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  Number 477 | Abril 2021
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Nicaragua

“We can beat Ortega if we vote en masse and united”

This expert in electoral matters shares his assessment of the Ortega regime’s electoral reform project, the conditions in which the elections will be held and the blue and white opposition’s chances if they can go to elections united and determined.

José Antonio Peraza

French writer Victor Hugo said there is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come. The time for electoral reforms has finally come. We must think and act quickly and well to see how much progress we can make in the little time we have.

The government’s proposal:
More of the same and fewer controls


The Electoral Law reform bill proposed by the government on April 12 has even less than the little we expected. And it comes nowhere near complying with the seven demands in the Organization of American States (OAS) resolution of October 2020. The government simply ignored them.

In short, the government proposes that everything remain the same… and with fewer controls than before, even though those that existed weren’t respected anyway. In this sense, the bill is a setback: everything is diffuse and ambiguous, making it easier to subtly perpetrate the fraud it is preparing.

Those of us in the organized opposition must attempt to correct most of the ambiguities. But even if we achieve something, we’ll still find ourselves under very difficult conditions coming up to November 7. The government has said it isn’t going to consult civil society about its reform proposal, even though that’s unconstitutional.

The Electoral Reforms Promoter Group (GPRE) has written proposals for changes in each article of the bill presented by the government, pointing out where there are tricks to implement the fraud. Our observations have been shared with those who care to listen to us. Congressman Brooklyn Rivera, leader of the Caribbean party Yatama, which belongs to the National Coalition, took up many of our ideas and submitted a proposal to the legislative commission that will end up approving the Electoral Law reform bill. The Democratic Restoration Party (PRD), also a member of the National Coalition, has been very receptive to our proposals as well.

As the Promotor Group, we’ve always respected our mission to get the issue of electoral reforms added to the national agenda and to present proposals for all to know. Whoever wants to make use of them may do so. Will the government take on some of our proposals? What changes, if any, will it accept? We don’t know. All we know is that we will not tire of pointing out the irregularities in the official bill.

We need international observation


Six things are the most basic we should obtain to go to the elections with certain minimal conditions.

The first is national, and above all international, observation. Both are vital: national to discover what foreigners can’t see, and international to report the fraud to the world.

While the government’s bill mentions “accompaniment” rather than “observation,” we shouldn’t make this a deal breaker because the agreements signed between the government and the OAS always state that the OAS understands “accompaniment” based on what appears in its founding charter and on what is established in the Inter-American Democratic Charter. The European Union has also been clear: it will not send an electoral observation mission if the government puts restrictions on it, no matter what the government chooses to call it. The EU bases its work on the UN’s 2005 Electoral Observation Manual.

It’s the government’s responsibility to invite the international observers. In the EU we were told that even though the budget for observation is ready, they need five months to prepare. If the government officially invites them after May, it thus becomes more difficult for them, although the mission may arrive in Nicaragua as late as August or September. As always, Ortega will delay these decisions up to the last moment to apply pressure, wear us down and try to make us trip up. The OAS and the UE know this very well. In fact, everyone knows it.


We need 50,000 monitors…
and we’ll get them


Observers are important, but so are voting monitors. Being able to have monitoring during the whole process from voting and counting the ballots to transmitting the results is a basic condition. We need at least 50,000 people to work as blue and white monitors at all levels and in all stages. We can only achieve that through organization and civic awareness.

Do we have those 50,000 people? Yes, we’ll have them and surely we’ll have more. However, there’s work to do. We need to knock on doors, not to ask them to sacrifice themselves on the streets but to give us fourteen hours on election day to guard the vote. We need to explain to them that going to elections is the way to solve the problem this government has us in, that to defend the vote is vital for the life and future of their children. We need to erase from their minds all those destructive messages that fill the social networks: that going to elections is to betray the martyrs of April, that it legitimizes Ortega, that those who speak about elections only want a “bone” … We have to transmit a message that gives people confidence and empowers them: telling them we are before a dictatorship that is not going to make things easy for us, but we can defeat it and the solution is not to stay home.

Ortega says gender equality should be established in the reform bill, not only among candidates, which is already part of the law, but also in all the electoral structures, including among the monitors at the polling tables guarding the vote. They did this just to add one more difficulty to the ones we already have, to make participation more complicated.

