nicaragua elections part 4

Photo: David McKnight

What will Nicaragua look like after November 6?

Nicaraguans go to the polls tomorrow with a huge victory for the Sandinistas looking increasingly likely. The last two opinion polls (the most recent of which was commissioned by right-wing daily, La Prensa, but has been embargoed by the newspaper) shows Daniel Ortega comfortably over 50 per cent, with a 40 per cent lead in one of the polls. Though this is likely to be wrong in terms of the margin, the FSLN will probably get over half the votes, something which seemed wishful thinking when they won with 38 per cent five years ago.

Daniel Ortega. Photo: David McKnight

The expected derogatory articles have started to appear, even before the first vote is cast, leading the way Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal and the rabid Miami Herald. Both peddle the line that the Sandinistas cannot win a fair election, so if they win, it must be unfair. In a recent article, Tim Rogers in his on-line publication the Nicaragua Dispatch also casts doubt on the numbers. He also adds another statistic to the mix, that Ortega is the second most distrusted President in the Americas, after Fidel Castro (according to regional pollists from Chile, Latinobarometro). The fact that Fidel Castro ceased being the President of Cuba in 2007 seems to escape ‘journalist’ Rogers.

The Chilean polling figures are given a more thorough going over in a blog on ZNet by Kevin Young (see here for the full post). The regional question about the continent’s perception of its leaders is something of an exception for Latinobarometro. Most of the questions are targetted at how the citizens of individual countries rate their leaders, political system and the economy. So, far from reflecting the media’s image of the leaders of the ALBA, their citizens give them a much better scoring.

Nicaragua is rated better than average for how democratic they think their country is, and if the government is doing something about inequality. Young also writes a telling paragraph which does more than anything to explain why the FSLN are riding so high in the polls (and why perhaps the United States are trying so hard to undermine the forthcoming win):

Another important question asked if the respondent’s country “is governed by a few powerful groups in their own interest” or “for the good of all the people.” The responses are consistent with those above: Uruguay was first, with 54 percent of Uruguayans saying that the country is run “for the good of all the people,” followed by Nicaragua with 42 percent, Venezuela with 39 percent, Ecuador with 34 percent, and Argentina and Bolivia tied for fifth with 30 percent. Colombia (25 percent), Mexico (15 percent), and Honduras (15 percent) were all below the regional average, reflecting a level of cynicism comparable to that of the US public, 81 percent of whom saythat their country “is pretty much run by a few big interests”

In the end the electorate will have the last say. But we can also speculate at what the agenda and challenges will be for a new Sandinista government with a healthy working majority in the National Assembly.

The top ten……

1) Re-instate therapeutic abortion

Opinion polls consistently show a majority against abortion in Nicaragua, but also a majority in favour of therapeutic abortion. This position is not contradictory or surprising given the history and culture of Nicaragua, as heavily influenced by the church as it is by the 80s revolution. With a working majority in the Assembly it will be possible to overturn the ban, but it will not necessarily be easy or top of the agenda. It will be something that feminists within the FSLN will be slowly pushing over the next five years.

2) Tackle violence against women

On the whole Nicaragua can lay claim to being the safest and most secure country within Central America. But a number of recent, high profile cases of rape have seen the accused walk away scot free, leading to protests from many sections of society, including women within the FSLN’s ranks. Together with lifting the ban on abortion, the Sandinistas could demonstrate that they are serious about women’s legal rights as they are about the progress they have made on empowering women economically over the past government term.

3) Re-vamp the Citizens Power Councils

Critics within the Sandinistas have called into question the role of the CPCs, particularly in relation to how they relate to local government, and how effective they are in increasing direct participation. The claim that they are merely ways for the Sandinistas to look after their own does not hold that much water – a political strategy which excluded those who might be potential voters in the future would border on idiocy. More telling is the charge that they are re-inforcing already existing power brokers, with people from across the political spectrum (including Sandinistas) being excluded if their face doesn’t fit. The need for political renewal goes back to the debate within the FSLN during the mid 90s, and will become more pressing the more successful the Sandinistas become in government.

4) Another agrarian reform?

One of the major achievements of the last admnistration was the titling of land, something which the FSLN failed to do first time around during the Revolution. Within two years the government had recognised more land titles than had happened over the previous 16 years of neo-liberal governments. And this process has continued, with another 11,000 campesinos seeing their land titles recognised earlier this week. Added to the targetting of women with land under the Zero Hunger programme, the support for small producers (including the ALBA agricultural credit bank, PRODUZAMOS) has been one of the main contributors to the achievement of the first Millennium Development Goal this year. But the question remains, how to support those farmers without land, and what to do about the large landowners?

