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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 228 | Julio 2000



The Road to Elections Is Paved With the Pains of the Pact

The two-party system forced by the pact together with an evident economic recession are helping Ortega look like a real alternative. The FSLN’s return to power is a possibility we must begin to consider.

Nitlápan-Envío team

Day emerges out of the shadows of the night. In these long nights before November’s municipal elections, the rigid new Electoral Law is demonstrating its exclusionary capabilities and the state institutions are putting themselves at the service of the ambitions, even the whims, of the two pacting parties’ political bosses. From these shadows, we can also glimpse some of the possible features of next years’ general elections.

When the electoral machinery of both the state’s Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) and the parties fighting to participate ground into action, the pains of the pact’s results began to be felt more clearly, at times grotesquely. As expected, Nicaragua is being forced into a two-party system. Less expected but already emerging as a distinct possibility is that the FSLN, dominated by the Daniel Ortega clique, could return to power.

An irrational bipartisan system

President Alemán was at one point determined to postpone the municipal elections and hold them together with the presidential ones; later he became smitten with the idea of calling constituent elections. The influence of a sector of the international community that is propping up Nicaragua’s distorted economy with loans and donations, however, was decisive in getting him to accept the electoral calendar set out in the Constitution and the Electoral Law.

Now international cooperation is turning its attention to ensuring that the two electoral processes are fair and open. The release of bilateral aid from various European countries and even Nicaragua’s entry into the debt-reducing initiative called HIPC (for highly indebted poor countries) will depend on it. This particular objective of international cooperation, however, is at loggerheads with those of the Alemán-Ortega pact, which are already being demonstrated in the way the CSE magistrates are administering the Electoral Law. Both the CSE and the law’s reforms are products of the pact.

International consultant and electoral expert Horacio Boneo recently did an analysis for external cooperation of both the recent changes to the 1984 Electoral Law, and an earlier set of reforms to it passed in 1995. Boneo concluded that the new reforms clearly intend to "limit any competition that could affect the hegemony shared by the two pacting parties." In other words, they are aimed at moving from a system that weakens democracy through the splitting of parties to one that weakens it through the irrational exclusion of competitors in order to force a two-party system. Nicaragua has made the transition from irrational political pluralism to an irrational two-party system.

The national crisis requires rationality. Rationality presumes an ability to sacrifice and a less shortsighted viewpoint, two political virtues in short supply in the current national arena.

An exclusionary process

On June 12, President Alemán theatrically convoked the much-promised National Dialogue with logistical support from the United Nations Development Program and the Organization of American States. One of the first themes that sectors opposed to the pact put on the international facilitators’ agenda was the possibility of making new changes to the Electoral Law. It was becoming quite evident that to participate in the municipal elections, small and/or new parties and alliances faced "onerous requisites that are almost impossible to meet," in the words of Boneo’s report.

Both Alemán and Ortega respond-ed, each in his own particular abusive style, that institutionality and respect for the rule of law prevented touching the new rules of the electoral game. Other spokespeople for Alemán’s PLC and Ortega’s FSLN stressed that a new reform to the law would automatically mean postponing the elections. It is a vicious circle: if elections are held, they will be exclusionary and if there is to be no exclusion, there can be no elections. In the electoral field, almost all efforts are coming up against this dead end previously constructed by the pact.

Among the law’s "onerous" requisites is that each party or alliance must collect a number of signatures equivalent to 3% of the electoral rolls, or 3% per party in the case of alliances, to back up its inscription and that of its candidates. This condition set the parties an almost Herculean task, and one plagued with obstacles. For example, 30% of Nicaragua’s voters do not know how to read and write, and thus "sign" with a fingerprint. In addition, the signer’s voter registration card number must accompany the signature, but a similar percentage of voters still do not have their cards. Although these two problems notably reduce the pool of potential signers, the CSE never even referred to them when reiterating its ironclad determination to impose the absurdly high percentage.

