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  Number 354 | Enero 2011
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Nicaragua

The Electoral Script

We’re entering 2011 with some of the key scenes of the electoral script having long since been written. Only a handful of actors have yet to appear on stage and only a few subplots are still uncertain.

Envío team

One of the first campaign documents of the governing Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) makes clear that “2011 isn’t just another presidential election in the democratic game. The FSLN didn’t take power again just to administer the State for five years. It took it to make profound changes in Nicaragua’s power structures.”

Jurist and law professor Julio Icaza Gallard had another take on it. “Both our survival as free and independent civil organizations and national peace and stability are at stake in the electoral process that will culminate on Sunday November 6,” he told those gathered at a Citizen’s Union for Democracy event commemorating the massacre in Managua on January 22, 1967, of demonstrators supporting the second Somoza’s electoral opponent. It was one of the decisive moments in the civic struggle against the Somoza dictatorship.

The FSLN is banking on “changing the system” while the opposition parties are predicting “a new dictatorship.” The essence of any drama is the dispute between force and resistance, and such a dispute lies at the heart of the electoral drama to be played out before us this year.

Economic razzle-dazzle

Icaza also described the process leading to the final act of the electoral drama as “draped in an exceptional quality of profound abnormality.” While not denying this, a second FSLN campaign document instructs its activists to “amiably and generously” avoid arguing with opponents about controversial issues.

Whether defining the issues as “profoundly abnormal” or merely “controversial,” both actors are referring to the accumulation of denunciations, polemics and tensions sullying the script of these elections. The most serious ones refer to Ortega’s unconstitutional reelection; the clinging to their posts of electoral authorities whose terms have long since expired; the suspicions weighing over the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) since the fraud-riddled 2008 municipal elections; the turtle-slow issuing of citizens’ ID-voter cards; the out-of-date voter rolls and the CSE’s refusal to accredit electoral observers.

Aware of these unconcealable problems, the government opened the new year by focusing on the economy, which it says is growing at a good clip. In his annual report on January 10, President Ortega hailed a recovering economy, victim only of the limitations imposed by the “savage capitalism” still dominating the world. He also explained that the strategy of his government’s “Christian, solidarity-based and socialist project” consists of a “grand alliance” of workers, business people, bankers and foreign investors backed by the framework and resources of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Peoples of America (ALBA). One TV spot, already clearly of a campaign nature, shows Carlos Pellas, the principal representative of Nicaragua’s big capital, congratulating private enterprise for its positive alliance with the FSLN government.

Both before and after the presidential message, government officials and spokespeople and the business leaders of the Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP)—one of Ortega’s most vociferous and vengeful opponents in the eighties—joined the chorus to highlight the “successes” it shared with the government in 2010: maintaining macroeconomic stability, economic growth and, very especially, record exports.

Shadows on the stage

Economist José Luis Medal nuanced this dazzling news. He admitted that, with the worst of the 2009 crisis now behind us, Nicaragua’s gross domestic product (GDP) grew 3-4% in 2010, but calls that “mediocre and insufficient” given the country’s population growth and generalized impoverishment. He attributed Nicaragua’s persistent low growth year after year to never-surmounted problems of low productivity and institutional deficit and cited studies showing that the economies of any country improve when its institutionality improves, arguing that solid institutions, a transparent judicial branch and a genuine rule of law could produce annual growth in Nicaragua of between 5.5 and 7%. He also reminded us that growth doesn’t equal development, because “development implies political, economic, institutional, social and environmental sustainability, which doesn’t exist in Nicaragua.”

He compared Nicaragua’s 2010 figures with those of 1977, at the end of the Somoza dynasty, demonstrating that in real terms workers’ wages were greater that year, the per-capita GDP was more than double what it is now, and in constant dollars exports were nearly double in both total and per-capita figures. He concluded that “during Somocismo, as now, there was growth, but no development.” He recalled that our economy’s central problem is still massive underemployment more than unemployment, meaning that most people have low-quality, low-paid informal jobs, which expresses a lack of opportunities and the backwardness of the national educational system.

The urgent fiscal reform
discretely exits stage right

Nicaragua has indeed increased its exports, but its imports continue increasing so much that Nicaragua’s trade deficit relative to the GDP is the highest in Latin America. Our country is diversifying its production but is still exporting virtually the same as before: beef, dairy products, coffee and gold. The recovery in exports is due to external causes—better international prices for our traditional products—rather than to systematic efforts to achieve structural transformations in the national economy.

