Nicaragua and Guatemala 2011

Nicaragua held a general election on November 6 while Guatemala held a presidential runoff on the same day. I had covered the first round of the Guatemalan elections, held on September 11, in this post.

Nicaragua

The President of Nicaragua and the unicameral National Assembly were up for reelection. The President is elected to a five-year term, technically not renewable immediately. A candidate must win 40% of the vote in the first round or 35% if he/she is 5% ahead of the closest rival. The National Assembly has 90 elected members: 20 through party-list PR in a national constituency and 70 through party-list PR in the country’s departments and autonomous regions. The last President and the runner-up in the presidential election also serve.

Nicaragua is a poor Central American country (in fact one of the poorest), with a troubled past but a future which is perhaps not so bleak. Its crime rate is in fact pretty low by the admittedly low standards of the region (it is still below Mexico’s crime rate and is the second lowest in Central America). Nicaragua became, during the 1980s, the stereotype for Central American civil wars fought between a left-wing group and some sort of shady right-wing group bankrolled by the Americans. Nicaragua has a troubled relationship with the US which dates back to the bizarre and fascinating American adventurer William Walker in the 1850s, and then the American occupation of the country between 1909 and 1933. In 1937, an American-installed civilian President was toppled by an American-trained military officer (the head of the powerful American-trained National Guard) named Anastasio Somoza. Somoza, like all other Latin American dictators of the time, drew his support from the landowning elite, the military and the United States. Somoza was shot in 1956 and despite Eisenhower’s valiant efforts to save his life, he succumbed. But his rule (or that of the Somoza clan’s various tools) didn’t: his son Luis took over in 1956 and when he died in 1967 it was Luis’ son Antonio Somoza Debayle who took over. By all standards, Somoza was a pretty venal, corrupt, ruthless and self-seeking guy.

The opposition to Somoza’s regime took the name of Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) in 1961. The FSLN’s name refers to left-wing Liberal rebel Augusto Sandino who, in the 1920s, had become a figure of nationalist popular resistance to the American occupier and the various American puppets before being shot in 1934. Just like Batista had fled Havana overnight, so did Somoza in 1979, allowing the FSLN to take over in a junta with other opposition forces. At the outset, the FSLN followed a rather moderate line: a mixed economy, an independent foreign policy, cautious agrarian reform (the fact that Somoza owned 20% of the land helped) and social reform (literacy, health, education). The FSLN, which after 1981 ruled alone and grew somewhat more authoritarian and took control of the country’s media and institutions, was originally helped by both Cuba, Europe and the Carter administration. But after Reagan’s election in 1980, the US took a hard line against the ‘Marxist’ Sandinistas and bankrolled the Contras, which were by any standards a bunch of crypto-fascist criminals. The FSLN-Contra civil war ruined the country’s economy. In 1990, however, the FSLN’s incumbent President Daniel Ortega was surprisingly defeated in free elections by the right’s Violeta Chamorro. Ortega was subsequently defeated by the right in all other presidential elections until 2006. In power, the right improved the country’s economy somewhat but had a harder time dealing with continued violence and especially corruption: Arnoldo Alemán, the Liberal who ruled between 1997 and 2002, was woefully incompetent and also a crook.

Ortega was elected President in 2006 with 39% and a 10% margin separating him from his closest Liberal rival. Though Ortega’s FSLN lacked a majority in the National Assembly, he allied with Alemán’s Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC) in return for getting the FSLN-controlled Supreme Court to pardon Alemán. While Ortega has struck a very left-wing line as President, allying himself closely with Chávez whose cash has funded generous social programs which have succeeded in alleviating poverty but also some surprisingly pro-business, market liberal policies. Indeed, Ortega is, unlike Chávez, on pretty good terms with the IMF, and this has helped the local economy: the country’s 4% was the second fastest growth in Central America after Panama. In 2008, controversial local elections were allegedly marked by widespread fraud and intimidation and led to the suspension of a European aid package. Domestically, however, Ortega has lost some his revolutionary feel and he has lost the support of some liberal intellectuals who had backed the FSLN in the 1980s. In fact, Ortega has transformed himself into some born-again Christian socialist, who has notably implemented a very strict ban on abortions in the country.

There was little question about Ortega’s reelection chances once the Supreme Court, conveniently cleared of dissident voices, overruled the constitution’s immediate reelection ban by allowing Ortega to run again. The FSLN has taken back control over most of the country’s media and institutions, it is on good terms with businesses (who had, as recently as 2006, backed the opposition) and thus has lots of cash to spend in contrast to the opposition which is basically broke. The main opposition contender was 80-year old radio journalist Fabio Gadea. Discredited former President Arnoldo Alemán of the PLC, which has been a close ally of the FSLN, also ran. The results were:

Daniel Ortega (FSLN) 62.66%
Fabio Gadea (PLI) 31.13%
Arnoldo Alemán (PLC) 5.76%
2 others under 0.5%

There were some reported irregularities, some cases of intimidation and frustrated foreign observers but so far there has not been the outcry over the results as there was in the 2008 locals. Ortega is helped by the FSLN’s control of institutions, the media and its stashes of cash. But he is also popular with low-income voters on his own terms, who have seen their living standards improve pretty significantly with the FSLN’s generous social spending programs since 2006.

In legislative elections, the FSLN won about 60.6% against 31% for the PLI and 6.5% for the PLC. This gives the FSLN a three-fifths majority, which gives it the power to change the constitution which it had written back in 1987.

Guatemala

A presidential runoff was held in Guatemala on November 6. In the first round in September, the conservative former military officer Otto Pérez Molina (who had lost the 2007 election) came out on top with 36.1% against 23.3% for Manuel Baldizón, a populist hotel tycoon and wealthy businessman who had emerged as the “left-wing candidate” in an election without a real left-wing candidate after the governing left-wing President Álvaro Colom was unable to have his wife run to succeed him. In a country with a huge crime rate and a very big drug cartel problem, crime was the top issue. Pérez Molina ran a very hard-line law and order campaign with promises to crack down on crime using the military. Baldizón said he wants televised executions. Pérez Molina, who narrowly lost the 2007 runoff to President Colom, was the favourite.

Otto Pérez Molina (PP) 53.74%
Manuel Baldizón (LIDER) 46.26%

Unsurprisingly, the retired general and former head of military intelligence Otto Pérez Molina won by a fairly comfortable margin. Baldizón did pretty well, which reflects the guy’s pretty big appeal to traditional left-wing voters: the 2011 map with Baldizón winning the east and the north is pretty similar to the 2007 map where Colom won in generally the same areas and lost in Guatemala City.

A former socialist revolutionary in Nicaragua and a right-wing military officer in Guatemala. It could be as if we were in the 1980s. Is Pérez Molina’s election a step backwards for Guatemala? Probably not. His party does not have a majority and Pérez Molina does not entirely fit the mold of “1980s war criminal who killed thousands and now repents”. Though accused of war crimes, none have been proven and he played a big part in peace talks in 1996. But fears remain. The militaristic mano dura which Pérez Molina promises could be a step backwards to authoritarian military regimes and the military is not a saint either: elements are suspected of ties to cartels and crime. The level of violence in Guatemala, which is astronomical, and institutional corruption is probably the biggest threat to democracy in Guatemala and Central America right now. Needless to say, Guatemala’s future is bleaker than Nicaragua’s.

Tomorrow: Details about Premier Brad Wall’s landslide victory in Saskatchewan (Canada).

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Posted on November 9, 2011, in Guatemala, Nicaragua. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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