The Final Stretch of the Electoral Process
The two weeks prior to the elections were filled with intense political activity. Widespread political campaigning and public debates among all seven participating parties belie the charges that Nicaragua’s electoral was devoid of opposition or that the results were predetermined. On the contrary, the last stretch of the campaign period, and the voting results themselves, revealed many surprises.
The Rio de Janeiro talksIn the days following the October 1 and 2 meetings in Rio de Janeiro between leaders of the Democratic Coordinating Committee (CDN), headed by Arturo Cruz, and Bayardo Arce of the FSLN’s National Directorate, more details regarding those talks were revealed. The occasion for the encounter was a meeting of the Socialist International (SI) Bureau.
It became clear that: 1) the FSLN initiated the talks—before witnesses of the SI—upon learning of the CDN’s presence in Rio; 2) the over 20 “electoral guarantees” demanded by the CDN—such as more media time, more government money for paper supplies, etc—were granted by Bayardo Arce in exchange for a commitment by Cruz and the CDN to call on the counterrevolutionary leaders of the FDN and ARDE to implement a genuine ceasefire. (On numerous occasions, both Cruz and these leaders—Calero for the FDN and Pastora for ARDE—have reiterated their mutual good relations and regular contact.) In exchange, the FSLN would postpone the elections until January 1985; 3) following a brief period in which the talks seemed to be progressing well, Cruz became ambiguous and doubtful as to whether the CDN leaders in Managua would support the accords. (It is widely believed that negative reactions to any commitment would come from the leaders of the Supreme Council of Private Enterprise, who guide the CDN’s political course.); 4) given that Cruz has stated that he could not sign any final agreements without prior consultation with CDN members in Managua, the SI representatives present asked that the deadline be extended so the CDN could register its candidates for the elections. As Arturo Cruz offered no clear indication of how long an extension might be needed, Arce inferred that he was facing another stalling tactic and not a serious commitment. At that point, it appears that the talks reached a standstill.
In Rio, Arce explained the stages of the conversations in detail, including why and how they failed. In Managua and in other countries, the CDN has only pointed out the final stage of the meetings, accentuating the Sandinistas’ “intransigence” and, consequently, the elections’ supposed illegitimacy.
The SI leaders who witnessed the long rounds of talks have preferred to abstain from commenting in order to remain neutral. However, declarations by SI President Willy Brandt while visiting Managua (October 13 and 14), Havana (October 15) and Mexico (October 19) indicate the open and confident position of the Social Democratic sectors within the SI toward the Nicaragua revolution and the elections.
Brandt in Managua: “In all electoral processes, only those who want to participate can participate” (referring to the deadline by which the CDN was to register its candidates). “I came to this country as a friend, and am leaving as a friend, with great respect for the revolutionary heritage and the achievements accomplished under such difficult conditions.”
Brandt in Mexico: “Go to Managua, and you will see, as I saw, a city covered with electoral campaign posters of different political parties, which are all competing under equal conditions…. The sensible thing would have been for Arturo Cruz’s group to participate. But the negotiations failed, and that group missed the train.”
Brandt in Havana: “As far as I am concerned, the most important part of any election is not who wins but whether the electoral process is carried out normally. The general rule is that whoever wants to participate can do so, and one must not make the mistake of thinking that Arturo Cruz’s group is the only opposition group that exists in Nicaragua…. Given that the past elections in El Salvador were characterized by George Shultz as democratic and perfect, despite their having been carried out in only part of that country, and despite the fact that participation in them was strictly limited to tendencies to the right of Duarte, it is astonishing that Shultz is calling the Nicaraguan elections a sham because a sector of the opposition decided not to run of its own accord. Nor does Shultz’s position make any allowance for the war being waged on Nicaragua’s borders.”
In his statements, Brandt clearly suggested the lack of political will displayed by the CDN. Tomás Borge summed up the Rio talks in these words: “The FSLN’s desire for the CDN to register and run in the elections was as strong as the CDN’s determination not to do so.”
