Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 95 | Junio 1989



Setting the Rules of the Game Nicaragua's Reformed Electoral Law

Envío team

"Objectively speaking, the electoral law can be called absurdly democratic, because it establishes rules of the game which are not only clean and honest, but steeped in egalitarianism for a contest which is, after all, between a mass-based party and a multitude of tiny minority parties."
Sofía Montenegro, Barricada editorial, 27 April 1989.

"Both the substance of these laws and the manner in which they have been put into effect is troubling. The electoral law was not the result of good-faith bargaining."
—Margaret Tutwiler, US State Department, 26 April 1989.

“There's only one thing more that the opposition could possibly ask for to create the conditions in which they'll participate in elections: that they ask us, the FSLN, to simply hand over power to them."
—Carlos Núñez, president of the National Assembly, during the electoral debate.

“The election laws passed last week by the Sandinista-dominated legislature were a far cry from those that Ortega agreed to on February 14, 1989."
—Jeane Kirkpatrick, Los Angeles Times Syndicate, 30 April 1989.

"If I could give the [electoral] reforms a grade, I'd give them a 90, with which I'm not totally content, but the PCD is indeed satisfied because they [the government] included almost all our proposals."
—Clemente Guido, Democratic Conservative Party (PCD) leader, 16 April 1989.

The electoral and media law reforms "will guarantee clean and democratic elections."
—Debra Evanson, president of US National Lawyers Guild, 8 May 1989.

The reformed electoral law will make the elections "a stacked deck."
—President Bush, 2 May 1989.

What kind of electoral law can produce such a wild range of responses? Perhaps only in the highly charged debate concerning the Nicaraguan elections could one find a discussion so little concerned with facts. Condemnations of the reformed law passed by the Nicaraguan legislature on April 21 rang out from certain quarters more quickly than the 15-page, detailed document could have been thoughtfully read and studied.

Let's make an attempt to drag this debate out of the ideological swamp in which it is mired by taking a look at the reforms themselves: how they differ from the previous law, whether they comply with the provisions of the Esquipulas IV accords, to what extent they meet opposition demands and how they compare with similar laws in Central American and other countries.

Institutionalizing elections

The electoral law debate must be seen in the context of the gradual process of laying the foundations for the new government set up after July 1979. The first legal mention of elections is found in the Fundamental Statute of August 22, 1979, which established that elections would take place "whenever the conditions of national reconstruction might permit." In early 1984, the first legislature, the Council of State, passed a law governing elections for the presidency and legislature to take place in November of that year

The FSLN won the 1984 elections with 67% of the vote. Seven parties won seats in the legislature. Turnout was 76%, compared to the 50-60% typical of US presidential elections. The 1984 elections, subjected to the intense light of international scrutiny provided by 504 officially registered international observers and some 2,000 journalists, were generally held to be free and fair. Groups observing the elections such as the Latin American Studies Association (LASA), the church-based Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), the Canadian Church and Human Rights Delegation and the International Human Rights Law Group issued largely favorable reports.

The newly elected legislature then turned to the task of drafting a constitution. Once it was ratified in 1987, the National Assembly began the slow process of revising the outdated legal code. In 1988, they turned their attention to devising a new electoral law, which, along with a few other key laws, was to have constitutional status.

The new electoral law, which took effect in October 1988, had three principal differences from the law governing the 1984 elections. First, it covered not only presidential and legislative elections, but for the first time set the ground rules for municipal elections, elections for Regional Councils for the Autonomous Regions of the Atlantic Coast, and the selection of deputies for the soon-to-be-established Central American Parliament. Second, it incorporated the Law of Political Parties and elevated it to constitutional status, regulating political parties and granting them constitutional guarantees. Third, it tightened the rules governing legislative elections to favor the larger parties. The logic behind these rules, common in one form or another to most Western democracies, was to encourage formation of alliances and prevent a profusion of tiny factions in the legislature.

Opposition legislators objected to a number of points in the new law. They asserted that the appointment procedures for the Supreme Electoral Council permitted the governing party to dominate the electoral process; they objected to the rules regulating formation of new parties and to a clause specifying that a party could only win a seat in the legislature if it won more than 5% of the vote nationwide; and they argued that the commission drafting the electoral law should have consulted with the parties which, because they were newly formed or because they abstained from the 1984 elections, had no seats in the Assembly. As we will see below, the bulk of these objections were addressed in the reforms made this April.

