"All we are asking is jobs and peace!"
BY THE MORNING of November 6, the day after the election, it was clear Daniel Ortega was going to win the presidency. We were in the traditional FSLN stronghold of Estelí, and the atmosphere was intoxicating. Groups of Sandinistas drove around in an ever expanding motorcade, waving flags, cheering and hugging everybody. We arrived back in Managua that night to dancing in the streets, and the next night the party was still going on.
It felt like a historic moment: the return to power of a revolutionary party defeated in 1990 by an imperialist war. Victory was even sweeter because the United States had poured so much into a dirty campaign against the FSLN. Turnout was 70 percent and people voted as they wished in a peaceful and participatory atmosphere. Every stage of the electoral process was carefully recorded and signed off by a three-person committee and party monitors. We visited several polling stations and were then locked in for the count. Despite the great suspense, everyone worked as a team, suppressing political rivalries. The whole process was infused with community involvement, empowerment and transparency. There were only a tiny number of irregularities– mostly explicable.
But despite the huge optimism generated by the results, there is a need for sober caution. Ortega's victory was the result not of an increased vote but two other factors: a change in the rules making it possible to win with a lower percentage than before; and the division of the right. The FSLN will not have enough seats in the National Assembly to pass legislation without forming alliances, which means a likely continuation of the pact with the PLC. We also met many people who supported the dissident Sandinista movement, the MRS. They objected to the way Daniel and his associates have an iron grip on the party, and to the fact that his running-mate was an ex-Contra.
Another negative issue for women was the FSLN's support for legislation to abolish therapeutic abortion, approved just days before the election. Ortega's desire to regain power led him to an accommodation with his former opponent, the powerful Cardinal Obando y Bravo. The FSLN campaign anthem went to the tune of John Lennon's "Give peace a chance", with the new lyrics translating as: "What we are asking is jobs and peace. Let's say together; Reconciliation!" Campaign posters made it clear this mainly meant reconciliation with the Catholic hierarchy – but, for women, it came with a high price.
Trade unions generally supported the FSLN because they thought the party had more solid policies on poverty than the MRS – but not without reservations. Domingo Pérez, general secretary of public service union UNE, said they would not accept financial support from the FSLN and allow it to dictate terms as in the 1980s. UNE opposed FSLN support for ratification of the Central America Free Trade Agreement, for example. As employment has declined, unions have become weaker. But they hope to unite with other progressive forces inside Nicaragua and across Latin America to balance US influence and the FSLN-PLC pact.
The FSLN victory has generated tremendous optimism and expectation among the poor, particularly regarding jobs, education and healthcare. But doubts remain. To what extent will the FSLN be able to deliver on social programmes given the constraints of IMF conditionality? Will support in the form of cheap oil from Venezuela and medical assistance from Cuba make a significant difference in reducing poverty? Sergio Ramírez, former FSLN vice president in the 1980s who led the original breakaway MRS in 1994, spoke for many when he said: "Whatever the past, Daniel deserves the benefit of the doubt. For now the question is, can he deliver?"
A longer version of this article appeared in the Morning Star on November 17.