Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 185 | Diciembre 1996



A New Period For the Nation

Nitlápan-Envío team

It's not easy to analyze all that has happened in nicaragua as a result of the both anticipated and feared elections of October 20, 1996. They have turned Nicaragua's political scene upside down and caused a national trauma, with consequences as yet unpredictable but surely both positive and negative.

The executive branch was left in the hands of the Liberal Alliance. When the reformed 1987 Constitution goes into effect in January, giving real and important power to the National Assembly for the first time in Nicaragua's history, there will be 42 Liberal Alliance representatives in the legislative branch against 36 for the FSLN, with 15 from 9 other parties. Of the 145 municipal governments, 92 are in Liberal hands and 51 in Sandinista hands, with an important number of Sandinista council members in Liberal won municipalities and vice versa.

The country has been almost totally divided between two forces. The Liberals have more power, but the Sandinistas, despite so many internal conflicts, have more organization. The Nicaraguan Christian Way (Camino Cristiano CCN), a new evangelical party, emerged as the distant third power at just over 4% of the vote, with the fourth runner up, the Nicaraguan Conservative Party, trailing even further behind. Most of the other new and former parties of all ideologies--termed "centrist" during this election--lost their legal status because they didn't win a single Assembly seat.

Unexpected Political Results

The anomalies, irregularities and clearly fraudulent attitudes that plagued the transmission and review of the election results--especially in the departments of Managua, Matagalpa and Jinotega--gave the elections an additional, unexpected political result. They caused deep wounds to the country's emerging electoral democracy and fragile institutionality.

There is still another result worthy of note. The crisis the country lived through during the 33 days between the October 20 elections and the November 22 announcement of the definitive results became a great political school, full of lessons and experiences. These will unquestionably mark the new period that Nicaragua is entering.

A Cycle of Inconsistencies

Through the electoral crisis the word "inconsistency" entered the political vocabulary; it is used legally to denote irregularities in voting documentation.

The 1996 elections were truly riddled with such inconsistencies, and not by chance. During the nearly seven years of the Chamorro administration--referred to in the political argot currently in vogue as "transition years"--the country's institutions, leaders and organizations were moving steadily towards inconsistency. Year after year we watched them all increasingly abandon that consistency which gives responsibility and honesty to work, commitment to reality and truth to words. Corruption spread and the word service lost its meaning. It's not strange, then, that so many inconsistencies, both legal and human, flowered at the moment of the elections, which can thus also be analyzed as a mirror and a culmination of these seven difficult years, the latest cycle in the prolonged national crisis.

What are the quantitative magnitude and the qualitative dimensions of the electoral inconsistencies? It's impossible to get a clear picture of them right now and virtually guaranteed that the picture won't get any clearer later. Hence these elections--unlike the national ones in 1984 and 1990 and the Atlantic Coast ones in 1994--will go down in history as murky and troubled. The series of possibly fraudulent anomalies, irregularities and illegalities were not only worrisome or picturesque anecdotes. They are a transcendental political fact, because they make it impossible to clearly see what the popular will was in various areas of the country.

Although the starting point of our analysis is our conviction that transparency was missing in the elections, the mathematical results--despite their questionable origins--are official and have already determined the new political scene that must be analyzed. We must thus follow two lines of interpretation--in a certain sense complementary ones--to attempt to understand the meaning of those numbers, how the Liberals broke the technical tie in the last polls before the elections, and why the undecideds in those polls finally chose Liberalism.

The first line of interpretation, dealt with in this first part of our three part article, examines the last minute electoral strategy adopted by the country's economic and social powers, which we could call "Everyone against the FSLN." The second, dealt with in parts two and three, analyzes the electoral results, including the cloud of anomalies during the process, where it was "Everything [even 'fraud'?] against the FSLN." All of it was to decide the still unresolved dispute for economic, political and ideological hegemony.

Last Minute Surprises

None of the final polls prior to the voting, either public or private ones, definitively forecast the presidential election results. What they did show was that voters were polarized between Liberals and Sandinistas, between Arnoldo and Daniel; that the percentage of undecideds was dropping; and that the Liberal Alliance had topped out as early as a month before, while the FSLN was climbing steadily upward--which many attributed to an excellent Sandinista publicity campaign. For all that, Alemán remained the favorite in all polls done in the second half of the year. To a majority of the poor--who in turn are the majority--he represented "change": a way to climb out of the poverty of the nineties and not return to the war of the eighties.

The FSLN's rapid and seemingly inexplicable rise was the news that dozens of international journalists who came to cover the elections brought with them. By October the presidential race was predicted to be close. "Very close results are what we fear most," CSE technicians had said. "Only last minute surprises will move what appears to be a fairly even balance towards one or the other pole," predicted the director of a polling firm days before the vote. Only such true surprises could break the "technical tie." Surprises indeed happened in the days before the vote. And they were so surprising that, in the judgment of most, they definitely tipped the balance toward the Liberals.

