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Women’s issues on the campaign trail.
Latin America Data Base
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Abortion explodes onto country’s campaign scene, revealing some surprising alliances.

Before suffering a severe blow to its electoral prospects in Nicaragua’s upcoming November elections with the death of its candidate, Herty Lewites, the Sandinista Renovation Movement (SRM) had attracted the support of a women’s organization that could change the terms of engagement as the campaigns move forward.

In June, the party reached an accord with the Autonomous Women’s Movement of Nicaragua, a political movement, known by the Spanish acronym MAM, on a series of policies to benefit to women. For both parties, it meant the only peaceful means to overcome a controversial political pact by two rival parties. Candidate of the National Sandinista Liberation Front, ex-President Daniel Ortega (1979-1990), formed a pact in 1999 with ex-President Arnoldo Alemán (1996-2002) of the Constitutional Liberal Party (PLC) — accused of corruption during his term — to allow the two parties to dominate Nicaragua’s political scene.

The MAM has demanded far-reaching institutional changes to democratize the state, greater equality in the distribution of power and a Freedom of Information Act; a secular state, with effective separation between church and state, including secular public education and the prohibition of state funding of religious activities. The group and SRM also resolved to promote government policies that guarantee gender equality, including the creation of a government ombudsman to safeguard women’s rights.

A different kind of pact

A social justice agreement was reached and the SRM committed itself to put forth a national development policy with true citizen participation, a fair distribution of the national budget and a renegotiation of domestic debt in order to free capital that will finance social development policies, and a revamped environmental policy that prioritizes access to water as a key resource for human development. Development policies will also take population issues into consideration, the SRM and the MAM agreed.

Sofia Montenegro MAM’s political coordinator told reporters that the movement decided to support the SRM because there was no other viable alternative.

She said they will retain their political autonomy with their ability to ally themselves and to join political organizations that offer the best guarantee to promote their rights. "An alliance is an alliance, not a fusion," she said. "We are not becoming SRM members. It’s a recognition that we are both looking for the same thing, which is to break a pact." Montenegro discounts other similar moves to break the FSLN-PLC pact, such as that of the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance, whose presidential candidate, Eduardo Montealegre, is Ortega’s chief rival.

"The Liberal Alliance has very strong links with sectors of the Catholic Church, and this absolutely goes against the rights of women," Montenegro said.

Dora María Tellez, a deputy candidate to Nicaragua’s National Assembly and a founder of the breakaway SRM, and is now a candidate for the legislature., says that not only is the idea of high-ranking leftist women in the SRM attractive to the MAM, but the party’s platform is as well.

"This is the only political force that includes the subject of intrafamilial and social violence as a matter of maximum importance, as well as everything relating to backing economic and social initiatives for women," she said.

The SRM’s promise to include gender equity programs on its platform (MAM proposals) had already put the party in the eye of the storm.

When Lewites’ running mate Edmundo Jarquín inherited the top spot, he had to define himself if he was to keep the support the party’s support and maintain momentum. But the disruption also created an opportunity for attack, and the Church wasted little time in going after the candidate on the issue of secularism and the infinitely more sensitive question of abortion.

In a move some supporters called unnecessary and imprudent, Jarquín told reporters, "I support therapeutic abortion … when the life of the mother is at risk," underlining that abortion under these circumstances is legal under the current penal code, which is up for debate in the National Assembly.

The Church responded with a call for a march on the National Assembly scheduled for Oct. 6 to demand that therapeutic abortion be criminalized in the penal code. Abortion other than therapeutic is punishable by imprisonment from one to three years.

Legislators have agreed to take the matter up after they conclude discussions on other sections of the code, or after the elections. Secretary of the Nicaragua Episcopal Conference Socrates Rene Santiago took dead aim at Jarquín, saying, "This person cannot be elected to the presidency because then you will have in the presidency an abortionist, a murderer."

Jarquín excused the prelate’s inopportune statement but said he expected an apology.

Abortion is by far the hottest issue in the Church, but it is deeply concerned with another of the MAM-SRM themes: the separation of church and state. "My government is going to be absolutely compliant with the constitutional requirement … that there must be a clear separation between issues of the state and of the Church."

Catholic Church steps in

Nicaragua has the gamut of religious institutions, but the Catholic Church is the major power player. After a surprising rapprochement between former Managua Archbishop Miguel Obando and Ortega, the church exercised its power with the FSLN-PLC pact.

In full recognition of this important relationship, the FSLN quickly joined the church in opposing abortion. This was a reversal of traditional Sandinista policy made all the more stunning because Ortega, now in first place in the polls, has an enormous lead over fourth-place Jarquín. "We are emphatic: no to abortion, yes to life. Yes to religious beliefs," said a press release from Rosario Murillo, Ortega’s campaign manager and wife.

If it stunned the general public, the policy reversal absolutely blew the FSLN congressional delegation away, because it is supporting therapeutic abortion despite the campaign to criminalize it.

MAM’s director and MRS deputy candidate Violeta Delgado was swift to respond, calling the move "a hypocritical electoral declaration of the FSLN like its reconciliation with Cardinal Obando."

Meanwhile, ex-guerilla Edén Pastora, candidate for the Alternative for Change party opted to stay neutral. "This is a tricky subject. We shouldn’t meddle because it’s a case of individuals, before God, science and his or her family," said Pastora.

PLC and Liberal Alliance candidates have all proclaimed themselves "pro life."

In a statement MAM said that "it is once again reaffirmed that the only option women in particular, and voters in general, have is the one that offers respect for their most elementary rights, as is the right to one’s own life."

"That’s why in defense of our rights and our lives, we call on responsible and progressive men and women … to say ‘no’ to opportunist parties and candidates."

Latinamerica Press / Noticias Aliadas
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