Nicaragua Is the Municipal Elections’ Big Loser
Unlike some Latin American countries,
Nicaragua has a tested faith in elections.
Have Nicaraguans lost their faith this time around?
That is only one, and certainly not the most anguishing,
of the many questions these municipal elections have raised.
Many voters saw them as a plebiscite on the Ortega government
and do not believe the announced results,
which have brought the country to a new crisis
as terrible as it was predictable.
Nicaraguans voted for new municipal authorities in the middle of a planetary economic crisis. Although it has hit this fragile country hard, President Daniel Ortega calls this crisis “God’s punishment to the Yankee empire,” which he claims has converted the United States into “a third world country.”
The November 9 elections came only five days after we watched a charismatic, thoughtful, sensitive African American win the US presidency, which was a breath of fresh air for many Nicaraguans and much of the world. But the morning after our own elections, the opposition Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC) Alliance denounced Nicara-gua’s electoral results as a fraud, offering evidence. The following day there was disorder and violence in the capital and other points around the country.
With the Catholic bishops in the lead, a good part of society rejected the results and in a generalized climate of distrust proposed that the electoral authority recount all tally sheets with the participation of independent national and international observers. Nicaragua’s election watchdog organization Ethics and Transparency (E&T), which had been denied the right to observe the elections officially and thus did so from outside the voting places, called these elections “the least transparent and most conflictive of our recent history.”
No official figures
Nicaragua’s 3.8 million registered electorate was voting for mayor, deputy mayor and Municipal Council members in 146 of the country’s 153 municipalities. According to the “provisional” results released after five days by the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE), the FSLN won more than 90 mayoral seats, including the capital city Managua, while the PLC, running in alliance with the We’re Going with Eduardo (VCE) movement, took second place with some 50 municipal wins. Of the three other parties on the ballot, the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance, founded by Eduardo Monte-alegre but taken away from him by the CSE earlier this year, ran a distant third, winning 3 seats. The other two, Alternative for Change and the National Resistance Party, only exceeded 1% of the vote in a handful of municipalities.
The PLC-VCE Alliance refused to recognize these results and again charged that there had been a “gigantic attempted fraud.” Few government officials offered declarations or voiced opinions, although the official media claimed that what was going on was a “media operation” prepared in advance to delegitimize the elections and destabilize the government.
A “sweeping” victory
The CSE announced the first preliminary results at 11 pm on election night. With as few as 4-5% of the tallies counted, the FSLN had a big initial lead in the majority of the departmental capitals, including Managua, and in most other municipalities—even those it has never won before. By then FSLN supporters were already celebrating around the country.
How were they so sure of victory? Did those first results represent a trend? Or had they been negotiated earlier by Ortega and Alemán? It had been an open secret for months, particularly after the CSE magistrates eliminated two parties opposed to the pact from the race, that they were divvying up the departmental capitals, where 75% of the national population lives. But even so, the announced results were giving the FSLN an exaggerated lead. Had that been agreed to as well?
By midnight the FSLN celebrations became even more massive. They were noisiest in Managua, the most important win for the FSLN. Pro-FSLN radio stations spoke of a “sweeping victory” predicting over 100 mayoral posts (even more than the target the FSLN had publicly set) and 12 of the 16 departmental capitals.
Hours later the CSE gave new election results. There had been some changes in the initially presented “trends,” in which the FSLN had swept the field. It was still winning, but not by as much.
Curiously the Liberal magistrates weren’t at CSE President Roberto Rivas’ side in this formal second reading. What was happening inside the PLC? A few hours later, Eduardo Montealegre announced that he had proof he had won the Managua mayoral race and labeled the results offered by the CSE “shameful, immoral and irresponsible.”
The CSE paves the way
Throughout this electoral year, the CSE has calculatedly put one obstacle after another in the opposition parties’ election path, paving the way for the governing party. First it drastically moved up the electoral calendar for registering electoral alliances and candidate lists. Next it cancelled the elections in seven municipalities of the northern Caribbean region. Then it cancelled the legal status of the Conservative Party and the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS)—a full month after having accepted and certified their candidate lists. And finally it annulled Eduardo Montealegre’s legal representation of the ALN, replacing him with a Liberal in the governing party’s orbit.
For the first time in its history, the CSE placed virtually no publicity in the media inviting the population to vote. Was it doing its bit for abstention, which by definition favors the most organized party with a solid loyal vote—in this case the FSLN? It fell to civil society and the vast Catholic Church network to actively encourage people to vote and remind them that the vote is secret. Managua mayoral candidate Eduardo Montealegre, who had ended up accepting the offer to run on the PLC ticket when he lost his own party, also stressed the secret nature of the vote in his propaganda.
