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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 236 | Marzo 2001



If the Elections Were Held Today…

Three weeks before former President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro declined the Conservative Party’s invitation to run for reelection due to its failure to open up its slot on the ballot to a broad alliance opposed to the PLC-FSLN pact, a new IDESO-UCA poll gave her the electoral victory in the first round.

Marcos Membreño Idiáquez

Enrique Bolaños and Daniel Ortega, two polarizing figures from a past that needs to be put behind us, threaten to monopolize the upcoming presidential elections. February saw a calculated but anxious search for a depolarizing option that could reduce the high abstention level that characterized last year’s municipal elections by offering an attractive alternative to the two-party system imposed by the PLC-FSLN pact.

On February 17-18, the Central American University’s Institute of Opinion Polls and Surveys (IDESO) polled 600 people of voting age in Nicaragua’s capital. It was a complicated and pivotal moment. The Conservative Party had conditioned its participation in an alliance with the governing Constitutionalist Liberal Party on immediate reforms to the exclusionary Electoral Law. The alternative possibility was that former President Chamorro would run on the Conservative Party ticket as the candidate of a wide-ranging alliance opposed to the PLC-FSLN pact.

The poll sought to reveal what Managuans thought about the proposed reforms to the Electoral Law and about the candidates being discussed. In summary, we learned that the majority want the Electoral Law reformed and want a candidate who will free them from the two-party straightjacket. They want an honest and capable candidate willing to serve the nation, someone worth voting for, someone who, it now seems, will not be available on the limited electoral menu that grew out of the pact.

The survey has a 4% margin of error and 95% reliability for estimating the principal parameters. Although its results cannot be mechanically extrapolated to the whole country, this does not reduce their significance. Managua’s population represents 25-29% of the national electorate and 42% of the country’s entire urban population.

Rejection of a forced system:
A constant with nuances

Even before the November 2000 municipal elections, Nicaragua’s electorate was showing clear signs of seeking other electoral options than the PLC and the FSLN, a tendency consistently revealed in opinion samplings done by different polling firms or institutions. In a national IDESO-UCA poll done two months before those elections, the 46% of the population that leaned toward abstention claimed it was due to the lack of credibility of both the electoral system and what the existing parties were offering.

For those who "do not believe in" pre-election polls, the election results themselves showed that a significant sector of the electorate did not feel represented by either the PLC or the FSLN. According to the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE), the abstention rate last November was 44.2%, a surprising percentage that many interpreted as rejection of the exclusionary two-party system. It also strongly suggests that many citizens felt that the Conservative Party and the Christian Way, the only two political parties able to get on the ballot as alternatives to the PLC and the FSLN, did not deserve their vote. Many Nicaraguans stayed home because they simply believed there was no one to vote for.
In this new February 2001 poll, IDESO-UCA wanted to verify a posteriori how many Managuans abstained from voting in those elections for mayor and municipal councilors. The results are not far from the official figures: 37% of those polled confessed that they had not voted. The figure is even more relevant if one bears in mind that we interviewed a real population, not based on electoral rolls whose innumerable "impurities’ (inclusion of deceased people, emigrants, etc.) inflated the electoral population with non-existent voters.

Our poll also reflected another expression of rejection of the exclusionary system: 59% of those polled expressed opposition to the Conservative Party allying with the PLC on this year’s presidential ballot. These Managuans believe that rather than serving as an alternative to a two-party system, this alliance would only consolidate it, simply converting the presidential elections into an expanded version of the current system. The only two real contenders would still be the FSLN and the PLC, with the Conservative Party riding on the latter’s coattails.

Rejection of the
exclusionary Electoral Law

After the municipal elections, a consultation done by the civic group called Ethics and Transparency among over 90,000 citizens from all over the country revealed another expression of voters’ rejection of this system and their search for an alternative to the PLC and the FSLN. On that occasion, 62.8% of those polled favored a reform to the Electoral Law in time for this year’s presidential elections. Asked about the Popular Petition Associations, which were eliminated by the current law, 67.3% responded that this method for permitting independent political candidates to run in municipal elections should be reestablished.

Following its consultation, Ethics and Transparency drafted reforms to the Electoral Law. Meanwhile, the Conservative Party drew up its own reform proposal, to present to the PLC as its ultimatum for participating in the alliance.

The IDESO poll sounded out Managua public opinion about the most important reforms in the two proposals, revealing that 59% agreed with reforming the Electoral Law before this November’s presidential elections. The responses expressed a desire for more space, more flexibility and less exclusion.

