“This time they committed the perfect fraud”
This political analyst and expert on electoral statistics
diligently studied the electoral frauds of 2008 and 2011.
to understand better what happened on November 6, 2016.
He explains his findings in an interview with envío.
José Antonio Peraza
Between Daniel Ortega’s first consecutive reelection on November 6, 2011, and his re-inauguration on January 10, 2012, a group of Nicaraguan statis¬ticians and mathematicians presented the study “Elecciones 2011: ¿Manipulación o ruptura del patrón electoral histórico?” (Elections 2011: Manipulation or a break with the historical voting pattern?). Coordinated by political analyst José Antonio Peraza and backed by the organizations Movimiento por Nicaragua (Movement for Nicaragua) and Hagamos Democracia (Let’s Make Democracy), this scientifically rigorous study demonstrated the electoral fraud in those elections.
Peraza later published “Una radiografía de los fraudes electorales de 2008 y 2011” (An x-ray of the 2008 and 2011 electoral frauds) and we translated and published both texts under the title “How did they commit the fraud” in the January 2012 edition of envío. Four years on, we have interviewed this electoral fraud expert to find out how the governing party and the Supreme Electoral Council implemented this year’s operation, what mechanisms they used, the context in which the voting took place, and whether he sees any future for Nicaragua’s electoral system.
It was as if there were no elections...
Envío: Following the November 2011 elections, you concluded that “the denunciations made by citizens and political parties and a review of the reports by both national and international electoral observation organizations reveal a generalized perception that the irregularities in the 2011 electoral process were so widespread and varied that it is impossible to know the real result of the past elections. These perceptions have an empirical basis provided by the electoral data collected.” How would you describe the voting process in 2016?
José Antonio Peraza: It was rather different this time. They committed the perfect fraud. There was no competition because there was no opposition; there were no opposition party monitors to complain about anything; there were no visible alterations on voting day; and there were no incidents at the voting tables. Everything was perfect. That was why Daniel Ortega repeated that evening that the day had passed “as if there were no elections.” But it was also true in another sense: the fact was that nobody was electing anything.
The fraud was imposed beforehand by preventing observation, disqualifying the second political force from participating and allowing the participation of “satellite” parties that lack either legality or legitimacy, that represent little or nothing and were only looking to get enough votes to earn a legislator and be financially reimbursed for a campaign they never conducted… It was the perfect fraud because everybody, both candidates and voters, knew what the results would be six months earlier.
E: Some people observed the elections, both spontaneously and in an organized way…
JP: I was one of them. I visited about 100 voting tables in Managua acting like a voter searching for my name on the electoral roll and went back to those same tables twice more during the day. I selected neighborhoods with different social profiles to give myself the most exact idea possible of what was happening. I know of other people who did something similar in various voting centers.
I’ve visited voting centers during other elections and felt the tension because there was competition. This time that tension wasn’t there so you got a feeling of complete harmony. You felt that the staff in the voting centers wanted to please you, to show you everything was calm and going well. They let you come in, wander round the center; they greeted you, invited you to vote and helped you do so… There were even “helpers” who identified themselves as such, who accompanied you… It was the perfect fraud.
Like the calm before the storm
E: What did you see?
JP: I was really struck by the amount of people as soon as I entered the various voting tables… But I quickly worked out that they weren’t people who were voting, but rather administrative staff, almost certainly all from the governing party. In addition to the party monitors and the three voting table members, there were at least 10 other people at each table, including members of the electoral police, electoral ombudspersons, members of the National Council of Universities, who were “observing,” and other CSE auxiliary staff. In one voting center with 20 voting tables there were 400 such people. All the voting tables had more of these people than voters—all of them.
Throughout the day there were hardly any voters at each voting table and in some there were none at all. If there were lines, they were never more than two or three people. And in the evening, at closing time, I was struck by the fact that the rolls of ballots on the tables looked as thick as I’d seen them in the morning. Very few had been used. At one of the last voting centers I entered, one of the table presidents invited me to vote. I told him I was still looking for my name on the voter roll and took the opportunity to ask him what participation had been like. I sensed he wanted to answer me honestly, but he corrected himself right away: “Yes, there were people…” he told me, but it left me thinking: something happened here. Everything had taken place in a calm atmosphere, but it was all strange from early in the morning. It felt like the calm before the storm…
E: What was the storm?
JP: The abstention. At the end of the day, all the information, all the reports I received confirmed that it had been really big, like never before. That abstention level was the only thing that wasn’t scripted for the perfect fraud. I always thought there would be some abstention, but not on that scale….
