A Peaceful Nicaraguan Election Brings a Mandate for Sandinista Social Programs

According to Nicaragua’s Supreme Electoral Council (CSE), between 78 and 80 percent of Nicaragua’s 3.3 million eligible voters participated in the November 6th election, re-electing Sandinista President Daniel Ortega with more than 62 percent of the vote and sending a Sandinista majority to the National Assembly. 

At 3 a.m. on election day in Nicaragua, an elderly woman emerged from the dark streets of Managua’s Barrio La Primavera and planted a plastic chair in front of the Alfonso Cortés elementary school, then went home to take a shower. She wanted to be the first to vote when the polls there opened at 7 a.m. Two men walking slowly with canes arrived just after her, saying, “The Sandinistas are here to vote first.” 

By the time the polls opened four hours later, a line stretched 100 feet down the street from the green metal door of the school, the biggest of La Primavera’s five polling places. The two elderly men voted first, “because they both had canes and didn’t bring chairs,” said Tere Narváez, who arrived at 2:30 a.m. to bring poll workers to the school.

Narváez, a Frente Sandinista (FSLN) activist in La Primavera, had been organizing in the barrio for two years to turn-out voters and make election day go as smoothly as possible. During the 2006 presidential election, fist fights between Liberal activists and their Sandinista rivals erupted inside and outside of the Alfonso Cortés polling place. Narváez and many others feared a repeat or worse this year, despite the ruling Sandinista party’s electoral motto of “Amor, paz, y vida” (“Love, peace, and life”). But from Managua barrios to peasant villages to electoral officials, Nicaraguans largely agree that this was the most peaceful of the six elections the country has held since the 1979 Sandinista revolution.

In its initial report on the election, The Organization of American States (OAS) also noted that “in spite of certain predictions about tensions and acts of violence…In Nicaragua yesterday democracy and peace advanced.”

Indeed, no one swung fists on the potholed streets of La Primavera. In the rural village of La Paz de Carazo, Gseñia Salazar Mora went for a walk in the village park on election night and found only couples courting on benches and children playing soccer. “It was more tranquil than I’ve ever seen it on election night,” Salazar Mora told me.

In Nicaragua, tranquility can also mean a lot of joyful noise. On election night in La Primavera, I fell asleep to fireworks and booming mortars and woke to the same sounds at 6 a.m. the next morning. Soon after, I asked Tere Narváez if she had heard any official election results.

“No I haven’t,” she said, “but I did hear some great news while I was sleeping: fireworks and mortars. Today, all of the media will bring good news.”

For Narváez and the Sandinistas, the news has been mostly fabulous ever since. According to Nicaragua’s Supreme Electoral Council (CSE), between 78 and 80 percent of Nicaragua’s 3.3 million eligible voters participated in the November 6th election, re-electing Sandinista President Daniel Ortega with more than 62 percent of the vote and sending a Sandinista majority to the National Assembly. The most popular of the four opposition candidates, radio personality and former Contra supporter Fabio Gadea of the Independent Liberal Party Alliance (PLI) received just over 31 percent of the vote. In a country where many people have long associated Ortega with the civil war and economic suffering caused by U.S. policy toward Nicaragua in the 1980s, this result is a remarkable mandate for the President’s extensive social programs.

“If he did bad things in the past, we are willing to forget this…We all have made mistakes,” said Gseñia Salazar Mora, who— like many people I talked to during and after the election— cited Liberals she knows who voted for Daniel Ortega for the first time. “My mother and father have always been Liberals. But my mother received an interest-free loan from the government to start a small business and a free cataract operation. These are big things, and she voted for Daniel because she feels appreciative.”

Hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguans who survive on less than $3 a day, such as Gseñia’s mother, have benefited from the Sandinista government’s social programs in other ways as well. More than 100,000 rural families have received a cow, a pig, ten chickens, and a rooster as part of the government’s Zero Hunger program. La Paz de Carazo farmer Antonio Salazar told me that two and a half years ago his family became part of this program, which “is a great benefit,” providing $2-a-day from the sale of milk and 40-50 eggs a day to feed his family and bring in more income.

“I’m happy about the result of the election,” Salazar said. “The people recognize what Daniel has done for us, especially the poor, and want him to continue doing more: the Zero Hunger program, the roof program, building roads.”

Another La Paz de Carazo farmer, Wilmer Alvárez Mora, commented that “Recently, we’ve had years when farmers don’t get any harvest and don’t have seeds to plant the next year. Daniel has provided seeds and fertilizer. In the Liberal period, it wasn’t like this.”

From 1990 until 2006, Liberal presidents from various parties governed Nicaragua. One of them, Arnoldo Alemán, ran again this year but received only 6 percent of the vote, marking what the Nicaraguan newspaper El Nuevo Diario called his “political near-disappearance.”

“Since the end of the Revolution,” political scientist and Sandinismo scholar Dr. Héctor Cruz- Feliciano told me, “none of the governments took to heart social programs and policies as this government has. I think that people really looked at the track record of the opposition and looked at what the Frente [Sandinista] has done in five years. It’s a no-brainer.”

