The ’96 Nicaraguan Elections: How Aleman “Won”

Against the Current, No. 66, January/February 1997

Dianne Feeley

SYMPATHIZERS OF THE Nicaraguan revolution were divided in their opinions about the politics of the 1996 election campaign. Did Daniel Ortega’s campaign for presidency represent a creative response to the extremely difficult situation the Nicaraguan people face after six years of neoliberalism or did the Sandinista Front (FSLN) abandon the revolutionary project in favor of a glitzy, personalistic and pro-capitalism one? Outside the context of a real discussion of what actually happened during the campaign and on the day of the October 20th election–all of which has been grossly underreported–this is a sterile debate.

On November 22nd, more than a month after the Nicaraguan elections, Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) president Rosa Marina Zelaya announced after “extensive review and investigation” of charges of fraud that the October 20 elections were “perfectly valid, clean and legitimate.” She acknowledged minor fraud but said it was confined to a few precincts and a few individuals.

The CSE thus rejected the demand of the Sandinista Front (FSLN) that the election be annulled in Managua as well as a second challenge by ten parties (including the FSLN) that the election in Matagalpa be invalidated. Zelaya stated that the major problem was not fraud but differing interpretations of the electoral law. The CSE then proclaimed Arnoldo Aleman, the candidate of the right-wing Liberal Alliance (AL), president elect (with 51% of the vote to Daniel Ortega’s 37.7%). He will take office on January 10.

Of the 93 members elected to the National Assembly, 42 were elected on the Liberal Alliance ticket and 36 are Sandinista Front candidates. Nine other parties/coalitions have the other 15 seats, including four for the Nicaraguan Christian Way Party, three for the Conservative Party, two for the National Project, and one each for the Liberal Independent Party, National Conservative Alliance, Nicaraguan Resistance Party, Sandinista Renovation Movement, Unity Alliance and UNO ’96 Alliance. Since the election, however, two National Assembly members elected on the AL ticket (an alliance of three right-wing parties) have resigned from the AL. Members of the National Liberal Party; they accuse Aleman of unilateral decision-making.

Additionally, 91 of the municipalities elected AL governments while 52 elected the FSLN. The AL heads the government in ten departmental capitals, including Managua and Matagalpa, while the FSLN won in six: Carazo (Jinotepe), Esteli, Leon, Madirz (Somoto), Nueva Segovia (Ocotal) and RAAN (Puerto Cabezas). Of the 19 Nicaraguans elected to the Central America Parliament, 9 are from the Liberal Alliance, 8 from the FSLN, and one each from the Nicaraguan Christian Way Party and Conservative Party.

Organizing the Election

As defined by the 1987 Constitution, the CSE is actually a fourth branch of government, enjoying an independent and equal status with the judiciary, the legislative and the executive branches. And until now the CSE has enjoyed the reputation as the one branch most free of partisan politics and unblemished by scandals.

In February 1996 Mariano Fiallos resigned as president of the CSE, stating that he could not guarantee clean elections. He felt that the new election law opened the door to partisan influence (with political parties nominating officials for the various Departmental Electoral Councils) and he was also concerned about the inadequate funding and governmental attention given the difficult process of voter registration.

In addition to the lack of funding, there was actually very little time to organize the election process (registration of voters, issuing new voter identification cards, registration of candidates and electoral coalitions, organizing and staffing polling stations). For example, the CSE prepared for the election by basing its estimates for ID cards and polling stations on the most recent census–which, as it turns out, vastly undercounted the population. At every stage in the election process the CSE was faced with more obstacles.

But since Fiallos’ replacement by Zelaya, the CSE has come under suspicion:

* Presidencies of the departmental regions seemed to be unjustly awarded. Last August the FSLN protested that the Liberal Alliance ended up with being awarded the lion’s share. The AL was appointed Departmental Electoral Council presidencies in areas such as Managua, Jinotega and Matagalpa–where 42% of the population lives–while the FSLN was awarded presidencies in regions representing only 14% of the population.

