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  Number 232 | Noviembre 2000
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Nicaragua

The Electorate: Continuing Trends and Transition

Is the high abstention rate here to stay? Is the country becoming less polarized? Can parties still count on their sure vote? There are reasons to think that these elections do not necessarily prefigure next year’s.

David Orozco González

The Nicaraguan electorate is young and still going through a transition, so it is not easy to characterize. Nonetheless, 16 years after the country’s "new electoral era" was inaugurated with the 1984 elections, change is clearly in the air. The findings of the survey done in 122 municipalities by the Central American University’s Institute of Surveys and Opinion Polls (IDESO-UCA) in September 2000, together with the results of the November 2000 municipal elections, suggest which way the winds are blowing. First, the old lines dividing Sandinistas and anti-Sandinistas, clearly drawn in the 1990 and 1996 presidential elections, are beginning to blur into a somewhat more diverse and heterogeneous electorate. And second, voters are changing the way they choose candidates. Will these trends provide the framework for future elections, including next year’s presidential and legislative ones?

Changes in any electorate depend on various factors. Among these are voters’ evaluations of each government and political context, the political system’s credibility level, the mechanisms involved in each election—electoral law, registration, rolls and the voter identification process—and the choices available in each election, which vary as new political alliances and candidates emerge and others disappear. And of course, we must not forget the new generation of voters who come to each election. All these factors play a part in voters’ behavior and the reasons behind the overall vote.

What factors were behind the abstention?

In each election, a wave of new voters inevitably changes the course of electoral thinking and behavior somewhat. In Nicaragua, with its high birth rate and low life expectancy, that wave amounts to a flood of voters with ever less memory or even knowledge of the various sea changes that have occurred in this country in the past three decades. This critical mass of young voters can significantly skew the overall profile of the electorate.

A prime example is abstention. In the IDESO survey, 19% of all those interviewed said they would not vote, while 6.8% were still undecided whether to or not. Among young first-time voters, however, 30.6% said they would not vote and only 3.5% had not yet decided. These young people were not only the most likely but also the most determined not to vote. They have their own problems and aspirations, and apparently did not see the political system, the politicians or the elections as relevant to them. In another recent survey, young Nicaraguans were asked, "If you had the opportunity to move to another country, would you?" An overwhelming 74.5% said yes. In that survey, only 26.6% of those same people felt that elections could bring about change. And in mid-September, only 30% knew the date of the municipal elections. These figures suggest that many young people are at the head of a new trend among the Nicaraguan electorate, the trend to abstain.

Of course, other factors also contributed to the low turnout, including numerous administrative problems, some of them quite significant. One political leader appeared on TV to claim that the electoral rolls contain the names of 400,000 people who have died. Curiously, his aim was not to charge the Supreme Electoral Council with fraudulent responsibility or even incompetence, but to show that the abstention rate is lower than the preliminary results would suggest. While his assertion seems to be a very high ballpark figure—he offered no technical evidence or source for it—it surely contains some truth. Leaving the fraud possibility aside, Nicaragua has a low "culture of registration," as noted in the analysis titled "Who Abstained and Why?" in this issue, thus many deaths since the 1996 elections have probably not been reported to the civil registry, which the CSE now manages.

Various other interpretations have also been offered for the low turnout this time. Some commentators maintain that it is perfectly normal anywhere in the world for municipal elections held separately from general elections. But while this may be valid political theory, Nicaragua’s abstention rate in general elections is extremely low for a country in which voting is optional (in El Salvador, for example, it is obligatory). In 1984, only 24.6% failed to turn out in the middle of a war, and in 1990 that fell to 13.7%. Even in 1996, when all marked ballots from 233 polling places that went missing were included in the abstention calculation for some reason, the rate only climbed back up to 24.2%. Should we so easily accept that, with nobody shooting at them or throwing their ballots in a ditch, voters who know more about and depend more on their municipal government than their national one would be at least twice as likely to stay home than go vote for their mayor?

Whatever the reasons for the low voter turnout this time, however, the real question is whether this new trend is here to stay. Will abstaining become one more option on the voters’ menu, as it has in so many other countries, most notably the United States?

