From the print edition
MANAGUA, Nicaragua – The political power-sharing arrangement that has defined Nicaragua’s tropical democracy for the past decade is in need of serious restructuring under new management, according to opposition leader Eduardo Montealegre, who’s volunteering for the job.
The 2011 general elections in Nicaragua, which relegated former President Arnoldo Alemán’s once-mighty Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC) to a jerkwater third-party role after their embarrassing 6 percent finish in the poll, has changed this country’s political landscape.
Now, Montealegre, whose party finished runner-up with 31 percent of the vote in last November’s elections, wants to flex his muscles at the political trough. Surprisingly, even though the country has been thrice bitten by knavish power-sharing pacts in the past, many Nicaraguans seem to support the idea of a new political negotiation between Montealegre and current President Daniel Ortega.
The proposed negotiation has been endorsed, with varying degrees of optimism, by the Nicaraguan-American Chamber of Commerce, the opposition Liberal Independent Party, the Catholic Church and even Sandinista dissidents. It is also being backed by the Democratic Citizens’ Union, a group of 19 civil society organizations that promote democracy and human rights in Nicaragua.
The only group to come out strongly against the forthcoming talks is Alemán’s PLC, which in its tattered remains, apparently senses the final vestiges of political relevance and power slipping through its meaty fingers.
Ortega, meanwhile, has been doing what he does best: remain quietly out of sight and let the opposition tear itself apart amid rumors and allegations. Sandinista leadership has only hinted that talks will take place, as the state media outlets delight in the opposition’s uncertainty and speculation.
Still, this month there has been a growing call for negotiations – one that’s gotten so loud Ortega may find it difficult to ignore much longer. Once the talks happen, Montealegre promised, they’ll be done “for the good of the nation,” and not just with the short-term goal of divvying up the spoils of the republic like pirates at a banquet table.
“What we don’t need is an Alemán-type of pacto,” Montealegre said in an interview. “What we need is a national accord to set a certain path to follow for political and economic policy, social policy and institutional policy that goes beyond a single government.”
The “arrangement” must also restore Nicaragua’s constitutional rule of law by appointing new Supreme Court justices, electoral magistrates and replacing the two-dozen other pacto mossbacks whose terms in office expired more than a year ago.
Montealegre said the first order of business is to hose out the country’s putrid Supreme Electoral Council, which is like a refrigerator that hasn’t been cleaned in years. Many of the electoral magistrates’ use-by dates have long since expired, and the stink is raising complaints as far away as Europe.
“The changes that will derive from these talks are important for us to go to municipal elections in November,” Montealegre said. “If we don’t change the electoral authorities, it would be stupid to go to municipal elections knowing the results in advance.”
Montealegre said if Ortega is smart about the future, he would realize that he needs to make some fundamental changes before he stretches his political capital too thin.
“We understand that we are a minority, but we have enough arguments to convince Ortega that it is in his best interest to make some changes, because he depends on foreign aid and investments, and he depends on the people to not revolt,” Montealegre said.
The country’s political situation is untenable, he added, and Ortega needs the help of a constructive opposition to move the country back towards something that looks like an institutional democracy.
A New Type of Pacto?
For more than a decade, the infamous pacto between Ortega and Alemán has fought valiantly against new political leadership and efforts to modernize Nicaragua’s democracy.
But when Liberal chieftain Alemán stopped carrying his weight – both physically and politically – the pacto entered its sad denouement. As Ortega worked his way from junior partner to supreme leader, relegating Alemán to the comical role of incarcerated caudillo, the balance of power shifted unfairly in the Sandinista leader’s favor. But the pacto’s dysfunctional condition eventually led to a government run by presidential fiat and a growing clutter of de facto functionaries.
Alemán is as much to blame for that problem as Ortega, Montealegre said. “Alemán is not in the opposition,” Montealegre said. “He has nothing to bring to the table, and he has screwed up tremendously.”
Montealegre has been sending clear messages to Ortega about his willingness to talk, and he thinks the president might finally be ready to negotiate.
Though he acknowledged there is no roadmap to navigate a return to democratic institutionalism at the negotiating table, Montealegre said, “We have to build that, we have to construct that.”
The former candidate, who has not ruled out another presidential run in 2016, has spent the past six years preaching against the evils of the pacto. Now he said there’s no other choice.
“What alternative do we have? Go to war? Riots? Have the economy in shambles?” he said.
Though a new political agreement might embolden Ortega’s position in the short term, Montealegre said change will eventually come to Nicaragua.
“No one is strong forever,” he said. “Eventually people are going to get tired of the same thing and they are going to change it.”
In the meantime, the opposition needs to negotiate a new agreement because, according to Montealegre, “we don’t have time to wait until Ortega screws up.”
Tim Rogers is editor of The Nicaragua Dispatch, www.nicaraguadispatch.com.