Firecrackers sizzled in the humid, sun-drenched air as supporters of conservative businessman Enrique Bolaños drove victory laps on Managua's streets. In elections that drove record numbers of voters to the polls Sunday, Nicaraguans voted to put the past behind them. In the end, candidate Daniel Ortega - who led the Sandinista revolution to victory in 1979 and ruled a Soviet-backed regime for a decade - was soundly defeated.
Victory was sweet for many Nicaraguans, some of whom stood in line for seven hours to cast their votes. But far more interesting than the winners in this electoral race, some say, are the losers. It Some say it may be the end of an era for the nation's two political strongmen, or caudillos. Outgoing President Arnoldo Alemán, and Mr. Ortega made a pact between their parties, the Liberal Constitutional Party and the Sandinista National Liberation Front, that reformed the Constitution, making it extremely difficult for third parties to gain a foothold. And key posts were divided up along partisan lines. Those laws are expected to be among the first to change.
"The win has had an effect on two caudillos specifically - Alemán and Ortega - but it also will have an effect on caudillo politics in general," says Alejandro Serrano, a politics professor at various Nicaraguan universities. "The results reflect voters' desire to look for new electoral options and will bring about a more democratic opening in both parties."
Bolaños served a partial term as vice president to Alemán, before resigning to run for president himself. But, throughout his campaign, Bolaños tried to separate himself from Alemán, whose administration has been widely criticized for corruption. After learning the results of the race, he repeated a campaign promise to go after corruption. Some believe Alemán will be first on his list.
"Enrique Bolaños is really a political outsider in the Liberal Party, and he has surrounded himself with well-respected newcomers without history in politics," says Mignone Vega, of the Managua think tank Fundemos. "There are a lot of people in the Liberal Party who are against how Alemán has managed the party. With Bolaños in office, he is going to have problems holding on to the leadership of the party."
Alemán was unable to run because of constitutional provisions prohibiting consecutive reelections. But legally, he and Ortega are entitled to seats in the National Assembly, whose representatives were also elected Sunday. From the congress, and with the support of hard-line party members, the pair could wield considerable power within their own parties.
Nonetheless, many analysts say the sun may be setting on two long and controversial careers. Ortega's history is profoundly marked by years of war in the 1980s between the Sandinistas and US-backed contra rebels, and an economic blockade. What the Nicaraguans wanted, many say, was change. "In the Ortega years, we had military service and that hated system of weekly rations, where we had to stand in line for hours for a half a bar of soap," said Isabel Ríos, as she stood in line to vote.
Some Sandinistas, like Rev. Miguel D'Escoto, foreign relations minister in Ortega's former administration, blame Ortega's loss on US interference in the elections. During the campaign, the US government sounded alarms over a possible Sandinista win. US ambassador Oliver Garza made a widely criticized appearance at a Bolaños campaign event. In the end, Ortega received 44.7 percent of votes, compared with Alemán's 53.7 percent.
Regardless, Ortega's third strike at the ballot boxes, in what appeared to be his best shot at a comeback, is expected to call into question what has, until now, been his unquestionable control of the Sandinista party. "Ortega is now out of the running as a leader of the Sandinista party, and there is going to be internal division in the party," says Manuel Orozco of the Washington think tank, the Inter-American Dialogue.
Serrano says: "The movement for new leadership in both parties is not only important for those parties but for the country on the whole... The political future of the country requires modern parties and new leaders."