I was criticized a lot in the networks because I pointed out the difficulty we could face complying with that requirement in rural areas. Within the institutional structures of the Supreme Electoral Council in the urban areas, women are already actually a majority, up to 65%. But it’s not the same in rural areas, where many women don’t even have a sixth-grade education level, are more withdrawn and have more responsibilities in caring for the home and children. This is an undeniable socioeconomic reality. Nonetheless, I know we’ll have 25,000 women and 25,000 men as good monitors defending the vote in the country as a whole. And better yet, I know from experience that women are better monitors—more orderly, more grounded and in better control of their emotions, i.e., unprovokable.


We need another electoral branch…
but I’m not optimistic we’ll get one


Another point. The OAS asked the government for something basic: to modernize the electoral branch of government, which is the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE). A modern electoral branch should be composed of honorable people, with flawless careers and independent criteria, elected through clearly established procedures and proposed by society for their selection…totally different from what we have today.

To modernize what we have now, we’d have to reform all the structures that are totally partisan, that have been divided between the FSLN and the Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC). In other countries the electoral structures are influenced by the parties, however in Nicaragua it’s shameless.

How can we reform such an electoral system? I’m not very optimistic. Changing the magistrates wouldn’t be much of a change. What would be correct is to change those in charge of all the national, departmental, regional and municipal al structures and those who run the voting centers. I doubt we’ll achieve much. That’s not the path the government is taking. Nor do I see the PLC on that path. I certainly never saw it while [PLC head Arnoldo] Alemán was in control, and I’m not seeing it now either [with new leadership].

I don’t believe the electoral branch that heads these elections will be even close to what we need. I can envision three of the magistrates not being FSLN, but two of those three won’t be who we want either. Maybe one of them will be. Most will be chosen through political criteria, not because of their curriculum or career. My only hope is that, despite all this, those chosen will have enough courage to at least play a neutral role when things get difficult for Ortega. History will tell us.


We need an electoral roll that
includes the 650,000 they took out


The fourth basic aspect we need to achieve is a cleaning of the electoral roll. The register has not been purged in 40 years and still contains more than a million deceased. Are we going to clean it in three months? It’s not possible. Here, expectations are one thing and the reality that prevails is another, like all the other conditions. There are people who say that without changes in the electoral branch they aren’t going to vote, and they say the same about the electoral roll. But if it hasn’t been cleaned it in 40 years, we surely aren’t going to see it happen it in a few months.

More serious than a million and a half deceased still in the register is that the government keeps a passive register and an active one, from which it took out 650,000 people who didn’t vote in the last two elections. That is a big problem because surely the majority of those eliminated didn’t vote because they were disillusioned with the system.

We need to recover those 650,000 people. We need an intense campaign so that everybody who was taken out is put back in. In the same way there should be a generalized ID-voter card process facilitated by the CSE. We will have to promote a verification campaign so people take the time to go and verify themselves. In Ortega’s reforms bill they lowered the citizen’s verification profile. We need to elevate it to a fundamental priority.


We need fewer discretionary procedures,
different computer technology, ID’ and freedoms


The fifth basic change we need has to do with procedures. This CSE has excessive discretion regarding all kinds of decisions. The reform allows it even more discretion to be able to invent anything at the last moment. And it’s very possibly will. What we are asking for regulation of the basic procedures such as how to transmit the certificates, what supporting documents will be needed, how to contest the results…

And finally, the sixth basic change has to do with reviewing all the computer technology, because that’s where the frauds have taken place so far. Nicaragua has what is probably the most primitive systems in Latin America. All procedures are manual. The OAS has offered technological innovation that would reduce the almost artisanal handling done throughout the whole process to obtain faster results and much more trustworthy controls. However, the government hasn’t accepted the offer.

The above is the most basic with respect to electoral reforms for this November. We’ll have to keep a close watch on the process of providing ID-voter cards because in at least 50 municipalities, the FSLN has won in the past by holding back citizens’ IDs. Will there be enough time to produce and distribute the backlog of cards?

I also believe we have to stand firm in our demand that the government put an end to the de facto siege it has maintained us in. Our freedom to mobilize, gather and express ourselves must be returned. This is essential.

