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Journal of Democracy 13.3 (2002) 80-94

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Nicaragua Votes:
The Elections of 2001

Leslie Anderson and Lawrence C. Dodd


In November 2001, Nicaraguans voted in their country's fourth national election since the Somoza regime was overthrown in 1979 and the third since the electoral defeat of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) in 1990. For the third straight time, they chose a conservative candidate who espoused democratic liberties. In 2001 Nicaraguan voters had three choices for the presidency, one from each of three long-established parties. Outgoing vice-president Enrique Bola~nos, running as the Liberal Party candidate, won with 56 percent of the vote, defeating Sandinista candidate and former president Daniel Ortega, who garnered 42 percent. Coming in a distant third was the Conservative Party's Alberto Saborio, who got less than 2 percent. The observers who were present for the campaigning and voting, including former U.S. president Jimmy Carter plus Nobel laureate and former Costa Rican president Oscar Arias, were as one in endorsing the process as free and fair.

Nicaragua is now more than two decades beyond the overthrow of Anastasio Somoza's authoritarian dictatorship and well into a period of electoral competition among parties and candidates with recent governing experience. Citizens can and do participate in meaningful ways; elections are regularly scheduled; peaceful parties representing distinctive policy positions boast large followings and contend freely; elections are deemed fair by international observers; and state power is shared out across executive, legislative, and local offices that parties of both the left and the right can hope to fill. In short, democratization is clearly afoot and has been for some time.

Yet Nicaragua's path to fuller democracy is not free of roadblocks. 1 [End Page 80] A close look at key institutions of national governance reveals a troubling picture. Among the causes for worry have been the effort by the outgoing president, Arnoldo Alemán (1997-2001) of the Liberal Party, to concentrate power in the executive branch; the uneven performance of the national legislature; the occasional irresponsibility shown by the courts; and the undemocratic manner in which some of the parties, especially the Sandinistas, run their internal affairs.

By examining both the latest elections and the performance of national institutions, we can reach a broad assessment of the current state of democratization. 2 Help for our effort comes from wide-ranging surveys of public opinion that were done in conjunction with the presidential balloting, not only in 2001, but in 1996 and 1990 as well. 3

A Calm Campaign

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the 2001 campaign was how normal it was. Ortega ran on a platform of peace and love, combined with an emphasis on social reforms. His party covered Managua with posters saying "Love is stronger than hate," while the traditional red and black colors of the FSLN were replaced by bright pink with splashes of light yellow and blue. The 55-year-old Ortega appeared serious and pious, though occasionally showing flashes of the revolutionary militant that he once was. The vigorous Bola~nos—he is 73, but looks far younger—ran a flashy advertising campaign that stressed his commitment to clean government and free markets, distanced himself from Alemán's self-aggrandizing ways, and consciously appealed to younger voters. His appearances on the stump had a festive air, complete with musical entertainment and tasty treats cooked in wooden wagons on street corners. His tone was energetic, forward-looking, and eager. Saborio's televised appearances stressed the need for clean government and the rule of law, but he was plagued by a lack of funds, and his candidacy never achieved much visibility. Saborio's campaign did succeed in reminding voters of Bola~nos's opportunistic shift from the Conservatives to the more dominant Liberals during the 1990s and somewhat tarnished his image of being honorable.

Election day was Sunday, 5 November 2001. It featured the calmest electoral atmosphere that Nicaragua has ever known. Over the preceding weeks, some Nicaraguans had expressed fears that the polling...