Nicaragua's Leading Loser
DANIEL ORTEGA, the failed former Marxist dictator of Nicaragua, ought to be facing a dim political future this summer. He's a candidate for president in elections in November, but he's already lost three previous votes, including the one that removed his Sandinista party from power in 1990. As he has acknowledged, no more than 40 percent of Nicaraguans would ever support him -- most are disgusted by his record of misrule or the charges of corruption and sexual abuse that trail him.
This time Mr. Ortega has the backing of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who has supplied Sandinista-controlled firms with fertilizer to distribute to peasants and offered cut-rate oil. But Mr. Chávez's blessing has proved a liability in a couple of recent Latin American elections, and Nicaragua appears no different: 49 percent of Nicaraguans surveyed in a recent poll said they believed Venezuela was meddling in their country's affairs -- significantly more than felt that way about the United States.
Mr. Ortega, however, has an advantage over the other leftist populists who have tried and failed to take power in Peru and Mexico. Through a patient strategy of corrupt manipulation, he has gained control over much of Nicaragua's fledgling democratic political system and is steadily twisting it to his advantage. Knowing that a majority of voters would never choose him, Mr. Ortega has managed to alter the electoral rules so that he could win election as president with as little as 35 percent of the vote. He has managed to stack Nicaragua's supreme court with his cadres. He has stripped the current president, Enrique Bolaños, of much of his power. Consequently, Mr. Ortega is regarded by many as the favorite to become Nicaragua's next president.
The story of how Central America's poorest country reached this point provides a lesson in the vulnerability of new democracies to cynical and ruthless opportunists. Mr. Ortega's chief gambit has been an alliance with a former right-wing president, Arnoldo Alemán, who was convicted in 2003 of stealing tens of millions of dollars from government coffers. Not allowing his ideological differences with the disgraced president to get in the way, Mr. Ortega sealed a political pact with him. The two leaders' followers in Nicaragua's Congress then teamed up to rewrite the constitution and stack the courts. Until they were constrained by the Bush administration and the Organization of American States, they were preparing to remove Mr. Bolaños from office.
The "pact," as it is universally known in Nicaragua, has produced a healthy backlash: Both the Sandinista party and Mr. Alemán's Liberals have split. The reformers in each party have nominated their own presidential candidates; they include the Liberal party's Eduardo Montealegre, a former finance minister whose commitment to democracy and free markets is unquestioned. The Sandinista challenger to Mr. Ortega, however, died unexpectedly last month, increasing Mr. Ortega's chances of winning by his own rules.
At this point, the best chance of thwarting a ballot-box coup probably lies with the OAS and its member governments, which between now and November must insist on a free and fair election. If Nicaragua remains a genuine democracy, Mr. Ortega will lose.