The Liberal Campaign: Playing Catch Up Ball

Electoral publicity flooded the media during August, September and October. In the 1990 elections this publicity predominated in the print and radio media and was painted on walls. In 1996 it inundated the television channels. "It's a fever never seen before," commented the program director of Channel 2, which ended up broadcasting an average of 50 campaign spots daily--a significant investment for our country.

Analysts of all political stripes had to recognize that the FSLN's presidential campaign, particularly its television spots, was the best conceived and most consistent. It caught the Liberal Alliance and the other parties off guard.

They "had designed their campaigns to attack the FSLN, but with an old mind set," says Adán Morales, a member of the FSLN campaign team; "they attacked an old idea, a scrappy, violent and intolerant FSLN, an FSLN that no longer exists and a Daniel Ortega that they never knew." Frightened by the "new Sandinista mind set," the Liberals invested three times more money than the FSLN in their media campaign and modified their messages again and again trying to hit the target of anti Sandinista sentiment, which is virtually the only cement that bonds Liberalism in the 1990s.

The Liberals played a clean game at first, but it got successively dirtier. By a certain point it seemed they had forgotten which government was the outgoing one after almost seven years. They didn't even mention the Chamorro administration's errors, weaknesses or corruption.

Everybody Against the FSLN

Following their lead, other parties and groups took a leap back to the 1980s in their propaganda, to the difficult war years, the Sandinista government years. Responding to the FSLN's rapid rise in the polls, the Association of the Confiscated and a fabricated "Blue and White Parents' Association"--both of them Liberal Alliance groups--launched continual TV, radio and newspaper spots in the last two weeks of the campaign.

These spots, replete with images of skulls and guns, presented Daniel Ortega as the individual personally responsible for the war. All geared toward disqualifying him, they aggressively insisted, "Don't believe him, he's the same as always!" Or they recalled a Nicaraguan saying that Alemán used in all his speeches: "Even burning their beaks doesn't stop chickens that eat eggs."

When this smear campaign started, the FSLN complained to the Supreme Electoral Council that it violated the electoral ethics agreed to by all the parties. The CSE--which had paid little attention to any other complaint filed by the FSLN--prohibited the messages.

The result? Business and religious sectors and several state institutions--with Education Minister Humberto Belli at their head--charged that the CSE prohibition violated freedom of expression and advised not to respect it. The aggression spread. The number of TV spots against Daniel Ortega grew. More than ten different ones were aired at all hours on all channels, except for Channel 4, which belongs to the FSLN.

The Liberals Close their Campaign...

The Electoral Law dictated a three day campaign silence just before the elections, starting at midnight on Wednesday, October 16. Campaign publicity of any kind had to stop at that time.

Both Sandinistas and Liberals chose that same Wednesday to close their campaigns with major demonstrations in the capital. The Liberal Alliance picked morning in the Cathedral Plaza (formerly Plaza of the Revolution), which has a 40,000 person capacity. The FSLN picked afternoon in the nearby plaza now known as John Paul II (formerly Carlos Fonseca) at the edge of Lake Xolotlán, which is a vast open field providing a far greater capacity but also one much more difficult to calculate.

The announcement just four days before the events that the two organizations would close their campaigns hours apart and in nearby plazas filled Managua with expectation. And there was no lack of irresponsibility. That same day José Castillo Osejo, a Liberal Alliance candidate to the Central American Parliament who later won his seat, demanded on Radio Corporación that the CSE suspend the FSLN demonstration. "There won't be enough space in Managua's cemeteries or hospitals to deal with all the dead and injured resulting from the conflagration planned by the Sandinistas," claimed the normally prudent Castillo Osejo.

Everything, however, took place in total calm. Nature was the only agitating force. The passage of Hurricane Lili, on its way to Cuba, caused a storm over Nicaragua. It started raining in Managua on midnight of October 15 and continued all the next morning, drenching the entire Liberal Alliance demonstration. Despite the steady rain, some 30,000 people attended, shielding themselves with their red plastic flags.

Arnoldo Alemán read his speech, which began with rhetoric then moved on to electoral promises, swinging between moderation and aggressiveness throughout. "Nicaragua belongs to everyone," he said, "and exhorts us to a fraternal meeting, to sincere and lasting reconciliation, to take shelter beneath the blue and white mantle, forgetting the painful past rife with hatred, destruction and blood. The only graves we want to open are unemployment, corruption and impunity so as to bury together hatred and vengeance. We want forgiveness with forgetfulness and reconciliation with justice."

