of success for his people, hasn’t renegotiated them now with Ortega for two reasons. One is that he was hoping to be the single opposition presidential candidate and didn’t want to pay the political price of alienating the other opposition groupings. The other is that he was obliged to sign the Metrocentro 2 accords, and the pressure by the other signers as well as by some of his own party’s leaders and grass roots weighs heavily. Both reasons are blocking his intention to maintain his pact with Ortega.
Nonetheless, after nine months of institutional crisis and with the starting gun for the electoral process about to go off, the sequence of red alerts this month could encourage Alemán to pay the price in one go. His argument to justify the newest edition of the pact would probably be that he’s “sacrificing himself” for the social peace, which requires developing the electoral process correctly in order to get the country’s crippled institutionality back on its feet and avoid more of the erosion the crisis has already produced, etc., etc…
It’s only a hypothesis, but it matches the latest shameless moves by the governing party and could be explained by the electoral climate produced by Fabio Gadea’s announced pre-candidacy.
A very changed gameboardMany things have changed since this popular 79-year-old radio personality and businessman announced his willingness to be the presidential candidate of a united national opposition alliance. Among them, the search for Liberal unity, expressed in endless sterile dialogues and a proposed inter-party primary, petered out. Alemán lost the initiative and hence his political space shrank even more, while Montealegre had already lost much of his own political space by flirting with Alemán in both the unity talks and preparations for the primary. It also altered the electoral picture that Daniel Ortega had sketched out for himself, and allowed the electorate that doesn’t accept the FSLN to recover its desire to participate and its expectations of winning.
Although nothing is irreversible in this land of forgetfulness known as Nicaragua, Gadea Mantilla’s candidacy is still gaining altitude and has rapidly proved to be a reality that must be taken into account. While his proposals are still very imprecise, it’s evident that he enjoys sympathy beyond the rural sectors and traditionally anti-Sandinista sectors, reaching out to the business sector that had been learning how to live with Ortega in power.
A “story” that’s just “Pancho Madrigal,” the fictitious radio storyteller Gadea has made a household name, is now a new protagonist in national politics. But this new story promises to be a long one with many twists and turns and a very complex ending. The most frequent questions currently heard include whether Nica¬ragua’s youth—the largest segment of the voting population—knows who Gadea is and what he represents, and whether the more aware feminists who are familiar with Gadea’s conservative thinking will consider voting for him.
beginning to be told
According to the latest data from a national Cid Gallup poll done on September 1-6, barely a month after he made his debut on the pre-electoral stage, 54% rejects Ortega and 33% still hasn’t identified a single politician as “the” opposition leader. Given the choice of three possible opponents to Ortega (Alemán, Montealegre and Gadea), Gadea closed the gap most and most reduced the percentage of people in the “don’t know/don’t respond” category. Ortega wins in all options, but it should be noted that the supposedly undecided group represents more votes than both candidates in two out of three of the choices and more than the runner-up in the third one.
Ortega vs. Alemán: 34% to 27%,
with 39% undecided
Ortega vs. Montealegre: 34% to 28%, with 38% undecided
Ortega vs. Gadea: 36% to 31%,
with 33% undecided
The “story” is thus barely beginning to be told. But two months have been enough to produce important and previously unimaginable changes on the national political game board.
Oxygen to AlemánObviously those most affected by this unexpected turbulence are Ortega’s group and, even more so, Alemán’s group. It is forcing both partners to revise their tactics. For the moment, Ortega’s group is trying to minimize Gadea’s appearance on the stage by ignoring it, although it is surely conspiring against him more actively behind the scenes.
Alemán’s group has been more explicit, verbally abusing and even threatening Gadea, even though he and Alemán are in-laws and members of the same party and Gadea was elected as PLC representative to the Central American Parliament three times in a row. Undaunted, Gadea hasn’t wavered. He has directly confronted Alemán in response, and has even reached out to the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS).
Ortega and Alemán need each other as electoral rivals to provide continuity to the pact they have maintained for years to force a permanently bipartite Nicaragua. Alemán thus must do everything he can to keep the PLC united around his candidacy and his seriously eroded leadership, and Ortega has to give Alemán space to do his act.
Alemán sought to do just that by appealing to the most unreflective anti-Ortega sentiments in Tegucigalpa, where he visited coup leader Roberto Micheletti. It was his first trip abroad in eight years, since his conviction for a long string of corrupt acts. On his return to Managua, Alemán paid for a national television hook-up in which, defining himself as “the” opposition leader, he offered to “defend institutionality and the rule of law,” and called on the entire opposition to gather around his leadership to defeat Ortega. Days later, he published a party communiqué which stated that the PLC “has absolutely nothing to analyze, dialogue about or discuss” regarding Alemán’s presidential candidacy, which the statement called “definitive, unbreakable and irreversible.”
The IMF is running no risksFrom the economic perspective, the governing party is hoping to get to election day with a positive rating. The economy has recovered more vigorously than anticipated. The 1% growth calculation made by the government and the IMF at the beginning of the year will apparently end up at 2.5% thanks to good prices for the country’s main export products and a recovery in the family remittances sent home by Nicaragua’s emigrants. Some economic storm clouds seem to have dissipated, although employment has barely grown and the rains are seriously complicating things for the electoral year—especially with major infrastructural damage and the loss of most of the red bean crop, causing prices of this indispensable staple for poor Nicaraguans to nearly double.
