Nicaraguan presidential candidate Herty Lewites died of a heart attack on Sunday, July 2, in a Managua hospital. His death was disclosed by his close political ally, Dora Maria Tellez. The former mayor of Managua, Lewites was the presidential hopeful of the Sandinista Renewal Movement (MRS) party, a dissident faction of the Sandinista Liberation Front (FSLN). Herty Lewites, once an integral member of the FSLN revolutionary movement, was close to party leader Daniel Ortega during the 1979 revolution and remained so throughout the party’s time in power in the 1980s. However, he was expelled from the FSLN in March 2005 when he announced his intention to run against Ortega to be the Sandinista candidate in the 2006 national presidential election. The MRS has just announced that Lewites’ former running mate, Edmundo Jarquín, son-in-law of former President Violeta Chamorro, will replace Lewites as the party’s presidential candidate.
According to a poll by CID-Gallup published in La Prensa on June 30, Lewites, who attracted the backing of prominent Sandinistas such as Dora María Tellez and Sergio Ramirez, was third in the polls, with 15 percent support (about 33 percent of those polled remained undecided). Within the same poll, Daniel Ortega of the FSLN party led with 23 percent support; Eduardo Montealegre, with the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN) followed with 17 percent; and José Rizo with the Constitutional Liberal Party (PLC), the party of the incumbent president, trailed with 11 percent support.
Background of the Upcoming Election
The current presidential campaign, in preparation for the November 5 elections, has challenged the very foundations of the Nicaraguan political system in that it has introduced plurality into the electoral process. Dissenting factions, both on the left and the right, have been uncomfortably incorporated into a political system that has, in recent years, been dominated by the preeminence of the country’s two strongest political parties – the leftist FLSN and the conservative PLC. Political tactics engaged in by both party leaders, Daniel Ortega (FSLN) and Arnoldo Alemán (PLC), have been the primary factors in the splintering of the left and the right. The most publicly reviled among these is a political pact, brokered between Ortega and Alemán in 1999, that united their parties in the Nicaraguan National Assembly, with a shared majority of 90 percent. This gave the unlikely duo and their political cronies nearly dictatorial powers over the legislative branch of the government.1 Ortega and Alemán employed this leverage to further infiltrate other factions of the government, using patronage politics to place allies in key positions, be it in the Supreme Court, the Executive branch, or the Supreme Electoral Council. For both leaders the threat of prosecution for crimes committed during the 1990s, drove them to negotiate the Pact, which, among other things, ensured them parliamentary immunity. However, the public disillusionment that resulted from the Ortega-Alemán Pact tarnished the potential draw of both parties in the upcoming elections by fostering widespread popular disenchantment with the two leaders. Reacting to this, powerful members of the PLC and the FSLN began a mass exodus from their parties, in an effort to distance themselves from the corrupt reputations of their party leaders, in order to run under either dissident or independent tickets in the current presidential election.
Thus, in addition to the candidates of the PLC and the FSLN (Rizo and Ortega), the upcoming elections will be witness two more viable candidates (Lewites’ successor Jarquín and Montealegre) whose political diversity will give the Nicaraguan electorate the choice to vote for a candidate who is not marred by corruption.
The Death of Herty Lewites and its Implications for the Upcoming Election
Nicaragua’s electoral system features a first-past-the-post presidential race, and a low (35 percent) threshold for a runoff election. In this sort of system, the instance of two candidates sharing a basically similar ideological sphere all but ensures the splitting of votes – and thus the weakening of both candidates against the presumably united front being made up of parties of a similar ideology. Such has not been the case in the Nicaraguan presidential race thus far, because, though there has been party splintering, the diversification of both political ideologies has pitted two divided blocs against one another, and no one candidate has taken a definitive lead. With the death of Herty Lewites, however, the left is no longer split between two strong candidates. This will potentially give Ortega an enormous advantage over a still divided right – assuming that he is able to attract the support of some dissident Sandinista voters formerly dedicated to Lewites. With this additional support and his current lead in the polls, Ortega is almost guaranteed victory.
