Ortega Victory Certain, Nicaragua’s Future Unclear

International observer groups, such as the European Union, the Carter Center, and the Organization of American States have all issued reports stating that the elections were overall fair and transparent, despite the extremely partisan nature of the Supreme Electoral Council, which is completely dominated by the FSLN and PLC. The national observer group, Ética y Transparencia (EyT), which had an observer present at almost every polling station in the country, has also stated that there were no major irregularities. The presence of fiscals (party observers) from all five parties in the majority of voting centers further guaranteed the fairness of the elections, as each fiscal received a copy of the opening and closing acts and tally sheets. In spite of threats made by certain members of the US government to block remittances sent from Nicaraguans in the US and to cut off all aid, the US has somewhat softened its rhetoric since Ortega’s victory became apparent. It remains to be seen what the US’ actual policy towards the Ortega government will be.

The FSLN toppled the decades-long Somoza family dictatorship in 1979, and embarked on a socialist path, adopting a mixed economy and maintaining friendly relations with the Soviet Union and Cuba. The new government instigated major reforms in the areas of education, health care, and land distribution throughout the decade of the 1980s, but its capacity was greatly hindered by the US-financed Contra war and economic blockade. The Reagan administration insisted on financing the Contras even in spite of a Congressional ban, leading to the Iran-Contra Affair of 1986, when it became public that members of the Reagan administration had funneled money received from arms sales to Iran to the Contras. Daniel Ortega was a member of the National Directorate following the 1979 Nicaraguan Revolution and was then chosen as the FSLN candidate in the 1984 elections, which other parties boycotted at the last minute at the behest of the US. Nicaraguans voted Ortega out of power in 1990, when the FSLN experienced an electoral defeat by a rightist coalition led by Violeta Barrios de Chamorro. Ortega was also the FSLN candidate in the 1996 and 2001 elections, suffering defeat on both occasions. However, the FSLN has maintained an active role in the National Assembly and continues to be the most organized political force in Nicaragua.

Ortega’s victory in the recent elections is best explained by the fracturing of the right wing, known as the "Liberals" in Nicaragua. The presidents elected in 1996 (Arnoldo Alemán) and in 2001 (Enrique Bolaños) both belonged to the Partido Liberal Constitucional (PLC) formed by Alemán. However, the sentencing of Alemán to 26 years in prison on charges of embezzlement, money-laundering, and corruption in 2003, a result of an anti-corruption campaign launched by Bolaños and supported by the FSLN, led to a crisis within the PLC. Many on the right also objected to "el pacto," a series of agreements made between Ortega and Alemán during the latter’s presidential tenure that divided major government positions between the FSLN and PLC. Alemán’s continued control of the PLC and his influence in the selection of the party’s presidential candidate for the 2006 elections, José Rizo, led many to break with the PLC and join the recently formed Alianza Liberal Nicaraguense (ALN) led by US-educated banker Eduardo Montealegre. Montealegre was the US’ favored candidate and polled a close second to Ortega previous to the election, though he failed to pull enough votes away from the PLC to beat Ortega or force a second-round of voting. Under Nicaraguan electoral law, a presidential candidate can win in the first round with only 35% of the vote if the runner-up is at least five percentage points behind.

The FSLN suffered from an intra-party crisis similar to that of the PLC, though in the end, relatively few voters abandoned the party in comparison with the quantity of voters the PLC lost to the ALN. In 1994, several prominent members of the FSLN, such as Dora María Tellez and Sergio Ramírez, formed the Movimento Renovador Sandinista (MRS) in response to Ortega’s iron grip on the party. Many also rejected to the so-called "piñata" of 1990, in which some outgoing FSLN government functionaries seized large amounts of state-owned assets and property. The MRS remained relatively insignificant politically until 2005, when former FSLN Managua mayor Herty Lewites openly announced his desire to run as the FSLN presidential candidate in the 2006 elections, leading Ortega to expel him from the party. Lewites then decided to run as the MRS candidate, with economist Edmundo Jarquín as his vice-presidential candidate. Due to Lewites’ effective administration of Managua in his stint as mayor, many voters saw him as a favorable presidential choice. Lewites’ fervent criticism of Ortega, and especially the Ortega-Alemán pact, also echoed with many Sandinistas. However, his untimely death due to heart failure in July of 2006 left his running mate, Edmundo Jarquín, as the MRS’ presidential candidate. Though Jarquín polled only a few percentage points behind Montealegre before the elections, he received only 6.44% of the vote on November 5th.

It is unlikely that Ortega campaign’s attempt to soften the face of the FSLN had an effect on his presidential victory. Ortega ran on a platform of "Reconciliation and National Unity," plastering every corner of the country with colorful pink, blue, and yellow signs and rendering a new version of John Lennon’s "Give Peace a Chance" as his campaign song. He has officially made amends with the Catholic Church, whose hierarchy strongly opposed the FSLN in the 1980s. The FSLN solidified this alliance by voting to ban therapeutic abortion just ten days before the elections. Nicaragua is now one of only four countries in the world that does not permit abortion in cases where the pregnancy endangers the mother’s life. Ortega even convinced some former Contras to join his coalition. Ortega’s running mate, Jaime Morales Carazo, is a former Contra, and Ortega currently lives in a house confiscated from Carazo in the 1980s. Salvador Talavedra, the head of the Partido de Resistencia Nicaraguense (PRN), a party made up of mostly ex-Contras and allied with the ALN, even abandoned his party to join the FSLN coalition. However, it is doubtful that Ortega was able to convince many traditionally Liberal voters to vote for the FSLN. In fact, the 38.07% of the vote that Ortega earned marks a 4% loss from the percentage of the vote he received in the 2001 elections.

