Will MRS split the vote on the right?

PLC candidate Arnoldo Alemán claims the Sandinistas have infiltrated Gadea's campaign. But is his scaremongering working?

ESTELÍ – Since defecting from the ranks of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) in 1994, the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) has –with varying degrees of influence – diversified the left-wing vote and split the Sandinista camp.

This year, however, the Sandinista splinter group could divide the vote on the right.

United in their concern that President Daniel Ortega is installing a dictatorship, the MRS formed an unlikely electoral alliance with right-wing presidential candidate Fabio Gadea, on the ticket of the Independent Liberal Party (PLI). Gadea then tapped MRS party boss Edmundo Jarquín to be his running mate, in a quid pro quo.

 The PLI-MRS candidacy, though billed as big-tent effort to unite a diverse group of citizens against Ortega’s alleged dictatorial aspirations, has caused some concern among both MRS supporters and conservative voters. Some in the MRS claim backing Gadea is a betrayal of their Sandinista principles. But the ticket’s real problems could come from suspicions on the right.

“This was the worst possible running mate Fabio could have chosen. A democrat cannot have a Sandinista running mate!” said Orlando Antonio Marín, who claims to be the PLI’s political secretary in the farming community of La Trinidad, in the northern department of Estelí.

Marín said his concerns about the MRS’ influence over his party are so strong that he made the decision to abandon the Gadea campaign and back the candidacy of former president and right-wing challenger Arnoldo Alemán, of the Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC). He says others in his community are following his lead over to Alemán’s camp.

“If don Fabio dies tomorrow, who will be left running the country? A Sandinista!” Marín says, answering his own question in the same breath. “Then we’ll be stuck in the same situation we are in today.”

While it’s unclear how many would-be Gadea supporters share Marín’s concerns to the point of desertion, the role of the MRS in a cluttered opposition race has added another element of voter confusion in the countryside. MRS leaders clouded the situation even further last week by issuing a nationwide call for all “true Sandinistas” to back Gadea’s campaign — a call that’s not sitting well with some of the candidate’s conservative backers.

Gadea, a popular radio personality who has attracted a large sector of rural support among those who listen to his folksy radio show, “The Tales of Pancho Madrigal,” insists he is the only candidate who represents democracy and change. Gadea promises his government will restore rule of law and build a “Nicaragua for everyone.”

Alemán, meanwhile, insists only he can defeat Ortega as the leader of the “true Liberal party.”

Polling a very distant third among the opposition candidates is anti-Sandinista strongman Enrique Quiñonez, candidate for the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN). Quiñonez claims he is the only opposition candidate who will “defend the vote” and hold the line against Ortega’s power grab. In an apparent effort to visually underscore his seriousness, Quiñonez has dressed all his campaign supporters in jungle fatigues reminiscent of those used by the contra in the 1980s. 

For traditionally conservative campesinos in the northern zone, many of whom vote predominantly anti-Sandinista, the choice is not clear. And the fact that Alemán and Gadea are in-laws only muddles the situation further. 

“Fabio is taking a lot of votes from Alemán, but a lot of people are confused about who to support,” said Concepción Laguna, a PLC activist from the rural neighborhood of San Francisco, Estelí. Laguna says Gadea is gaining steam in the area, but insists he’ll continue to support Alemán because “he’s my candidate.”

Another campesino, a lean and sinew man who looks like he could be anywhere between 40 and 70 years old, employed a baseball metaphor to express his doubts about the race.

“When the baseball season starts, there are a lot of teams playing. But at the end of the season, there can only be two teams left in the championship series. The problem is, we still don’t know which teams will be left on the field,” he said.

Words of Warning: presidential candidate Arnoldo Alemán, right, warns campesinos that the MRS have infiltrated Fabio Gadea's campaign. (photo/ Tim Rogers)

Indeed, Alemán’s stump speech in the countryside has targeted Jarquín and the MRS more than Ortega and the Sandinista Front. Alemán claims the MRS leaders are the true Sandinista hardliners who represent the most oppressive policies from the 1980s, such as the infamous state security apparatus and the defunct Sandinista Defense Councils (CDS), neighborhood spy groups.

