Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 372 | Julio 2012



The dilemmas of these rainy months

To sanction more or not to sanction? To negotiate or not to negotiate? To run or not to run? To vote or not to vote? These are some of the dilemmas facing the US government, the Ortega government, Nicaragua’s parliamentary opposition and the opposition in society in the coming months.

Envío team

The dilemmas currently facing virtually all stakeholders—both Nicaraguan and US—aren’t totally new; they’ve been building for months. So perhaps no one should have been surprised by the announcement made by Phyllis Powers, the new US ambassador to Nicaragua, in her first public appearance in Managua. But in the event, were all as unprepared for it as we were for the early rains in this new world of climate change: in a luncheon speech at the American Chamber of Commerce (AMCHAM) in Nicaragua on May 11, she warned that her government would find it “especially difficult” this year to grant Nicaragua the two waivers it decides whether or not to give to a number of countries every year: one if they maintain fiscal transparency and the other if they compensate US citizens for any confiscated properties.
The fiscal transparency waiver was denied to the Ortega government 40 days later.

“No place for the waiver”

Daniel Ortega didn’t expect this blow-up with Washington; nor, it should be said, did the normally well-informed publication The Economist. President Ortega’s economic strategy for his new five-year term included maintaining a close alliance with Nicaraguan big business, squirreling away part of the earnings from the oil deal with Venezuela in anticipation of what might happen with President Hugo Chávez’s health and that country’s elections this October, and keeping his relations with the United States within bounds by satisfying its priority interests. The latter includes maintaining a tight rein on drug trafficking in coordination with the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and fulfilling to the letter his commitments with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). (The “Speaking Out” article in this issue analyses the effects that cutting both waivers would have on Ortega’s plan.

There was no anticipation that anything would perturb Ortega’s scenario, but perturbed it was with the denial of the first waiver on June 21. The government learned the news a few days before Ambassador Powers made it public briefly and succinctly in an interview with Nicaragua’s rightwing newspaper La Prensa: “This year we have not seen the necessary trans¬parency. There is no place for the waiver.”

US State Department spokesperson William Ostick was more forthcoming about Washington’s public rationale the following day: “While it is true that the Nicaraguan government does open its budget to the public, it does not reflect completely and with certainty the funds originating in Venezuela. Also, public funds should not be used for partisan ends and should always be subject to the scrutiny of comptrollers.” Ostick added that Nicaragua is one of 28 countries whose US bilateral aid for the 2012 fiscal year has been suspended due to lack of transparency in their public finances based on an evaluation that Congress orders the State Department to make each year.

The State Department’s Nicaragua Desk confirmed that this sanction affected some $3 million in bilateral aid. Powers assured in her La Prensa interview that the funds to Nicaraguan nongovernmental organizations “would continue as before.” Some $27,000 in “development assistance” is channeled largely to US-style “democracy-building” NGOs such as the Journalists’ Association of Nicaragua, Hagamos Democracia, Ethics and Transparency, Fundemos, Youth for Democracy in Nicaragua and the Movement for Nicaragua; the latter has been very public in its efforts to whip up opposition to the Ortega government.

Falling a little short on their own fiscal transparency, they did not state “completely and with certainty” how much will still go to Nicaraguan NGOs, which ones or for what programs, or which bilateral programs will be unscathed, but the online bulletin “Inside Nicaragua” reported that drug-war operational assistance channeled through the US Department of Defense will not be affected by the waiver cut.

The real reasons are
political, not technical

Midnight, July 29, is the deadline for the decision to grant or deny the property confiscation waiver, which would have much weightier financial repercussions on the country, the government and the business class. To avoid the crisis that denial of this waiver would trigger, the Nicaraguan Attorney General’s Office, which is in charge of dealing with all cases of property confiscated from US citizens following an agreement with the US Embassy, broke previous records by resolving another 65 cases by the end of June. That leaves only 193 not dealt with over the last 18 years out of a total of over 2,200, although the Attorney General’s Office considers many of these remaining cases questionable, particularly the 187 filed by Nicaraguans who obtained US citizenship only after their properties were confiscated.