Do They Comply with the Accords?

As part of the Esquipulas IV accords signed in El Salvador February 14, 1989, Nicaragua agreed to reform its electoral and media laws and to advance the date for elections. Nicaragua agreed to take these steps in exchange for which Honduras and the other Central American countries would cooperate in drafting and carrying out a plan to demobilize, relocate or repatriate the contra forces. The part of the accords concerning elections reads as follows:

“The Presidents of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras were informed of the position of the Constitutional President of Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega Saavedra, to develop a process of democratization and national reconciliation in his country, within the framework of the Esquipulas II Accord and in keeping with the following actions, among others:

“Once reforms have been made in electoral legislation and laws regulating expression, information and public opinion in such a way as to guarantee political organization and action in the broadest sense for political parties, then an initial four-month period for preparation, organization and mobilization of parties will be opened. Immediately following the expiration of said period, a new six-month period for political activity will begin. At the end of this six-month period, elections for President, Vice President, and Representatives to the National Assembly, Municipalities and Central American Parliament will be held. Elections should take place no later than February 25, 1990, unless the Government and opposition political parties mutually agree that they should be held on another date. The Government of Nicaragua will form a Supreme Electoral Council with balanced participation of representatives from opposition political parties. In this spirit, the Presidents call on all Nicaraguan political parties to participate in the electoral process.

“International observers will be invited to participate in all the election districts during the two aforementioned stages for the purpose of certifying the integrity of the process. A special invitation will be extended to delegates of the Secretaries General of the United Nations and the Organization of American States.”

In the three months following Esquipulas IV, Nicaragua revised its media and electoral laws, moved up the date of elections to February 1990, and established a six-month calendar for campaigns as required by the accords. (The new administration will not take power until January 1991, leaving an awkwardly long lame-duck period but thus staying within the bounds of the Constitution, which specifies six-year terms.) The Supreme Electoral Council was reformed and international observers including the OAS and UN were invited to certify the entire process. While the opposition may not be happy with all of the results—as is logical given that the results were an outcome of compromise rather than a blanket acceptance of all opposition demands—the government to date has clearly met the conditions spelled out in Esquipulas IV. As can be seen from the above text, the accords did not go into detail about the procedure for reforming the electoral law nor the content of the reforms themselves.

According to FSLN National Directorate member Bayardo Arce, in one meeting of the Central American foreign ministers following Esquipulas IV, a Nicaraguan representative, tired of Costa Rican criticism of the Nicaraguan electoral law, offered to adopt the Costa Rican electoral law and apply it lock, stock and barrel to Nicaragua. The Costa Ricans refused, saying their electoral law was "obsolete."

The reformed law specifically permits demobilized contras to return to Nicaragua to vote and join the political fray. Article 216 states that: "All Nicaraguans who have taken up arms, who have joined the demobilization plan drawn up by the Central American presidents, in accordance with the Joint Declaration proclaimed in El Salvador on February 14, 1989, will be able to register in Nicaragua, exercise the right to vote and be elected with full guarantees."

How the law was reformed

Immediately after the Esquipulas IV summit, President Ortega invited all political parties to bilateral talks to discuss their proposals for reforming the electoral and media laws. Using these suggestions, he presented two bills to the National Assembly. Fourteen of the 20-odd parties and factions in existence attended the talks. President Ortega included 17 points from the opposition parties' proposals in the electoral bill he presented to the Assembly. Of these 17 points, 15 were included in the law passed by the Assembly. One—reducing the number of vote-counting sites—was rejected following recommendations from the technical advisers sent by Venezuela and Costa Rica. The other, regarding creation of an electoral police staff, was not included in the reforms because it was already part of the original law.

Despite the fact that opposition proposals were taken into account in the reforms, the most anti-government parties and groups belonging to a loose alliance called the Group of 14 were dissatisfied with the results. The real issue for the Group of 14 is not in fact so much the reforms themselves as the forum in which they were discussed. Although four parties belonging to their alliance have seats in the Assembly, they reject the Assembly as a legitimate forum. They called for the opening of a national dialogue to reconsider the newly reformed electoral and media laws.

