After skidding off the rails into a hideous political train wreck in last November’s general elections, the survivors of the Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC) are trying to figure out how to salvage their once-formidable party and get it back in working order before the municipal elections next November.
The questions on the minds of all PLC members are: Who will take the engineer’s whistle from party boss Arnodo Alemán? And will the once-portly and once-powerful former president willingly hand it over?
The PLC, in its effort to regroup, has formed three committees to navigate the party from ruin to revival. One committee is looking at the process of leadership rejuvenation, another at international statutes and party reforms, and a third at finding candidates and defining an electoral strategy for this year’s municipal poll.
“We have a genuine desire to stop losing the ballgame,” says PLC secretary and former lawmaker Francisco Aguirre, who is coordinating the three-committee transition process. “We are like the Washington Redskins, we keep losing and the fans have stopped coming. We have to start winning again—not just because we are a political institution that likes winning, but because we think we are better for the country and its democracy.”
Aguirre says the change to the PLC must be profound and real, and not just a shuffling of the deckchairs on a half-sunken ship.
“We need a real and genuine internal engineering shakeup of the party, and not just propaganda because I don’t think anyone is going to swallow propaganda, either inside the party or outside the party,” said Aguirre, who ran on the lower half of Alemán’s presidential ticket in 2011.
Aguirre says the first step should be for the party to name a new president, secretary and vice president in February. But the real change will have to involve the party bases, and most likely won’t fully take shape until the PLC’s annual “Gran Convention” in July.
Either way, party leaders insist that Alemán, the PLC’s “maximum leader”—a North Korean sounding title that Alemán seemed to relish—will have to play an active role in the transition.
But his days as big cheese are probably over, Aguirre says.
“While Arnoldo Alemán is clearly one of the most visible leaders in the country, he is also like Daniel Ortega in that he is intensely loved by some people and intensely disliked by more. And it’s the intensity of those feelings about him that I think suggests to me that he needs to take a step back from politics for the good of the party that he helped re-found,” Aguirre says. “Alemán was instrumental in its renaissance, but he needs to step away from this and dedicate himself to his many other pursuits as a father, a grandfather, businessman and a husband.”
Still contesting 2011 results
Aguirre says he concedes that the Sandinista-run Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) might have “gotten the order right” in its official election results, but he doubts the numbers are accurate.
“Let’s not forget there was a big-time fraud and manipulation of numbers, so it’s hard to figure out what we got, what the PLI got and what Daniel got. My hunch is that Daniel jacked up his figures,” Aguirre said. “I think Daniel got greedy. I think he overreached and his people were clumsy about how this fraud was carried out.”
Former PLC lawmaker José Pallais, who is heading the party’s internal reforms committee, says his party’s directorate calculates they had 10 congressional seats stolen from them in vote-count mischief.
The two PLC congressmen who did win seats in the 20012-2016 National Assembly were both given a chair on the assembly directorate after the opposition Independent Liberal Party (PLI) boycotted the internal elections. Some political analysts say the PLC’s disproportionate representation on the directorate will give Alemán’s party a fighting chance to regain ground in the National Assembly. But no one in the party seems to be celebrating the ornamental victory.
Alemán, in fact, told the two PLC lawmakers—Wilfredo Navarro and José Castillo Quant—to boycott the National Assembly. He said if they took their seats in congress they would do so as independents.
The PLC, however, doesn’t have any internal statute that allows Alemán to throw elected officials out of the party, so the two lone PLC congressmen’s status in the party is unclear and most likely strained.
Many in the party thing it was a mistake for Navarro and Castillo to take their seats, thereby legitimizing an electoral process that the rest of the party calls fraudulent.
“There’s nothing for them to do there,” Pallais said. “If they think they are going to negotiate with the FSLN, they’re crazy.”
Aguirre also thinks it was a mistake for the PLC to accept their two seats—23 fewer seats than the party won in the 2006 elections.
“What are they going to do there, yell and scream?” Aguirre said.
Nowhere to go but up
Aguirre says that if there’s a silver lining to the PLC’s 2011 electoral collapse, it’s that they now have no other choice but to reinvent the party completely. The party can no longer afford to simply tinker with the engine; they need to rebuilt the entire transmission.
And that means the PLC has to try something that’s never been attempted before in Nicaraguan politics: take a caudillo-based party and evolve it into a modern political organization. And that means dealing with one issue that Nicaraguan politicians never want to discuss: succession planning.
“We are going to go from a caudillo-driven party to a modernization process, and there is no roadmap for that,” Aguirre said. “But we can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. We need to keep the best of what we have, whether they are old or young party members, and then bring in new faces. If they are young and female faces, so much the better.”
While the future fate of the PLC is still far from certain, Aguirre says Alemán will need to play an active role in his transition out in order for any succession of power to work smoothly.
“Arnoldo is part of the solution to the problem,” Aguirre said. “He ought to retire, but not just drop the party and see what happens.”
Still, Aguirre says, in a country of unlikely political comebacks, anything is possible.
“We need to make the best of this and salvage the ship, get it up on the dry dock and get it in shipshape again,” he said. “And we need to equip it with new radar and antiaircraft missiles, so we are the ones who inflict damage rather than the ones who receive damage.
“We start winning again, or we are going to go under.”