Many state workers felt pressured to sign in support of the PLC so as not to endanger their jobs, and the CSE failed to make clear whether one could back the registration of more than one party, and if not, why not. In the end, many people were afraid to sign something they did not understand and many even believed that they were breaking the secrecy of the vote by signing. The CSE created no educational campaign to clear up any of this confusion for people.

In this pre-electoral period, sowing such confusion clearly benefits the two parties to the pact, because after the deluge comes the calm, the "certainties." As Daniel Ortega put it, only "chiefs with a tribe" can get on the ballot. Or, as Arnoldo Alemán prefers, "There are only two options—good and evil, light and darkness, the PLC and the FSLN."
After a huge delay, the CSE’s signature verification process, which is not even mentioned in the Electoral Law, finally got underway. The CSE is using debatable criteria for selecting samples and has hired people with limited preparation to begin work at sundown and end at dawn. This seriously affected the political parties.

To make it all even more onerous, the Supreme Electoral Council established a verification procedure that eliminated tens of thousands of signatures—including many submitted by the PLC—for not fulfilling the requisites. Anti-Alemán Liberals from the Liberal Salvation Movement (MSL) and the Nationalist Liberal Party (PLN) were the most combative in denouncing the verification process for using "wearing-down tactics and obscuring techniques." Nine parties joined forces in an Anti-Fraud Movement on June 30 to demand that the process be eliminated and the deadlines for submitting signatures to the CSE extended. They threatened international denunciations, street protests, massive takeovers of the embassies of donor countries followed by requests for political asylum, and even civil war.

No need for "classic" fraud

Some opponents of the pact have charged that the new Supreme Electoral Council magistrates are preparing a fraud to split the municipal governments between the two major parties, just as the CSE and other institutions of the state were divvied up in the past few months. But fraud in the vote count on election day is no longer necessary, given the prior process of prohibiting candidates and eliminating parties. This "classic" method of fraud is becoming increasingly obsolete, out of phase with the times. What happened in Peru is proof: in these modern times governments have safer, more "legal" ways to guarantee a pre-fraud, which do not expose them to the inquisitive eyes of all those international observers who migrate in and out of countries of the South to monitor the openness of their electoral processes.

Shortly before the five new CSE magistrates and three alternates were elected by the National Assembly on July 3—and does anyone think that such a drastic change so soon before an election will not affect its transparency?—President Alemán himself usurped the CSE’s functions by declaring in numerous interviews and meetings that only three options will appear on the ballot: the PLC, the FSLN and the eminently buyable Camino Cristiano (Christian Way). "That’s better than the United States, where there are only two parties," commented President Alemán, extolling Nicaragua’s democracy.

Contaminating local spaces

For the first time in Nicaraguan history, the municipal elections will be held independent of the general ones. This political novelty, which will allow local concerns to bask briefly in their own limelight, seemed a few months ago to be a good opportunity to buttress local power, direct links between citizens and their potential representatives and the emergence of concrete programs, proposals and projects. It is not turning out that way, and not only because an exclusionary law and a politicized CSE have reduced the choices appearing on the ballot. The fact is that the FSLN and the PLC do not want the municipal elections to acquire any content; better that they mirror the vapid presidential elections.

In fact, the national elections had already contaminated the municipal campaign even before it got started because both Daniel Ortega and Arnoldo Alemán are openly campaigning in the municipalities under the justification of providing their "blessing" to the candidates of their respective parties. The campaign is also contaminated because these candidates will probably have little autonomy or independence with which to promote local interests; those of the PLC were hand picked by Alemán and his circle, and many of the FSLN ones were the fruit of manipulation during the party’s internal consultation.

In their tours, Alemán and Ortega are abusing people’s needs and desperation. President Alemán is not only inaugurating municipal government projects done with international NGO support as if they were his own government’s "works of progress," but is also encouraging financial irresponsibility. In Estelí and San Ramón (Condega), for example, he promised peasants that if they voted for PLC candidates he would pardon the debts they had promised to pay, in tiny sums and over a long period, to Austrian and German NGOs that financed houses for them after Hurricane Mitch. With one such populist gesture, he is wiping out a decade of work to reinstill the notion, which he himself insisted on in the 1996 elections, that credit is not a gift.