The roots of their objections go back to the 1984 elections. It was the choice of some parties within the 14 not to run; under US pressure to abstain and gambling on the contras' ability to overthrow the Nicaraguan government, they chose not to take part in legal domestic politics. As a result, they were not present in the Assembly when the Constitution was drafted and approved, or when the electoral law was first debated. When offered an opportunity to present their opinions to the constitutional drafting committee, these parties again refused. Unwilling to confer legitimacy upon the revolutionary government by participating, time and again these parties have refused to take advantage of the forums offered to them—and then have quarreled with the results.

In the case of the electoral law reforms, the government, going beyond what it was legally obliged to do, gave both parliamentary and extra-parliamentary parties two opportunities to present their proposals on the electoral law: to the presidency through bilateral talks and directly to the Assembly committee. Some members of the Group of 14 did attend the bilateral talks, but the 14 presented their written proposal to the president too late for him to consider incorporating it in his draft; he had already sent the bill to the Assembly.

The government insists that the law be decided within the Assembly itself because to take the debate outside the Assembly would be unconstitutional. To reform laws passed by an elected legislature by setting up a national dialogue made up of political parties who even by their own surveys have minority support among Nicaraguans would be distinctly undemocratic.

Nonetheless, the government is prepared to continue some kind of discussion with the opposition. While the government is unwilling to make further legal reforms, it is open to continue discussing the application of the law regarding the practical conditions for elections.

The opposition responds

In a press statement published in La Prensa April 27, 15 opposition parties and groups (basically, the Group of 14) declared that they were unsatisfied with the electoral reforms passed on April 21. In their statement, the parties said that: "The reforms to both the Electoral Law and Media Law were unilaterally approved by the Sandinista majority in the National Assembly, without taking into account the opposition demands which were duly presented. Neither did they take into account the fundamental recommendations of the Electoral Commissions of Costa Rica and Venezuela." The Venezuelan government felt compelled to respond to this, specifically denying that their electoral advisers had recommended that the president of the Supreme Electoral Council be an opposition figure, as the La Prensa statement had suggested.

The opposition statement singled out the following issues on which the reformed law should be reformed still further: composition of the Supreme Electoral Council to provide an equal balance between opposition and government; issuance of a national voter's card; a moratorium on the draft; denial of the vote to the military; extension of the vote to Nicaraguans living abroad; equal public financing for all parties; equal access to state media; direct vote for mayors; the right of all parties to receive unrestricted financing from any sources, including foreign ones.

These parties also objected to the new advanced date for elections, which they considered too hasty. This has its ironic side, given that it was Venezuela and Costa Rica who pressured the Nicaraguan government to advance the date for elections as part of the Esquipulas IV accords. The United States also has long insisted that elections be held ahead of schedule.

The opposition condemnation of the electoral reforms made no mention of the extensive compromises that had in fact been made by the Nicaraguan government in response to the accords and to specific opposition demands. As we will see in the following section, the opposition's demands for equal access to state media, elimination of the 5% rule for winning seats in the legislature, and rules governing party recognition were indeed met. Compromises were reached on public and foreign funding of campaigns and composition of the Supreme Electoral Council. The demands that were rejected completely concerned mayoral elections, the question of suffrage for the military and Nicaraguans abroad, and the issuance of a national identity card.

The government did not consider discussion of a draft moratorium appropriate to an electoral law debate. It is highly unlikely the government would agree to a suspension of the draft while the contras remain a standing army in Honduras and while contra attacks are still a fact of life in Nicaragua. In a similar vein, it is unlikely the government would agree to set back the date of elections given that the US Congress has agreed to keep funding the contras until after the Nicaraguan elections take place.

The reformed law

The most significant reforms responded to opposition demands to get a larger share of the pie in terms of public campaign funds and use of state media. Other changes favoring minority parties were the relaxation of rules for obtaining legal status for a party and the elimination of the 5% rule.

Public and Foreign Financing. In the 1988 law, public campaign funds were divided according to proportion of votes received in the last election. This kind of provision, which certainly favors the more popular parties, is similar to ones in Costa Rica, Venezuela, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Spain. In Costa Rica, Venezuela and Guatemala, parties earning less than 4-5% of the vote receive no public funding at all. US law specifies that public matching funds are granted on the basis of the last election results, according to which parties are classified as majority (more than 25% of the vote), minority (5-25%), or new (less than 5%).

The Nicaraguan opposition urged equal division of public campaign funds. In the United States, for example, this would mean that Lyndon LaRouche's party and the Communist Party would receive the same amount of public money as the Republican and Democratic parties. The resulting reform was a compromise between the 1988 law and the opposition demand: 50% of public funding will be divided according to proportion of votes received in last election, and 50% will be divided equally between all parties or coalitions fielding a candidate. The Nicaraguan law is thus now considerably more generous with public funding for minority parties than any of the other countries in the chart accompanying this article.

