Is the Fifth Time a Charm? The Election of Daniel Ortega and the Frente Sandinista  

News Abroad

Mr. Gould is Rudy Professor of History and Director of the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at Indiana University.

Recent articles in the mainstream media on Daniel Ortega’s victory in the Nicaraguan presidential elections have emphasized his opportunism. Some dissident voices have protested the Bush administration’s efforts to interfere in the elections. Both arguments are worth making, but they overlook key aspects of the Nicaraguan political situation and recent history.

Over the past two decades, Ortega has run in five presidential elections; he won the first in 1984 and then lost the next three. Especially as leader of the opposition since 1990, he has engaged in egregiously opportunistic practices. Most recently, he led the Frente Sandinista (FSLN) deputies in voting for a total abortion ban in order to please his new allies in the Catholic Church hierarchy. Similarly, the notorious pact with Arnoldo Alemán signaled Ortega’s willingness to work with one of the most corrupt individuals in Nicaragua’s history (accused of stealing 100 million dollars while president, 1996-2001). In return for giving Alemán a stay out of jail card, his Partido Liberal Consitucional (PLC) and the FSLN lowered the presidential electoral threshold to 35 percent, a maneuver that permitted Ortega’s triumph with 38 percent of the vote. Most significantly, the group around Ortega blocked any effort to democratize the FSLN, driving many of veteran leaders and militants out of the party.

Up until the day after the elections, the US government practiced scare tactics, including a threat by prominent Republican congressman to block Nicaraguans in the US from sending remesas (remittances) back home, if Ortega won. This was nothing new. Throughout the twentieth century, the US government engaged in all manner of violent and passive interventions in Nicaraguan politics. More recently, the US involvement in the 2001 elections was potent and successful. The Bush administration threw its weight behind a policy of overt intervention in the presidential elections, in favor of Enrique Bolaños of the Partido Liberal Consitucional (PLC). As late as October, Daniel Ortega was the front-runner in most polls, garnering mass support in protest against a decade of neo-liberal reforms.  Faced with a Sandinista victory, the US ambassador and the State Department made declarations to the effect that the US would be hostile to an Ortega administration and take “a tough position” against the Sandinistas. Most significantly, they also vigorously discouraged the third-party candidacy of the Conservative Party, on the grounds that it would divide the anti-Ortega vote.  Following several meetings in the US Embassy, the Conservative candidate (with 14 percent in the polls) withdrew from the elections, leaving Ortega and Bolaños in a two-party race, which the latter won by a 55-43 margin.  

The 2001 election makes an interesting benchmark for evaluating Ortega’s 2006 triumph. The most obvious reason for his recent triumph has to do with the inability of the anti-Sandinista forces to unify as they did in the prior three elections. There are several possible reasons for this. US diplomatic skill in general and its credibility even among conservative forces, in particular, has been eroded over the past five years. In addition, the rupture in the right wing ranks was far more serious in this electoral cycle as it pitted a group surrounding the ineffectual President Bolaños, who enjoyed the Embassy’s blessing against the Alemán group, whom the president pushed to see behind bars, instead of in his luxurious hacienda (under “house arrest”). Some analysts argue that class and traditional Liberal/Conservative party loyalties played an important role in exacerbating the split. The Bolaños group, which supported the Harvard-trained banker, Eduardo Montealegre, is drawn from the Conservative party elites whereas the Alemán group is of more popular extraction and made up exclusively of Liberals. At the same time, the US was overtly if justifiably hostile to the corrupt Alemán and his political interests.

Commentators have missed something of the significance of another division. Since the mid 1990s prominent Sandinistas have broken away from the FSLN, in protest against the continued dominance of the Ortega group, the power of the “Sandinista bourgeoisie,” an outgrowth of the “piñata” (distribution of government properties and spoils) that followed the 1990 electoral defeat, and their authoritarian tactics. Sandinista dissidents also protested the “pact” between Ortega and Alemán that not only divided up much of the government apparatus but also conditioned the demobilization of social movements allied with the FSLN.

Of the original nine comandantes, only two still support Ortega. Three former comandantes (Henry Ruíz, a legendary guerrilla hero, Luis Carrión, and Victor Tirado López) actively participate in a break away party called the Movimiento por el Rescate del Sandinismo (MRS) that emerged when the Ortega group blocked a FSLN primary election. Herty Lewites, former Sandinista mayor of Managua, might well have won such a primary and continued to poll in the high 20s until his sudden death from a heart attack last summer. At the height of the campaign, Lewites combined a fervent plea to recreate a democratic and uncorrupt Sandinismo with a pragmatic center-left platform. Following his death, the MRS was only able to come up with an uncharismatic candidate, Edmundo Jarquín, who politically represented a centrism that seemed tepid in comparison to Ortega’s denunciations of “savage capitalism” (although he did come out against the abortion ban). Even so, the MRS continued to poll in the mid teens until right before the election. That the MRS only polled 7 percent in the election suggests that many of its supporters held their noses and voted for Ortega; other former Sandinistas had come to revile Ortega so much that they either voted for Montealegre or abstained. The failure of the MRS to win more votes was primarily due to its recent origin. Yet its predecessor, a party founded by former revolutionary heroine Dora María Tellez and former Sandinista Vice President and writer Sergio Ramirez, also failed to mobilize massive support and its base, like that of the MRS, was reduced to the Managua middle class. The FSLN under the Ortega group held on to the organizational links that stretched into the departments and municipalities where the remnants of a more genuine, less corrupt Sandinismo remain.

Despite the authoritarian hold that the Ortega group has held on the party and despite its visible business interests, the FSLN has maintained a steady base of electoral support that has hovered around 40 percent  in each of the last 4 presidential elections (38 percent with roughly 950,000 votes in this election).   Rather than blind loyalty to a caudillo that vote represents a commitment to a political tradition, rooted in a particular historical experience and to a degree reproduced by its rank and file militants active in unions, cooperatives and municipal governments (in the November 2004 elections, the FSLN won control of over half of Nicaragua’s municipalities).

The FSLN’s successful fight against the Somoza dictatorship which left some 50,000 dead and a revolutionary government that despite its numerous political and economic shortcomings showed a commitment to the poor also shaped this political tradition. Regardless of pacts and corruption, Ortega represents that party and political tradition. For many of the 70 percent of the population who live on under $3.00 a day, despite the chaos, hardships, and death that characterized the 1980s, it was also the last time a government gave a damn about people like them. Whether the FSLN will be able to meaningfully address their needs is an open question, but one that is not answered by assuming the political backwardness of its supporters. One thing is certain: those people who sacrificed so much during the revolutionary decade in the hope that they would see a decent life for their children in a society of solidarity and freedom will not be content to await an edict from on high, reaffirmed with the ritual cry “Dirección Nacional Ordene!” There is no National Directorate with the moral, military or political power to command. That era is over.

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