The FSLN’s contribution to the abuse is to construct a messianic halo over Daniel Ortega’s head. For example, the FSLN electoral propaganda apparatus reports that it began to rain right when Ortega arrived at the impoverished northern community of San Lucas, ending a long spell of drought. Peasants were put before the cameras and induced to comment that the rain is a sign from heaven that only Daniel can change things if he becomes President.

Both men seem to want a rerun in 2001 of the polarization scenario that characterized the 1996 elections, when fear of the return of Somocismo, which Alemán embodied, gave votes to Daniel Ortega and fear of the return of Sandinismo gave Alemán and his Liberals the victory. This fear factor effectively squeezed out the majority of smaller parties. The municipal elections serve as a test run of this fear, and since fear is irrational, it can exercise enormous control over individuals and societies. Irrational fear fits perfectly with an electoral Law that fosters an irrational bipartisan system.

FSLN closing ranks

When it comes to voting, the Nicaraguan population’s expectations are well short of ambitious. Almost all of their hopes have to do with improving their critical, inhuman economic situations. Democratic "luxuries"—installing new institutions, strengthening those affected by the pact, constructing spaces for political participation from which the population could try to control the corruption, or even being taken into account at the moment of governmental or party decision-making—have little place in their thinking.

In this context of limited expectations, in which socioeconomic factors predominate, it must be understood that the strong anti-pact sentiment spreading through the Sandinista ranks over the past months will probably not translate into a vote against the FSLN. A great many Sandinistas who are critical of the pact and of Daniel Ortega’s leadership will nonetheless close ranks around the FSLN and its caudillo leader. They will do it because of the acute economic shortages and/or "family" tradition, almost religious fidelity, the weight of history and the party’s myths and historic deeds and, above all, the determination not to "throw away" their vote on an alternative candidate who they may prefer but are convinced has no chance of winning.

Dissidence on the left? Dissidence on the right

Spokespeople of what calls itself the Sandinista Left within the FSLN have contributed significantly to the sparking of these attitudes. They did it by passionately defending some reforms to the Electoral Law before the pact was consummated, even knowing them to be exclusionary. They also did it by defending with such conviction the FSLN’s "right" to have "its" representatives in the CSE and other state institutions, because to this day they argue that Alemán "stole" the elections from the FSLN in 1996.

Through these and other loudly argued positions the Sandinista Left has been playing Daniel Ortega’s "unitary" strategy game for months, while equally loudly opposing the pact. And its members are still doing it today, despite everything they have seen of this game and the pact itself. They are actively supporting all FSLN municipal candidates, confusedly justifying themselves in the name of accumulating forces opposed to the Ortega wing, even though not all those they are backing share their opposition and the possibilities of renovating the FSLN "from within" are minimal in any case.

They are also encouraging grass-roots Sandinistas to believe in the dream that the FSLN’s return to power would bring with it fundamental changes. The "leftist" opposition is thus spinning its wheels in obvious and tiresome denunciations rather than demonstrating any creative new way of understanding what is happening and acting on it. Or does it perhaps think that when these "better times" return, they will be in a position to take over from those who today control the upper echelons of the party? Intentionally or not, the Left has helped Ortega control the internal anti-pact dissidence in his own caudillo manner.

On the other side of the street, Alemán’s brand of caudillismo is having a tougher time dealing with the first important dissident current within the PLC, which is headed by PLC founder José Antonio Alvarado, at different moments minister of government, of education and of defense in Arnoldo Alemán’s government. Alvarado is playing his cards intelligently, because the pot he is going after is President, not caudillo. On July 6, he announced the creation of the Liberal Movement for Change within the PLC. According to him, this effort is focused on fighting corruption, democratizing the Liberal Party and separating it from the state. Alvarado says the movement has organized networks, made up mainly of young people and women, all over the country, and that it will not matter to him if this activity gets him expelled from the PLC.

The economy is not favoring the incumbent

So far at least, the big winner of the pact is the Ortega wing of the FSLN. Even the economic context is favoring it, albeit only by being so unfavorable for the governing party. The economic situation this year is getting tougher for the government and the forecast for next year is even grimmer.