But not quite ready to forgive and forget, he went after his adversaries, the Sandinistas, with hatred and vengeance: "There aren't enough clothes, songs or propaganda to hide their mistakes. It doesn't matter if they change their hymn or offer the olive branch of peace, honor or respect for private property and freedom, hiding the AK 47 that imposes guerrilla warfare and the stick that breaks the piñata. They are the same ones!"

Only phrases such as these got applause, as the master of ceremony punctuated the speech with slogans, including this one used throughout the Liberal campaign: "When will the Sandinistas return to power?" to which participants respond, "Never!" Among the multitude of banners, the ones that stood out the most were the half dozen for Somoza's Nationalist Liberal Party (PLN), which has recovered its legal status, rescinded in 1979, and is a member of the Liberal Alliance.

...And the Sandinistas Close Theirs

Noon passed. As the Liberals were leaving Cathedral Plaza with their red flags, Sandinistas began entering the Pope John Paul II Plaza with their red and black ones. It had stopped raining. By the time the FSLN event formally began at 6 pm the sky was totally clear, and some 300,000 people were in the area waiting to hear Daniel Ortega's speech. It was the only one given and reflected and summarized the tone of the entire campaign. Some excerpts:

"These are new times. The world has changed and circumstances have changed... I say to the Nicaraguan people that the errors--because we unarguably committed errors in the past--I say those errors will not be repeated.... And I say to you in all frankness: What can I offer? Experience. Experience because I was in the government, but also because I know need, because I knew shortages with my family when we were children. I also know the reality of war because I went through the war against the Somocista dictatorship.

I know jail and torture, because I spent seven years in jail and was tortured innumerable times. I know what it is to forgive. I would say that what I have most learned during these years is that we must know how to forgive....

"Nicaraguan brothers and sisters, what can I say to you, except to ask that we join together? We're not going to establish a government of one party, because that no longer fits in with our country. We're going to establish a government of all Nicaraguans, because that is the only system that fits in this country."

Some participants could be seen sporting caps, shirts and other propaganda from 1990, carefully guarded for almost seven years. These participants had returned, stubbornly, at the same hour and to the same plaza as that year, to support the same candidate.

The demonstration had a climate of victory, of order and joy, expressed through the rap rhythm of "Vote box 12 in the very center" and two other campaign songs, danced by all. There was not a single anti Liberal or anti Somocista slogan.

Not without a certain triumphalism, the FSLN paid all five national television channels to transmit the demonstration live across the nation as part of its campaign strategy. The whole country thus saw that extraordinary demonstration of Sandinista strength, and the surprise of it made Liberals and the country's entire right wing tremble. If that was how they closed their campaign, what would they do when the polls opened?
Many believe that the spectacle of that full and vibrant plaza began to tip the balance of the elections toward the FSLN.

A Cathedral Mass Tips It Back

For some days, Nicaragua's Catholic Bishops' Conference and pastors from various Protestant denominations had been asking Christians to pray to God for the electoral process to end in peace. There were various initiatives in response: vigils, eucharists, services.

One of these celebrations would be forever marked in the history of this electoral process. At 6 pm on Thursday, October 17, the day after the period of "electoral silence" had begun, the Archbishop of Managua, Cardinal Miguel Obando, concelebrated a mass in Managua's new Cathedral to ask God's blessing on the now imminent elections. It was transmitted live by Channel 2, the most watched national channel.

Cardinal Obando wore a red chasuble during the mass. Though he should have worn green according to the liturgical calendar of "ordinary time," he chose to celebrate a martyr--Saint Ignatius of Antioquia, unknown to Nicaragua's pious--so as to use red vestments. In the liturgy of the Gospel, the reading of the Epistle of Saint Paul to the Ephesians (1:1 10) fell to Arnoldo Alemán. "God elected us in Christ to be in his presence, blessed and without a stain before Him.... God has shown his love giving us all wisdom and understanding...," read the presidential candidate, whose identifying motto has been "vote for the red flag without a stain." The responsory Psalm 97 was read by Roberto Cedeño, the Liberals' candidate for mayor of Managua.

The Cardinal opened his homily by narrating in detail a dream of San Juan Bosco: the boat of the Church is attacked by a powerful squadron of warships that end up killing the Pope. Following that he commented on the electoral situation, reading fragments from the Bishops' letter about the elections. He closed his homily by exhorting voters to be prudent at the moment of choosing the "best man" for the presidency, illustrating this exhortation with a fable:

"Two men were walking in the fields and saw a viper on their path. The viper appeared to be dying of cold. One of the men said, 'This viper is dying because of the cold. I think if we warm it up a little it won't die.' The other said, 'Be careful, I that this viper already killed someone, because he came out of that hole and killed a certain person.' But the first man said, 'Circumstances have changed, this viper won't do anything to me; I'm going to warm it up.' He stooped down and held it against his chest to give it warmth. And when he had warmed it up, the viper bit him and he died."
Throughout the campaign Alemán had compared the FSLN to the dangerous coral snake--which is red and black--saying that "its head should be cut off."

