The Upcoming Nicaraguan Elections

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The 2006 Nicaraguan presidential campaign leading up to the November 5 election has been book-ended by events wholly unprecedented in Nicaraguan history. In addition to the sudden death of presidential candidate Herty Lewites on July 2, the race has been witness to the division of the two political parties that traditionally have dominated the Nicaraguan political system. This is demonstrated by the addition of three new presidential contenders running on alternative platforms. Two of these candidates, Eduardo Montealegre and Edmundo Jarquín, have been extremely successful in courting the support of traditionally partisan conservatives and liberals – thus successfully presenting options to the electorate; while the third, Edén Pastora, has rarely gathered more than 1.5 percent support in the polls. Never before in the country’s modern electoral history has the transcendence of the two primary parties, the Sandinista Liberation Front (FSLN) and the conservative Constitutional Liberation Party (PLC), been so challenged. This splintering has been largely caused by the popular disillusionment with the endemic corruption that has plagued these parties since the early 1990s. Thus, as the country recuperates from Lewites’ death, and prepares to see the presidential race through to the end, the Nicaraguan people will be given the unique opportunity to break with a past filled with venality and political scandal and pursue a future of political plurality and accessibility.

Three’s Company
The formation of the bipartisan system that has dominated Nicaragua in recent years began in the late 1980s with the development of a conservative electoral opposition to the revolutionary Sandinista movement. However, the solidification of two-party dominance was not orchestrated until 1999, when a cynical political pact, called el Pacto, was brokered between the PLC’s Arnoldo Alemán and the FSLN’s Daniel Ortega. This undemocratic arrangement, which was negotiated by self-serving political elites to the detriment of the electorate, has been continually characterized by corruption and represents a telling blow to free electoral process and legitimate governance.

The 1999 political pact between Daniel Ortega and Arnoldo Alemán (president from 1996 – 2001 who is now facing 20 years in jail for fraud and embezzlement) is the culmination of years of political venality from which Nicaraguans are clearly trying to escape with the upcoming election. The agreement united their two parties in the National Assembly and gave Ortega and Alemán control over nearly 90 percent of the legislature – granting the unified duo near dictatorial powers over the nation. The leaders used their majority control for the cynical assertion of conclusive influence over many facets of Nicaraguan public life, including the Supreme Court and the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE). Their sway even gave them the political clout necessary to exert power over the executive, should it deviate from their political agenda. The pact also ensured both Ortega and Alemán seats in the national assembly for the next two terms, a position coveted by both men because of the parliamentary immunity that it afforded. Because of this privileged protection, Ortega and Alemán avoided prosecution for various crimes committed in previous years, Ortega for sexual abuse charges and Alemán for fraud and embezzlement.

The reaches of the pact have also, predictably, extended into Nicaraguan electoral politics – a fact that will surely have consequences for November’s election. In a recently released report by the Organization of American States (OAS) in preparation for their involvement in the observation and monitoring of the November 5 election, the body highlighted several deficiencies in the Nicaraguan Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) that can most likely effect the upcoming election. Most notably, the OAS reported power struggles within the CSE that bode poorly for the body’s legitimacy. Ortega and Alemán used the 1999 agreement to capture the CSE by overhauling the organization of the group, agreeing to increase the number of members, which provided each man the opportunity to select three allies to sit on the council. The seventh member, Roberto Rivas, generally regarded to be neutral between the two political parties, was selected by Ortega and Alemán as the swing vote – the proverbial Sandra Day O’Connor of the CSE. In the past year, however, Rivas has shown a preference toward Ortega’s FSLN party, thus tilting the scales of the CSE in favor of Ortega and creating both a dramatic rise in public mistrust of the body’s legitimacy and suspicions surrounding the Nicaraguan electoral system as a whole.

The Ortega and Alemán-controlled National Assembly passed legislation in January 2000 that increased the electoral threshold for political parties seeking to participate in the National Assembly, further establishing the dominance of the FSLN and the PLC. Lastly, Ortega saw to the passing of legislation through the National Assembly that lowered the percentage necessary to win the presidency in the first round to 35 percent of the popular vote (In the case that no one candidate reaches 35 percent of the vote, the two top candidates are subject to a runoff election). This is a key advancement for his position in November as his party has, in past elections, attracted between 35 and 40 percent of the vote, just falling just short of the previous presidential threshold. Thus, with the new requirement now in place, and with his predictable support base, Ortega’s chances for victory are greatly increased. The duopoly created by means ofel Pacto, effectively brought about the gutting of Nicaraguan democratic legitimacy. Ortega and Alemán’s negotiation of a closed political system and their resulting complete dominance represents a regression into the power politics of the Somoza era.