The PLC’s ability to promote political patronage during the electoral campaign is limited by the conflict between the government and international cooperation. That conflict in turn, is motivated not only by the pact with the FSLN, but also by a rash of corruption scandals and of crassly provocative remarks made by the President himself.

The external aid flow has shrunk in real terms and the funds agreed to in last year’s meeting with the donor Consultative Group in Stockholm, though ratified in this year’s meeting in Washington, are being dispensed at a snail’s pace. Meanwhile, the government is bound by the same "onerous" commitments it took on when it signed the Enhanced Structural Adjustment Facility (ESAF) three years ago, although this has now undergone a name change due to the G-7 countries’ new focus. It is now called the Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility (PRGF).

Within this revised loan facility, the government must meet some 45 conditions ranging from macroeconomic and structural reforms to those of a political nature. Among the packet of structural reforms are the establishment of new Property Tribunals, the resolution of 1,400 pending cases of property conflicts with the indemnifications that implies, the costly social security reform with the introduction of a new pension system administered by private companies and the partial privatization of the telecommunications and electrical energy institutes with a monthly upward adjustment of water and electricity rates. This set of conditions obliges the Liberal government, already at its lowest popularity rating yet, to adopt highly unpopular measures with no additional resources to cushion the blow to the poor.

A "mini-recession" is complicating things

These first months of the new rainy season have brought very little rain. While the first harvest cycle has been lost in a large part of the country, the drought is only one more negative factor to add to those that have been weighing on the Nicaraguan economy for months. Some call the crisis "deceleration" while others refer to it as a "mini-recession"; government spokespeople prefer not to give it a name because they say there is nothing abnormal to worry about.

But the government is indeed worried and is being forced to act. The slow disbursement of foreign aid, which will not speed up again until after the elections, is having a negative impact on the entire economy. It has forced the Central Bank to pull in hard currency through the national financial market so it can make its foreign debt service payments and still maintain an acceptable level of international reserves. To do this the Central Bank had to issue bonds and "suggest" that the private banks purchase them. The alternative would be to increase the legal reserve limits that the banks are obliged to maintain in the Central Bank. This bond purchase has severely restricted the credit that the private banks can offer to businesses and individuals and has triggered a substantial rise in interest rates.

This lack of liquidity is in turn seriously affecting the commercial sector and the construction industry, which was experiencing an encouraging boom with new stores and hotels going up in the major cities followed by the strong demand for building materials generated by Hurricane Mitch. Now unemployment is on the rise again in Managua and other cities. The government’s "recognition" of the crisis is silently expressed in its lowering of its economic growth projections from 7% to 5%.

The rural crisis: A grainless granary

The drop in the international prices for Nicaragua’s main export products must be added to this negative panorama. It has led to the bankruptcy of various large agroindustrial businesses and a general lack of liquidity among small and medium-sized agricultural producers and businesspeople. Dramatic effects in employment and income levels are being felt already in various points of the country, particularly in the northwest areas of León and Chinandega.

Throughout its three and a half years of administration, the Liberal government has demonstrated a lack of initiative and ideas regarding the rural crisis. It has been unable to create an efficient public agricultural sector determined to promote development of the rural areas. It has been unable to promote rural development or create an alternative institutionality to fill the credit and services vacuum left by the closure of the National Development Bank (BANADES). Perhaps this was what Jaime Morales Carazo, the President’s godfather and architect of the pact with the FSLN, had in mind when he admitted that Alemán’s government was long on "technocratism" and short on "developmentalism."
President Alemán, who campaigned for the presidency on the promise of making Nicaragua into Central America’s "granary," has changed his minister of agriculture twice in the past nine months and has used the new Institute of Rural Development mainly to increase his political clientele. On the other side of the equation, international support has allowed the government to make significant and very visible investments in rural schools, health centers and roads. This could preserve for the PLC the loyalty of rural voters in extensive areas deep inside the country, where the bitter memory of the war is still very strong and feeds the fear that the return of the FSLN would represent the "hour of the wolf." It would also gain the PLC the vote of those who would otherwise opt for the Nicaraguan Resistance Party, the remnants of the "contra" organization, assuming it does not make the cut in the new Electoral Law’s requisites.