When the mass ended, the Cardinal led the procession with the Holy Sacrament to the Cathedral's interior. Arnoldo Alemán, his eldest son and Roberto Cedeño carried the pallium covering the Sacrament.

Three days later--election day--the front pages of both La Prensa and La Tribuna carried a color photograph of Cardinal Obando blessing Arnoldo Alemán, who was in a devout stance. This Sunday edition was sold to the voters waiting in long lines in front of the polling centers.

Like an Earthquake

For at least the past three years of the Chamorro administration, Nicaragua has endured a succession of erosive, virtually unresolvable political and institutional crises. Given the growing leadership gap in the country, Cardinal Obando had been building himself into the arbiter sought and respected by all, the only authority able to generate consensus and mediate state conflicts with careful diplomacy and impartiality. He had also played this role in previous years, though with less constancy.

In this sense, the 1996 elections can be compared to an earthquake, dislocating many, opening great chasms, bringing many things that appeared solid crashing to the ground. One of those things is this leadership.

On top of the surprise of the overflowing plaza came the surprise of the viper in the Cathedral. Many believe that the mass celebrated that day decisively tipped the election balance in favor of the Liberals.

The Traditional Right in a Quandary

During the months prior to the elections, the most powerful economic and social sectors of Nicaragua's non Somocista right tacitly expressed their fear of an Alemán victory in various ways. They were worried about the instability that his well known visceral anti Sandinista position could provoke and how that instability would affect their interests. This concern also seemed to be shared by the US Embassy in Managua, since the only thing that appears to concern Washington about our country now is stability, no matter who can guarantee it.

The non Somocista right--which made money during the Sandinista government and continued doing so during the Chamorro government--preferred the continuity of the Chamorro Lacayo economic and political formulas and feared the brusque rupture of this scheme that Alemán was proposing. With this perspective, they played several cards over the course of 1996, They supported Antonio Lacayo's National Project, sponsored a "Patriotic Commitment" to promote poet Pablo Antonio Cuadra's presidential candidacy, rigged Noel Vidaurre's leadership--and thus candidacy--of the Conservative Party, and encouraged the forging of the "center" into one political bloc. They also promoted Pedro Solórzano's candidacy for mayor of Managua.

Almost none of these efforts ever got off the ground, and as voting time neared it became increasingly evident to them that no candidate representing the non Somocista right had any chance of winning the race. The FSLN's steady rise in the polls, as diverse social sectors increasingly opted for it, showed that this was the only anti Alemán force with any possibility of success. Faced with this dilemma, the non Somocista right opted for Alemán, even knowing that he represents the destabilizing interests of both the Somocista exiles and the most extreme and violent sector of Cuban exiles in Miami. In so doing, it defied some analyses--including on these pages--that in the end its rational fear of him would outweigh its emotional fear of the Sandinista past.

The Business Right Unites Against the FSLN

Carlos Pellas, a low profile businessman whose family capital is the symbol of economic power in Nicaragua, is not accustomed to making public statements, but two weeks before election day he found an informal occasion to make one. If the FSLN wins, he warned, investments and the country's entire economy could become "paralyzed" for two years, waiting for positive signs from the FSLN in its second chance at government.

A week later, the six Chambers of the Supreme Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP) nakedly and shamelessly joined the last minute panic against the FSLN. In a declaration released on October 14, their leaders said: "COSEP considers that the FSLN is incapable of generating the necessary confidence for the private sector and national and foreign investment, which makes it a totally unacceptable alternative as a future government given its historic antecedents that hurt Nicaraguans so much: expropriation, confiscations and control of the means of production, controlled economy and ration cards, obligatory military service, persecution and assassination of business leaders and workers, a manifest inability to administer the government, alliances with revolutionary and terrorist parties, nations and movements that brought the country into conflictive and confrontational policies with friendly nations and organizations, media censorship and closures, etc. COSEP thus calls on all Nicaraguans to show, as in the 1990 elections, a people united to prevent the return of the FSLN and to strengthen the candidate that serious polling firms have given the possibility of triumph." That unnamed candidate could only be Alemán.

These public declarations and pressures were accompanied by other, more private, pressures and blackmail. Various of these businessmen brought their workers together just before the elections to warn that "if the FSLN wins, we'll have to close the business and you'll be out of work."

On October 20, election day itself, the beepers of all Nicaraguans who enjoy this technology showed a message that someone had paid to send to them: "Be a Patriot; kill the viper."

