Nicaragua Candidates: Strengths and Weaknesses
An eerie silence hovers over Nicaragua on Saturday, the day before the polls open for its general elections. The feeling is similar to the day before a hurricane is about to strike, when everything seems so calm but people are anxious or fearful as to what is going to happen.
Previous Nicaraguan presidential elections have all shown that the opinion polls can be considerably off and many people are uncertain what is going to occur inside the voting booths. Some 17,000 national and a thousand international observers are on hand to supervise the voting and tallying.
Voters will choose from among two Sandinistas, former president Daniel Ortega of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) and economist Edmundo Jarquin of the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS); and two right wing Liberals, Eduardo Montealegre of the newly formed Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN), and Jose Rizo of the Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC). Eden Pastora, a former Sandinista turned “Contra” commander, is the fifth candidate for the Alternative for Change Party, but he is not considered a serious contender.
For the third time Daniel Ortega is trying to regain the presidency he won in 1984 and lost in 1990 to Violeta Chamorro.
A sharp division among the right wing Liberals and a new law allowing a candidate to win with only 35 percent of the vote if no other has 30 percent have given Ortega a golden opportunity. He has led in all the opinion polls obtaining between 30 and 34 percent.
Ortega’s greatest strength lies in his having maintained a well organized loyal support base throughout the country willing to overlook any criticisms of him and the party leadership no matter how serious.
While Nicaragua has shown some macro-economic growth, 3.1 percent during the last 5 years, the country has clearly stagnated and poverty and desperation have increased. For many of the country’s poor the bottom line of 16 years of neoliberal governments is negative.
Ortega’s “pilgrimage” to the people, as he and his wife and campaign manager Rosario Murillo described their effort, played well to the poor urban and rural inhabitants hoping for employment or credit and for greater access to education and health services.
The FSLN won a majority of the country’s mayor’s offices in the 2004 municipal elections, greatly strengthening the party’s ability to provide jobs and implement projects with its seal.
Ortega and Murillo also believe the alliances forged with some of the leaders of the “Contras” that fought the Sandinista revolution in the 1980s, including VP candidate Jaime Morales, and reconciliation with Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, the revolution’s most virulent internal enemy, will garner new votes. In fact, on the last day of the campaign, Ortega virtually declared himself the winner.
For those that actively participated during the years of the revolutionary government, and in the stories they’ve told their children, Ortega personifies nostalgia for the revolution and an attempt to bring up the living standard and educational level of the poor.
Nonetheless, he also embodies the hardships that Nicaraguans faced under his leadership as a result of the war with the US backed “Contras” and what became an unpopular obligatory military draft.
Shortages and rationing, in part caused by the US blockade, rampant inflation, and conflicts with the Catholic Church, the press and the business sector are other things associated with the candidate that are constantly used by his opponents.
Despite him leading in the polls, 60 percent of the population consistently says they would not vote for him under any circumstance.
It remains to be seen if the former president and his party’s leading the way to repeal the country’s therapeutic abortion law just before the election will gain or lose him votes.
Realizing their lives could be endangered when suffering a complicated pregnancy, Ortega’s female supporters have been presented with a serious dilemma. With others, his embracing conservative church doctrine may prove popular.
The power sharing pact with Arnoldo Aleman and the PLC, justified as an act of stability; his stepdaughter’s accusations of sexual abuse, dropped in the Nicaraguan courts due to the statute of limitations; and the unexplained enrichment of some FSLN leaders after the Party lost power in 1990, are some of the causes why Ortega lost the backing of most intellectuals that once supported his government.
While the Bush administration and some Republican members of congress are already rattling their sabers, Ortega hopes a non confrontational stance on the Central American Free Trade Agreement and putting several business leaders in key economic posts will calm the waters if elected. His campaign has repeatedly preached peace, love and reconciliation.
Fernando Suarez a 52-year-old laborer said he supports Ortega because “Those that have governed since 1990 have been disappointing despite having governed in peace time. Daniel is different because he’s always been on the side of the poor. The other candidates are all the same with the same free market programs that mean more poverty, less employment and little participation. If the Frente (FSLN) wins there will be jobs and people won’t have to emigrate.”
Suarez said a second Ortega government would resemble his in the 1980s in so far as health and education and differ in that the FSLN won’t be governing by itself but in an alliance.
Oscar Icaza, a 29-year-old merchant, said he backs Ortega “because he represents the poor and is the only real leader among the candidates.” He added, “The US doesn’t have the moral authority to teach us about democracy; Venezuela doesn’t condition its aid, the US does.”
