Montealegre Calls for Massive Turnout
First part in a series on the candidates & issues in the municipal elections
MANAGUA – Two years after losing to Daniel Ortega in the 2006 presidential election, Liberal opposition leader Eduardo Montealegre is preparing to step back into the ring for a bare-knuckle rematch of sorts. In less than two months, Managua – along with most of Nicaragua – will go back to the polls to elect its new mayor in a tight contest that is pitting Montealegre against a former boxing champ who calls Ortega his “leader.”
In the Nov. 9 mayoral election in Managua, Montealegre claims the Sandinista challenger, Alexis Argüello, is a proxy for Ortega and that the vote will be a referendum on the Sandinista leader’s presidency. The option, Montealegre says, is clear: One candidate represents the “perpetual dictatorship” of Ortega, and the other a “chance for democracy” under independent leadership.
While voters will ultimately have to decide which of the two major candidates is more qualified for the job – Montealegre, a Harvard-educated former banker and politician, or Argüello, a three-time world boxing champ and recovering drug addict – Montealegre thinks the decision will ultimately depend mostly on people’s emotional response to Ortega.
“It’s an emotional decision because it will be the voters saying, ‘We don’t want Daniel Ortega and (First Lady) Rosario Murillo bossing people around in the municipal government,” Montealegre told The Nica Times in a recent interview with the foreign press association.
But when it comes to job qualifications, Montealegre, 53, is confident he has the edge in that category, too.
Montealegre, who has served as a bank director, finance minister, minister of foreign relations, chief of cabinet and national lawmaker, boasts a substantially longer job resume than Argüello, whose only publicservice post was a two-year stint as vice mayor of Managua. Montealegre says those years of experience in both the public and private sector have prepared him for the rigors of the mayor’s office.
“The rational part of the decision” facing voters, Montealegre says, is based on people asking themselves the question: “Who has the proven capacity to implement, to execute, to administer and to understand budgeting and finance?”
The Liberal Party candidate, whose “Vamos con Eduardo” movement is running in an electoral alliance with Arnoldo Alemán’s Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC), says he’d be more than happy to prove his readiness in a one-on-one debate with Argüello.
“Whenever and wherever he wants,” Montealegre said. “I’ll even do it in a boxing ring, if that makes him more comfortable.”
Thus far, however, there’s no indication that there will be any debate; Argüello’s campaign is being tightly controlled by First Lady Murillo, who has kept a tight lid on the former champ, known for his public-speaking slips. (In a recent sports radio interview Argüello credited Ortega for “doing a good job with his incapability.”)
On the Campaign Trail
Though the campaign season here doesn’t officially begin until Sept. 25, both Montealegre and Argüello have been in “unofficial” campaign mode for months.
Montealegre makes regular walking-tour visits to different neighborhoods in Managua, where he and his running mate, Enrique Quiñónez, a Liberal Party lawmaker and former Contra, walk through the streets to shake hands with supporters and stop in doorways for quick chats with residents.
In some neighborhoods, Montealegre has run up against some dicey street opposition from alleged Sandinista youth groups that have told him he can’t come down their street. Some have even greeted Montealegre by throwing rocks at his caravan.
During a Sept. 3 neighborhood visit in Managua’s District 3, Montealegre said his personal security had to remove a homemade metal shiv from a young man who was supposedly going to stab the candidate as he passed by.
“Unfortunately, this is what we’ve faced. But they haven’t stopped us, and they won’t intimidate us,” Montealegre said.
Despite the difficulties of campaigning in Managua, Montealegre says the experience has helped him to identify the problems facing the residents of the capital and come up with proposals to help fix what’s wrong.
Once the campaign starts officially, Montealegre hopes to raise $2.7 million for advertising and get-out-the-vote promotions.
He says that amount will be “minimum” compared to what Argüello and the Sandinistas are expected to spend.
The mean streets of Managua are not the only perils standing between Montealegre and the mayor’s office. The Ortega government continues to try to sway public opinion against Montealegre by launching a ceaseless barrage of smear ads that publically blame the Liberal Party candidate for robbing the country of $600 million in the “Cenis” banking-bailout scandal.
To reach an even larger audience, the government has dipped into its state advertising funds to buy ad spots on other media outlets to run their anti-Montealegre campaign all across the airwaves.
There is also some concern that Ortega will use his sway over other government branches and offices to “legally” eliminate Montealegre from the race by having him formally charged and tried for corruption in the Cenis scandal, which Montealegre claims is a “political manipulation” aimed at removing him from the political map.
“Everyone in Nicaragua knows this is a political campaign against me,” Montealegre said. “Now the attacks are increasing again to try to get me to renounce, retire or cower because they know we have the backing of the population.”