“Careful,” Alemán bellowed on stage before a group of several hundred voters in Estelí; “the enemy is astute! He’s trying to run on two tickets to beat the true Liberal party, the PLC!”

A desperate ploy

Jarquín, for his part, claims Alemán’s scaremongering is a failed campaign technique that isn’t winning him any support in the countryside.

“If this tactic didn’t hurt our campaign in the area known as the ‘contra corridor’, an area that extends up from Río San Juan, through Chontales, Boaco, Matagalpa and Jinotega, including the mining triangle in the RAAN and parts of the RAAS, it surely won’t hurt our campaign on the Pacific side of the country,” Jarquín told The Nicaragua Dispatch.

Jarquín says the presidential campaign is no longer about Sandinismo versus anti-Sandinismo, rather authoritarianism versus democracy. “And the people perceive Alemán in the same authoritarian and corrupt light as Daniel Ortega,” Jarquín said.

Though the MRS is not able to give a figure for how many voters they hope to bring to Gadea’s presidential ticket, Jarquín says his group’s presence in urban areas is much stronger than it is in the countryside.

“Fabio Gadea has already consolidated his vote in the rural zones. And now that we are starting to campaign on the Pacific side of the country, which is more urban, the advantage that Ortega has will disappear,” Jarquín predicts.  

MRS: revolutionary and reformist roots

Led by a group of Sandinista intellectuals and former guerrilla leaders, the MRS defected from the FSLN in 1994 and became an official party a year later. When they split from Ortega’s FSLN, they took 32 of 40 Sandinista lawmakers with them, becoming a major force in the National Assembly and appearing like a party with a promising future.

Most of those hopes were dashed the following year, however, when MRS presidential candidate Sergio Ramírez won less than 2 percent of the vote and his party finished with only one seat in the National Assembly.

The MRS later formed an electoral and political alliance with the FSLN in the presidential elections of 2001, as well as the municipal elections of 2000 and 2004. But it wasn’t until 2005, on the 10th anniversary of the party’s formation, that they began to emerge from the political shadows and again posture themselves as an alternative Sandinista force under the dynamic candidacy of Herty Lewites.

But the party’s comeback was short-lived. Lewites, at one point considered the frontrunner in the 2006 presidential election, suffered a fatal heart attack four months before the vote. His running mate, Jarquín, took over as presidential candidate and finished in fourth place, with 6.3 percent of the vote. With a split opposition, Ortega won the election with 38 percent of the vote.

When Ortega returned to power, MRS co-founder Dora María Tellez told me she thought his message of reconciliation and unity was false advertising. Instead, she anticipated that Ortega would finally seek his political revenge against the MRS defectors by “trying to eliminate us.”

Her prediction proved partially correct. The following year, the Ortega-controlled Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) stripped the MRS of its party status, forcing the pinched movement to form electoral alliances with other parties to avoid losing all political relevance.

Though the MRS’ influence as a Sandinista splinter group has ebbed and flowed wildly over the past 15 years, it now appears to have reached a new low.

Rebounding and reinventing with Gadea?

Gadea, however, insists the MRS is made stronger as part of his nascent and diverse political movement.

“They are a small party with some power, but they don’t have the power they have with us,” Gadea told The Nicaragua Dispatch.

Gadea defends his choice of running mate, calling Jarquín a “brilliant professional, an acclaimed economist and lawyer.”

He says it is nonsense to think the MRS represents some secret communist agenda that has infiltrated his campaign.

“The people in the MRS are democratic Sandinistas who are not with Ortega. They renounced Ortega’s party when they saw Ortega becoming the new Somoza,” Gadea insists.

The presidential candidate says he thinks the MRS subscribe to the principles of a free-market economy. And he rejects the notion that MRS leaders represent a hard-line leftist ideology.               

“If they were communists or Stalinists or Marxists, they would be with Daniel Ortega, dividing up all the riches of power,” Gadea said. “But they don’t like that; that’s not what they want. They renounced that.”