The political parties summit meeting Whereas the Rio talks provide the CDN with new “arguments” against the elections on an international level, the talks helped define the framework of the political debate within Nicaragua. The six parties running against the FSLN criticized the CDN’s abstention and charged that its image as the “only legitimate” opposition in the country was being inflated not only internationally but also within Nicaragua. They added that the FSLN was partly responsible for distorting this image by paying too much attention to the CDN. In response to their demands, the FSLN met with all six parties to inform them at length of the Rio talks and the negotiations underway with the US in Manzanillo.
In early October, the six parties held meetings to analyze the national situation. This opened they way for new relations with the FSLN, representatives of which were invited to the meetings. The three parties of the CDN (which were definitely not running by this time) were also invited, but refused to attend.
These meeting became the prelude to an event of major importance in the final stretch of the campaign: the political parties’ summit meeting. It took place from October 9 to 20 and included 60 hours of discussion in 7 rounds of talks. The talks were complex, partly because of the marked ideological differences of the parties and partly to the parties’ attempts to move beyond the immediate issues of the electoral process to assure themselves a larger share of political influence before the elections. One of the principal promoters of the summit, Virgilio Godoy of the PLI, pressured more than anyone else for post-electoral concessions, conditioning his participation in the elections on the nature of those concessions.
The summit produced a set of important agreements signed by all seven parties on October 20. The following are the agreements with the regard to the country’s post-electoral political future.
A. To continue the democratic institutionalization of our revolutionary process, which includes:
l. Periodical elections.
2. Freedom of press and expression.
3. Freedom of Organization.
4. Freedom of movement.
5. Freedom to unionize and guarantees for union democracy.
6. All Nicaraguans, regardless of their political or religious creed, will have the right and duty to participate in the defense of the country and the revolution. They will also be entitled to hold any position of responsibility in the Armed Forces on the sole basis of their military and patriotic merits.
7. Within the context of the mixed economy, the government will guarantee diverse forms of property, including: state, private, cooperative and personal, as well as combinations of these, in keeping with the laws established in the interests of the nation.
8. Once the Constitution of the Republic is drawn up and made public, municipal authorities will be democratically elected. Without reducing the authority of the central government, these municipal authorities will enjoy sufficient autonomy and will be obligated to keep the citizenry informed regarding their administrative activities.
9. The citizens’ free choice and desire to participate will be the basis for forming all community and neighborhood organizations. Such organizations will have a social function and will not be of a political nature.
B. To maintain and broaden the democratic freedoms achieved to date by the revolutionary process:
1. All political parties registered for the electoral campaign will retain their legal status, regardless of the results of the elections.
2. The political parties registered and participating in the current electoral process will maintain the right to use the state communications media throughout the period during which the Constitution will be drafted. The amount of time allotted to each party will be proportional to the number of votes received in the elections.
The final obstacle: Crises in the PLI and PCDAfter signing the summit meeting accords, which included an agreement to participate in the November 4 elections, Virgilio Godoy announced that his party, the PLI, was withdrawing from the elections.
The decision was made on Sunday, October 21, during the PLI’s National Convention. (Godoy had announced some weeks earlier that the Liberals would decide at the Convention whether or not to run.) After 7 hours of debate, the Convention delegates chose not to run by 94 votes to 20. The announcement drew bewilderment and surprise, particularly in light of the recently signed summit accords. The impact this had outside Nicaragua was also very serious, as it added weight to the CDN’s campaign—initiated in July—to abstain from and discredit the elections.
It was significant that on the eve of the PLI’s Convention La Prensa—which until then had attacked the PLI for being an FSLN “collaborator” and profusely ridiculed Godoy—ran a story with lavish praise for the Liberals, particularly Godoy. The CDN, together with spokespersons from the US administration and the contra radio stations operating in Honduras and Costa Rica, applauded Godoy’s decision as proof that the electoral process was not legitimate.