Noting that this government has continued the neoliberal macroeconomic policies of its three predecessors, Medal expects “more of the same” for 2011 and commented that the inequalities and concentration of income are actually intensifying under a government that presents itself as Christian, socialist and solidarity-based—three concepts that presume equity. The government isn’t even attempting to push through a fiscal reform that would change the tax structure to redistribute wealth more equitably by eliminating the exonerations and privileges of the economic power groups, because they are part of the governing party’s leadership.

In the “Speaking out” section of this issue, a reflection on international cooperation includes the view that the Venezuelan aid entering Nicaragua through the ALBA framework is keeping the government from having to assume responsibility for the kind of fiscal reform Nicaragua so urgently needs.

Proactive social programs…

Demonstrations and figures from independent economists such as Medal that contradict the government’s economic triumphalism fall on deaf ears among the rural and urban population suffering underemployment, poverty and even extreme poverty. They feel that “the economy” really has improved, because many have benefited from one if not more of the social programs the government is executing all over the country. It’s the only “economy” they know, and they give it very high marks.

But that appraisal, not to mention gratitude, coexists with the aspiration to have a job. In all polls, people point to unemployment as the main problem. And President Ortega always comes off very poorly with respect to people’s view of his attempts to resolve it.

In his annual report, President Ortega ticked off the official numbers of beneficiaries of some of his government’s flagship programs: 155,791 urban women have received very low-interest loans from the Zero Usury program; 81,961 rural women have received a productive bond (animals and seeds) from the Zero Hunger Program; 50,000 urban and 103,000 rural families have received the sheet metal roofing Ortega has assigned Cardinal Obando to distribute to improve their homes in the Roofs for the People program. And since May 2010 some 150,000 state workers have been receiving a “Christian, socialist and solidarity-based bonus” of roughly $25 a month to improve their salaries.

After offering these and other figures, Ortega announced that all these programs, including the bonus, which was originally scheduled to run only through December of last year, will remain in effect during what he is confident will be his government’s next term.

…and the opposition discourse

All this assistance and more (scholarships, land titling, low-income housing, book bags and school texts…), plus the palpable improvement in access to the public health system and the elimination of fees in public schools, gives the governing party a significant advantage going into the electoral race. It has unquestionably elevated the government’s image, especially among the most impoverished sectors, which were forgotten and ignored during the technocratic and insensitive government that preceded this one. The impact of these programs is reflected in a December 2010 poll by M&R giving Ortega 47% of the voting intentions, compared to the 38% with which he won the 2006 elections, although this dropped back down to 40% in the first month of the new year.

Beyond denouncing the clientelist motives of these programs and the sectarian process for selecting their recipients in some zones, the opposition is offering nothing whatever in the social terrain. Nor does it explain how it would ensure continuation of the Venezuelan aid or allocate the hundreds of millions in resources derived from the oil agreement with that country.

The opposition discourse just goes on and on about the demolition of institutions and violation of the rule of law, repeatedly warning of the dictatorship to come and the high price in reduced civil liberties and increased social control society will have to pay if the FSLN project is allowed to continue.

The pact: Play within a play

The governing party is coming into the elections with yet another advantage: the institutional control the FSLN has been building since Ortega first entered into the pact with Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC) strongman Arnoldo Alemán almost 13 years ago when the latter was President. The just-concluded Christmas recess demonstrated that the electoral script includes a renewal of that political agreement.

The December poll showed that the ongoing border dispute with Costa Rica triggered the previous month allowed President Ortega to whip up an atmosphere of heightened nationalist fervor that increased his popularity. A follow-up poll by Cid-Gallup in January showed President Ortega with 86% support for his handling of the crisis around the Río San Juan.

In that climate, Ortega, with a little help from his “friend” Alemán and his loyal PLC legislators, was able to push through three laws on national security and military intelligence in December with neither national debate nor consensus. These laws have de facto subordinated the army to Ortega’s project, turning the military into something resembling the “fifth branch of State.” Then in mid-January, when the National Assembly convened its new session, the PLC representatives again sided with the FSLN in the distribution of all directive posts in the legislature and the presidency of all its commissions, ignoring the rules that establish how these parliamentary posts must be elected.