* The company that submitted the highest bid received by the CSE to print the ballots was given the job. (The rumor is that Zelaya’s husband owned stock in that company.)

* In the October 20 election the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) won one seat in the National Assembly from Carazo. However, in its November 22nd statement on the elections, the CSE claimed an irregularity in that race–without providing any evidence–and took the seat from the winner, MRS member Adolfo Arguello, and without explaining why, assigned it to Jorge Samper, an MRS member and Zelaya’s husband. Arguello claimed that Zelaya worked out a deal with Aleman.

* Most importantly, the system that the CSE set up in order to be free of any fraud was contaminated.

After the polls were closed and before proceeding to the count, officials in each polling station were to reconcile the unused and used ballot papers. Each step was to be documented. When the final figures were ready, the figures were to be sent to the local CSE by telegram, phone or fax so that the overall results could be compiled. The original documents were then to be taken to the local CSE for verification. (The CSE had instructed international observers not to remain at the polling stations for the counting of the votes or the delivery of the tallies to the departmental CSE offices.

When the FSLN began to detect discrepancies between the provisional figures and what their poll watches reported, Ortega urged the CSE to use the official tally sheets rather than the provisional figures. However the CSE continued to release provisional figures and the right wing proclaimed quick victory.

Yet the provisional figures were obviously wrong. For example, one polling place in Jinotega reported that the Liberal Alliance received 1,085 votes. The electoral law states that no more than 400 can vote at any polling place. When the provisional figure is compared with the vote tally, there were 233 valid votes cast! According to a November 4 FSLN statement, 853 provisional “telegrams” were altered in this way.

Once a number of political parties documented the fraud, other cases were discovered. The most outrageous violations include:

* 28,300 ballots were found in a Matagalpa warehouse owned by the children of the president of the Matagalpa Electoral Council and a Liberal Alliance activist.

* Six boxes filled with ballots were discovered in the Managua home of a member of the Liberal Alliance.

Poll watchers for eight parties, including the FSLN, submitted a request to annul the elections in Matagalpa, reporting that there were no final tallies for 132 polling places, 314 tallies were written in pencil and showed signs of erasure, 137 tallies showed a larger number of votes than registered voters, 593 tallies had altered data, 88 polling places were not in authorized locations and 280 polling places were not legally constituted. Seventy-two percent of the departmental polling places registered some irregularity.

A report submitted by the majority of the Managua Departmental Electoral Council describes the election as “chaotic,” and outlines a wide variety of irregularities.  It cites that the results from over 200 electoral booths, representing more than 50,000 votes, have disappeared, points out that thousands of tally sheets were lost or calculated incorrectly, and documents that security codes and verification signatures on the ballot papers where not identical to those on the tally sheets for the same polling booth. The FSLN has calculated that 84% of the Managua polling stations had “grave irregularities.”

The Sandinista Assembly pointed out that the greatest number of irregularities occurred in those departments where the Liberal Alliance was in charge: Managua, Matagalpa and Jinotega. In both Matagalpa and Jinotega armed bands have campaigned in favor of the Liberal Alliance and prevented other parties from campaigning.  At least seven members of the FSLN were brutally killed in these regions during October and November.  Thirty thousand protested the electoral fraud at the tomb of Carlos Fonseca, founder of the FSLN, on November 8. That date was the twentieth anniversary of FSLN founder Fonseca’s murder.

While on October 20 many polling stations did not open on time–either because the election materials had not been delivered or because CSE officials had not arrived–people patiently waited for hours. So despite these problems, the voting process proceeded smoothly.  The main problem was that Liberal Alliance members were in charge of the most populated polling places, and used their position to deliberately alter the results.

Was the fraud significant enough to alter the results? Clearly it was enough to hand victories to the Liberal Alliance in races for mayor of Managua and Matagalpa as well as some National Assembly seats. It also may have been enough to give Aleman a victory on the first round (a candidate had to win more than 45% of the vote on the first round to avoid a runoff).