All of this was tipping the scale heavily back in the other direction. Those who had spent months warning of the dangers of electoral polarization, polarized the population to the extreme with these last minute maneuvers.

A Fallen Tree? Or Perhaps a Bonsai?

The FSLN's internal crisis and the dual discourse and dual morality of a sector of its leaders from top to bottom weakened and dispersed the party's social base during the Chamorro government years. The list of FSLN "inconsistencies" is so long and well known that a moment came in which the national right, both Somocista and non Somocista, considered it a fallen tree and began to make firewood of it.

An indubitable explosion of Sandinista revitalization in 1994 provided an important counter to that diagnosis. In August of that year, the FSLN called on its members throughout the country to register as militants, simplifying the conditions and requisites to take this step. Well over 200,000 Nicaraguans registered, many of them young adults, despite the internal FSLN crisis expressed that May with the internal division that later led to the creation of the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS).

Though this fact did not go unnoticed in Nicaragua, it occurred in the context of such an acute national political crisis that it was barely acknowledged by non or anti Sandinistas. Not even those who had registered valued it sufficiently, since the FSLN's own crisis took up all the energy of most Sandinistas. But valued or not, that massive inscription of militants demonstrated that the tree had not yet fallen, that the FSLN is still the best organized party in Nicaragua and the one with the most registered members (the PLC, nucleus of the Liberal Alliance, claims 50,000).

The FSLN continued to offer public evidence of incoherence and ambiguities in 1996, the electoral year. Many Sandinistas were unclear what its electoral strategy would be, or even if it had one. The internal consultation that the FSLN organized in February to select its candidates for the elections suffered serious tensions and a notable lack of transparency, which aggravated some of the internal contradictions even more.

Given all these inconsistencies, it is not strange that the right did not consider the FSLN a serious electoral adversary and in fact believed it to be in a terminal crisis. If the tree was not yet dead, it seemed on its way to becoming, at least in terms of votes, a stunted and domesticated bonsai within the garden of democracy. Until mid 1996, polls gave the FSLN the support of only 15% of the Nicaraguan population. Many believed an Alemán triumph inexorable, unless there was a "center" option. This option was announced, tried to solidify itself and fell apart even before the electoral campaign officially began. For its part, the FSLN went into the campaign without having forged an alliance with any other party. None wanted to appear linked to it, not so much to avoid contamination by the "piñata" as because it seemed to have no shot at winning.

A Climate Made for Illegality

At the end of August, the polls--and reality even more so--began to show that Sandinismo was neither dead nor in its death throes. It was rapidly reviving at the grassroots level as election time approached, that time that's always like a cross between a sports match and an identity declaration. The tree quickly showed that even though it had lost some branches, thrown out some rotten fruit and been battered about by winds, it could reflower because of its strong roots. Roots of history and collective memory.

With that, the perception of the powerful economic sectors began to change: if the FSLN wasn't dead, than it had to be "killed." Thus October's political scene was dominated by the ferocious anti Sandinista campaign, geared to break the technical tie showing up in the polls and to win over the undecided votes through panic. This campaign, charged through with intolerance and aggressiveness, fed the existing anti Sandinista ideology. It had various effects, the most serious of which was to spur many to take advantage of loopholes in the Electoral Law and inconsistencies, delays and laxity in the Supreme Electoral Council to act illegally on election day.

Why Vote for the FSLN?

How can so much popular support for the FSLN be explained in these elections, despite both its apparent "death" by inertia during these years and the decision to "kill it" through attacks during the electoral campaign?

A range of political, social and cultural factors go into explaining it. There is Daniel Ortega's own undisputed symbolic and political leadership. The recollection of tens of thousands of Nicaraguans that their lives improved with the revolution (land, health care, education for their children...). The experience of having participated in a collective national project in the 1970s and 1980s that transformed history and made the community, the nation and even life itself more dignified. The conviction that the FSLN would govern better this time, now without the pressure of war and without being relentlessly besieged by the United States. The desire to repair the anti Sandinista vote of 1990, which brought peace to the country but also abject poverty and unemployment to the majority. The fear of a return to Somocista Liberalism, so similar to Alemán's Liberalism. The fear of a return of Somoza, "reincarnated" in Alemán.

The Failure of the "Center"

Analyzing its final poll, CID Gallup predicted that the voting would provoke "a virtual collapse of the small parties." It stated with certainty, "There is nothing in the center."

The numbers in the poll weren't wrong. The results for the broad spectrum of the "center" are there. All the 22 other parties or alliances that ran in the presidential election put together received less than 12% of the votes. Of those, 13 lost their legal status because they didn't win a single National Assembly seat, either from the race for 20 at large national representatives or from the departmental races that fought for the other 70; not even from the assignment of "residual" votes, which became the salvation for the other five parties that would otherwise have been legally eliminated.

