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Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Nicaragua’s Ortega: a Tug-of-War Presidency

By Circles Robinson

Daniel Ortega will be riding a two-headed horse into office in Nicaragua next January and it’s anyone’s guess whether the left or right will prevail.

After a ten day delay, the Nicaraguan Electoral Council has finally released the complete preliminary results for the November 5 general election. As expected from earlier returns, Ortega remained on top with 37.99 percent of the vote.

Eduardo Montealegre, the US-backed candidate, finished second with 28.30 percent and the other rightwing candidate, Jose Rizo, a close third with 27.11. Ortega’s Sandinista rival, Edmundo Jarquin had 6.30 percent and Alternative for Change candidate Eden Pastora 0.29.

While the final seat distribution for the country’s one chamber legislature has yet to be announced, voting for the 92-member National Assembly appears to have given Ortega’s Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) 38 seats to 25 for the Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC) led by Aleman, and 24 to Montealegre’s newly formed Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN). The Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) is expected to obtain 5 seats.

The country of 5.6 million people has a per capita yearly income of around $800, the second lowest in the western hemisphere. Its main exports are coffee, beef and seafood. Foreign firms also export textiles from the modest local free trade zone or “maquila” factories.

With Fidel, Chavez and Bush

Ortega dedicated his victory as an 80th birthday present to Fidel Castro. At the same time his first statements after winning indicate he will try to do nothing on the economic front to rile up the Bush administration and its corporate backers.

Moving Nicaragua closer to the Latin American integration effort led by Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Fidel Castro, as many of his supporters hope, while staying out of the line of fire of the US State Department, is Ortega’s greatest foreign policy challenge.

Ortega hopes his Latin American allies will provide discount oil, preferential trade, health care assistance and scholarships to meet the many expectations of those who thought winning the election meant a rerun of the 1979 revolution.

Meanwhile, Ortega, who dropped his opposition at the last minute to the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) in October 2005 allowing it to pass in silence, reassures the US and the business sector that the accord is here to stay. Many of his low-end supporters who protested against CAFTA maintain it will favor US corporations over local producers.

Ortega’s supporters are expecting an employment boom, reduced electricity rates, low interest loans to small and medium businesses and farmers, increased salaries, especially for teachers and health workers, and a return to free education and health care.

On the other side of the coin, wealthy business sectors and some of the “Contra” leaders that supported Ortega are hoping for increased foreign investment, a stable currency, low inflation, good relations with the United States, a prudent distance from Venezuela and Cuba, a non-politicized army and police, and total respect for private property, meaning no land occupations or confiscations likes those used in the 1980s to redistribute the country’s wealth.

Resolving the nation’s energy crisis would be popular with all sectors. The daily brownouts are reigning havoc in the country’s productive, commercial and service sectors as well as inconveniencing the general population. To do so, means obtaining greater generating capacity and implementing energy saving practices.

Does Daniel Ortega Have a Clear Mandate?

Some analysts are saying that Daniel Ortega’s return to power is the result of a united front against imperialism. Other’s see Ortega’s politics having gone from left to right during his 16-year obsession with returning to the presidency.

Winning with only 38% of the vote and a minority of the legislators is far from the mandate of an armed revolution (as when Ortega coordinated the Reconstruction Junta after the fall of the Somoza dictatorship in 1979) or even the 67% he obtained in his first election to the presidency in 1984.

It’s important to note that when Evo Morales won the Bolivian presidency last December it was with 53% of the vote. Lula just won re-election in Brazil with over 60%. Tabare Vasquez won in Uruguay with 51% and Hugo Chavez won his first term under the new Venezuelan constitution in July 2000 with 59%.

For the president-elect to get legislation passed or his budgets approved he will need 47 votes. With the FSLN having only 38, negotiations are expected to maintain Ortega and Aleman’s PLC allied for the coming five years.

The “pact,” as it is called, was sharply criticized by candidates Montealegre and Jarquin for having treated the nation as a pie for divvying up according to party loyalties. Ortega defended it saying the two were the largest parties. While the voters gave the PLC and FSLN 98 percent of the votes in 2001 they still managed to get 65 percent in 2006. Between them they are expected to hold 63 seats of the 92-member legislature, a two-thirds majority.

How Ortega Won

There were three main factors that led to Daniel Ortega’s victory.

The first, a law pushed through by the president-elect and former president and corruption convict Arnoldo Aleman that made it possible to win the presidency with only 35% of the vote if no other candidate is within 5 percentage points.

Second, was the division among the two rightwing candidates, Aleman’s choice Jose Rizo, and the US candidate Eduardo Montealegre.

The Bush administration carried out a high profile but unsuccessful campaign to get Rizo to drop out of the race so Montealegre could beat Ortega, Ronald Regan’s old nemesis, in the first round.
US Ambassador Paul Trivelli led the two-pronged attack that also included a fierce scare campaign against Ortega with threats of doom in US-Nicaraguan relations and a blockade on family remittances and aid programs. Trivelli’s warnings were boosted by statements from several Republican congress members and high level US government officials.

In the end, the two right wing candidates won over 55 percent of the vote, similar to the 56 percent garnered by the current president Enrique Bolanos when he easily beat Ortega in 2001.
The last key factor was Ortega’s ability to maintain a solid bloc of support independent of the sharp criticism over the ethical and political stances he and his party’s leadership took over the last 16 years.

The loyal “Danielistas” --as they are called by Sandinistas, who abandoned the FSLN and campaigned for MRS candidate Jarquin, clearly felt the ends justified the means to defeat the rightwing liberals and the ever-present US meddling. Now, since that has occurred, they expect Ortega’s government to take a left turn.

Questions about the Ortega Presidency

How much of the tab is Venezuela willing to pick up to fuel the Nicaraguan economy and fund its social and economic development? During the 1980s Nicaragua received considerable direct and indirect assistance from the Soviet Union, but it was insufficient to stabilize the country’s war-torn economy. Inflation had reached a whopping five digits by the fateful Election Day in 1990, when Ortega was defeated by Violeta Chamorro (54-40 percent).

The Bush administration is bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan and with conflicts simmering with North Korea and Iran. Likewise, the White House has stepped up its hostility towards Cuba and Venezuela. A vital question is whether those foreign policy involvements and the new Democratic Part majority in the US Congress will give Ortega breathing room to seek help from those leaders who Washington considers its enemies.

Internal Issues

Nicaragua analysts are now wondering who will win the tug-of-war and get the lions share in a country of slim pickings. With the country’s limited resources, few believe everyone, rich and poor, can be pleased at the same time.

If Ortega doesn’t meet his promises to provide jobs, land and better salaries, a big question is whether his government would use the Police and Army to repress urban protests or rural land occupations. Protests over the cost of public transportation and utility rates are another source of possible conflict if the new government is not able to deliver on its campaign promises.

Another issue is how real is Ortega’s born-again relationship with the Catholic Church and Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, the leading internal enemy of the Sandinista revolution in the 1980s?

Will a new conservative religious outlook from Ortega and Rosario Murillo, his powerful wife and campaign manager, effect the nation’s education and health policies as occurred in the recent banning of therapeutic abortions for women whose lives are in danger?

Will the church’s call to abstinence become the official Ortega government’s HIV-AIDS prevention campaign?

These and other questions should receive answers in the coming months.


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