But all signs are that Washington is bent on deciding both waivers based on political grounds rather than such technical evidence. It would be hard to argue that the decision on the first sanction was anything but political, since Nicaragua was granted the fiscal transparency waiver each year of Ortega’s first term, even though the Venezuelan financial assistance wasn’t reported publicly at all until 2010. At the insistence of the IMF, these funds have been included in the Central Bank’s quarterly report and registered in Nicaragua’s balance of payments statements for the past two years.

To sanction or
not to sanction?

So what is the US beef with Nicaragua really about? Ever since the alleged fraud in Nicaragua’s 2008 municipal elections, the vociferous Cuban-American rightwingers in Congress have kept the Ortega government on the State Department’s radar.

But the US did not respond to substantiated charges that the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) adjudicated to the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) some 40 mayoral seats actually won by the opposition that year by withholding the fiscal transparency waiver, which would actually have been more defensible then than now. Rather, it froze and ultimately cancelled the remaining $64 million in Millennium Challenge Account funds approved during the Bush administration for development of Nicaragua’s northwest region.

While the leaders of the congressional Right weren’t satisfied, other considerations prevailed for the White House, including Ortega’s willingness to work closely with the DEA and the uncertainties provoked by the global economic crisis. Sanctioning Nicaragua in those years could have swollen the migrant stream and created more problems in the region.

But now things have changed. Obama is seeking reelection in November in what could be a very close race with Republican candidate Mitt Romney. Fired up by further highly questionable elections in Nicaragua last year, the Republican majority in the House of Representatives is pushing President Obama to be tougher on Ortega.

Last year Obama proposed Jonathan Farrar to replace the outgoing Robert Callahan as ambassador to Nicaragua but the Cuban-American Republicans opposed him because they considered him too soft on Cuba when he headed the US Interest Section there. After an impasse that lasted months, they finally approved Powers, satisfied that she would be invariably firm. There is said to be a basic consensus now between Democrats and Republicans about what to do with Nicaragua, egged on by the Nicaraguan political opposi-tion’s lobbyists. Sanctioning it via the waivers would be one of the first signs of the extent of that consensus.

The considerations at play

The Obama administration’s dilemma is how much further it’s prepared to bend to the US Right and how important doing so is to his electoral chances. What is Obama’s own priority: to grant the second waiver or deny it?

Surely the compensations that a handful of US citizens may or may not receive for their confiscated property won’t outweigh his political calculations. But will his desire to protect himself from vulnerability on foreign policy issues override the perspectives he’s getting bombarded with from other than the Washington Right?

Some argue that suspending the property waiver would mirror the suspension of the Millennium Chal-lenge Account by punishing Nicaragua’s poor, but could well push Ortega into a closer alliance with far greater enemies of the US—a mistake Washington would not be making for the first time. Others add that should this second waiver be suspended, the US would essentially lose any remaining leverage. How much weight does Obama’s concern about triggering a greater crisis and complicating things even more in the Central American region still have? Outgoing World Bank President Robert Zoellick, who knows Nicaragua very well from his days negotiating the US-Central American Free Trade Agreement, declared recently that “President Chávez’s days are numbered” and that Nicaragua “will be in trouble” without the Venezuelan subsidies.

An unusual Nicaraguan lobby weighs in on the other side

Unlike the eighties, when none of the lobbyists Washington listens to were on Ortega’s side, Nicaragua’s business leaders are now pressing for the second waiver to be granted. For reasons detailed in this issue’s “Speaking Out” article, they have a major stake in this one, which jeopardizes some $1.4 billion over the Ortega government’s five-year term.

José Adán Aguerri, president of the Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP), made his big business umbrella’s concerns very clear: “It’s not the Nicaraguan government that’s going to be the big loser from the loss of the waivers.” Given that democracy has never been a demonstrably genuine concern in Washington’s relations with Nicaragua over the centuries, Aguerri added rather gratuitously, but quite rightly, that “American authorities aren’t going to make Nicaragua more democratic by impoverishing the country even more.”

