The Nicaraguan Opposition’s Dilemma: Abstention or Participation

A street in the north of Nicaragua during the protests of the citizen rebellion against Daniel Ortega, in July 2018.    Photo: Carlos Herrera /Confidencial
The opposition must see itself in the mirror of the No Coalition in the Chilean plebiscite of 1988, or in the Venezuelan abstention in 2020 and 2005.

By Silvio Prado (Confidencial)

HAVANA TIMES – The general political scene of Nicaragua is of such a nature that the dictatorship has the necessary strength to stay in power, but not enough to defeat the opposition. If by that we call the different anti-dictatorship groups that emerged from the Spirit of April 2018 or inspired by it. Stalemate? No, it is an asymmetric tie.

Conscious of its incapacity, the dictatorship has prepared an electoral stage by which the opposition —the one that defies its power—, will be prevented from participating or abstain. Faced with this, the opposition finds itself before a vital dilemma: a barren abstention or a daring participation. For both options, it has mirrors to look itself into, the Venezuelan or the Chilean, respectively.

The case of Venezuela is the most recent. Incapable of achieving a solid opposition front, the majority branch made the decision to abstain in the face of the innumerable impediments brought by the regime. We already know the result: handing over control of parliament, the last piece of power it had in its hands.

The consequences were the same as in 2005, when it also abstained: “Chavismo” looked after number one with more moral than political prejudice. The results were a green light to reform the Constitution and introduce the so-called enabling laws, among many others.

The same has happened with those of last December 6, 2020. A barren abstention originated in the tribal fights that facilitated the work of the tyranny. The opposition opted for the way out that “Madurismo” had planned, as in “Life of Brian,” that film in which Palestinians commit suicide in protest for the crucifixion of Christ, instead of rescuing him from martyrdom.

Currently, what has been the result of this latest abstention? The illegitimacy of the regime…and…who cares for such a delicacy? For practical purposes, the Chavista orchestra continues to play even though the ship sinks more and more into hunger and misery, without the opposition being able to even say a word about the adverse course of that rich country.

In Chile (1988), the dictatorship called a plebiscite to decide on the continuity of the regime for another eight years. The opposition took the bull by the horns and after long discussions decided to participate. In those days it was more divided than the Nicaraguan.

An anecdote told that the last division of the Socialist Party was because they did not agree whether Pinochet was a fascist or “somewhat fascist.” Prisons were full of political prisoners, those murdered and those missing numbered in the thousands, exiles were scattered all over the world; and the regime was a strong and cruel dictatorship that had received an injection to harden itself after the assassination attempt against Pinochet two years before.

The frauds in two previous plebiscites fueled the mistrust of some sectors, which also argued, not without reason, that their participation would legitimize the results that would surely favor Pinochet.

Despite all that, the opposition decided to participate regrouped in the Coalition for the No, made up of 17 parties from different ideological currents, although they would be threatened by a new wave of reprisals if the “Si” (Yes) won.

It is worth noting some elements of the context that favored this decision. The reform of the electoral court that, among other measures, allowed the reopening of the electoral registrar a year before the plebiscite and the renewed legalization of the political parties, prohibited since the military coup of 1973.

On October 5, 1988, the “No” won with 56% of the votes against 44% obtained by the “Yes.” A year later, on December 14, 1989, Patricio Alwyn, candidate of the coalition of parties heirs to the No bloc, defeated Pinochet’s candidate. With this, the transition to democracy began, the most recent step of which has been the referendum that approved the drafting of a new Constitution.

Less than eight months before the electoral engagement in Nicaragua, it is worth remembering—once again—the essence of the contradiction to be resolved. It is democracy against dictatorship; or if you like: democracy yes, dictatorship no. Five more years of dictatorship are at stake with all that this implies: zero freedoms, political prisoners every day, more years of exile for our compatriots, more impunity and more economic deterioration, unemployment, hunger and forced migration.

This new step towards the edge of the abyss is what gives the next elections the plebiscite character. Even though in academic terms it is a contradiction. The November 7 elections cannot be seen as normal multi-party elections in which different political programs compete with more or less the same chances of winning.

Due to the aforementioned repercussions, these elections will force a yes or no response, as if it were a plebiscite, and demand an opposition alliance instead of the competition of several options. This is precisely the trap that keeps the opposition forces entangled: thinking that they are elections in which the proportionality of power quotas are at stake.

For this reason, they slip over and over again in the “how” (the electoral vehicle) instead of coalescing around the “what for” (the reconstruction of the State, the economy and access to justice).

The consensus around the “what for”—the dismantling of the dictatorship, an order co-opted by a family and subordinated to a political-military organization—, is what determines the size and strength of an alliance. Otherwise, it would not be capable of undertaking such a task if it does not embody the strategic contradiction between democracy and dictatorship. The division of the opposition, by contrast, definitely gives the upper hand to the dictatorship.

If from the beginning of the protests it was assumed that the only solution to the crisis was political, thus ruling out a new civil war, the next station on that roadmap should be the willingness to participate because it is the only way to stand up to the strategists of the dictatorship who have bet on withdrawal or abstention. But before it is necessary to get out of the absurdity of the “how”, which is ultimately secondary, to concentrate on the “what for.”

Due to the need to gain acceptance from the international community, authoritarian regimes require holding elections to whitewash tyranny. This opens windows of opportunity that lead them to make mistakes. In Treisman’s words: “democracy sometimes emerges not because (authoritarian) elites seek it, but because trying to prevent it they commit one or more critical mistakes.”

In our case, the dictatorship will call elections to distort democracy once again. However, it could be making a critical mistake by opening the window a little through cosmetic reforms to make them credible. The opposition cannot make a huge mistake by abstaining at the beginning, or by participating split in two or more blocs. This is the only scenario in which the dictatorship could crush the opposition.

It is easier to wrest major reforms from the tyrant from unified positions determined to dislodge him from power, than from the weak image of someone who is plucking daisies, between an inconsequential abstention or participating at the risk of losing everything. Only in this way will it be possible to remain faithful to the Spirit of April.

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