Nicaragua has just given the world another political lesson on a par with the election of 1990 in which power was transferred from a left-wing revolutionary government to its visceral right-wing enemies via peaceful elections. Now the country's right wing parties have conceded power to the Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional opening up governmental space for progressive political options in Central America for the first time since that historic 1990 vote ended the revolutionary government of the 1980s. The professionalism and impartiality of Nicaragua's election authorities, highly praised and fulsomely congratulated by all the many international election observers, has been in extremely stark contrast to the recent blatant electoral fraud in Mexico and the dodgy electoral processes this year in Peru and Ecuador. In comparison with Nicaragua's election, the electoral process in much of the giant banana republic that is the United States represents a shameful betrayal of the United States people's democratic rights.
Nicaragua has now had three presidential elections since the Sandinista FSLN government lost power in 1990. That 1990 election and all subsequent elections have been marked by crude intervention from the United States government as well as more subtle meddling from European Union countries. In none of these elections have Nicaraguans been able to go and vote without being told by people they ignore at their peril that a vote for the FSLN would be bad for Nicaragua. The persistent demonization of the FSLN and its Secretary General Daniel Ortega renders typically hypocritical and dishonest claims that the US and its allies support free and fair elections.
The significance of the electoral triumph of the FSLN-led Unida Nicaragua Triunfa alliance can hardly be overstated. It is a decisive and damning setback for US diplomacy in the region from which it is hard to see the current Bush administration recovering. It marks a decision to work out redistributive alternatives promoting equality against the catastrophic economic policies imposed by international financial institutions and the imperial centers of power in Washington, Brussels and Tokyo for the last twenty years. The election result also opens up both Nicaragua and the wider Central American region to the influence of Latin American integration processes as represented variously by Ignacio Lula da Silva and Nestor Kirchner in Brazil and Argentina and by Evo Morales, Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro in Bolivia, Venezuela and Cuba.
Daniel Ortega will take office on January 10th 2007. For the moment, he and his colleagues are working overtime to reassure the diverse hostile sectors of Nicaraguan society that there is no destructive threat to the country's current economic policy and that no radical changes will be made without seeking consensus. The immediate priority the FSLN is discussing how to address is hunger. In a country with 80% of people living on US$2 a day or less, that on its own represents a daunting challenge. To get some idea of the wider challenges and choices facing the new government in Nicaragua and what can be expected in the short and medium term it may help to review some aspects of Nicaragua's contemporary history.
The Election Itself
The elections consisted of separate ballots for President, deputies in the National Assembly and deputies to the regional Central American parliament. A useful rule of thumb when following the count in Nicaraguan elections is to look immediately at what is happening in the capital Managua and in the country's most populous rural department, Matagalpa. Whoever wins those places generally wins overall. That rule proved itself again this time around with the FSLN winning Managua by about 4 percentage points and just squeezing ahead of the PLC in Matagalpa. The FSLN's majority vote is now very clearly rooted in the northern departments from the Northern Autonomous Atlantic Region in the east to Chinandega and Leon in the west. Its support in the capital stayed solid despite a strong challenge from the centrist social democrat MRS alliance. The northern departments of the country and the Atlantic Coast departments are generally more impoverished than the south.
Before the election I reckoned that the FSLN would win with 36-38% of the vote, with the Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC) second on about 24%, the National Liberal Alliance (ALN) on 21%, the Movement for Sandinista Renewal (MRS) on 14% and the tiny Christian Alternative (AC) on about 3%. In fact, with about 92% of the votes counted, the FSLN have won with 38%, nine points ahead of the ALN on 29% with the PLC on about 26%, the MRS on about 6% and the AC with less than 1%. It looks as though the PLC may well draw level with the ALN as the last 8% of the votes come in from rural areas where the PLC has a massive following with around seven out of every ten voters likely to count in their favor. The MRS was counting on getting a large number of the 18% of voters whom opinion polls prior to the vote indicated were undecided. In the event those votes seem to have gone to the ALN.
The FSLN lost to the PLC in the traditional central Liberal bastions of Jinotega (PLC candidate Jose Riso's home department), Boaco, Chontales, and in the impoverished southern Atlantic Coast departments of Rio San Juan, and the Southern Autonomous Atlantic Region. The FSLN lost to the ALN (which incorporated the Conservative party thus benefiting from that grouping's regional loyalties), in the relatively prosperous southern departments of Granada, Rivas and Masaya. The FSLN won Nueva Segovia, Madriz, Esteli, Chinandega (ALN leader Eduardo Montealegre's home department), Leon, Managua, Matagalpa, Carazo and the Northern Autonomous Atlantic Region. So the FSLN won outright 9 out of the country's 17 departments in the presidential elections.