But the government seems to have aspired to an even greater edge than it was able to get. The International Monetary Fund’s technical mission visited the country the second week of September to do the last two evaluations of the current three-year agreement. While the government was apparently banking on showing off the trophy of a new agreement, the IMF only seems willing to extend the current one for another year, through 2011.
At the end of the previous government, President Bolaños got the IMF to prolong his agreement with it for another year precisely so the new government would find that road already paved. Ortega won those elections and had the luxury of a full year to negotiate a new three-year agreement, which ends this year. This time, however, the IMF seems not to want any commitment beyond Ortega’s current term.
Three urgenciesAnother red alert lit up when the IMF left the country. The 2010 budget had to be reformed yet again to attain the fiscal health the IMF requires and President Ortega wanted to take advantage of this requirement to show off his inroads in the National Assembly, the only institutional space over which he doesn’t exercise total control. The bill submitted by the executive branch in mid-September involved an increase equivalent to roughly $68 million, two thirds of which was reportedly financed by tax collection in excess of what had been budgeted.
Ortega decided to milk the national emergency resulting from the rains for all he could. He held an urgent meeting with the National Assembly board—or rather, only with his own representatives and allies on it—on September 25 to request an emergency Assembly plenary session the very next morning, a Sunday, to push through fast-track approval of the budget reform. He justified the rush by the need to respond to the disasters caused by the rains, which had been particularly strong since July, although he had only just declared an emergency and only 15% of the budget increases responded to it.
He got his Sunday session, but the opposition didn’t attend. Legislator Eduardo Montealegre argued that representatives are supposed to be given 48-hour advance notice of a bill vote. In the end, the approved budget reform was reported to be just under $56 million and was voted through with scant debate and few shifts in allocations. Although the newspapers did not show the full breakdown of the final version, more detailed figures published when the bill was first presented indicated that nearly $21 million was to increase payments on the public and domestic debt and another $12.6 million to reduce the fiscal deficit.
With all that hoopla, the government met the IMF’s budgetary reform conditions. And as it was approved with the votes of 52 legislators—the 38 members of the FSLN bench plus some fair-weather old allies and some new ones—Ortega could claim he’s only 4 votes from the constitutional reform that would legitimize his reelection.
The existential questionOne factor that could reduce the governing party’s economic edge moving into the electoral year is what happened in Venezuela’s parliamentary elections on Sunday, September 26. Chávez won the largest number of legislative representatives, but while he’s had everything at his disposal in the past few years to neutralize the opposition bloc, he was unable to do it, as indicated by the number of seats the opposition won (see the article on Venezuela in this issue for more details).
He couldn’t do it even with great oil prices for three consecutive years (2005-2008), nearly absolute control in Venezuela’s National Assembly following the opposition’s decision not to run in the last elections, and a dispersed opposition with no project or leadership. He will no longer have any of those advantages going into the 2012 presidential elections.
What will happen in those elections? That’s the existential question for the Chávez movement, warns Heinz Dieterich, the most articulate ideologue of 21st-century socialism, now critical of the seemingly aimless drift of the Bolivarian project, which he compares to the Titanic as it confidently steamed across the high seas before running into the iceberg that destroyed it. What will happen to the Chávez project? That existential question could also apply to Daniel Ortega’s own project.
Time is running outIn the current climate, the call for the November 2011 presidential elections by a de facto Supreme Electoral Council already responsible for one fraud triggered more red alerts. The political parties are now faced with the dilemma of what to do. Should they respond to the call and participate in the election, boycott the call, or participate under protest? If they participate, they’ll legitimate the illegal authorities. If they don’t, they’ll forfeit their legal status. But if they participate under protest, claim the defenders of this intermediate solution, they could either avoid fraud or witness it and file charges afterward.
Time is running out and the hurricane warning is real. It is essential to challenge and oblige the governing party to clean up the electoral branch before the elections, but an opposition group headed up by the Patriotic Alliance did just that on September 29, to no effect.
The parliamentary opposition has shown, alert after alert, that it’s incapable of reversing any of Daniel Ortega’s illegalities from the legislative branch. It’s also incapable of forcing negotiations to change the current electoral magistrates for at least some who could ensure transparency or at the least have the ability to find the irregularities the others are attempting, the courage to denounce them, and at best the efficacy to stop them.
Time is running out. Given the proven ineffectiveness of the parliamentary opposition, some media and political leaders are insisting that the people should exert pressure for credible elections through massive street demonstrations. But these are mere utopias given the daily pressures and uncertainties provoked by the grinding poverty and now the endless rains, as well as the fear instilled by the government in the thousands of state employees and a citizenry unhappy about what is happening yet worn down and suspicious of any political initiative.
What is to be done?The time to transform the electoral branch is running out. All the early warning systems seem to have been ineffective or insufficient, but there’s still time before the day of exercising the right to vote and complying with one’s duty to do so.
The electoral campaign hurricane is still a ways off. What is to be done? Keep a close watch on all information, learn the location of the shelters required by the crisis, respond to the most sensible and ethical instructions, prepare for a possible evacuation of ideological prejudices… and keep desperation at bay.