The FSLN newspaper, Barricada, has accused the Costa Rican-based Centre of Advice and Electoral Promotion, funded by the United States International Development Agency of having played a key role in advising certain officials of the CSE and the Liberal Alliance on ways to obtain desired election results.

Why Did Aleman Steal the Elections?

At the beginning of the 1996 electoral campaign thirty-two political parties, some grouped into coalitions, registered presidential candidates. By August nine had withdrawn or been declared ineligible. (The CSE ruled Antonio Lacayo off the ballot on the basis of a constitutional article barring relatives of the incumbent president from running, while Eden Pastora and Alvaro Robelo were barred because both had given up their Nicaraguan citizenship at one time.) No “center” force had been hobbled together to compete with Aleman and Ortega.

More importantly, by August opinion polls revealed that Ortega’s FSLN ticket was gaining while Aleman’s support was stagnating. CID-Gallup poll’s June survey pinpointed Ortega’s support at 26%, but by early August it had risen to 30%. By the end of August Aleman and Ortega were running neck-and-neck. In Managua, for example, the difference between Ortega (33.8%) and Aleman (34.4%) was 0.6%. Carlos Denton, a director of CID-Gallup, commented that “the pro-FSLN vote is highest among people who feel that they are in a worse economic situation now than in the past.”

Surveys carried out by the Institute for Nicaraguan Studies and Borge and Associates–the latter commissioned by Aleman himself–revealed the same dynamic. Political analysts attributed the change to Arnoldo Aleman’s “belligerent, violent campaign speeches, which contrast with the positive image Daniel Ortega has projected.”

After predicting for months that he would “sweep” the elections in the first round, winning the majority of the National Assembly seats as well as those of the municipal governments, Aleman, on September 25, spoke for the first time of having to compete in a second round. He threatened the CSE with massive demonstrations if delays in issuing voter cards continued and demanded that all “democratic” parties to withdraw their candidates and give him their votes.

I would suggest that as the polls revealed Aleman’s majority beginning to fall, Aleman felt it was necessary to do what was necessary to win in the first round by whatever means. If Aleman had not scored a first-round victory, he might have won on the second round—but given the dynamic FSLN campaign, it would have been unpredictable. In addition, Aleman would have had to reopen negotiations within his alliance over how to divide ministerial appointments.

The extent to which the U.S. government and members of the CSE were involved in the fraud is not clear, but it will be impossible to sweep the evidence under the rug no matter what the CSE has declared.

On August 13 several political analysts declared that “Aleman lost the elections yesterday.” Why did they come to such a conclusion? On the afternoon of August 12 every presidential candidate *except* Aleman signed a document entitled the “Commitment of Nicaragua to a Minimum National Agenda” in the presence of representatives from all four branches of state, including Vice President Julia Mena. The document is an assessment of the country’s situation and sets general priorities and solutions. It represents a months’ long discussion by over 150 organizations (unions, producers’ associations, religious and women’s organizations, etc.) and attempts to press political leaders into drawing up their governmental plans within the context of this assessment.

Aleman’s justified his conspicuous absence by saying “I already have my own agenda. I’m not a lamb that travels in a flock.” “That’s a Sandinista document since its creator is [former economic minister Alejandro] Martinez Cuenca, who destroyed this country’s economy and should be brought to justice for it.” And, lastly, “no one should come dictating to any serious party what procedure it should follow in its government plan.” Deprecating the minimum agenda, Aleman changed the tone of his campaign, becoming, in the words of envio, “both more aggressive and more defensive. Aleman’s speeches have become a mix of challenging triumphalism and desperate warnings not to trust Sandinismo.”

The Liberal Alliance’s Constituency

Aleman’s electoral base was composed of three separate, even contradictory, elements:

* The visceral anti-Sandinista forces who want to wipe out all vestiges of the revolution–from its land reform, organizations, institutions and laws to names, people, dates, murals.

