Setting Up to Vote
August 25 marked the official opening day of the Nicaraguan electoral campaign. The opposition parties began their 30 minutes per day of television space on Channel 2; the United Nations Elections Verification Commission officially opened its offices; the Supreme Electoral Council continued its civic education courses and the debate about possible opposition presidential candidates went on.
UNO, the uneasy coalition of 14 opposition political parties, chose its presidential and vice presidential candidates after days of debate and over ten rounds of internal voting. Violeta Barrios de Chamorro was finally picked as the presidential candidate, and Virgilio Godoy of the Independent Liberal Party as her running mate. UNO's political platform, a watered-down piece that the parties from the widely varying ideological spectrum could live with, had already been hammered out the week before (see "The Month" for details on events surrounding the UNO platform and presidential candidates).
Other presidential candidates have been announced as well: Moisés Hassán, a former FSLN member, will run on the Revolutionary Unity Movement ticket; Erik Ramírez for the Social Christian Party; Eduardo Molina for the Democratic Conservative Party; Rodolfo Robelo Herrera for the Independent Liberal Unity Party (PLIUN); Bonifacio Miranda for the Revolutionary Workers' Party; and Blanca Rojas for the Central American Unity Party. Three parties—the Conservative Social Party, the Popular Action Movement and the FSLN—have not yet registered their presidential and vice presidential candidates. Assuming all three register by the September 24 deadline, Nicaraguans will be faced with ten candidates when they go to the polls next February. Of the eight opposition parties outside of UNO, the PLIUN, PUCA, PCD and PSC tend to the center, the MUR, PRT and MAP-ML are to the left of the FSLN, and the Conservative Social Party, led by Fernando Agüero, a former Conservative leader, has not put forward either candidate or platform.
Civic Education: Democracy on the Ground Other preparations are moving forward as well, primarily in the area of civic education. The Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) has put into practice a vigorous schedule of civic education workshops around the country, with the goal of training at least six officials for each of the more than 4,100 polling places, as well as scribes and poll watchers, all by the first day of registration on October 1. This ambitious project began in late July with a six-day workshop for over 100 people from ten political parties. Workshops were then conducted in the nine regions of the country during the last two weeks of August. At the Region VI workshop held in Matagalpa (split into two because of the overwhelming participation), the 80 or so participants met from Friday through Sunday evening. The CSE is offering the workshops to all interested participants and potential poll watchers. Under the National Dialogue agreement signed in August, political parties can train their own poll watchers as well, though the CSE trainings are open to all and all parties are encouraged to attend. A recent workshop held in Managua was attended by almost 1,000 people.
Many of the participants in the "Regional Workshop on Civic Education and Electoral Preparation" from Region VI were teachers. Two to six people from each town in the region (more from the provincial capitals of Matagalpa and Jinotega) attended the three-day event, representing five opposition parties as well as the UNO alliance. United Nations observers who attended a similar workshop near Managua noted that people from all political persuasions and backgrounds attended and participated actively.
The agenda was impressive in its attention to detail and its commitment to educate every member of the workshop. There were two working documents: one, the electoral law itself, with its modifications from the National Dialogue, and the other, samples of the forms to be used in the registration and voting process. The participants divided into small groups to go over almost every clause of the electoral law, focusing on those issues most pertinent to voting officials—who can register, what is needed to prove identity, the role of poll watchers, the choosing of election officials and their responsibilities, among others. Every detail had to be clear, including what to do if a name is written incorrectly—write over it? white it out? cross it out and put the corrected name on the next line? (The last one is correct, and a form is provided to note such irregularities.)
Lively debate took place when the groups looked at the section in the law saying that "Nicaraguan citizens have the obligation to register in their respective voting centers." "Does this mean there’s a punishment for not registering?" asked one person. "How can there be an obligation with no consequences?" A lawyer attending the workshop as an adviser pointed out that the obligation is a self-sanctioning one. "If you don't fulfill your civic duty to register," he noted, "you forfeit your ability to choose your leaders, thus punishing yourself." He clarified that the government had no authority to punish or fine people for not registering to vote.
The three-day workshop also included role-playing to practice setting up the voting tables, using the appropriate forms, and clarifying all details of the registration process. In addition to sample forms, the civic education manual used for the role-playing section includes lists of all necessary materials for the registration table, a drawing of the table itself, as well as sample pictures of voting lines, positions for poll watchers and the posting of registration lists to check for inaccuracies. No question of the registration and voting process was left unanswered.
The 80 people trained in Matagalpa came from Wiwilí, Cuá-Bocay, San Rafael, Pantasma, La Concordia, Jinotega and Matagalpa. They will return to their communities to carry out smaller-scale workshops using the skills learned over the three days. In Jinotega, according to the recently approved municipal divisions, there will be 65 voting centers.
