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The Challenges Facing the National Coalition in Nicaragua

Manuel Orozco: electoral reforms and “competitive elections, even under the state of siege of Ortega”

The political scientist Manuel Orozco identifies four major challenges for the success of the National Coalition in Nicaragua

Carlos F. Chamorro

21 de enero 2020


Nicaraguan political scientist Manuel Orozco, a researcher at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, celebrated the call of the Civic Alliance and the National Unity to create a National Coalition for democracy, to dislodge the Ortega-Murillo dictatorship from power.

“International pressure is subsidiary to this strategy of internal pressure,” for the government to comply with electoral reforms, release of political prisoners, and the restoration of freedoms, Orozco specified. However, he acknowledges that this process is carried out under the rules of repression of the dictatorship and warns that the opposition must prepare to go to “competitive elections, even under the state of siege” of Ortega.

In a television interview with “Esta Semana” (This Week) on January 19th, Orozco identifies four major challenges for the success of the Coalition: resolve the crisis of political distrust; incorporate at least three political parties; establish an organizational method that allows candidates to be chosen through primaries; and relaunch the forms of organization and civic struggle. “The peasant movement must also define its position before the National Coalition,” Orozco added.

The year begins with an increase of external pressure, especially from the United States against the regime. What impact can external political pressure have?

Manuel Orozco: Pressures will continue to focus on specific points of interests of the foreign policy of the United States, but also of the OAS member states, and even of the European Union. That’s to say, there is a concert of international organizations, of States, and the international community that are clear about certain points where it is necessary to apply pressure, specifically.

Which are those points?

Everything about the political process that leads to the elections in 2021, in particular, of international pressure in terms of creating an equitable balance through international observation. The United States has expressed that no electoral process will be recognized in Nicaragua if there are no clear, transparent and competitive rules of the game, and an essential element of that is international observation.

The Coalition and the primary elections

Is external pressure sufficient to achieve a political reform or an electoral reform in Nicaragua?

No, international pressure is subsidiary to what is happening inside Nicaragua, the political movement that is being consolidated in what they call the great coalition, and they are designing a strategy of internal pressure towards the Government to comply with the reforms to the electoral system in Nicaragua; the restoration of constitutional rights; and the release of political prisoners. These three elements are part of a political strategy which is being designed, consolidated, and 2020 will be a year of strong political struggle.

What prevents progress with more determination in the formation of this coalition, and above all under pressure? Is it a matter of fighting methods, leadership selection methods, is it an issue of organization?

The three things. The central point is perhaps the mutual trust between the different members. We are talking about the Nicaraguan private sector, which is labelled for having been “pactista” (making an agreement with Ortega), although in Nicaragua there is not a single political or social actor that did not pact with the Government of Daniel Ortega: the Catholic Church, the protestants, the private sector, the political parties. Here, everyone has made a pact with the Government of Daniel Ortega to have a share of power, so everyone mistrusts everyone.

Faced with this distrust, depositing some kind of power quota towards this coalition becomes more difficult. Second, it is a question of fighting methods. Some of the organizations want to pressure the Government of Nicaragua through a strike, for example, without understanding that there is a point of contention, at the wrong time to make a national strike due to the situation the country is in; that conditions at this moment do not allow you to work that.

Then it is a question of leadership, of methods, of trust. The leadership, in particular, is currently defined in terms of four or five people who are trying to position themselves in the direction that they will have to take this political coalition.

Is there an acceptance in Nicaragua that any leadership that can confront the dictatorship should arise from some sort of participatory, democratic, transparent mechanism? Or does the hand pick policy still prevail, the policy of the elites, which can decide the candidate or the party?

There are two leaderships to distinguish: one comes up from the social movement that becomes a political movement of the National Unity and the Civic Alliance. These two movements have earned the respect and support of the Nicaraguan population. At least thirty percent of Nicaraguans believe (according to polls) that these two organizations, as a political coalition, are the most important electoral vehicle. That leadership is already defined, what needs to be done is to formalize it. Second, within the political process of this coalition that is being formed, one of the important elements is the managing of the process of choosing a candidate, of a leader who will represent the great coalition. They are called primaries, those elections that will be held to choose the candidate, are being defined and will be formalized.

The dynamic at this moment that defines the formalization of this coalition is whether or not political parties are included. Whether these political parties are really so toxic that they will subtract instead of adding support and legitimacy of the Nicaraguan population. Then there is trying to define the future of this coalition based on that.

The peasant movement is part of the Civic Alliance, but at the same time it is presented as an autonomous force. Is there a risk that this coalition will divide before it is born?

I believe that the peasant movement has never been part of the Civic Alliance, in practical terms. They joined the Alliance in the first stage, when the dialogue began. Medardo was imprisoned. When he leaves prison Medardo enters with a different political perspective, in which they keep themselves practically outside the Civic Alliance. They have self-constituted in a third force. But it is not a third political force, but rather an autonomous movement that defines itself as a peasant movement.

