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  • Nicaragua's ChoiceOld and New Politics in Managua
  • Robert S. Leiken (bio)

For Nicaraguans, who have known more than their share of wars and invasions, coups and revolutions, last winter's peaceful vote for change was their most valiant, their finest hour. But did the elections of 25 February 1990 signify that Nicaragua had become democratic or even that the country is securely on the road to democracy?

Certainly, the ideological reverberations of 25 February 1990 were profound, certifying that the tide that swept Central and Eastern Europe in 1989 would not be contained magnum in parvo. The humbling of the Sandinistas confirmed what everyone sensed, that "1989" was not transitory and regional (like 1848) but had opened (like 1776) an "age of democratic revolution."

The sudden obsolescence of slogans like "Reagan's imperialism: the main danger to peace and self-determination" against which "all progressive forces should unite" may make it too easy to forget how many people regarded the struggle in Nicaragua as a kind of reprise of the Spanish Civil War. Not since Vietnam has a small country attracted so much U.S. media attention or aroused such acrimony in Congress. Predictably, each side in the debate now proclaims that the elections demonstrated the wisdom of its own policy.

For Nicaraguans, the elections promised not only liberation but a chance to realize their recurring dream of "democracy without adjectives." Competitive elections, however, do not by themselves [End Page 26] constitute democracy, as the experience of other Central American countries illustrates. Democracy also requires stable and effective representative institutions. In Central America, this first requires subordinating the military to civilian authority. Building such institutions will likely prove even more exacting than Nicaragua's heroic February.

Nonetheless, for many interested observers, Violeta Chamorro's victory was more decisive and more resonant in some ways than the sublime events of 1989. After all, it had long been evident that the communist regimes of Eastern Europe lacked any popular legitimacy. The Sandinistas, on the other hand, were still widely believed to represent "popular nationalist feelings."

According to the official results, the Nicaraguan Opposition Union (UNO) won last February's election by nearly 14 percentage points (54.7 percent to 40.8 percent)—a margin of victory greater, for instance, than the one George Bush enjoyed in his "landslide" win over Michael Dukakis in 1988. And when one takes into account the government's control of television (which was extravagantly pro-Sandinista) and compares the lavish Sandinista to the penurious opposition campaign, the margin appears even more impressive. All the more so when one considers the massive and widespread Sandinista use of government funds, personnel, vehicles, phones, equipment, and so on; the common fear among state workers and their relatives that casting an opposition vote could cost their jobs; and the Sandinistas' domination of the Supreme Electoral Council.

Moreover, as the following items suggest, there is good reason to believe that the official results understated the actual popular sentiment:

  • • Refugees, estimated at 15 to 20 percent of the population, were not able to cast absentee ballots from abroad• Anyone familiar with overseas Nicaraguan communities can attest to how few Sandinista votes would have been found there.

  • • Over 6 percent of the ballots were declared "illegible" or otherwise nullified by the election authorities. Opposition members charge that these were mostly UNO votes fraudulently annulled.

  • • In the isolated southern area of Rio San Juan (Region IX), where opposition poll watchers were forced to resign and could not be replaced, there was little international observation. Besides Region I (Esteli-Madriz-Nueva Segovia), which UNO lost by .02 percent, Rio San Juan was the only region the Sandinistas won.

At the heart of past disputes about U.S. policy and current arguments about Nicaragua's future political prospects lies the question of the strength and sincerity of the Sandinistas' democratic intentions. What did [End Page 27] the Sandinistas' handling of the elections reveal about their commitment to democracy?

Playing the Electoral Card

The Sandinistas' electoral advantages far exceeded the benefits enjoyed by the incumbent party in a democracy. The Sandinista government was Nicaragua's chief employer, banker, and food supplier. Few families were without members...


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