The Nicaraguan law now also has a highly unusual provision: parties may receive an unlimited amount of foreign campaign financing. The funds must go through the Supreme Electoral Council, with 50% going towards a general fund for covering election costs and 50% going directly to the party specified. No other electoral law that we have come across specifically permits foreign funding; indeed, many countries, such as Venezuela, Honduras and the United States, expressly forbid it, for obvious reasons of national sovereignty. Again, applying this law to the United States, the Soviet Union could openly fund US campaigns.

This reform supercedes a law forbidding Nicaraguan parties and other institutions from accepting US funds, which was passed by the National Assembly in October 1988 in the wake of US congressional approval of $2 million in aid for the Nicaraguan opposition and $5 million in medical aid to be distributed by the Catholic hierarchy. The money for campaigns may now be donated through official channels.

Why did the Nicaraguan government agree to such an unprecedented erosion of its sovereignty? The government no doubt figured that US funds would come in covertly if not overtly. The 50% rule provides a way to help cover general election costs, which will reach $25 million during a period of economic crisis and state budget cutting.

Media Time. Like public financing, access to state radio and television in the 1988 law was divided according to the proportion of votes received in the last election. The opposition called for equal time for all parties on state media and for the overall time reserved for campaigning on state TV to be increased to 1 hour/day during an 80-day period. The reformed law provides equal access to state media, as the opposition requested, but limits the time for campaigning for national elections to 30 minutes/day on each state television channel and 45 minutes/day on each state radio station; this is still considerably longer than the airtime reserved for the 1984 elections. Television campaigning may go on for six months, much longer than the 80-day period requested by the opposition. For municipal elections, smaller amounts of time are reserved.

This reform to the law brings Nicaragua's law in line with neighboring countries' regulations on use of state media. One touchy question does remain: While private—and fiercely opposition—radio stations abound in Nicaragua, and while two of the three top newspapers are independent, one of them being vociferously anti-government, both of Nicaragua's two TV stations are state-owned. While equal access to state media for campaigning is guaranteed in the law, opposition parties are calling for the establishment of a private television station.

Legal Status for Parties. In the previous law, obtaining legal status for a party required a minimum party structure at all levels—in all 9 regions, all 14 departments and all 139 municipalities, with minimum numbers set for these offices, for a total minimum of party members totaling 851. While the law exempted the numerous previously established parties from such requirements, these regulations were quite stringent. The Group of 14 asked that these standards be relaxed, so that to obtain legal status parties required a minimum national leadership of 9 people, with leadership in at least 10 departments and 30 municipalities.

The reformed law is even more relaxed than the Group of 14 requested: parties need only present a list of their national leadership and leadership in 9 departments. The minimum number of party members is not specified. In effect, Nicaraguans now can make a party out of their immediate family.

In comparison, Mexico requires that a party contain at least 65,000 members; Costa Rica requires at least 3,000; Venezuela, at least 0.5% of registered voters; Honduras, at least 10,000. Since the law was passed, at least 9 groups have requested party status. If all these are approved, this will result in a grand total of 22 parties—all of which, if they each field a candidate, will now have the right to equal access to state media and a sizeable chunk of public funding.

The reformed law also permits independent candidates to run. They will be eligible to receive public funding, in proportion to the percent of the population belonging to the group that presents their candidacy. This will be particularly important in some municipal elections and on the Atlantic Coast, where no parties except the FSLN have established deep roots.

The Supreme Electoral Council. How the five-member Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) is chosen continues to be one of the most contested issues in the electoral law debate. The 1988 law specifies that the president is to present 5 slates of 3 candidates, from which the National Assembly will choose the 5 magistrates. The opposition parties within the Assembly will suggest two of those slates to the President.

Under the reformed law, the president is to present 5 slates of candidates to the National Assembly, as before, with 3 slates chosen by himself. The main change is that the 2 other slates are to be suggested by the opposition both within and outside the National Assembly. The Assembly elects the CSE president from among the 5 magistrates chosen.