A 21-year-old student, who preferred not to be identified, said she is going to vote for the first time. She said she will vote for Ortega, “firstly because my family instilled revolutionary values in me and I believe the FSLN is the only party that is revolutionary. The MRS is opportunistic not revolutionary.”
The young woman commented on the foreign intervention in the election campaign: “It’s good that the US interferes because that way the people can see US politics for what it is. As far as Venezuela, I don’t call that interference, its solidarity, and that’s a different thing.” She added: “I believe that we Sandinistas are intelligent enough to not repeat the errors of the past.”
Eduardo Montealegre, 52, is the youngest candidate and comes from an upper-class family with extensive banking interests. He has the support of La Prensa newspaper and Channel 2 TV, leaders in their respective media.
Montealegre has consistently appeared second in the election polls that also show him to be a relatively easy winner over Ortega if there is a second round between them. This has been his strongest selling point.
Like the MRS candidate Edmundo Jarquin, Montealegre has built his campaign on attacks of the pact between Daniel Ortega and Arnoldo Aleman.
The candidate plays to the many poor that believe it is only the wealthy and successful who can create jobs for the unemployed.
Montealegre has solid support from the business community and their chief organization COSEP, the Superior Private Enterprise Council. He also has the endorsement of the United States, whose ambassador, Paul Trivelli has continually intervened in his favor stating he is the only candidate who can defeat Ortega, a priority for the US.
On the down side, Montealegre has been a familiar face in government holding top ministerial posts in both the administrations of Arnoldo Aleman and Enrique Bolanos. He is accused of personally benefiting from government bond sales that greatly increased the country’s internal debt. His promises of more and better employment ring hollow to some because of his close relationship with the past two presidents under whom poverty increased.
Adriana Sediles, a 20-year-old executive secretary said she supports Montealegre “because he has many friends in the business sector willing to help him to create employment. Those who historically create jobs here are the business people not the government.”
Sediles sees nothing wrong with the Bush administration taking sides in the campaign. “The US is right to get involved because if Ortega wins he is going to declare war. Chavez is interested in Nicaragua to convert it into another communist ally. If Daniel wins he will copy the same model of the 1980s.”
Roger Blandon, a 30-year-old salesperson, says he supports Montealegre “because he has progressive ideas.” Blandon notes: “The other candidates are shameless; they have already been in power and didn’t do anything. These elections are even more important than those in 1990 because now we know that if Daniel wins there will be no way to stop him.”
Blandon says he likes Montealegre’s promise of “more and better jobs”. He also maintains what the US is doing in the campaign “is making a recommendation, but not buying votes like Chavez with oil.”
Carlos Vicente Garcia a 30-year-old radio operator says he supports Montealegre “because he is the only candidate that can beat Daniel Ortega.” Garcia says the ALN candidate has more economic resources and knows what it takes to make money. “The others are just an image of going backwards.”
“The elections are a life or death matter because if the candidates of the pact (FSLN and PLC) win, the country will sink,” comments Garcia adding, “Montealegre’s promise of economic stability is magnificent and he’s the only one offering it.”
Chiming in with the Montealegre advertising campaign to spark fear of Ortega, Garcia notes, “If Ortega wins it will be a terrible return to the dark night and war.”
Jose Rizo, 62, lawyer and coffee hacienda owner, is the candidate of the Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC) that won the last two presidential elections with Arnoldo Aleman in 1996 and Enrique Bolanos in 2001, when Rizo was elected vice president. The right wing candidate also held an important post in the Aleman government.
The strong PLC party machinery with a national presence and capable of mobilizing hundreds of thousands of people, mostly rural, is Rizo’s strongest credential is his effort to be the candidate that can beat Ortega.
Rizo’s biggest weakness is that he was hand picked to be the PLC candidate by Arnoldo Aleman, convicted of misappropriation of funds and other forms of corruption, who hopes to have his 20-year sentence dropped after the election.
Rizo tries to portray himself as having distanced from Aleman and Bolanos, and emphasizes that his was a co-founder of the PLC and has always been a reliable party man.
At his massive campaign finale last Sunday in Managua, Juan Pablo Martinez 37, from Tuma-La Dalia, Matagalpa said he was sure Rizo is going to win.
Terencio Brizuela, 43, an ex-Contra from Rio Blanco, Matagalpa said he supports Rizo because “I was told that otherwise Ortega would win.”
Esmenegildo Gutierrez, 54, from Boaco said he too was in the plaza, “because I don’t want Daniel Ortega to win again. If he wins he will take us to hell.”