The Demise of the Open Political Process: The Case of the FSLN
In addition to the damage done to the Nicaraguan political system by way of el Pacto, Ortega and Alemán have further ensured their dominance in Nicaraguan politics by limiting political participation within their own parties. This has primarily been the case with the FSLN party which, once a leftist revolutionary movement representing the hope of political freedom for Nicaragua, has, through the internal supremacy of party leader Daniel Ortega, become the embodiment of the caudillo politics that have long plagued Nicaragua.

Many of the FSLN’s fundamental political failures are due to a lack of internal democratization, which has given rise to the authoritarianism of Daniel Ortega. For example, the Ortega-dominated Consejo Sandinista Nacional (the highest decision-making body of the FSLN) has maneuvered the expulsion from the party of any other potential presidential candidate who could pose an effective challenge to Ortega. Most notably, the late presidential candidate Herty Lewites, who was a key actor in the revolution and closely collaborated with Ortega during the 1980s, was expelled from the party in March 2005 after expressing his intentions to contend for the FSLN candidacy in the 2006 presidential election. In the midst of this process, Lewites told Washington D.C.-based social justice group the Nicaraguan Network that he would continue his demand for an FSLN primary election, proclaiming, “I will do everything I can to liberate the Sandinista party from the current internal dictatorship it has to put up with.” Lewites’ presidential bid was supported by many important ex-FSLN leaders such as Dora Maria Tellez, Sergio Ramirez, Ernesto Cardenal and Carlos Mejía Godoy, who were all once influential revolutionaries before similarly defecting from the FSLN because of Ortega’s dominance and his cult of personality politics. Lewites ultimately joined the presidential race, albeit under an independent ticket aligned with the Movement to Restore Sandino (MRS), the premier FSLN-dissident party of Tellez, Ramirez, Cardenal and Godoy.

The support that Lewites attracted, both in his demand that a primary election be held within the FSLN and in his subsequent independent candidacy for Nicaragua’s presidency, makes it clear that many within the party are dissatisfied with the current reign of Daniel Ortega and have sought ways to unseat him. In July, in opposition to Ortega’s traditional commemoration of the 1979 revolution in Managua, former Sandinistas held an alternative celebration in the city of Masaya. This strategic move was a symbolic protest of the ascendancy of Ortega over the revolutionary party. After the celebration, in an interview, former Sandinista and prominent MRS member Victor Hugo Tinoco said, “Daniel and his group don’t fulfill their promises …The majority of them have become millionaires. They are now just a powerful economic group whose only goal is to protect its interests by using anti-democratic means to control the party, and by using false leftist speech and inflammatory anti-American rhetoric to gain the support of Nicaraguan society.” Ortega’s chokehold over the party has frustrated attempts to reform from within, and has thus caused political diversity to be sought after in the rise of the MRS party and its current push for the presidency.

MRS: A Third Way?
The potency of the MRS’ presidential campaign was delivered a massive blow when its preferred candidate, Herty Lewites, died suddenly of a heart attack on July 2. However, while mourning Lewites with appropriate solemnity, party leaders did not hesitate to name his running mate, Edmundo Jarquín, as Lewites’ successor, and national folk singer and leftist political activist Carlos Mejía Godoy as its new vice-presidential candidate. Lewites was known for his charisma, humor, and honesty, three traits that made him a unique and lovable politician, and in this sense, he leaves Jarquín with large shoes to fill. However, MRS party leaders, as well as the candidate himself, have expressed their confidence that Jarquín is very capable in clinching the race that Lewites began.

The independent candidacy of Herty Lewites had gained momentum as a result of deepening divisions in the Sandinista party. Lewites, who participated actively in the revolution alongside Ortega and remained in the party until 2005, possessed strong leftist credentials which offered a potent challenge to Ortega on his own ideological turf. After expulsion from the FSLN thwarted Lewites’ bid for the FSLN candidacy, Lewites attracted the support of other prominent Sandinista dissidents, small businessmen and traditionally leftist voters. It is uncertain, however, whether that strength will transfer to his successor and translate into a victory for the MRS party.

