In two extensive meetings, held one day apart, the representatives of fourteen political parties, with one vote each, elected the presidential formula of Violeta Barrios de Chamorro and Virgilio Godoy, who eventually defeated president Daniel Ortega Saavedra and the powerful state-party of the Sandinista Front at the ballot box on February 25, 1990.
That model, which was effective for the opposition grouped in the Political Council of the National Opposition Unity (UNO), is “inadequate and inapplicable” for the blue and white opposition in the current political and electoral context, according to politicians and analysts.
In 1989, times were difficult and pressing. There were no civil guarantees due to the repression and surveillance of the Sandinista Front. As an organization, UNO did not have the necessary economic resources to carry out a consultation with the bases of the 14 united political forces to define candidates for president, vice-president, deputies and mayors. A decision was made to hold a sort of “papal conclave”, in which the representatives of the organizations would discuss and vote to define the candidacies.
“It was decided that the choice would be made by the Political Council of UNO, which was made up of three representatives of each party, but with only one vote per party. Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, Enrique Bolaños, Virgilio Godoy, and Agustín Jarquín Anaya were presented as candidates. Dr. Miriam Argüello withdrew her candidacy in favor of Godoy’s”, explained Luis Sánchez Sancho, who represented the Nicaraguan Socialist Party (PSN) in UNO. He is currently the editorialist and opinion editor of the newspaper La Prensa.
The first meeting was held on August 31st – in a well-known restaurant in Managua at that time, called El Bambana – but was suspended after about ten hours due to a lack of agreement. A minimum of ten votes was required to elect a candidate for president; no candidate obtained it.
“After five rounds of voting on August 31st (1989), Violeta stood with five votes, Godoy with four, Bolaños with three and Jarquin with two. The session was adjourned to continue on September 2nd. In the meantime, it was decided to elect by formula, so that one would add to the other and achieve the ten votes. After another five rounds, the formula of Violeta for president and Godoy for vice-president finally achieved the ten votes,” said Sánchez Sancho. The second round was held at the UNO house, which was in front of the old National Stadium.
The economist Juan Sebastián Chamorro, who is an aspiring candidate for the Presidency of Nicaragua, the UNO method was “appropriate for its time”, but he considers that, at present, “a participative process where people can give their point of view on which are the preferred candidates” could be done, taking into account that “there is more technology and, up to now, there is a possibility of carrying out surveys”.
“(The election of candidates) should be a unitary process of the political groups, but it has to be a participative process, which should not be limited only to the representatives of the political organizations, but should be taken to the popular consultation”, commented the aspiring candidate and former director of the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy (ACJD).
Chamorro, together with presidential aspiring candidates such as Felix Maradiaga, Medardo Mairena and Miguel Mora, signed an agreement in which they commit to submitting themselves to a selection process that listens to the popular vote, and those who are not elected, will support the selected candidate as well as a process to unite the opposition in an electoral alliance for the elections of November 2021. Pre-candidates Luis Fley and Cristiana Chamorro joined the agreement.
Violeta Granera, leader of the National Blue and White Unity (UNAB) in the National Coalition, said that the UNO model is “inapplicable” today, because in 1989 “there was no organized civil society, like there is now”, and the “priority” at that time “was to get rid of the dictatorship of the 80s, to end the war and the military service.”
“This moment belongs to the citizenry, and that implies that the citizens are the ones who decide who they are going to trust to lead the reconstruction of democracy after Ortega, and break with the old ways of doing authoritarian politics,” she commented.
“I don’t think it will be possible to motivate citizens to vote, to defend the vote and to fight to defeat Ortega, if they don’t feel fully identified with the people who will lead this stage of the struggle,” added Granera.
The use of polls
Prior to the election of candidates, the UNO relied on the results of an opinion poll. In his book “The Difficult Nicaraguan Transition”, Antonio Lacayo Oyanguren, who was a minister of the Presidency during the government of Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, said that in mid 1989, the newspaper La Prensa hired the services of the Costa Rican Victor Borge to conduct a poll in Nicaragua, taking advantage of the fact that the Sandinista regime lifted the ban on polls.