Another expression of the citizenry’s rejection of the by-products of the two-party imposition and the pact as a whole is the 66.8% of Managuans who oppose the granting of a lifetime legislative seat to Arnoldo Alemán, which he will occupy upon concluding his presidential term. This inconceivable privilege, which automatically includes parliamentary immunity, was a gift from the FSLN through the pact and explains many of the reciprocal concessions that Alemán offered the FSLN in this same package of agreements.

As the two authors of the new Electoral Law, both the PLC and the FSLN have ignored the citizenry’s opinions. Although the majority agrees with reforming the law, the leaders of both parties have rejected any reform out of hand, alleging that they "favor polarization," that it "would be better to make them in 2003," that they require "in-depth study" and any number of other excuses.

Backing for Violeta
Chamorro’s candidacy

It is symptomatic that eight months before the elections, as in the months before the municipal elections, the poll detected a considerable mass of undecided voters seeking—or just waiting for—the appearance of alternative party options. In the IDESO poll, 24.3% said they did not sympathize with any party and 41.5% that they did not identify with any ideological-political tendency: right, left or center.

The poll reflects a considerable "unmet electoral demand," many people without a specific sympathy. Even among those who have one, a relative—and curious—sensibility about voting for candidates rather than concrete parties was uncovered. The greatest sign of this tendency was the popularity that we detected for former President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro. Just for having been announced as a possible candidate, she was seen as an anti-pact option.

On January 10, 2001, while presenting a new edition of a book written by her husband Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Cardenal to an event commemorating the 23rd anniversary of his assassination, Violeta Chamorro energetically spoke out against the pact. She referred to Alemán and Ortega, its architects, as "two caudillos of doubtful commitment to the cause of democracy." Many attending that event—politicians, diplomats, military officers and representatives of civil society—interpreted that speech as presaging her presidential candidacy at the head of a national alliance that would go up against the pact and corruption.

Would that candidacy have popular support, or is Violeta Chamorro’s drawing power now only as a legend? During the nineties, especially after Arnoldo Alemán started his term at the beginning of 1997, many polls consistently confirmed that she retains a very positive image among Nicaraguans, that her popularity has not eroded. What no poll before now has measured is how much of that popularity would translate into an intent to vote if she were to run for reelection. The IDESO survey wanted to measure precisely this: not only her popularity as a person, but the backing she might receive if she ran for President 11 years after she first took office.

The poll showed some surprising results. If the elections had been held during the days of the survey, Violeta Chamorro would have won on the first round with 36.2% of the votes, followed by FSLN candidate Daniel Ortega with 24.7%, with PLC candidate Enrique Bolaños lagging in third place with 14.2%. Of the remaining 24.9%, 12.3% said they would vote for none of the three, 7% would vote for other parties, and 5.5% did not answer the question.

If the backing Chamorro would have as a candidate even before agreeing to be one is significant, it is equally so that an important percentage of the intent to vote for her comes from electors identified with the two parties whose leaders she has criticized so strongly. The percentage of Conservative Party sympathizers who would support her is also significant and even more notable is the percentage of people identifying themselves as "partyless" who would vote for her. Among the latter we can include those seeking alternatives to the two-party imposition and those likely to abstain if no alternative is found. It should not go unnoted that the poll was done in Managua, where the FSLN has strong roots and only four months ago FSLN mayoral candidate Herty Lewites was elected by a wide margin.

A search for honest politicians

What makes Violeta Chamorro so attractive? There are many reasons and we did not plumb their depths in our survey, but her perceived honesty is doubtless a key. While Alemán and Ortega—despite considerable differences between them—head the list of personalities viewed most negatively by the population, Chamorro heads the list of the most honest. Our pollsters did not present a list of names to those being interviewed, but rather asked an open question: "Of the political personalities and public officials or former officials in the country, mention the two most corrupt." Following that, "Could you now mention the two most honest?" Curiously, Pedro Solórzano and Enrique Bolaños did not occur to anyone for either category, while Alemán and Ortega made it into both, as the chart on the next page illustrates.

The results clearly show that honesty is still fundamental to attracting the electorate’s sympathies. In this regard, another of the questions included in the IDESO poll was: "Do you consider that people who have been found to have participated in acts of corruption should be allowed to run for legislative posts?" A resounding 97.5% of those polled said no.

Even if the population of the capital is only relatively representative of national public opinion, it is safe to say that the Nicaraguan population is demanding alternatives. This is manifested in the persistence of important segments of the electorate who are on standby, hoping that a leader with charisma, honesty and transparency will appear on the electoral stage. Three weeks after our poll, Violeta Chamorro declined any candidacy, leaving the stage bereft of viable and attractive alternatives. Will further hope be an illusion? Will there be anyone to vote for?

IDESO-UCA researchers Marcos Membreño Idiáquez, David Orozco González and Pedro López Ruiz.

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