Voter Registration Proceeds Smoothly
With two of four registration days completed as we go to press, the civic process in Nicaragua proceeds as scheduled. For the first four Sundays in October, Nicaraguan citizens are registering to vote in the 1990 elections. Over 830,000 of an estimated 1.8 million eligible citizens registered in the first two Sundays.
In a country with few resources, a contra war and an abnormally late rainy season (causing rivers to flood and making transportation difficult), the fact that 4,367 of the 4,394 registration centers nationwide were open is testimony to the commitment to carry out the current electoral process as fairly and extensively as possible. The Supreme Electoral Council (CSE), the body in charge of carrying out the elections, managed to send electoral materials to even the remotest registration centers—whether by four-wheel drive, boat, plane, or foot.
Politicians all along the political spectrum have been urging citizens to register. Even those contras still in Nicaragua apparently have advised peasants to register, adding that their vote in February should be for UNO, a coalition of 11 rightwing parties funded by the US. While in general the contras appear to be urging peasants to register, 25 registration centers were unable to open on the first day because of the contra threat.
Many accusations, few major problems The week following the first day of registration saw many accusations of irregularities regarding the registration process in the three daily papers. Complaints ranged from not accepting certain kinds of identification to refusal of some registration center presidents to let opposition poll watchers enter. João Baena Soares, General Secretary of the OAS, observed 35 registration centers the first Sunday, and stated in a press conference the next day, "My personal observation is that the process went normally. I did not verify a single obstacle or complaint that could compromise the process." Fifty-two OAS observers as well as over 20 UN observers covered more than 1,400 of the 4,394 registration centers the first day. By the last Sunday they expect to have covered all of them.
Most complaints focused on administrative difficulties that were ironed out by the second Sunday. One registration center president in Ciudad Sandino noted that while most of the secretaries (in charge of actually writing each registered citizen's name in the voting lists) are teachers, many of them were initially hesitant about their abilities, and so took two to three times longer to write in the names than normal. The second Sunday showed vast improvement—375,560 registered the first Sunday, and over 450,000 the second. The day before the second registration day, the CSE made periodic public announcements on the radio explaining certain details of the law that had been problematic the first week.
Other problems were related to infrastructure. In some regions of Nicaragua, the rains were particularly heavy. While only two registration centers did not open the first Sunday because of rain, others reported lower than expected registration due to the difficulties with transportation. An OAS observer group spent half of the first Sunday stuck in a rain-swollen river outside Estelí. Other registration centers complained that they did not receive the 120,000 córdobas (US$5) to cover expenses for the poll watchers and registration officials in time for lunch.
Dr. Mariano Fiallos, president of the Supreme Electoral Council, emphasized to envío the success of the first two registration days. "The only significant [problem]," he told envío, "is the 25 registration centers that could not open because of contra activity. In the rest of the country there were some problems, but I consider them minor because they did not statistically affect the results of registration." Dr. Fiallos noted as well that while some opposition electoral officials and poll watchers complained that they did not receive their accreditation in time for the first Sunday, the CSE had moved back the deadline for submitting names, thus shortening the time available to carry out the accreditations.
Dr. Gustavo Tablada, of UNO, told envío that while he does not claim that the CSE purposely created the situation of leaving insufficient time for the accreditation, the problems demonstrate "an enormous deficiency in the Regional Electoral Councils." The CSE itself has acknowledged its financial and infrastructure limitations.
Despite the many accusations of registration irregularities published in La Prensa, when questioned directly Dr. Tablada was very reserved in his criticisms of the current process, confirming the CSE judgment that despite certain administrative problems, the registration process continues very smoothly.
Eager to serve but sticklers for detail Each registration center consists of eight people: a president and two members in charge of verifying identification and interpreting the law; three secretaries to write the names in the registries; and two electoral police (armed only in the war zones). In addition, each party or alliance has the right to a poll watcher, and official observers are allowed to enter the
center as well.