Observer commissions set up shop The United Nations Elections Verification Commission (ONUVEN) celebrated its official opening on August 25, though observers had arrived in the country some weeks before. ONUVEN states as its purpose:
· To verify that the political parties have representation on the CSE, the nine Regional Electoral Commissions (CREs) and the 4,100 municipal election boards;
· To verify that the political parties are free to organize and mobilize;
· To verify that the Electoral Rolls are correctly done;
· To promote the development of the process, the Commission will pass all irregularities and complaints to the CSE;
· To send reports to the Secretary General, who will then inform the CSE.
Within the first two weeks of beginning their observation process, UN teams had traveled to Bluefields, Puerto Cabezas, San Carlos, León and Juigalpa, as well as attending the Region III civic education workshop. Mario Zamorano, spokesperson for ONUVEN, said that all parties have been helpful in these initial weeks, ranging from ONUVEN’s official counterpart, the Supreme Electoral Council, to government officials, political parties and other community leaders. ONUVEN observers plan to attend all public demonstrations and monitor access to state media by all parties.
ONUVEN is in a unique position because it is the first time that the UN has ever been asked to observe elections in a sovereign UN member state. The decision to participate was clearly influenced by the regional events set in motion by the Esquipulas Accords, giving the UN General Secretary the assurance that the region is committed to peace, and thus that ONUVEN's goal would have a reasonable chance of success. "ONUVEN's mission is to help Nicaraguans to achieve peace and national reconciliation," noted Zamorano. "Ours is a moral power rather than an executive one," he continued. "We have the moral power given us by the international community."
Whether the international community, particularly the United States, will respect ONUVEN's conclusions remains to be seen. While the United States formally withdrew its recognition of the World Court's 1986 ruling on the CIA mining of the Nicaraguan harbors and has thus paid no damages, in this case it has not protested the ONUVEN commission. ONUVEN's presence in Nicaragua is based on its understanding of the international commitment to respect the moral authority vested in it.
Polls show FSLN ahead One important result of August's National Dialogue was the approval of opinion polls around the elections. Any organization may conduct an opinion poll up to 30 days before the election, providing that it is published with the methodology and exact questions included. No opinion polls are allowed the last month before the elections.
Various organizations have been publishing opinion polls since last December—among them Itztani, a Managua-based research organization, and the weekly newspaper La Crónica, associated with the Popular Social Christian Party. Itztani conducted a poll in late July, before the National Dialogue and Tela, and La Crónica conducted one in early August, just after.
Both of the polls show that support for the FSLN has increased from 29% (in an April La Crónica poll) to 38% most recently. Measuring recent UNO support as compared with April presents some difficulties because UNO did not form until late June and only submitted a formal request for legal recognition as an alliance in early September. April's poll did, however, measure support for a hypothetical opposition bloc at 36%. In contrast, UNO received 3% support in the recent Iztani poll and just over 20% in the recent La Crónicapoll. The decrease in support for an opposition bloc can be attributed in part to the relative newness of UNO on the political scene, but is also clearly a result of recent events that have left UNO without a clear policy: the successful July 19 anniversary, the lowering of the inflation rate, the National Dialogue and the Tela Accords. While the FSLN has made political advances, UNO has put out mixed messages, with some members less than pleased with the results from the National Dialogue that legitimized the elections some may have wanted to boycott.
All polls taken thus far register somewhere between 20 and 30% of the population undecided about who to vote for, a significant chunk of the population toward whom both the FSLN and the opposition parties will have to direct their campaign. No significant change in undecideds was registered from April to August.
Ten minutes on the TV soapbox Future polls are certain to chart changes in the electorate, especially as the political parties begin to campaign in earnest. The television pieces by each party began August 25 and will continue nightly. The 30-minute block is divided into three ten-minute slots, with the 21 parties (including the FSLN) rotating nights. UNO, which has only recently been legalized, now gets one slot, not each of the member parties' 12 slots. Noted one foreign observer, "The parties should never have asked for so much time on television. Who wants to watch politicians droning on for 30 minutes? What they need are 30-second prime time slots."
Instead, most of the nightly presentations scream out their lack of campaign sophistication. With three parties appearing nightly, each party is on about every eight days. Some parties sit one or more people in front of the camera with a microphone to spend the entire ten minutes explaining their views or programs—usually in a monotone. It can be expected that US advisers and money will soon be brought to bear on this "talking heads" format.
A number of parties suffer from poor name recognition, especially those who only chose their names in June when requesting legal status. In the La Crónica poll, when asked which party they would vote for with no names given at all, all the opposition parties together only received 10%. People simply do not know the names of all 21 legal parties. While the nightly television programs may contribute to name recognition, clearly the UNO alliance, given the priority La Prensa gives it and the money in the wings from the Bush Administration, will overshadow smaller parties that have chosen to put forward their own platforms and candidates.