* The small and medium rural and urban producers, middle-class merchants, technicians and professionals who have been made poorer over the last six years and sidelined by the Chamorro-Lacayo economic policies and their cronyism and corruption.

* The marginalized urban and rural poor who see Aleman as someone who gets things done, who guarantees heavy-handed law and order, who is hard-working and always out there hustling. His crudeness also works for him: he seems to have some passion and therefore represents the polar extreme from the neoliberal technocrats.

Of these three elements, the anti-Sandinista component is the strongest, and therefore can work to undermine his appeal to the others. The large capital that supported the Liberal Alliance reinforces this element: the Somocista and Cuban exiles living in Miami along with some non-Somocista capitalists whose property was confiscated during the revolution. The best known and most representative figure of the latter is Aleman’s vice presidential mate, Enrique “Churruco” Bolanos. While all of these elements are heavily anti-Sandinista, those who stayed in Nicaragua during the ’80s have investments in the agricultural sector while the other, larger force is speculative capital. Obviously small producers are left out. In fact, although Aleman has portrayed himself as an opponent of the Chamorro economic policies, an Aleman government will represent a continuity of neoliberal policies.

The Problems the FSLN Faced

The FSLN waged its election campaign as the underdog of the two central presidential contenders. The key question they had to answer was: What will Washington do if you win? No one wanted a resumption of a war, or the tremendous inflation of a U.S. destabilization campaign (in the worst year, 30,000%). The FSLN attempted to neutralize Washington. This was not an easy task, particularly with U.S. Senator Jesse Helms’ demand that reversing confiscations of any U.S. citizen’s property remains top priority. These U.S. citizens are overwhelmingly Nicaraguans who left the country after 1979.)

A second question for the FSLN was: After six years of ruthless neoliberalism and a government which privatized much of the state property so that its small circle of relatives and friends could increase their wealth, what is the FSLN proposal for restarting the economy?

Thirdly, the FSLN also had to incorporate its evaluation of its past errors into its 1996 election campaign, projecting an attitude toward the ex-contras, the other political parties and the electorate. Central to their self-evaluation had been acknowledging their “political intolerance” when they were the party in government. That arrogance of power led them to a whole series of errors, most of which have only been discussed since their electoral defeat in 1990. These include;

* the forced relocations of those living in the areas of the war (the indigenous and the peasantry);

* the ignoring of familial and religious ties, which in turn drove many living in the areas of conflict into the contra camp;

* the failure to legalize the land reform, thus preventing producers from securing credit for new harvests;

* the tendency to favor cooperatives over other forms of land tenure, without taking into account the genuine desires of the peasantry;

* the cavalier and inconsistent attitude taken toward the democratic rights of one’s opponents;

* the chauvinism of party members, who–for the most part–did not understand the experiences of the Atlantic Coast;

* the continuation of the military draft;

* the continual sacrifices demanded of the poor by the FSLN government, while granting significant concessions to the wealthy;

* the failure of the FSLN to investigate and take action on those FSLN officials who appropriated state property before leaving office in 1990, thus staining the moral integrity of the party;

* the party’s structural lack of internal democracy, which facilitated its inability to evaluate problems and overcome them.

This list is a harsh critique, but all these points have been raised and debated within the Sandinista Front, though not necessarily resolved. The FSLN carried out an impressive literacy campaign, organized the country’s health care, began an extensive land reform and attempted to build a just and equitable society.

Given Washington’s determination to eliminate the Sandinistas, any error by the FSLN was magnified. Yet under the circumstance, there was no room for error.

During the course of the ’96 campaign, Daniel Ortega, as the FSLN’s presidential candidate, admitted the party’s past arrogance and asked for people’s forgiveness. The Sandinista Front built a platform that attempted to answer today’s problems, where social funding has been cut to the bone, 60% of the population is unemployed and a significant section of agricultural producers cannot obtain credit.