Their base is important. However, in practical terms they still have to define what is their position in national terms. And, somehow, they are not transparent in what they want to define, in terms of what is the national interest they want to defend, and that represents a problem. I think that the political cost will be greater for them, by not defining themselves and keeping themselves apart from this great coalition.

The 2020 electoral reform

What is the political deadline for the formation of this opposition unity or of this great coalition?

The date that they defined is February 25. That is the calendar deadline, the real limit. It is a symbolic date…

From the 1990 elections?

Exactly. And in practical terms, so, they can announce that. In real terms their political term began this month, because to formalize themselves form a political coalition to a political party, they should have already begun the registration process as such.

Are you starting from the position that any process is with the current rules of the dictatorship? Do you rule out that a real electoral reform can be done?

It is because the electoral reforms that are going to take place at this time are being cooked in the Legislative Assembly, and they will be cosmetic. So, from a strategic point of view you have to start working with what there is, and if your political capital is potentially strengthening, you need to have a parallel strategy, which is to start to integrate yourself into the rules of the current system.

What pressure capacity does this movement have, be it united in that coalition or as it is now, to really demand a change in the rules of the game?

They do have capacity. What they need to do is ratify it, because they have a popular mandate, which is the force to pressure with the support of the population. The influence they could exert through the opposition parties may allow them to influence a change in the electoral reform.

Now, Daniel Ortega technically has all the legal power to make reforms at will. Then in practical terms, this is where the role of the international community enters so that a reform be done that will allow the formation of coalitions and international observation.

Competitive elections under a state of siege

How do you see the political trends of this year? Can Ortega recover the initiative and divide the opposition into different blocks? Can the opposition be configured as a national block?

Ortega knows that in Nicaragua politics is very divisive. And, his strategy is precisely, to make cosmetic reforms, to allow as many parties to be formed, assuming that, the more parties that are formed and go to elections, the Sandinista Front will win. This is his premise, along with a minimal economic growth.

Thus, the coalition has as the challenge of setting up a political block where, at least three political parties commit to enter an electoral process as one single force. Now, if that is to happen, it depends practically on the “CxL” (Citizens for Freedom), of the party (Democratic Restoration) of Saturnino (Cerrato), and the PLC (Constitutionalist Liberal Party).

The balance of power may change inasmuch this political coalition includes the commitment of the political parties that do become a part, and of being subordinated in some way to the concept of coalition as defined by the Civic Alliance and the National Unity.

The suspension of the de facto state of siege, the recuperation of the right to free mobilization and of full democratic freedoms, what space do they have in this crisis?

We must take advantage of those moments, of those freedoms that are provided partially, where the police appear and disappear, where your life is semi-controlled. This has to be capitalized somehow. And the way to capitalize on it is basically making sure that the political coalition manages to have the support of the population, even to go to an electoral process in 2021.

But people say: elections cannot be held here with political prisoners, without recovering the streets, without freedom of mobilization…

I believe that, if this political coalition enters fully this year, they can put more pressure for political prisoners to be released. That is the most important premise.

Can you imagine an election under a state of siege?

Yes. I believe that in Nicaragua we cannot expect that Daniel Ortega will lift the state of siege. The truth is that here you are going to fight in a competitive disadvantage. That is why international pressure is important.

Nicaraguans are clear that this is not a democracy. They are clear that a peaceful solution must be electoral and not violent. They know what are the political costs that have to be recovered; but they also know that within that political cost there is life, in the next 22 months, in the context of a police state, and that is what they are going to live with.

Can trust be achieved for people to go to vote in an election under those terms?

Yes, of course it can be achieved, provided that this coalition reflects the interest of Nicaraguans who want to vote for a candidate other than Daniel Ortega. That trust will exist. And that is what the opposition coalition must be clear about, that they need that to win, to really enjoy the support of Nicaraguans.


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Carlos F. Chamorro

Carlos F. Chamorro

Periodista nicaragüense, exiliado en Costa Rica. Fundador y director de Confidencial y Esta Semana. Miembro del Consejo Rector de la Fundación Gabo. Ha sido Knight Fellow en la Universidad de Stanford (1997-1998) y profesor visitante en la Maestría de Periodismo de la Universidad de Berkeley, California (1998-1999). En mayo 2009, obtuvo el Premio a la Libertad de Expresión en Iberoamérica, de Casa América Cataluña (España). En octubre de 2010 recibió el Premio Maria Moors Cabot de la Escuela de Periodismo de la Universidad de Columbia en Nueva York. En 2021 obtuvo el Premio Ortega y Gasset por su trayectoria periodística.