With the complete definitive results not scheduled to be made public until November 17th, the distribution of votes for the legislature between the three main parties looks like leaving the FSLN as the largest single party with 37 or 38 seats. The PLC may well turn out to have a slight numerical advantage over the ALN, but they both will end up with around 24 or 26 seats each. The MRS is likely to get 5 or 6 deputies, which may allow them to strike useful deals with one or other of the larger parties. No political grouping on its own will be able to dominate the legislative agenda over the next five years, with all the drawbacks and advantages such a situation creates. The FSLN will be in permanent negotiating mode, something it has become well used to over the last 16 years in opposition.
The FSLN Through the 1990s
Since its electoral defeat in 1990, the FSLN has represented progressive and nationalist political forces against Liberal and Conservative parties that represent different components of the local oligarchy and local big business. Through the 1990s, the FSLN elite assimilated and accommodated to the relentless reality of neo-liberal economic policies imposed forcefully by the international financial institutions and the powerful, ruthlessly enforced consensus between the United States, the European Union and their Pacific allies like Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. As elsewhere, the cruelty and savagery of these policies destroyed the prospects of well being for the poor majority in Nicaragua, relentlessly driving down living standards throughout the decade and into the new century.
The political configuration in Nicaragua could hardly remain unaltered by that process. In relation specifically to the FSLN, the Sandinista elite adapted successfully economically in two main directions. Leading Sandinistas developed business interests in every sector of the economy, from agriculture to tourism, to banking. Another bloc joined the managerial class dependent on development funding from the major foreign aid agencies, the various UN agencies and development project funding from the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. As this process panned out, ideological differences became more and more apparent, resulting largely from the degree to which different individuals were prepared to assimilate the dominant neo-liberal ideology, at its most seductive in its social democrat form.
The main battlegrounds for these differences within the FSLN through the 1990s were responses to the FSLN leadership's negotiations with the politically dominant Liberal Alliance under Arnoldo Aleman, the power struggle over how to manage internal party matters within the FSLN and, within that context, the conflict between Daniel Ortega and his adult step-daughter Zoilamerica Narvaez, involving allegations of sexual abuse against Ortega. Dissidents from the FSLN developed their political expression through the Movement for Sandinista Renewal founded early in the 1990s and led initially by Sergio Ramirez, one of Latin America's most acclaimed writers. In many ways this year's election campaign has brought a clear resolution to the overall conflict within the FSLN, leaving political loyalties and positions clearer than perhaps they have ever been.
Although members of the MRS had been prepared in earlier elections to make alliances with the FSLN - for example in the municipal elections of 2004 -- for the 2006 elections they opted to make an electoral alliance led by Herty Lewites, who had previously been elected as the FSLN candidate for mayor of the capital Managua in 2000. That alliance, openly endorsed by the US State Department and more quietly by European Union countries, fought the election campaign on a centrist social democrat platform. The positions in that campaign inside Nicaragua were much less radical than those argued by MRS representatives making their case in foreign information media. If the MRS leadership seem to have been taken by surprise by their lack of electoral support, which vindicated the strategic vision and tactical acumen of the FSLN leadership, it may well be because they had come to believe their own rhetoric. Only 6% or so of Nicaraguans did so too.
Hate, Exhaustion, Reality
Bewilderment among progressive people outside Nicaragua at the FSLN's electoral triumph is probably due in large part to the disinformation and demonization of the FSLN by foreign media, overtly sympathetic to the attractive and articulate personalities among the leadership of the MRS. If progressive Spanish language online media like Venezuela's Aporrea or Argentina's La Fogata favored MRS propaganda then it is hardly surprising that corporate US and European media tended to do so too when they did not openly favor right wing banker Educardo Montealegre. But inside Nicaragua all that demonization of Daniel Ortega and the FSLN leadership flopped, because people in Nicaragua are familiar with the contradictions of both sides of the FSLN and have been so since the years of the revolution. It takes a special kind of hate-filled, grossly conceited solipsism to focus solely or principally on the alleged failings of Daniel Ortega. Nearly 40% of a very high turn out did not and voted for Ortega because, as the FSLN candidate, he was the only one offering them a way out of the miserable dead-end subsistence economy endured for so long out of neo-colonial dependency on the United States and its allies.
All the main political parties engaged in a consistent hate campaign against Ortega and the FSLN with the active encouragement of the US State Department and its ambassador Paul Trivelli who, while obviously not himself a candidate, certainly behaved through 2006 as though he were on the campaign trail. It is impossible to communicate to people outside Nicaragua the pernicious effects of all that negative campaigning. Likewise it is hard for people unfamiliar with Central America to sense the power and attraction to voters of the aggressive creativity and dynamism shown by right-wing political parties like the PLC in Nicaragua or ARENA in El Salvador. When Nicaragua's corrupt former President Arnoldo Aleman over-reached himself out of sheer greed and then insisted on remaining in control of the PLC, he gifted the FSLN in two senses. He irredeemably tarnished his party with corruption and terminally divided the Liberal Alliance he himself had so brilliantly carved out in the mid 1990s. FSLN strategists were able to take advantage of that fatal political moment for the Central American Right and they did so with determination and flair.
