Another Latin American landslide win. First it was Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner in Argentina a fortnight ago. This time, incumbent President — and former guerilla leader during the Sandinista revolution in the 1970s — Daniel Ortega, of Nicaragua, powered to a third term in government (1985-1990, 2006-2012 and 2012-2016). It was the largest margin since losing power in 1990 and also the first time a government had been re-elected back-to-back since the Somoza dynasty brutally ruled Nicaragua in a dictatorship that spanned nearly four decades (1937-1979).
Thirty two years after the guerilla victory of the Sandinista revolution in 1979, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (known in Spanish as the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional, or FSLN) has ratified what opinion polls have been signalling during the past few months: a historic landslide win crushing the weak opposition. With 60% of votes tallied, the FSLN won with 66% of the popular vote, the opposing centre-right Independent Liberal Party (known in Spanish as the Partido Liberal Independiente or PLI) led by Fabio Gadea, a wealthy media tycoon closely tied to Washington, harvesting a weak 25%. The remaining votes are also heading towards centre-right coalitions.
Since the end of the Somoza dictatorship, this Central American nation — the second poorest in the Americas — has lived a wandering path of political zig-zag. The unexpected defeat to Violeta Chamorro and her centre-right coalition in 1990 was the end result of the war of aggression that the guerilla movement — first — and the first Sandinista constitutional government of Ortega — secondly — offered. Seventeen years of successive centre-right, neoliberal governments followed, with great evidence of social recoil during these years, which triggered a new era for the FSLN when returning to power — this time via the ballot box — with a much softer Ortega, by then a diluted guerilla fighter in his sixties. And now, the undisputed vote of confidence that the Nicaraguan people have given Ortega — now 66 — who will govern his country for another five-year term.
Nicaragua’s Constitution prohibits the immediate re-election, but pro-government judges of the Supreme Court declared as inapplicable the article that blocked Ortega from running for president again, which opened the door to Ortega’s potential re-election.
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Ortega is by no means a modern-day Che Guevara. His government has proven to be one of the better champions in the region of the International Monetary Fund’s adjustment programs. Since 2007 the IMF has granted the Ortega government $122 million, with the backing of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and the World Bank. This has been the IMF’s reward to Ortega for shrinking 18,000 public jobs — according to local human rights watchdogs — also maintaining a generation of new jobs to an absolute minimum. Nicaragua is a country with huge unemployment and underemployment figures.
Welfare policy is Ortega’s best card to collect the votes of the poor — just over half of Nicaraguans live on less than two dollars a day — ultimately helping him to make a detour from what the Nicaraguan Constitution prohibits: two consecutive terms. Ortega’s argument to remain in power is that the people want him in power. Apart from Ortega’s weak political adversaries, not many are complaining.
The complexity lies in the fact that during 17 years of centre-right governments, poverty levels grew exponentially in Nicaragua. Since Ortega’s return to power in 2007, they have not dropped immensely, but welfare policy has risen.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has played a pivotal role since the FSLN returned to power by pumping $2 billion into the Nicaraguan public sector over the past five years.The money sent from Caracas has funded subsidised public transport in Nicaragua’s capital Managua, of 1 million inhabitants where Managüenses pay 2.50 cordobas (a little less 15 cents) for their bus fare. Venezuela also funds the “solidarity bonus” to workers earning less than 5500 cordobas per month ($A200) an equivalent to 700 cordobas (about $A30). Nor is it a secret that is the Venezuelan chequebook has created the state-owned and operated Albanisa company. This year alone, Albalinisa, a food producer and exporter, has sold overseas about $400 million worth of dairy, meat and black beans.
It isn’t really necessary to point out that Venezuela would have stopped all funding had Ortega not been re-elected, with Hugo Chavez obviously supporting Ortega in a bid to stop pro-US neo-liberals from advancing.
But there is also another pivotal player in this election: just as in Argentina and Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s win a fortnight ago, both Latin American leaders have split non-people friendly and worse than mediocre opposition.
Ortega’s main rival in this election, 79-year-old Fabio Gadea, belongs to the PLI coalition, a political grouping comprised of dissidents of the FSLN and the PLC. Gadea has been unable to unify the anti-Ortega, anti-Sandinista vote. To make things bleaker for the opposition leader, he is well known for being homophobic, against potential abortion legislation and did not have solid evidence of government policy to govern a country with adverse scenarios such as low exports, which do not exceed $2 billion dollars per year, and where one in three of its inhabitants want to leave the country.
Ortega’s last term in government has had some significant social evolutions that go beyond simple and bland welfarism, such as a return to free education and health care, his government’s ever-growing effort to redistribute wealth through slow, yet sustained economic growth, the end of a severe energy crisis, which caused constant suffering to Nicaraguans during the neo-liberal years and, most importantly for this region, a clear demonstration that an Ortega government will always support progressive and independent Latin American integration.
Sandinism reportedly won last Sunday’s election in an environment of high transparency and participation, the event closely monitored by official European and Latin American observers.
Most Nicaraguans are still on the streets celebrating the landslide win of their leader, but once celebrations are over the country faces some challenging topics.
First, Nicaragua must tackle its stance on therapeutic abortion, which was abolished by the conservative government of president Enrique Bolaños just before Ortega’s 2007 presidential win. This was the heavy price the country had to pay following the conservative’s reconstruction with religious organisations to the way they were under the Somoza dynasty, especially with the Roman Catholic hierarchy.
Secondly, the new, profoundly religious and very nearly charismatic discourse of President Ortega and his peers is starting to worry quite a few Sandinistas — to the point that many have left the party and many more might go — as he tries to shake of his Marxist values and views of yesteryear to make way for a new “Christian, Socialist and Solidary” Nicaragua, as expressed by the FSLN’s main campaign slogan.
Thirdly, but most definitely not last, the necessity of a successor, something that the Sandinista movement has not even dared to touch since Ortega led the revolution to victory in 1979. Ortega will be 71 by the time his term runs out. A grim contrast to his people, where the largest age demographic belongs to those Nicaraguans younger than 25. It is a fast-moving democratic era that needs new faces to keep moving forwards.
The open questions mentioned do not underestimate the impact of the Sandinista electoral landslide, especially knowing that this is the same party that rose to power via an armed struggle in 1979 and openly evolved from guerilla movement to a democratic party that contests elections. The same party that was able to accept and digest the defeat in 1990, mature enough by then to assume the role of opposition — without going back to their weapons — with great dignity against ferocious pro-us, neoliberal governments for 16 years.
Even though huge question marks lay on its performance in its last term in government and going into this new one, Sandinism deserves to keep governing Nicaragua. Sandinism dererves this place on the Latin American landscape to preserve the region’s movement towards Latin American integration and sovereignty.
Just like in Argentina two weeks ago and Fernandez’s landslide win, the people of Argentina and now Nicaragua have supported their respective governments, which support a pro-Latin American agenda by awarding them landslide wins. What the people must also do now do is demand that even more progress is made, and not settling for less.