Nonetheless, some Liberals remain incensed about what they see as Ortega’s illegal presidential candidacy, and they refuse to recognize the election’s results because of alleged fraud. The leading Liberal candidate, Fabio Gadea, appeared at a rally in Managua two days after the election to demand a new election, while roughly 400 of his supporters burned Sandinista t-shirts and tires and blocked traffic on Managua’s main commercial artery, the Carretera Masaya, for more than two hours.

As of Nov.9, Liberals’ claims of widespread fraud were unsubstantiated, though some irregularities associated  with discrimination in the issuing of voter cards and manipulation of voter lists had been documented. In the presidential race, results in 18 precincts had been challenged, not enough to cast any doubt on the outcome. The preliminary declaration of the European Union electoral observation team stated that the election transpired in a generally peaceful manner, but also observed that Nicaragua’s Supreme Electoral Council (CSE)— which administered the election—lacks transparency and independence from the ruling Sandinista party.

In addition to concerns about fraud, the Liberals assert that Ortega’s candidacy is illegal because the Nicaraguan constitution prohibits consecutive presidential terms and limits presidents to two total terms. Ortega served one term from 1985 to 1990 and another from 2006 to the present. In 2009, however, Nicaragua’s Sandinista-controlled Supreme Court ruled that these prohibitions violate human rights, and Ortega subsequently announced his candidacy for re-election.

According to Dr. Cruz-Feliciano, Liberal candidates’ participation in the election legitimized it. “What international observers have said from the beginning is that the moment you enter the contest, you’re acknowledging the election is valid,” he said. “You cannot say let’s go play basketball, and the moment they call a foul on you, you say I don’t like this rule.”

Yet many Liberals aren’t swayed by this argument. “This government is interested in keeping its power indefinitely, against the laws of the country, against the constitution, against the integrity of the citizenry,” Fabio Gadea supporter Rodolfo Argüello told me at the Alfonso Cortés polling place in Managua. “It offends all Nicaraguans. It damages us.”

Argüello is not alone in his concern that Ortega may become a dictator. “Daniel Somoza” graffiti sometimes appears on Nicaraguan walls, equating Ortega with the longtime Nicaraguan dictator he helped oust in 1979. And at a post-election Sandinista celebration in La Paz de Carazo, Wilmer Alvárez Mora told me that he heard a man shout “Daniel won in 2011, and now we’re preparing for Daniel in 2016!”

“He could become a dictator, like Chávez, like Castro,” Alvárez Mora continued, “but Nicaragua is not like Cuba. It’s not like Venezuela. People here are not scared. If he does something the people don’t like, they will take him out.”

And for now, Ortega’s landslide victory shows that the legality of his third presidential term is not the most important issue on most Nicaraguans’ minds, especially Nicaraguans under 30, who account for more than half of the country’s population.

Eighteen-year-old Silvia Vallejos Urbina voted for the first time in this election. For her and her fellow Juventud Sandinista (Sandinista Youth) members, making an issue of the legality of Ortega’s campaign was an electoral ploy of the Liberals. “What we want is a government that supports us, that gives us possibilities,” she said, while revolutionary anthems blared from speakers stacked in the yard of Managua’s Barrio La Primavera Sandinista community center. “What we want is that the government prioritizes our houses, our streets, our communities.”

Vallejos Urbina lives in an informal squatter settlement without paved streets, sewers, and reliable water and electricity. The Sandinista government recently changed her family’s life, however, by giving the family a title to the land they live on, as the government will have done to 136,000 other Nicaraguan families by the end of 2011. The titles mean official integration into Nicaraguan public life and often lead to sewers, paved roads, and improved water and electric services.

These basics are much of the bottom line for most people in the Western Hemisphere’s second poorest country. As Dr. Cruz-Feliciano told me, “People do not eat democracy—that’s not to say that democracy is not important…But first you need someone alive, well-fed, and well taken care of in order to participate in the political system.”

For some older Nicaraguans, like 57 year-old taxi driver Gerardo Pérez, who was drawn to become a guerrilla in 1978 by the brutality of the more than half-century-long Somoza regime, the result of the November 6th election is a dream that has been deferred.

“I feel today like I felt when we removed the dictator Somoza. I feel overjoyed!” Pérez said as he drove me past tens of thousands of cheering celebrants lining the roundabouts of Managua and waving Nicaraguan and Sandinista flags two days after the election. “The young people are in the streets! Before they thought he [Ortega] would start a draft, start a war. Now, no. Look—only young people!”

Managuans were celebrating even more than they did after the triumph of the Sandinista Revolution in 1979, Pérez said. Throughout the agricultural “Golden Triangle” of Carazo, too, caravans of buses, pickups, and motorcycles overflowed with people extending two fingers to represent their choice of the Sandinistas, the number two party on the ballot. Their jubilation and honking horns carried miles through the thick Central American night.

The ubiquity of these sounds after a potentially violent election—and just over twenty years after the end of weapons bursting and bloodying every Nicaraguan night—mean something meaningful has changed in the land of lakes and volcanoes. The next five years will reveal whether these changes amount to a more stable and prosperous Nicaragua, as President Daniel Ortega promises. And so will whether Nicaraguans appear again at 3 a.m. to vote.