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  Number 232 | Noviembre 2000
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Who Abstained and Why?

Since not one pollster predicted the low turnout—from which the two parties to the pact had most to gain—there is a pressing need to investigate voters’ motives for abstaining. Were people purposefully discouraged from going to the polls, as some evidence suggests?

Marcos Membreño Idiáquez

Right after election day, the media reported that some40% of Nicaragua’s eligible voters had abstained. When the Supreme Electoral Council’s official preliminary results were compared to the number of people included on the electoral rolls, the abstention rate came out to 44.26%, topping 40% in 14 of the country’s 17 departments and higher than expected in all of them. "None of the above" had turned out to be the option of a much higher percentage of registered voters nationwide than either the PLC or the FSLN was. The figures surprised a country accustomed to 80-90% turnouts in elections.

They also surprised the pollsters, though many had recognized that these are Nicaragua’s first municipal elections to be held independent of other races, so there is no history to show how "soft" voter interest in determining their local government might be, for example, if it rained heavily on election day. (It did not do so anywhere in the country). In Managua, the most important race in the country and thus the one most surveyed, the last few polls by IDESO and other polling institutes before the elections had predicted an abstention rate ranging from 12% to 20%.

First problem: The electoral rolls

Is it possible to get a reasonably accurate reading of what influenced the high voter abstention figures? Are they inflated by other factors? We must recall that before and during the campaign, the media, several civic organizations and more than a few citizens from different municipalities charged that the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) had not cleaned the electoral rolls of those who had emigrated or died. Unless a detailed independent study is done, we will probably never know the extent to which this factor inflated the abstention rate, nor will we know with certainty if the charges are even true.

"Although still imperfect, the electoral rolls have been cleaned to a very acceptable degree," former CSE president Rosa Marina Zelaya told envío shortly before the election. Nonetheless, doubts remain and accusations continue to fly. Some opposition leaders have even charged that the "copies" of the rolls that the CSE gave to the political parties participating in the elections are not identical to the "originals," secretly and jealously guarded by the CSE.

The state of the electoral rolls is in part a reflection of long-standing weaknesses in Nicaragua’s registration system as well as the lack of a "culture of registration" among wide sectors of the population. People often fail to report births, deaths and/or migrations, not to mention changes of address, thus leaving huge gaps in the country’s civil registry. Today, however, the rolls also reflect how the pact has weakened the country’s democratic institutions, making it possible for the two parties that control the CSE to manipulate the rolls to their advantage over other parties participating in the electoral process.

Another factor that may be inflating the abstention rate is that the CSE figures apparently include the null votes as well. In past elections null votes were included in a separate column in the results since they represent part of the turnout if not part of the valid vote. This time, maybe because of the last-minute campaign by some excluded parties urging their supporters to consciously nullify their ballot as a political statement, the CSE has not made this category separately available.

Who planned to abstain?

Assuming that most of the national abstention rate is real, why did so many Nicaraguans in fact not cast their vote on November 5? Who are they and what voluntary motives or involuntary obstacles kept them from voting? A nationwide survey by the Central American University’s Institute of Surveys and Opinion Polls (IDESO) helps answer these and other questions. The survey polled 1,700 people of voting age, with a margin of error of ±2.5%. It was done on September 8-13, nearly two months before the elections, when pollsters were still picking up greater indecision than later, yet only 19% of those interviewed said that they would not vote in the municipal elections. Some of their characteristics can be seen from the "I will not vote" column of the following chart.

The youngest voters (16-19 years old) were the age group most likely to abstain. They belong to a new generation, those who had the first chance to use their right to vote in these municipal elections. Instead of using it to cast a vote, over 30% planned to use it to abstain. It is likely that no political party seemed appealing or convincing to them.

There is not much gender distinction in the no-vote decision, but the rural-urban distinction is strong. A significantly greater percentage of people were planning to abstain in the cities than in rural areas, which suggests several hypotheses. One is that people would still seem to have greater confidence in the power of elections to bring about significant change in the rural areas. Another is that they are more conscious of local government in the small rural municipalities, where everyone knows each other and the local leaders, than in the bigger impersonal cities. Yet another is that rural people, particularly in the poorer areas of the countryside, feel more helpless and thus more dependent on local government than urban people do, since the cities provide more possibilities and more rewards for individual initiative. Last but not least, election day is one of the few diversions—not for nothing is it called fiesta cívica—in the rural areas.

All the above possibilities are congruent with the fact that those who planned to abstain also tend to be better educated, with at least some secondary or university education. In contrast, people who are illiterate or did not finish primary school were less likely to abstain. With respect to income levels, the higher the income the more likely the intention to abstain, although, curiously, the distinction between those with jobs and those without was minimal.

