Next month, Nicaraguans will go to the polls for their national elections. I thought I should write a little something about current Nica politics, although be warned that this is just one gringo's opinion and I am nowhere near an expert on this topic. Like in the U.S., Nicaraguan politics is highly polarized, so I'm going to try to set the scene without prejudicing one side over the other. And it's pretty complicated no matter how you slice it. If I screw something up, let me know.
Today, as for the last 32 years, the central figure in Nicaraguan politics is President Daniel Ortega. The former guerrilla leader led Nicaragua during the 1980s, along with a number of other Sandinista comandantes, before losing the 1990 elections to Violeta Chamorro. After 16 years of neoliberal administrations, Ortega was again elected president in 2006. His party, the FSLN or the Sandinista National Liberation Front, remains the largest single party in Nicaragua although they no longer have majority support. Ortega was elected in 2006 with 38% of the vote, with the remainder split between a number of opposition candidates. That victory resulted from a controversial pact with the opposition PLC (Constitutional Liberal Party), which lowered the threshold for avoiding a run-off from 45% to 35%.
My guess is that most Americans' views of Ortega anti-correlate with their views of his 1980s nemesis, Ronald Reagan. I'm going to leave discussion of the 1979 revolution, the Contra War and U.S. intervention for another post, but the Ortega of today is not really the same guy as he was back then. The FSLN platform is still nominally socialist but it seems to have made its peace with private enterprise and has turned its focus to poverty reduction programs instead. (For example, this article on Nicaragua's free trade zones.) The FSLN has hopped on the micro-credit bandwagon, (a big about-face from their disastrous agriculture programs of the '80s) and even manages to play well with the U.S. on anti-drug trafficking initiatives.
Ortega has also made a show of reaching out to former enemies, including former Contra leaders. His fiercest internal critic from the 1980s, Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, is now a supporter. (This may have something to do with Ortega's much publicized return to the Catholic Church.) He's also changed his personal style. No longer the mini-Fidel in army fatigues and giant glasses, he now appears clean-shaven and pink-shirted in all the re-election propaganda. The campaign is relentlessly cheerful, talking about "love", "people power" and "the common good." The main slogan is "Christian, Socialist, in Solidarity." Their most popular bumper sticker is a play on Messi's iconic Barcelona jersey which can be seen plastered on the back of virtually every taxi and bus in Managua. They also have a really catchy theme song and video.
The opposition case against Ortega is that he's corrupt and dragging the country into a dictatorship. Ortega maintains close relationships with Castro, Qaddafi (until quite recently, I guess) and most especially Hugo Chavez, from whom Nicaragua receives millions in foreign aid. For a defender of the poor, Ortega lives pretty high on the hog, a fact that has led to harsh criticism from former Sandinistas, many of whom bolted the party to form the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS).
What's more, the current constitution explicitly forbids the re-election of a sitting president, although the Ortega-appointed Supreme Court invalidated that section, clearing the way for his candidacy. The 2008 municipal elections were also widely seen to have been stolen by the FSLN, leading to fears that this election will be as well. This shows that even the fear of potential corruption can be corrupting, as Sandinista supporters will turn out to vote, but opposition supporters may not bother. The main daily newspaper, La Prensa, presses these arguments against Ortega daily.
Right now it seems likely that Ortega will win, perhaps with as much as 45% of the vote. Part of this is that the numerous opposition parties were unable to coalesce around a single candidate. One of those candidates is Arnoldo Alemán (PLC) -- himself a former president who was jailed for corruption and embezzlement and later freed (some estimate that he stole as much as $100 million from the government coffers). Alemán retains some support but is seen as unelectable, which has led many to rally around Fabio Gadea (PLI) as the best option for beating Ortega. But Alemán has refused calls to drop out and may end up taking enough of the liberal vote to sink Gadea's chances.
In a lot of ways, Ortega seems to have the wind at his back. Nicaragua has avoided the drugs and violence that have plagued other Central American countries and has weathered the global recession better than most (although it is still a poor country, everything is relative). And I've heard more than one die-hard opposition supporter actually praise his anti-poverty programs. But we shall see in November how it all plays out.