A history of polarization

One constant in Nicaragua’s electoral history has been polarization. The 1984 elections, which were the first after nearly five decades of Somoza dictatorship, were not universally recognized internationally but did serve the governing FSLN as a barometer of its own power and the strength of its opposition. It won with 67% of the vote while the strongest of its six rivals (the then-existing Democratic Conservative Party) only got 14%. In 1990, the UNO coalition and its candidate Violeta Barrios de Chamorro won an upset victory that broke Sandinista hegemony, garnering 13 percentage points more than the FSLN. Unlike 1984, voters grouped tightly around the two poles: 54.7% voted for the UNO and 40.8% for the FSLN, while only 4.4% voted for all ten other parties combined.

The 1996 elections were to some extent a replay of 1990: this time the electorate largely split between the Liberal Alliance (51%) and the FSLN (37.7%). Both sides engaged in polarizing rhetoric throughout the campaign, and Cardinal Obando’s powerful symbolic messages after it officially closed were an only slightly more oblique contribution in the same direction. Without naming names, he compared Daniel Ortega to a venomous viper in a parable then appeared in an off-calendar red robe (the color of the Liberal flag) with a pious Arnoldo Alemán in a photo that was front-page news on election day. Those images, together with that of the FSLN’s overflowing closing event days earlier, may have scared people intending to vote for small parties to change their minds at the last minute in favor of Alemán. For all that, a combined 11.3% of the electorate cast its vote for one of the by-then dozens of other parties—less than the polls predicted but significantly more than in 1990.

In the just-concluded municipal elections, the pendulum swung a bit further in this direction. The IDESO survey showed that a certain depolarizing of the electorate has been taking place, which was one of the original hypotheses that guided the survey’s design. The party sympathies expressed by potential voters in September, a little over a month before the elections, suggested that the electorate has become more fragmented and disperse, and is currently grouped, albeit unevenly, around three poles: the FSLN, the PLC and the Conservative Party (PC).

The election results coincided with those of our survey for the most part (see table below), although the PC’s participation did not succeed in grouping the disperse electorate along the three poles as much as many expected. There are reasons to believe that the high level of antagonism has been somewhat attenuated, and fewer voters are motivated mainly by antipathy towards one party or the other.



In another IDESO survey done among people of voting age during October just in the municipality of Managua, those interviewed were asked whether or not they considered themselves anti-Sandinista and/or anti-Somocista. The following chart was compiled by cross-referencing their responses, and shows the ideological and political de-polarization that is beginning to characterize Managua’s electorate, which comprises 28%-30% of the national electorate.

The majority of those polled (61.3%) cross as neither anti-Sandinista nor anti-Somocista. This suggests a society that may be, or at least wants to be, leaving behind the rabid polarization that affected it so strongly during the decade of revolution/counterrevolution in the 1980s. The second largest group (18.5%) is anti-Somocista but not anti-Sandinista, while only 7.7% are anti-Sandinista but not anti-Somocista, and another 8.2% consider themselves both anti-Sandinista and anti-Somocista. In short, only 26.2% are ideologically polarized (or 34.4% if one includes those who are "anti" both ideologies). Without cross-referencing the two, far greater percentages are not opposed to one or the other (a total of 80.6% are not anti-Sandinista and 69.5% are not anti-Somocista) than those that are (only 17% and 27%, respectively). This polarization began to lose force during the Chamorro government and has become even weaker during the Alemán government, perhaps in part because of the pact between the FSLN and PLC leadership.



The "sure vote" and the "swing vote"

Another way to evaluate the dynamic of the country’s polarization in recent years was to compare the choice voters made in the 1990 elections with the one they made in 1996. The advantage of polling real people—our universe in the national survey included 70% who voted in both elections—rather than relying on stiff figures is that one can learn whether an individual voted for the same party both times. The group that did represents the "sure vote" for that party while the one that did not can be identified as the "swing vote." The remaining 30% includes first-time voters and those who abstained in one or both elections.

The figures indicate that the FSLN’s hardcore, or "captive" voters make up 19.1% of the electorate, while those directly opposed to the FSLN—defined here albeit perhaps somewhat misleadingly as those who cast their vote either for the UNO in 1990 or the Liberal Alliance in 1996—make up 22.1%. Together, these "sure votes" represent 41.2% of the electorate. "Swing voters" include those who voted for third parties in these two elections and may continue to do so. They represent 28.9% of the electorate.

