San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Polarized Country Prepares to Vote

MANAGUA – Months of politicking, neighborhood canvassing, bouts of political street violence, and ubiquitous campaign jingles will culminate next weekend when 3.8 million Nicaraguans go to the polls Nov. 9 to vote in a municipal election that the opposition is trying to hype as a referendum on the government of President Daniel Ortega.

Under the banner “Everyone against Ortega,” Managua mayoral candidate Eduardo Montealegre is trying to build a broad coalition of voters from the right, left and center to vote together on the ticket of the Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC) to defeat what he calls the “dictatorial intentions” of President Ortega.

Though Montealegre is running against the Sandinista National Liberation Front’s (FSLN) candidate, former boxing champ Alexis Argüello, the PLC’s “Vamos con Eduardo” alliance has been billing the electoral contest as a rematch of sorts of the 2006 presidential election, in which Montealegre finished runner-up to Ortega.

“We are going to defeat Ortega; the mayor’s office is not a boxing ring,” said Montealegre’s running mate, Enrique Quiñónez. “We’re going to win and get out of this nightmare by electing Eduardo Montealegre as mayor.”

Quiñónez’s enthusiastic support for Montealegre is relatively new.

Until earlier this year, Montealegre was part of the splinter Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN) and was a leading critic of the PLC for its power-sharing pact with Ortega.

While Montealegre was with the ALN, diehard PLC loyalists such as Quiñónez blamed him for splitting the opposition vote and allowing Ortega to win the presidency with only 38 percent of the vote. But now that he’s back with the PLC, the party insists the past hostility is all water under the bridge.

“The divisions of 2004 and 2006 are a thing of the past,” said PLC party boss and convicted ex-President Arnoldo Alemán, who now campaigns for Montealegre despite calling him “a rat” less than two years ago.

Yet building a broad-based anti-Ortega ticket, such as the victorious UNO alliance that beat Ortega and elected Violeta Chamorro to the presidency in 1990, has been complicated by the power-sharing pact that continues between Alemán and Ortega.

Many disaffected Liberal voters who followed Montealegre when he defected from the PLC in 2005 in protest over the “pacto” have been reluctant to follow him back to a party where things haven’t changed. Montealegre’s former protest party, the ALN, is now running its own mayoral candidates in most of the 153 municipalities, though some of its candidates have recently defected to support the PLC’s call for opposition unity.

Two other minority parties – the Nicaraguan Resistance Party (PRN), a political party of former contras that has backed the PLC in past elections, and the evangelical Alternative for Change (AC) – also threaten a unified opposition vote, though neither one polls above a few percentage points.

Many disenfranchised Sandinistas are also having a hard time backing Alemán’s party, even after their own party, the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), was prohibited from running in the elections.

Former guerrilla leader and MRS lawmaker Mónica Baltodano is calling on her supporters to vote “null” in the upcoming elections. Baltodano argues that a vote for Ortega is the same as a vote for Alemán, and that the most democratic option is to protest the entire system by voting for nobody (NT, Oct. 24).

That argument has been a major point of division among Sandinista dissidents, some of whom argue that voting null is the same as abstaining, or splitting the opposition vote, and will only help the FSLN’s Argüello win. Others, meanwhile, worry that a campaign for the null vote could invite electoral fraud by encouraging partisan vote-counters to “nullify” other opposition ballots against their candidate.

After an Oct. 15 CID-Gallup poll – the first campaign poll published – showed Argüello leading Montealegre 37 to 32 percent, with 29 percent of voters still “undecided,” MRS political leader Edmundo Jarquín decided to throw his hat in the ring by calling on his dissident Sandinista supporters to join the vote against Ortega. After backing the PLC-Vamos con Eduardo candidates in León, Masaya and Granada, Jarquin officially endorsed Montealegre Oct. 26 and started running a series of TV spots urging “everyone to vote against Ortega.”

“We have taken the decision, since our own (political party) was canceled, to call on people to vote early and en masse on Sunday Nov. 9, to vote without fear, to vote against the candidates of Daniel Ortega,” Jarquín said during a rally in Masaya.

Though it’s not clear what effect the MRS campaign will have, a second voter-intention poll conducted by M&R Consultants after Jarquín’s call for a massive vote against Ortega showed Montealegre climbing ahead in the polls with 36 percent of the intended vote, followed by Argüello with 32 percent.

The M&R poll also showed that 29 percent of the population was still “undecided.”

Analysts say the undecided voters will be the deciding factor. If a substantial portion of that undecided 30 percent exercises their vote, they will take the electoral process out of the hands of party militants and make it a civic exercise.

But if that 30 percent abstains from the polls, analysts say, the election will become an exercise in party discipline.

“Remember that abstention favors Ortega, who only has the support of the minority, but they are a disciplined minority who go out to vote,” Jarquín said Oct. 18 on his weekly radio show.

Fear of Fraud

President Ortega insists that each of the accredited political parties’ observers – or fiscales, as they are known – are sufficient guarantee to assure clean and transparent elections.

The president argues that Nicaragua does not need any foreign observation.

In the past, the Organization of American States (OAS), the CarterCenter and other foreign electoral observation groups have participated in monitoring Nicaragua’s elections, but Ortega says those groups only represent the interests of “U.S. political hegemony.”

Ortega and the CSE have also shown no interest in accrediting national electoral observation groups, such as Ethics and Transparency and the Institute for Democratic Development (IPADE). Both groups have sent several letters to the CSE asking about their accreditation, but have yet to receive an answer with less than two weeks to go before the vote.

So far the only other group accredited by the Sandinista government is the Ecuadorbased Commission of Latin American Electoral Experts (CEELA), which the PLC has already decried as “instruments of electoral fraud hatched by the FSLN.”

The PLC has also denounced the CSE for withholding 50,000 cédulas – state identification cards needed to vote – from registered Liberal voters throughout the country.

The opposition is also denouncing the government’s violation of electoral law by covering government offices in campaign propaganda and by using state resources – such as the government’s “Zero Hunger” handouts – in campaign events for Sandinista mayoral candidates.

The Sandinistas’ use of government resources in the political campaign has become so uncontrolled that opposition lawmakers in the National Assembly last week stalled an emergency budget reform to repair roads destroyed by weeks of heavy rains after a rumor circulated that the Sandinista government was planning to use its mayoral candidates to present the emergency funding to each of the municipalities as a campaign-closing event.

What’s at Stake?

The Sandinistas and the opposition have hyped up the elections for months, with both sides giving the impression that the country’s very democracy is in the balance.

The Sandinistas have likened a vote for the opposition to a return of neo-liberal corruption, while the opposition has said that a vote for the FSLN candidates would facilitate Ortega’s authoritarian project.

Some analysts, however, are taking a more even-keeled approach to the elections.

Luis Humberto Guzmán, a political analyst and former president of the National Assembly, says he doesn’t think there will be any dramatic change after the elections, since Nicaragua does not have a parliamentary system where a change in municipal leadership could have a real effect on national leadership.

The pre-electoral hype, he says, is an effort by both parties to combat high levels of voter abstention, which has been as high as 40 to 50 percent in past municipal elections.

“There’s a certain drama that’s going on right now by the parties in an effort to improve participation and mobilize the vote,” Guzmán said.

With political tensions running high and doubts already being raised about the transparency of the electoral process, most people are hoping there won’t be any more dramatics on election day.


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