We can’t prove anything
E: It has been said that because the abstention level wasn’t as scripted, they put “Plan B” into action after the voting tables closed and before the votes were counted, stuffing the boxes with ballot they’d filled out themselves…
JP: It could be. The last voting center I visited had 19 voting tables in different rooms. As they were about to close and saw that I, the last person not involved in the process, was still there, 7 of them shut the door and the windows, which had frosted glass, making it impossible to see inside. I imagine it was to stop me from seeing what they were doing. They could have stuffed the boxes with ballots they’d filled out themselves or could have altered the figures on the vote tallies… The personnel working with them have already assimilated the tricks they’ve been using since 2008, but we can’t prove what kind of chicanery they used this time, as we were able to do in 2008 and 2011.
E: Could the inflated numbers the CSE has given both for participation and the percentage for the FSLN correspond to that possible last-moment “ballot box stuffing”?
JP: Probably, but there’s no way to prove it. There’s no way to prove anything, which is why it’s the perfect fraud. All we can prove is whether the figures the CSE announced are credible, whether they contain any contradictions. And they’re not credible; they do have contradictions.
“Gross,” “Active,” “passive” and “real” voter lists …
E: What negative possibilities did the FSLN prepare for this time?
JP: As the fraud was perfect, they didn’t fear losing; their fear was that there would be a high level of abstention so they prepared to conceal it. The way they did that was to alter the electoral roll, the voter list, which shows the number of eligible voters.
Just days before November 6, CSE president Roberto Rivas presented four different electoral rolls to the official media, including what he called the “gross” roll, which contained 4,990,020 eligible Nicaraguan voters. The CSE produced two further rolls based on this one: what Rivas called an “active” roll, with 4,345,161 people, and a “passive” one with 644,859 people, containing all those who he explained have died, emigrated or not voted in the last two general elections. Presumably, they’ve used the passive list to clean up the active one, but while it’s obviously correct for the CSE to remove people who have died from the active list, eliminating those who haven’t voted for two elections or are living abroad is an abuse that has to be corrected.
As one would expect, the figures of the active and passive lists total the gross list. But the surprise that day was that Rivas also presented a fourth list, which he said had 3.8 million people and was the “real” electoral roll that would be used during voting. But where did they get that figure and what does it represent? Why and on what basis did they eliminate some 525,000 more people from what they called the “gross” roll? To date, none of the magistrates has explained where that figure came from. And that’s important because all the official figures the CSE has given on the November 6 voting are based on that pared-down roll they seemingly pulled from their sleeve. The mysterious smaller number of voters allowed them to conceal the abstention levels, increase the figures for participation in the voting and thus inflate the proportion of votes cast for the FSLN.
Four voters a minute?
E: Is there a way to demonstrate that the figures the CSE gave were altered?
JP: I’ve made certain calculations using the CSE’s own final official data, which are that 68.2% participated, 31.8% abstained and 72.5% voted for the FSLN.
For the participation to have been as high as the CSE says—over 2.5 million people, even based on that shrunken fourth electoral roll—an average of 171 people would have to have voted at each of the 14,581 voting tables across the country. That would mean 17 people every hour, or 1 every four minutes, at a rhythm maintained throughout the day. And that’s totally impossible. What we saw, what everyone saw, demonstrates that it didn’t happen. If it had, enormous lines would have been seen for each voting table at each voting center. And nobody saw that anywhere.
We know that the maximum number of voters for each voting table is 400 people and also know that historically fewer people than that vote at rural voting tables. To achieve the participation figures the CSE announced, up to 180 people would have to have voted at the urban tables and up to 200 at the ones in Managua, but the vote tallies it has been possible to recover aren’t anywhere near those levels. The tables showing most voters only had a total of around 90 the whole day. I’ve seen a lot of the tallies from the central and northern regions and the votes for the FSLN total between 25 and 40, with the highest total votes no more than 92.
One person who worked for the Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC) in Boaco managed to gather almost all of the tallies for the voting tables in a large part of that department and told me that the average participation is 66-68 voters per table, which is less than a third of the average of 171 required for the CSE’s figures to be plausible.
In 2011 we managed to recover 9,000 tallies from around the country, which was over a third of the national total. That amount allowed us to make pretty exact conclusions, but now we’re working with almost no precision at all.
They dug up the election system’s corpse
E: So they clearly feared a high abstention rate and prepared to camouflage it with that pared-down electoral roll?
