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Municipal Elections: ‘Nicaragua’s 9-11’

Some years are more remarkable than others.

In Nicaragua, 2008 was a year that will most likely prove transcendental to the continuum of the country’s history.

In the future, when Nicaraguan history students are looking back through text books to understand the sequence of events that have yet to unfold in real time, there will probably be a whole chapter dedicated to 2008, and it will be divided into two sections: before the Nov. 9 municipal elections, and afterward.

The elections, which were riddled with allegations of fraud and vote theft by the ruling Sandinista Front, became a watershed moment for the country. In many ways, it was a game changer for Nicaragua – the moment that redefined the status quo, paralyzed the government, and soured international relations with the United States and the European Union.

It was the day Nicaragua became international news again, for all the wrong reasons.

Liberal Party lawmaker Francisco Aguirre has referred to that day as “Nicaragua’s 9-11,” implying that it was a moment that will live infamously as a historic reference point.

Ironically, on Latin American calendars, the day is given before the month, so Nov. 9 really was Nicaragua’s 9-11.

The vote, which was conducted without the benefit of any credible electoral observers, managed to provide official results a week later, yet the poll tally was largely unbelievable and unaccepted by the opposition.

After President Daniel Ortega won the 2006 presidential elections with only 38 percent of the vote (and less total votes than he got in previous elections, when he lost), the ruling Sandinistas wanted to legitimize their government with an authoritative win in the municipal elections to show that support is growing for their “continued revolution.”

A big win was also needed to give the government party the political momentum it needed to implement the announced next phase of its revolution: a constitutional reform to change the structure of government into a semi-parliamentary system to allow Ortega to continue in power beyond his 2011 presidential term limit.

Yet, in the words of one political pundit, “In wanting everything, the government lost it all.”

According to the official results, the Sandinistas won 105 of 146 municipalities and declared themselves the “new majority” – a bold statement from a party accused of stealing about 40 of the mayoral seats awarded to them by electoral officials.

Amid calls for a vote recount and the suspension of aid from concerned donors, the Sandinistas have dug in their heels and insisted they won the majority “thanks to God.”

That insistence will undoubtedly make two more approaching dates significant in future history books. The first is Jan. 15, when the new mayors are sworn into office before the electoral mess is sorted out.

The second is Jan. 18, when the remaining seven municipalities in the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN) will hold their mayoral elections at risk of repeating the same disastrous process under the same rules and the same disgraced electoral authorities.

A Year of Protest

2008 was a year of protest and counterprotest. The anti-government protests started in June, when former guerrilla hero Dora María Téllez declared a hunger strike in downtown Managua to protest the government’s decision to outlaw her party, the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), the Sandinistas’ political opposition on the left. Téllez’s hunger strike drew international solidarity from leading leftists and intellectuals, and helped to mobilize a nation that was mostly sleepwalking.

Hundreds of students and activists joined Téllez in solidarity during the 12 days of her hunger strike against what she called the return to dictatorship under Ortega.

Government defenders insisted Ortega isn’t a dictator. Former Sandinista guerrilla legend Edén Pastora told The Nica Times back in June, “If this were a dictatorship, those people wouldn’t be allowed to protest the government.”

Several weeks later, on July 5, the government adopted a new zero-tolerance policy toward street protest when Ortega said: “We are lovers of peace, but we are ready to raise the curtain of war if they try to overthrow the power of the people, the citizen power, which now they call a dictatorship. If they try to overthrow what they call ‘the dictatorship,’ they will again witness the an insurrection of the people, and insurrection of the masses, an insurrection of the poor.”

That threat was carried out Sept. 20 when masked and armed Sandinistas from León – led by their mayoral candidate Manuel Calderón – blocked the highway into the city to prevent an opposition from holding a march in the traditional Sandinista city. The roadblock turned violent when the Sandinistas searched passing cars, burned the vehicle of opposition leader Enrique Sáenz and clashed with riot police.

The incident was then repeated in similar post-electoral protests in November in the cities of Managua and León.

By the end of the year, the zero-tolerance policy had extended to other forms of civic demonstration, including marches for women’s rights and human rights, both of which were blocked by state officials and Sandinista sympathizers who accused the activists of trying to destabilize the “revolutionary government.”

In their quest to control the streets, the Sandinistas sent people to maintain a permanent presence in all the traffic roundabouts in Managua, and even tried to claim ownership to traditional religious processions by sending state workers into the streets to march alongside the image of the virgin.

And as for blocking the opposition, the new norm on the streets had become the image of masked Sandinistas clashing with protesters, while dressed in Orwellian government “love” T-shirts and wielding mortars, rocks and brand-new machetes. (Some Sandinista protesters have been seen with new machetes that still had the price stickers on them, raising questions about who was supplying them.) The government’s lack of tolerance wasn’t restricted to the streets, however. The government this year launched a crackdown on 17 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), all of which have been critical of administration policies.

The most notable crackdowns were on the Center for Communications and Investigation (CINCO), run by journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro, the Autonomous Women’s Movement (MAM), Oxfam Great Britain and Swedish agency Forum Syd. The groups were put under investigation for either money laundering or other unspecified crimes.

On Nov. 24, the Ministry of the Interior informed Oxfam that the British NGO had been cleared and that they were free to continue operating as normal here. Although by mid-December, the government had still not handed over all of Oxfam’s files, prompting the British NGO to demand a full return of all its documents.

CINCO, meanwhile, as of December had still not received any official word following the government’s questionable Sept. 9 raid on its office to confiscate 15,000 files, private documents and five computers. CINCO has still not been notified why they are under investigation and maintains they are victims of political persecution.

 Chamorro said in a Dec. 9 press conference that three months after the raid, the government has not been able to present any proof of wrongdoing, which he says is clear indication that something fishy is afoot.

“They evidently have orders from the president to fabricate a case against CINCO,” Chamorro said.

The National Assembly, meanwhile, has been paralyzed for more than a month, preventing passage of reforms to the ’08 budget or approval of the ’09 budget, putting the country’s program with the International Monetary Fund in a precarious situation along with the continuance of donor aid.

With the government gridlocked, democracy deteriorating, the economy slowing and civic and human rights increasingly questioned, the forecast for 2009 is cloudy with a strong chance of thundershowers.

Indeed, after the Nov. 9 elections crashed into Nicaragua like a meteor and knocked it out of orbit, the country will continue to hurl madly toward the unknown in 2009.


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