The hope of the MRS now lies with the ability of Edmundo Jarquín to maintain Lewites’ strength in the polls. This will be a substantial challenge because the late candidate’s strength has all along been more a function of his personal political popularity than the party’s mandate. However, it is too soon to label the MRS a lost cause: it is possible that sympathy for Lewites along with Jarquín’s presidential ambitions will sustain the party; and its command of some leftist political backing will not completely fade as a result of Lewites’ death. Indeed, Jarquín told La Prensa this week that he would work relentlessly to fulfill Lewites’ political dreams for a just and equal Nicaragua by continuing to fight for the presidency. Dora Maria Tellez, the president of the MRS party has been similarly confident in the party’s new ticket. Ms. Tellez explained to La Prensa, “The formula is three, it is the only presidential formula with three candidates: Herty Lewites, who is the spirit, Edmundo Jarquín, our candidate for the Presidency and Carlos Mejía Godoy, our Vice-presidential candidate.”
Lastly, some have commented that Lewites’ death may cause the political plurality that has characterized this election to founder, inciting a return to the two party dominant system that has injured Nicaragua in the past. Indeed, PLC candidate José Rizo expressed the hope that his party would reap the benefits of Lewites’ death, saying, “What I foresee is that the fight will be between the two political parties that have historically been stronger (PLC and FSLN) because the current projects which have been or have grown around these political figures are taken down when a lamentable case occurs, like the one that we have had with the passing of Herty Lewites.”2 However, as Montealegre remains firm in his candidacy, and strong in the polls, a diverse ballot is an almost certainty in November.
Lewites, who possessed strong leftist credentials – having participated actively in the revolution alongside Ortega from its first day, only later to separate himself from the FLSN party – represented a compelling alternative to the legacy of corruption and cronyism that has scarred Ortega’s reputation and permeated his party in recent years. Lewites’ platform was centered on empowering Nicaraguan civil society by liberalizing the political system and reintroducing a democracy in which the common citizen can influence the political process. His candidacy presented options for Nicaraguans disillusioned with not only political manipulation, including that of Daniel Ortega, but also with the failure of the neo-liberal agenda that has been employed by successive Nicaraguan regimes for the past fifteen years, but which have failed to bring equity, social justice, or sufficient economic growth to Nicaragua. Most importantly, however, was Lewites’ pledge to challenge the monopoly of the Ortega-Alemán pact – thus relieving Nicaragua of a political system largely dominated by these two men rather than reflecting the fundamental interest of the government as a whole.
Lewites is Mourned
Former Sandinista vice-President (1984-1990) and founder of the Movimiento de Renovación Sandinista (MRS) political party Sergio Ramírez has hailed Lewites as being a “man of action” with “a legitimacy that Ortega could never aspire to.” He mourns his colleague’s death as a loss for Nicaragua, stating that Lewites’ candidacy provided an option for Nicaraguans, freeing them from a “pitiful choice between two caudillos: Arnoldo Alemán and Daniel Ortega himself, partners in a dark political enterprise that has multiplied corruption, impoverished the country and weakened its institutions.”3 Similarly, Jarquín told La Prensa that Lewites was a man who represented the future promise for Nicaraguans, and although he would work to continue Lewites’ legacy of independence, equity and justice, his death was a “gran pérdida.”4 Lewites’ body was returned to his hometown of Jinotepe for burial. Archbishop Leopoldo José Brenes Solórzano presided over the funeral, which was attended by a great number of mourning Nicaraguans including former President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, current President Enrique Bolaños, and the U.S. Ambassador, Paul Trivelli.
The death of Herty Lewites could very well deliver a monumental shock to Nicaraguan politics. As the Minister of Tourism under the presidency of Daniel Ortega in the 1980s, and the mayor Managua – he was a greatly loved politician. Along with his people-centered leftist politics, his commitment to beneficial social programs, and his support of small business, Herty Lewites may have been capable of finally delivering to the Nicaraguan people the political freedoms promised in the revolution of 1979.