Why Nicaragua's Capital Is in Flames

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Esteban Felix / AP

Riot police patrol a street in Managua. Clashes between supporters of Nicaragua's ruling Sandinist National Liberation Front, FSLN, and of the opposite Liberal Constitutionalist Party, exploded after the FSLN claimed victory Monday in Sunday's nationwide municipal elections.

The last time rival political forces fought one another street by street for control of the Nicaraguan capital was three decades ago, in July 1979, at the culmination of the Sandinista insurrection that overthrew the Somoza dictatorship. This week, the streets of Managua were once again aflame amid the boom of mortar rounds, as the Sandinistas and their rivals battled for control — but it was the erstwhile revolutionary movement that now stands accused of being a dictatorship.

The prize, this time, is not control of the Nicaraguan state, but simply the mayorships in 146 municipalities, which were up for election on November 9. But allegations of massive vote fraud and conflicting claims of victory have set off several days of violence between rival political bands, leaving Nicaragua's fledgling institutional democracy struggling for its life. The Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) has announced a partial recount of votes from last Sunday's mayoral polls, in which it has yet to declare winners in several hotly contested cities, including the capital. But the mobs of activists of the ruling Sandinista party and the opposition Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC) aren't waiting idly to hear the outcome.

Downtown banks and businesses have been forced to close early for several days and both the British and U.S. Embassies have warned their citizens to remain vigilant and avoid any large crowds as political gangs clash on the streets, destroying public and private property and turning parts of the capital into a virtual war zone.

The violence broke out after opposition leaders accused the Sandinistas of turning the election into a fraudulent sham in order to take control of the country's most important cities, including Managua. The poll, in which the government refused to allow monitoring by any credible outside electoral observers, was riddled with alleged irregularities that began months before election day when several opposition parties were banned from participating, and continued after the vote, with stacks of ballots found mysteriously dumped in the woods.

"This is a key moment for Nicaragua's democracy and the health of the country's economy," said César Zamora, president of the Nicaraguan-American Chamber of Commerce (AMCHAM).

The U.S. State Department this week noted reports of "widespread irregularities taking place at voting stations throughout the country," and said the Supreme Electoral Council's decision to "not accredit credible domestic and international election observers has made it difficult to properly assess the conduct of the elections."

Business groups, church leaders and opposition parties have called for an internationally audited nationwide recount, and the PLC has threatened to paralyze the national legislature by walking out and denying it a quorum.

The day after the vote, despite trailing by five percentage points in the official count to Sandinista candidate and former boxing champ Alexis Arguello, the PLC's Managua mayoral hopeful Eduardo Montealegre declared himself the winner based on his party's own tabulation of the vote tallies released to the parties at each balloting station. Montealegre, a former finance minister who has adopted the cartoon image of Mighty Mouse after opponents dubbed him "the rat," called on his supporters to take to the streets to "celebrate" the victory and "defend the vote at whatever consequence."

Chaos quickly followed Montealegre's call to action as his supporters clashed with Sandinista activists who have warned that they are unwilling to "cede an inch" of street territory. "If the CSE doesn't resolve this, we will," said "Zeledon," a Sandinista youth organizer flanked by masked teens brandishing an array of homemade weapons and rocks. In between barking orders into a field radio, Zeledon added, "We are willing to give our lives for the triumph, for the nation, and to defend the revolution to the end."

The warring political mobs spent much of Monday fighting block by block through poor neighborhoods, armed with clubs, machetes, rocks and guns. Terrorized residents locked in their homes frantically called Nicaraguan TV stations, some crying in fear.

At least two young people have been killed and unknown dozens more injured, including a Sandinista radio journalist who was pulled from his car by unknown assailants who burned his vehicle and threatened to cut out his tongue for "talking shit," before stabbing him and leaving him bleeding on the street.

The National Police, who have maintained a loose perimeter around the violence, have mostly refrained from getting involved, allegedly at the request of Sandinista President Ortega, who has remained out of sight and silent during four days of turmoil.

Veteran Nicaraguan political analyst and philosopher Alejandro Serrano says the street violence is a symptom, not of some anti-democratic sentiment in Nicaragua, but rather of a profound frustration with "incompetent government institutions" that are hampering the country's evolution toward democracy. "The problem is not the conflict, but the institutional incapacity to resolve it," the analyst said.

Montealegre, meanwhile, is asking for the U.S. and other foreign governments to help Nicaragua save its democracy. He met Wednesday afternoon with U.S. Ambassador Robert Callahan, who said that Washington is "very worried" about the situation here.

"Countries that have accompanied Nicaragua in the long struggle for democracy are worried just as we are," Montealgre told TIME after the meeting. "The fundamental base of a democracy is the public will of the people expressed through the ballot box. The moment that this is cut, it means the path to dictatorship."

But as gangs of masked Sandinistas assert their claim of victory by roaming the streets with machetes and destroying Montealegre's campaign propaganda, it's not clear that Nicaragua's self-styled Mighty Mouse can save the day in the face of a rapidly approaching train wreck.

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