The above reforms are modest and are only to guarantee the transition to democracy. Later, when we are living in it, we will have the “second generation” of electoral reforms. We can take on structural and fundamental reforms: updated distribution of congress representatives according to population, review of the Caribbean’s electoral system, changes in calculation methods, flexible mechanisms for forming new parties…


The worse thing we can do is
remain divided and stay home


Now, in only two months we have to answer the big question: whether or not to participate in the elections. As Max Weber would say, we must reach for the impossible to achieve what is possible. I think we’ll have to go to the elections under difficult conditions, and have to accept the most difficult ones. With the dictator’s determination to harden his position, we must find a way to take advantage of all the chinks and loopholes, acting intelligently and with caution... and doing it united.

The worst thing we can do is stay home and be divided. Without unity we lose. People want to see us united, they want one single discourse, one single option, a single presidential candidate and locally attractive leadership and legislative candidates. We have to encourage people to vote, prepare ourselves to defend the vote and resist if Ortega goes for fraud, which he will no doubt do when he starts feeling he’s losing the elections.

During all elections I visit around a hundred voting centers throughout Managua, going early to the ones where a lot of people tend to vote. I’ll do that on November 7 and if at 7 in the morning I see at least 15 or 20 people waiting in line to vote…luck will be in our favor. However, if the same thing happens as did in the 2016 elections and I don’t see lines of people and I go inside the polls and don’t see anyone voting, luck will be in Ortega’s favor.

If voting is massive, things will get complicated for the government; it will mean people are motivated. And if that night people feel their votes were stolen, they will head for the streets... Will there be repression? As soon as the regime finds out that voting was massive, there could be, because the regime will feel overwhelmed… but there will be observers. Will the Army intervene? I would hope the Army will stand on the side of the people. What has been proven in other societies is that without change in the Army, society’s course will not change. I hope that if the Army perceives the pressure of the people wanting change, wanting to defeat the dictatorship and change the correlation of forces, it will make the right decision.


Numbers speak for themselves:
We have the capacity to beat them


We need to reach a qualified majority in the National Assembly to dismantle the dictatorship. That means 1,700,000 to 1,800,000 votes. As far as we know, the FSLN with Ortega as the only candidate in almost 40 years, has never reached a million votes. In the 2006 presidential elections, the last one we have trustworthy figures from, he got 920,000 votes. In the 2011election he claimed 1,500,000 and in 2016 he granted himself 1,800,000. But those figures are not believable.

The largest number of votes for the Liberals, also in 2006, was 1,325,000 people. They didn’t win because they were divided into two parties. It is the highest vote in opposition to the FSLN that we know of. In 2021, that correlation continues and with a population increase of 400,000 new voters against Ortega, we could win the majority in the Assembly.

Numbers speak for themselves: we have the capacity to beat Ortega if the vote is massive and the blue and white opposition goes to the elections united. We all have to go out and vote, but massive voting will be particularly essential in Managua, León, Chinandega, Matagalpa and Masaya.

Without unity and by staying home, Ortega’s triumph will be legal, legitimate. We will grant him five more years of dictatorship, which will deepen our divisions and the spirit of April will fade away.


We woke up in April,
now we have to respond


April 2018 was a moment of unity. There was never a fight, not even a push in all the blue and white marches where thousands upon thousands gathered together. It was a time of real unity, of deep solidarity. There are a lot of people who three years later insist on “returning to April,” who continuously ask “why can’t we unite like back in April?” But that April was only a warning that we couldn’t continue down the same path. It was a wakeup call. Now that we are awake, we have to respond.

It was all good in April. And what’s really good is that there is now a critical mass in the country that knows we can’t go on the same as we were. A significant sector, not a majority, woke up and understood this, some due to personal failures, others to conviction, others to youth. They know things must change.

We did the best we could in April ... but the dictatorship is still there. Today the way out of the dictatorship is elections, even under these difficult conditions. However, not without observation, and not with the candidate in prison, a voter roll that eliminated 650,000 people, and a state of siege in place. Otherwise, we must go under difficult conditions and with results that surely will be a fraudulent.

What options do we have if not elections? Take to the streets in another civic rebellion? It won’t happen like that again. We had our April, now we’re in a different moment. A coup d’état? I don’t believe we’ll advance much giving the military that kind of veto power. A civil war? That’s not organized overnight and who would finance it? Who would back more bloodshed in the country? Some propose to claim the “right to protection” that countries subjected to tyrannies and genocide can invoke. What…a peace force to oust Ortega? And who would head it in our hemisphere? Only the United States of America. Would they do it? And do we really want to start the 21st century the same way we started the 20th?