All over the country there were delays and reported selectivity in processing requests for voter ID cards. In the run-up to the elections the CSE made a surprising joint announcement with the Ministry of Government that the government would select all three “electoral police” at each voting table—in the past it had only chosen one of the three. It contracted untrained people for 100 córdobas (under $5) plus a t-shirt and an arm band identifying them.
The final danger sign of an impending fraud was the CSE’s refusal to accredit the two recognized national observer teams: Ethics & Transparency (E&T), which is the Nicaraguan chapter of Transparency International, and the Institute for Democracy (IPADE). The distrust and suspicions could have been defused had they been present in the voting places and computer centers.
Demands, requests and suggestions regarding observers came from all quarters: national and international authorities including ambassadors from the European Union countries, the business leaders of Nicaragua’s Supreme Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP) and even Cardinal Obando, who is now an unconditional ally of the governing party. But in the end, national observation was excluded, with the electoral magistrates insisting that they are “sovereign”; they “are the law.”
All this was endorsed overtly or by omission by the pro-Alemán CSE magistrates. The result of these and other pre-electoral maneuvers was that virtually the entire electoral branch, from the top authorities right down to the officials at the 11,808 voting tables around the country, was in the hands of people beholden one way or another to the governing party.
A preference for opacity
In such a polarized and tense environ-ment, the presence of observers, at least on election day, would have been some sign that the government had nothing to hide and wanted to ensure legitimize the results with transparency. But it clearly preferred opacity.
President Ortega began playing down the need for national electoral observers in mid-October, claiming “they aren’t impartial” and alleging the “maturity” of Nicaragua’s electoral process. The government also elected not to invite international observers such as the Carter Center and the Organization of American States, both of which have participated in Nicara-gua’s elections since 1990. Against the din of the growing post-election conflict the Carter Center called on the CSE to “conduct a transparent review of the electoral results on a national scale” with the participation of national observers.
The government insists that there was international observation, however. Only three days before the elections, observers from the Tikal Protocol and the Quito Protocol arrived in Managua, where they were treated to an interminable speech by President Ortega recalling having been the victim of fraud in 1996. Then on election day they visited some voting centers.
Months earlier the CSE financed the stay in Nicaragua of a group of electoral technicians from CEELA, a group promoted by the Venezuelan government in yet another attempt by President Chávez to disqualify the OAS as a representative hemispheric body. CEELA’s first president and still its honorary president is current CSE chief Roberto Rivas.
Inter-American Institute of Human Rights representative Roberto Cuéllar arrived just before the elections and upon leaving stated that “international observation can neither see nor control everything. National observation is what legitimizes the process.”
Gratuitous political cost
Ethics & Transparency and IPADE have observed the national, municipal and regional elections for the past 12 years, demonstrating real professionalism and accumulating experience by observing the whole process from start to finish. By being present in situ on election day for the setting up, opening, voting and ballot counting and scrutiny at each voting table, they know what to look for. They also do their own quick count of the results, which has served to countercheck and endorse the official results, as they have always coincided with minimal differences. All this has made them trusted independent guarantors.
Rejecting the government’s refusal to allow national observers, IPADE said the CSE was setting “a negative historical precedent by prohibiting a civic practice that is promoted and protected in Latin America and the world.” For its part, E&T said the CSE is “old enough to recognize and assume the gratuitous and unnecessary political cost it is causing the country and the current electoral process by stigmatizing the national organizations, refusing to accredit us, contravening the Constitution and the [Electoral] Law, giving rise to distrust, presumption and suspicion.” The CSE’s withholding of accreditation for the national observers not only kept public opinion in suspense right up to election day, but also added to the suspicion that a fraud was being prepared.
In a setting so strictly controlled by an electoral apparatus favoring the governing party, the only other possible counterweight on election day would come from the monitors of the PLC-VCE Alliance. The President and the electoral magistrates stated that the party monitors would be the only observers because they were the most interested in observing. This is a reasonable argument on the face of it, but it should be remembered that of the five parties in the race, the three smallest were allies of the governing party so the only critical eyes at the voting table were those of the PLC-VCE Alliance.
