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Nicaragua’s Presidential Elections

Author: Stephanie Hanson
November 1, 2006

Introduction

On November 5, Nicaraguans will elect a new president. Sandinista leader and former President Daniel Ortega, defeated in the last three presidential elections, leads in the polls and appears on the verge of an extraordinary political comeback. U.S. criticism of Ortega in the run-up to the election has sought to raise concern that he would align the country with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a vocal antagonist of the Bush administration. Although Ortega has touched on anti-capitalist themes in his campaign, he has avoided strong statements about the United States. Of greater concern, experts say, are the deals between the two major political parties made ahead of the election, which could have a corrosive effect on Nicaraguan institution-building for years to come.

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Who are the Sandinistas and what are their goals?

The Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) is a leftist political party inspired by Augusto Cesar Sandino, a revolutionary who initiated a guerrilla war against the U.S. occupation of Nicaragua in the 1930s. When the FSLN came to power in 1979, it set up a ruling junta, quickly allied itself with Fidel Castro’s Cuba and the Soviet Union, and nationalized much of the country’s industry. Since being voted out of power in 1990, the Sandinistas have remained one of two primary political parties in Nicaragua, sharing power with the Constitutional Liberal Party (PLC). The Sandinistas ran in—and lost—presidential elections in 1990, 1996, and 2001, with Ortega as candidate each time.

In 2000, Ortega and President Arnoldo Aleman of the PLC formed el Pacto, a political agreement which gave them lifetime parliamentary seats and immunity from prosecution, and united their two parties in the National Assembly to assert influence over most of Nicaragua’s political institutions. Experts say el Pacto has weakened the Supreme Court and allowed Ortega to pack the Supreme Electoral Council [the central election commission] with allies. El Pacto has “kept the façade of democracy while gutting it out from the inside,” said presidential candidate Eduardo Montealegre in a speech at the Heritage Foundation.

What role has the United States played in Nicaraguan politics?

The United States has a century-long history of intervention in Nicaragua. Relations took a sharp turn for the worse in 1979 when Ortega’s Sandinistas seized power and established an authoritarian state. The Reagan administration responded by backing the Contra rebels, eventually becoming embroiled in the Iran-Contra scandal, in which U.S. agents were discovered selling arms to Iran to fund the Contras. Since the Sandinistas were voted out of power in 1990, the United States has had generally good relations with Nicaragua. In 2005, Nicaragua signed the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA).

What steps have the United States taken against Ortega?

This year, theU.S.government has been outspoken in its criticism of Ortega. U.S. Ambassador Paul Trivelli, who sent letters to Nicaraguan conservative party leaders in April proposing they unite behind one presidential candidate, has been accused by election monitors from the Organization of American States (OAS) of meddling in Nicaragua’s political affairs. He has called Ortega a “tiger who has not changed his stripes,” and cautioned that an Ortega victory would lead to “an introduction of a Chavez model here on the Isthmus.”

“Based on the statement of some officials, you wonder if [U.S. officials] realize it is a sovereign country,” says Michael Shifter, vice-president for policy at the Inter-American Dialogue. Stephen Kinzer, a longtime New York Times foreign correspondent and author of Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq, believes the Reagan-era policymakers still in the U.S.government are “very eager to establish in the panoply of American foreign policy that the Contra cause was a great cause.”

But others say concerns about what a Sandinista victory would mean for Nicaragua are legitimate. “Every word of the U.S. pronouncements about Nicaragua has been magnified,” says Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas, a New York-based group that advocates free trade in the region. But he also says the United States should be careful about appearing too heavy-handed in its rhetoric about the country.

Have other countries intervened in Nicaraguan politics?

Yes. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has sent fertilizer to Sandinista mayors at preferential prices, a move that Nicaraguan newspaper La Prensa joked would “grow the Sandinista vote.” And in April, Chavez signed a petroleum deal with the Venezuelan association of mayors to send oil directly to Sandinista municipalities (CSMonitor) before the elections.

