Nicaragua’s opposition and the myth of unity

With grand caudillos toppling across Latin America, President Daniel Ortega’s disparate opponents have caught the scent of opportunity.  A chaotic clamber has begun. Español

Robert Magowan
19 May 2016

Protest back in 2015 to demand fair elections in 2016. AP Photo/Esteban Felix

On the first Sunday of November this year, Nicaragua will go to the polls.  Its president, and a 92-member National Assembly, are up for election.  The revolutionary ex-comandante Daniel Ortega will run for a third successive term since his return to executive power in 2006.  His influence is far-reaching, the support base of his Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) solid.  The party has entrenched itself among a fragile state, and it continues to be seen by many as the only one on the side of Nicaragua’s abundant poor.  The institutions which facilitated the fraud of 2011 are identical.  Despite all of this, there are reasons to believe that 2016 will be no verbatim replay of elections past.

Firstly, because the expectations of potential international observers will, this year, be greater felt.  The centre-left Uruguayan Luis Amalgro’s vocal leadership of the Organization of American States (OAS) has bolstered that body’s relevance in recent months.  As the source of over half of Nicaragua’s aid, the European Union (EU) will also expect an invite to November’s party.  And with over a third of Nicaragua’s oil now coming from the United States, its strengthened influence will be as unwelcome as it is unavoidable. 

More importantly, however, over the last 6 months Nicaraguans have been witness to Latin America’s caudillos teetering and toppling all around them.  Argentina’s Kirchner dynasty came to an end in October as Mauricio Macri clinched the presidency.    Then in Venezuela, the late Hugo Chavez’s PSUV suffered its first ever electoral defeat, delivering the final nail in the coffin for the incredibly generous oil and aid arrangement that has long funded Ortega’s clientelistic social programs (and, it is alleged, his electoral campaigns).  In Bolivia, Evo Morales’ referendum request for an unconstitutional fourth straight term was greeted by a slim but powerful rejection.  And now in Brazil, allegations of corruption and the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff have all but scuppered the return of her (hitherto) immensely popular predecessor, Lula da Silva, in 2018.  The roots of each upheaval are too distinct to run a single democratic thread between them – indeed the latter is dangerously partisan, and reeks of hypocrisy – but that doesn’t soften the blow to Ortega.  His friends are either going, or gone. 

A past that threatens

This means that for Nicaragua’s political opposition, there is a chance to shake off the stifling impotence of the last five years, and convince a despondent population to vote.  It is a mammoth task, in part because many feel that the last three trips to the ballot box were a waste of time, but also because, looming solemnly over the shoulder of this nation, is its history of violence.

“Every change we’ve had from a dictatorship has been through armed struggle,” says Suyen Barahona, president of the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) in Managua, a party that was led by former vice president Sergio Ramírez to split from the FSLN back in 1995.  “When you’re not able to change a system through elections, you’re not heard, you’re excluded, you’re not given any opportunities – that’s the result.”  Recent skirmishes between the army and rebel fighters in the rural north of the country led the New York Times to headline a March report “Ortega vs. the Contras: Nicaragua endures an ’80s revival”.  Hyperbole it may be – this is not a country that wants to return to war – but an existential threat survives.  It means that those who have invested the last twenty years of their lives into the alternative, building parties and contesting elections, are now more desperate than ever to prove the potential of the ballot box.


On a sweltering Wednesday morning in downtown Managua, another boisterous group of protesters sets off from the headquarters of the centre-right Independent Liberal Party (PLI), towards the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE).  The red and white flag of the PLI flies highest, but following close behind is a grand array of bright colors and acronyms, neoliberals and socialists, ex-contras and evangelicals.  Banner bearers, though sweating profusely in the 35°C heat, beam as they imagine emulating Venezuela, where mass demonstrations led to electoral victory for a 50-party rainbow coalition, united against chavismo

Their demands, which centre on free and fair elections (changes to the highly partisan CSE, an updated electoral register and international observation), are almost universally backed countrywide.  For president they hope to stand, as in 2011, an 84-year-old institution – Don Fabio Gadea Mantilla, one of Nicaragua’s most revered public figures thanks to a 60-year career on radio.  The mood is optimistic, open-armed.  Anyone might think that this coalition was, first and foremost, a project of unity.  To some, however, it’s anything but.


“We started a civic protest, not a political campaign with party flags,” laments Carlos Bonilla, whose grassroots Nicaraguan Democratic Movement (MDN) first initiated “Protest Wednesdays” just over one year ago.  He and most of his followers have since retired from the weekly demonstration, and he argues they were pushed out.  “We are tired of being treated like cannon fodder by the political class in this country.  We tried to work in unison, but the PLI never once wanted to accept us.”  The PLI claim this is a unique case, portraying the MDN as insignificant and its leader, ironically, as a bit of a loose cannon.  But even the most established movements have been similarly spurned.  The once dominant Constitutional Liberal Party (PLC), and the 150-year old Conservative Party (PC), have instead created their own, separate, “unity” alliances, each with a myriad of smaller parties in tow.