To do their job, the Liberal monitors had to deal with a hostile environment and a whole series of obstacles that cropped up along the way. One monitor explained how “we spent hours in the voting center enduring strong pressure and intimidation by the CPCs [the FSLN’s Councils of Citizens’ Power], which controlled the whole center where we were. The electoral police, the representative of the govern-ment’s human rights ombudsperson, the CSE personnel who came to supervise and all the rest of the board at the table were pure Danielistas.” And of course there were the always seductive offers of perks from the governing party’s political operators.
All this made for pretty opaque elections and a national mood of uncertainty the next day, with the electoral results under suspicion well before the CSE’s first preliminary announcements. What ensued threw the country into a new institutional crisis, gave us a glimpse of a political fissure in the Ortega-Alemán pact—could it be a lasting one?—and plunged the country into regrettable extremes of violence.
An uncertain election day…
Some voters feared they would be intimidated if they went to vote. That fear was justified in Managua and León, the two municipalities most coveted by the FSLN. A few days before the formal opening of the electoral campaign on September 20, the FSLN mayoral candidate and other party leaders in León had headed up shock groups that used extreme violence to prevent an opposition march. Violent incidents followed in Managua and other points as well, in which FSLN sympathizers attacked opponents with rocks and clubs. Just uncontrolled political passions or calculated intimidation?
Just days before the elections the media reported that groups from the CPCs, directed from the presidential offices, were going house to house in the most populous Managua barrios with governing party flags and t-shirts. Supposedly evaluating the govern-ment’s social programs, they asked how many people voted in each house and who they were going to vote for, then wrote down the answers. Given the tense atmosphere, it was impossible not to view these visits as a campaign of intimidation.
Nonetheless, the voters who did turn up were, as always in the past twenty-plus years of post-Somoza elections, orderly, patient and calm. Was it an unusually low turnout? Hard to tell. Lines were as long as presidential elections in some Managua polling places, with some people saying they had started lining up at five in the morning. The CSE has not issued figures for either abstention or null votes—part of the many data we may never know.
…And an uncertain morning after
Nicaraguans who checked their favorite news source the next morning expecting updated electoral results discovered that the computer center in Managua had been militarized and the only people inside were governing party technicians digitizing the results and doing the final consolidation. The idea of FSLN technicians making merry with the figures unobserved by anyone triggered generalized the distrust and uncertainty among voters.
Just before noon, a very tired-looking Rivas gave the third and what he announced would be the CSE’s last reading of what he repeatedly stressed were “preliminary, provisional votes.” Again only percentages were read; again none were offered of the annulled ballots or absenteeism and again the FSLN was shown winning over 90 municipalities.
The greatest novelty of this new reading was that while the count was based on between 85% and 100% of the tables in even the most remote and inaccessible municipalities, the results for Managua itself (nearly 51% for the FSLN’s Alexis Argüello to 46% for PLC candidate Eduardo Montealegre) were based on only about 70% of the tallies. How could that be? Where were the other 30%? What was going on?
Disbelief, evidence and frustration exploded into violence in various points of Managua and other municipalities. Distrust of the CSE and the results it was providing appeared on all sides. The independent media played an indispensable role in documenting the mounting evidence of fraud, including partially burned ballots in garbage dumps and a batch of ID voter cards that had never been distributed. As the days went on, such revelations provoked mounting waves of frustration that led to increasingly violent street confrontations, initially between Sandinistas and Liberals in the capital and other municipalities. But as early as Tuesday, two days after the elections, the Sandinistas took over the streets of Managua with an unprovoked exhibition of vandalism.
The bishops speak
That day the nine bishops in the Nicaraguan Episcopal Conference issued an unusually brief and direct message on the municipal elections, denouncing some of the causes of the conflict and offering a possible solution. For the first time in several years, the voice of the Catholic bishops took on a prophetic tone (see box below for full text), partly explained by the fact that current FSLN ally Cardinal Miguel Obando has not belonged to this body since his retirement as archbishop of Managua.
Nothing more unexpected for the government party than the bishops taking a position so quickly. How could the Episcopal Conference be questioning the elections despite the donations made for months to the ecclesiastical structures around the country and the FSLN’s decisive vote to criminalize therapeutic abortion? The perplexity was expressed in FSLN electoral magistrate Emmet Lang’s retort that the bishops preach love of one’s neighbor, but actually “denigrate their neighbor,” which he called “a mortal sin.”
By Wednesday, November 12, the chorus of dissenting voices had grown significantly, with civil organizations, media, opposition parties, private enterprise, embassies and citizens all over the country joining the bishops in calling for a review of the results tally by tally and voting table by voting table, not just in Managua, which was the main focal point of the conflict, but in every municipality where disagreement and serious irregularities were evident.
