A civic fiesta, less than healthy competition or utter chaos?
Will November’s elections be a civic fiesta, as such events are often called?
Will they be merely unequal competition against an entrenched incumbent?
Or, in the worst case, might they trigger scenarios of violence and chaos?
The Nicaraguan Human Rights Center has warned of the latter:
“The government is making things too tense.
It wants a clear path in the elections.
And violence is the recourse Daniel Ortega
has almost always used as his modus operandi.”
Politicians and journalists have typically trumpeted electoral periods in Nicaragua as a “civic fiesta.” With less than two months to go before election day on November 6, no one would dream of calling it that this time.
Is this merely because of the clear advantage of an incumbent President unconstitutionally running for re-election who’s not above making every use possible of the many advantages he has acquired by hook or by crook? In Central America, Nicaragua included, the kind of unequal competition in-cumbency implies even in “normal” circumstances is graphically depicted by the image of a duel between a “loose tiger and a tethered donkey.” No few commentators have used this image to depict what’s happening today in Nicaragua’s electoral process.
Or is it the foreboding of violence, which is acquiring a life of its own? Will we end up talking about chaos? There’s no shortage of reasons to fear that in lieu of a civic fiesta we could face a civic tragedy on E Day and the days following.
A very rocky roadThe governing Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) has been carefully preparing the road for President Ortega’s reelection. Well ahead of time it engineered two highly controversial legal steps. The first was to get the FSLN-dominated Supreme Court to hand down a resolution allowing him to run again despite a double constitutional prohibition: against consecutive reelection and against a third term, consecutive or otherwise. The second was to go over the head of the legislative branch by issuing a presidential decree that has kept electoral magistrates who unconditionally obey the President’s wishes in their post after their term ended, even despite—or perhaps thanks to—their participation in the 2008 electoral fraud.
Those very magistrates decided the next steps along the road and they always favored the governing party. They included the issuing of ID/voter cards without the normal charge to all the thousands of state employees who had been given automatic FSLN party membership. Far more serious was the appointing of FSLN activists or their allies to virtually all decision-making posts on the Departmental and Municipal Electoral Councils, exceeding the number they are granted in the regrettably politicized electoral law. These mid-level bodies are the ones that decide on any challenges registered on election day at the voting tables—also excessively packed with FSLN members and allies.
The massive FSLN propaganda in all state institutions has strewn even more rocks on the opposition road—schools, hospitals, ministries and government offices are all saturated with governing party posters and flags. Campaign events favoring Ortega are frequently held in the same places, despite longstanding legal prohibition.
The party’s electoral machinery is mainly lubricated, however, by the multiplying of the government’s social programs in this electoral year, which are now benefiting and improving the life of Liberals and independents as well as FSLN sympathizers. These programs include the titling of houses and lands, scholarships, sheet metal roofing, credits, subsidized bus and taxi fares, piñatas and fairs in urban barrios and rural districts, and gifts ranging from mattresses to TV sets. Added to all that are frequent musical and sports events that appeal to young voters. The hardly surprising result is that all polls show Ortega the winner.
The “loose tiger”Despite all this, the tiger bounding down this road convinced of victory doesn’t have everything on its side. Ortega’s controversial candidacy is burdened with the baggage of its illegality, his electoral branch authorities have no credibility and his party activists are constantly reminded of the “syndrome of 1990,” by which it lost that year’s elections, giving the lie to virtually all polls and to the massive crowds attending FSLN rallies.
Another ghost, this time a reminder to the opposition, is the “syndrome of 2008.” That year the FSLN, which had won the 2006 presidential elections with only 38% of the vote, assured its sweeping win in the municipal elections two years later via a fraud that, thanks to its vertical control of much of the electoral branch structures, gave it the mayor’s seat in some 40 municipalities that allegedly didn’t choose it. The opposition has been warning of a similar Plan B being prepared by the FSLN this time—purportedly based particularly on computer fraud—should things not go the way it wants, which is not only a real presidential majority, but also absolute control of the parliament.