“We analyzed the results on the night of June 19. To the open question of ‘Who would you vote for’, Doña Violeta and Daniel Ortega, had 14% each, followed by Tomás Borge, Virgilio Godoy and Sergio Ramírez, with 8% each. For the Frente (Sandinista) there was no one else, and for UNO there was Enrique Bolaños, Alfredo César and Mauricio Díaz, with 3%, 3% and 2%”, Lacayo, who was also UNO’s campaign manager, recalled in his book.
“In the questions on ‘What opinion do you have of these people’, Violeta was the only one in the UNO sector who had a favorable opinion not only among those who sympathized with UNO, but also among a good part of the Sandinistas. Virgilio, Bolaños and the other two or three from UNO were rejected by the Sandinistas,” Lacayo pointed out.
Agustín Jarquín Anaya, representative of the Partido Democrático de Confianza Nacional in the Political Council of UNO, said that “the survey, the focus groups and others, are useful tools for the best decision making of the members and directors of the electoral alliance”.
The former deputy and Comptroller of the Republic defenestrated by the Sandinista Front, said that, in the current conditions, “a survey on citizen preferences is the best mechanism for the selection of candidates. The mechanism of primaries, if used, will entail great economic and political costs, accentuating the division and distrust, without assuring them that the choice is the ideal one. Time is pressing”.
CID Gallup survey
A survey conducted by the Costa Rican firm CID Gallup in mid January, showed that the majority of the population in Nicaragua, more than 62%, does not support any political party. Meanwhile, the ruling FSLN maintains 25% support, and the opposition factions are in single digits: the UNAB, 4%; the Citizens for Liberty party (CxL), 3% and the Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC), 2%.
According to the survey, conducted by telephone among 1200 people, the population mentions four opponents as those with the greatest probabilities of winning next November’s elections. They are: Cristiana Chamorro Barrios, former president of the Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation, with 13%; Maradiaga, from UNAB, and Juan Sebastián Chamorro, both with 10%; and Medardo Mairena, leader of the Peasant Movement, with 7%.
In an interview with the program Esta Noche, Luis Haug, manager of CID Gallup, indicated that a poll “is not the ideal mechanism” to elect a candidate, and suggested “an open convention, with an electoral council defined by the participants to obtain the final results”. The Nicaraguan opposition has discarded this option in view of the de facto police state in Nicaragua, the siege against meetings and the illegal “house arrest” situation suffered by some presidential aspirants.
“If you have to use a poll, use at least two polls by independent firms, chosen by consensus, in which those results will be analyzed afterwards; but a single poll by a single firm is not advisable”, emphasized the Costa Rican.
Opposition organizations and “presidential” aspirants have agreed that a presidential formula and a list of candidates for deputies of a future opposition alliance must be the result of a “popular consultation”; they have proposed a “national survey” for this purpose .
Election of deputies
The process of choosing deputy candidates for UNO was more complex than that of president and vice-president, given the search for a political and representative balance of all the forces agglutinated in the opposition organization.
“The UNO Political Council appointed a commission, which worked with the departmental political councils. Not all 14 member parties had structures in all the departments and municipalities. In this way, structuring the lists of candidates for deputies, mayors and councilmen was working “against the clock”. People who had recognition in their communities were chosen, and an expeditious consultation mechanism was established to evacuate any disagreement”, recalled Jarquín Anaya.
The estimate of seats projected by UNO in its most optimistic calculations was that the organization could obtain between 50%, maximum 60%, of the seats in dispute. However, political parties claiming to have a longer political tradition demanded more seats in winning positions. This was the biggest stumbling block in the negotiations.
“After the so-called small parties gave in, a distribution of probably winning positions in the lists of candidates was made,” Sanchez Sancho pointed out.
Lacayo Oyanguren detailed in his book that the UNO organizations agreed that “the seven ‘big’ parties would have seven deputies each, the five ‘medium’ parties five each, and the two ‘small’ and unincorporated parties, two each, which added up to 78, and then fill in the rest.”
Alfredo César Aguirre, who was part of the board of directors of the Nicaraguan Resistance and of the UNO for the social democratic party, affirmed that this model of the UNO is “valid” for the current political context, but “expanding the voters by conscience vote to about 100 delegates of the diverse opposition forces”.