That was the same day E&T published its preliminary assessment. It opened with this sentence: “The number of anomalies and irregularities found in at least 32% of the voting centers and municipal and departmental computer centers around the country are characterized by their serious nature and the level of affectation, directed almost exclusively against the opposition.”
While IPADE had not sent its observers out, E&T had, although not the 30,000 it had announced. The observation was done “at a distance” from the voting places, making use of accounts by monitors, voters and table personnel, and crossing this information with the historical behavior of each voting place, which can be considered a reliable guide in Nicaragua after nine elections in all or part of the country over the past 24 years.
E&T listed nine particularly ser-ious irregularities: 1) The expulsion or severely limited access of opposition party monitors to the voting places and CSE municipal centers orchestrated by the electoral police and CSE personnel. 2) The fraudulent annulment of votes “in an undetermined number of voting places,” constituting a “superlative fraudulent deed in our country’s history that makes it difficult or impossible to reconstruct the popular will in those voting places.” 3) The introduction or substitution of votes and tallies by members of the voting table boards. 4) The fraudulent invalidation of votes behind closed doors when the ballots were being counted. 5) The early and unjustified closing of at least 20% of the voting tables, even when people were still in line to vote. 6) The intimidation of voters in a “threatening atmosphere.” 7) Flaws in the custody of the electoral material. 8) A failure to post the results in view of citizens in at least 10% of the polling places. 9) In no fewer than 50 municipalities, the governing party and the local CSE irregularly processed and distributed ID-voter cards to its sympathizers. E&T concluded that irregularities needed to be cleared up in at least 30 municipalities.
In various speeches leading up to the elections, Ortega hammered on the “electoral fraud” to which he insists he was a victim as a presidential candidate running against Arnoldo Alemán in 1996. Although ballot recounts had taken place in every department, delaying the final results for over two weeks, he claims to have accepted Alemán’s “cooked” victory for the stability of the country.
Once the post-electoral conflict broke out in these elections, all governing party spokes-people repeated his refrain. Was it retaliation for 1996?
The roots of this crisis
This institutional crisis is just the latest in a long line that have cropped up, grown and never been resolved in Nicaragua, although some consider this one the greatest of the past thirty years. This crisis has its recent roots in the now 10-year-old Ortega-Alemán pact, which divvied up most of the government institutions between the PLC and the FSLN, with the two caudillos adding more top posts in the Supreme Court, the CSE and the Comptroller General’s Office and appointing loy-alists to them fifty-fifty. In the CSE’s case, the pact increased the number of magistrates from five to seven and added alternates for a total of fourteen. It also reformed the Electoral Law to inhibit pluralism and force a strict Sandinista-Liberal bipartite system.
With each new negotiation of the pact, Ortega has come out increasingly the winner. In the case of the CSE, its structures have quietly and progressively shifted from being bi-party to mainly defending Daniel Ortega’s interests. This began to happen after CSE president Roberto Rivas allied with Ortega with the blessing of Cardinal Obando, Rivas’ political mentor. And it happened before the very eyes of the PLC magistrates, who found themselves in the bind of being unable to renounce either the perks of the job or their loyalty to the pro-Ortega orientations of their own leader, former President Arnoldo Alemán, who since his conviction in 2002 for embezzling and money laundering has given away more and more of the store through the pact to keep himself out of prison.
The earth shook
During the preparation of these elections, which were tainted from the git-go, the CSE did and undid with the consent of the PLC electoral magistrates. But this was only what was happening at the top, in plain sight. Down below, something else was going on among the local Liberal grassroots.
The Liberal rank-and-file is not only generally unhappy with the economic situation, but has also been increasingly worried about the advances being made by the local CPCs and indignant at the selective delivery of voter ID cards. Furthermore, it was caught off balance by the novel entry into the electoral campaign under the PLC banner of leaders of Eduardo Monte-alegre’s VCE, which got to select 14 of the 16 mayoral candidates in the departmental capitals and half in the other municipalities.
This last phenomenon shook the earth beneath the feet of grassroots Liberals, hitting at least 5 on the country’s political Richter scale, since it meant that Alemán was losing control of the electoral campaign; in the event, he barely participated at all. His influence in the party was also shrinking at an especially crucial moment, with the elections becoming increasingly polarized and both the government and the opposition turning them into a national referendum on the first two years of the Ortega government.