On the evening of October 22, Godoy explained his position on national television. His argument can be summed up as follows: there aren’t sufficient guarantees for the people to express themselves; the elections won’t dispel the nation’s serious problems, nor will they restore peace. For the sake of peace—the nation’s top priority—the PLI was withdrawing from the electoral contest, convinced that only through a national dialogue including all sectors of society could a solution even be considered. (A national dialogue was, in fact, the basis for one of the agreements reached at the summit. It began on October 31.)
Immediately after Godoy’s announcement, dissident voices from both the leadership and base of the PLI began to emerge. They expressed their disagreement with Godoy and characterized the decision as unpatriotic and guided by the US. Two days before the PLI convention, Godoy allegedly met with US Ambassador to Nicaragua Harry Bergold, and the content of that interview was the subject of much speculation and debate. On October 30, Godoy presented the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) with a written request that the PLI’s symbols and candidates be withdrawn from the voting ballot. From its position as the fourth branch of government, and basing its response on the legal terms of the Electoral Law, the CSE replied the same day that, despite Godoy’s request, the PLI candidates would remain on the ballots and all votes cast in their favor would be counted as valid. The Council’s reasons for taking this measure were partly technical: there was no time or money to reprint the ballots, which, in addition, had already been distributed to the different polling centers.
Though strongly contested by Godoy as illegal, the CSE’s decision consolidated the split in the PLI. The vice presidential candidate for that party, Constantino Pereira, called on the party members and sympathizers (and the Nicaraguan people in general) to oppose Godoy’s abstentionist attitude and vote. In a long radio and television spot, Pereira justified his position—clearly from an anti-FSLN but patriotic perspective—with arguments such as these: “The parties and the candidates belong to the people…. The PLI is a party that respects the nation’s laws and acts within the established legal framework…. My attitude is one of dignity, and I am seeking to save the honor of the PLI…. My objective is to unify the PLI around a patriotic purpose.”
Godoy’s decision surprised many of his own party members, since he had made frequent references to the need to work for peace. There is much speculation as to why Godoy opted out of the electoral race. Without mentioning a name, Pereira affirmed that someone had offered Godoy the presidential candidacy in a coalition of parties that would be formed in order to oppose the FSLN in a post-November 4 election. Godoy had supposedly been guaranteed a victory in that election. Following the November 4 elections, Pereira declared: “It was a kind of last-minute resort; a type of commitment born of pride and arrogance, intensely nurtured by the promise that he could become the President of the Nicaraguan people.”
On October 28, the Democratic Conservative Party (PCD) held its National Convention to decide whether it would remain in the running or withdraw from the elections, as the PLI had done. Given the division within the PCD regarding abstention, it was feared that a similar crisis would emerge. A crisis did develop, but, in this case, PCD presidential candidate Clemente Guido and his supporters, who favored participation, won the very heated debate. “Mobs” of PCD youth supporters—to use the term La Prensa reserves only for Sandinista gatherings—hailed Clemente Guido’s resolution to continue running with slogans such as “Up with Clemente, down with the Frente.” Their overwhelming support for Guido defeated those in favor of withdrawal, led by the party’s General Secretary, Eenriwue Sotelo Borgen.
A national dialogue? The political parties’ summit meeting was an important prelude to the elections, as was the National Dialogue that ensued. The forum, which began on October 31 and was followed by two more sessions in the succeeding days, was attended by 33 organizations:
The seven parties that ran in the elections:
Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN)
Democratic Conservative Party (PCD)
Independent Liberal Party (PLI)
Popular Social Christian Party (PPSC)
Communist Party of Nicaragua (PC de N)
Nicaraguan Socialist Party (PSN)
Marxist-Leninist Popular Action Movement (MAP-ML)
The CDN parties and two small, recently acknowledged parties:
Social Christian Party (PSC)
Social Democratic Party (PSD)
Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC)
Nicaraguan Conservative Party (PCN)*
Central American Unionist Party (PUCA)**
Revolutionary Workers’ Party (PRT)**
*Although this party has never obtained legal status, it is participating in the National Dialogue.