A further compromise was made when President Ortega announced after the electoral reforms were passed that one of the three slates he chose would be of "notables" unaffiliated with any political party. Thus, while the choice of slates ultimately rests with the president, he has in effect promised to provide the balance called for in the Esquipulas IV accords. Two slates would be his own selection, two slates would be the opposition's, and the fifth slate would be unaffiliated. The appointment of regional councils under the CSE and for authorities to run each voting place also take into account the recommendations made by opposition parties.

As Mariano Fiallos, current president of the CSE points out, electoral councils in Latin America can be of two types: they are either controlled by the largest political parties, or are composed of unaffiliated people chosen for their technical, legal abilities. Venezuela and El Salvador, to give just two examples, have provisions guaranteeing that the parties earning the most votes in the last election control the electoral council. Costa Rica and Guatemala, on the other hand, allow their Supreme Courts to appoint the electoral council. In all cases, only those with positions of prestige within the established system of a country are appointed to an electoral council.

The US system provides a balance between the two majority parties, but certainly provides no openings, much less guarantees, for minority party participation. No more than three of the six voting members of the Federal Election Commission can be from one party, with two nonvoting members being the Secretary of the Senate and the Clerk of the House. In a manner comparable to the Nicaraguan system, the President appoints the voting members with the Senate’s “advice and consent.”

The Nicaraguan situation offers particular problems for establishing a "neutral" electoral council. Finding an "impartial, unaffiliated" person in this country is "like looking for a needle in a haystack," said Carlos Núñez, president of the National Assembly, during the debate over CSE selection. Given the importance of this point to the opposition, it is likely, however, that the government will try to find that needle in a haystack, particularly for the seat that President Ortega has promised to reserve for an unaffiliated notable.

The 5% Rule. The 1988 law had tightened requirements for a party to earn a seat in the National Assembly, in an effort to encourage parties to form alliances and to avoid a legislature full of tiny parties. Parties receiving less than 5% of the vote in a given region would not receive a seat; their votes would be distributed among the other parties. Such rules are common in European countries. In Mexico, a party not only does not receive a seat but loses its official status if it receives less than 1.5% of the national vote.

Agreeing to the demand of the opposition parties, the president's bill eliminated the 5% rule. As in the 1984 elections, parties earning a small percentage of the vote can win a seat in the legislature. Rules on how seats are assigned in cases where a party does not earn the minimum to win a seat in a given region, however, remain the same as in the 1988 law, favoring the larger parties.

What the opposition did not get

Two opposition demands that were not met concerned who is eligible to vote. The Group of 14 called on the government to extend the franchise to citizens abroad and to deny it to active military.

Voting Abroad. None of the Latin American countries we looked at permit voting abroad. For countries such as El Salvador, Mexico and Nicaragua, voting abroad raises the problem that hundreds of thousands of citizens who have emigrated to the United States or other countries and who will probably never return would have an influence on domestic politics.

The reformed law does, however, permit Nicaraguans to register abroad and return home to vote, thus making it easier for those who are traveling or temporarily living abroad.

Military Suffrage. The FSLN takes a strong stance on the military's right to vote. Given its conception of the Nicaraguan army as a popular force, an army of the people, denying them the right to vote would be, as President Ortega put it, highly "anti-democratic." The Group of 14 contends that the army is tied to the party and thus the FSLN exercises an unfair advantage over these voters. To address this criticism, the government will permit political parties to campaign on military bases.

There is some tradition in Latin America of restricting the military from voting; for example, the military cannot vote in Venezuela, Guatemala and Honduras. But in 85% of the 55 countries in a survey published by Barricada on April 16, the military do have the right to vote. Costa Rica, El Salvador and the United States are among the many countries where the military can vote.

Election of Mayors. The Group of 14 called for direct election of mayors. The 1988 law specifies that mayors are to be chosen by the municipal councils, who are elected by proportional representation. This remains unchanged.

While there are certainly arguments to be made for such direct elections, this does not appear to be a demand the opposition is pushing strongly. Given that opposition parties are organized mainly on the national level and have relatively little structure in the smaller towns, the way mayors are elected would not have so many practical implications outside of Managua and a few principal cities. This may become more important in the future.

The mechanics of elections

The reforms fine-tuned the already extensive provisions in the 1988 law to establish the mechanisms for a free and fair election. Each citizen will be issued a booklet that will be stamped where he or she votes. A list of registered voters will be published and posted in each local voting place and every political party may request a copy. Opposition party members will be included in every regional electoral council and in the authorities staffing each polling place. All political parties and independent candidates also have the right to post a poll-watcher in every voting place and vote-counting center during registration, voting and vote counting. Voting is by secret ballot.

