Like lambs to the slaughter, the opposition political parties cheered and waved their flags this weekend as they officially launched their campaigns and try to manufacture some semblance of political excitement before getting trounced by the Sandinistas in the Nov. 4 municipal elections.
The ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), which since 2007 has eliminated virtually all democratic checks and balances by consolidating single-party control over all four branches of government and state institutions, will be going for a royal flush in November.
The party controlled by President Daniel Ortega and his omnipresent wife has stated that it expects to win “by an avalanche” in essentially every municipality. That prophecy, which will most likely come true, will be a deathblow to municipal autonomy (or what remains of it) and fulfill the president’s publically professed dream of converting Nicaragua into a one-party system.
The emaciated opposition—the Independent Liberal Party (PLI) and the Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC)— is essentially fighting over half a dozen rural municipalities, mostly in the northern interior of the country in a region formerly known as the “contra corridor.”
The Sandinistas, who have been campaigning incessantly and in deafening crescendo since 2006, plan on taking “at least 95%” of the 153 municipalities that are up for grabs. The Sandinista-controlled Supreme Electoral Council (CSE), led by the extravagantly rapacious and wheezing Roberto Rivas, has already proven its willingness to help the ruling party reach its goal, even in municipalities where counting ballots using conventional arithmetic doesn’t work out as expected.
The opposition fully expects the elections to be farce. The PLI says it’s participating in the process to document the fraud and to convert the spectacle into a “platform for rebellion.” Arnoldo Alemán’s PLC, meanwhile, says it also has no faith in the CSE, but is participating because, frankly, they have nothing better to do. Meanwhile, the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN) and the Alliance for the Republic (APRE) are political nonstarters that are suspected of being kept alive by Sandinista life support to create the illusion of ballot pluralism.
Indeed, the only opposition party that legitimately wanted to compete in this year’s elections, the Christian Democrat Union (UDC), was booted from the ballot after the party started to show signs of attracting disenfranchised Sandinista voters.
‘Cheapening’ the elections
With the opposition in habitual tatters, the Sandinistas should have been in a position to put forth winning candidates in virtually every municipality, simply based on the fact that the FSLN is the only cohesive political party in the country. Plus, the Sandinistas are lavishly rich and have virtually unlimited funds to throw into their campaigns.
But then something happened that the party’s lone political strategist, Rosario Murillo, didn’t see coming: an aggressive pushback against her hand-picked candidates in some 30 municipalities. Murillo, who has been cultivating her own loyalties and cult of personality within the ranks of the Sandinista Front for the past five years, has apparently caused some resentment among other sectors of the party that feel her candidates are perhaps better suited to polish apples than run a municipal government.
The grassroots pushback caused a bit of an internal stir in the Sandinista Front. Some frustrated Sandinista would-be candidates started flirting with the idea of defecting to the UDC, which was swiftly decapitated by the CSE to prevent any bleeding to the FSLN.
Murillo was not pleased with the dissension in the ranks. Nelson Artola, the Sandinistas’ main political operator charged with telling municipal party structures who their candidates would be, was unceremoniously kicked to the curb for failing to quell the internal unrest. Alas, years of dutiful sycophancy could not save poor Nelson from Murillo’s heel.
But that still left the presidential couple with the problem of how to get Sandinista voters to support unpopular Sandinista candidates in key municipalities. It is one thing to claim 70% support in a municipality where the opposition is divided and pathetic, but it’s another thing altogether to do it in a municipality where the Sandinista bases themselves won’t back the official candidate.
Then, a solution: remove the candidate’s pictures from the ballot and appeal directly to voters’ partisan loyalties.
Earlier this month, the CSE, in its electoral sagacity, announced that the ballots will no longer be printed with the photos of the candidates—only their names and the party flag will appear on the ballots. The ballots will also omit the names of the 30,000 candidates running for city council (with that many candidates, it might have been easier to print the names of people not running for office).
In any event, who cares who the candidates are? People vote for the party and not the candidates, the CSE argued in justifying its extreme ballot makeover.
The ballot decision—like most decisions announced by the CSE—was applauded loudly by the Sandinistas and hissed by the opposition and civil society.
Sandinista congressman Edwin Castro, feeling suddenly frugal, noted that the elimination of the candidates’ photos would be a real cost-saver in ballot-printing costs (as if the electoral process needed to be “cheapened” any further).
In some ways, if Nicaraguans are unwilling to defend democratic victories, then the CSE is right—it doesn’t matter who the candidates are. It certainly didn’t seem to matter in 2008, when the Sandinistas and the CSE were accused of stealing 40 municipalities on election day, and then usurped eight more municipalities afterwards by “persuading” opposition mayors to switch to the Sandinista Front in exchange for municipal development funds.
Most of this happened without any fuss or resistance by the opposition parties or voters (Imagine the uproar in the United States if President Barack Obama sent a Democratic operative to Oklahoma City to threaten a cutoff of federal aid for highways and other public works unless Republican Mayor Mick Cornett switched parties; Fox News and the Tea Partiers would probably have a thing or two to say about that).
There was a momentary stink raised during the most extreme case, when Boaco’s democratically elected mayor Hugo Barquero was literally dragged out of office amid a flurry of kicks and sticks. But the uproar was short lived and it was soon back to business as usual in Boaco…only under new management.
To vote or not to vote?
With the stage set for more electoral excitement on Nov. 4, Nicaraguans have recently engaged in a rather lively debate over whether or not it’s worth voting at all. After all, there’s plenty of mediocre TV on Sundays to keep folks occupied at home.
Those who claim it’s not worth voting argue that they don’t want to be pawns in another electoral farce orchestrated by the same mischievous crew that’s been accused of all sorts of questionable behavior, in addition to dishonest math.
On the other hand, those who argue in favor of voting say Nicaraguans must not cede their democratic right to participate in elections.
Both sides are correct, but neither fully.
Apathy is the handmaiden of authoritarianism; and indeed it would be a shame for Nicaraguans to give up on democracy or to stop participating in matters of governance after sacrificing so much to get here.
But participating in elections is really the very least anyone can do in a democracy. Democracy doesn’t just happen on election day. That’s like saying the whole baseball season happens on the day of the seventh game of the World Series; if you don’t play hard the whole season, the World Series becomes meaningless (just ask the 2012 Boston Red Sox).
Interestingly enough, the best example of grassroots democracy that Nicaragua has seen this year has come from disgruntled Sandinista bases that are pushing back against the multi-ringed “dedazo” from El Carmen. Those protests—authentic demands for representational democracy—have shaken up the president’s political project more than anything the infinitely floundering opposition has been able to muster.
Indeed, the Sandinistas are not only an example of a strong government, but also an example of a coherent and organized opposition that is taking an active interest in the cause of municipal governance.
The traditional opposition, if it still wants to claim that role for itself amid its dying gasps, should be taking notes.