Someone said “the prairie is dry and the spark that sets off the fire still hasn’t appeared.” I believe the elections are what would produce that spark. It’s going out into the streets again in masses to challenge Ortega at the polls.

The spark that started the flames in April 2’18 wasn’t the cost of living or the lack of employment. All that was underneath, but the flame of April was started because Indio-Maíz was burning, a reserve that not even the youth who took to the streets had ever seen. The utopic energies that transform reality, the sparks that light the prairie, come from existential issues: rights to freedom, to participation, to reject being controlled, to be taken into account, to express yourself…spark the flames.


Ad if we should win…


Should we win, we’ll begin a complex process that will take a long time. I was impacted a few years ago when I heard the World Bank president say that Nicaragua would spend all of the 21st century resolving what it wasn’t able to resolve during the 19th and 20th centuries. He was right. Changing the country will cost a lot and we can no longer blame others for what happens to us. We are very politically immature and lack social capital to reach agreements. Our history has always been like that. During the 19th century William Walker had already taken over Nicaragua but the Liberals and Conservatives were still having their little disputes and quarrels.

I’m not an historian, but I see what is happening today and I see the same divisive attitudes as in the past. We have to accept this, understand it. We are not going to be different overnight if we haven’t achieved it in 200 years. We have repeated over and over again these cycles of dictatorships and wars, always living between the two extremes: resigned providence and heroic volunteerism, when none of these extremes work to build a nation. This way of being will not change without economic development. And we won’t have economic development as long as we don’t solve the political and institutional deficiencies. It’s a vicious cycle that we need to break once and for all.

Why is the blue and white opposition’s unity so difficult? We have a rooted tradition of disunity, a destructive way of relating with each other, of discrediting and blaming others, not assuming our responsibilities. Within our historical and social development, we have a fracture that keeps us divided, prioritizing personal ambitions and pending group scores. Something very positive needs to be added to those negative traits that cause division: the rise since April of so many new leaderships with very different visions of how future Nicaragua should be.

The government that appears after November will be eclectic if we win. With a lot of desire for transformation, but with very complex integration problems. When we have our democracy, many political parties will appear with different visions of the country, as they did after 1990. For a government in transition like the one that could come out of these elections, tolerating each other and staying united would be enough.

If we win the elections, we will scarcely be placing the foundation to start laying down rules for dialogues and debates on how we will solve Nicaragua’s problems. This is what’s realistic, so let’s quit asking for the skies and settle for the ceiling.


I believe we will achieve unity


In spite of it all, I believe we will achieve unity, will have a single leader with a clear discourse that will empower people and encourage them to vote. We can no longer wait for the dictator to grant us anything. By going united and en masse to vote we have the power to create a crisis for the government that can allow us to change the correlation of forces.

Once we achieve unity, the best thing that could happen is that people go to the polls en masse. I’m convinced that the opportunities for Nicaragua are fewer and fewer each day and we cannot keep on playing with our future. An international confluence is watching for our elections to happen and we need to take advantage of this opportunity.

The dictatorship is preparing for everything and ours is an uphill climb, but we have the people and they don’t. Daniel Ortega displays himself as hard and strong. He’s comfortable and we need to create conditions to make him uncomfortable from now until November.


The world doesn’t end on November 7


In a way, these upcoming elections will hopefully be like a plebiscite: dictatorship or change. The new government that comes out of the elections will be very unstable because Ortega will remain armed, with money and control over 140 of the 153 municipalities of the country. No doubt he’ll want to govern from below if he loses and even though he won’t be able to do it like he did in the 1990s, he will do everything he can to create damage. I believe the FSLN will fall into a period of great decay and hope Orteguismo will be out of power for at least four terms, i.e. twenty years, so Nicaragua can heal from the wounds of this reign.

We need to win comfortably to begin to transform the country. But even if we don’t win this one, the struggle will continue because in 2022 we have municipal elections and we have to win over the municipalities they have today. We have to dismantle Orteguismo in the local governments. We have our work cut out for us for a while. The world doesn’t end on November 7.


_____________
José Antonio Peraaza is a member of the Electoral Reforms Promoter Group (GPRE) and of the National Coalition’s Political Council.

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