In addition to losing their legal status, these mini parties must return some portion--calculated according to the vote they got--of the almost $250,000 that the state gave to each party for its electoral campaign. They have the next five years to pay it back at 3% interest. The only objective of the political "battle" of many of those parties' leaders after the elections was to avoid that debt. They lobbied for it, tried to legislate it and denounced "fraud" to get out of having to pay it.

How can the defeat of the "center" be explained politically? The analysis repeated for months, even after the convulsive voting, has been the following: two caudillos, Alemán and Ortega, representing "extremist" options, polarized the voters, while the other 22 truly alternative "center" options could not make themselves heard in this groundswell of confrontation.

But that's not what really happened. Though some don't like to hear it, the reality is that both Arnoldo Alemán and Daniel Ortega have support among the Nicaraguan people, who are already polarized, not just by politics or ideology but also by a terrible economic crisis.

The economic "center" is blurring in a society with such a rapid growth of inequity in which 80% of the population lives in poverty, half of those in abject poverty. That population, which experiences the extremism of unresolved basic needs on a daily basis, recognizes Alemán's leadership and sees in his "heavy hand" the ability to change things: to create jobs, to miraculously transform so many miseries into a traffic circle of luminous offerings. Or it sees in Daniel, the best known face of those who led the revolutionary transformation process that changed the lives of so many of Nicaragua's poor, the ability and the experience to come back and repeat the miracle of giving work and three daily meals to all.

Extremism in both leaders? If Alemán showed a clear tendency toward authoritarian extremism in his campaign and in many of the announcements he made about his future government just after declaring himself the presidential victor, the FSLN has been showing, through convictions that open paths or through interests that it must defend, that today it represents a political option distanced from the extremism that any social revolution assumes.

How do we label the new option that the FSLN offered the nation this time around, asking for a second chance and a first opportunity to govern without war? Center left? Center nationalist? Capitalism with a human face? It was simple luck of the draw that gave the FSLN the center column of the electoral ballot. But its option in 1996, with the "everyone's government" formula, placed it smack in the center of the political spectrum that 20 some other parties of all colors claimed for themselves.

Twenty some options. The number itself raises doubts. How could a country of 4.5 million people--half of them children--have 20 some different projects for society? Could it be just because the Electoral Law allowed the creation of a party with only 500 signatures? This "bargain basement of center options" detracted from the seriousness of the centrist proposal. And it made clear to the people that most of those 20 some presidential candidates were just trying to win enough votes to become or continue being National Assembly representatives: a steady job, a very good salary, many other economic opportunities and guaranteed camera coverage. If there was a "punishment vote" in these elections it was against the parties in the center; the people punished them by ignoring them.

Protestants to Power

One of the big surprises in these elections was that third place went to the Nicaraguan Christian Way (CCN). Albeit at a distant 4% of the votes, it confirmed what some polls had begun to indicate in September.

The CCN is very young. Like many other parties and alliances on the ballot, it was born in 1995 to run in these elections. Although a novice in politics, it grew in just a few months among the traditionally apolitical and even anti political pentecostal sector. It was much more successful than the other evangelical party that participated in the elections, the National Justice Party, which only won 0.32% of the presidential votes and so died only four years after its birth.

The CCN victory and its parliamentary representation were a novel and much discussed result, even though some estimates indicate that 20% of the Nicaraguan population now belongs to some evangelical denomination. The Pentecostals are the largest of such groups and most of their faithful are the poorest urban and rural sectors.

Guillermo Osorno, the CCN's presidential candidate, won a seat in the National Assembly due to his party's national popularity--according to the Constitution written by the Sandinistas, all runner up presidential candidates that reach a certain percentage of the vote are given a legislative seat. Osorno converted to the evangelical faith in 1978 and has became well known in the Assemblies of God temples and through his sermons on the radio station, Ondas de Luz, which he has run for years. He "converted" to politics in 1994.

How do we explain the CCN's appearance and triumph? According to one Protestant sociologist, Nicaragua's evangelical parties "sell more hope than certainty or aren't very clear about when their offers will materialize, but selling hope in a world full of pessimism is plenty, and few manage to do it."

What the Liberals Inherit

The murky electoral results present Nicaragua with a situation very different from the last seven years. When the Chamorro government hands over power it will be leaving the country with a stabilized national economy, according to the standards of the international financial organizations. And it will leave it accustomed to total freedom of expression. These are points in its favor. Among the challenges for the new government will be to maintain the necessary economic stabilization and the healthy culture of open debate.

But the Chamorro government also bequeaths the country devastated economies in small scale family, artisan and agricultural production and small scale trade. In addition it leaves behind a country now accustomed to voracious corruption among institutions and officials. These are points against it, and the challenge for the new government will be to surmount these vices.