Nicaraguan businessman César Zamora, vice president of the Association of American Chambers of Commerce in Latin America, was even more challenging: ”The US can’t drop a nuclear bomb on Nicaragua and say, ‘You pick up the pieces and then you’ll win back US government support.’” In a surprising show of independent long-term thinking from a sector of Nicaragua that has historically run to Uncle Sam any time it had an internal problem, Zamora added a thought that seemed particularly aimed at the most trigger-happy US legislators: “We have the capacity to resolve our own institutional issues, but it’s going to take some time.”

A slow approach or
a more drastic one?

Will all these considerations be enough to convince Obama that one waiver is enough for his purposes? Some analysts, among them Arturo Cruz, Ortega’s former ambassador to the United States, believe Obama favors a gradualist policy for Nicaragua: withholding the transparency waiver but granting the property waiver. That would be followed up by close attention to what happens in Nicaragua’s municipal elections this November. Cruz thinks that one of the conditions the United States will be watching for to determine whether the elections are acceptable or not is the participation of “a credible opposition.”

Others think Obama might deny both waivers. Given that the sanctions are only for one year, he could grant the two dispensations again in 2013, once the US elections are over, depending on how Ortega “behaves” meanwhile.

The first approach is more in keeping with Obama’s cautious and long-viewed political philosophy, but it’s an exceedingly tough election race for him this year, making it harder to second-guess his inclinations and the effects of the seeming bipartisan consensus against Nicaragua. What does already seem clear is that, with the confrontation now out of the box, the waivers will very likely become an annual tool to pressure Ortega.

It’s also clear that the way the municipal elections develop will play a pivotal role in either lowering or exacerbating the tensions. When Ambassador Powers revealed that the transparency waiver would not be granted this year, she added that regardless of the fate of the second waiver, her government will be keeping a close watch on the November 4 municipal elections to see whether the previous OAS observer mission report’s recommendations are met, there is effective observation and the elections are transparent.

“It’s an outrage!”

There were few official public reactions in Nicaragua once it became known that the government had been denied the transparency waiver; everyone was waiting to see what Ortega would say. Unexpectedly caught by journalists, the treasury minister shrugged off the problem, laughingly saying that losing $3 million of US bilateral aid didn’t mean much for the national budget.

FSLN legislative representative Walmaro Gutiérrez, who chairs the National Assembly’s economic commission, reacted angrily, arguing that the good grades the Ortega government has been getting from the IMF put the lie to the US government: “We’re making enormous efforts to keep this country within the framework of the agreement with the financing institutions, and they’re telling us we’ve done it all correctly. And now a foreign government comes along to tell us we’re not transparent? It’s an outrage!”
His colleague Jacinto Suárez, who chairs the foreign relations commission, said, “We’re not a bit worried. We already dealt with the loss of European cooperation with no problems.”

“We’ll close the spigot!”

Ortega has no doubts about the conflict’s seriousness. His response was two-pronged: ordering the Attorney General’s Office to speed up the resolution of as many confiscation cases as possible before the deadline, while at the same time stridently defying Washington.

When the President finally responded publicly on June 23, two days after Ambassador Power’s La Prensa interview, he spoke more harshly against the US government than he had in many months, calling it home to “the planet’s greatest swindlers and criminals.” His argument was similar to Gutiérrez’s: although Nicaragua aspires to finally free itself from the IMF’s “claws,” it is negotiating with it and has received very good grades from it and the other international financial institutions.

The two threats

Ortega centered his speech on two threats, aimed at both the United States and his domestic political opposition, which he labeled “agents of the empire.” The first was his announcement that in response to the United States cutting its cooperation, he will “close the spigot” on all US-funded programs in Nicaragua. If he makes good on that one, it will affect not only the NGOs mentioned above and the military and drug war assistance, but also programs assisting a reported 30,000 small and medium farmers, small and medium businesses, the environment, tourism, health and child survival and regional security, as well as educa¬tional grants for Nicaraguans to study in the US.

