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  Number 231 | Octubre 2000
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Nicaragua

A Serpent’s Egg: The New Electoral Law

The reformed electoral law reinforces the two-party system, which in turn strengthens the market-based electoral model that prospered under the Cold War but is now obsolete. Meanwhile, the PLC and the FSLN hawk their electoral wares despite the fact that they no longer represent the interests of the country’s different social or regional sectors.

José Luis Rocha

Nicaragua’s last two election years, 1990 and 1996, were both accompanied by new electoral legislation, and 2000 has followed in their footsteps. The January 2000 reforms, which will govern November’s municipal elections, establish much more restrictive criteria for the creation of new political parties, stricter conditions for their subsequent survival and new requirements for registering candidates—if they get that far. In clearly anti-democratic fashion, one reform even lopped off the option of running for municipal government as an independent candidate via a signature petition campaign.

Under the 1995 law, a new party seeking accreditation only needed to form a 9-member national board, a 7-member board in each of the county’s 17 departments and autonomous regions and a 5-member board in at least half of its 147 municipalities. In other words, it was possible to form a party with less than 500 members. This led to the extreme that several parties in the 1998 Atlantic Coast elections received fewer votes than the number of poll monitors accredited to them, who had typically agreed to carry out this task based not on sympathy with the party but on the meager pay it offered them.

The PLC and FSLN leaders resented various "adverse" aspects of that electoral law. One was a complicated provision by which a party’s "residual" votes—those short of the quotient needed to win a National Assembly seat—in each department were added up in a second round of counting on a national level. Sometimes they totaled enough to win it a seat. This system meant that every vote counted but, particularly if the split between the major parties in the National Assembly was tight, one or two tiny parties could broker their single representative’s vote to cut significant deals and make it very hard for these parties to maintain stable majority alliances.

Another irritant—this one dating back to the original 1983 law—was that all recognized political parties, independent of size, were entitled to state campaign financing. This feature quickly became one of the more attractive but less lofty reasons for forming a party, such that by the 1996 elections Nicaragua had a couple of dozen presidential candidates on the final ballot, several of them sponsored by alliances of numerous parties.

The electoral reforms that have curbed all this were born of the pact between the FSLN and the PLC and were among the more important reasons for entering into it. But if the public justification for the reforms is that they would reverse the extraordinary concessions to all these micro-parties and by extension cut down on state costs, their surely intended effect is to condemn any party that is not a full-fledged adult at birth to euthanasia.

Exclusionary measures

What specifically are all these new restrictions? One is that all new parties must form a 5-member board not just in half but in all of the now-152 municipalities (the requirements for national and departmental boards remain the same). Another is that they must also present a duly notarized petition bearing the signatures of 3% of all voters registered for the previous national election. This meant that to participate in the upcoming municipal elections, each party aspiring to get accredited had to turn in 72,633 signatures by July 15. The CSE further complicated things by deciding (ex-post facto, of course) that citizens could only sign one party’s petition, thus contradicting their right to split their election day vote among various parties on the different ballots. (In the 1996 national elections, there were six separate ballots: for President and Vice-president of the Republic, municipal mayor, municipal councilors, departmental representatives to the National Assembly, at-large National Assembly representatives and Central American Parliament representatives). Both new and existing parties were required to register candidates in at least 80% of the municipalities.

More moderate restrictions would have sufficed just as well to cut down the proliferation of micro-parties while leaving the door open to those with respectable representation. The very toughness of the reforms demonstrates the exclusionary intent to reduce the number of electoral contenders to a bare minimum. In a study of these reforms contracted by Swedish cooperation, independent electoral expert Horacio Boneo concluded that they were excessive, particularly compared to other countries. In Finland, for example, new parties must only gather a number of signatures equivalent to 0.57% of the total valid votes cast during the previous elections, while in Germany the requirement is just 0.1%. In Latin America, only Peru has a stricter legal requirement than Nicaragua, while most countries demand between 1% and 2%.

Of the 27 participants in 1996,
only 4 are still around in 2000

If it is now nearly impossible for a new party to get legal status, the reforms made it almost as much of a feat for existing parties to hang onto the status they already had. This so obviously reinforces the two-party structure emerging from the 1996 elections that the 27 parties and alliances that made those ballots look like table runners have been whittled down to just 4 participants in 2000: the FSLN, PLC, Christian Way (Camino Cristiano) and Conservatives.

Only the FSLN and the Christian Way automatically won the right to participate in the coming elections by dint of having attracted over 3% of the votes cast in the 1996 elections. All others had to get the same percentage of signatures as a new party (or an exact multiple of that percentage per party if it opted to form a multi-party alliance). The PLC and the Conservative Party both fell into the latter category, even though they had exceeded 3% in the previous elections, because both ran as part of alliances and the votes they pulled did not accrue to any specific members.
Requiring such a large number of signatures creates a form of "class exclusion," as success tends to rely on the economic ability of a party’s leadership to pay signature collectors—and not infrequently signers themselves. Requiring the creation of boards in all municipalities also has an exclusionary end. No other legislation in the world proposes a similar level of presence. Boneo observed that it is perfectly legitimate for a party to be essentially urban in nature as new parties always start up from an urban base then extend into rural areas and outlying municipalities.