The MRS platform is centered on ridding the Nicaraguan political system of the corruption that has been a legacy of el Pacto. It also seeks to empower Nicaraguan civil society by opening up the political system and reintroducing a democratic tendency in which the common citizen can influence the political process.
(For more on the life and death of Herty Lewites, and the prospects of the MRS party in the upcoming election, please read: “The Death of a Good Man” by the same author.)

Arnoldo Alemán and the Splintering of the Right
Like the FSLN, the conservative PLC party has seen a recent fallout as a result of Arnoldo Alemán’s iron-fist hold on the reins of the party, combined with the widespread disillusionment surrounding Alemán due to a series of corruption scandals leading up to the 1999 pact with Ortega.

In 2002, Alemán was sentenced to 20 years in prison for a myriad of crimes he committed during his presidency (1996-2001) – derelictions which then drove his all-consuming quest for impunity and which led him to the 1999 pact with Ortega. These offenses included embezzling millions of dollars from the Nicaraguan state, nepotism, money laundering, and using illicit funds to influence the 2001 presidential campaign of Enrique Bolaños. Ironically, Alemán’s trial and conviction were helped along by his protégé and successor, then-president Bolaños, who pursued an anti-corruption campaign after splitting from the PLC early in his presidency. The National Assembly, encouraged by Bolaños, voted to withdraw Alemán’s parliamentary immunity, thus forcing him to stand trial. The ex-President is now serving time under house arrest due to a medical condition. However, such disgrace did not dislodge him from a position of plenary power within the PLC, despite the fact that the taint of corruption was fast eroding his popular support outside the party.

With the public acknowledgement of Alemán’s crimes and his conviction in 2002, many prominent PLC members concluded that the popular disillusionment surrounding the party leader would stain their political careers as well. Therefore, in the aftermath of Alemán’s presidency, prominent party members defected from the PLC in order to escape the former leader’s disgrace, as well as to pursue their own political careers. Most notable of those who split from the party is the country’s current president, Enrique Bolaños, who broke with PLC leadership during his presidency to form his own party, Alliance for the Republic. Furthermore, Eduardo Montealegre, foreign minister in Alemán’s administration, broke from the party to run for the presidency in the coming election, on a conservative platform: the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance – Conservative Party (ALN-PC).

Additionally, the PLC has not managed to effectively coalesce around the Alemán-designated candidacy of José Rizo and running mate José Alvarado, and the pair has consistently trailed in the polls. Furthermore, Rizo and Alvarado, have begun to challenge Alemán’s penchant for authoritarian leadership. Indeed, as the Nicaraguan Network reported on June 6, “The leader of the Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC), former president and convicted felon, Arnoldo Alemán, admitted that his party is going through a period of crisis as a result of disagreements over the list of National Assembly and Central American Parliament candidates for the upcoming election.” Also, in a June 12 presidential debate held in Miami, Rizo took the opportunity to further distance himself from the former president, alleging that the PLC party is moving toward independence from Alemán’s heavy-handed rule. Earlier indicators, however, point to the contrary. The heavy-handed control of Arnoldo Alemán contributed greatly to the splintering of the party for the 2006 elections, and has thus produced an additional challenge for current PLC candidate José Rizo in trying to best his conservative opponent Eduardo Montealegre.

The Rise of Montealegre
Eduardo Montealegre has built his support base largely with those PLC partisans who had become discontented due to Alemán’s unsavory reputation, which has tainted the party’s legitimacy. Running under the banner of the ALN-PC, Montealegre has been consistently second to Ortega in the polls. Furthermore, Montealegre is Washington’s preferred candidate in the race, which has earned him the specific support of U.S. Ambassador Paul Trivelli.

At a June 15 speech given at George Washington University, Montealegre promoted his platform focused on “growth with equity.” He proposes that the fastest and fairest way toward achieving this goal is to employ the neoliberal economic model outlined by the ‘Washington Consensus,’ but with a focus on broad economic growth through the logistical and financial support of small farmers. To combat the country’s legacy of corruption, in particular from within his former party, Montealegre plans to double the budget for the ministry of education. These increased funds will raise the level of primary education in the country and theoretically spread values of honesty and accountability to the youth. In the short term, Montealegre speculates that he will be able to break the hold that Ortega and Alemán have on government agencies by revising the laws and regulations that resulted from el Pacto and by negotiating the ouster of political actors selected by either Ortega or Alemán solely to service their ends. Lastly, he seeks to use ‘growth that permeates’ within all levels of society which would entail increasing the level of public health and national infrastructure by employing methods of grassroots development to support a growing economy.