He insisted that he will make no change in the system of government he has set up: “They can forget about us making institutional political decisions when subjected to blackmail and pressure!” That threat carries the implicit warning that he will negotiate nothing with the opposition before the November elections.

To close the spigot ot not to close it, to negotiate with the opposition or not to negotiate with it: those are the dilemmas facing President Ortega at this point in the conflict with the United States.

To expel AID or not to expel it?

A specific threat against the US Agency for International Development (USAID) was already in the air by the night of Ortega’s speech and the timing was in fact suspicious. The previous day, by which time he already knew the transparency waiver was denied, the ALBA Political Council issued a resolution at the Rio+20 Conference with even harsher words against the US aid agency than those heard in Managua.

The text, signed by the foreign ministers of Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Dominica, Venezuela and Nicaragua—the latter represented at Río+20 by Miguel D’Escoto, Ortega’s foreign minister in the eighties—charged that USAID practices “open interference” and finances groups and projects “aimed at destabilizing legitimate governments that are not in line” with US interests, in a “clear and outrageous meddling in the internal political processes of each nation.”

It further stated that “in the majority of ALBA countries, USAID, through its different organizations and facades, acts illegally and with impunity, financing media, political leaders and nongovernmental organizations with no legal framework for it.”

It accused AID of promoting “all manner of fundamentalisms to con¬spire and limit the powers” of the ALBA members and in many cases to pillage their natural resources. Because of all this, the ALBA Political Council requested of the bloc’s heads of State and government “the immediate expulsion of USAID from their countries.”

What will Ortega do? Will he use the attack on AID as the excuse to retake the offensive he left hanging in 2009 against Nicaraguan NGOs, independent of whether or not they receive funds from the United States? Or, as some would like to believe, is everything we’ve been hearing only a rhetorical outburst by the President to keep his image polished among the FSLN rank-and-file as a leader who doesn’t cave in to the empire’s pressures? All the bombast aside, the truth of the matter is that AID let its counterparts know back in January that, as of September, the new US iscal year, it is slashing its already reduced aid in the region, particularly to Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Cuba.

With a new legality

While the President mulls over his dilemmas, the municipal electoral process has continued on its course. These elections have been preceded by a new legality that received fast-track approval in the National Assembly so it could be put into effect immediately. As a result of the new “50-50” law Ortega pushed through in March in the name of gender equity, voters will elect male-female pairs for mayor and deputy mayor for the first time ever. The parties’ Municipal Council candidate slates will also be half women and half men, although it has not been made clear in what the order they are to appear (alternately men and women? men at the top of the slate women at the bottom? left to the decision of the parties to put their best and most experienced candidates at the top of the list independent of their sex?). It’s a very positive law in a country with such a historically patriarchal political structure, but unfortunately it’s being promoted in an increasingly tainted institutional framework.

Also for the first time, voters will elect a significantly larger number of councilors in all municipalities as a result of an electoral reform Ortega decided on in April in the name of “direct democracy.” It was one of the small steps he took to demonstrate nationally and internationally his willingness to make changes in the electoral system. It is also a positive law, because the proportional representation system in the municipalities has been rendered obsolete by population growth, but again it’s being promoted in a framework tainted by the electoral clientelism that characterizes the governing party.

We’ll only be able to observe and analyze the concrete advantages and disadvantages of these two reforms in greater detail in coming years. Much will depend on the space and preparation the different parties offer to the hundreds of elected municipal officials being brought into local government for the first time, many of them women.

Thick-skinned magistrates

But while both laws are welcomed, they have nothing to do with the main demands being made of the government regarding the legal framework for Nicaraguan elections. The even more blatant electoral “irregularities” in last year’s presidential and legislative elections—many committed or at the very best, ignored by the CSE—have redoubled the requests, suggestions and demands from many quarters that the CSE magistrates be changed both because of their complicity in those irregularities and because their terms in office are long expired.