Evenor Duarte, 33, from Jinotega said he wasn’t surprised by the enormous crowd, estimated at 300,000. “I’m not surprised, this is a big party. In my family there were three more who wanted to come but for a lack of transportation couldn’t.” Duarte added, “I’m actually a Conservative, but I’m going to vote for Rizo so neither Daniel or Montealegre win.”
Edmundo Jarquin may be fourth in the polls but his candidacy has drawn considerable attention, mounting the first serious challenge to Ortega’s grip on Sandinista voters and appealing especially to students and professionals.
The candidate took over for former Managua Mayor Herty Lewites as the MRS presidential candidate when Lewites died suddenly of a heart attack on July 2. Jarquin stresses his reputation as a prestigious economist, capable of steering the country forward.
The MRS campaign has sharply attacked the pact between Ortega and convict Arnoldo Aleman for divvying up the state powers and submerging the country in stagnation, as well as the FSLN leadership which he believes deviated from the principles of the Sandinista revolution.
His running mate, Carlos Mejia Godoy, the country’s most popular singer-songwriter, and the vast majority of the artists and intellectuals that supported Ortega in the 1980s have over the last 15 years abandoned the FSLN and are now grouped in the MRS and making themselves heard.
Ernesto Cardenal, former minister of culture, Sergio Ramirez, Daniel Ortega’s vice president, authors Gioconda Belli, Fernando Silva, Sofia Montenegro, Claribel Alegria, Guillermo Cortes, Michele Najlis, Daisy Zamora and Monica Zalaquett and popular comedian Luis Enrique Calderon and singer Luis Enrique Mejia Godoy are just some of those who abandoned Ortega and are supporting Jarquin.
Several of the top leaders of the Sandinista revolution including Henry Ruiz, Monica Baltodano, Victor Hugo Tinoco, Dora Maria Tellez, Victor Tirado Lopez and Luis Carrion are also backing Jarquin. They disagree with charges from Ortega’s camp of dividing the Sandinista vote maintaining that any division is actually the fault of Ortega for not allowing other candidacies within his party.
On the down side to getting elected, Jarquin spent most of the last 22 years outside the country, first as the Nicaraguan ambassador to Mexico and Spain under the FSLN government and later as a top level economist at the Inter-American Development Bank.
As a virtual unknown to many Nicaraguans he had to spend a considerable amount of time and MRS resources to quickly become known to the electorate after Herty Lewites death and his assuming the party’s presidential candidacy.
Observers believe he succeeded in becoming a household name with his slogan “el feo” the plain face guy who wants a pretty Nicaragua, in the Pacific urban areas, but had less success in the north, central and eastern rural departments where the MRS organizational network was weaker.
Jarquin took a lone stand in favor of maintaining the hundred-year-old therapeutic abortion law when all the other parties (FSLN, PLC and ALN) heeded the call of the Catholic and some Evangelical Church leaders and quickly repealed the law that could sacrifice the lives of thousands of women with complications in pregnancy.
Anikelka Aguirre, 23, a first year marketing student says she will vote for Jarquin “because his is sincere and honest.” She said she likes that “he doesn’t promise heaven on Earth like the other candidates.” What Aguirre likes most is Jarquin’s offer to create dignified employment and educational opportunities.
Aguirre maintains that Montealegre did nothing as a top official of the Aleman and Bolanos governments “and now promises the impossible.” Regarding the FSLN candidate she adds, “if we vote for Ortega it will be a catastrophe, and therefore we must vote for real change.”
Ricardo Gonzalez, a 51-year-old professor at the UPOLI University in Managua said he supports Jarquin because he “is the new alternative that Nicaragua needs and whose promises are more believable than the others.” Gonzalez added: “I like his proposals because they are viable instead of demagogic; they take into account the reality of the country.”
Renato Artiles, a 53-year-old administrative worker said, “For us professionals, Jarquin is a fresh alternative from the rest who seek personal gain and a continuation of the status quo. These elections are crucial. Either we change or we sink.” Artiles further said he also supports Jarquin’s desire “to fight corruption and reduce the mega salaries in government.”
Yiselda Herrera, a 26-year-old law student, said she will vote for Jarquin “because his is sincere and explains things clearly. I am sure he will turn things around in our country.”
Herrera said one of Jarquin’s strengths is that “he is not contaminated by the past and is not just another politician. The others all have a record and none of them has the moral authority to govern this country.”
The future attorney said the elections are especially important “because the youth vote for this candidate is going to set a precedent.” Herrera maintains that Jarquin’s experience in international relations and communications skills to deal with the World Bank, and even the United States, are an asset.