An even greater challenge than confronting corruption will be confronting extreme poverty. The profound social inequalities that the Chamorro government installed are a bitter inheritance for Arnoldo Alemán.

The new Liberal government has promised to put a priority both on job creation to alleviate the extreme poverty and on resolving the property problem. It links both challenges, since national and foreign investment will multiply once the property issue is resolved, which in turn will generate the yearned for 100,000 jobs annually that Alemán promised in the campaign and which surely won him a great number of the votes he got at the polls.

One of the most concrete projects to resolve the property issue that Alemán announced before and after the elections consists of:

* Not recognizing or else reforming Law 209, the Property Stability Law, ap proved in the Assembly at the end of 1995 after being drafted with mediation by Jimmy Carter. ("Give it a little reform," was he put it on one occasion.)

* Demanding the return of--or else payment for at market prices--the rural or urban "piñata" properties in the hands of FSLN leaders or high level officials of the current government.

* Providing titles to all those who are occupying rural and urban properties that were distributed to the poor from 1979 to today. (Nothing is said about the cooperatives, community properties or those that serve a social function, or the new associative property that emerged in the 1990s through negotiated agreements that created worker owned businesses.)

* Compensating those "unjustly confiscated" for properties that cannot be re turned to them (implicitly including Somocistas expropriated under Decrees 3 and 38). The amount of these compensations is estimated at $400 500 million, which will supposedly come not from the sale of national telecommunications company stock, as contemplated in the law authorizing the privatization of TELCOR, but from international donations to "buy peace in Nicaragua." (It is not clear who would be willing to make such donations.)

All these points of the project are predictably explosive. Jimmy Carter termed the international donation idea a "foolish proposal that needs to be discarded," predicting that Alemán will find no government or institution in the world to give him that sum of money.

The possibility that Alemán's government will try to resolve the property issue in favor of the Somocistas and other wealthy by using violence and the best authoritarian style is the element on the immediate horizon that is creating the greatest uncertainty among Sandinistas, whether poor, comfortable, wealthy or nouveau riche. To confirm the anxiety, emboldened rumors began to be heard everywhere about evictions to recover properties immediately after the announcement of Alemán's triumph.

A New and More Powerful Assembly

The new executive will have far more limited functions due to the constitutional reforms of 1995, which crafted a less presidential and more parliamentarian political model. The transcendence of that model has barely begun to show, since the Framework Law was created soon afterwards, obliging executive legislative consensus in the application of most of the reforms for the duration of the current government.

Since the Framework Law expires the day Arnoldo Alemán takes office, the next National Assembly will begin to have new and significant powers. If Alemán can win over all non Sandinista representatives in the Assembly to his initiatives, and can keep all those who won on the Liberal Alliance ticket in line, he would have the majority needed even for constitutional reforms (42 Liberals + 14 from other groups). But both of those two tasks are very difficult to achieve.

It will be easier to get enough votes for a simple majority, with which he could substantially reform both the Military Code and the law regarding the organization of the police. Sweeping away all vestiges of Sandinismo in the armed institutions and appropriating them through corruption, confrontation, cooptation and economic asphyxiation is the new government's first, albeit as yet undeclared, priority.

What Do You Do when You Aren't King?

Some of Alemán's first announcements in the heat of his electoral triumph were real blunders. For example, he said that he would ask the Supreme Court to fire all judges in the country so the judicial branch could be totally restructured. The Court immediately responded with indignation, icily noting the separation of powers and its own attributes. Alemán also announced that he would move the National Assembly to Granada and the Supreme Court to León. Officials from both branches quickly pointed out that they are located in Managua according to the Constitution, which Alemán seemed not to have read. Finally, some of those that he named to head ministries in the first days after the election caused concern in various different sectors.

Arnoldo Alemán faces a tremendous challenge. He didn't "sweep" the elections as he had hoped and wished, delivering the Sandinistas a "solemn grand slam," as he announced throughout his campaign. Consensus is required to guarantee stability. But the clouds of electoral and ethical anomalies that will always be hanging over his victory complicate both stability and consensus.

It's a tough way to begin, particularly for those on his governing team who are determined to carry out the mission of "historic revenge" that they believe President Violeta avoided: exterminate Sandinismo. This beginning clips the wings of the authoritarianism that this sector is willing to use to "kill the viper."

FSLN: Will it Face its Challenge?

The challenges to the FSLN are also immense. One is to forge a cohesive, responsible, constructive and creative opposition, very different from the ambiguous "opposition" of the Chamorro years. Through this opposition, the FSLN must respond to the nation's democratic needs and to the expectations of the Sandinista people and many other voters.