The discovery in May that alternate magistrate Julio César Osuna made up a fake Nicaraguan identity card for Alejandro Jiménez, the now-infamous Costa Rican drug trafficker and intellectual author of Argentine singer-songwriter Facundo Cabral’s death, fed the optimism of some. They assumed the Osuna case would lead the magistrates to resign or force the government to replace them.

They were wrong on both accounts. The FSLN leaders’ tenacity in keeping all seven discredited electoral magistrates and their three alternates—including Osuna—in place at least through the upcoming municipal elections demonstrates just how thick their skin has become. That of the CSE authorities would appear to be even thicker; proving itself impervious to vilifying national public opinion, their discredited international image, accumulated corruption scandals and the most elemental sense of decorum.

The CSE is up to its
old electoral tricks

Undaunted by the narco-ID card scandal, the CSE went on with its business of organizing the next electoral process. In May it chose the president and two regular members who will run each of the 15 Departmental and 2 Autonomous Regional Electoral Councils (CEDs and CERs, respectively) from lists submitted by parties that partici¬pated in the last presidential elections.

Whereas the 1995 electoral law reform creating the CEDs and CERs simply said that plurality should be respected in divvying up the three posts, one of the reforms in 2000 resulting from the pact between then-President Arnoldo Alemán and FSLN general secretary Daniel Ortega specifies that the president and the first of the two members must alternate between the party that won the last general elections and the first runner-up. In other words, using the current case, if the president of a given CED is selected from the list provided by the FSLN, the first member must be from the Independent Liberal Party (PLI) list and vice versa. The second member is then selected from the lists of other parties that also ran.

Curiously, neither version of the electoral law specifies any method for deciding how many CEDs or CERs will be presided by each of the two front-running parties. The CSE was more than equitable in numerical terms, giving the FSLN 9 and the PLI 8, but it carefully selected the departments and regions so that the combined population in the ones run by the FSLN is more than double that of the ones run by the PLI (2.8 million vs. 1.3 million). More population means more votes, more votes mean more control and more control means better results.

Then in June the three authorities were assigned who will run the 153 Municipal Electoral Councils (CEMs), which are even more fundamental to the development of the elections. Not surprisingly, the same thing was repeated: the FSLN will preside over 82 municipalities and the PLI over 71, with the FSLN getting the most populated ones and the PLI the least populated ones. These were the first concrete signs of the conditions the governing party is preparing in order to win the 140 mayoral seats its spokespeople have been predicting.

While the CSE was within the imprecise letter of the law in that maneuver, it was not in the next one. In the 2011 elections, it announced right before election day that it had created the post of voting center coordinator, an all-powerful position not covered by law. In practice, each controlled over a dozen voting tables in close coordination with the FSLN members at those tables. Starting much earlier this time, it has created another new figure, this time at the CED and CEM level. What is variously being called an electoral administrator or electoral director has been given functions that override those assigned by law to the presidents of these two entities.

Given that the second regular member of virtually all the electoral councils chaired by the PLI is an FSLN ally, thus enabling it to outvote its rival, this new figure is a bit of gilt on the lily, but the first complaints by the PLI presidents appointed to various CEMS were soon being heard: the administrators are making all the decisions in cahoots with the FSLN member and not even providing information to them; they don’t respond to issues the PLI presidents raise and haven’t assigned them tasks or even given them offices. The PLI is definitely not where the buck stops in any of the electoral offices.

To participate or
not to participate?

Given these conditions, the parliamentary opposition’s dilemma is whether or not to participate in the elections. The PLI has already announced it will not decide until August, the month the electoral calendar has set for registering the parties’ candidates for the mayoral seats.

As early as April the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), a member of the PLI Alliance created for the 2011 elections, publicly refused to participate in the elections unless all CSE magistrates are changed and clear rules are put in place to ensure a fair process. It has reiterated this decision numerous times since then, calling it “political suicide” to go into another election without such preconditions. On July 1, more than 200 of its leaders ratified this decision in the party’s national convention, which also elected new authorities.