The reelection scene

While the social programs go forward, increasing the FSLN’s support, the opposition—headed up by civil society and backed by important media—has exhausted both itself and the public with its endless denunciation of Ortega’s illegal reelection.

Nicaragua’s Constitution prohibits both consecutive presidential reelection and a third presidential term. Reforming this disposition requires a 56-vote majority of the 92 legislators. Because he didn’t have it and couldn’t beg, buy or steal it, President Ortega chose the end run of getting Sandinista Supreme Court justices to sign a judicial resolution that ruled the constitutional disposition unconstitutional, thus “legalizing” his reelection. Many countries permit reelection, but it’s seldom the object of such fierce contro¬versy as in Nicaragua given the ghost of the Somoza family dictatorship, handed down from father to sons for 43 years.

Ever since 2009, when the judicial resolution enabling Ortega’s presi¬dential candidacy was issued, opinion polls have shown contradictory results, with only some rejecting Ortega’s reelection out of hand. The most popular argument among his sympathizers is that “the people will decide” on election day. It’s hard for some people to oppose it when they see that virtually all opposition legislators are denouncing Ortega’s reelection out of one side of their mouth while admitting their own reelection aspirations out of the other.

The feared “remake”

The governing party says it will make few changes to its alliances or lists of national, departmental and Central American legislative candidates. Ortega will run as the FSLN’s presidential candidate for the sixth consecutive time, and the same campaign song from 2006 (the hypnotic music of Give Peace a Chance with the refrain changed to “We want work and peace”) is already being heard on radio and television. By not making changes, the FSLN seeks to concentrate all campaign efforts on promoting the figure of Ortega and the idea that any change would be a backward step in the social programs and would risk instability.

There are virtually no new faces in the opposition either. In what feels like a long-expected and much-feared remake of a bad movie, Arnoldo Alemán plans to run against Ortega as he did in 1996, when he won. One hypothesis for his intractable determination to be the PLC’s candidate (“I wouldn’t pull out even if the Pope asked me to,” he has said) is that Ortega needs him as a contender, because if he were to back out it would open the way for the unification of all the Liberal factions around another candidate, which could theoretically beat Ortega in observed and honestly run elections. Opting not to run could thus land Alemán behind bars since Nicaraguan courts controlled by the governing party still have three charges open against him for various crimes of corruption when he was President (1997-2001) and he would do virtually anything to avoid prison. However true all that is, the simplest explanation is still his unbounded ambition to remain a key player on the political stage with a quota of power. It’s a kind of addiction.

UNE: A new actor

The only “new” face is 79-year-old radio owner Fabio Gadea, who burst onto the electoral stage in August last year, obliging rewrites of some of the script’s scenes. On December 19, an umbrella of nine political groupings known as the Nicaraguan Unity for Hope (UNE) was finally created around Gadea’s possible candidacy. The main groups involved are Eduardo Montealegre’s We’re Going with Eduardo Movement (MVE) and the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), both stripped of their legal status by order of the electoral branch in 2008 to get them off the municipal ballot and even the political stage.

An important PLC current that has distanced itself from Alemán is also part of UNE, as are segments of the old Independent Liberal, Resistance, Conservative and Conservative Alliance parties, the group of mayors who denounced the alleged electoral fraud in 2008 and the social organizations that have made up the Patriotic Alliance for some months now. Cohesion in such a heterogeneous group is an enormous challenge.

Scripts from the past

The UNE is trying to build an alliance around Gadeas presidential candidate that can bring together the fragmented Liberal groups but also reach beyond Liberalism to face off against Ortega and isolate Alemán, the pact’s two authors. At the end of the day, it hopes to reenact the experience of the Opposition Nicaraguan Unity (UNO), the 14-party alliance that beat the FSLN in 1990, with all the particularities of that time and context.

Such a pretension only indicates how locked into past scripts the opposition mentality is. There’s no longer a war, no longer conscientious and scrupulous electoral authorities and no longer the knee-jerk anti-communist US government that had financed and led a war against the revolution for nine years. As a matter of fact, there’s no longer a revolution, and there is now an important Sandinista sector, both within and outside of the party, that opposes Ortega.

Scenes from “Bumper cars”

Yet another advantage the governing party enjoys is the fragmented opposition, which was engaged in feverish political activity in January. By the end of the month, the search for “unity” had been buried under an avalanche of accusations, mistrust, discord and clashes over ballot slots, legal representations and candidacies. There was no sign of the urgently needed debate over programs, ideas, and alternative projects to counter the governing party’s authoritarian and inequitable project.

