Standing on stage with his wife and children and swaying to a campaign remix of the popular World Cup song “Wavin’ Flag,” former president and ex-convict Arnoldo Alemán accepted his party’s nomination as its 2011 presidential candidate and promised to build a “Great Liberal Alliance” to defeat the Sandinista Front and “rescue democracy” in Nicaragua.
Though Alemán had already announced his intentions to run for president in January (NT, Jan. 22), he made his candidacy official on July 11 at the Liberal Constitutional Party’s (PLC) Grand Convention held every year in commemoration of Nicaragua’s Liberal revolution in 1893.
“I accept for the second time the responsibility of heading the struggle for the challenges and destiny of the Liberal Constitutional Party to fulfill the dreams of 5 million Nicaraguans of making Nicaragua a country for everyone, in which we live without fear,” the former president (1997-2002) said to a conference hall of 1,000-plus PLC convention members from across the country, who dutifully chanted “Arnoldo! Arnoldo! Arnoldo!” and “Democracy yes! Dictatorship no!” Alemán, who this week was absolved of money laundering charges in Panama, also asked the PLC convention members to give a standing ovation to his legal defense team.
The challenge moving forward, Alemán said, is to create a broad opposition alliance through a multi-party primary process aimed at electing a single-ticket formula to go against the incumbent Sandinista candidate in 2011, which will most likely be President Daniel Ortega, despite a constitutional ban prohibiting his re-election.
“As I have said many times before in the past, unity is not just an option, it is a moral obligation and a political imperative,” Alemán said at last weekend’s convention. “That is the lesson that we learned in 1990 and again in the elections of 1996 and 2001, when we won convincingly. But we also learned it in 2006, when we went into the elections divided and lost.”
Alemán added, “We can’t repeat that error next year. We cannot give Orteguismo the pleasure of facing a divided (opposition). Because if we do that, if we run two or three candidates against him, history will condemn us and the representative democracy that we were able to build between 1990 and 2006 will disappear.”
To avoid division and defeat to a minority but well-disciplined Sandinista Front, Alemán and five or six other opposition candidates are preparing to face off in a unique inter-party primary process to elect a single candidate. It will be the first time such a process has been attempted in Nicaragua. It’s being done in the spirit of recreating the UNO alliance that was headed by President Violeta Chamorro when she defeated Ortega in 1990.
The inter-party primary, which is being organized by Nicaragua’s Permanent Commission on Human Rights (CPDH), will be held on March 6 among five to seven opposition parties that represent the various Liberal factions, the Social Democrats, the Conservatives, members of the ex-contra and possibly Sandinista dissident groups such as the leftist Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS).
However, many question marks remain, as the rules of the primary and participants are still being decided.
Alemán, for his part, says he’s ready for the contest.
“I have accepted the challenge to participate in inter-party primary elections so that the people chose their candidate to lead the great democratic coalition that will face the candidate of Danielismo in November 2011,” Alemán said.
Liberal dissident leader Eduardo Montealegre, who finished runner-up to Ortega in the 2006 presidential elections, said he’s also willing to go to primaries, even though his Vamos con Eduardo (Let’s go with Eduardo) political movement is not registered as an official political party. He said that even though Liberal party unification has been frustrated thus far, it can happen in a primary election process.
“The problem is not unity or which party ticket to run on, the problem is who is going to be the candidate. That’s why our slogan has been unity through primaries,” Montealegre said during a political rally in Chinandega last month. “We have to look forward because we have a common and singular enemy named Daniel Ortega.”
Montealegre said the primary process will be key to bringing together the diverse opposition groups, including the majority of Nicaraguans who don’t belong to any political party but still want to see a unified opposition ticket run against Ortega.
“The problem is not Arnoldo, it’s not Eduardo, it’s not the PLC, it’s not Vamos con Eduardo; the problem is Daniel Ortega and the Sandinista Front,” Montealegre said.
Despite the common rhetoric against Ortega, the opposition continues to be divided by mutual suspicions and conflicting personalities.
Opposition lawmaker Enrique Quiñónez, a Liberal dissident who separated from the PLC in 2008, maintains that the main problem to unifying the opposition is Alemán, who he calls a “figure of disunity.”
“There isn’t the slightest chance of unifying the opposition around Alemán,” Quiñónez told The Nica Times this week. “Civil society, the MRS and others are not going to support him.”
Quiñónez blames Alemán for “ceding space” to Ortega and allowing the Sandinista Front, as a minority political party, to return to presidency and consolidate power.
Furthermore, Quiñónez said he is “100 percent positive” that Alemán is not even interested in winning the elections. He claims Alemán is in the race only to maintain his quota of power once Ortega gets re-elected.
“Alemán told me once that his is going to live the rest of his life in Nicaragua with the FSLN and he is willing to do anything necessary to assure the political and economic security of his family,” Alemán’s former confidant said. “Arnoldo may be a lot of things, but he’s not dumb and he knows he has no possibility of winning.”
Quiñónez, who recently joined the ranks of the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN), said he will continue to maintain his support for Montealegre. But both Montealegre and the PLC have strong suspicions about the ALN, which they accuse of being secret allies of the Sandinista Front.
Indeed, many efforts at Liberal party unity in the National Assembly have been frustrated when the ALN has sided with the Sandinistas.
“The ALN has completely identified with the ruling party,” former PLC presidential candidate José Rizo told The Nica Times this week. He said the ALN’s political track record has many in the PLC saying it would be too risky to allow them to participate in the inter-party primary process.
Indeed, Rizo said, all the bad blood among the opposition could make a nasty participative to allow for some renewal of leadership, then the CPDH isn’t going to accompany them much longer in what would be a sham primary process.
“We don’t want to continue a culture of caudillismo,” Carmona told The Nica Times this week. “We don’t want to lose our prestige and credibility as an organization.”
Carmona said the CPDH planned to meet with the political parties again this week and will continue to urge a political process that is based on the principles of citizen participation and transparency.
Despite the mutual suspicions, political divisions and resistance to leadership renewal among the opposition, there is one issue they can all agree on: Ortega has got to go.
“Nicaragua has become a failed state, whose institutions have collapsed or are in the process of collapsing,” Alemán said. He claims that since Ortega returned to power in 2007, Nicaragua has been living a “nightmare” where the president has been “dismantling democracy, the rule of law and constitution in his eagerness to perpetuate in power.”
What remains to be seen is whether Nicaragua’s opposition leaders can get beyond their own eagerness for power to unite behind a common candidate in 2011.