Estelí – Six years ago, former President Arnoldo Alemán’s political career and life seemed to be coming to an end.
He was facing 20 years in prison for allegedly bilking the state out of some $80 million during his presidency, his political party was divided, his bank accounts were frozen, and he faced three pending embezzlement and money-laundering cases in Nicaragua, Panama and the United States.
And that wasn’t even the worst of his problems.
Alemán, according to doctors, suffered from six chronic illnesses. His days were numbered. The former president’s state of health was considered so severe that judges made the grim decision to commute his jail sentence to house arrest, to allow him the comforts of family in his final hours on earth.
Now, watching Alemán campaign indefatigably for reelection, pumping his fists as he rails against the Sandinistas in fits of histrionic fervor, it’s hard to remember he was ever down.
“I feel great! Great!” Alemán thundered, banging his fist on the lunch table for emphasis during our recent interview.
Alemán suffers from diabetes, high blood pressure and a list of other health complications related to obesity. He sleeps with an oxygen mask.
But thanks to a recent stomach-reduction surgery, Alemán has lost 88 pounds and is looking slimmer than ever. Now, his campaign slogan “El Gordo Presidente” seems mostly ironic, and perhaps a bit nostalgic for a big personality who suddenly finds himself stuck in a thinner man’s body.
Alemán claims his dramatic weight loss has helped stabilized many of his pernicious health conditions. “I couldn’t have done this without the operation,” he says soberly, referring to his return to the campaign trail.
Though the doctors played a role in Alemán’s return to electoral politics, so too did the Liberal Party judges who overturned his conviction in 2009. With a clean bill of health, and a cleansed legal record, Alemán is back on the campaign warpath setting his sights on an unlikely return to the nation’s highest office.
The question is, will voters welcome his offer by voting him into the presidency next Sunday?
So far, the answer looks like a no. Since announcing his candidacy earlier this year, Alemán has been polling a distant third behind President Daniel Ortega and Liberal challenger Fabio Gadea. The most recent M&R Consultores survey suggests he’s polling low in the single digits.
And despite his calls for unity, even his own party has become frayed around the edges. Several local party leaders and PLC lawmakers have recently defected from El Gordo’s political clan to back Gadea or other minority-party candidates.
Aleman, however, remains unruffled. He claims the recent party drain has only made his PLC “a cleaner party than before.” He insists that when election day comes, he’ll have enough votes to force a runoff against Ortega.
“I think in the first round we’ll get 38 percent and the FSLN will get 38 percent, and there will be 20 percent abstention,” Alemán predicted in a recent interview with The Nicaragua Dispatch. “Then we’ll go to a runoff and win.”
According to Nicaragua’s embattled Electoral Code, a presidential candidate can win outright in the first round with 40 percent, or 35 percent plus a five-point advantage over the runner-up.
Alemán says he has no confidence in the vote-counting abilities of the Ortega-controlled Supreme Electoral Council (CSE)—a scandal-plagued organization accused of orchestrating varying degrees of fraud in the past three elections. So he’s calling on his supporters to vote massively on Sunday to make fraud a difficult chore.
But even if all Alemán’s supporters vote en masse, polls suggest his chances of winning are slim at best. Some pundits claim Alemán, who is very politically savvy, knows the odds are impossible, but is running in hopes of pulling enough votes in the National Assembly to protect his personal quote of power and renegotiate a power-sharing pact with Ortega.
Alemán, however, insists that’s nonsense. He says he’s got his eyes on the brass ring.
“I am not interested in second place. What would I gain from that? Become a congressman? And what do I get out of that?” Alemán demanded. “Eduardo (Montealegre) finished in second place last time, and look what happened to him. He lost his party and had to form a movement called ‘Vamos con Eduardo…Now he is nothing. He is a political orphan.”
Even from an economic standpoint, Alemán says, he only stands to lose by finishing in second place (according to Nicaraguan law, the runner up in the presidential elections is automatically given a seat in the National Assembly). “If I become a congressman, I would lose my pension as ex-President and my retirement pension,” Alemán said. “That’s 90,000 córdobas,” or around $4,000 a month.
Plus, Alemán insists, the work of defending a quota of political power is done by organizing party structures, not finishing second in a campaign.
As for the pacto, Alemán insists, there will be no renegotiation of terms, because it never existed in the first place.
“If there had been a pacto, el trompudo (Daniel Ortega) would have won the elections in 2001. But we beat him with 56 percent of the vote with a united PLC,” Alemán said, referring to the president using the derogatory nickname “Mr. big lips.”
Alemán adds, “The best proof right now that there is no pacto is that this shameless man (Ortega) is running unconstitutionally. There was no reform to the Constitution to allow his candidacy because the PLC opposed it. So Ortega’s candidacy can’t be legal.”
Alemán expects massive vote in countryside
Though the campaign crowds Alemán has drawn in recent weeks have not as big as the turnouts for Gadea’s campaign stops, the PLC candidate claims his campaign is like a train that’s slow to gain steam but difficult to stop once it hits full speed.
Alemán insists the PLC is the only opposition party that has the experience, organization and capacity to beat Ortega in the polls and defend the vote afterwards.
Gadea, whom Alemán refers to as “the old man,” may have drawn big crowds during the campaign, but he doesn’t have the party structure to win on Sunday, the former president predicts.
“How is he going to win? With what organization? Don’t fool yourself. He doesn’t have the capacity , experience or organization,” Alemán said.
The only other candidate strong enough to win is Ortega, Alemán said. But Ortega, he says, is detested in the countryside because of his Councils of Citizen Power (CPCs), neighborhood Sandinista organizations that control the local distribution of government aid, control permit processes and keep tabs on neighbors.
“In the deep countryside, there is profound rejection of Sandinismo,” Alemán said. “Daniel is pushing aside the historic leaders of the FSLN and is creating a new party with his CPCs, in the style of Qaddafi. There is nothing worse than telling someone in the countryside that they have to get their neighbor’s approval to do something.”
Alemán says the CPC culture has “provoked a total rejection” among conservative and independent-minded campesinos who don’t want politics meddling with their livelihoods. “The CPCs say, ‘Join us and do this, or you don’t have authorization to do anything.’ And so instead of fear of communism, the Sandinistas are now provoking rejection,” Alemán said.
Ortega: a worthy adversary
Despite Alemán’s insults for Ortega, in quieter moments he acknowledges a profound respect for the man he calls his only “true competitor.”
“It is going to be difficult to beat Ortega, but we are going to do it,” Alemán said, as he ate a piece of chicken using his hands.
Picking over the remainder of his meal in a moment of postprandial introspection, Alemán’s normally bellowing voice drops an octave as he reflects on the fickleness of politics and power.
“In the Arab countries, who would have expected that Tunisia and (Egypt’s Muhammad Hosni) Mubarak and (Libya’s Muammar) Qaddafi would fall? Who expected that? And five months ago, Hugo Chávez was considered a god,” he said.
“In politics, the impossible can happen at any moment,” the former president mused. “So you have to be ready for it.”