“Accompaniment” manualUntil only a few months ago, Ortega was intransigently opposed to the participation of international electoral observers. Recognizing the dicey legitimacy of the election outcome without them, he finally lightened up, accepting their presence, but very late and not without contradictions.
The first point the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) made clear was that it eschewed the term “observers,” which the governing party has firmly linked to the notion of “meddling” in all its declarations and activities. Henceforward the missions would understand their task to be “accompaniment.”
On August 15, the CSE finally issued the regulations manual it had announced it was preparing, which turned out to regulate only the accompaniers’ duties, not their rights. Two specific measures most scandalized the international entities that are still considering sending delegations: 1) the CSE would “establish the routes” the accompaniers could take and 2) their final documents would have to be hammered out with the electoral authorities until reaching “consensus.” By denying their freedom of movement and speech, the manual violates the Declaration of Principles for International Election Observation that Nicaragua signed with both the United Nations and the Organization of American States. CSE President Roberto Rivas later claimed, with respect to the first issue, that the manual had been misunderstood: it only meant the CSE wanted to know where the accompaniers planned to go so it could ensure security.
Five days later, in yet another anomaly, President/candidate Ortega officially opened the electoral campaign rather than the CSE. At the same time as belittling observation yet again, Ortega tried to rectify the manual’s harshness: “Many will come with a respectful attitude and we know it. Others will come to provoke. But our country’s doors are open to all….” Agitatedly warming to his theme, he declared, “We aren’t expelling anybody because they come here to shout to the heavens…. They can shout whatever they want, say what they want; they can come to slander, to vilify; the people will judge them; they’ll just be left with the vain hope we’ll expel them.” Was this statement aimed at provoking confusion or demonstrating that the head of the executive branch also runs the electoral branch?
So who’s coming and when?It was in this contradictory environment that the official invitations began to go out and institutional agreements to be signed for the arrival of international observation missions. At the event itself, Ortega announced that he had personally invited the OAS via a phone call to its secretary general, José Miguel Insulza. He also assured the Carter Center, which Ortega had earlier urged to apply for accreditation, that it could come with confidence.
At the end of August the European Union signed an agreement with the CSE, but in so doing specified that, in keeping with the “major principles” on the issue, its 80-member mission—which won’t come until October—will choose its own routes and draft its own evaluation, informing the electoral authorities but not releasing it “in a joint communiqué” or attempting to seek consensus with them. The Carter Center issued a statement on September 9 urging the CSE to make the terms of the EU agreement public and “officially extend those same terms to other experienced international and national observer organizations.” Given that the CSE claimed the regulations had been misinterpreted, the Center’s statement also urged their repeal or modification “to clearly elaborate the provisions of access, freedom of movement and freedom of speech.” While the CSE’s foot-dragging in issuing terms of reference for the elections prevented the Center from organizing the kind of mission it has sent to all Nicaraguan elections since 1990, the statement indicated it would send a small number of experts “to be present for the November 6 elections” if acceptable conditions are established and extended to all.
The CSE announced that it would also provide credentials to those national observation organizations that formally request it, despite having repeatedly refused to do so for months. Hagamos Democracia filed its documentation for accreditation on September 5, but the CSE claimed it was incomplete. The Institute for Development and Democracy (IPADE) did so 3 days later and announced that the European Union was prepared to finance 3,000 IPADE observers.
Meanwhile the CSE welcomed the Venezuelan-based Latin American Center of Electoral Experts (CEELA), the only international “accompaniers” present during the 2008 municipal elections, who endorsed the fraud by their silence. It also signed an agreement with Nicaragua’s National Council of Universities, which is clearly influenced by the governing party; it announced that it would field 20,000 “accompaniers” on election day. Ethics and Transparency, Nicaragua’s main electoral observation organization and its Transparency International chapter, announced on September 13 that it will observe the elections without official accreditation because the CSE regulations are “not applicable” and clash with Nicaraguan law.
