Following the defeat of the fsln in the Nicaraguan elections of February 1990, the state of that country’s politics remains unclear and unpredictable. Although there can be no doubt that Violeta Chamorro’s victory represents a major setback not only for the Sandinistas but also for the Latin American Left as a whole, it would be wrong to depict it as a categorical defeat of the Nicaraguan revolution. The revolution may indeed be over in many senses, but the fsln’s loss of governmental office has to be weighed against the fact that this was incurred through a fair poll freely convoked by the Sandinistas, whose vote massively outstripped that of any other single party. Equally, the fsln remained undefeated on the military front, and in the immediate after-math of Chamorro’s inauguration it was able to secure the effective integrity of the armed forces that had defended the revolutionary state for over a decade. These two factors alone possess a historical singularity, and underline the need for caution in assessing a situation that is as fluid and confusing in its detail as it is difficult to place in comparative context. Nonetheless, it is possible to make some broad observations as a first step beyond the tributes and expressions of resolution that immediately followed the election.

The poll of 25 February 1990 produced one simple, indisputable result: the opposition uno alliance led by Voileta Chamorro won 55 per cent of the ballot against 41 per cent for the fsln. Although the Sandinistas’ share of the vote came close to that which had provided a ‘landslide victory’ for the British Conservatives, it was far lower than anticipated by most participants and observers, increasing the sense in which the election had not just produced a change in government but delivered a historic political defeat. The reaction abroad (considered below) sharpened this image, and it may well prove to be the case that the election has greater consequence beyond Nicaragua’s frontiers than within them. In all events, the predictable projection of the matter as absolutely decisive is in need of quite substantial qualification. This is especially so since it forms part of a global political scenario in which what is seen to be is as contagious as what is. Moreover, not all of those affected are court appointees of whose findings it is sufficient to ask ‘cui bono?’. In such a mood it is, more than usual, necessary to insist upon respect for matters small as well as great, and to challenge those who would see this as nothing more than a stratagem to alleviate distress. A little scrutiny of the case of Nicaragua produces a very mixed picture, but it is assuredly not one that damns the Left to extracting virtues from necessities.

To ask why the result of the election was such a surprise is to pose a question that extends well beyond the immediate circumstances of the poll, although these were undoubtedly important. The key factor here is less the fact that the fsln was confronted by truly formidable forces—this was widely recognized prior to the election and lay at the heart of subsequent explanations of its results by Sandinista supporters—than the overestimation of the Party’s capacity to resist these forces. Whilst such an attitude on the part of sympathizers may be understood in good measure by the depth of their commitment, it would seem that the fsln leaders themselves shared this belief well beyond the allowable limits of political conviction. After all, they studiously eschewed a short-term reflation of the economy prior to the campaign—a decision that would seem to reflect their confidence far more accurately than the necessary presumption of success once they got on the stump.

In November 1984, the fsln had gained a very comfortable victory with 66 per cent of the vote in a poll that Washington chose first to denigrate and then to ignore, but which was widely judged to be fair in itself and a reasonably accurate reflection of popular sympathy. Although this success was assisted by the last-minute withdrawal of the leading opposition candidate, Arturo Cruz, its root cause lay in the extensive sympathy and authority enjoyed by the Frente because of its leadership in the overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship, the barbarism of which was keenly remembered. The fsln justifiably received electoral ratification of its revolutionary valour and promise, not-withstanding a rapidly sharpening economic recession, two years of escalating counter-revolutionary activity, and the invasion of Grenada—the latter seeming to presage a major us offensive to follow the widely anticipated re-election of Ronald Reagan a few days after the Nicaraguan poll.

Conditions in 1984, then, were decidedly tough, but those in 199o were incomparably worse. In May 1985 the usa had imposed an economic boycott, and this, combined with a world recession and discrete but important government mismanagement, had plunged the country into a catastrophic state of hyperinflation, shortages, indebtedness and general disorganization. Confronted with a situation that threatened the survival of the revolution, the fsln first halted most of the social programmes that had been implemented in the early years of the revolution and lay behind much of the support won in 1984. Then, in February 1988, it introduced an economic stabilization plan that was very close in nature to those prescribed by the imf. Over the next eighteen months inflation was indeed reduced significantly but at an extraordinarily high cost. In 1988 gdp fell by nearly 10 per cent, and government revenue by 60 per cent. Subsidies were scythed back as average wages fell to the levels of the 1950s. At least 50,000 public employees lost their jobs. At the same time, counter-revolutionary violence had caused direct damage estimated at $1 billion whilst its indirect economic cost was assessed at $3 billion. Aside from this, of course, it had led to the loss of some 30,000 lives and the introduction of military conscription, causing palpable discontent amongst that rising portion of the populace that respected the Sandinistas but did not owe them strong allegiance. Furthermore, although the fsln had from early 1986 bowed to peasant pressure and accelerated the distribution of lands to individual small farmers, the passage of time alone had dimmed much of the revolution’s original lustre and shifted popular hopes from change to consolidation.

Despite this profoundly adverse scenario, there was broad expectation that the fsln should readily gain at least 50 per cent of the vote. When this did not occur, the Sandinistas’ shortfall was persuasively explained in terms of a ‘tactical vote’ by a significant sector of the electorate which perceived uno as having a better chance of fulfilling the fsln campaign slogan of ‘Everything Will Be Better’ than did the Sandinistas themselves. This perception owed much—if not everything—to the fact that uno was backed by the usa, and only the usa was able to lift the economic embargo, end the war and provide aid. In short, the difference between the real and the expected Sandinista result was the product of an instrumentalist vote that reflected over-bearing need before innate sympathy. Understood in such terms, it could be described as ‘tactical’ and far more the result of North American aggression than of the merits of uno’s campaign or of the fsln’s shortcomings.

Few would dispute the strength of this analysis, but it still leaves open a number of questions, not least that of surprise at the scale of the uno vote. Here, there are several factors of varying importance that deserve more attention than they have understandably received in the immediate wake of the election. First, and least consequential, was the influence of the opinion polls, which were, with rare and barely honourable exceptions, spectacularly inaccurate (as has been the case in almost every recent Latin American election except that in Chile). The fact that almost all the polls showed a significant Sandinista majority provided fsln supporters with a plausible argument that a good part of an inexperienced electorate only took a disagreeable decision at the last possible moment. Equally, of course, one must allow for sheer technical ineptitude by pollsters, at sea in a country bereft of electoral tradition and psephological skills. Furthermore, it would be foolish to discount completely opposition assertions that the conditions of the campaign made it more difficult to express support for uno than for the official party.