Some long-term ways out

Whoever wins the elections will be facing scant maneuvering room and the challenge of investing in solutions that will only bear fruit over the long haul. Economist Néstor Avendaño frequently reiterates this: "The macroeconomic results of the past years are unsatisfactory: production growth is insufficient, unemployment remains high, poverty is not declining, price stability is not totally guaranteed and dependence on external savings is being accentuated. The insufficiency of the long-term economic growth suggests the need to seek new sources of productive dynamism while strengthening the existing ones. But sustained growth cannot be achieved without an adequate insertion in the international economy, which helps such a small economy as ours gain access to the larger markets."
He adds that "a growth strategy based on exports, like today’s, cannot be achieved just by opening up to trade, emphasizing only the dropping of trade tariffs. If Nicaragua is to benefit from the opening, it needs to strengthen its democratic institutions and improve the health and education of its people. The more short-run challenge is to create and strengthen an institutional framework that defines clear ground rules and prioritizes the eradication of corruption and strengthening of the judicial system. The most arduous task—improving the quality of our human resources through education and formation—will take a long time and require sustained investment, which in turn requires an in-depth discussion of the composition of public spending and the tax structure. It is a challenge that must be taken up immediately, because its results will not come quickly."
The current levels of social decomposition and everyday violence indicate that gender equity is a priority within the formation required by our "human resources." Swedish Ambassador Jan Bjerninger lucidly referred to this when he left Nicaragua at the end of his posting here: "I see a very big problem in this country, which unfortunately also exists in other countries: the men get to make the decisions and the women get the responsibilities. I think that in the future there must be a better balance, because there are already spaces for greater female participation in the government, in business and within the family itself."

Are we going to the polls… or to war?

In this "favorable" context—Alemán’s erosion, an economic recession, the exclusion of alternative options, the closing of party ranks—the FSLN leadership has set in motion what it calls the Sandinista Electoral Army. It is headed by an Electoral Affairs Commission made up of two components: Defense of the Vote, presided over by Lenin Cerna, who was state security chief in the eighties, and Conquest of the Vote, coordinated by retired Army General Alvaro Baltodano. Both have regrouped veteran political-military cadres and former members of the army and of state security under their respective command.

Alongside this "militarization" of the political work, the FSLN leadership has launched an offensive to attract, by diverse methods and with different bait, disappointed or dissident Sandinista members or sympathizers who have been distancing themselves over the years. After publicly disqualifying, condemning and ridiculing prominent Sandinistas who have distanced themselves from the FSLN—Dora María Téllez, Joaquín Cuadra, William Ramírez, among many others—Ortega has begun to call on them to return to the tribe. He is making his call in a "gesture of generosity" because "after the elections they will have no political space outside of the FSLN."
Drawn by the magnet of the "useful vote" and worried by the reduction of political and economic space, a number of these former FSLN government officials and technicians from the eighties have indeed begun to return to the fold. The public return of economist Alejandro Martínez Cuenca, with a red and black kerchief around his neck and spouting the discourse of "defense of the poor," is the most eloquent sign of the success of this offensive. "They smell victory, they smell power," commented one observer. Seeking to reinforce an image of triumphal confidence, Daniel Ortega is proclaiming himself a "chief with a tribe and with a plumed headdress granted him by that tribe."
Sowing the conception that one can only engage in political activity from within parties—in this case from only two—is another of the pact’s objectives. The fact is, however, that Nicaragua needs another vision of political activity, because it is not limited by party militancy or by the exercise of government.

The hour of the wolf

Is the wolf coming? Different national sectors have begun to look on an Ortega victory in the general elections as a possibility that must be taken into account, although such a political disaster is still a steep uphill fight. Among other obstacles, virtually the entire international community that is sustaining Nicaragua’s fragile and overly dependent economy rejects the idea.