** Both these parties obtained legal status too late to participate in the elections.
Sandinista and opposition labor unions:
Sandinista Workers’ Confederation (CST)
Nicaraguan Workers’ Confederation (CRN) (both factions)
Confederation of Labor Unity (CUS)
Confederation for Action and Labor Union Unification (CAUS)
General Labor Confederation-Independent (CGTI)
Workers’ Front (FO)
Association of Rural Workers (ATC)
Organized private business sector and private producers:
Supreme Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP) (pro-CDN)
National Union of Farmers and Ranchers (UNAG) (pro-FSLN)
Journalist, professional and student organizations:
Union of Nicaraguan Journalist (UPN)
Association of Nicaraguan Journalists (APN)
National Council of Professionals (CONAPRO)
National Council of Professionals—“Heroes and Martyrs” (CONAPRO HyM)
National Union of Nicaraguan Students (UNEN)
Nicaraguan Bishops’ Conference (CEN)
Evangelical Committee for Aid and Development (CEPAD)
Ecumenical Axis (Eje Ecuménico)
Moravian Church (IM)
Baptist Convention (CB)
The difficulties in reaching effective solutions were inevitable given the differences present in such a large and diverse group. The day on which the dialogue was to commence, the government junta sent a message to all participants underscoring the objectives it hoped would be accomplished through the event: to “strengthen patriotic spirit and national unity.” The message added: “The success of this National Dialogue will depend on the continuing will to close ranks in condemning the aggression against Nicaragua.”
However, not everyone participating in the Dialogue wanted to close ranks. During the first session, entailing five hours of debate, the CDN parties proposed that the elections be postponed—a condition they had demanded even before the Rio talks. During the second day’s debate, which lasted six hours, the CDN pressed even further for a postponement. The floor was taken 43 separate times to debate the issue before the proposal was defeated once and for all. During the third and final session before voting day, in a debate lasting five hours, the participants agreed to an agenda of 23 discussion points, grouped into 3 major themes: 1) defense against the aggression; 2) democratic institutionalization; and 3) the search for a political, social and economic solution to the national crisis.
On the one hand, the CDN claimed that the decision to initiate the National Dialogue immediately prior to election day reflected a desperate attempt by the FSLN to legitimize the elections domestically. On the other hand, the CDN’s battle to postpone the elections represented a desperate effort to undermine the electoral process.
In light of the CDN’s failure to discredit the elections, some medium-range forecasts might be made with respect to the survival of the National Dialogue. As occurred in the summit meetings, those sectors that subsequently receive little or no representation at the polls may attempt to use the dialogue as a means of applying pressure and gaining political influence before the National Assembly holds its opening session on January 10, 1985. If the dialogue were to continue beyond that date, it could become a parallel to the Assembly. Such an arrangement would please some of the groups opposing the FSLN, for it would provide them a more favorable balance of power than the National Assembly. Some of the more reactionary groups might also substitute their previous demand for a postponement of the elections with a demand that the elections be repeated. Some parties have already suggested that general elections be held after the Constitution is completed, probably two years from now.
Nevertheless, many questions remain unanswered. Given its complex and delicate nature, the National Dialogue could grind to a halt. The extreme rightwing sectors may seek to undermine the dialogue for propagandistic purposes. The reformist sectors will presumably attempt to maintain it in order to assure themselves an advantageous public forum. The FSLN is likely to try to keep it alive as a way to strengthen national unity in the face of ever-increasing aggression.
Preparations for November 4 Almost a week before election day, Nicaragua had more foreign visitors than ever before. It is estimated that there were 500 special quests and observers, and double that number of foreign journalists.