With the VCE current back inside the PLC, the traditional anti-Sandinista Liberals were ready to vote against Ortega with increasing awareness that the pact had handed Ortega the presidency and all the power. This belated realization was distancing them from Alemán and moving them closer to the younger Liberal leaders appearing on the local stage. The final touch was the boost to local PLC candidates under the slogan “All against Ortega” given by the two parties prevented from running. .
Now, after the cataclysmic campaign, fraud and post-electoral crisis, will the Liberals be able to rebuild their party, cleansing themselves definitively of its Alemán influences?
An error of judgment
The centerpiece of the FSLN’s political strategy for the municipal elections was the same as for the presidential ones: divide Liberalism. With the Liberal Right split, and both the Conservative Party and MRS out of the race, the governing party apparently expected that the way had been cleared for “more victories,” as its costly billboards at every turn in the road proclaimed.
It was an error in judgment: the PLC box on the ballot became the only alternative for Montealegre Liberals, Conservatives, independents and even MRS Sandinistas. The ALN, the other Liberal option, had beat out the PLC for second place in the 2006 presidential elections, but prized away from its founder, banker Montealegre, and without his candidacy and ample resources, its trajectory has been like a shooting star: a bright light with a lot of promise in 2006, but a mere glimmer disappearing into the stratosphere by 2008. Even with (or perhaps because of) the help of the FSLN’s resources and militants, ALN candidates resigned from the race and/or backed the PLC in many municipalities. While the preliminary results had it winning three mayoral seats, it only got between 3% and 6% of the vote in most other municipalities and only in Rivas did it achieve what the FSLN had hoped for, pulling enough of the opposition vote to give the Sandinistas the victory.
The grand dilemma
So while the electoral expression of the pact continued functioning smoothly at the top, in the CSE, it wasn’t doing so well at the bottom. Two days before the elections, the rumor circulated that Alemán was negotiating victory in Managua in exchange for lifting all charges of corruption against him and revoking his 20-year sentence, of which he has served nearly six, albeit hardly a day of them in prison.
According to the rumor’s logic, the FSLN’s own internal polls were showing it would likely lose a number of the municipalities it was counting on, above all Managua. Was it just coincidence that a few days earlier, the Managua Appeals Court controlled by Ortega definitively revoked the sentence against Alemán’s brother, nephew and sister-in-law for the same acts of corruption?
Alemán’s response was revealing: he shrugged off the rumor saying he had no “control” over the voters. Anything agreed to between Alemán and Ortega could be wiped out by people voting for the PLC. Electoral results tied up at the top by the pact and untied down below by new political factors put Alemán in the greatest dilemma since his conviction: how could he satisfy Ortega’s demand and guarantee his own liberty without being able to “control” his party’s grass roots?
Rise and fall
When Montealegre held his press conference the day after the elections to announce that he could prove he had won Managua, several pro-Alemán legislators backed him, including PLC representative María Dolores Alemán, Arnoldo Alemán’s daughter. Hours after that Alemán himself endorsed Montealegre’s allegation of fraud, and soon after that the PLC refused to recognize the election results at all and ordered its National Assembly representatives, Supreme Court justices and top executives in the Comptroller General’s office not to go to work, thus paralyzing the institutional activities.
Liberal legislators as measured as Francisco Aguirre Sacasa and José Pallais were unusually categorical in their criticisms, with Aguirre announcing that “the FSLN’s actions are now intolerable to our party,” and Pallais that “the Supreme Electoral Council is sickening.”
This was the first political result of the elections, surely unexpected to the FSLN: a crack in the PLC, with Alemán’s leadership falling, Monte-alegre’s rising and protagonism by new local Liberal leaders more independent of the “top leader’s” influence.
Nonetheless, the ruling party gave no signs whatever of wanting to back off. It could have accepted the recount option to at least take a brief rest and rethink its rush to absolute power. But it didn’t waver for a minute. On Wednesday, hooded Sandinista-identified youths carrying homemade mortar launchers and clubs congregated around the traffic circle by the Metro-centro shopping mall, blocking traffic for hours and venting their testosterone by randomly bashing in the windshields of shoppers’ parked cars.
Why design obviously
Why conduct such obviously questionable elections with such obscene maneuvers? It should be remembered that a convincing victory in these elections is Daniel Ortega’s strongest negotiating card to achieve the constitutional reforms he has already drafted and negotiated with Alemán to guarantee his perpetuation in power.