The scene bore a marked resemblance to another arena of frenzied activity during the Christmas vacation month, when thousands of children enjoyed free mechanical rides in the “Park of Happy Childhood” a magnificent government initiative. One of the most sought-after rides was the bumper cars, which the children enjoyed crashing and knocking off course, attacking and defending themselves. It was almost as if they were taking their cues from the political actors.

Seamless unity in the FSLN:
Just special effects?

Although there are also feuds in the FSLN, its top-down style rooted in the need-to-know, obedient military style of its clandestine origins, makes it easier to hide them. In contrast, the opposition groupings seem to enjoy exhibiting their disagreements in the media on a daily basis. Thus, in the “park of unhappy politicians,” people discern security on the governmental side and rivalries in the opposition.

This represents one more electoral advantage for the FSLN, though it may be just a special effect to fool the audience. It’s unimaginable that there aren’t tensions in the FSLN over who gets which posts after over four years in office and at the threshold of a new electoral race. After all, there are “different sensitivities in the FSLN,” as a Nicaraguan journalist writing under the name Francisco A. Guevara Jerez put it in the February 2007 issue of envío when President Ortega was just taking office.

When this collaborator offered a “who’s who” in Ortega’s first Cabinet, he remarked that “the criterion of active grassroots militancy in the party structures has not been determinant” in the selection of ministers and other top officials, adding that members of the FSLN’s business sector “took almost all of the posts linked with any kind of business.” He concluded that the result was “a Cabinet of many stripes” in which “the mixture of businesspeople, unionists, intellectuals, social activists, political climbers and former army brass offers no ideological consistency. Qualified spokespeople who believe in free market prosperity coexist alongside those postulating a socialist system.” In this universe of contradictions, “Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo are in command, at the helm. They will be the great arbiters of the conflicts that will inevitably arise in the future.” While a number of ministers were soon replaced, the tensions resulting from this hodge¬podge have surely not subsided and may in fact have intensified.

Observers on stage
or in the audience?

With so many advantages, why doesn’t the government want independent eyes reviewing the electoral script? Some months ago, the Supreme Electoral Council announced that it would accredit neither national nor international observers for the elections and would instead invite “accompaniers.” The first time the CSE refused to accredit national or international observers (other than a few friendly technicians) was for the severely questioned municipal elections of 2008.

On January 10 of this year, President Ortega backed the CSE’s position: “We’re all grown up now!” he insisted. “We don’t want any more intervention in our elections! We’re tired of interventions. If they want to come to accompany us, let them accompany us, but we don’t want our elections controlled. We don’t want them!” The way the conflict over observation is resolved will unquestionably be one of the most interesting subplots of the electoral script.

Civil society has been unrelenting in demanding observation. Ethics and Transparency and IPADE, the two national organizations that have been doing this work for 15 years, say that even if they aren’t accredited, they will prepare tens of thousands of voters to act as acute observers capable of documenting everything that happens while they are there casting their votes.

The most recent civil society initiative has been a bill that would oblige the CSE to permit and regulate electoral observation. This was presented by the Citizen’s Union for Democracy to legislators of the four opposition benches, which together have the 47 votes needed to approve it. At the same time, in collaboration with other social organizations, the Movement for Nicaragua began collecting signatures demanding electoral observation. For its part, the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (CENIDH) will monitor all steps of the electoral process, from the voter list to the campaign and actual voting process to document any irregularities. The problem is that the irregularities that make a real difference tend to happen behind CSE doors, after the polls close.

To lower tensions
and calm passions

The greatest pressure to ensure that the November elections are observed by outside eyes will come from outside. For months now, the representatives of the European Union and ambassadors from EU countries and the United States have been suggesting to the CSE that it accredit international observers with enough time—anywhere from two to six months before the elections—to guarantee transparency in a climate in which tensions have been impossible to hide. “The mere presence of international observers,” explains Nicolás Bulté, head of the EU political section for Central America, “generates more civic confidence in the vote, lowers possible tensions, limits any controversies, calms the waters, helps calm passions and is one more guarantee in the quality control of an electoral process. It’s not an inquisition, much less an imposition. It’s a strong investment in the country’s future.”