Although strategically late in coming, the invitation to international observers gave some confidence to the voting population, which has been demanding it all year. The relief was mixed with concerns, however. Will the observers, distanced from the tainted atmosphere of this process, be able to grasp and appraise the accumulation of prior irregularities in such a short time? Will the brief presence of the “accompaniers,” seeing only the minimum seeable, merely legitimate a process in which much has already been “arranged” and is therefore not observable? Doesn’t this sign of flexibility by the governing party merely reflect how safe and free the tiger feels with all the pieces guaranteeing victory already invisibly in place?
One of the messages from Ortega’s wife and campaign manager, Rosario Murillo, oozes that certainty: “This November 6, the Luminous Energy of Love will fill Nicaragua, it is sure… This November 6, each Nicaraguan family will vote in its Truth, it will vote for Nicaragua, it will vote [FSLN ballot slot] 2. We will vote, we will win, we will continue winning; it’s what God must want.”
Uprisings over the voter cardIf the month’s key electoral event from above, from the governing party, was showing the flexibility to allow electoral observation, the most notable one from below has been the tenacious inflexibility of groups of citizens demanding that the CSE issue their ID/voter card.
The refusal, delays or negligence in issuing new cards to thousands of people in rural and urban zones where the FSLN traditionally doesn’t electorally fare well triggered organized protests in a number of municipalities: El Cuá, El Jícaro, Quilalí, Río Blanco, Ciudad Antigua, Macuelizo, Santa María, Jinotega, Chinandega, El Sauce, San José de Bocay, Ocotal, Jalapa… There were genuine uprisings with organized persistence in San Fernando (Nueva Segovia) and in Siuna, where people armed with machetes and rocks blocked highways.
The figures of those who haven’t received their cards are hard to calculate. According to the CSE, 67,000 cards are currently being manufactured for delivery before November 6. In perhaps no other country in the world has the demand for something as essential, simple and critical to daily use as one’s identity document turned into an important source of political mobilization.
Four rivals: Are they The FSLN’s “loose tiger” is facing off against four opposition candidates. Are they easy or tough prey? Are all four “tethered donkeys” and, if so, to what are they tethered?
By having Arnoldo Alemán as its presidential candidate, the Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC) is tethered to the pact he entered into with Ortega over ten years ago, while President. Alemán is still Ortega’s partner within the bipartite logic of that pact, which has been making mincemeat of the country’s institutionality.
In the electoral scenario originally designed by the FSLN, the opposition would remain fragmented, but the PLC’s captive vote would guarantee Alemán second place. Because Nica¬ragua’s electoral law guarantees the presidential runner-up a seat in the National Assembly, Alemán would again become a legislator and have a quota of colleagues willing to vote for laws and appointments he negotiates with Ortega should the FSLN fail to get the qualified majority of 56 votes it’s striving for.
But reality put waste to that plan. The opposition did indeed remain divided, but not in nearly equal parts, as in 2006. Furthermore, it is the PLI-UNE Alliance, which is running radio entrepreneur Fabio Gadea, that has taken second place in all polls, between seven and twelve points behind Ortega, with Alemán a very distant third.
While two other parties—the National Liberal Alliance (ALN) and Alliance for the Republic (APRE)—are also running candidates, voters barely mention either of them in the polls. According to Luis Hau, general manager of the CID Gallup polling firm, “They aren’t real participants except on the ballot; they’re spectators.”
In such a closed political panorama, and given such a tainted electoral process, the heterogeneous group accompanying Gadea (Liberals from the original ALN founded by banker Eduardo Montealegre who split from the PLC years ago; former Resistance combatants—”contras”—and sympathizers; Conservatives who split from their party when it allied with the PLC for these elections; the Sandinista Renovation Movement; and representatives of civic and social movements) has been shaping up as the opposition option with the greatest grassroots backing, perhaps due less to what it proposes than to what it opposes: both Ortega and Alemán, reelection and the bipartite pact.
Gadea’s strategyFor the first weeks after announcing his candidacy in August of last year, Gadea and his group tried to rally the entire opposition around his candidacy, insistently claiming that “Fabio unites.” But it wasn’t in the cards. Alemán is still in his pact with Ortega and still has blind followers among his party’s leaders and rank-and-file. This anti-Sandinista Liberal split is one of the tethers on both opposition donkeys. It’s a simple question of math.
