Nicaragua's ex-vice president in a tight race with old foe Ortega
BY FRANCES ROBLES
MANAGUA -- Billboards around the country depict an elderly man with a gentle face, sweet smile and twinkling eyes declaring, ``Yes, we can.''
It's Enrique Bolaños, the 73-year-old former vice president, hoping to convince Nicaraguans to give him a shot at the country's top job. But as election day nears, people here wonder: Can he win?
Or will Bolaños' close association with what is widely considered a corrupt and failed presidency doom him, and leave the country instead in the hands of the Sandinista Front's Daniel Ortega?
Just before Sunday's election, polls show Bolaños neck and neck with the former revolutionary guerrilla who jailed him, seized millions of dollars in properties from him -- and now just may beat him to the presidency.
Most observers believe the principal reason Bolaños isn't faring better among voters is his close identification with President Arnoldo Alemán.
``He has to carry Alemán, and it's a heavy load,'' said political scientist Arturo Cruz. ``It costs him.''
Alemánwas elected president in 1996 after serving six years as Managua's mayor. Bolaños, the former head of the elite chamber of commerce, was his vice president until resigning a year ago to run for office.
During their term, the nation enjoyed paved new roads, malls and
an average 5 percent economic growth. But it also watched the collapse
of one of its chief exports,
coffee, as well as a number of banks.
As a result, a country already confronting desperate poverty and
widespread unemployment now has thousands of unemployed farmhands begging
for handouts and
``I don't want anything to do with Bolaños, we gave him a chance already with Alemán,'' said Teresa López, who peddles cold water on a street near Managua's federal government offices, where protesting peasants had gathered earlier. ``They promised, promised, promised, and didn't do anything. They gave us hunger, misery and unemployment.
``Bolaños?'' she said. ``He's the same as electing Alemán.''
In addition to the failing economy, Alemán is also criticized for surrounding himself with corrupt bureaucrats and for making deals with the opposing Sandinistas.
Last year, Alemán's tax collector was accused of mishandling hundreds of thousands of dollars. Newspapers had a field day when they discovered Alemán had built a helicopter pad at his house with government funds.
Bolaños tries to distance himself from the scandals.
``If they talk about corruption, Enrique Bolaños is not touched by that,'' he said in an interview with The Herald. ``My life has been honest, austere and transparent. There has not been one remote accusation on anything I have managed, including the vice presidency.''
But despite being viewed as honest, Bolaños has been dogged
this campaign season with the perception that he did not do enough to rid
Alemán's administration of
trouble. Once in office, critics fear he'd be Alemán's puppet.
Last week, Bolaños stepped up his anti-corruption rhetoric by declaring that even Alemán would be investigated if Bolaños wins his way into the presidential palace. But experts point out there will be little Bolaños can do to the Liberal Party strongman who picked this election season's slate of congressional candidates.
``There's no way to handle this well,'' Cruz said. ``On the one side he needs to separate himself, but without breaking ties from Alemán -- because he's the one in control of the party.''
A recent poll by CID-Gallup showed Bolaños inching past Ortega for the first time. Statistically, it's a tie: Bolaños has 38 percent of the vote, Ortega 37.
But what has astounded people here is that Bolaños has not been able to capture more support in a country where about 60 percent of potential voters say they would never elect a Sandinista to run the country. The Sandinistas were in power here from 1979 to 1990, and Nicaraguans still suffer from the spiraling inflation and war their reign brought.
``Bolaños has not excited the electorate,'' said Frederick Denton, a senior analyst with CID-Gallup. ``That's partially because of his age, but also because of his direct relationship with the current president, who is not very well viewed in job approval ratings or as a person.''
Bolaños says he believes the president does not get enough
credit for his accomplishments, and that his biggest failure was having
a combative relationship with the
``We had good development and improvement in infrastructure, electricity, energy, schools and health centers,'' Bolaños said. ``We were not good at communicating with the media. This created an adverse, hostile atmosphere that gave President Alemán a bad image. We did good work, and we have to deal with that image that is hurting his persona.''
Even still, Bolaños remembers to step back.
``In balance,'' he said, ``he is him and I am me. My campaign is my campaign.''
Bolaños vows to bring back foreign investment and create more jobs. Alemán promises to help him.
In a recent meeting with foreign correspondents, Alemán
said he has unfairly taken the blame for a series of events beyond his
control. And corruption, he said, isn't
unique to Nicaragua.
``Despite droughts, hurricanes, and disasters, we've been able to have a responsible economy,'' Alemán said, noting that his administration opens three new schools a day.