The FSLN Builds Alliances

Over the summer sixty women formed the National Women’s Coalition, an organization comprising women candidates from various parties and members of women’s groups. they put together The Women’s Minimum Agenda, a document listing their common goals and demands. Their objective was to discuss the agenda with the leaders of all the political parties and have it incorporated into governmental programs. In addition, the initiative became a reference point for other women’s groups, as they drew up similar agendas for their own municipality. This paper of building alliances was to become a hallmark of the FSLN strategy. (About 30% of the FSLN candidates in the election were women. However the percentage elected is lower, but higher than for any other political party.)

The Sandinista Assembly had stipulated that the vice-presidential slot was to be reserved for an alliance with a political sector outside the party. (One of the obvious candidates for an alliance was the MRS, which split from the FSLN two years ago. Yet the MRS remained uninterested in the FSLN overtures.) When Juan Manuel Caldera accepted that slot, it was quite a surprise. Caldera is a large-scale cattle rancher whose land had been confiscated in the ’80s. He has long been a member of the High Council for Private Enterprise (COSEP), a group of big businessmen who opposed the Sandinista government.

Caldera explained to reporters that he accepted the FSLN vice-presidential slot because “we believe that if we can get this country to start producing again, we can save it,” and stated that the Aleman forces “don’t believe in production.” In an agreement signed before registering their candidacies, Ortega and Caldera outlined their plan to reactivate production, provide more jobs and improve the living standards for all.

The FSLN’s fifteen-point electoral program outlined how to rebuild the economy “with social justice.” It also emphasized prioritizing health, education, housing and developing a program to provide electricity to rural communities and urban squatter neighborhoods. The platform represents a radical, producer-centered alternative to the neoliberal agenda that has been implemented under Chamorro.

The platform recognizes the particular need for women’s rights, labor rights and the continued development of autonomy for the Caribbean coast communities. The FSLN pledged to legalize all urban and rural properties legitimately redistributed during the ’80s with compensation and no further confiscations. The platform advocates pan-Americanism and demands that Cuba be included in continental affairs.

Throughout the campaign the FSLN candidates saw the need to reach out beyond its activist base. It sought to do that by actively seeking unity with other political forces, particularly in posing an economic model focused on production. That was the basis of the FSLN signing onto the minimum agenda August 12. On August 28 the FSLN signed an agreement with representatives of youth organizations (to create 50,000 productive jobs for youth, to establish a 25% quota for hiring young people in municipal and national government structures, to have young people head vice ministries of education, social action, environment and the Institute of Culture and Women, no reinstitution of a draft).

Perhaps most importantly of all, on September 18 the FSLN signed an agreement with former contra leaders “El Indio” and “Mack,” in front of 5,000 former contras, who then added their individual signatures. While Arnoldo Aleman’s forces attempted to play down this alliance, MRS’s Sergio Ramirez denounced the pact for including “Mack,” who was noted for his particularly brutal killing of FSLN soldiers and supporters.  But the point is that you don’t need to make pacts with your friends, only former enemies.

Ever since 1990 the National Union of Farmers and Ranchers (URNG) has been working for reconciliation with former contras on the basis that both contras and small and medium-sized farmers who supported the Sandinistas share the same basic problems, and have a basis for unity. The September 18th pact formulates a plan to disband existing armed groups, pledges to honor the 1990 agreements that the Chamorro government never carried out and projects stable property ownership by issuing land titles and “access to credit under conditions that permit the recipients active incorporation into production. Landowners whose properties were unjustly confiscated will be appropriately compensated.” Had the FSLN won, this section of the Nicaraguan Resistance, in supporting the FSLN slate, would have received three ministries (Ministries of Government, of Agrarian Reform, of Natural Resources and the Environment) and would have had “ample participation in all governmental institutions and autonomous organizations at all levels (national, regional and departmental), as guarantors and proponents of the country’s economic development.”

It was the building of this triple alliance–the FSLN, agricultural producers and the former contras–that made the FSLN so dynamic a political force in the 1996 elections. Their closing electoral rally brought out 300,000 people–far more than anticipated.