By presenting electoral observation with these advantages and by even suggesting it, the diplomats are implicitly rejecting the CSE’s “accompaniers” format, in which recognized figures would come just a few days before election day, visit a few voting tables and appear in photo ops in what amounts to “electoral tourism.”

A possible script crisis

Germany, Nicaragua’s third largest contributor nation (US$18.6 million in 2010), opened the year by again bringing up the need for electoral observation, this time more firmly. The director for Asia and Latin America of Berlin’s Ministry of Cooperation and Development offered to head up the European observers. And he pulled no punches about what might happen if there is no observation. That, he warned, plus a lack of “minimum standards of democratic rules endangers Nicaragua’s relations with the community of democratic countries and will result in many problems receiving aid.”

Nicaragua has already had a taste of that. Following the charges of electoral fraud in the 2008 municipal elections, the group of countries providing budget support, many of them European, first froze then cut those resources, while producers in the northwestern departments lost part of the resources channeled through the US Millennium Challenge Account.

After Germany spoke up, Holland and France offered to organize the observation. Will these and other countries stick to their guns over the coming months? Those with business interests in Nicaragua, such as the government of Spain, may not insist, but others could make this demand a real deal breaker.

If it doesn’t quickly provide some response to this insistence, the FSLN will risk the legitimacy not only of the elections and its own possible electoral victory, but also of the future government, the cooperation these countries provide and even its economy and its “grand alliance” with local big capital. The United States and the EU also have a lot of weight in the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank, and could block loans to Nicaragua depending on how the electoral script unfolds.

Questions in the wings

It won’t be clear until mid-March who will be the foils to the drama’s indisputable star—the FSLN candidate. According to the electoral calendar, that’s the deadline for registering alliances and presidential tickets, with the cut-off for registering legislative candidates two months later.

Will the CSE let Gadea run? And if it does, will the UNE, with him as its candidate, come up with an attractive program and convincing discourse to win over the Liberal and non-Liberal electorate? The FSLN aspires to a sweeping victory this time to give it the qualified majority of 56 legislative votes that would allow it to reform the Constitution in depth. Would this be jeopardized if the FSLN permits a three-horse race (Ortega, Alemán and Gadea), or does dividing the Right at least ensure its victory? In a hypothesis assuming honest elections, unless it can significantly increase its current 47% in the most positive polls, it has enough support to win against two opponents, but not against only one, and in neither case is getting 60% of the National Assembly representatives a shoe-in.

It is said that once people learn that “Pancho Madrigal”—the radio personality created and played by Gadea—has definitely decided to run, know what his party slot is on the ballot and are familiar with his running mate and legislative choices, his popularity will attract massive participation. That remains to be seen.

Will the government permit true electoral observation? Will the FSLN follow the current script in all its details to discourage participation and encourage abstention? Massive abstention would give the FSLN an ample victory, making it easier to win that magic number of legislators. But in a country like Nicaragua, where participation has traditionally been strong in presidential elections, wouldn’t high abstention qualify the categorical victory to which the FSLN aspires?

More uncertainties
to be cleared up

It is also being said that since Alemán knows he’ll lose, he has already cut a deal with Ortega in which the CSE will assure he comes in second over Gadea. That would revitalize the PLC, entitle Alemán to another seat in the National Assembly (as a losing presidential candidate with a certain percentage of the vote) and provide him with a number of legislators who would act as “the opposition.”

As an extra bonus, leaving Gadea in third place with insignificant results would put Alemán back in the lead in the competition for Liberal leadership—a competition Gadea has severely upset—and would further weaken his other rival, Eduardo Montealegre, who actually proposed Gadea. All that too remains to be seen.

Will Gadea and the UNE be allowed to participate precisely so the results demonstrate that Nicaragua will be “forever” bipartite? Will Ortega have to turn to fraud, as many alleged in 2008, or will the division of the opposition and the massive distribution of more social programs be enough to do the job?

There are other questions of a more ordinary nature: What new sub-plots will be added to the electoral script by rising food prices, the likely scarcity of beans or the rise in international oil prices due to the domino-effect crises in the Middle East, given the severe impact fuel prices have on the family economy in Nicaragua? And the most burning question of all: what will the day after the elections be like?

All this is still too early to call, so viewers will have to remain glued to their sets as the script unfolds: “To be continued…”

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