The counterrevolutionary groups remained active in the days leading up to the elections. One of their most-publicized acts of violence was an October 29 surprise mortar attack on the village San Gregorio, in the department of Nueva Segovia in which six children between the ages of five and eleven were killed. The counterrevolutionary radio stations in Honduras and Costa Rica advised Nicaraguans to go to the polls and cast a void ballot.
France donated 100,000 pens and 36 teletype machines¬, the latter to be used in Managua for the reception of nationwide results. Finland provided 50 calculators, as well as red indelible ink for marking voters’ thumbs. On October 15, the CSE began distributing the 4,000,000 multicolored ballots printed on high-quality paper donated by Sweden to the remotest areas of the country. The CSE announced that the total cost of the elections was 400,000,000 córdobas. “We met two enormous challenges in just eight months: the registration and the elections. According to technical experts, this kind of planning normally would have required three years… without a war,” said Roberto Everstz, the CSE’s Director of Electoral Affairs.
Even before the elections, many observers had predicted that aggression would intensify following the US elections. On October 31, the US Air Force’s most sophisticated spy plane flew over Nicaragua, purposely breaking the sound barrier. The “Blackbird” (SR-71) entered Nicaragua’s air space over the port of EL Bluff and left it over Chinandega, flying over Managua and other strategic points in seven minutes and producing supersonic booms. The same day, a US State Department pamphlet entitled “Sandinista Elections in Nicaragua (Reference Book)” began to circulate in Washington.
Managua appeared to defy the Blackbird on the afternoon of November 1, when the FSLN held a rally in celebration of the end of its electoral campaign. This was without doubt the largest of the 250 rallies that took place during the 94 days of campaigning, with 300,000 Managua residents attending the celebration, waving red-and-black flags and singing songs. Their joy was in sharp contrast with the dramatic tone of the speech made by presidential candidate Daniel Ortega: “We must accelerate our preparations for the defense of Managua… we have to be ready to face direct intervention at any time.” Carlos Mejía Godoy sang “Don’t Back Out on Me, My Friend,” recalling the days of the insurrection against Somoza.
The electoral campaign ended officially on November 2. That night, Abelino Hernández, president of the polling center in the rural peasant area of La Labranza, Condega, was talking with his wife Alicia about the work he would have to do the next day in preparation for the elections when a band of counterrevolutionaries shot open the door of their house. They beat Abelino brutally then slit his throat with their bayonets as “punishment” for his participation in the electoral process and as a warning to the 300 people registered to vote in that polling center. Abelino was buried on the eve of the elections. Some commented that his death was the last legitimization on the long and challenging road to election day.*
* The counterrevolutionaries murdered a total of eight electoral officials during the entire electoral period.
With their new shoes and Sunday best “This is a time of dignity” were the proud words of a radio announcer as she gave the time throughout the day of the elections. Beginning at 6:15 p.m. on November 3, the CSE provided continual information over the radio concerning the necessary steps for voting.
CSE President Mariano Fiallos spoke over the radio to call on the population to make use of its right to vote: “On behalf of the Supreme Electoral Council, I am appealing to the civic consciousness of all the nation’s citizens in the hope that you will come vote to show your love for peace and your high degree of patriotic responsibility, to refute the claims of those who systematically attempt to sully our electoral process and to strike a moral blow against those who are attacking our country.”
Nicaraguans did come out to vote. In many districts, peasants lined up in their best clothing, with new shoes and hats. In Managua, there were no special controls or troops deployed in the streets. The capital’s 957 polling centers allowed for a continual yet uncrowded flow of voters. Most of the long lines formed during the early morning hours had thinned out by 10 am. “It all seems very formal and very silent,” said a Canadian observer to a member of the electoral police on duty in one of Managua’s eastern neighborhoods. His response was: “That’s what Nicaraguans are like—cheerful and calm.” These two adjectives, very common in everyday Nicaraguan speech, describe to perfection the dignified solemnity that prevailed on November 4.
