Last Updated: Thursday, 26 May 2016, 08:56 GMT

Nicaragua: Information on the November 2001 presidential and legislative elections

Publisher United States Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services
Author Resource Information Center
Publication Date 25 October 2001
Citation / Document Symbol NIC02001.RIC
Cite as United States Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, Nicaragua: Information on the November 2001 presidential and legislative elections, 25 October 2001, NIC02001.RIC, available at: [accessed 26 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


What is the background of the current political situation in Nicaragua? What are the circumstances surrounding the November 2001 elections? What are the political parties and movements that are involved directly or indirectly in the election? Who are the primary representatives of the parties?


On 4 November 2001, Nicaragua will hold presidential and legislative elections. The following is a summary of the historical background, of the current electoral campaign, and of the political parties and leaders involved.

Nicaragua is situated in the heart of Central America, between Costa Rica (to the south) and Honduras (to the north). It is slightly smaller than New York State, and had an estimated population of just over 4.9 million in July 2001. Half the population was below the poverty line in 2000 (CIA 2001).

Nicaragua's president is Arnoldo Alemán Lacayo, who took office on 10 January 1997. There is a unicameral legislature, the National Assembly (Asamblea Nacional). Of 93 seats, 36 are currently held by President Alemán's right-wing Liberal Alliance. Another 35 are held by the left-wing Sandinista Front for National Liberation (FSLN, Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional), and the remainder by numerous smaller parties (CIA 2001).


US Marines occupied Nicaragua from 1912 to 1933, fighting a guerrilla war against irregular forces led by Augusto César Sandino. During that time, they created and trained the National Guard (GN, Guardia Nacional), which assumed responsibility for maintaining order following the Marine withdrawal.

National Guard commander Anastasio Somoza García used his military power to establish a family dynasty that would rule Nicaragua for almost half a century. Somoza had Sandino assassinated in 1934, then held a rigged election in 1936, finally taking office as president on 1 January 1937. Following his assassination in 1956 by a Sandino sympathizer, Anastasio was succeeded by his eldest son Luis Somoza Debayle, and then in 1967 by his younger son Anastasio Somoza Debayle (Walker 2000, 68).

All three Somozas governed under the banner of the Liberal Party (Partido Liberal), which was opposed by the Conservative Party (Partido Conservador). Here as elsewhere in Latin America, the labels Liberal and Conservative have little in common with their meaning in the United States. Both are elite parties, reflecting the fact that the country has very little in the way of a middle class. Because of its association with the Somozas, the Liberal Party in Nicaragua has staked out a position to the right of the Conservative Party.

Anastasio Somoza Debayle acquired a reputation as particularly brutal and corrupt. The January 1978 assassination of Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, the Conservative publisher of the opposition daily newspaper La Prensa, turned even the elites against him. He was overthrown in a 1979 popular insurrection led by the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN, Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional), a Marxist group that forged links with Christians inspired by Liberation Theology, and adopted the red-and-black banner and nationalist philosophy of Sandino (Walker 2000, 70-72).

The FSLN installed a Governing Council of National Reconstruction (JGRN, Junta de Gobierno de Reconstrucción Nacional) which nominally governed until elections were held in November 1984. In fact, the nine-man FSLN National Directorate (DN, Dirección Nacional) indirectly held the reins of power through JGRN head – and DN chair – Daniel Ortega Saavedra. Ortega won the 1984 election and was inaugurated president in January 1985. The same election established a multiparty legislature – the National Assembly (Asamblea Nacional), that drafted a constitution that was promulgated in 1987 (Walker 2000, 73-74, 76).

Ortega's presidency was marred by a civil war against Contra (short for contrarevolucionario, or counterrevolutionary) forces organized and financed by the United States. Economic hardship and a military draft combined to lower the FSLN's popularity. Ortega lost the 1990 election to a coalition headed by Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, wife of the slain newspaper publisher, who had briefly served on the JGRN before resigning. Violeta governed as a centrist, anxious to heal the rifts in Nicaraguan society (Walker 2000, 76-77).