JP: Everything suggests as much. By calculating the percentage of ballots counted against a reduced total, it reduced the percentage of abstentions. Abstention was already 41.95% in 2011 because people have been losing faith in the electoral system year after year since 2008, when we were able to prove the fraud committed in the municipal elections that year.
The many polls conducted by M&R, which pointed to a participation rate of 75% or more, with very low abstention, quite clearly proved to be totally wrong. The last CID Gallup survey, using the “black box” method, gave Ortega 52% of the votes, with 42% of the ballots left blank, representing the option of abstention. These seem to me to be much more accurate figures. I think that in an election with real competition, Daniel Ortega would have won with something close to the CID-Gallup figures, but he would have ended up with only 47-48 legislators, and that would have forced him to negotiate with the opposition in the National Assembly. That was an unacceptable idea to him.
E: This time, the CSE did something it hasn’t done since 1996: it announced the number of null votes: 90,246. Why do you think they decided to announce a figure this time?
JP: Just as there was a campaign to abstain, there was also a separate one promoting that voters deface the ballot, I think the CSE decided to give the figure for null votes to convince people the other figures were correct. And as null votes have varied between 90,000 and 100,000, they simply put that figure. Like the others, this figure is questionable as there’s no correct electoral roll to compare any of them with.
E: We’ve been hearing for years that the electoral system has collapsed… So what can be said now?
JP: The electoral system collapsed with the fraud in 2011. What they did this time was to drag the corpse out of its tomb, digging it up just to demonstrate that its remains are still there. With the perfect fraud over, they’ll bury it again.
Do any figures look credible? <2>
E: The CSE figures show a lot of cross-voting for National Assembly legislators. Is this believable?
JP: The FSLN satellite parties obtained more votes for departmental legislators than for their presidential candidates [20 National Assembly representatives are elected from national party slates while 70 are elected from departmental slates according to a proportional calculation of each department’s population] while 200,000 more people voted for Daniel Ortega than for his party’s legislative candidates. That’s not credible. It would be atypical behavior anywhere in the world, but particularly in Nicaragua where the pattern has been to vote a straight party ticket rather than crossing one’s vote among different parties by category, particularly this year when there was only one ballot to mark rather than four.
The data for legislators also look inflated. The PLC’s presidential candidate, Maximino Rodríguez, admittedly has support in the north, but I’m sure the number of votes assigned to his party to give it 13 legislators was boosted, because they wanted the PLC to look like a sizable second force.
Again, we can’t prove anything with the official figures the assignation of legislators was based on. The case of the Caribbean regional party Yátama was quite scandalous. First, they put one figure in the official government daily journal La Gaceta, which gave Yátama’s leader, Brooklyn Rivera, who ran at the top of the party slate in the North Caribbean, enough votes to be a legislator. Then days later, the CSE’s official web page doubled the FSLN vote in that region to deprive him of his seat. And a few days after that the figure was changed again, possibly due to pressure from Yatama in the Coast region, definitively recognizing his seat. It may even been changed because the CSE realized how serious it looked to publish different figures. It’s just one example of the CSE’s totally irresponsible behavior this year.
At the last moment, Alfredo César claimed three more legislators for the Conservative Party than the CSE had assigned him. If the Conservative Party can’t produce any vote tallies, it won’t be able to back up its claim, which was probably unfounded because the “largest half” formula used to assign seats to parties that don’t get a full quotient of votes seldom results in extra seats even for those who come in second in the voting, while those who place below that don’t receive any. And the Conservatives came in fifth.
The OAS knows what happened
E: Do you believe the Organization of American States (OAS) team that’s talking to the government will go into this kind of detail when figuring out how the electoral system works here?
JP: There are experts in the OAS and we know they’re already reviewing certain data from this election. They also have the experience passed down to them in the report by the OAS observers who came for the 2011 elections, and while it was more conciliatory than the report produced by the European Union observers, the observers were quite aware of all the irregularities that year. They also know what happened this time. In 2011, I remember Dante Caputo, who headed up that OAS observer mission, saying at noon on voting day that “We’re navigating without any radar, because they blocked it.” So they left a record of the difficulties the mission faced. In 2016, they didn’t just block the radar, they disconnected it altogether.
Did abstention exceed 70%?
E: Do you consider the abstention data announced by opposition organizations that did their own observation to be true?
