ON FEBRUARY 25, 1990, Nicaragua's voters elected Violeta Barrios de Chamorro as president, ending ten years of government by the Sandinista National Liberation Front (Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional--FSLN). The choice was a dramatic one because voters hoped that the new government of the newly formed National Opposition Union (Unión Nacional Opositora--UNO) would bring an end to more than a decade of civil conflict and the harsh sectarianism of the Sandinista years and improve the rapidly deteriorating economy. In her predawn acceptance speech the morning after her election, President-elect Chamorro tried to establish a climate of reconciliation, stating that there were neither victors nor vanquished in the election. Soon after, recognizing the FSLN "as the second political force of the nation," she stated her commitment to respect the will of the 40 percent of the people who had voted for the FSLN. The losing candidate, President Daniel José Ortega Saavedra, about two hours later foreswore the FSLN's self-image as a "vanguard party" and delineated the FSLN's future role as a strong, but loyal, opposition party. Rhetorically, at least, the stage seemed set for the cooperation between the two camps needed to bring about economic recovery.
Almost three years later, however, efforts to move the country toward peace and prosperity seemed stalled. Although the Chamorro government continued to stress that it intended to achieve reconciliation, President Chamorro has had the full cooperation of neither the Sandinistas nor her own coalition. Instead, in early 1993 the government faced the dilemma of dealing with a Sandinista opposition that viewed reconciliation as a means of protecting its rights to confiscated property and a powerful element of the UNO coalition that viewed those property rights as ill-gotten gains and urged strong action against the Sandinistas to recover that property.
Whether the new government is consolidating democracy or reverting to the traditional authoritarian and elitist style of Nicaraguan politics is a central issue. President Chamorro's cooperation with the Sandinistas, particularly her decision to retain Humberto Ortega Saavedra as head of the army, has led her supporters to accuse her of capitulating and establishing a "cogovernment " with the defeated Sandinistas, rather than reforming the political system in cooperation with her electoral partners. Her government also has been accused by members of the UNO coalition of excessively concentrating power in the hands of a small group of members of her extended family, promoting the same brand of government practiced under the Somoza family dynasty: centralizing power in a small group instead of expanding it in a democratic fashion. Finally, the UNO has been criticized for failing to promote the concept of democracy at a grassroots level. Nevertheless, the distribution of power for the first time to the municipal level through the 1990 elections has created a new class of political officials who are struggling to assert power at a grassroots level. The Sandinistas also have continued the grassroots organizing efforts that originally brought them to power. Both phenomena hold promise, as well as dangers, for the future democratic of democracy in Nicaragua.
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