This suggests that international pressure—especially from the US government, which rejects both Ortega and Alemán—could force the participation of a Conservative alternative (Noel Vidaurre? Pedro Solórzano? Violeta de Chamorro?) or perhaps the Liberal alternative headed by José Antonio Alvarado. There is also a third possible presidential alternative: National Unity, the new party promoted by recently retired army chief, General Joaquín Cuadra. But many questions about his party remain, among them whether it will be able to pull off all the "onerous requisites" and whether it is really an alternative. Cuadra has been very critical of his predecessor as head of the army, retired General Humberto Ortega, but not of his brother Daniel, who Cuadra has called a man of "frank, pure, almost religious dedication, almost an ascetic, with a genuine concern for the poor."
Cuadra announced the formation of this new party on June 22, after leaders of the original National Democratic Movement (MDN) scuttled the attempt he had become involved with to build a center-left electoral alliance using the MDN’s name and existing legal status to avoid some of the requisites. Since it is now too late to meet the requirements for this year’s municipal race, National Unity is shooting for the general elections in November 2001. The undeclared, but obvious intention is for Cuadra to be its presidential candidate. President Alemán, again usurping the job of the CSE, announced that National Unity will be ineligible to participate in the presidential elections because it is not participating in the municipal ones.

What is the solution? There must be a third way

The main mission of the reformed Electoral Law and new CSE is to destroy, disqualify and prohibit any "centrist" alternatives. But the dispersion of the forces remaining in that diffuse center after the pact was consummated and the "irrational bipartisan system" started going into effect cannot be blamed on external causes alone. There are also important internal ones. Opposition to the FSLN and the PLC and/or their pact is not enough to glue together a weak and fragmented opposition or help it forge a genuinely national and long-sighted program to offer the citizenry. These dispersed forces have their own ideological, political and economic differences, while the main quality they share is an identification to a greater or lesser degree with the country’s predominant political culture, marked by myopic, personalist and power-hungry motivations. All this has hindered the formation of a broad "third way" alliance, a genuine and visionary national project that attracts the forces of the non-Alemán right, the non-Ortega left and that huge center that wants nothing to do with either one of them. The national crisis demands that all these forces find common ground.

Nicaraguan society, forever divided between a rich and small minority and a poor and vast majority, polarized throughout its republican history between Conservatives and Liberals, then between Somocistas and anti-Somocistas, and more recently between Sandinistas and anti-Sandinistas, may not yet be ready for this. It may not be able to understand or respond to a "center" alternative built on the foundations of tolerance and respect for differences, in which the the fanaticism of the past is set aside in order to look rationally toward the future.

When the devastating virus affecting Nicaragua’s political class destroyed the MDN as a third-way option at the end of May, Dora María Téllez announced that she would take up the challenge of running for mayor of Managua under the banner of her own Sandinista Renovation Movement, a decision backed by non-Sandinista political and business leaders. In a long radio interview, she made the following comment: "We can’t go on living off the past. In the MDN, and now in this new effort, we have tried to demonstrate that it is possible for people who were on different sides of the street in the past to sit down together in an attempt to seek solutions for the future. I believe that the country needs joint solutions. The overthrow of the Somocista dictatorship is the best example of national unity that we have in our history, when we all came together to solve a problem. Today, Nicaragua’s problem is that we are getting poorer and poorer while the political apparatus is increasingly busy granting itself luxuries with our tax money and losing itself in corruption, forgetting the poor. I believe that the solution to this crisis has to involve putting aside polarization in the search for answers to the poverty, corruption and lack of democracy affecting the country. In this way, we can come together in the struggle for equity, transparency and participatory democracy."

Are we prepared?

Although the long term in Nicaragua is not so very long, given that we are lagging behind in so many things, and although Nicaraguan society may not yet be mature enough to fully internalize that vision, it is urgent to keep on projecting it. In this way, we can build up alternatives that could start to take on force, perhaps even move toward the elections and try to ignore the accompanying frustrations, and then keep right on going, very slowly but surely transforming the pains of the pact into the pains of a rebirth.

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