Who are the candidates running for president?
  • Daniel Ortega. Sandinista candidate Ortega is leading with 34 percent of the vote, according to a recent poll by the Costa Rican polling firm Borge & Asociados . Running on a platform of reconciliation and peace, Ortega has sought to broaden his base by forming alliances with former Contras (the Contras’ former top political negotiator, Jaime Morales Carazo, is his running mate), coming out firmly against abortion (which he used to support), and apologizing to the Roman Catholic Church for Sandinista abuses during the war. On the campaign trail, he speaks of wanting to tame “savage capitalism,” but his attacks are directed at the conservative politicians that have been running Nicaragua for the past sixteen years, not the United States, which he rarely mentions. Experts say Ortega’s preelection maneuvers and alliances with rivals are calculated and shrewd. Ortega is “Machiavellian,” says Shifter. “He has a great appetite for power and wants to get it back.”
  • Jose Rizo. Former Vice President Rizo was hand-picked by Aleman as the pro-business PLC’s candidate. Rizo’s candidacy is hurt by the general public’s disillusionment with Aleman, who was sentenced to twenty years in prison in 2002 for fraud and embezzlement committed during his presidency (1996-2001).
  • Eduardo Montealegre. An investment banker, Montealegre is running for the Nicaraguan National Liberal Alliance (ALN-PC), an offshoot of the PLC. Consistently second in the polls, he is the United States’ preferred candidate. He has served as foreign minister and finance minister, and he promotes a neoliberal economic model of “growth that permeates” all levels of society. Critics note that the past three presidents have seen little success from this economic model. But both Montealegre and the other opposition candidate, Edmundo Jarquin, want to “end the caudillo (strongman) period and build institutions,” says Farnsworth. “That would be a very positive step.” 
  • Edmundo Jarquin. An economist and former Sandinista, Jarquin represents a Sandinista-splinter party, the Movement to Restore Sandino (MRS). Like Montealegre, he seeks to purge the corruption of el Pacto. The MRS presidential bid was originally led by the charismatic Herty Lewites, who died suddenly in July. Party leaders selected Jarquin, Lewites’ running mate, to succeed him.
What are the primary issues in the upcoming elections?
  • Poverty. Nicaragua is the second-poorest nation in the hemisphere behind Haiti. Despite a series of economic reforms, between 1998 and 2001 the percentage of the population below the poverty line only dropped 4 percent (from 50 percent to 46 percent), reports the World Bank. The Economist Intelligence Unit predicts that economic growth—which slowed to 4 percent in 2005—will likely be a meager 2.5 percent this year. “The sense of economic despair is overwhelming,” says Farnsworth, adding that the constant struggle for power among the caudillos is obstructing any progress toward alleviating Nicaragua’s poverty or building political institutions.
  • Corruption. As a result of this power struggle and its most visible result, el Pacto, the general population is “tremendously disenchanted” with both political parties, Shifter says. “Nobody has a monopoly on virtue,” says Farnsworth. He adds that the agreement has brought about a fundamental shift in the country. The political institutions are being “changed, altered, and subsumed to the political interests of individual political candidates. That has long-term implications.”
Will the elections be free and fair?

Experts are concerned the elections will not be transparent. The parliamentary bloc formed by el Pacto pushed through legislation that decreases the percentage of the vote necessary to win the presidency from 45 percent to 35 percent of the vote. This change benefits Ortega, who has never garnered more than 35 percent of the vote in his three previous bids for the presidency. “If you can game the system,” as Farnsworth notes, “democracy can be used to elect people who are not necessarily democratic.”

On Election Day, many of the voting places in Nicaragua will only have poll monitors from the Sandinista party. The Carter Center and the OAS are sending limited numbers of international monitors. While in a country like Mexico, monitors from all parties are present at voting places, in Nicaragua the other parties don’t have enough capacity, says Shifter. And if the first round of the election is very close, some experts are concerned the electoral council, whose composition has been manipulated to heavily favor Ortega, will step in and influence the vote’s result. “The key is going to be the size of the margin,” says Kinzer.

How will the election affect future U.S.-Nicaragua relations?

It depends on who wins the presidency, of course, though Ortega is expected to be quite powerful even if he loses. If Monteleagre wins, he will seek warm relations with the United States, but he will be constrained by el Pacto. If Ortega is victorious, most experts say the United States will take a wait-and-see approach. If, as some expect, he aligns himself with Venezuela’s Chavez and pulls out of CAFTA, as he has threatened, it’s possible the United States would cut off aid, including a $175 million agreement signed in 2005 to fund poverty-reduction projects. But if he shows a willingness to cooperate with Washington, “it would not be wise to shut him out completely,” says Shifter. And some think Ortega might have changed. “Look, Alan Garcia [former Peruvian leader from 1995-2000 whose presidency was marked by economic crisis and human rights abuses] was elected in Peru and he is a changed man. It’s possible Ortega could do the same,” says Farnsworth.

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