Protestants and non-believers were slightly more likely to abstain than Catholics, although the percentages were close. Some Protestants may have decided not to vote because of beliefs that distance them from politics or because of their opposition to the current government, which is openly and decidedly pro-Catholic. Among Protestants, members of the Moravian Church on the Caribbean Coast were the ones most likely to abstain, a sign of their rejection of the administrative state structures imposed on them by the whites and mestizos from the Pacific Coast. Non-believers seem to belong to a political Left that is deeply critical of the current political system.

Those planning to abstain were somewhat more likely to get their news from television or the newspapers than radio, which may be related to their higher income level: buying a paper or maintaining a television assumes a certain economic level.

Why did they plan to abstain?

The reasons cited by the 19% of potential voters who had decided not to vote are shown in the following chart. The main one, given by 45.9% of those polled was that they found none of the participating parties appealing or convincing. Perhaps the main reason for this was the CSE’s policy of excluding parties and candidates as part of the pact between the FSLN and the PLC, which purposefully reduced the spectrum of political options available to voters.

The second most important reason, cited by 24.4% of those who were not planning to vote, was that they did not have their ID card. According to our survey, two months before the elections, 19% of the country’s voters still did not have their cards. The vast majority of these people (70.3%) said they had tried unsuccessfully to get their card from the CSE. The rest had either not attempted to get their card (13.9%), did not plan to get it (14.2%) or had lost it and not requested a replacement (1.7%).

Another 11.9% of those who planned not to vote questioned the honesty and transparency of the electoral process. They said that there were no guarantees of a clean election since the CSE and the boards of each polling place were controlled by the two parties to the pact. The decision of another 8.9% reflected their total apathy and skepticism not only about the election process but also about the political system as a whole.

Were the surveys wrong,
or the voters confused?

There are two possible overall explanations for the huge difference between the abstention rate predicted by our survey and so many others, ranging from 15 to 20%, and the election results, around 45%. One is that the surveys were wrong, which would indicate either that surveys are unreliable with an electorate that still acts in the tradition of the "Güegüense," that trickster figure legendary in Nicaraguan popular culture for his witty half-truths and double entendres, or that those doing the surveys had political motives that prevented them from obtaining the truth. The other possibility is that the surveys were not wrong, but that something happened between the final ones and election day that made voters change their mind.

Two events, at least, had such an impact. The first had to do with confusing notices from the CSE. The CSE mailed many voters notices advising them where they were to vote. But the addresses of polling places on thousands of these notices were wrong—due to technical problems, according to CSE officials—so a second, supposedly corrected, notice followed the first. In many cases, however, these did not have the correct address either and merely added to the confusion. This "mistake" produced chaos all around the country on election day itself as thousands of Nicaraguans went to the wrong polling place, discovering to their surprise that their names did not appear on the rolls. The most tenacious set out to find the right place, often wandering about for hours. Many failed completely in their search; others succeeded, only to find another surprise awaiting them when they finally reached the place where their name appeared. When the confusion became evident, the CSE authorized thousands of people to vote in the "wrong" polling place, as long as they could prove that they lived in the area and were willing to temporarily relinquish their voter cards to prevent them from voting again elsewhere.

This move caused many voters to turn away at the last minute for two different reasons. First, many justifiably feared losing a document that had cost them so much grief to obtain. In Nicaragua, this voter card also serves as an official ID, acceptable for requesting a passport, for example. The second reason, which does not lack irony given the CSE’s explanation of why the card would presumably be held, was the specter in some voters’ mind of it being used in fraudulent maneuvers or to other ends against their will. Having gone to so much trouble to vote, many people headed home, silently indignant but not enough so to do anything about it.

According to Carlos Tünnermann, president of the prestigious Nicaraguan election observation committee Ethics and Transparency, this chaos, and the accompanying suspicion of fraud, was one of the main causes of the high abstention rate. US political analyst William Barnes documented a similar phenomenon in El Salvador’s 1997 elections, when thanks to the reorganization of polling places ordered by that country’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal, many Salvadorans could not find where they were to vote on election day.

Three events combined

It didn’t take an official election observer to uncover what everyone could see and hear, as thousands of people called TV and radio stations requesting the exact address of the polling place at which they were to vote. Thanks to the media, which was connected to the Internet and worked throughout the day and into the night of November 5, thousands of people were able to vote. By providing this service, they helped reduce the abstention, although we will never know to what degree. But inadvertently and paradoxically, their work also had the opposite effect: when people learned through the media of the confusion and distrust of so many others, more than a few who had intended to vote—again, we will never know how many—refrained. Instead, they turned their Sunday from a civic fiesta into a civic siesta.