But that is not the only great challenge. Even greater is the challenge to ethically and politically reactivate the FSLN itself, by making use of the lessons of the electoral crisis which, among other things, showed both how powerful anti Sandinismo still is and how strong the Sandinista base is despite the ethical and organizational weaknesses of some FSLN leaders.

From the Soul

The greatest surprise of all in these elections was not so much the results as the anomalies in which they were wrapped. That great surprise--for virtually all Nicaraguans--surfaced the day after the elections, when the accumulation of irregularities began to be discovered.

In the early hours of October 22, when few people could sleep for thinking about all the anomalies they had seen or heard about from friends and neighbors, some tuned their radio in to hear Edgar Tijerino, the most popular and influential sports broadcaster in Nicaragua for many years. Those who did heard him offer an initial political analysis of the results, acknowledging that he had voted for the FSLN but without doubting Alemán's clean victory--the dimensions of what had happened were only beginning to be revealed. With his habitual passion and hoarse voice, Tijerino touched on one of the keys necessary to the interpretation:

"No, we cannot speak simply of a Liberal victory, because the fundamental basis of this electoral battle has been between Sandinismo and anti Sandinismo. The UNO, with just over 50% of the votes, won the 1990 elections. That 50 some percent today is voting the red flag. That 50 some percent tomorrow could go on being red or could turn yellow or mustard or blue; the color doesn't matter. Here a choice was made between Sandinismo and anti Sandinismo. And that's because Nicaragua's history changed in 1979 and now there are only two groups: those who are with the Sandinistas and those who are not. We can't believe that Arnoldo's victory is because there has been a rebirth of that old historical parallel which is Liberalism. Its only power was being against the Sandinista project.

"And what can be said on the Sandinista side...? What did the Frente do to win that 38% of the votes? What did it do to recover confidence? It didn't actually make a great effort. There was no one incident about which we could say, 'That's the proof that the Frente has changed.' And yet even without the proof, without the actions, we were on the road to recovering confidence....

"Why are the Sandinista people so stubborn in their beliefs? Why did they trust once more in the Frente's recovery? Why did they decide to give it a second chance...? It was a response from the soul. Pure soul. We believed and trusted that the Frente would be able to run the country, that there would be better perspectives, a change of mentality and a return to the spirit of sacrifice and honesty that allowed us to build a revolution."

An Historic Mission

Over the last seven years the FSLN functioned with no coordination, without a clear strategy and with worn out tactics that failed to convince the majority because they didn't respond to its needs for organization or its longing for change. The FSLN also didn't know how to articulate any viable project with the thousands of Sandinista sympathizers from civil society that continued working for Nicaragua, for the poor and for popular interests. Since 1990, these social activists have been disperse, with no political participation and no party participation, if they had ever had it. These people, who went unrecognized in these years, must be recovered.

The FSLN continues to be run by a sexist structure rife with dangerous inertia and unnecessary sectarianism, and always inclined to doublespeak. Nicaragua and the Sandinista base, which despite so many errors trusted in the FSLN once again, now deserve a real democratization of the FSLN structures. The electoral results give a margin of hope. They show that the FSLN has not been defeated, that the tree remains alive. At least, we've seen it revive in the electoral scene. Now is the time for better and riper fruits.

The MRS, formed in 1994 to "renovate" Sandinismo and gather the best non Sandinista Nicaraguans under the banner of Sandino, fulfilled neither of those two missions as it concluded this first stage of its brief political life with the elections. Instead it just divided the FSLN without bringing any other Nicaraguans to Sandinismo. In fact, on election day, only a third of the 30,000 affiliates it claimed to have voted for it (taking an average of the six ballots). The others apparently decided that its leader and presidential candidate, Sergio Ramírez, was not after all "the best thing that can happen to us," as the MRS propaganda claimed.

The FSLN's problem is not nor can it continue to be the internal division that gave birth to the MRS. In the new political scene the problem is a different division. Naturally, the Sandinista rep resentatives to the Assembly must remain united and the 51 Sandinista municipal mayors must have a unifying strategy. But above all the FSLN must attend to the other division that is gnawing away at it, the one that exists between the economic and political interests of some sectors of its historic leaders and the interests and expectations of the impoverished majority of the Sandinista people. The one that exists between calculating Sandinistas, lacking passion and compassion, and Sandinistas with mystique and ideals. The abyss between pragmatic Sandinista leaders who speak of Nicaragua's crude reality from the grandstand but risk nothing to transform it and poor Sandinistas who suffer that reality and fight without enough support to change it.

The votes the FSLN won on election day, its struggle for electoral transparency afterward and its justified fear of a return to Somocismo have in great measure rescued something that was hidden, damaged and even lost for years: the pride of being Sandinista. This should be the first chapter of a broader struggle to link the ethics of service and honesty with political activities. It's an historic mission, just as it was 20 years ago when the revolution was being made.

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