He added, “We are going to keep fighting. I am not afraid that they are going to jail me or force me out; we are going to the elections because the people know my proven capacity and political trajectory.”
The final institutional hurdle that Montealegre will have to clear could also be the highest: the Sandinista-controlled Supreme Electoral Council (CSE), the branch of government that is charged with conducting the elections and determining the winner.
Montealegre says he does not trust the CSE, which has refused to accredit any international electoral observers and has outlawed several other opposition parties – a situation, he fears, is setting the stage for the “possibility of fraud.”
“The best antidote against stealing the elections will be a massive voter turnout … because obviously the FSLN knows it’s not going to win – their own internal polls show this, and that’s why President Ortega doesn’t want electoral observers,” he said.
Montealegre says he, too, has his internal voter-intention polls but refuses to release the results because he doesn’t want to deter the 600,000 registered Liberal voters in Managua from turning out on election day.
Ortega and Alemán
If Montealegre wins Nov. 9, he might ultimately find that electoral victory was easy compared to what comes next: trying to govern in a system controlled by two political strongmen in Ortega and incarcerated former President Arnoldo Alemán.
Despite calling Ortega a “dictator,” Montealegre told The Nica Times this week, “I don’t have any problem working with President Ortega.”
Yet even some of Ortega’s closest friends from the revolution, such as current Mayor of Managua Dionisio “Nicho” Marenco, have had a hard time working with Ortega, who has shown an unwillingness to work with critics or cooperate with anyone who polls higher than him in public-approval surveys.
Montealegre, however, says that his circumstance is different than Marenco’s in that he is not competing for influence or popularity within the Sandinista Front. Pundits, however, note that Ortega’s efforts to install his Councils of Citizen Power (CPCs), pro-Ortega neighborhood organizations that blur the line between civil society and state organizations, indicate that the president would most likely work to undermine a Montealegre mayorship rather than work with him in partnership.
Another challenge Montealegre faces could be from Alemán, who is still considered the “maximum leader” of the PLC, despite his condition of house arrest. Alemán, who once tapped Montealegre as his chief of cabinet back when he was president, had a falling out with his former confidant after Montealegre made his presidential aspirations known two years ago.
The PLC, it was decided, was too small for two leaders, so Montealegre left (he says he was kicked out) and started the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN), for which he ran as the presidential candidate against Ortega in 2006. The CSE then passed a resolution stripping Montealegre of his party earlier this year, and forcing him to wander partyless until returning to the political ticket of the PLC several months ago.
Though he’s running with Alemán’s PLC, Montealegre has tried to maintain his distance from the disgraced former party boss, using the Liberal Party base to ensure the votes he needs to get elected without chumming up too much to Alemán.
Political analysts, however, wonder who is using whom. Though Alemán recently told The Nica Times that his PLC is united with Montealegre’s movement and that he has no doubt their candidate will win, others are more skeptical of the relationship; some even think that Alemán is knowingly throwing Montealegre into a situation where he’ll lose and become politically neutralized, paving the way for Alemán to make his own political comeback as the uncontested opposition leader.
“I think Montealegre made a great mistake,” said opposition Sandinista leader Edmundo Jarquín. “I think that afterwards, there will be a certain rearticulating of the power (pact) between Alemán and Ortega.”
Montealegre, however, insists that people are fed up with Ortega and realize that the Liberal’s victory in the election in Managua represents the only way to wrest power from Ortega.
“I am going to win the mayor’s office of Managua and the people of Nicaragua will see the city converted into an oasis of liberty, democracy, progress and prosperity,” Montealegre has said.
Eduardo Montealegre, the Liberal Constitutional Party’s candidate for mayor of Managua, says his forthcoming government platform is based on the “serious problems” facing the residents of Managua.
Over the next two months, Montealegre will spend a week addressing each of the major points of his government proposal for Managua.
He outlined the major pillars of his program this week for The Nica Times: job creation; water issues (flooding, potable water and sewage); land titles; garbage; citizen security; creating more recreational spaces for families and young people; organizing the urban marketplaces; resolving transportation problems; and organizing future growth of the city with urban planning.
Montealegre says that he has formed a group of ex-foreign ministers to help him look at ways to apply for direct foreign aid for his program, noting that the trend among international cooperation is to give money directly to specific projects in a decentralized manner.
Montealegre also hopes to capitalize on some of the bad blood between the foreign donor community and President Ortega, who has repeatedly insulted the international community in past months.
“We’re taking into account that we have a president who is chasing investment away, so there isn’t much desire to give direct cooperation to the central government,” Montealegre said. “When we have municipalities and mayors who have the capacity, the experience and the contacts and relations with the donor community, you can get financing for projects.”
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