All available evidence leads to the same conclusion: the abstention rate shot up significantly in the very last stretch of the electoral process, because of the combined impact of irregularities in the electoral rolls, misleading notices and the temporary confiscation of ID-voter cards. With its last-minute decisions and an electoral system that clearly failed the test, the CSE bears the brunt of the responsibility for this.

The spirit of the Güegüense

What role might the Güegüense spirit of the Nicaraguan people have played in skewing expectations of voter turnout? It appears not to have played a significant role. Knowingly or not, those who now invoke it to explain the turnout are converting it into a kind of scapegoat. This provides a welcome service to the CSE, allowing it to shrug off responsibility for the low turnout that it provoked through its actions or omissions.

Worse still, the Güegüense hypothesis allows both the government and the two parties that control the CSE to undercut the legitimacy of independent surveys, since the idea is that the Güegüense spirit leads people to respond to them with half-truths or outright lies. All parties do their own surveys, with results that they rarely if ever make public. But curiously enough, they never invoke the Güegüense factor to explain their mistaken predictions; they only do so when they need to delegitimize surveys they neither carry out nor control.

"Güegüense" is not an appropriate term to describe people’s behavior when they are afraid of freely expressing their opinions in contexts of strong political, ideological or military polarization, when very few people dare to say openly what they think or what they plan to do. Instead, they try to avoid reprisals by declaring themselves undecided or ignorant of the issue. If this is "Güegüense" behavior, it can be found not only in Nicaragua but everywhere in the world that people vote in risky situations. In Nicaragua’s 1990 elections, in a context of extreme ideological, political and military polarization between the FSLN and the opposition forces of the Resistance, the conditions were ripe for people to respond to the surveys as Güegüenses.

But this deep-rooted polarization is now giving way to what we might call multi-polar fragmentation. An IDESO-UCA survey done on October 21-22 among 1,180 people just in Managua revealed that most voters in the capital (61%) do not take part in the anti-Sandinista/anti-Somocista confrontation. While some 26% of Managua residents are still polarized along these lines, the rest can be classified as anti-pact or skeptical (10%) or as reticent (3%) since they chose not to respond to this question in our survey. The inappropriately named "Güegüense" voters in the 2000 municipal elections belong this final, tiny group.

Just as the CSE bears the main responsibility for the low turnout in the municipal elections, it also bears the main responsibility for providing a thorough, impartial explanation for it. But thus far, it has shown little interest. Given the proximity of the presidential and legislative elections scheduled for November of next year, the most reliable and expeditious alternative would be an independent, nonpartisan study whose figures could be compared to the official figures on the rolls, in each municipality and at a national level. Among other things, such a study could prove to be a useful tool in pressuring the CSE to immediately and fully update the current electoral rolls.

The national and international election observation committees and the political analysts will all make their own evaluations of the Nicaraguan municipal elections, but they will be unable to go beyond hypotheses or conjecture if they do not directly ask people when and why they decided not to vote. It is already clear enough that the factors behind the low turnout achieved their full force on the very eve of the election itself.

The temptation to orchestrate
a low turnout in 2001

This year’s record abstention rate could set a dangerous precedent for the 2001 presidential and legislative elections. The fact that the PLC and the FSLN benefit from the high abstention rate and irregularities in the electoral rolls gives reason to suspect that some of their more unscrupulous leaders in the CSE and other state bodies will be tempted to orchestrate a low turnout in the 2001 elections.

The PLC and the FSLN have four points in their favor if they want to try. First, they control the CSE, which is in charge of establishing and handling the electoral rolls. Second, they have the experience of these elections. Third, they have seen that the "political costs" of a low turnout are relatively low, as proven by the absence of any serious, organized questioning of the legitimacy of the elections or demand that the CSE fully examine the internal factors in the process and the system that led to the low turnout. Fourth and most important is their knowledge that they won their respective municipal elections by carrying a mere 20% of potential voters, a percentage very similar to the captive vote for both parties. Through these elections they have already understood—in practice—that they can win the 2001 elections if there is a low turnout, since their captive vote would be enough to carry it for one side or the other.

Marcos Membreño Idiáquez is the director of the Central American University’s Institute of Surveys and Opinion Polls (UCA-IDESO)

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Nicaragua’s Municipal Elections: The Good, the Bad and the Uncertain


Disrespect for Political Pluralism Tainted the Elections

A Country Divided: Relative Defeats and Victories

Who Abstained and Why?

The Electorate: Continuing Trends and Transition

YATAMA: Rebellion with a Cause?

Jinotepe and Diriamba: Two Case Studies of a Defeat

Juigalpa: A Vote to Punish the PLC

The Banco de Café Scandal: A Cure that Nearly Killed the Patient

El Salvador
San Salvador’s Government Goes After Garbage

Defining Left and Right

Did Managua’s Gang Members Vote?
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