By Paul Hampton
Daniel Ortega, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) leader was re-elected president last week. But for all the flag waving, it’s clear that this is hardly a victory for the Nicaraguan working class.
Ortega won 38% of the vote, the two right wing candidates Eduardo Montealegre (National Liberal Alliance, ALN) and José Rizo (Constitutional Liberal Party, PLC) got 29% and 26% respectively. Edmundo Jarquín from the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) got over 6% and another former Sandinista Eden Pastora 0.27%.
National Assembly elections were also held, with the FSLN winning 37 seats, ALN 26, PLC 22 and MRS 6 seats. This means that the FSLN does not have the majority necessary to pass legislation.
Some on the left have hailed Ortega’s victory. For example the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign in Britain said: “Regardless of what may happen over the next five years, the FSLN victory in the presidential elections is a blow to US imperialism in Latin America and another brick in the wall towards an integrated Latin America as a counterweight to US century’s old domination of the region.”
But Ortega in 2006 is a long way from the Ortega that led the Sandinistas to overthrow the dictator Somoza in 1979 and fought the US-backed Contras. The poverty of the Nicaraguan state means Ortega is unlikely to be as populist as his last spell in office – or as populist as Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, though he may bloc with him, Morales and Castro.
Although jubilant Sandinista supporters filled the streets of Managua waving red and black flags after the result was declared, the pink and yellow flags Ortega used during the campaign are a better indication of his current politics.
Since its electoral defeat in 1990, the Sandinistas have gone through a profound transformation. The first major scandal was the “piñata”, when state assets and money were divided up by prominent Sandinista officials enriching themselves. By 1992, 30 large companies were owned by the FSLN or its leaders.
In 1999, Ortega signed a pact with President Arnoldo Alemán (PLC) in an attempt to institutionalise a two party system. The deal granted them both lifetime appointments to the National Assembly, giving them immunity from prosecution. When Alemán was eventually tried for corruption, Ortega did a deal to get him released under loose house arrest.
In the election campaign, Ortega preached “reconciliation” with past enemies. His theme tune was a Spanish version of John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance”. Having previously taken over the house of leading Contra-supporter Jaime Morales Carazo (where he still lives), Ortega made him his vice-presidential running mate in 2006.
There are other indications of Ortega’s rightward shift. In 1998 his step-daughter Zoilamerica Narvaez accused him of sexually abusing her from the age of 11. Her mother sided with Ortega and his immunity meant no court case could take place.
During this election, the issue of abortion rights came to prominence. Under Nicaraguan law, the only abortions allowed have been so-called “therapeutic abortions”, when the mother’s life is at risk. However after Edmundo Jarquín, the MRS candidate went on the record in favour of these abortions, the Catholic church launched a campaign to ban them outright, culminating in a ban 10 days before the polls. Ortega backed the criminalisation of all abortions, emphasising his Catholic faith.
The other Sandinista forces are not much better. The MRS split from the FSLN in 1995, though it supported Ortega in the 2001 elections. The MRS is ran on an anti-corruption platform, distancing itself from the FSLN-PLC pact. Politically it describes itself as social democratic, similar to the Lula government in Brazil. Its original candidate was Herty Lewites, another former Sandinista who split from Ortega in 2005, having been mayor of Managua. His replacement Jarquín was ambassador to Spain and Mexico during the 1980s and until recently worked at the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington.
In short, the left is in a bad way in Nicaragua. Debunking illusions about the Sandinistas, past and present, is a vital part of rejuvenating it.