A combination of exhaustions also favored the FSLN. The exhaustion and failure of the Liberal Alliance resulted largely from the impatience and arrogance of the ALN's government-sponsored candidate Eduardo Montealegre, who ended up depending on undecided voters to squeeze into a tenuous second place ahead of the PLC's lackluster Jose Rizo. Both candidates suffered from propaganda exhaustion -- they plied the same old anti-FSLN, anti-Ortega hate material and the same old unconvincing "more and better everything" promises of all their previous campaigns. Contradicted by daily reality for 80% of the population, the Liberal parties were unable to break down the FSLN vote. Similarly, the exhaustion of MRS credibility meant they were unable to divide the Sandinista vote. While it is certainly true that their campaign suffered a very cruel setback with the decease of their original candidate Herty Lewites in July, it seems likely that even the very talented Lewites would have managed mainly to attract undecided voters away from Montealegre rather than split the FSLN's solid support.
Outlook -- Brighter Later
Not much is likely to change fast in Nicaragua. Right now the FSLN is preparing for government and working hard for a stable transition. Nicaragua has suffered over 20 years of political conflict. People will deeply resent any return to sharp and loudly aggressive polarization -- especially from an FSLN that based its electoral victory on a message of reconciliation and unity. It will take the new government time to devise ways of redistributing wealth and promoting equality without generating destabilizing conflict. But the desperate, long-neglected needs of the impoverished majority are likely to press hard for resolution right from the start. Other issues will also figure urgently. The abuse of its power by the Catholic church hierarchy to force a vote against therapeutic abortion in October at the height of the election campaign has already begun to cost the lives of vulnerable women. It is hard to see that divisive controversial issue staying unaddressed for very long.
Likewise the matter of urban bus fares in the capital Managua and the chronic failures of the country's electricity generating and distribution system will be important tests of the FSLN's ability to meet people's expectations. Controversial environmental issues like the Copalar hydroelectric mega-project in the Paiwas area of the Atlantic Coast are also potential trials of the FSLN's commitment to meeting people's real needs rather than simply rolling over and playing along with the Plan Puebla Panama corporate game of the Inter-American Development Bank. In the area of international relations, one key and very delicate question for Nicaragua is whether it will now recognize the People's Republic of China and how it will manage its relations with Taiwan, which has significant investments in the country. None of those kinds of issues are simple and one or all of them, badly managed, could demoralize different sectors of support for the FSLN in Nicaragua.
It is certain that the FSLN will very quickly find itself having to work hard to balance powerful social and economic elite interests like big business and the Catholic church against various popular, progressive and radical demands on social issues like therapeutic abortion, and fundamental needs like housing, land and the minimum salary. To some extent the FSLN will be able to argue that even in government it has to work with the legislature in order to establish sustainable and viable measures. But that line will only work for a while, if at all, in controlling the huge expectations people have of the new government. An invaluable advantage the FSLN will enjoy is the support and solidarity of President Chavez and his government in Venezuela and of other powerful Mercosur countries like Brazil and Argentina.
The prospects generally In Nicaragua are for immediate palliative measures while more sustainable redistributive policies are worked out to meet campaign commitments on education, healthcare, energy and transport. While they and their colleagues deal with the daily nitty-gritty of delivering on those promises, the subtle strategists who steered the FSLN to this hard-won election victory have probably already started provisional planning towards the elections in 2011. The FSLN cannot do other than seek to realize the anti-imperialist Latin American vision of Augusto Cesar Sandino and it will need ten to fifteen years in power to do so. They have opened a bridgehead in Central America. One way or another, the motif of Latin American integration will be decisive in both the domestic and foreign policy of the new FSLN government in Nicaragua.
It is very hard to see the Mercosur countries and the ALBA framework of Bolivia, Cuba, and Venezuela failing to exploit this new especially friendly opening into Central American markets. Nor are local Nicaraguan and Central American business interests going to turn down opportunities in South America. If Nicaragua signs up to ALBA, it is hard to believe that, for example, Honduras will not be tempted to follow suit. Whatever integration model one looks at, the chances of the US State Department continuing to maintain its historical chokehold on the options available to the peoples of Central America are slim indeed. People often voice perplexity that the US should care so much about keeping tiny Nicaragua on a viciously tight rein. The clear strategic importance of this electoral defeat for the US government, another downward ratchet in US imperial decline, puts most of the pieces of that puzzle in place.
toni solo is an activist based in Central America. He can be reached via: www.tonisolo.net.
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toni solo is an activist based in Central America - contact via www.tonisolo.net