During the campaign period, all parties may campaign freely, with full rights of assembly and expression. Demonstrations may be held without authorization; only prior notification is required.

To avoid an unfair advantage for the party in power, the "abuse and undue use" of state property and resources for purposes of campaigning is prohibited. Campaigning may not take place in government offices or by state employees during office hours or in universities or other schools during class time.

The Costa Rican and Venezuelan governments sent electoral experts to Nicaragua to offer advice. For the most part, this advice was of a technical nature concerning appointment of electoral authorities, registration and vote counting, and was accepted by the Nicaraguan government. Two principal suggestions that were not accepted were the Venezuelan suggestion to turn over one of the two state TV stations to a nongovernmental organization, and the Costa Rican advice to establish a system of national voters' cards.

CSE President Mariano Fiallos contended that the system of national cards with photos would be too difficult to carry out with the limited resources available, and would thus result in fewer people registering. The Venezuelan advisers agreed that such a system would not be necessary.

The opposition's demand for a national voters' card is somewhat ironic, given that in many other countries the issuance of such a card has been controversial, since it is seen as an unwarranted intrusion by the state on individual privacy.

International verification.

The Nicaraguan government has invited any number of governments and organizations to send observers to its elections. In accordance with Esquipulas IV, OAS and UN representatives have been invited to observe the entire process from the reforms of the electoral and media laws through the vote counting after elections. Other invited guests include the Venezuelan electoral advisers and the US AID-funded Center for Democracy. The Nicaraguan government's attitude towards international observation now as in the past is extremely open, following the reasoning that such openness is its best guarantee.

Ground rules for a fair election

To the extent that the reformed law makes it easier to form tiny minority parties and field candidates, it is not necessarily an improvement over the 1988 law. Given the overabundance of Nicaraguan parties, such reforms may not prove to be in the best interests of developing a healthy democracy. It is difficult to debate and draft policies with so many parties involved; the large number of parties only weakens the opposition. The provision to permit foreign financing only encourages political parties to keep focusing on international, particularly US, support, instead of getting down to the real business at hand: building a political base in the country they wish to govern. But these are provisions that the opposition demanded.

The electoral debate has not ended; as in 1984, it will continue up to and beyond the day the voters cast their ballots. There will probably be further compromises made about the appointment of the Supreme Electoral Council, for example, and the distribution of and amount of media time for campaigning.

Yet the reforms already take into account the bulk of opposition demands and meet the specifics of the Esquipulas IV accords. Rules governing recognition of new parties and public financing of campaigns are much more flexible and generous towards minority parties than the electoral codes of many other countries in the region. The mechanics for certifying every aspect of the elections from campaign practices through vote counting are elaborately spelled out, incorporating much of the technical advice provided by the Costa Rican and Venezuela electoral advisers. The ground rules are established for a fair election in which the party with the most support will win. It remains to be seen who decides to play the game.

Nicaraguan Government at a Glance
Nicaragua's system of government, established by the 1987 Constitution, draws from Latin American, European and US models. Like other Latin American nations, Nicaragua has four branches of government: executive, legislative, judicial and electoral. The president and vice president, who serve a six-year term and may be reelected, are chosen by direct election; whoever earns the most votes wins. Like the United States, Nicaragua allows for a strong presidency.

The single-chamber legislature, the National Assembly, is elected via proportional representation, as in most Latin American and Western European countries. Nicaragua, like other countries using this system of representation, has certain safeguards to discourage a proliferation of tiny parties in the legislature. Nonetheless, proportional representation provides for more minority party representation than the United States' winner-take-all system. Voters cast ballots for a party's slate in a given region. Representatives run for election every six years.

The National Assembly elects the seven-member Supreme Court from nominations submitted by the presidency.

The five-member Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) heads the electoral branch. The CSE and its nine three-member regional boards are responsible for administering elections and guaranteeing that they are free and fair. Complaints of unfair campaign practices, registration or vote-counting abuses are referred to the CSE.

All Nicaraguans may vote after the age of 16. Like the United States but unlike many other countries in the region, including Costa Rica, Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico and Venezuela, voting in Nicaragua is voluntary; it is considered a right but not an obligation.