In 1996, Daniel Ortega made a third run for the presidency, this time against a true right-wing candidate. Arnoldo Alemán was the mayor of Managua, and leader of the Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC, Partido Liberal Constitucionalista). As mayor Alemán gained a following among the poor through projects financed with USAID funds that were unavailable to FSLN politicians. That, combined with the appeal of more conservative positions in rural areas, allowed him to win a clear victory, although Ortega's share of the vote rose slightly from 38.4% in 1990 to 39.5% in 1996 (Taft-Morales 3 August 2001). The Liberals won 42 seats in the National Assembly, to 36 for the FSLN, and 15 held by nine smaller parties (Walker 2000, 81). By early 2001, however, the number of Liberals had dwindled to 36, with the balance consisting of 35 Sandinistas, 8 independent Liberals, 5 Conservatives, and 9 deputies from minor parties (US DOS Feb. 2001).

As president, Alemán, like his Liberal predecessors the Somozas, acquired a reputation for corruption. The Comptroller of the Republic, Agustín Jarquín, produced a report showing how Alemán's net worth had increased nine-fold while he was mayor of Managua. He also investigated accusations that the presidential jet had been used to smuggle narcotics. Alemán struck back by jailing Jarquín on corruption charges that were later dropped (Walker 2000, 84).

In September 2001, Alemán was accused of corruption from an unlikely quarter. The accuser was Ricardo Mas Canosa, brother of the late Jorge Mas Canosa, founder and president of the Cuban American National Foundation. Ricardo Mas Canosa said that Alemán had diverted $2.5 million in campaign contributions for his personal use (Carrillo Barrios 11 and 14 September 2001).

President Alemán also made a much-criticized political deal (pacto) with Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega. Though neither the PLC nor FSLN held a majority of deputies in the National Assembly, their combined votes were enough to pass constitutional amendments. On 20 January 2001, they did just that, in an arrangement that consolidated the power of the two principal parties and their leaders. The percentage of the national vote required for a political party to keep its electoral registration and be able to field candidates was increased to 4 percent. That in effect limited the 2001 campaign to three parties (Liberals, Conservatives, and Sandinistas). Another amendment reduced the percentage of the vote required to win the presidential election in the first round of balloting from 45% to 35%, unless the second-place finisher was within 5 percentage points of the first-place finisher. That made it easier for the PLC and FSLN to fend off coalition challenges. The number of Supreme Court justices was increased from 12 to 16, and the PLC and FSLN stacked the court with equal numbers of their partisans. Finally, a provision was added that would provide the outgoing president and vice president with seats in the National Assembly, where parliamentary immunity would shield them from prosecution for wrongdoing while in office. That meant that President Alemán would be exempt from prosecution once he leaves office. Moreover, the sitting president could not have his immunity from prosecution waived without an affirmative vote of two-thirds of the National Assembly, a virtual impossibility (US DOS Feb. 2001).


Dissatisfaction with both major parties (PLC and FSLN) led members of the Conservative Party and other smaller parties to try to assemble a centrist coalition that could offer a viable third option for the 2001 election. Organizers approached former president Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, who opinion polls showed could beat both the PLC and FSLN. On 8 February 2001, Mrs. Chamorro issued a statement to the press saying she would head a coalition if the Conservative Party (the only other party with an electoral registration allowing it to field candidates against the PLC and FSLN) would select candidates from all of the allied groups. The Conservatives balked, and Mrs. Chamorro declined to run, saying that "if a party continues to act alone, or limits itself to its own little circle in a small and limited alliance, leaving other forces outside the circle, it cannot become the democratizing hope that we so badly need in this crucial moment" (Equipo Nitlapán-Envío March 2001).

The Conservatives instead nominated National Assembly deputy Noel Vidaurre as their presidential candidate, and former Sandinista ambassador to Washington Carlos Tünnerman as their vice presidential candidate. But orthodox Conservatives protested the nomination of Tünnerman and blocked the inclusion of other leftists as candidates for seats in the National Assembly. Unable to reach consensus on a slate of candidates that could unify the opposition to the PLC and FSLN, Vidaurre and Tünnerman resigned on July 17 (Combined wire services 17 July 2001).

That left only two presidential slates with any real chance of winning the election. One was the Liberal Constitutionalist slate headed by Enrique Bolaños, a business leader jailed by the Sandinistas who served as Alemán's vice president. The other was the FSLN slate headed by Daniel Ortega, who was making his fourth presidential bid.

