Nicaragua presidential race shaping up to be a bruiser

Constitutional bans and felony convictions would be career killers for many politicians. But in Nicaragua such inconveniences don’t seem to be an obstacle to running for president.

The race to rule Nicaragua is shaping up as a choice between two modern-day caudillos — strongmen — who are very familiar, for good and for bad, to this troubled country’s voters.

Daniel Ortega, the autocratic president and former revolutionary comandante, has announced his intention to seek reelection next year, even though the constitution forbids it.

Arnoldo Aleman, a former president who made a top 10 list of the world’s most corrupt leaders and served time after his term for money-laundering and fraud, declared his candidacy in July.

“This is going to be a dirty, violent campaign,” predicted lawmaker Wilfredo Navarro, first secretary of the National Assembly.

Until recently, Ortega’s Sandinistas and Aleman’s Liberals made a series of backroom deals in which they divided up control of most of Nicaragua’s democratic institutions, including the Supreme Court and elections board.

That helps explain how Ortega and Aleman have been able to manipulate the system to clear the way for their candidacies.

Both men have loyal followings but also inspire vehemently negative reactions from large segments of the population. Many Nicaraguans bemoan the fact they are faced with such a bleak choice, aware that the genuine opposition to Ortega is more fragmented than plate glass in a shooting gallery.

The candidacies also pose a dilemma for the U.S. government, which for decades has sought to influence political events in Nicaragua. Many U.S. officials have advocated an “anybody-but-Ortega” position, and Washington is spending several million dollars to bolster non-partisan civic organizations. But Aleman is so distrusted by the United States that the American ambassador isn’t supposed to even meet with him. Faced with the current match-up, some in Washington are proposing a change in U.S. policy that would allow Aleman to be “rehabilitated” and at least tacitly supported.

Critics say that Ortega, in addition to stacking the courts and electoral bodies with Sandinista loyalists who then rubber-stamp his power-grabbing maneuvers, has converted the party into a personal fiefdom that he and his formidable wife, Rosario Murillo, use to reward friends and harass opponents.

Ortega, 64, is subsidized by Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez. The socialist leader has given the Sandinista president about 10 million barrels of oil and petroleum annually since 2008, generating revenue estimated at as much as $500 million. The money goes directly to Ortega, not the national budget, and he uses it to dole out patronage and enrich his family.

Aleman, also 64, also faced charges of personal enrichment during his four-year presidential term, which ended in 2001. He was convicted in 2003 of stealing nearly $100 million in public funds, using much of it to build homes and haciendas, and sentenced to 20 years in prison. A Supreme Court dominated by Sandinistas and Liberals overturned the conviction last year. (Aleman’s brother sits on the court, but did not vote.)

How can Nicaraguans so quickly pardon the sins of their leaders and contemplate returning them to office?

“This country has the memory of a mosquito,” said Jaime Morales, vice president of Nicaragua.

Morales, whose role is defending the administration to outsiders, was referring specifically to Aleman’s case. Nonetheless, he knows a thing or two about memory and easily shifting alliances.

A wealthy banker during the Somoza dictatorship that fell to the Sandinista Front in 1979, Morales joined the U.S.-backed Contra rebels that fought the Sandinistas in the 1980s. His Managua mansion was confiscated by the Sandinistas and occupied by none other than Ortega, who still lives there. Yet Morales now serves as Ortega’s vice president (they quietly reached a “compensation” agreement over the house) and somewhere in between he was also Aleman’s campaign manager.

The dapper Morales, 73, has a large comfortable office, its walls covered with photographs of dignitaries such as Iranian rulers to regional U.S. military commanders. An incessant chorus of bird sounds is piped into the office, for reasons that are not clear.

The Ortega government, he noted, gets high marks for keeping Nicaragua one of the safer countries in Central America. He argued that the constitutional ban on re-election and on serving more than two terms was outdated.

Ortega has won a court ruling saying he can run again as part of his inalienable human rights, and is currently trying to persuade the National Assembly to rewrite the constitution to clear the way definitively. His opponents, including Aleman’s party, charge that the Sandinistas are buying the votes they need in the National Assembly. Legislator Navarro, an ally of Aleman, said members of his party have been lured with bribes of as much as $200,000, plus given trips abroad and prostitutes, to support Ortega’s bid.

“We have to be after our people like a hen after her chicks, to keep them in line,” Navarro said.

Morales acknowledged that some bribery probably goes on, because it always has, but he doubted that it was generalized.

The politicians “are not virgins but they are not prostitutes either,” the vice president said. “There’s been some free love.”

Ortega’s critics suspect he is plotting to remain in power indefinitely much as his patron Chavez is accused of doing. Ortega served as Nicaragua’s president after the 1979 revolution until losing a reelection bid in 1990. He then lost three more presidential elections until finally winning in 2006, after managing to have the rules rewritten to lower the margin of victory to 35% and the age of voting to 16.

In 2008, Ortega’s government oversaw what were widely seen as blatantly fraudulent municipal elections. In recent weeks, Ortega’s forces have gone after several non-Sandinista mayors who managed to win election in 2008, forcibly removing them from office on various charges.

Ortega has successfully neutralized opposition from the business elite, his most bitter foes in the 1980s, by avoiding the confiscations of private property and appropriations of businesses that characterized the earlier Sandinista regime. They, and he, are allowed now to make money, and the businessmen stay largely out of politics.

Caudillos like Ortega and Aleman thrive in Nicaragua, backed by huge political machinery and able to crush aspiring rivals with the flick of a wrist, partly because of the fractured, personalistic nature of politics here. Big egos in a small country, everyone and his brother wants to lead a party; there are dozens of parties so small you can fit the membership on a bicycle, as one local wag put it.

“We don’t have enough citizens demanding liberal democracy,” said Arturo Cruz, a former Contra and ex-ambassador representing Ortega in Washington. He now teaches at the Incae Business School in Managua. “Nicaraguans understand politics as an immediately personal contract.”

There still is a chance that other candidates could come forward. Parties are expected to hold primaries in March, and the election isn’t until November 2011. But pollsters and other analysts believe the die is cast. The last poll by M&R Consultores, issued in July, showed Ortega defeating Aleman, 54% to 46%.

U.S. officials in Managua say that a choice between Ortega and Aleman makes it easy to remain neutral.

“The best thing we can do is stay out of it,” U.S. Ambassador Robert Callahan said in an interview. “It’s the process that concerns us.”