“Polls were not used other than as an indicator of the popularity of the different pre-candidates, but they played no role in the selection rules,” said Alfredo Cesar, who currently heads the Conservative and Republican Unity (UNIR) party.
Sanchez Sancho affirmed that the system for the selection of deputies is the only mechanism used during the UNO candidacy definition process, which could be replicated by an eventual opposition unity platform. “There has to be political will to yield and integrate a balanced list. The polls can be an auxiliary mechanism, to know the public preferences for presidential candidates and for parties for the deputies previously”.
Juan Sebastián Chamorro gave a reminder that the list of deputies is divided between national and regional deputies, so that territorial surveys would have to be carried out”, in order to apply “the same democratic, participative, plural and consensus rule among all the opposition forces”.
The economist highlighted that “since there have not been elections, the specific weight that each one of the political organizations has is not known, (so) in a way the polls are a substitute for a transparent electoral process, which has not existed in the last decade”.
Registration of the alliance
The electoral alliance of the 14 parties was registered at the CSE on September 7, 1989. In an interview in the program Esta Noche, Jarquín Anaya explained that at that time, the Electoral Law “allowed the registration of an alliance with its own name”, which in this case was the National Opposition Union.
“Although there were larger parties, some medium-sized, others smaller, with or without legal status, what prevailed was that the name decided upon by the group was the one that would be registered”, commented the former congressman.
Guillermo Potoy, representative of the Social Democratic Party (PSD) in the UNO, emphasized that, in the current context, -in a dialogue with the Government- the opponents must demand that “the name of an alliance has to be the name of the whole integration, because it cannot be that of a political party, because that begins to distract the people, and other parties begin to reject it”.
Currently, the Electoral Law does not allow the registration of electoral alliances with their own name, these must be registered under the name and legal presentation of a political party with legal status. The blue and white opposition is divided between the National Coalition and the Citizens Alliance, which seek to choose the party that will be the most effective political vehicle for the elections. Citizens for Liberty (CxL) is part of the Citizens Alliance, the Democratic Restoration Party (PRD) is in the National Coalition.
Ana Margarita Vijil, former president of the Movimiento Renovador Sandinista (MRS) -now Unión Renovadora Democrática (Unamos)-, stressed that, in order to get out of the Ortega regime, “an exclusive alliance between two parties with legal personality is not required; it is an alliance of different organizations that have been part of the blue and white struggle”.
She said that this alliance must represent “more than 70% of the independent electorate of this country, which does not necessarily feel represented by any organization, be it a political party or a social organization, and therefore the candidacies and the selection mechanisms of these candidacies must also respond to this need”.
The complicated path of UNO
The formation process of UNO was quite complex, not only because of the repression and political control exercised by the Sandinista Front in the 1980s.
The holding of free elections, the cessation of hostilities and the opening of a national dialogue with the main opposition forces in Nicaragua were part of the Esquipulas II agreements, signed on August 7, 1987 by Ortega and the other presidents of the Central American region.
The agreement also contemplated the prohibition of assistance and financing of irregular military forces in the region -in Nicaragua it was the contra, an irregular army made up mainly of peasants-, and negotiations for arms control. Esquipulas II was a kind of barter: the cessation of war for democracy and elections.
On August 11 of that year, Ortega called the opposition leaders to indicate that he would not have a dialogue with any of them separately; if they wanted dialogue it would be with all of them. However, there was a lot of distrust and bitterness among the opposition at that time, despite the fact that in theory they all pursued the same objective: to remove the FSLN from power.
Sanchez Sancho recalled that, in order to reach the triumph of February 25, the UNO had to struggle through many internal conflicts before reaching the final victory.
“Ortega said that the Esquipulas Accords obliged him to open a national dialogue with the political parties, but that he would not dialogue with any of them separately, that they should present him with a common position. Thus, the idea arose to elaborate the proposal of 17 constitutional reforms in which all agreed and which would serve as the basis for the government program of the UNO, which was constituted on June 20, 1989; almost two years later, because the Ortega government was delaying the fulfillment of the Central American agreements”, mentioned Sánchez Sancho.