With the possibility of a single candidate discarded, the alliance of the Independent Liberal Party (PLI) and the amalgam of other groups that calls itself the Nicaraguan Unity for Hope (UNE) hopes to polarize the elections into a choice between Gadea and Ortega. Having succeeded rather well in that gamble so far, it’s now trying to convince the electorate that the “useful vote”—some call it the “lesser evil” and others a “punishment vote” against Ortega—is for the ticket of Fabio “the old man” Gadea and his running mate Edmundo “the ugly” Jarquín.
The first step in the polarization strategy was Gadea vs. Alemán. The Alliance has managed to win voters away from the PLC by undermining Alemán’s authority as a viable opposition option, forcing his electoral strength to stagnate at best, and discrediting him by highlighting not so much the shameless corruption of his presidential term as the calamitous consequences of his pact with Ortega.
According to Gadea’s campaign chief, Eliseo Núñez Morales, the first part of that step involved convincing, recovering and structuring the Liberal base in what is known as the “contra corridor”—a series of municipalities that run from Quilalí in the northern department of Nueva Segovia to El Almendro in the southeastern department of Río San Juan—which has always voted against Ortega and for the most part for the PLC. Gadea began by visiting those formerly war-torn municipalities then moved to zones with a softer anti-Sandinista vote in the center, northwest and Pacific. This plan has been very successful, moving Gadea up to a secure second place and Alemán down to a distant third, thus upsetting the “expected results” in Ortega’s reelection project. But Gadea still hasn’t been able to break into Aleman’s roughly 15% hard vote, which could put him ahead of Ortega.
Coveted MatagalpaAfter the campaign officially opened on August 20, Alemán and Gadea both decided to test their competitive strength in the department of Mata¬galpa. The PLI Alliance filed to hold a rally in Sébaco on Sunday, August 28. When the CSE prohibited it, Gadea reacted firmly: “With or without permission, Sébaco’s on!” That slogan intentionally evoked the “Nandaime’s on!” of July 1988, when Ortega’s minions made good on threats to physically disrupt a UNO opposition rally there. Gadea’s determination, his defiance of Ortega and that memory may all have helped bring some 75,000 people out to support the PLI-UNE Alliance. But the repression meted out by the FSLN in Nandaime wasn’t repeated in Sébaco. For one thing, the Nandaime rally was well before the official 1990 electios campaign opened, but more importantly the FSLN can’t violate its “peace and love” propaganda mantra and still hope to legitimize Ortega right now.
A few days earlier Alemán had rallied his people in Matiguás, a redoubt of his hard vote. He also chose a space easier to fill. Inspired to participate in the taking of Matagalpa’s pulse given that it’s the department with the second largest number of voters (some 200,000), the governing party decided to improvise a rally in the departmental capital itself on September 10, even though Ortega’s campaign plans supposedly didn’t involve mass rallies. A huge traffic jam of vehicles bringing people in to the event from outlying areas was the reason given for the program starting two hours late.
In the July 19 celebration, Ortega had said he wouldn’t announce any government program because it would be “what is already in practice today,” but in another break with announced plans, he detailed in Matagalpa how the social programs being implemented will be increased and announced a few new elements. Did the government programs presented by the PLI-UNE Alliance and by the PLC oblige Ortega to say something more attention-grabbing?
What’s tethering Gadea?In addition to the already consummated irregularities and those to come, what else is “tethering” Gadea’s group? One thing is its very rural strategy and another is the perception of urban sectors, youth sectors and organized women’s groups that the candidate is very conservative.
Gadea’s disregard for what is “politically correct,” the unbridled frankness with which he has spoken out on various occasions about sexual diversity, therapeutic abortion and his own very traditional religiosity have led to his being characterized as misogynous, homophobic and classist. PLC leaders—not without their own well-known homophobic expressions—repeat these adjectives about him, as do pro-government messages, despite the homophobia and misogyny that filter through the daily news on Nueva Radio Ya, the governing party’s most listened-to station.