Following an order issued by the Ministry of the Interior, the electoral police gave priority in the voting lines to the elderly, the sick and pregnant women. After depositing her ballots in the blue and grey boxes, a 100-year-old Managua woman remarked: “This is the first time in my life that I’ve voted. All the other elections were just a joke…. Today I voted for Sandino.” An hour earlier, over the Voice of America radio station, Father Bismarck Carballo, spokesperson for the Archbishop of Managua, stated: “As a priest, I have no political opinions. Opinions should come from the political parties, but the parties have said that these elections are not legitimate.” An older woman said: “There are no tamales and no liquor here. People have come here to vote.” She was referring to elections during the Somoza era, when the dictator bought votes with food and rum. The day after those elections, the streets were strewn with dozens of drunken men.
At 9:30 in the morning, a group of electoral police was ambushed on a Matagalpa road and one was killed. This was the counterrevolutionaries’ only reported “success” on election day, although several days latter, it was learned that 16 polling centers, most of them located in the border and central areas of Zelaya, had been unable to open or function normally because of harassment by the contras. The war, which has forced thousands of Nicaraguans into military service, also prevented many of them from voting in the November 4 elections, the first ever to be held against the will of a US government.
The decision by hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguans to take part in the elections revealed a sincere and profound desire for peace. In order to cast their votes, many had to wait for hours or travel long distances on foot or horseback, despite threats that they would be attacked. A 70-year-old woman from León told journalists: “We want Mr. Reagan to be charitable with us; we want him to respect us.”
Foreign journalists and observers were free to scrutinize all the steps of the voting process, which was basically simple. “We were aware that the more complications there were, the easier it would be to commit irregularities,” said Roberto Everstz of the CSE.
In each of the two electoral ballots (one for President and Vice President and one for the National Assembly representatives) the voter was to mark an “X” in the circle beneath the name and symbol of the party of his or her choice. Some voters put an “X” in each of the seven circles, thereby voiding their ballots unknowingly. One elderly woman who told a family member she had done this was asked why: “I wanted to give each one a little bit so they’d all be happy; that way, all together, we can achieve peace.”
Some peasants had to travel as many as 65 kilometers to and from their polling centers. “Wasn’t that too far to go?” “No, it meant one more vote.” After voting, people proudly showed their neighbors their red thumbs.
The official closing time at the polls was 6 pm, though in some cases centers stayed open a few extra minutes to allow latecomers to vote. In certain small rural centers, in contrast, the doors were closed early because all registered voters had already cast their ballots. The first results were telegraphed to Managua at 3 pm from the locality of La Tigrera (Rivas), where 33 of the 35 electors voted for the FSLN. Other results arrived in Managua several days later. Some came by helicopter from the war zones, while others were carried on horseback or in motorboats from far-off regions of the Atlantic Coast.
Toward the end of the afternoon, the radio stations began to invite the population to participate in the celebration for the victory of the people—not that of any one party. The main squares of the cities and towns were alive with dancing, piñatas, fireworks and giant effigies. In Managua, approximately 100,000 people danced until the early morning hours in the newly constructed square near the lake.
The first officials data offered during the evening of the 4th indicated that participation exceeded 80% of registered voters (the final figure dropped to 75.4%). The November 5 front-page headline in the FSLN’s Barricada was: “A victory for Sandino in Free Elections.” That of El Nuevo Diario was “The people Won.” Denying what people had witnessed with their own eyes, La Prensa claimed there had been massive abstention, while suggesting that new elections be held in 1985. Its headline read: “Voting Takes Place with Great Apathy.”
The electoral results contradict La Prensa . The figures reveal that both the CDN call for abstention and that of the counterrevolutionaries for the casting of void votes failed. The results also disproved predictions that “totalitarian” Nicaragua would hold a “Soviet-like plebiscite.”
The people of Nicaragua voted with liberty and maturity, despite the numerous obstacles facing them. A peasant from Las Segovias told us why he—and perhaps many others—went to vote: “So the whole world will know what we want.”