When these segments are grouped according to opposing poles, it appears that the bloc willing to vote for the FSLN in one of the two elections represents some 32.7% of the votes while the bloc utterly opposed to it represents 37.4%. The fact that a small but significant margin of voters were still undecided right up to election day also suggests that a good share of voters can’t be counted as sure votes for any party or candidate.

What motivates the choice?

Not everything about the Nicaraguan electorate is changing. There is also continuity along with a few discoveries. One of the latter is that people appear to be starting to vote more for a person, the candidate, than for a party. While no previous baseline exists from which to make this comparative assertion, it arises out of the supposition that people have tended to vote more ideologically in recent years due to the strong polarization. It is a supposition that is a bit difficult to discern accurately from elections themselves, however, since candidates in multi-seat elections such as for Municipal Councils or the National Assembly run on party slates in which their placement is determined by the party and may not reflect voter preferences. If in a three-seat race, for example, two strong parties are running against a weaker one whose most attractive candidate has been placed second on its slate, each party will probably win a seat, but the candidate who drew votes to the weaker party will not be among those elected.




However new this phenomenon is, the largest share of voters in the table below (45.5%) say they consider both party and candidate, giving as much weight to one as to the other. A surprising 39.8% said they vote for their preferred candidate, regardless of the party to which he or she belongs, leaving under 13% voting a loyal party ticket independent of the candidate it puts up.




Given the current political spectrum and this particular moment in the country’s political history, it is not entirely clear to voters how to give equal importance to the party and the candidate when they decide whom to vote for, since they often find significant contradictions between the two. In some cases, these contradictions may lead them to abstain.

The move from voting for the party to voting for the candidate can be considered a positive one, especially in municipal elections that are by definition of a local character with candidates known in the community. This same path could have negative implications, however, if it coincides with the emergence of populist caudillos, the strongmen that are a deeply rooted figure in both local and national political culture in Nicaragua.

Betting on winners and casting useful votes

Another discovery is that some people vote for the party that seems most likely to win. In our survey, these voters represented only 13.3% of the electorate. But although a minority, they often become a crucial factor in races decided at the last minute.

These voters fall among the undecided in polls. Their indecision is rather unusual, however, as it has nothing to do with what the parties or candidates are or have to offer in terms of ideology, promises or programs, but simply with the fact that they have not yet predicted which party or candidate will win. These voters make up their minds once they feel fairly confidence about who will win and vote for them, as though betting on a horse. They often do not decide this until the eve of the elections or even election day itself. They are strongly influenced by surveys, the media and opinions of leaders invested with a certain moral authority.

Most analysts agree that a significant percentage of the electorate in both 1990 and 1996 chose to cast what is known as a "useful vote." This means voting for what one considers the lesser of two evils—a party or candidate for whom one feels a minimum degree of sympathy—to make it less likely that the "greater evil" will win. The results of our survey show that a large part of Nicaragua’s electorate (59.2%) is willing to cast a "useful vote," but a significant minority (35.4%) is not. The latter, who appear to be more principled than pragmatic, have several other choices. They might cast a vote for the party of their choice even knowing they are throwing away their vote. They might also vote for a third party, even if it is not their favorite, as a form of protest against being presented with what they see as two evils to begin with. And, of course, they can always do what so many people did this time: not vote at all.

A transition underway but by no means solid

The increasing number of voters who abstain, the nascent depolarization among both voters and those they vote for and the changing grounds on which voters make their choices all suggest that a transition has begun. Other old traits persist, however, some more tenaciously than others, among them the fact that many people are still willing to vote for what they consider the lesser of two evils.

These changes taking place in the electorate may become consolidated, or others may arise. In 2001, everything will depend on how the various factors that encourage changes in the electorate evolve. New candidates, new platforms, revisions in the rules of the game for the electoral process may all lead to other changes in the electorate. And the specter of polarization has not been banished. There are solid political grounds for believing that the results of the November 2000 elections do not necessarily prefigure those of November 2001.

David Orozco González is a researcher at UCA-IDESO.

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