JP: Hagamos Democracia said that, according to their observers, the average number of voters was just 90 per voting table. The data from the Citizens for Liberty observers agree with these figures and in fact are even more precise. Based on observation, the vote tallies and result sheets for a significant sample, they say that an average of 90 people voted at urban tables for an overall average of 50 at rural ones, giving an average of 71 people for each table.
Multiplying those 71 people by the 14,581 voting tables in the country gives us an overall participation of 1,035,251, which is somewhere around what the real figure might have been and very far from the 2,488,199 valid votes plus 90,246 null votes that add up to the CSE’s total of 2,578,445 voters. The data of the volunteer observers indicate that abstention was above 70% and could have been as high as 80%.
Whatever the real figure is, it’s clear that people didn’t believe in the system. What happened on November 6 was the final discrediting of a system that started to collapse in 2008. The only justification I could see for a party to participate in these elections was to see what they [the authorities] did in order to denounce and prove it. But they haven’t denounced anything. The parties that participated are accomplices in what has happened and just as responsible as Daniel Ortega for what could happen, if not more so.
They didn’t want to take the risk
E: Did what actually happened exceed what you imagined, your calculations…?
JP: Having seen what happened, it’s now very clear to me why they eliminated the only independent opposition group. Their internal polls must have shown beforehand that they were going to have problems and that an independent opposition might not have won the presidency but would have changed the correlation of forces in the National Assembly.
E: There would have been an Assembly in which nobody had an overall majority and would have had to negotiate…
JP: They didn’t want to risk that. And besides, they always want more. They were assigned 62 legislators in 2011 so they had to get more this time to show us that their project is pushing forward, ever onwards. With the abstention levels that were showing up, they had to cut back a bit on the final figures they gave and also had to share out parliamentary seats to the PLC to make it the second force, as well as giving some to the satellite parties so they’d keep quiet and accept what happened.
I’m quite clear that Daniel Ortega’s thinking was “We’re not sure, the data are telling us things that worry us, so we’re going to eliminate the real second force, reach an agreement with those willing to play along with us and get our people out to vote… and then later we’ll fill in whatever we need to give an increased percentage compared to 2011.”
Daniel Ortega is well aware of what happened
E: How will things be for us now in Nicaragua, following this perfect fraud?
JP: A national agreement to change the entire electoral system is needed here. The current one can’t be reformed; it can’t be saved. Any party that accepts the idea of participating in elections with this system will be eliminated. I know a lot of party monitors who worked supporting Maximino Rodríguez for the PLC who got involved in these elections thinking that “if there’s a massive turnout we’ll win, because that’s what we did in 1990. If we could do it in the past, why not now?” But that “past” no longer exists. Moreover Daniel Ortega can’t be beat with the current electoral system. The whole system has to be rebuilt from top to bottom, but I don’t see Daniel Ortega wanting to do that, because he feels legitimized by the figures the CSE gave him and he isn’t feeling enough popular pressure. If he had his doubts before November 6, the reality has now convinced him what would happen with real elections.
Ortega negotiates when he’s at the edge of a cliff and he only does so to buy time. He doesn’t accept handing over power, risking it or helping anyone else win it. We’re facing a very serious problem because nobody knows what happened better than Daniel Ortega. He knows his power has been seriously questioned and that there’s an extensive substratum of people who don’t agree with him remaining there, who want a change. They expressed it silently, passively, but they expressed it nonetheless. And he knows that the FSLN’s machinery didn’t work the way it was expected to.
The majority wants a change
E: Have any other Latin American countries experienced a similar crisis?
JP: No, none. Only in Nicaragua do we have an electoral system that has totally collapsed. The other countries in the region have had problems, but they’ve been putting things right and there have been advances. We’re prehistoric in Nicaragua and what most concerns me is that this isn’t a problem that’s just emerged; it started in 2008 and we’ve let it go on.
It worries me not to see any will to change among those in power. Nor are the de facto powers demanding it. If the businesspeople, the biggest of those powers-that-be in the current model, have been capable of legislating dozens of laws, proposing and reforming laws, and getting laws eliminated that aren’t convenient for them, what could be more important than demanding that Daniel Ortega change the system that defines how the country is run? It’s pathetic that what they’re proposing after everything that’s happened is to forget it all and “start with a clean slate.”
That’s irresponsible in the best of cases and even more serious considering Nicaragua’s history, remembering that the lack of an electoral solution has caused dozens of wars, military coups, deaths, exile and more. People’s massive “no” indicates that most of them want a change, that most want freedom. My hope lies in knowing that the struggles in Nicaragua have never been because of hunger; they’ve always been to recover freedom.