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Friday, November 03, 2006

Big Bucks Campaigning in Little Nicaragua

By Circles Robinson

Nicaraguans go to the polls on Sunday after months of saturation advertising campaigns that have invaded just about every public and private space.

The candidates include Daniel Ortega, trying to make a comeback after being voted out in 1990; Jose Rizo, a hacienda owner elected VP with the current president Enrique Bolaños; Edmundo Jarquin an economist in his first bid for office; and Eduardo Montealegre a banker and familiar face in the past two cabinets.

Lavish spending (estimated at well over 20 million dollars) on TV and radio, billboards, banners, posters, baseball caps, t-shirts and the massive consumption of fuel at over $3.00 a gallon, feed the illusion that there are resources available to resolve everyone’s problems once a winner is elected.

With their sizeable war chests, Ortega, Montealegre and Rizo have made it possible for large quantities of people to be brought into the cities for their major caravans or rallies to merge with locals and demonstrate their numbers. Jarquin’s campaign was underfinanced in comparison.

Since most of the rural poor cannot otherwise travel, a day off and a free trip in a truck or bus is often treated like a family excursion. Many people are said to attend the rallies of more than one candidate enjoying the festive atmosphere and hoping to get a cap or a shirt.

The Frontrunner

Daniel Ortega, 61, has been ahead in all the polls from the beginning of the campaign. After three successive defeats he used a new campaign strategy designed by his campaign manager and the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) communications boss, Rosario Murillo, his wife. The key words are peace, love and reconciliation.

A frequently used TV ad has the candidate speaking with John Lennon’s Give Peace a Chance, the campaign song, in the background. “The vast majority of these families have decided to vote for jobs, peace and reconciliation. Now more than ever there is a decision to produce a profound change in our country,” states Ortega.

Huge pink billboards are ever-present throughout the country proclaiming the FSLN as the solution to the country’s problems with lettering in white and yellow, colors of the Catholic Church, and proclaiming that a United Nicaragua will Triumph.

The Ortega campaign is non-confrontational as the candidate seeks a second chance to govern. Campaign paraphernalia including posters, t-shirts and caps are massively distributed as part of the effort to convince the voters.

Murillo’s strategy has included Ortega declining to participate in any of the many public debates or electoral forums organized by universities, the media and social organizations. Ortega has also refused to be interviewed by the press, stating that the couple’s “pilgrimage” to the voters is all that counts.

Alliances with former enemies have been another important FSLN campaign strategy, starting with his running mate, Jaime Morales, a former leader of the US funded “contras” that fought the Sandinista government in the 1980s. Morales was Arnoldo Aleman’s campaign manager in 1996 when he defeated Ortega.

Several mid level “contra” leaders have also come on board during the long campaign convinced by Ortega’s promises to address pending land and financing problems.

Even more significant was the reconciliation between Ortega and Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, the Sandinista revolution’s chief internal enemy during the revolutionary government Ortega led from 1979-1990.

The two have now reconciled and last year the cardinal married Ortega and Murillo, who have been together for nearly three decades, in a religious ceremony. The cardinal frequently appears with the candidate in public.

Murillo and Ortega’s steadfast support for repealing the country’s therapeutic abortion law, in effect for over a hundred years, is widely seen as a gesture to the cardinal and the Catholic Church. The country will now prosecute doctors who practice abortion to save a woman’s life and the patients themselves will also face hefty prison terms.

During his campaign Ortega used massive vehicle caravans through rural communities, towns, urban neighborhoods and cities to demonstrate his party’s superior organizational capacity. The caravans, as well as Murillo’s and his speeches to the onlookers, were then rebroadcast in paid 10-20 minute television ads.

When speaking to his followers on the low end of the economic spectrum, the former president attacks the “savage capitalism” and the resulting poverty it has brought to the country.

Meanwhile, his running mate assures the private sector that his government will not carry out confiscations or create a confrontational climate that would hamper investment.

The FSLN has sharply criticized the United States government for intervening in the campaign but says an Ortega government hopes to have respectful relations with the Bush administration.

The candidate and his lieutenants have also praised Venezuela for offering to help the country with discount oil, fertilizer and in health care enabling some Nicaraguans to receive free eye operations in the South American country and in Cuba.

Jose Rizo aims at the countryside

The campaign of the Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC), winner of the 1996 and 2001 elections, concentrated on a two prong attack of Daniel Ortega, for being a return to the “dark night” of the 1980s, and Eduardo Montealegre, for dividing the anti-Sandinista vote.

The PLC went to great effort to distance its candidate, Jose Rizo, 62, from his involvement in the corrupt Aleman administration (1996-2001) and the current Bolaños government in which he was the vice president.

Rizo also tried to shake any connection to the governance pact between opposition leader Daniel Ortega and Arnoldo Aleman that divided up posts on the different judicial, electoral and comptroller powers to PLC and FSLN members. Ortega and Aleman justified the pact saying that the two parties represented over 90 percent of the electorate.

A Rizo radio ad begins with chants of “Nicaragua First, Nicaragua First,” the campaign slogan. The candidate then addresses his rural following. “From the far corners of Nicaragua to the heart of the country there is only one voice. It demands an end to conflicts and divisions that only lead to poverty and backwardness. We are going to progress with work for all, with health care for our children, because the poverty is the result of our divisions. We are going to progress with a united and strong government.”