In an effort to expand its appeal, the FSLN nominated Agustín Jarquín, the former Comptroller who had exposed corruption in the Alemán administration, for vice president. Jarquín had been jailed by the Sandinistas during the 1980s. He later supported the National Opposition Union (UNO, Unión Nacional Opositora), the coalition that defeated the Sandinistas in the 1990 elections. Jarquín is a member of the Social Christian Unity Party (USC, Unidad Social Cristiana) (EFE 31 March 2001).

The FSLN also organized a wider alliance – the National Convergence (CN, Convergencia Nacional) – encompassing some of the groups that had tried to form a third option. Prominent among the members of CN was Miriam Argüello, a member of the Conservative Party (PC, Partido Conservador). Argüello was imprisoned by the Sandinistas in 1985, then served as president of the National Assembly during the administration of Violeta Barrios de Chamorro (Morales 8-15 Oct. 2001). Also joining the CN was Stedman Fagoth, a Miskito from the Caribbean coast who had formerly been a Contra commander in the civil war against the Sandinistas during the 1980s (CONFIDENCIAL-2 7-13 October 2001).

Opinion polls showed the race to be in a statistical dead heat in the closing weeks, with Ortega and Bolaños close enough to be within each poll's margin of error (CONFIDENCIAL-1 7-13 October 2001).

The Liberal campaign capitalized on the mood following the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon to remind voters of the Sandinistas' difficult relations with the US. Bolaños said that Ortega was surrounded by "terrorists" in his campaign, including former interior minister Tomás Borge (FSLN candidate for a seat in the National Assembly) and retired general Alvaro Baltodano (FSLN campaign manager). Ortega responded by saying that the Sandinistas never attacked the US on its home turf, even when the CIA was coordinating attacks on Nicaragua (ACAN-EFE 15 Oct. 2001). The Sandinistas also drew attention to corruption under Alemán, and hoped the large numbers of younger voters would tip the balance in their favor (CONFIDENCIAL 7-13 Oct. 2001).

Yet an opinion poll conducted by the Institute for Opinion Polling (IDESO, Instituto de Encuestas y Sondeos de Opinión) at Managua's Jesuit-run University of Central America (UCA, Universidad Centroamericana) suggested that most Nicaraguans are not very disturbed by corruption. Less than 7 percent saw corruption as the country's major problem, as against 47 percent who identified unemployment and 27 percent who identified poverty as the number one problem. Moreover, fully 57 percent approved of the president and legislators paying off those who helped them win their posts with political favors. An even larger number – 73 percent – said they favored an "authoritarian president," though not a dictatorial one. The results reflect a society in which the concept of the rule of law is not well established, and where personal relationships (as with individual politicians) predominate over institutional relationships (as with political parties, laws, and concepts of ethical conduct) (7 DIAS 15-22 Oct. 2001).

Consistent with such an analysis, both major parties (PLC and FSLN) submitted lists of candidates for National Assembly seats who were known to be loyal to the two party bosses – Alemán and Ortega. Alemán, who announced his intention to become president of the National Assembly and to seek reelection to the presidency in 2006, did not even consult Bolaños in making the selections. Similarly, the Danielistas in the FSLN have excluded independent Sandinistas and members of allied parties from the National assembly candidate lists (Equipo Nitlapán- Envío July 2001, August 2001).


1. Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC, Partido Liberal Constitucionalista): A populist right-wing party. It was formed from the fusion of several smaller Liberal parties. Its leader is President Arnoldo Alemán. Its candidate in the coming presidential election is Enrique Bolaños, a business leader who served as Alemán's vice president. The vice presidential candidate is José Rizo. The party color is red.

2. Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN, Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional): A populist left-wing party, born of the guerrilla movement that toppled the dictatorship of Anastazio Somoza Debayle in 1979. Its leader is Daniel Ortega Saavedra, who headed the Council of National Reconstruction (Junta de Reconstrucción Nacional), then was elected president of Nicaragua from 1984-1990. But the FSLN is in many ways changed from what it was in the 1980s. Many of its top and middle-level echelons have left the party in protest against autocratic tendencies and the caudillo status of Ortega. Examples include former vice president Sergio Ramírez Mercado (during the Ortega presidency 1985-1990), former education minister (and priest) Ernesto Cardenal, and poet Giaconda Belli, who jointly signed a statement saying they could not vote for either candidate in the 2001 presidential election (Cardenal 7-13 Oct. 2001). Another example is Carlos Chamorro, son of Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, who edited the party newspaper Barricada for 14 years before being fired by the party leadership for being too independent (Darling 22 July 2000). The party colors are red and black.

3. Conservative Party (PC, Partido Conservador): A centrist party. It was originally intending to mount a serious challenge to the PLC and FSLN, inspired by opinion polls that have indicated substantial disaffection with both major parties. But presidential candidate Noel Vidaurre quit the race in July after failing to form a coalition with several other smaller parties. Vidaurre was replaced by Alberto Sabarío, who garnered less than 5% support in opinion polls as election day approached (CONFIDENCIAL-3 7-13 Oct. 2001). The vice presidential candidate was María Consuelo Sequeira González (Briones Loáisiga 31 July 2001). Sabarío acknowledged that he had no realistic expectations of winning the election, and that he was running to preserve the PC's electoral registration in order to be able to make a serious run for the presidency in 2006 (Briones Loáisiga 27 July 2001). The party color is green.

4. Social Christian Unity (USC, Unidad Social Cristiana): A centrist, Christian democratic party. It lost its electoral registry, and with it its ability to run candidates in elections. For the 2001 elections, it entered into an alliance (National Convergence, Convergencia Nacional) with the FSLN. Party leaders include Erick Ramírez, Adán Fletes, Azucena Ferrey, and former National Assembly president Luis Humberto Guzmán.

5. Sandinista Renewal Movement (MRS, Movimiento Renovador Sandinista): A small party composed of former Sandinistas who left the FSLN after failed attempts to reform it from within. Its president is Dora María Tellez, a former Sandinista comandante guerrillera (guerrilla commander) who led the 1978 takeover of Somoza's National Palace (Palacio Nacional). Another prominent member is Sergio Ramírez Mercado, vice president of Nicaragua during the presidency of Daniel Ortega Saavedra. The MRS joined with the FSLN in the National Convergence for the 2001 elections, though Sergio Ramírez dissented.

6. Party of the Nicaraguan Resistance (PRN, Partido de la Resistencia Nicaragüense): A party made up of former Contra combatants. It has not met the new more restrictive standards for recognition as a registered party eligible to take part in elections.

7. Movement of National Unity (MUN, Movimiento de Unidad Nacional): This is another splinter group, led by retired General of the Army Joaquín Cuadra, another former Sandinista who headed the Nicaraguan Armed Forces during the administration of President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro. Gen. Cuadra played a lead role in the effort to draft Mrs. Chamorro to run for president on the Conservative Party line (Equipo Nitlapán-Envío March 2001).

8. Movement for National Dignity (Movimiento por la Dignidad Nacional): A splinter group headed by the Rev. Miguel Angel Casco. Casco is a former member of the National Directorate of the FSLN, and an FSLN deputy to the National Assembly. Following his break with the FSLN, he endorsed Liberal Party candidate Enrique Bolaños in the 2001 presidential election, in return for a promise to head an office of religious affairs in a Bolaños administration (Morales 15-22 Oct. 2001).

9. Conservative Alliance (ALCON, Alianza Conservadora): A splinter group headed by former Nicaraguan Resistance (Contra) leader Adolfo Calero Portocarrero. The party entered into an alliance with the PLC for the 2001 elections (7 DIAS 22-29 Oct. 2001).

This response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the RIC within time constraints. This response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim to refugee status or asylum.


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7 DIAS. "Nunca me tomé foto con Bin Laden," No. 317 (22-29 October 2001). URL: [Accessed 24 October 2001].

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Walker, Thomas W., Ed. "Nicaragua: Transition through Revolution," REPRESSION, RESISTANCE, AND DEMOCRATIC TRANSITION IN CENTRAL AMERICA (Scholarly Resources, 2000), pp. 67-88.

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