Fabio Gadea, the alliance’s presidential candidate last year, sides with the MRS on this point. In early May he said, “My personal opinion is that we shouldn’t go into elections called by a spurious, illegal, dishonest, disparaged, servile CSE that is a violator of laws. It’s not dignified.” Gadea has said several times that “it would be better for the FSLN to end up with everything.” He has called on the alliance not to participate, admitted he’s thinking of not even voting in these elections and has aired a spot several times a day for over six months on Radio Corporación, the station he owns, that begins with these words: “Nicaraguan, brother, do not participate in another electoral fraud….”

Principles or posts?

Eduardo Montealegre and those in his We’re going with Eduardo Movement (MVE) are the alliance members that do want to run in the elections. The position of the MRS and Gadea has made it harder for Montealegre, who’s failed to hide his desire to participate, no matter what the conditions.

This profound difference within the alliance reflects distinct political cultures. The MRS comes from the original Sandinista culture and organizes its base around principles and values, particularly public service, honesty and loyalty. In Nicaragua’s traditional Liberal culture, on the other head, the base has always been organized around posts and the opportunities and perks derived from them.

Another reason for the difference is that neither the MRS nor Gadea have much to lose if they don’t participate. Gadea is 80 and feels he’s lived a full and fruitful political life. For its part, the MRS was arbitrarily stripped of its legal status by the CSE in 2008 and can’t run in elections under its own name as a result. The MVE was similarly left out in the cold at more or less the same time when the CSE equally arbitrarily deprived Montealegre of his position as head of the National Liberal Alliance (ALN), a party he himself had founded just two years earlier. Like a hermit crab, the MVE has recovered by occupying the PLI’s nearly empty shell, and will lose it if it doesn’t participate. And that is something Montealegre is not willing to do because his sights are set on being the PLI’s presidential candidate in the 2016 elections.

At the two extremes

The “credible opposition”—the heterogeneous PLI Alliance that gathered around Gadea’s presidential candidacy last year—also showed polar differences regarding Ortega’s crisis with the United States. Banker-politician Montealegre is very worried that Nicaragua could end up with both waivers suspended this year. His position is very close to COSEP’s and for the same reason: it would affect his own economic interests.

Nicaragua’s big business leaders are getting increasingly nervous about the conflict. Interventions such as President Ortega attacking the United States after the denial of the first waiver give them the willies because the relationship with the United States is essential to them, many of whom manage Nicaraguan franchises or branches of US companies and/or even hold US citizenship. It would come as no surprise to see capital flight if they see signs that the confrontation is ratcheting up to a new level.

Two days after Ortega’s angry speech, AMCHAM issued an unusually strong communiqué rejecting “categorically the public expressions from those who in the past led our country into an unnecessary confrontation with the United States of America.” No one had any doubt about who “those” were. In its communiqué, AMCHAM justified its rejection by recalling some salient statistics: the US is still Nicaragua’s main trade partner (we exported US$658.96 million to it last year and US aid totaled US$144.4 million to the public sector and $132.2 million to the private sector over the five years of Ortega’s last term); the majority of foreign direct investment comes from the United States; 600,000 Nicaraguans live there and send back US$900 million in family remittances annually; 60% of the tourists who visit Nicaragua come from there; and 3,000 small and medium Nicaraguan farmers export to the United States, supported by USAID funds.

At the other extreme, the MRS leaders chose not to take up the waivers banner. The party’s former president, Dora María Téllez, commented in her typical straightforward way why she finds it useless and inappropriate to lobby in favor of the waiver: “In the diplomatic language of the US administration, what the government has done is called ‘lack of transparency,’ but in Nicaraguan language it’s called theft: theft of votes and theft of money.” In her view, that means Ortega is fully responsible and there’s no reason to “pull his beans out of the fire.”

It is in this uncertain scenario that Montealegre—who now feels anointed by both the business elite and the United States as “the” opposition leader—will have to make his electoral decisions and justify them to public opinion.

