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Saturday, November 04, 2006

Election Uncertainty Permeates Nicaragua

By Circles Robinson

Nicaraguans are early risers and many will line up before the polling stations open Sunday morning to vote for a new president, 90 National Assembly members and 20 seats on the Central American Parliament.

All the pre-election polls have Daniel Ortega of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) on top and approaching the 35 percent he would need to win on the first round of voting if no other candidate reaches 30 percent. Otherwise he would need at least 40 percent to avoid a runoff to recapture the presidency he held from 1985-1990.

According to the Electoral Council, some 3.4 million voters are qualified to vote at the over 11,000 voting tables set to receive them.

Youth participation could be significant in determining the outcome and many civic organizations have worked hard to get young people to exercise their right to vote. The voting age in Nicaragua is 16.

Around a thousand international observers are expected from the Organization of American States, the European Union, the Carter Center, Witness for Peace as well as CEELA, the Tikal Project, the Quito Protocol and the Permanent Conference of Latin American Political Parties. They will join the thousands of national observers trained to oversee the elections.

Have Times Changed?

In 2001, Daniel Ortega and Enrique Bolaños went into Election Day virtually even at around 40 percent each in the polls.

However, the turnout was large and the current president captured most of what were considered undecided or no opinion votes to defeat Ortega 58 to 42 percent.

Ortega campaigned in 2001 on the failures of the first 11 years of post-revolution governments to address the increasing poverty and worsening social services in the country.

Bolaños used images of the “contra” war, Ortega’s friendship with left wing leaders and the economic hardships of the 1980s to remind voters of where Ortega would lead them.

In the end, the past carried more weight than the present.

Now, a big question is whether that will hold true in 2006?

Four way race

This time around its 4-way race, making the panorama very different than the polarized elections in 1990 when Ortega lost to Violeta Chamorro or to Arnoldo Aleman in 1996 and Bolaños in 2001.

Ortega’s leading competitor in the polls is the US backed candidate, Eduardo Montealegre, a wealthy banker who held top posts in both the Bolaños and Aleman administrations. He is running on the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance ticket.

Running third in the polls is Jose Rizo, a lawyer and coffee hacienda owner who was Bolaños vice president. Rizo is the candidate for the Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC), which took Aleman and Bolaños to the presidency.

The fourth major candidate is Edmundo Jarquin, an economist from the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), which spilt with Ortega in the mid-1990s.

All Eyes on Ortega’s Chances

Since Ortega’s core vote is considered loyal and likely to vote, an overall low turnout would favor his chances of winning on the first round, avoiding a runoff with the runner-up in which he would be at a disadvantage.

A factor that could influence Ortega’s results is his rapprochement with Cardinal Obando y Bravo and the Catholic Church and the FSLN’s lead role last week in the repeal of the therapeutic abortion law, on the books for over a hundred years.

Will he gain votes from worshipers of the country’s majority religion or lose those of Evangelicals fearful of the Catholic Church dominance in an Ortega government’s public education system?

Another question is how effective was Montealegre’s last minute scare campaign about a return of Ortega and his controlling family remittances. The candidates’ ads were buttressed by statements to the media supporting him from US ambassador Paul Trivelli and threats from several members of the US Congress.

To what degree Ortega’s campaign of peace and reconciliation was convincing, as well as his decision not to appear in any public debates or forums, are other questions the voters will answer on Sunday?

Rizo, Montealegre and Jarquin

Jose Rizo is banking on a huge rural turnout of loyal PLC supporters that helped Bolaños win in 2001. But will it offset his low showing in the polls in urban areas?

His bus-in finale in Managua, the largest single concentration of the campaign, was a sign that he can not be discarded.

Eduardo Montealegre’s chances depend on the success of his strategy of convincing PLC voters that he is the only one who can stop Ortega from winning on the first round. His profoundly negative campaign against Ortega and his belittling of Rizo will either bare fruit or fall short.

Edmundo Jarquin could benefit from coming out unscathed by the persistent negative campaign advertising where Rizo and Montealegre ruthlessly attacked Ortega with the old images of the 1980s, and then each other for having divided the anti-Sandinista vote.

Jarquin used a limited amount of negative advertising targeted against Ortega for his pact with Aleman, and against Montealegre for his ties to the last two governments.

Daniel Ortega should accumulate the vast majority of rural Sandinista votes but could lose Managua and other Pacific cities to Jarquin or Montealegre.

Rizo should gather a large majority of rural Liberal voters but faces an uphill battle against Montealegre for a share of the anti-Sandinista ballots in the cities.

Another mystery are the voters returning from Costa Rica and even the United States to cast their ballots. The majority of these votes are expected to go to Montealegre and Jarquin, but their numbers are hard to gage. Likewise, hundreds of medical students were flown in from Cuba who will most likely vote for Ortega.

What is certain is that the makeup of the next legislature will be greatly different with significant ALN and MRS benches joining the PLC and FSLN legislators.

Fear to commit

Another factor affecting the validity of the polls and possibly distorting the outcome are those Nicaraguans unwilling to declare their preferences if they are contrary to the political party holding the city halls where they live, key to local employment and participation in community projects.

MRS supporters are less likely to state their preference in towns or cities with FSLN mayors. The same goes for ALN supporters where the PLC governs. What nobody knows is whether the numbers involved are significant?

Like many hotly contested elections the key will be voter turnout in the areas where each candidate has their strongholds and then the ability of the parties’ poll watchers to defend their votes during the tallying process.


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