Latin America & Caribbean

Why Nicaragua is ready to re-elect Daniel Ortega

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega on the campaign trail
Image caption Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas say they have adapted to today's reality

For some 30 years, Daniel Ortega and his erstwhile Sandinista revolutionaries have been loathed by Nicaragua's traditional economic elite.

But with presidential elections due on 6 November, there appears to be only one thing some business leaders fear more than an Ortega re-election victory and that is an Ortega defeat.

Across Nicaragua, giant pink billboards show a smiling President Ortega waving to voters amid a busy clutter of psychedelic swirls, blue hearts and a jumble of words relating to Christianity, love, wellbeing, peace and solidarity.

That message of fluorescent friendliness is reinforced by thousands of Sandinista supporters, including government workers, who every day dress dutifully in party-supplied T-shirts.

Indeed, Mr Ortega's re-election campaign - his sixth consecutive bid for the presidency since 1984 - seems to draw influences from a curious combination of the New Testament, the Flower Power movement, and a trendy fashion catalogue.

The message is confusing, but positive, and that is the point.

President Ortega's powerful wife, Rosario Murillo, the Sandinistas' astute communications tsar, has worked indefatigably to undo her party's aggressive branding and replace it with a softer image.

Business friendly

Polling suggests the extreme makeover is working. A recent survey by the Center for Investigations of Communication (Cinco) showed that Mr Ortega was, for the first time in 27 years of campaigning, polling strongly among independent voters.

Traditionally independents, who account for about a quarter of the 3.3 million-strong electorate, have voted against Mr Ortega, often helping his closest rival to a comfortable victory.

But that has changed. Now Mr Ortega is the favourite to win.

He is polling somewhere between 46% to 58%, depending on the survey (Sandinista pollsters give him nearly 10 points over other polling firms).

Either way, all polls indicate that Mr Ortega is set to win a first-round victory with a much improved margin on his 38% in 2006.

Mr Ortega's poll numbers are improving despite growing doubts about his commitment to democracy among human rights groups, opposition leaders and members of the international community.

Image caption Fabio Gadea is well-known as a radio personality

There are also concerns about the legality of his candidacy, as Mr Ortega sidestepped a constitutional ban on consecutive re-election to run again.

But for the private sector, the "red scare" is finally over. And some now think the Sandinistas are good for business.

"The private sector has a lot of confidence in the Sandinista government," said retired Gen Alvaro Baltodano, who helps to liaise between the president and big investors.

The opposition's silver bullet against Mr Ortega in the past has been Nicaraguans' fear of war, communism, international isolation and economic ruin.

But since Mr Ortega returned to power five years ago, the economy has grown steadily, exports have doubled and foreign direct investment has grown nearly fivefold.

That macroeconomic success has effectively stripped the opposition of its electoral trump card.

"Nicaragua is enjoying its best moments," says businessman Rene Gonzalez. "I think the relationship between the private sector and the government is also in its best moment ever."

Capitalist leanings

That is good news for business and bad news for the already divided opposition.

"People aren't scared of the FSLN (the Sandinistas) anymore," says opposition candidate and former president Arnoldo Aleman.

That is quite an admission from a man whose party five years ago blared campaign music with the lyrics, "The Sandinistas are communists and enemies of humanity."

Mr Aleman, who is polling third behind Mr Ortega and right-wing challenger Fabio Gadea, says the current president is a hugely astute politician.

Mr Aleman says Mr Ortega, whom he defeated in the 1996 race, has evolved deftly from a socialist to a capitalist.

"Once he got back into power (in 2007), he changed totally from the 1980s. Now he has started to taste money," Mr Aleman says.

"He criticises us for being neo-liberal and pandering to the IMF, but now he has become their best student."

Despite employing some of the old socialist rhetoric for the benefit of ageing Sandinista hardliners, Mr Ortega's party leaders no longer try to hide their capitalist intentions.

The party does, however, try to justify its new stance by sweetening its economic programme with handouts for the poorest of the poor.

"The experience of the 80s taught us that you can't achieve social justice or eradicate poverty by distributing what we have. We have to generate new wealth for social justice," says Bayardo Arce, the president's economic adviser.

"We have to look how to generate more to benefit more people."

Economic clout

So far, the Sandinistas have been very good at making money.

Thanks to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's largesse since 2007 - which, based on Central Bank numbers, could total $2bn (£1.25bn) - the Sandinistas have become the new captains of Nicaraguan industry.

Over the past five years, the Sandinistas have invested heavily in energy, oil distribution, food exports, media outlets, timber, cattle and even tourism.

This investment means Mr Ortega exerts not only political but economic clout.

It has also put him in a position to make life impossible for the next government, should he lose the election.

"If Fabio [Gadea] wins the presidency, Ortega could close the oil tap and cut off electricity because he owns the electrical plants. The next day Fabio falls," says former president Enrique Bolanos.

He alleges that his own government, in office from 2002 to 2007, was sabotaged by Mr Ortega's opposition meddling.

"Ortega would continue to govern from below," he says.

The concern among Nicaragua's business sector might indeed be that a defeated Ortega would return to his role as rabble-rousing opposition leader.

Perhaps that is why Cosep, the country's leading business chamber, is for the first time not endorsing the anti-Sandinista candidate.

If Mr Ortega wins, his adviser Bayardo Arce says, the Sandinista government will co-operate closely with the private sector to promote economic growth.

"There is no other path forward for us," he says. "We have to live in the reality of the contemporary world."

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