As this is his strategic project and a sweeping electoral victory his entry-
way, we can speculate that the governing party’s power group evaluated the variables and concluded that the political cost of altering the electoral results was less than that of losing Managua and other important cities such as León. This led to the design of a multifaceted fraudulent process that the party’s grass roots then executed in some cases very sophisticatedly and in others very ham handedly.
The risk of a significant electoral loss had continued to grow over the months, despite the late-blooming spending in myriad social programs, with all polls showing the government steadily dropping in popularity ever since it took office. The most controversial pre-election poll was conducted by Managua’s Central American University (UCA) on October 4-5 and 11-12 employing the black box method with a sample of 15,680 citizens from across the country. The results, published on October 23, showed the PLC Alliance winning in Managua, the most hotly-contested municipality, with PLC candidate Eduardo Montealgre polling 50% compared to 40% for the FSLN’s Alexis Argüello. According to the poll, the FSLN would win nine departmental capitals and the PLC the other eight, including León, although the races were very tight in several.
The government’s Secretary of Communication and Citizenship, First Lady Rosario Murillo, immediately called a press conference to discredit the survey, causing great commotion and surprise. She was flanked by the UCA professor who designed the survey and had also tallied its results, although she never mentioned this. Murillo called the survey part of a “dirty campaign” and under such pressure the professor ended up questioning the validity of her own design. In an article titled “Caught with their hands in the cookie jar,” the pro-government weekly El 19 excoriated the survey as a “quasi-criminal act” and “a blatant manipulation that calls the UCA into question.” That was the cue for government propagandists to begin talking as well: the Right was desperate and defeated; the US embassy was orchestrating a media campaign for the Right to allege fraud and thus destabilize the government…
Meanwhile, an M&R survey conducted on October 16-18 revealed a 29.2% hidden vote—which it differentiated from the genuinely undecided based on cross questions—giving Montealegre Managua by 36.4% to Argüello’s 32%. A subsequent Borge y Asociados survey of October 22-23 also gave Managua to Montealegre, by 39.8% to 33%. The government’s private polls surely were showing something similar.
Admittedly there were still the inevitable undecided voters even in those final days, with the Borge y Asociados poll detecting 17.5% undecided plus 8.7% who had already decided not to vote. But to give the FSLN candidate the CSE’s figure of 51%, every last one of that 17.5% would have had to actually vote for the FSLN candidate. This appears highly unlikely, even factoring in a last-minute decision to vote for Argüello by progressives or revolutionaries in Managua who felt anguished by the call to elect a neo-liberal elitist banker, even recognizing the importance of putting the brakes on Ortega’s dictatorial aspirations.
Despite the FSLN propaganda, all the data were right there: the economic situation is critical, above all in the capital and the urban nucleuses. Furthermore, the negative effects on the population of the authoritarian, aggressive government declarations and attitudes against critical journalists and NGOs in both the capital and the other municipalities had been feeding the inclination toward a “punishment vote,” a shot over the bow to try to put a stop to the government’s authoritarianism. Added to the always sizable anti-Sandinista vote, there was a real possibility this could cost the FSLN its predicted target of 100 municipal wins. If this trend continued, only two possibilities could save it: massive abstention and fraud.
Managua: The plum
In addition to overwhelming propaganda, there was an extraordinary deployment of electoral vote-buying in the form of social handouts to stanch the discontent reflected in the polls, especially in Managua. In events presided over by President Ortega and the FSLN mayoral candidate, the government used the CPC structures to publicly give out dozens of property titles in squatter settlements, 25,000 gas cooking stoves, 221 houses, sheet metal roofing, medicines, 3,000 children’s computers for 200 public schools, credits for improvements to 1,300 households, another thousand credits to women in the Zero Usury program… Privately, the CPC members also gave out and were given bicycles, televisions, motorcycles…
Did all this have the desired effect in Managua, the plum for any party? The CSE results showed former boxing champion Alexis Argüello beating out his Liberal opponent Eduardo Monte-alegre by some 20,000 votes. But in his press conference on November 10, just before the CSE’s last public reading of the “preliminary provisional” results, Montealegre claimed to have copies of the tallies from most Managua polling places, allegedly signed by all party monitors, insisting they demonstrated his victory. Three days later he posted them on a newly created web page (www.voto2008.org) to prove he beat Argüello by roughly 29,000 votes.
