The outcome of the November 2006 presidential elections in Nicaragua has become even more uncertain in the wake of the unexpected death of Herty Lewites, the presidential candidate for the Movimiento de Renovación Sandinista (MRS).
Herty, who served as Minister of Tourism during the revolutionary decade of the 1980s and mayor of Managua from 2000-2005, died from a heart attack Sunday, July 2, in the Hospital Metropolitano Vivian Pellas in Managua. Herty was expelled from the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN) in February of 2005 over a dispute with the party’s president, Daniel Ortega, regarding the party’s selection of a presidential candidate. The FSLN led the 1979 Nicaraguan Revolution, which overthrew the decades-long US-backed Somoza dictatorship. The revolutionary government’s socialist-inspired reform programs and its adoption of a mixed economy brought it head to head with the Reagan administration in the United States. The US imposed an economic embargo on Nicaragua and funneled money and arms to the Contras, the ex-dictator’s National Guard, fueling a bloody civil war that resulted in 50,000 deaths. Daniel Ortega served as Nicaragua’s president from 1984-1990, when a coalition headed by Violeta Barrios de Chamorro defeated the FSLN in internationally observed elections. Since 1990 and the end of the Revolution, Nicaragua has seen a drastic cut in social spending and a push towards free-market reforms, culminating in the CAFTA agreement, which went into affect in April 2006.
The November elections, which will take place under close international scrutiny, mark a historic shift in the Nicaraguan political landscape. The four-way electoral split reflects the crisis that the two main political parties, the FSLN and the Partido Liberal Constitucional (PLC), have entered into since the last presidential elections in 2000. The FSLN has been the mainstay of the left since the Revolution, though it has lost credibility since 1990 due to corruption scandals and pacts with the right, most notably the pact formed in 1998 between Daniel and PLC leader and then-president, Arnoldo Alemán, to divide the major branches of the government between the two parties. The FSLN’s opportunism combined with Daniel’s iron grip on the party has angered many former Sandinistas, and many leaders prominent in the 1980s, such as former Vice-President Sergio Ramirez and former Minister of Health Dora Maria Tellez, broke with the FSLN to form the Movimiento de Renovación Sandinista (MRS) in 1994. However, the MRS remained on the margin of Nicaraguan politics and in a strategic alliance with the FSLN until recently, when it decided to end this alliance and fully support Herty’s presidential candidacy. This created a sharp split among voters of the Nicaraguan left, divided between supporting another presidential bid by Daniel Ortega on the FSLN ticket or Herty Lewites on the MRS ticket.
The right has undergone a similar crisis due to corruption. The PLC’s leader, Arnoldo Alemán, was sentenced to 20 years in prison in December of 2003 after being convicted of money laundering, embezzlement, and corruption. Through his connections in the judicial branch, he has been permitted to serve his sentence under house arrest at his private estate, and remains the strongest force in the PLC, despite his incarceration and supposed retirement from political life. The PLC’s presidential candidate for this year’s elections, José Rizo, has attempted to distance himself from Alemán, but frequent meetings between Alemán, Rizo, and other important PLC functionaries at the former president’s ranch severely undermine Rizo’s credibility in the eyes of many Nicaraguans. The PLC’s problems have been capitalized on by Eduardo Montealegre, a US-educated diplomat who is running as tbe Alianza Liberal Nicaraguense’s (ALN) candidate on an anti-corruption neoliberal platform. US Ambassador Paul Trivelli has made it clear that Montealegre is his government’s favored candidate, though he has also made it clear that anyone is more acceptable in the eyes of the US than Ortega. Trivelli even went so far as to write a letter on April 5th to the PLC and the ALN offering financial and technical support to help unite the right wing in order to prevent an Ortega victory. However, the official date to form alliances passed in May, leaving a last minute drop-out by the ALN or the PLC as the only possibility for a united right in November.
According to recent statistics, a Daniel victory is more likely than in any recent election (Ortega has been the FSLN candidate in every election since 1984). A June 29th CID-Gallup poll showed Daniel in a clear first-place lead with the support 23% of likely voters. Montealegre came in second, with 17% of the expected vote, and Herty polled close behind at 15%. Rizo polled at 11%, while 3% of voters said they supported "other candidates." However, 32% of those polled were undecided about which candidate they would vote for in November. Nicaraguan electoral law allows for a candidate to win with only 35% of the vote as long as the winner has a 5% margin over the runner-up, thus creating the possibility for a first-round victory despite the four-way split. If none of the candidates is able to garner this 35%, a runoff will occur between the top two candidates.
In this context of an extremely divided electorate, Herty’s death is likely to have a huge impact on the November elections. Perhaps all of the publicity surrounding his death will pull more voters to the MRS. Those close to Herty have vowed to continue fighting for the Nicaragua he sought to create, yet finding a replacement for the charismatic Herty, who in the recent CID-Gallup poll garnered a 45% approval rate, the highest of all of the presidential candidates and the current president, is a tricky task. The MRS’s vice-presidential candidate, Edmundo Jarquín, is not nearly as well-known as Herty, and many of the other important figures in the MRS might be too intimately linked to the controversial decade of the 1980s to attract undecided voters. Though Herty, who became involved in the anti-Somoza struggle in 1960 and spent the 1960s and 70s involved with arms smuggling and international relations for the FSLN, obviously had an intimate history with the Nicaraguan Revolution, his able performance as Minister of Tourism in the 1980s and as mayor of Managua 2000-2005 earned him a reputation for efficiency and transparency. Additionally, his rhetoric was not generally viewed as radically leftist. While Herty promised to increase spending on education, health, and housing, he is viewed as a moderate leftist who will not greatly hinder foreign investment. He pledged to help Nicaragua overcome its position as one of the poorest and most unequal countries in Latin America through investment in alternative energy and tourism, not by rejecting CAFTA and embracing the Venezuela, Cuba, and Bolivia-backed Alternativa Bolivariana para América (ALBA), as Daniel Ortega has avowed to do (though it is interesting to note that the FSLN’s sudden decision in October 2005 to no longer keep CAFTA off the agenda in the National Assembly was integral to its passage in Nicaragua).
If voters turn away from the MRS, it is unclear which candidate they would support. While some Herty supporters might support Daniel as the only other viable left-wing candidate, the recent CID-Gallup poll showed that 46% of voters would never vote for Daniel under any circumstances. In fact, Herty recently announced that if the elections came to a run-off and the MRS was not included, he would still not support Daniel. In a similar show of disaffection with the PLC, 21% of those polled said they would never vote for Rizo. Meanwhile, only 5% would never vote for Montealegre and 3% said they would never vote for Herty. It is therefore very likely that former Herty supporters fed up with corruption and caudillo politics could support Montealegre, despite obvious ideological differences. In the volatile political context of Nicaragua, nothing about the outcome of the November elections is certain.
Yet, despite the ambiguity surrounding the November elections, it remains clear that Herty Lewites has left an irreversible mark on Nicaraguan history by opening up a space for a left free from corruption, pact-making, and domination by Daniel Ortega.
Kristen B. Shelby reports for UpsideDownWorld.org from Managua, Nicaragua.
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Photo from http://www.confidencial.com.ni/2005-446/politica1-446.htm