Tuesday morning I attended Envio’s monthly lecture on Nicaraguan current events. The speaker was William Grigsby, director of La Primerisima radio station and an outspoken Sandinista. The topic was “How is the Sandinista party entering this election year?” Grigsby gave a well-organized speech about how the party is feeling about their chances this November. Knowing his audience would be highly critical of many of the FSLN moves in recent months, he directly addressed well-known criticisms and did not shy away from brutal honesty.
Grigsby began by explaining that, up to this point, the FSLN has succeeded in re-ordering the country’s priorities, putting the economy, energy investment, and infrastructure first. But they are not finished with their work, which is why they need more time in office. Current social programs are the seed for future development, and one more term will see that development through. The FSLN has an “efficient electoral military,” which means prospects look good for November. Grigsby stated, though, that it would still be a tough fight with the country’s second-in-command political party, the PLC (Constitutionalist Liberal Party). He doesn’t see popular radio personality Fabio Gadea, running on the PLI (Independent Liberal Party) ticket, as a threat at all. The fact that Gadea’s candidature is splitting the liberal (read: right-wing) vote means that the election atmosphere favors the FSLN.
Then he tackled that-which-must-not-be-named with Sandinistas (or that which is being screamed at the top of the opposition’s lungs): institutionality. The accusations are clear: the FSLN is destroying institutionality because they are authoritarian, and they are violating the consitution and electoral law. The response from Grigsby was also clear: the ends justify the means. While he did not use these words (in the discussion period afterwards, the audience agreed upon this as a fitting catchphrase for Grigsby’s message), he did remind us that all these issues are the result of politics. Politics wrote the constitution of 1987, amended it in the coming years, and wrote electoral law. Not the FSLN, but the various political forces who have risen and fallen in Nicaragua’s recent history. Special interests always win out, and because of this, life and elections are not always fair and clean. According to Grigsby, “With this same institutionality they [the opposition] messed up the Nicaraguan people for 17 years, it’s [institutionality] at the service of some particular interest, usually an economic interest.” He points out that the FSLN doesn’t even have a political majority in Nicaragua, so they can’t be dominating the rule making that much. That’s just the way the game is, and the FSLN is going to play it (and play it well) this time around.
And as for election observers, they don’t always guarantee a fair election, anyway. (Background: International observers are a hot topic right now because Denmark just declared they are pulling their aid out of the country, in part due to Ortega’s refusal of international election observers). But, he conceded, observers do help with legitimacy, so the coming election will probably, in some way, shape, or form, have observers or accompaniers. The most important thing is that these elections be Nicaraguan elections. Nicaragua is one of a handful of Latin American governments that has a national agenda and does not simply cater to U.S. interests. One great Nicaraguan accomplishment is that neither the PLC nor the FSLN are U.S.-supported parties. The embassy knows that sometimes they can work better with the PLC, and sometimes they can work better with the FSLN, so no one party solely represents U.S. interests. Nicaragua’s political parties are all looking out for national interests, and voters don’t feel the pressure to vote for or against foreign money.
Since Grigsby did not leave much time for questions, most of the audience’s thoughts came out in the discussion period which followed, led by Envio founder and editor Maria Lopez Vigil. She was quick to point out that many of Grigsby’s historical facts were off, particularly those passing judgment on past fraud and changes in the law. Remember, Aleman and Ortega have a pact, so if PLC candidates are voting for law or constitutional changes that favor the FSLN, it’s as good as the FSLN voting for it themselves. And it’s part of this arrangement that the two parties be seen as important forces in Nicaraguan politics. In other words, the FSLN needs the PLC to be a strong party because they guarantee a split right-wing vote. Vigil described the situation as one of “Who’s the livliest rat?” Forget values, what really matters is who’s got the stamina and cunning to outsmart his opponent. According to Vigil, “The only flag that an opposition should be waving is that of fiscal reform.” The message? If civil society has a problem with transparency or corruption, they should form a political party and join the game. But electoral law makes it nearly impossible to do this. So they’re stuck between a rock and a hard place, choosing between ideals and practicality.
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