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Democracy in Nicaragua In Peril, Ortega Critics Say
Disputed Mayoral Elections Become Crucial Test for President

By William Booth
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 20, 2008

MANAGUA, Nicaragua -- The U.S. Embassy has been accused of counterrevolutionary subversion. A nervous Catholic Church is appealing for calm. The opposition party is crying electoral fraud, while roaming gangs armed with clubs are attacking marchers. The mayor here has called it anarchy. And everyone is asking: What is President Daniel Ortega after?

This sounds more like the Central America of the 1980s. But Ortega, the former Marxist revolutionary comandante who returned to the president's office in 2006, is at the center of a chaotic new struggle. Critics charge that he and Nicaragua, the poorest country in Central America, are marching backward, away from relatively peaceful, transparent, democratic elections to ones that are violent, shady and stolen.

The Nov. 9 elections and their disputed results -- for 146 mayoralties, including that of Managua, the capital -- have become a crucial test for the Sandinista National Liberation Front and Ortega, its leader, who seeks to consolidate his power in Nicaragua and enhance his standing as a founder of the "pink tide" of left-leaning governments flowing across Latin America. In the months leading to the vote, Ortega and the Sandinistas cracked down on their critics and revived old antagonisms between the United States and the former revolutionaries.

Preliminary results give the majority of victories to Sandinistas, but the opposition is demanding a full recount overseen by impartial observers.

"This election has everything to do with whether Nicaragua remains a democratic nation or not," said Francisco Aguirre, a former Nicaraguan ambassador to the United States and an opposition leader. "Until now, since 1990, Nicaragua has held open elections. Now something is rotten in the state of Nicaragua. They say we don't want the gringos to sort it out for us. Okay. The Europeans then. Or Latin American observers. But they didn't want anyone looking into this mess, because it stinks."

Ortega's opponents say he and his party are assuming authoritarian powers. "I see it. I feel it. He acts now like a dictator. He wants to be named king. Him and his wife, Rosario Murillo, they want to be made king and queen of Nicaragua," said Arnoldo Alemán, a former president of Nicaragua and a leader of the main opposition party, the Liberal Constitutionalists. "Ortega doesn't want just one more term. He wants many more terms."

Ortega has not spoken publicly about the elections. Diplomats in Managua suspect that he is waiting to see whether the opposition folds. Many Nicaraguans, on both the left and right, assume that he wants to change the constitution to allow him to run for president again in 2011 or assume control as a prime minister. They suspect that Alemán, known by his nickname "The Fat One," also wants to return to power, though Alemán is a convicted money launderer and embezzler.

Ortega and the Sandinistas have a long, bitter history with the United States. After the Sandinistas overthrew despised dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979, they ruled the country with revolutionary fervor until 1990, when Ortega lost the presidential election to Violeta Chamorro. During the 1980s, the Reagan administration supported a force known as the contras in a proxy war against the Sandinistas. The secret and illegal funding of that war led to the Iran-contra affair, in which proceeds from secret arms sales to Iran were funneled to the contras.

Today's Sandinistas are a diluted power, struggling to uphold socialist ideals in a country that has one of the highest degrees of income inequality in the world, where half the population lives below the poverty line. Many Sandinista supporters, including much of the diminished middle class and many intellectuals, have decamped for other parties. Ortega's old comrades are now his most vociferous critics.

"As a traditional revolutionary, Ortega is into the conspiracy theory that the United States is behind all this. But the reality is he is not very popular. He is losing control, and that is dangerous," said Edmundo Jarquín, a former ally and now a leader of the Sandinista Renovation Movement, an opposition party. "He assumed he could steal the election and we would surrender."

Asked Ortega's primary objective, Jarquín replied, "Ortega."

The rallying cry of the opposition candidates seeking to become mayors was not the traditional promise to fix potholes or get the underemployed back to work, but rather the slogan "All Against Ortega!"

According to the Supreme Electoral Council, which the Sandinistas mostly control, Ortega's party captured the capital, with preliminary returns showing a victory for Alexis Arguello, a former world champion boxer and popular Sandinista stalwart.

But his more diminutive, technocratic opponent, banker Eduardo Montealegre, has been traveling the city lodging protests and waving stacks of vote counts that he says prove the election was stolen.

The U.S. Embassy, which the Sandinista government has accused of meddling, has expressed skepticism about the vote count. So has the Organization of American States and the Catholic Church here. "The election was not transparent, and there were many problems," said U.S. Ambassador Robert Callahan. "We are very concerned about the election process, and we are very concerned that the solution be both peaceful and just."

So far, no one has been killed in a week of protests, though marchers have attacked one another with rocks and bats. "This is not good," said Managua Mayor Dionisio Marenco, who is a Sandinista but has fallen from favor with Ortega and the party. "The feeling of the people is that this election was not normal, and there is a lot of distrust, provoking a lot of violence, and when violence starts, it is very difficult to know when it will stop."

The Sandinistas say the opposition is howling because its candidates were drubbed at the polls. "We are going through another test of democracy in Nicaragua. Some forces think that the only way for democracy to proceed is if the Sandinistas lose," said Bayardo Arce, a former top Sandinista commander and now a close economic adviser to Ortega.

Arce said the elections were clean and the opposition "is just making a lot of noise." If Ortega is such a dictator, he said, why are the newspapers and television and radio stations all attacking the Sandinistas?

"If the Sandinistas become successful entrepreneurs, it is because we are thieves," Arce said with a shrug. "If we win an election, it is because of fraud. But we reject that."

The Sandinistas have increased pressure on their critics, many of them former comrades. In August, a Sandinista judge reopened an old slander case against 83-year-old Ernesto Cardenal, a former Sandinista leader and beloved cultural icon of the revolution, who called Ortega "a thief" who runs "a monarchy." A group of internationally prominent intellectuals denounced the case against Cardenal.

"Once more a revolution has been betrayed from within," wrote Portuguese writer and Nobel laureate José Saramago.

In Managua, the government announced an investigation into the accounting practices of 17 nongovernmental organizations, including the food charity Oxfam and a Swedish donor group known as Forum Syd. In a government newspaper, the first lady called the NGOs "modern-day Trojan horses" engaged in "an international campaign against the revolutionary government" of the Sandinistas.

Sophia Montenegro, the head of the Autonomous Women's Movement, one of the groups targeted, said of Ortega: "He is losing touch with reality. He and his wife now live in a fairy tale."

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