To negotiate or
not to negotiate?

Over the months since Ortega’s reelection, Montealegre has requested a dialogue in a variety of ways, but has continually been ignored. At first, he ambitiously crowed that an “institutional re-founding” would come out of his proposal for a dialogue and negotiation with the government. With the passage of time he seems to have lowered his aspirations to nothing more than two or three magistrate seats in the CSE.

When Ortega was announced the winner of the 2011 elections, he promised that, even with his absolute majority of 62%, he will “govern for all” by consensus, and not be “pretentious in victory.” Up to this past month, the FSLN and MVE legislative representatives maintained that consensus in the National Assembly, albeit with increasing difficulty. But once the waivers crisis blew up, the parliamentary consensus fell apart, as did Ortega’s consensus with big business. The pivotal issue in both cases was the civil right-violating characteristic the FSLN imposed on new legislation creating a Financial Analysis Unit (UAF).

The National Assembly approved the law creating this new state institution on June 12, with the FSLN’s 63 votes in favor and the PLI Alliance’s 26 against. The business elite firmly rejected the law, the first time it had done so since it allied with the governing party and hammered out 53 economic laws together until reaching consensus. The business sector, the country’s association of banks and the political opposition provided a raft of reasons for rejecting the UAF, which was given discretionary powers to investigate the banking movements of any individual or legal person: it clashes with the Constitution, violates human rights by making any citizen an “obliged subject,” could become a weapon of political persecution and espionage, and violates banking secrecy, the right to privacy and the security of one’s assets. If that weren’t enough, they are also concerned about its lack of autonomy and independence given that the President of the Republic directly appoints the UAF president, which is not the case in any other similar law in other Latin American countries. On June 22 COSEP asked President Ortega to veto the law’s two most controversial articles, but he sent it off to be published on June 25 as is, and it will enter into effect in 90 days.

This new “pretension in victory” offers no hope that Ortega will be willing to negotiate a change of elec-toral magistrates or authorities in the other branches of government to replace or reelect the now 60 officials appointed by the National Assembly whose terms have expired. A number of those officials would actually like to see this happen in order to legitimate themselves.

Will Montealegre get anything negotiated before the elections? Or will he resign himself to leading the PLI into them without having changed anything in the electoral system, trusting in the possibility of getting something later in exchange for “legitimating” the vote by running?

To run or not to run?

There are various dimensions to the dilemma of the MVE and the PLI. They have to choose between the short term and the medium term, between running a legal risk and running a risk with their base.

Even if Montealegre and the PLI decided to run in the municipal elections because Ortega concedes a CSE post or two to them, it will be hard to erase the perception that it was just the first step in a perks-based negotiation in which they are occupying the spot formerly held by Arnoldo Alemán’s now shriveled Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PlC). Rightly so, it will feel like a continuation of Nicaragua’s age-old political option chosen by parties that aspire to power but are locked out of the struggle for it by a single party that has monopolized it by hook and crook: they ally with it in exchange for a quota of privileges and positions.

If on the other hand they decide to participate without having first achieved any change whatsoever, they will burn themselves with much of public opinion—including a number of their own sympathizers. But they’ll surely win some mayoral seats and probably be given even a few from the 140 the FSLN claims it has in the bag. Given the new profusion of Municipal Council seats, it will also get a certain number of them in virtually all municipalities.

Those wins will allow it to keep its local structures active and hang on to its legal space as the “second force,” ratifying Montealegre as the new opposition leader in place of Alemán. With that platform he would surely feel secure that he could run for President against the FSLN in 2016, which is his priority objective. But to anyone who remembers that he beat out Alemán’s PLC for second place in the 2006 elections with his brand new ALN only to have it taken away from him by the CSE within two years on extremely shaky grounds, that security might seem misplaced.

If you don’t play,
you’re out of the game.

