Nicaraguans will vote on Nov. 5 to elect the country’s 153 municipal authorities. Few observers expect any big surprises in a context where even right-leaning mainstream polling companies like Latinobarometro find that Nicaragua’s government has the highest approval rating at 67 percent of any government in Latin America.
In Nicaragua, respected centrist opinion poll companies register levels of approval at 79 percent both for President Daniel Ortega and for Vice President Rosario Murillo. Conversely, committed support for the right-wing opposition parties in Nicaragua holds steady at between 6 to 10 percent. With consistent committed support for the Sandinista Front at 57 percent, this leaves a bloc of independent floating voters of around 30 to 35 percent. Such has been the pattern of electoral support among voters in Nicaragua certainly since the 2011 national elections.
While the municipal elections are obviously focused on local issues, in Nicaragua since 1990 they have been the fundamental political battleground for the competing visions of the country’s social and economic development. Every four years since the Sandinista National Liberation Front lost the national elections in 1990, the municipal elections have been a proving ground for practical action, strategies and styles in which the Sandinistas have proved increasingly more adept at winning support than Nicaragua’s right wing. That right-wing opposition itself suffers from the same debilitating characteristics of the right wing in Venezuela, namely, subordination to U.S. influence, disagreements about strategy, damaging personal animosities, reliance on fear-mongering, and a history of broken electoral promises.
A look at the development of the municipal election results in Nicaragua since 1990 bears out this reading. From a little over 50 municipalities in the1990s the Sandinistas increased their support at the municipal level, especially in the main urban centers, to around 90 in 2004, 109 in 2008 and 134 in 2012. The bitter reaction of the right-wing opposition to the results of the 2008 municipal elections derived from the fact that for the first time their combined forces, including ex-Sandinista social democrats, were defeated by the Sandinistas and its allies. That was tremendously significant because it signaled the end of the structural majority the combined right wing had enjoyed since 1990, hence their fierce international campaign in 2009 falsely alleging electoral fraud in those 2008 municipal elections.
That campaign led the U.S. government and the European Union to cut development cooperation funding to Nicaragua by a total of US$100 million at a time when the government’s annual budget was barely US$1 billion. Even so, supported by Venezuela and benefiting from the low oil prices in 2009 Ortega and his team were still able to develop their policy agenda successfully in a way that consolidated support among the general population. For their part, the right wing persisted in an unconvincing political strategy centered on fear mongering allegations of non-existent dictatorship contradicted by ordinary people’s daily experience throughout Nicaragua. In particular, right-wing politicians in Nicaragua lost the support of their natural allies in the business classes.
Nicaragua’s business sector came to recognize the Sandinistas' ability to deliver guaranteed energy stability, infrastructure investment, support for market diversification and broader international trade, relatively high levels of citizen security and stable labor relations. Politically, despite not having a majority in the legislature, the Sandinistas were able to defend the government’s policy program against divided opposition parties unable to overcome internecine personal rivalries and chronic policy incoherence.
In the Supreme Court, the Sandinista representatives successfully defended the democratic principle that people should be not be denied the chance to vote for the candidate of their choice. This affected not just Ortega’s option for re-election, it also ratified the re-election of popular candidates at the municipal level. All of these factors favored the re-election of Ortega in 2011 with over 60 percent of the national vote.
But other grassroot factors are also in play in local elections and explain why, in 2012, the Sandinistas won a total of over 130 municipalities and why, in the local elections on Sunday, its candidates can reasonably expect to win over 140 municipalities. Programs implemented nationally at municipal level have included support for rural families via Zero Hunger, support for micro-businesses via Zero Usury, help for families to improve their housing via Homes for the People and the Roofing Plan programs and street improvements via the Streets for the People program.
These together with rural and urban electrification and extension of drinking water installation programs have steadily and noticeably improved living conditions for ordinary people regardless of party ideology. This has built nationwide trust in Ortega and Murillo’s insistence that they lead a government of reconciliation and national unity.
Likewise noteworthy are the guarantees of free education and healthcare, the incremental improvements in these services and in social security coverage and the maintenance of subsidies for public transport and electricity, all benefiting families on low incomes. Overall, these policies contribute to trust and confidence in the Sandinista Front at national and local level. Another fundamental reason for the grassroots support the Sandinista Front enjoys in Nicaragua’s municipalities has been the economic democratization the government has encouraged by its support for cooperatives, along with the similarly vital sector of medium, small and micro businesses, in terms of credit, technical guidance and vocational training. Self-evidently, Nicaragua’s right-wing political opposition has no policy program capable of challenging the overwhelmingly powerful combined effects of the government’s national and local programs.
The resulting stability is robust in domestic terms but vulnerable and even precarious in international terms. That is why the political opposition in Nicaragua foster the same misguided faith as their Venezuelan counterparts in the ability of North American and European governments and politicians to influence domestic politics. Most likely this factor led to Ortega’s decision to authorize the presence in this year’s local elections of a delegation from the Organization of American States. That decision has neutralized and preempted all-too-predictable opposition efforts to question the integrity and validity of the electoral process. The OAS delegation is led by Uruguayan electoral specialist Wilfredo Penco who is familiar with Nicaragua from earlier elections which he accompanied as a member of the Latin American Commission of Electoral Experts, a body which accompanied Venezuela’s elections last Oct. 15.
Taking all these things together, surprises are extremely unlikely in Nicaragua’s municipal elections. Even veteran opposition politicians, like Wilfredo Navarro and many others, agree that their municipalities do better under a Sandinista administration than they would do under an opposition-led government, to the extent that they have openly campaigned for the Sandinistas. That does not rule out a local upset somewhere or other, but the overwhelmingly probable general outcome is likely to be an increase in the number of local governments controlled by the Sandinistas. That, in turn, is likely to consolidate support for Ortega and Murillo as the Sandinistas head toward the 40th anniversary of the Sandinista Popular Revolution in 2019 and the next national presidential and legislative elections in 2021.