On August 3 and 4, 1989, a political dialogue marathon took place between Ortega and representatives of some twenty opposition parties. The meeting took place at the Olof Palme Convention Center and lasted almost 23 hours. Five representatives of the UNO (Silviano Matamoros, Conservative; Dulio Baltodano, Social Christian; Jaime Bonilla, Liberal; Elí Altamirano, Communist; and Sánchez Sancho, for the Socialists) participated. At that meeting, the minimum political guarantees were agreed upon, which would encourage the UNO to participate in the 1990 elections.
In that dialogue, the minimum conditions to carry out the February 1990 elections were discussed. “The dialogue served to establish what we both parties wanted to have a free election,” said Potoy.
Sánchez Sancho indicated that the Sandinista government complied with some of the UNO demands; others it did “half-heartedly”, and some it simply did not comply with, arguing various “reasons”.
The former representative of the Socialist Party said that they were able to generate “transparency of the electoral roll” and the integration of a “commission” formed by jurists of the Government and the opposition to shorten the term of the National Assembly and that the one elected in February 1990 would take office on April 24 of that year were achieved.
Among those demands which were achieved “halfway”, Sánchez Sancho listed: the restructuring of the CSE with the participation of the opposition -two magistrates out of five, and one alternate-; freedom of the press and guarantees of public mobilization; and the establishment of a private television channel, in this case what was achieved was the creation of an Independent Newscast to be transmitted on the Sandinista TV Network.
Among the unfulfilled demands are: the release of all political prisoners; a general amnesty before the elections -Ortega argued that until the Contra disarmed-; the return of the exiled Miskito population; the repeal of the Law for the Maintenance of Order and Public Security; the approval of a Civil Service Law; and a reform of the Law of Jurisdictional Functions of the Sandinista Police and of the Law of Social Communication Media, since Ortega justified that the Constitution had to be reformed.
UNO’s internal disputes
The internal disputes within the UNO were not solved with the election of the presidential ticket. The three parties that supported the candidacy of Enrique Bolaños -PLC, PDCN, PNC- were reluctant to accept his defeat, and even asked the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) for an extension of the deadline for the registration of electoral alliances, which showed the fissures within the opposition bloc, according to information published in the newspapers of the time.
Godoy’s election was not well seen by the business elite, gathered in the Superior Council of Private Enterprise (Cosep). The businessmen were suspicious of Godoy because he was Minister of Labor during the first Sandinista Government, and his “management had the seal of anti-private enterprise”, according to Lacayo.
Jarquín Anaya pointed out that “the process of formation of the UNO was not easy and required a lot of courage from its protagonists, since it was necessary to get together with others with whom there was distrust and we even disliked each other”.
Violeta and Virgilio’s campaign began on September 10, 1989, with a rally in Juigalpa, Chontales. In spite of the war context and the absolute control exercised by the FSLN over the Police and the Army, the candidates and other UNO leaders had no problems to mobilize throughout the country.
At present, the freedom of assembly and mobilization is violated, and some 80 blue and white opponents are besieged daily by the National Police, and most of them live under de facto “house arrest”, according to reports from opposition organizations.
Members of the UNO campaign team, who asked not to be named, indicated that from the beginning they “struggled” to “overcome fear” among the population, who did not show their sympathies for fear of reprisals.
This fear was overcome, according to the former members of the UNO, when citizens and opposition leaders became aware of the accompaniment provided by international observers from the United Nations and the Organization of American States (OAS).
“Since the first demonstrations in September, we realized that we were accompanied by UNOVEN – United Nations Mission of Observers to Verify the Elections in Nicaragua – and the OAS; and then came the Carter Center”, explained one of the members of the campaign team. They also struggled with the lack of economic resources.
With or without fear, with or without money, the UNO candidates traveled all over the country. The road led them to a victory over the powerful Sandinista Front. The opposition obtained 54.8% of the votes, and the FSLN, 40.8%, while eight other political parties added 2.5%. In addition, the UNO obtained 51 deputies, and the FSLN 39; two other parties, the Movimiento de Unidad Revolucionaria (MUR) and the Partido Social Cristiano (PSC), obtained one deputy each.
This article has been translated by Ana María Sampson, a Communication Science student at the University of Amsterdam and member of our staff*