I draw five conclusions from the elections period:

1. The widespread accusations of fraud, documented by official reports and a number of the countries political parties, were not seriously reviewed and resolved by the CSE. This damages the reputation of the CSE, which, until recently, was unblemished. It is thus a big blow to representative democracy in Nicaragua.

2. The FSLN’s role in challenging the elections reinforces their image as a party that is for democratic rights. The 1996 elections contrast unfavorably with the fully transparent one they held in 1990.

Today the FSLN is the main opposition political force in the country. In contrast to 1990, when the FSLN was totally unprepared to lose, the Sandinistas have gone through a split and a process of political re-evaluation and reorientation. They are prepared to be an opposition party that defends the interests of the vast majority and have developed an economic program to counter the neoliberal model Aleman will support.

Following the CSE proclamation of Aleman as president elect, Daniel Ortega explained in a TV interview that the FSLN recognizes the “legality” of the elections but not its “legitimacy.”

Ortega has outlined a series of fourteen points that could provide the basis for the country’s genuine reconciliation. These are based on the minimum agenda. In addition, Ortega called for the CSE magistrates to resign in the face of incompetence and fraud.

3. What is impressive to me as a sympathetic observer of the Nicaraguan revolution is that the FSLN learned from their errors and then reinvigorated their understanding of revolutionary practice. For this reason I am hopeful that the organizing currently taking place inside the FSLN will be able to investigate and reserve “the piñata.” Of course the right wing paints with a broad brush all property issues handled after the 1990 election whereas solidarity activists defend them, isolating out only the appropriation of property by government officials for their personal use. While this represents a handful of cases, they are important to investigate. The fact that it happened at all enabled the right to charge the Sandinistas with corruption and paved the way for the Chamorro regime to do the same on a grand scale. The FSLN’s moral authority is at stake: Will it be swept under the rug or can the Sandinistas discipline their own?

4. The fight to defend the gains of the Sandinista revolution–particularly legalizing the land reform–will continue, even with the election of Aleman. The Sandinista land reform is still in place, although the neoliberal economic model does not allow the small- and medium-sized producers access to credit. That was a major problem under the Chamorro government and that will not be adequately addressed by Aleman.

Insofar as the poor voted for Aleman, he represented for them the possibility of returning to a time “when there was plenty of work and even if you only had four cordobas, it was still worth the same when you woke up the next morning….” But Aleman’s financial backers have a very different agenda. Aleman’s first ministerial appointments and his quick trip to Miami following the October 20th election confirm the suspicion that the AL is dominated by the far fight and its speculative capital.

However Aleman is a successful politician because he projected a populist image. He will attempt to reduce unemployment and legalize the land reform–the latter if only in order to clear the title so that the peasants will sell, since they will not have access to credit. At the same time, Aleman will attempt to further weaken the institutions that still remain in place from the revolutionary period. The two that the Chamorro regime have successfully attacked and altered–the education ministry and the police–will be reinforced with Aleman’s people.

5. The Clinton administration carries out interventionist policies in Nicaragua. These strengthen the right-wing forces and attempt to block the FSLN and the popular movement. As the opinion polls charted the FSLN’s growing strength, Washington revealed its opposition to a FSLN victory, Nicholas Burns, spokesperson for the U.S. State Department, stated at a press briefing October 4 that Daniel Ortega was not a democrat and “considering his actions against the United States in the past, I think we need to remember that.” The remarks were well publicized by the conservative Managua daily, La Prensa.

Ultimately it may be that the explicit remarks Burns made played a greater role in stopping the FSLN bandwagon than the actual fraud. These remarks–along with the endorsement Cardinal Obando y Bravo handed Aleman on October 17, after the campaign period had been officially closed–undoubtedly provided Aleman with more votes. What is essential for the U.S. solidarity movement to understand is that Washington remains the implacable enemy of all who attempt to throw off the yoke of the neoliberal order.

ATC 66, January-February 1997