What makes the decision even more complex than just the political aspirations driving the players is that any party that fails to run in elections automatically loses its legal status. It’s a rule of the Electoral Law: Paying that price would be a radical gesture of principles that might “dignify” the PLI’s leadership with a good part of public opinion and its own sympathizers. But there would surely be hard feelings among departmental and municipal leaders who aspire to some elected municipal post under the PLI banner because those party structures only come alive when posts and perks are dangled in front of them. Disappointed by a principled position, they would very likely seek to sell their political skills to other parties that would assure them those posts and their corresponding goodies.

In addition to risking the loss of its base and deactivating the local electoral networks the PLI built with such difficulty last year, a decision not to run would also risk something even more strategic: it would leave the field open to the PLC to recover all those Liberals who left it for the PLI last year believing the latter to be the rising star and the former a burned-out asteroid. With a speed unusual even in Nicaragua’s volatile political world, the PLC could recover its place as the “second force” and “only opposition.” With that hope it has already announced that it will run in the municipal elections, demonstrating its absence of even a shred of political shame.

Well aware of the obstacles the CSE is already putting in the electoral road, MVE leader Eliseo Núñez Murales justified the PLI’s probable participation in the elections by arguing that it can’t lose the opportunity to construct a “protest platform,” using each campaign event to denounce the current electoral system and politically project the PLI leaders and local structures. Such a platform would allow the party to continue delegitimizing the government. But wouldn’t such an effort be more convincing if it didn’t participate?

One of the conditions that a good part of Nicaraguan society, the international community and the United States is hoping for in these elections is the participation of “a credible opposition.” But that’s a classic Catch-22: only an opposition that refuses to participate in such corrupted elections is credible, but at the cost of party status and representation in the local authorities; whereas one that participates without reliable assurances of their fairness and transparency converts the term “credible opposition” into an oxymoron.

To vote or not to vote?

The dilemmas filter right down to the local populations. In their case, the question is whether or not to vote. In last November’s presidential elections, the turnout was significant. Despite the 2008 experience, they still trusted that their vote would count. But many of them witnessed what happened, including the thousands trained by the national observation organizations to be their eyes and ears, since they were not permitted credentials to observe officially themselves. Many who voted for the FSLN knew what was going down that day, some because they directed or implemented it and others because they saw and tolerated it. The PLI Alliance supporters who perceived that the process was very much amiss felt mocked: they voted but didn’t elect because their vote wasn’t respected.

Presidential elections are very different from municipal ones in a number of ways, not the least of which is that the candidates are well known. While the turnout is typically lower than in presidential elections, those who vote do so knowing that local government has become increasingly important in their daily lives, so they put more passion into what they accept, reject and decide.

In the 40 municipalities questionably adjudicated to the FSLN in the 2008 municipal elections, the widespread belief that the FSLN was not fairly elected left open wounds into which last year’s elections poured salt. Indignation was reawakened among those who voted for Gadea and/or the PLI Alliance legislative candidates. There are reportedly municipalities in which people—political activists?—are urging the PLI to participate because they dream of revenge or a new measuring of forces (“This time they aren’t going to steal our votes,” “Today we’re preparing ourselves,” “We’ll see who can pull more weight”). Such comments are particularly being heard in the 40-odd municipalities with an anti-Sandinista voting tradition that are in fact governed by Liberals. In light of the FSLN’s claim that it will win all but 13 of the municipal govern¬ment seats this time, they’re already letting everyone know that they aren’t going down without a fight.

There are other municipalities in which the PLI is being asked not to participate because they want to stay “clean” and not be a party to a new fraud. In a number of those cases they’ve said that even if the PLI runs, they won’t vote and won’t be PLI table monitors because they don’t want to be swindled again or take part in a farce. Those thinking along these lines know that promoting abstention is an electoral crime, although individually boycotting the elections isn’t. And they’re prepared to boycott these.

The only ones with
a clear position

In Nicaragua’s now normally unpredictable political scenario, this cluster of dilemmas and their possible resolution over the coming months allows us only one definitive statement: unpredictability will continue until the November elections. That makes our task clear, with no dilemma: we’ll keep right on reporting.

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