If anything, Montealegre is an adroit politician – he certainly has Washington convinced of his usefulness, and he respectfully registers in the polls; he appears to be doing a passably good job of convincing the Nicaraguans of the viability of his platform. However, his neoliberal economic model has been employed by three successive conservative presidents – Violetta Chamorro, Arnoldo Alemán and Enrique Bolaños – with few equalizing effects. Nicaragua remains one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere, with awesomely high wealth disparity rates. Montealegre has struggled to distinguish his campaign promises from the failed ideas of his predecessors – but his pledge of ‘growth that permeates’ is mostly tepid and relatively unsupported. Less ambiguous is the fact that Montealegre is specifically campaigning against an Ortega victory, and it seems that he will go to any lengths to further discredit the former leader. It is also clear that, to some extent, the success of his campaign has been augmented by Washington’s support and the U.S. embassy’s tireless involvement.

The Constant Specter of U.S. Involvement
In keeping with the precedent that the 1980s Contra War set for modern U.S.-Nicaraguan relations, Washington has once again proven to be a force of intervention in Nicaragua’s internal affairs – most recently targeting the 2006 campaign. Spearheaded by Ambassador Trivelli, the U.S. has thrown aside all diplomatic niceties to aggressively support Montealegre, while displaying an unwavering determination to prevent leftist, Daniel Ortega from returning to power. Trivelli has attempted to unify the right against the threat of the former revolutionary’s election, by convening meetings between the divided right-wing factions of the presidential race, acting almost as if he were a paid political spin doctor charged with maintaining the conservative status quo. According to the Nicaraguan Network, in an effort to coerce them to unite against Ortega, Trivelli has offered the leaders and candidates of the right-wing factions U.S. financial and technical support. The PLC has been specifically targeted in these attempts to unify the conservative forces; as their candidate, José Rizo, poses the greatest threat to splitting the conservative vote that would otherwise rally behind Montealegre. However, the PLC’s leadership has made one thing very clear: Rizo’s candidacy will stand regardless of U.S. disapproval.

Trivelli has made no secret of the fact that U.S.-Nicaraguan relations would be strained by an Ortega victory in November. This threat is likely to significantly sway the voters’ opinions in favor of Montealegre, considering their memories of Washington’s hardball role in the aftermath of the Contra War, as well as the country’s economic reliance on close trade relations with the United States. Trivelli’s blatant intervention on behalf of the State Department raises questions about his own professionalism, which could come to haunt him in later phases of his career and which comes very close to violating Vienna Convention provisions that “expressly prohibit diplomats from interfering in internal matters of the country where they are assigned.”
(For more on the U.S.’s involvement in this election, please see “COHA Report on Nicaragua” published on June 22, 2006)

As November 5 Approaches…
Despite unyielding pressure from Ambassador Trivelli, at the present time it appears as though this campaign will come down to a competition between the left, divided between Ortega and Jarquín, and the right, divided between Montealegre and Rizo. Most likely, on November 5, no single candidate will reach the 35 percent threshold necessary to secure victory in the first round, though Ortega will probably come close. Thus, the two top candidates, most recently Ortega and Montealegre, will be forced to face each other in a runoff election. It is here that Montealegre will most likely be successful, as he, unlike Ortega, has demonstrated the ability to reach out beyond his traditional moderate support base to constituents from both the far left and the far right. Indeed, Manuel Orozco from the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue has told the Miami Herald that, “For [MRS voters] to head back to the Sandinista Front would be a betrayal of everything Herty [Lewites] stood for. If anything, they are closer to Montealegre’s position than Ortega’s.” However, the November election remains far from predictable as the most recent polls have shown that over 33 percent of the electorate has yet to make up its mind. In any event, regardless of who is victorious, the ideological splintering within the left and the right has benefited the Nicaraguan people by giving the voting public an alternative to the iron grip of Ortega and Alemán.