Hagamos Democracia (Let’s Do Democracy) is a domestic NGO that has been monitoring Nicaragua’s institutions since 1995.  Beginning in early 2015, they set out on the ambitious task of bringing together the entirety of those who claimed to oppose the “dictatorship” of Daniel Ortega.  In that respect, the project ultimately failed.  Parties pulled out one by one, right up until the day of the much-trumpeted open primaries, leaving only the minor PC and a rag-tag of miniscule factions.  The NGO’s vice president, Dr. Pedro Belli, puts the aversion to unity down to two simple things – selfish political ambitions and ubiquitous personal animosities.  The cynicism jars coming from a twenty year democracy campaigner, but, as he explains, division is exacerbated by the “rules of the game” – specifically the party list system used for assembly elections.  Those who cannot sufficiently court the favor of their party caudillo will find themselves at the wrong end of the list, with little chance of election.  So what do you do? 

“You start another party!” exclaims Dr. Belli.  “It doesn’t make a difference how little your party is – as long as you’re number one, if your party gets 6% of the vote, you’re in.  You’ve got a job for life.  The incentives are all there to split as much as possible.”


For the coalition’s leaders, there’s more to it than that.  “It’s not a question of uniting the opposition, but identifying who truly is the opposition,” argues Kitty Monterrey, General Secretary of the PLI.  Her coalition colleague, Suyen Barahona from the MRS, agrees.  “There’s a myth around unity, that all of us who are in the opposition need to unite.”  Mudslinging at the bogeyman Ortega comes easy for those who have experienced first-hand his manipulative ability – most institutions and political parties are not what they seem here, and it is no wonder the coalition is reluctant to open the door to whomever comes knocking.  “[Ortega] knows that the best way to divide is creating small parties that look like the opposition, but really are not,” says Monterrey.  Money talks more than ever under the Orteguismo brand of socialism, and few reputations have made it through this murky history untarnished by its temptations. 

When it comes to naming and shaming the guilty, however, Nicaragua’s opposition politicians seem reluctant to get specific.  It could well be because in the hazy world of backroom deals between caudillos, flexibility is something absolutely worth holding on to.  Then again, when the most infamous of all those shady accords – El Pacto (The Pact) – is synonymous countrywide with all that has gone wrong in this democracy, perhaps there’s just no need to be explicit.  It doesn’t take an encyclopedic knowledge of these ins and outs, therefore, to recognize that the elephant in the unity room is that pact’s mastermind: El Gordo (The Fat Man) – Arnoldo Alemán.


Originally struck in 1999 as a spoils-sharing exercise between the PLC and the FSLN (ostensibly polar opposites on the political spectrum), El Pacto really came into its own in the 2000s.  Alemán, the corpulent caudillo of the PLC, needed an exit strategy when an estimated $100m of embezzlement and corruption during his reign as Nicaragua’s president became public knowledge.  Ortega, meanwhile, needed a route back to de jure power after a decade of “governing from below” (as he promised to do while accepting defeat in 1990).  In a display of extraordinary disregard for political principle, each accommodated the needs of the other.  An unprecedented 20-year prison sentence handed down to Alemán for his crimes descended quickly into ridicule, as he found himself serving sporadic “time” on his luxury ranch.  A group of liberals, led by Eduardo Montealegre, objected to Alemán’s cynical maneuvering and split off from the PLC (and would eventually become today’s PLI), thus dividing the right in two.  This split, plus some nifty tinkering to the electoral law in a raft of constitutional changes agreed years earlier, then gifted Ortega his long-awaited return to the presidency in 2006, with just 38% and one round of voting.  The duo weren’t quite finished there though. In exchange for his complicity in the dubious municipal elections of 2008 (for which he effectively tricked Montealegre into an alliance it is alleged he knew would be fleeced), an FSLN-dominated Supreme Court eventually overturned Alemán’s sentence entirely. 

Despite El Gordo’s shenanigans, and while the PLC has certainly suffered for them electorally, his influence endures.  He continues to control the upper echelons of a historically important party that will not go away.  In 2011 he drew a seemingly fickle PC into an alliance for another presidential run, and this year he appears to have ousted the PLC alliance’s chosen candidate for president, businessman Noel Vidaurre, after he refused to permit Alemán’s wife and friends to run for assembly. 

That the PLI coalition has shut itself off from such a character thus seems justified, and they maintain that they are busy building unity from below. “We make a distinction between the leadership of those parties, and the grassroots of those parties,” rationalizes Suyen Barahona, though she is typically noncommittal at the final moment.  “Our base has good relationships with the PLC.  That’s the real unity.  Does it need to be between Arnoldo Alemán and the coalition..?  Possibly not.”

Nothing is certain in Nicaragua’s thorny political culture, but the coalition of the PLI and the MRS is the most likely to emerge as Ortega’s main challenger.  The third and final part of this series will turn to their strategies, weaknesses, and chances of success.

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