5) Taking autonomy to the next level

Another area where great strides have been made is on the Caribbean Coast. By Spring this year 17 out of the 22 communities (which communally hold large areas of land) had been titled, with the rest scheduled to happen before the election. Added to this has been the implementation on the Coast of the National Development Plan – road communications have been improved with the Pacific in both the RAAN and the RAAS, and tens of thousands of people in remote villages have been connected up to electricity for the first time. With the infrastructure improving, will the Plan be able to create and protect jobs for people on the Coast? And wll the regional assemblies start working effectively, more or less for the first time since they were instituted in 1990?

6) Moving away from aid

Whilst the ALBA, and its model of re-distributing the benefits of trade to both parties, has been responsible for many of the improvements in Nicaragua over the last five years, it has been under-pinned with the oil that Venezuela has provided on beneficial terms. The big question for Nicaragua is can it grow its economy to be less dependent on this money, whilst at the same time developing ways of trading which incorporate the ALBA model – co-operative businesses, used to re-distribute benefits widely. It will be particularly challenging if Nicaragua is to move from its position of being an agricultural producer and provider of cheap labour for assembly/garment factories, and move up the development ladder. How can Nicaragua develop bi-lateral links with other countries which aid technology transfer, whilst ensuring trade is fair and just?

7) Funding development from within

Nicaragua’s economy has grown steadily over the past five years, with record inward investment and exports in a stormy international climate. The country came out top of all Central American countries in the World Bank’s 2012 Doing Business report published late last month. Far from being the lawless disctatorship it is often portrayed, it improved in five key areas, including registering property, paying taxes, trading across borders, enforcing contracts and resolving insolvency. Little wonder then that inward investment is growing, and Nicaragua’s business elite are doing very nicely, thank you. So, to move from being dependent on outside aid, it’s time for Nicaragua’s oligarchs to cough up, something the region’s elites are notorious in avoiding. The Nicaragua Tax Alliance have said the government should increase its tax collection by 4 per cent of GDP to go to education. Nicaragua’s teachers (the worst paid in Central America) and pupils would agree.

8 ) Go oil free

Within six months of gaining power, the Sandinistas had solved the country’s energy problem, with rolling 12 hr electricity cuts the norm for much of the 16 years they were out of office. The FSLN have the aim of cutting the dependency on oil totally for energy production during this decade. With investment in wind, hydro and geo-thermal increasing leaps and bounds, and with no shortage of solar power potential, the goal is easily reachable if they remain focused on moving away from oil whilst the economy grows.

9) Deal with corruption

Corruption, like in most countries, has been current through most of the governments of the past twenty odd years. With the panicky change over of power with the collapse of the revolution in 1990, some Sandinistas helped themselves to parts of the state in the ‘pinata’, which sullied the FSLN’s reputation for many years. This has lead to the formation of a group of businessmen which are part of ‘Sandinista capital’, which assert a strong influence on the direction of the country. This was followed by pillaging of the state under the Chamorro government, and then by president (and current PLC candidate) Arnoldo Aleman, who helped himself to $100 million. The next scandal involved the issue of CENIs, bonds to rescue two Nicaraguan banks, with allegations against the 2006 presidential candidate (and supporter of Fabio Gadea) Eduardo Montealegre. The present government’s five years hasn’t been without its own corruption scandals. In May of this year Daniel Ortega ordered the National Police, with the Office of the Comptrollers General, to investigate all institutions of government. It particularly focused on the General Directorate of Revenue, who’s head, Walter Porras, is alleged to have colluded with other officials in de-fraud the state of $67 million. At the same time there were also corruption allegations swirling around senior FSLN officials in Managua.

10) The 2016 election

With a majority in the National Assembly, it will be tempting for the Sandinistas to call for a Constitutional Assembly, something which has happened in other ALBA countries such as Venezuela and Bolivia. One of the major arguments is sure to be whether to remove the limits on consecutive Presidential terms (and Daniel Ortega’s present candidacy has been controversial enough). The question isn’t as straight-forward as it appears. If the FSLN think they will carry on winning with Daniel Ortega as their candidate, they will carry on trying to create the political conditions to make this happen. And given the positive impact on the poorest during the past Ortega presidency, and the seeming ease with which he will win again, this seems to make good political sense. However there are questions about this. Firstly to be dependent on one ‘figure-head’ is to create its own problems – the turmoil caused by Chavez’s recent illness is all too apparent. Secondly, if a political ‘mystique’ is embodied in one person, then it is a short step to seeing this as something that can be passed on, either to a family member, or to an anointed successor. Thirdly, if this brand of politics is seen to work at a national level, then similar arguments can be made at a local level, and the political system soon becomes ossified. The pros and cons of another Ortega term will be hotly debated, both within the Frente Sandinista and by the country at large over the next Presidential term.

And just in case you are wondering, most of these problems and challenges apply to Wales, or indeed to any small country trying to steer an independent line during this time of economic and ecological crises.

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