Managua’s the big challengeGadea’s big challenge is Managua, one of the 25 municipalities in which Ethics and Transparency has identified a large number of voting tables located in what its analysis of what happened in 2008 calls “the route of the fraud.”
According to CID-Gallup’s polls of voting intentions, the PLI-UNE Alliance trails Ortega very closely in a good part of the country, but in Managua Ortega pulls far ahead, reaching almost 60% in some soundings. Rosario Murillo has told FSLN activists that “we’re reaching higher approval levels in Managua than ever before in our electoral history,” while at the same time insisting that “we can’t allow ourselves the luxury of letting that drop by even a tenth of a percent.”
Managua’s voters, nearly a third of the national total, will decide the election. In 2006, Ortega only got 36% of the capital’s votes, less than the overall 38% with which he won the presidency, while the ALN (still at that time Montealegre’s party) and the MRS pulled 44.5% between them, running separately. While the MRS and Montealegre’s current political grouping, which calls itself We’re Going with Eduardo, are both now with Gadea, Managua’s panorama has changed substantially.
The explanation can be found in the money the governing party has invested so lavishly in the capital, where much of the population is poor rural migrants who have helped swell Managua’s population from under 500,000 in 1979 to 1.8 million today, the most recent of whom live in squalid settlements lacking most everything. The government has benefited Managua with the lion’s share of its social programs. The sheet metal roofing for precarious houses, the government-run posts that sell rice and beans at cut-rate prices, the subsidy to intra-city transport in the capital, the medical brigades that are more feasible in Managua, and “Operation Miracle,” which works out of Managua to perform free eye operations, to name only some, have given good returns on their money, substantially changing the capital’s electoral picture.
Alongside the majority of poor are more informed and educated urbanites. They only have tenuous nostalgic links to the Pancho Madrigal stores written by Fabio Gadea and narrated on his Radio Corporación station, but they’re more aware and more critical of the institutional ravages of the Ortega-Alemán pact than most of the rural population. Can Gadea and progressive economist Jarquín seduce enough Managuans to genuinely polarize the elections? This is one of the most significant of the various electoral questions on the table in this unequal competition.
Granera is another stoneAnother important question has to do with the violence, even chaos, that could be triggered on election day due to the accumulated tensions in a process so full of irregularities.
on the opposition’s path
As both anticipated and feared, President Ortega published a decree on September 5 by which he reappointed the current chief of the National Police (PN), Aminta Granera, to her post. According to the Police Law, Granera should have passed into retirement on that day, the end of her five-year term, making way for the promotion of a new officer. Not even attempting to reform the law, Ortega, as the Supreme Chief of the PN, also set no time limit to her reinstatement.
Granera, who was nearly ordained as a nun but opted to be a revolutionary instead, has been in the police force since it was created as the Sandinista Police 32 years ago. She enjoys well-deserved national and international prestige. Recognition of her good performance as head of the institution is unanimous among all national sectors, but many are upset about the illegal way she’ll remain at her post, and some have recommended that she not accept. Vilma Núñez, president of the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center put it this way: “This situation pains us. Daniel Ortega put Commissioner Granera in the same sack of illegality in which he has already thrown almost all branches of government. This is having a major negative effect on Police institutionality.” Granera is the 26th top-level state official to remain in her post illegally, de facto, by executive decrees in which Ortega has ridden roughshod over the law of succession in the police force, the law stipulating National Assembly approval of government officials and even the Constitution.
Ortega’s extending of Granera’s mandate is clearly related to the forebodings of danger floating in the pre-electoral winds. She had the misfortune to have been in charge of the PN at the time of the 2008 municipal election fraud, and, presumably on executive orders, acted passively when FSLN sympathizers attacked the protesting opposition. She has justified this politically selective laxness during the protests of those months and all that have followed by describing the police model as “preventive and communitarian,” seeking to minimize rather than escalate any violence and repression. Keeping her in her post during what could happen in November is yet another crucial stone in the road Daniel Ortega has already peppered with them to help ensure this and “more victories,” as his ubiquitous mammoth billboards proclaim.