The governing party could not lose the municipality of Managua, where close to 40% of the country’s population lives. Losing would mean spending the last three years of Ortega’s term with an adversary mayor inaugurating public works or making critical declarations on the course of the country in the media every day. Losing would be no small thing for Montealegre either. Being defeated by a man as little prepared as Argüello and losing his best shot at disputing the leadership of Liberalism with Arnoldo Alemán would be the end of his political career.
At night and
with no witnesses
Although there were disputes, irregularities and outbursts of violence in much of the country, the crisis was concentrated in Managua. On Thursday November 13, given all the national pressure and with international pressure beginning to build through declarations by the ambassadors of the European Union in Nicaragua and the OAS, the CSE agreed to review the tallies from Managua’s over two thousand voting places.
The CSE made the announcement at 6 pm: Montealegre and the three other parties were to bring all their tally copies at 10 pm that same night for a nocturnal review with no independent national or international observers present. Is it overly suspicious to assume that the CSE never had any intention of resolving the conflict and making the data transparent?
The three parties in the FSLN orbit agreed, having absolutely nothing to lose by playing along. Montealegre didn’t agree. Instead, he put all his Managua tallies on Internet and published the same information in La Prensa the following morning.
Friday afternoon the CSE declared that the previous night’s review had concluded and there would be no other review of the tallies. With that it finally published the still provisional but no longer preliminary “official” results in the national press, which it changed again within hours. The opposition alliance refused to accept these results and the bishops again insisted on a recount of all the country’s tallies with observers present.
The CSE had wanted to put an end to the protests and fraud charges through the standard legal channel of presenting petitions to recheck the math, which typically have little affect on the official results. But the crisis continued and spiraled. Civic groups called for resistance and civil disobedience through measures such as not paying taxes to authorities elected in fraudulent races. The opposition alliance announced marches and other protest actions. E&T pleaded for “this sad episode not to conclude, as at other moments, in dark negotiations among the political actors.” On November 16 the opposition attempted to hold a protest march in León, but it was again stopped with extreme violence by government-organized armed shock groups.
“Not a stone left standing”
One of the most sinister threats was made on November 13 by Attorney General Hernán Estrada, verily as groups of vandals were terrorizing the population in 40 central points in Managua—according to the city’s own FSLN secretary—and public employees and workers in the ministries were being forced to spend hours on street corners waving red and black FSLN flags.
Emerging from a meeting with Vilma Núñez de Escorcia, president of the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (CENIDH), Estrada told a sizable group of journalists that “if the head of state and political leader of the FSLN, Daniel Ortega, decided to call out all his supporters onto the streets, not a stone would be left standing in this country, or in any television channel or other medium that opposes him. He needs to be thanked for not having done it, due to the wisdom and serenity of the man who is governing us.” The journalists taping this declaration were stupified, but the CENIDH president reacted immediately: “That is a threat and also tacit acceptance that President Daniel Ortega is the one promoting the violence we’re seeing.”
Why not try to patch things up?
With the election process and results questioned by such broad sectors of national and international society, why did the governing party not decide to patch things up a bit, clearing up at least a few of the most blatant cases, to help legitimize the elections? Instead it added to the tension with acts of street violence in which the police played a passive role.
Presumably the most radical group in today’s FSLN considered that indiscriminately intimidating the general population in the streets, selectively intimidating any critical voices and threatening the media in an attempt to silence them was not too great a price to pay for keeping Managua and a few other municipalities. The governing party does indeed have weighty reasons for preferring the kinds of threats that had been mounting even before the elections and imposing fraud by violence rather than lose these elections or win them with a lower percentage than planned.
Can a party that calls itself revolutionary allow itself to be defeated by an opposition as fragile as the one in Nicaragua today? How could the FSLN explain such a failure to the governments of Bolivia, Ecuador or Venezuela, its counterparts in ALBA, whose leaders have been subjected to very difficult scrutiny with a more organized opposition and yet obtained genuine majorities in elections observed under the international magnifying glass?
Another, more domestic but no less important reason for the governmental plans is the difficulty of implementing the government’s strategic project of “citizens’ power” in municipalities run by mayors not from the governing party. It should be recalled—although the opposition alliance did not emphasize such a crucial point in its campaign—that all FSLN candidates had signed a pledge to Daniel Ortega that if they won they would obey not the population of their municipality, but orders from the Councils of Citizens’ Power—headed, just to complete the circle, by Ortega’s wife, Rosario (“Chayo”) Murillo.
The governing party is probably banking on that resigned religiosity that mellows so many conflicts in Nicaragua with the passage of time and on the impotence of a largely unorganized, very impoverished and very tired population. It is surely gambling that the crisis will be forgotten and the ill-will dissipated in the year-end festivities, about to kick of with Púrisima, the Immaculate Conception celebrations.
