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  Number 232 | Noviembre 2000
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Nicaragua

Disrespect for Political Pluralism Tainted the Elections

For over 16 years, Rosa Marina Zelaya held strategic posts in the Supreme Electoral Council, serving as its president for the past five years. She shares some of her knowledge and viewpoints with envío below.

Rosa Marina Zelaya

Ever since the first elections following the July 1979 revolution were held in 1984, the electoral process has been repeated periodically, always with respect for the will of the people. This is one of Nicaragua’s great democratic and political achievements in recent years, as this respect did not exist before 1979.

In 1984, the population elected a President and Vice-President, as well as representatives to the National Assembly, but did not yet elect municipal authorities. Seven of the ten political parties existing at the time opted to run candidates.

In the next two elections, national and local authorities were elected simultaneously. In 1990, the population again elected a presidential ticket and departmental representatives to the National Assembly. The new addition was that voters now elected Municipal Councils as well, although still not the mayor; that was done by the new Council members in their first session, choosing from among themselves. By the time of these elections, the number of political parties had grown to 21, of which 14 grouped together around the alliance known as the Nicaraguan Opposition Union (UNO), whose winning presidential candidate was Violeta Barrios de Chamorro.

In 1990, elections for Regional Councils were also held for the first time in the two autonomous regions of the Atlantic Coast. Since the regional government is a four-year term rather than the six for national executive and legislative posts, elections just for those authorities were held again in 1994 and 1998.
In 1996, the population elected a presidential ticket, National Assembly delegates and Municipal Council members, and for the first time also elected delegates to the Central American Parliament and directly elected their municipal mayor. For Atlantic Coast voters, it was also the first time they elected municipal authorities because the new regional authorities had been charged by law with designing new municipal divisions first. This time 36 political parties participated, several of them united in various alliances.
All of these electoral processes have been dynamic and have respected the popular will, and the process of organizing them has technically matured the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE).

Between 1979 and 1987, the Statute of Rights and Guarantees together with the Fundamental Statutes, which were reformed during the eighties, functioned as Nicaragua’s Political Constitution. Then, in 1987, a new Constitution was enacted, which was first reformed in 1995. Each of these laws, including the reformed Constitution, established the participation of many political options, with the widely differing ideologies and programs they offered to Nicaragua’s citizens, as the basic principle of democracy and political pluralism.

The just-concluded municipal elections are the first to be held without respect for this basic principle, which is a radical and very negative change. The constitutional reforms—which are even of questionable legality—and the new electoral law pushed through this year establish rules of the game that undermine political pluralism by limiting the participation of political organizations and thus obstructing the participation of citizens who feel represented by the excluded parties.

This is anti-democratic and dangerous, because to exclude participation sows violence. The week of disturbances in Puerto Cabezas in response to the exclusion of the indigenous party YATAMA was the violent harvest; it demonstrated the risks involved in a decision that the political contenders perceive as arbitrary. Although the Supreme Electoral Council excluded several parties from participating in the elections, YATAMA was the only one to reject this policy and take to the streets to demand its right to participate. Other excluded parties opted to use judicial means, which did not reach resolution and were not accompanied by massive and visible civic actions.

The new Electoral Law first violated political pluralism by eliminating the "popular subscription associations," a voter petition system that had allowed citizens to present independent candidates in the municipal and regional elections since 1990. Second, it establishes rigid requirements for registering candidates and new parties, specifically aimed at reducing the number of options. To get on the ballot, all political parties, even those already legally registered, must gather signatures equivalent to 3% of the past election’s voter rolls—a percentage that increased by that same increment for each party in an alliance—and run candidates in 80% of the municipalities. The stringency of these requirements, which did not exist under the previous law, can only be understood as an intent to limit participation.

The other route the Electoral Law used to reduce options was to issue the state funds granted to participating parties for campaign purposes only after the elections, and in proportion to the number of votes received. Previously the funding was disbursed at the start of the campaign, and in proportion to their showing in the prior election. Since some parties made poor use of the funds they received, I consider this a positive measure though it is a restrictive one that makes the just pay for the sinners.

The result of all these extreme requirements in the Electoral Law was to drastically reduce the political spectrum in the 2000 elections, but they only did part of the job. The extremely harsh and arbitrary way the CSE applied the law did the other part. The fact that the CSE was just as brutal on parties that already had legal standing as on ones newly aspiring to participate demonstrated its disinterest in political pluralism. This made many people feel that they were not represented by any of the contending political parties or candidates in these first municipal elections to be held separately in Nicaragua’s history.

The FSLN-PLC pact turned the CSE into a two-party institution, undermining the professionalism of this powerful organization’s work. In Costa Rica and Guatemala, the electoral authority is made up of professionals and technicians, not political party representatives. In El Salvador and Honduras, the electoral body is "politicized," which causes many problems. For this reason, both countries followed Nicaragua’s original mixed model, in which party functionaries and independent functionaries participated together, with great interest. The 1995 electoral reforms were the first to "politicize" the CSE’s top posts around the country by forcing the CSE to fill them from party lists, but this year’s new law greatly intensified the problem. From the national, regional, departmental and municipal structures right down to the presidency and vice-presidency of every local voting center, all leadership posts fell into the hands of only two political parties, the PLC and the FSLN. Although secondary positions were offered to the other two participating parties, the parties to the pact controlled the final and fundamental decisions from their monopoly of magistrate positions.

The CSE lost significant credibility as a result, as expressed by 60-80% of those polled in all the surveys. The various decisions made by the CSE during the electoral process only deepened this public distrust.

Nicaragua needs to return to electoral processes that respect the principle of political pluralism. Considering all the problems that arose during the municipal elections, the Electoral Law should be reformed again for the November 2001 general elections, opening up participation again both the political parties and the citizenry.

The constitutional reforms, the new Electoral Law and the political pact between the PLC and the FSLN party bosses have created a dangerous situation by turning all branches and institutions of the state into two-party structures. I have just finished writing an essay about the Preambles to Nicaragua’s Constitutions, which will be a chapter in a book published in Spain on Ibero-American Constitutional Preambles. The research for this work has given me a chance to review the history of Nicaragua’s Constitutions from before our country became independent of Spain through to today. It is a history marked by a permanent vicious circle. When institutions begin to develop strength, the process is interrupted, spaces close and civil wars are unleashed, terminating in new Constituent Assemblies that draw up new Constitutions. We have now reached the year 2000 and the world is looking for legal, negotiated, institutional solutions. Yet, unfortunately, in Nicaragua this same vicious circle may begin anew.

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