The 2006 Nicaragua elections are significant not only due to Ortega’s return to power, but also the formation of a multi-partisan National Assembly. Nicaragua’s political history has always been bi-partisan, with the Liberals battling the Conservatives for dictatorial power after independence, and the FSLN competing for power with the PLC since the establishment of electoral democracy in 1990. The National Assembly electoral results are not final, and all the parties are complaining that the results were somehow manipulated in favor of the others. Currently, at least five seats are in dispute in the departments of Managua, Carazo, Boaco, and the Región Autonoma del Atlántico Sur (RAAS). Parties are also complaining about the Supreme Electoral Council’s sluggishness in announcing the final results. According to the quick count conducted by Ética y Transparencia (EyT), it appears that the FSLN will have 37-38 National Assembly Deputies, followed by the ALN with 23-26, the PLC with 22-26, and the MRS with 4-6 seats. Presidential runner-up Montealegre and outgoing President Bolaños will also occupy seats in the National Assembly, bringing the total number of Deputies to 91. This means that no single party will have a majority, but if the ALN and PLC vote along similar lines they will have enough Deputies to defeat measures supported by combined FSLN and MRS forces. Ortega will thus likely face strong opposition in the National Assembly.

Ortega’s role as president will be further complicated by a series of Constitutional reforms designed to weaken the executive branch in favor of the National Assembly that will go into effect on January 20th. These reforms stipulate that the National Assembly must approve of all Ministers, Vice-Ministers, and members of the foreign service appointed by the president. The National Assembly can also override, article by article, a presidential veto. The FSLN and PLC voted for these reforms in order to cripple President Bolaños, who called the measures a "coup d’etat." Bolaños’ anti-corruption campaign against Alemán led the PLC to turn against him, and these reforms would have made him even more powerless. The Organization of American States helped Bolaños reach an agreement with the National Assembly earlier this year to ensure that these reforms would not go into effect until the next president takes power on January 10, 2007. Ortega has said that he will not try to block these reforms, stating, "I could say that these reforms will not go into effect, but Bolaños and I consider that it is healthy that the exercise of power will have greater participation that will permit us to have more dialogue and consensus."

The FSLN’s lack of a majority in the National Assembly and the Constitutional reforms that limit the power of the executive branch bring into question Ortega’s ability to implement his bold plans. The FSLN’s official "Government Program" is highly ambitious, calling for direct democracy through People’s Power Assemblies and promising free basic health care and primary and secondary education for all. The official program also mentions the formation of a Bank of Production Promotion for small and medium-sized producers based on the BANDES model of Venezuela. The FSLN plan includes the construction of low-cost housing in the cities and the countryside, and calls for an end to mono-crop agricultural production in order to guarantee the country’s food security. Ortega says that he will finance these reforms through the sale of Venezuelan oil and the restructuring of the national debt. Cuban doctors and educators are expected to arrive en masse to help with the new government’s health and education programs and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela has promised to send cheap oil and fertilizer.

The FSLN plan also calls for further government control of public utilities, which could mean the expulsion of the highly unpopular Spanish-owned electricity distribution company, Union Fenosa. The company complains that it is losing money because of the high number of illegal connections and the failure on the part of the energy generators to create enough electricity. This has led to widespread unannounced blackouts, which have ruined many small businesses and enraged Nicaraguans from all social classes. Consumer groups complain that Union Fenosa has not complied with its contract to improve the infrastructure of Nicaragua’s electrical distribution and oppose President Bolaños’ insistence on the need to subsidize the transnational corporation.

The FSLN plan also talks about the renegotiation of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), which went into effect in April of this year. Ortega says that Nicaragua will look to open new alternative markets, such as the Alternativa Boliviariana para las Americas (ALBA), a "fair trade" alternative to free trade agreements.

Despite these promises, Ortega has spent the past week affirming his commitment to capitalism and neoliberal policies. He has stated that he will maintain good relations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, and has courted the private business and banking sector, which have since stated their confidence in the president-elect’s commitment to private enterprise. In an agreement signed with the Nicaraguan Chamber of Commerce (Camonic) five days before the elections, Ortega promises to "guarantee the freedom of enterprise and the promotion of public policies with the active participation of the private sector," and to support CAFTA.

In a country where 80% of the population survives on less than US$2 per day, some sort of change is urgent, and the poor masses that make up Ortega’s political base have high expectations. Even before the final results became public, FSLN peasant supporters began to take over land in the countryside. It will likely be impossible to please all sectors, and any reforms depend on the will of a divided National Assembly. Moreover, Ortega’s commitments to genuine social change and transparent government are questionable due to his behavior over the past 16 years. Only time will tell what Nicaragua’s new president-elect’s actual political and economic trajectory will look like.

Kristen B. Shelby reports from Managua, Nicaragua.