We finished writing this chronicle of a conflict foretold on November 18, the ninth day after the elections. At that time the CSE had yet to announce results for well over 600 voting places in Managua, corresponding to around 120,000 votes, but had already illegally filed the corresponding tallies.
Nine days are a major symbol of grief and mourning in Nicaragua. We will never know the exact results of the elections in all the municipalities. Ever. There are ballots, tallies and even boxes with all their documents that will never appear, just as in 1996. There are personal stories that will not be told or otherwise revealed. What really happened will remain veiled. And whatever the final result of the institutional crisis, the political crisis and of course the social crisis catalyzed by these murky elections, it is already safe to say that the big loser was Nicaragua.
The rollback is huge
We have lost seriousness and dignity on the international stage. And on the national one we have lost the democratic process and many people’s budding awareness of citizenship and civic participation. Peace has been another victim. It all adds up to a huge loss because these are the elements with which development is constructed and because Nicaragua needs all of them to be a better country.
The governing party’s determination not to guarantee electoral transparency just to assure the continuation of its power project by hook or by crook has set us way back and could push us behind even further. It is easy to imagine an intensification of political rivalries and more intolerance by groups close to the government who feel powerful and untouchable in the violent celebration of their victories. The idea could also be imposed that work and survival in Nicaragua involve trading in liberties for “social programs,” legal justice for privileges, and opinions for security. There could be more defenselessness, more fear of speaking up and more frustration ahead for those who cannot get their rights respected and feel under surveillance in the territories “marked” by the victor.
The rollback is huge. Local power has been further weakened and its authorities delegitimized. The government irresponsibly decided to rend the social fabric, deepening the political polarization within families, between neighbors and across territories. It reopened wounds of war that had begun to heal. It sowed violence and will harvest more. Did anyone win? We all lost. Nicaragua lost.
Can we dream?
From a less pessimistic vision, this colossal crisis could also be transformed into an opportunity. Or at least into an occasion to revamp the entire electoral branch born of the 1999 pact, changing the magistrates who run it and all the departmental bosses who are now virtually at the service of the governing party’s interests and have been very discredited by all that has happened. It would also be an opportunity to reform the exclusionary Electoral Law, yet another child of that pact. With just this the national ruin wouldn’t be so bitter.
Is it an impossible dream? On learning that Barack Obama had won the US presidency, a joyous Nelson Mandela said, “Your victory has demonstrated that no person anywhere in the world should give up daring to dream of making the world a better place.” Can we dream in Nicaragua as well?
The Bishops’ Message
“At this moment of national uncertainty we would like above all to thank the citizenry profoundly for the civic example manifested on voting day. We also assume a clear position in favor of our people, which today feel frustrated by the electoral results in many municipalities. This frustration we perceive among our people is based on a series of irregularities including suppression of the legal status of political parties; delays in the process of issuing voter identity cards; failure to issue many voter ID cards on time; non-accreditation of national and international observers; early closure of voting places (JRVs); expulsion of party monitors; inconsistencies between tallies signed by all electoral monitors and the televised reports issued by the CSE; and unfounded challenges against JRVs. These irregularities have de-legitimized and brought into question the electoral process in many municipalities and departmental capitals, putting the country’s democratic institutionality at risk.... We therefore urgently call upon the members of the CSE to act honestly, transparently and impartially for their own personal dignity and out of respect for the sacred vote that our people conscientiously placed in the ballot boxes.”
“We consider that one of the main ways to overcome the population’s generalized distrust of these elections is by reviewing and comparing, in front of the party monitors and national and international observers, the tallies in the hands of the participating parties, as they were signed at the moment the JRVs were closed. We call on the leaders of all the parties and their monitors to work with moral integrity and prudence in the name of truth and justice, devoting themselves in the service of the common good with sincerity and rectitude and particularly with charity and political strength. We invite private enterprise, the diplomatic corps accredited in our country and the international organizations to continue actively contributing to the nation’s democratic institutionality, particularly at a moment in which the citizenry is demanding the legitimacy of the electoral process. We urge all Nicaraguans, especially the electoral authorities and political, military, police and social leaders, to avoid any acts of violence. Finally, to achieve harmony and civic stability, we call on our priests and nuns to initiate a campaign of Eucharistic prayer with their communities starting this Thursday and lasting until the Solemnity of Jesus Christ, King of the Universe.”