In 1990, thanks to pressure from the international community, Nicaragua’s Sandinista regime lost an election to moderate democratic parties. As we approach peace talks between President Assad and the Syrian opposition at the end ofthis month, could we engineer this outcome in Syria? It may be a long shot but there is virtually no other path to a moderate solution for Syria.
The outcome in Nicaragua was the final act of a decade-long morality play of secret wars and scandals. President Reagan tried to topple the left-wing Sandinistas who were in power in Nicaragua, by sponsoring an armed insurgency, the Contras, who relied mainly on not-so-covert US support. After eight years of war, they were troublesome to the Nicaraguan regime by not life threatening. With the Iran-Contra scandal, Congressional challenges and fading public support for the covert assistance, Reagan had to consider alternatives. Regional leaders threw him a lifeline in 1989, when they cut a deal with the Sandinistas to hold elections in return for the neighbors‘ closing down the bases from which the Contras operated. George H.W. Bush and James Baker, when they came into office, doubled down on the election strategy and teamed up with NGOs and regional organizations to promise a secret ballot. To the surprise of many, a moderate democratic candidate beat out the Sandinista President, Daniel Ortega, in a free election.
The rest is history, as they say, including the irony that Ortega –twenty years after we tried to overthrow him by covert warfare and fifteen after we got rid of him by elections– is now back in power, by winning elections in 2006 and 2011. Perhaps we should have learned to be true to our convictions from the beginning and put our trust in voters not insurgents.
So what does this mean for Syria? In Syria, the regime has pledged elections for 2014, but everyone expects the type of controlled theater that they have conducted before. The countries of the region are frustrated with the lack of progress of the armed opposition, and many are concerned that only Al Qaida and other radical groups are able to continue the fight. Syrian radicals are declaring war on Syrian moderates.
An election might be one way to challenge the regime on more moderate terms. Certainly, the obstacles are many. In Nicaragua, there were organized moderate politicians; none exist under the ruthless Assad regime. The democratic traditions of the region were stronger in Central America, although recently the Arab spring has established clearly in the Middle East the right of citizens to choose their government. In Syria, the hand of the state is deep, cruel and pervasive, many people might be coerced into voting for the regime.
A well-supervised election, under tight UN control, could have a chance. The desire to vote against the regime is strong in Syria and moderate opposition might have more momentum at the ballot box than they’ve had on the battlefield, and the radical Islamists less. Regional players will encourage voting for moderate parties and Assad might overestimate his chances. The tides of change run strong in the region and voters, like voters everywhere, could surprise both us and Assad, as they did Ortega.
Continued warfare in Syria will either lead to repression by the dictatorship or the chaos of Islamic victory. As the talks convene it might be worth –as it was in Nicaragua– to put our money where our mouth is by taking a chance on democratic elections.