In a TV ad the camera zooms in on Rizo with classical music in the background. “I can say with pride what our candidates are offering. My hands are clean of the corruption. We are telling those who made the pact, which sunk Nicaragua in a backward state, that the corruption steals the food off the people’s plates. We say never again to Ortega and the pact.”

Rizo sees rural Nicaragua as his stronghold and addresses much of his campaign to that sector mobilizing large numbers of the farm population for caravans and public gatherings including the campaign finale last Sunday when over 300,000 people converged on Managua.

The PLC campaign painted Rizo as the only candidate that can defeat Daniel Ortega, to get votes from Liberals supporting Montealegre. He repeatedly reminded voters of his party’s successful record in previous elections that took Arnoldo Aleman and Enrique Bolaños to the presidency.

Rizo shunned the last polls showing him running behind Ortega and Montealegre in third place, stating that it is the rural population not included in the polls that will make the difference.

The Bush administration unsuccessfully tried to get Rizo to withdraw from the race but the PLC candidate did get support from Oliver North, one of the lead figures in the Iran-Contragate scandal that equipped the “contras” with covert funds coming from drug and arms dealing.

Edmundo Jarquin, 60, ran by far the most inexpensive campaign of the four leading contenders, without the money for transporting supporters or buying much billboard space.

Jarquin’s main strategy was to present his candidacy and the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) as being the honest side of the legacy left by Augusto Sandino who successfully fought the US occupation troops in the late 1920s and early 30s, and those that later made possible the 1979 Sandinista Revolution that ended the Somoza dictatorship.

A relative unknown to the general population, Jarquin urgently needed to become a household name when he substituted the MRS candidate, Herty Lewites, a popular former FSLN mayor of Managua who died on the campaign trail of a sudden heart attack on July 2.

Calling him the “feo”, or plain faced guy who wants a pretty Nicaragua, the initial MRS advertising was designed to give the candidate name recognition and hold on to Lewites supporters.

Following Lewites groundwork, Jarquin took a moderate center-left stance and said his government would avoid confrontation that would ruin the country’s chance to progress.

Jarquin has appealed to undecided voters by stressing his professional reputation as an economist, projecting that he is the most qualified of the candidates.

The fight against widespread corruption and criticism of what Jarquin calls the “dirty pact” between Ortega and Aleman was combined with a call to reduce the State bureaucracy and mega salaries as key features of the campaign.

In a TV ad containing images of the countryside and artists performing, Jarquin stated: “I want to tell all you Nicaraguans that in my government there are going to be some unemployed people because we are going to reduce the number of Supreme Court Justices from 16 to 9 and National Assembly deputies from 90 to 45 as well as end the mega-salaries. The millions saved will be invested in programs for the poorest sectors so they don’t have to emigrate.”

Besides marches and vehicle caravans Jarquin’s campaign activities often included cultural events featuring concerts by vice presidential candidate Carlos Mejia Godoy and his group.

Mejia Godoy, who substituted Jarquin as the VP candidate when Lewites died, is widely recognized as the country’s most popular singer/songwriter and the leading promoter of Nicaraguan culture. He wrote the main revolutionary songs used before and after the fall of Somoza.

Since Mejia is well known throughout the country, he traveled extensively to promote the MRS cause.

Jarquin and Mejia have made it a point to attend virtually all election forums to make their party’s intentions known.

Eduardo Montealegre of the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN) is using, like Jose Rizo of the PLC, a double edged attack strategy against Ortega as the enemy that would take Nicaragua back to war and shortages and Rizo for dividing up the “democratic” votes and giving Ortega a chance to win on the first round.

Montealegre, a 51-year-old banker, repeatedly uses the polls in his ads to show he is in second place ahead of Rizo to try and get PLC voters to switch over to the ALN to stop Ortega.

Both Montealegre and Rizo tried to get the other candidate to drop out of the race and the United States used its ambassador and several and congressional emissaries to try and convince Rizo to throw in the towel and avoid a return of the dreaded Sandinistas.

But it was all in vain. Up to the final day of the campaign on Wednesday the ALN and PLC candidates carried out a media blitz to convince voters that casting a ballot for the other was a wasted vote that would put Ortega in the presidency.

During his radio campaign advertising Montealegre told rural voters: “I want to tell my brothers from the countryside that I’m going to develop an investment bank that will guarantee more and better financing with lower interest for all.”

Montealegre reached out to the private sector with his TV message: “Liberals and independents, the polls show that only one candidate can defeat Daniel Ortega. Only one candidate is endorsed by COSEP,” the organization that represents larger business interests.

Another TV ad uses a news reporter format and says: “Eduardo Montealegre stated that his principles are very different than those of Daniel Ortega, who attacks democracy by calling producers and economists ‘savage capitalists’ forgetting that he and his associates stole millions from the people of Nicaragua. How can he say he represents the poor and drive around in a 140,000 dollar Mercedes Benz?”

The candidate has participated in large caravans and marches, mostly appearing on foot, as well as rallies trying to project a youthful, caring appearance.

The US ambassador Paul Trevelli and numerous Bush administration officials, advisers and Republican congress people have joined the Montealegre scare campaign warning that an Ortega victory would have unforeseeable negative consequences for Nicaragua’s future, including a possible blocking of family remittances and an end to US economic assistance.


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