Electoral Laws: A Comparison
Prerequisites for obtaining legal status for a party
Nicaragua: No minimum number of members; leadership at national level and in a minimum of 9 departments.
Costa Rica: At least 3,000 members.
El Salvador: At least 3,000 members.
Guatemala: At least 1 member for every 2,000 inhabitants; organization in at least 50 municipalities and 12 departments.
Honduras: At least 10,000 notarized signatures.
Venezuela: Members equaling at least 0.5% of registered voters.
Mexico: At least 3,000 members in every federal division for a total of no less than 65,000 members.
Spain: Party leaders sign statutes in presence of Interior Ministry.

How public campaign funds are distributedNicaragua: 50% divided equally among all parties/coalitions fielding candidates; 50% divided according to proportion of vote received in last election.
Costa Rica: Divided according to proportion of vote received in last election; only those winning more than 5% of vote receive financing.
El Salvador: Divided according to number of votes obtained.
Guatemala: Divided according to number of votes obtained; only those winning more than 4% of vote receive financing.
Honduras: Divided according to number of votes obtained.
Venezuela: Divided according to proportion of vote received in last election; only those winning more than 5% of vote receive financing.
US: Public matching funds distributed according to votes received in last election, according to whether party is classified as a majority, minority or new party.
Spain: Divided according to number of seats obtained.

Is foreign financing of campaigns permitted? Nicaragua: Yes. 50% goes to the designated party, 50% to a general electoral fund.
El Salvador: No.
Honduras: No.
Venezuela: No.
US: It is illegal for foreign nationals to give, or US candidates to receive, any money or other thing of value for any type of campaign or convention.

Appointment and composition of electoral councilNicaragua: 5 magistrates are selected by the legislature from 5 slates of 3 candidates each presented by the President. Of those 5 slates, 2 are to be recommended by the legally registered opposition parties, and the President chooses 3. The President has informally agreed that 1 of the 3 slates he chooses will be of unaffiliated notables.
El Salvador: 3 magistrates chosen by legislature from 3 slates of 3 candidates presented by the 3 parties/coalitions that received the most votes in last election.
Guatemala: 5 magistrates chosen by Supreme Court; are representatives of state and private universities and dean of law school.
Honduras: Magistrates are nominated by the executive branch with a magistrate and alternate designated by the Supreme Court and each legally registered party.
Venezuela: 9 magistrates; 5 chosen by parties obtaining the most votes in last elections; 4 to be unaffiliated citizens.
US: 8 members. The 6 voting members are appointed by the President with the advice and consent the Senate; no more than 3 are to be from one party. Secretary of Senate and Clerk of House are nonvoting members.

Length of campaignNicaragua: 10 months, including initial 4-month organization period.
Costa Rica: 6 months
El Salvador: 4 months
Guatemala: 120 days
Honduras: 6 months
Venezuela: 5 months
Mexico: 4 months

Use of state-owned mediaNicaragua: Parties are guaranteed equal access to state-owned media, with a minimum total of 30 minutes/day on each state TV channel and 45 minutes/day on each state radio station reserved for national campaigns.
Costa Rica: 1 page/day in every newspaper, 8 hours/day on radio stations, 1 hour/day on TV channels is reserved for campaign. Not specified how it is to be distributed.
El Salvador: State media to grant equal time to all political parties.
Guatemala: All parties/coalitions have right to 30 minutes/week on state radio and TV.
Venezuela: State media to grant equal time to political parties.

Is voting voluntary or obligatory? Nicaragua: voluntary
Costa Rica: obligatory
El Salvador: obligatory
Guatemala: obligatory
Venezuela: obligatory
US: voluntary
Spain: voluntary
Mexico: Obligatory

Can citizens vote abroad? Nicaragua: No, but they can register abroad.
Costa Rica: No.
Venezuela: No, but they can register abroad.
El Salvador: No.
Guatemala: No.
Honduras: No, although law leaves open the possibility of allowing this in the future.
US: Yes.
Mexico: No.

Can the military vote? Nicaragua: Yes.
Costa Rica: Yes.
El Salvador: Yes.
Guatemala: No.
Honduras: No.
Venezuela: No.
US: Yes.
Spain: Yes.
Mexico: Yes.

Is campaigning by all parties permitted on military bases? Nicaragua: Yes.
Costa Rica: No.
El Salvador: No.
Guatemala: Not applicable.
Honduras: Not applicable.
Venezuela: Not applicable.

Source: Office of Legal Counsel, Nicaraguan National Assembly.

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