The PLC was probably determined not to leave the door open to a repeat performance of its own fabulous metamorphosis from micro-party to macro-party. From his post as Managua’s municipal mayor, Alemán rapidly built a strong base for his infant party by buying off key leaders from the traditional Liberal parties with greater coverage—the Nationalist Liberals (PLN) and the Independent Liberals (PLI)—and later filling out its ranks with their grassroots sympathizers. The popular José Antonio Alvarado, now a rival to Alemán but until recently a minister in his government and a PLC founder familiar with its methods, could have followed the same route of acquiring legal standing for his new Democratic Liberal Party (PLD) then attracting key PLC leaders to kick-start its expansion in time for next year’s presidential elections.

By divvying up between them the key Supreme Electoral Council posts from magistrates on down, the FSLN and PLC made it easy to get a lock on their two-party structure not at the ballot box but by "legally" excluding the competition. The first consequence was that the newly bipartisan CSE eliminated various parties that had managed to meet the draconian signature requirement by annulling many of the signatures they had collected. Later, to consolidate the electoral duopoly, it rejected the threateningly popular Pedro Solórzano as the Conservatives’ candidate for mayor of Managua.

It’s the people’s role to produce a government

The reforms that created the legal basis for restricting the candidate choices reinforce the current model’s limited democratic participation. History has offered various models of democracy. The ancient Greeks devised a rather curious system for electing high-ranking officials and preventing them from committing abuses. Montesquieu points out that "Solon divided the people of Athens into four classes. Guided by the spirit of democracy he did so not to determine who should elect, but rather who could be elected." First Solon decided that magistrates could only be elected from among the first three classes, made up of the wealthiest citizens. Then he corrected his own mechanism by prescribing that judges examine the candidates elected, that anyone could accuse them of being unworthy for the post and that at the end of their magistracy they would be subject to another examination of their conduct to discourage others who were incapable or corrupt from standing for office. How we could do with such a system to persuade the corrupt not to seek magistracies in Nicaragua…
According to some political experts, the different concepts of democracy have been lurching forward until producing the current model, which they call the "elitist and pluralist market model" prevalent in western democracies. In it, the leading role in the political process is assigned to groups of leaders who choose themselves and, organized into political parties, compete among themselves by offering political "goods." The voters do not decide policy; they do nothing more than choose among the political groups and it is these groups that determine policy. Schumpeter very accurately described this model as follows: "The role of the people is to produce a government. The democratic method is the institutional mechanism for reaching political decisions in which certain individuals acquire the power to decide through a competitive struggle for the people’s vote." The mechanism of periodical elections prevents any return to tyranny and punishes bad governments by means of the vote.

In the market model, people use their votes to produce governors. Meanwhile, the parties produce ideology, import it or mix and match, and leaders who present the electors with a job-lot offer of such "goods." Some of the electors buy these goods with their votes, and all citizens, whether they vote or not, have to swallow the whole package until the next electoral period.

The market model turns elections into a confrontation between these competing elites. In a context in which participation by the citizenry is low, this system is typical of an unequal society made up of people whose priority is to maximize their personal or family consumption rather than build a community.

The two-party system is a decadent model

Nicaragua’s new two-party system reinforces and retools a model that has characterized the country’s electoral scene all the way back to the early post-independence period. For well over a century and a half, power in Nicaragua shifted back and forth—usually by force of firepower—between some variant on the Conservatives and Liberals. The current variation on this is the FSLN and the PLC.

The political duopoly implied by the two-party system heightens the competition between elites that the market electoral model encourages. There are only four hawkers in the market of the coming elections, two of them strong purveyors of political goods. Political expert C.B. Macpherson observed that in the political oligopoly—as in the economic one—parties "do not need to respond, and do not respond, to the buyers’ demands, as they should do in a fully competitive system. What they can do is fix the prices and establish the range of goods to be offered." They can even offer goods that are badly damaged, rotten and impossible to digest. According to Macpherson, "they can also create the demand themselves to a large extent. In an oligopolistic market, demand is not autonomous, it is not an independent datum." This is not therefore a genuine will, but rather a manufactured one, which explains why many candidates in Nicaragua are still offering stereotypical speeches frozen in the eighties, from ferocious anti-Sandinismo and ranting about the communist threat to anti-bourgeois rage. This is because the two-party electoral market model is closely linked to a polarized world. That model prospered in the context of the Cold War when it was believed that the only alternative to the capitalist market was totalitarian socialism. Now all that’s left is to sell that model like one of those second-hand tractors that have been cast aside in many first world countries because they are fueled by ideological ghosts and cannot pull their weight in today’s concrete needs.

The FSLN and PLC ideologies
are not grounded in real local realities

The PLC and the FSLN are not the expression of the opposing wills of the people. Do they even really represent the interests of different sectors—antagonistic classes—in Wiwilí, Pantasma or Ciudad Darío? It would appear not. If they cannot claim socioeconomic or geographical representativeness, does that mean that they only represent ideologized contrariness that has increasingly less reason to exist following the pact and the protection it guarantees the leaders’ power quotas and material goods? The Resistance Party, for example, did originally represent the interests of a certain sector (once called the “contras”), but the multiplication and fragmentation of their leaders, their failure to coordinate and the restricted scope of their proposals undermined the allegiance of the party’s sympathizers. The PLC was the main beneficiary of their dispersed votes in the 1996 elections, which explains the party’s crushing victory in the country’s hinterlands.

The current atmosphere of political apathy prevents the breaking of the market electoral scheme and the revitalization of other channels of participation distinct from the political parties, or even the creation of alternative ones. It prevents people from understanding that the elections are only one of the mechanisms of democracy.

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