In the rural areas, but also to a certain extent in Managua, people registering noted that in some centers, the president, in an attempt to be extra-careful, interpreted the Electoral Law too strictly. One woman went to register with her birth certificate as identification and was refused because it was not a photo ID, despite the fact that the law specifically mentions that birth certificates are legitimate. In northern Nicaragua, a 70-year-old man had no identification and was told he would have to bring two witnesses who were older than him. He replied, "OK, but you will have to lend me a wheelbarrow because the only people older than me can't walk." The Electoral Law allows for witnesses to swear to a person's identity if he or she has no identification, but says nothing about the age of the witnesses.
The war over? For the citizens living near the 25 registration centers that could not open the first Sunday because of the threat of contra activity, the war is not yet over. Dr. Fiallos, head of the CSE, explained to envío that each registration center president has the right and the duty to close a registration center if he or she feels that its operation would put the officials or those registering in danger. Thus, while there were no direct contra attacks on registration centers on the first two Sundays, the continued presence of armed contras limited the registration process. The number of registration centers closed the second Sunday because of the contras was not yet available as we went to press. Witness for Peace, however, reported that three of six registration centers in the Bocana de Paiwas, Matagalpa area could not open due to the danger.
Witness for Peace, which has 20 volunteers working throughout the Nicaraguan war zones, reported that on September 10 a group of contras attacked a brigade of six men doing political campaigning for the Sandinistas outside of Río Blanco, Matagalpa. The men, who are militia members from a small cooperative, had been working in the area for four months, explaining the Central American peace process, the electoral process, contra demobilization and voter registration. They were attacked at night while sleeping in a military post in La Ponzona, just outside of Río Blanco. Three of the men were injured.
CSE finances When the elections were first announced in February of this year, costs were estimated at $25 million, far more than the government can budget given the economic crisis. Initial hopes for large quantities of international aid have been modified to expectations of $5-6 million. As of mid-September the CSE had received $3.5 million in donations, including computers from West Germany, equipment and materials from Spain and Sweden, as well as aid from Switzerland, the United Nations, Canada, and the Nicaragua Network and Quest for Peace in the United Sates.
The National Assembly approved only a $14 million budget for the CSE. The funds, however, will be taken from other state institutions and ministries, which already operate on a tight budget. Foreign funding will help to reduce the pressure on the ministries. The CSE, maintaining its commitment to an open electoral process, has hired Armando Yllescas Associates, an internationally recognized auditing firm, to audit their finances.
The CSE was forced to cut almost half of its original estimated budget, cutting some programs completely and modifying others. One item that was cut was the purchase of 6,000 Polaroid cameras to produce photo ID registration cards—the costs of the cameras, the film and the technicians came to $3 million.
The CSE had also originally planned to provide transportation to all election officials, but was unable to obtain enough vehicles. Instead, in the rural areas, the CSE is borrowing vehicles from institutions and individuals on the registration days.
Some costs have increased—for instance, the opposition parties' demands in August's National Dialogue to change the registration schedule have raised those costs significantly. Registration was originally planned for two periods of three consecutive days, but the opposition demanded that it occur on four Sundays. The CSE therefore has to send materials to every center four times instead of two, doubling the transportation costs.
A third source of CSE funds, in addition to Nicaraguan government funding and direct donations, is the "Fund For Democracy." By law, 50% of all such donations must go to the CSE's Fund for Democracy in order to help cover the costs of the elections. Nicaragua is one of just a few countries that permit parties to receive foreign donations. The fund is currently empty, because parties have yet to acknowledge receiving foreign funding. Dr. Fiallos noted that the CSE expects to receive 50% of any funding that goes directly to UNO, as per the law, including the $4 million just approved by the US Congress for the UNO opposition alliance. UNO has stated publicly that it welcomes all financial support for its campaign, as long as it goes through the proper legal channels. However, there is strong evidence that UNO has already received several million dollars in covert CIA funding.