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Nicaragua Pre-election Delegation Report
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October 2001
Table of Contents:
Ted Lewis, Human Rights Director, Global Exchange
Lucy Bassett, Global Exchange Associate
Phillip Bannowsky, United Autoworkers of America (retired), Delaware
Dianne W. Hart, Senior Instructor Emerita, Oregon State University
Julie Charlip, Associate Professor of History, Whitman College
Sue Severin, Health Educator and Election official, Marin County, CA
Harvey Williams, Professor of Sociology, University of the Pacific
Blase Bonpane, Director, Office of the Americas
Lois Muhly, Director, Coalition for Nicaragua
Bert Muhly, Director, Coalition for Nicaragua
We would like to thank all the following organizations and individuals with whom we met: Consejo Supremo Electoral (CSE); Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN); Partido Liberal Constitucionalista (PLC); Partido Conservador (PC); the US ambassador Oliver Garza; the poet Ernesto Cardenal; Mario Hurtado; Dora María Tellez of the Movimiento de Renovación Sandinista; Vilma Núñez; Johnny Hodgson; José González, deputy in the Asamblea Nacional (National Assembly); Leonor Hupper, former ambassador to Costa Rica; Rafael Cordoba of the Movimiento de Unidad Nacional (MUN); Yasser Martínez. From Estelí we would like to thank Albertina Urbina of the women's group Asociación de Mujeres Luisa Amanda Espinosa (AMNLAE). From Bluefields we would like to thank CSE spokesman Vidal Ramón Díaz Chow and Wilder Wilson of the Centro para Derechos Humanos en la Costa Atlántica (CEDEHCA).
We also owe a word of gratitude to the many other local representatives and citizens in Estelí, Matagalpa and Bluefields.
Finally, very special thanks go to Aynn Setright and Guillermo Pérez Leiva for making the logistical arrangements for the delegation.

Executive Summary
From August 25 to September 3, 2001, a delegation sponsored by Global Exchange visited Nicaragua on a fact-finding delegation to assess pre-election conditions. The ten delegation members were academic experts, union leaders, activists, experienced election monitors and other Nicaraguan specialists, many of whom had spent significant periods of time living and studying in the country.
The group spent five days in Managua interviewing officials from the Supreme Electoral Council, party representatives, the President of the Nicaraguan election observation organization ƒtica y Transparencia, members of various civic groups and others. For the remainder of the time the delegation split into two groups. One visited Estelí and Matagalpa in the North while the other traveled to Bluefields on the Caribbean Coast. There they met with leaders of the CSE, local mayors and regional deputies and candidates for the FSLN and the PLC. These regional visits also allowed delegates to meet with local people, including members of AMNLAE, women from urban barrios and factories, business leaders, cattlemen, campesinos, students at UNAN-Matagalpa and hundreds of displaced people in Matagalpa and along the roadside.
In the November 4, 2001 elections Nicaraguans will choose a new President, Vice-President, and members of the Asamblea Nacional and Municipal Councils. Currently, the margin between the presidential candidates of the two largest political parties -- Daniel Ortega of the FSLN and Enrique Bolaños of the PLC -- is very narrow. The country's third and smaller party, the PC, has been weakened recently by a last-minute candidate switch. But the PC's new candidate, Alberto Saborio, could garner enough votes to affect the outcome of the race.
The elections will take place in a context of economic and social dislocations. Nicaragua remains the second-poorest nation in the hemisphere, its poverty currently exacerbated by a severe drought in the north. The current worldwide coffee crisis has hit the nation's coffee-growing regions hard, forcing tens of thousands of desperate small farmers and their families into poverty and off their lands.
Nicaraguans of varied regional, party and economic backgrounds unanimously emphasized to the delegation the need for independent international observation to guarantee the legitimacy of the elections. In the past, Nicaragua's electoral system has been tainted with allegations of fraud. The delegation has three main concerns both at the national and local level: the perceived legitimacy/illegitimacy of the entire electoral process, election funding and technical procedures such as the transmission of votes.
Legitimacy of the electoral process
Will there be sufficient resources to conduct an honest election? For example, vehicles, personnel, etc.
Technical Procedures
Nicaragua is entering the final phase of a competitive election with a highly polarized electorate. The CSE is challenged to carry out meaningful elections under conditions of economic paralysis, pervasive poverty, with an electorate that is profoundly skeptical of the ability of politicians and the political process to affect positive changes. This report explains the historical context of the 2001 elections, and the issues and concerns that surround them.
Background to the Nicaraguan
National Elections of November 4, 2001
For nearly one hundred years following its independence from Spain, Nicaragua was engaged in political strife that pitted the traditional Conservative and Liberal parties against each other. Direct and indirect intervention on the part of the US was not uncommon. In 1912 the US intervened militarily, sending in the Marines to quell civil unrest and to ensure payment of debts to the US. In the twenty years of their mission, they built a strong military force and contributed to the suppression of the guerrilla forces of Augusto Sandino.
Subsequent to the withdrawal of the US forces, Anastasio Somoza took control of the national army and initiated nearly 40 years of dynastic rule by the Somoza family. Beginning from a strong military base (and with the economic and political support of the US), the Somozas took over control of the Liberal Party. Through patronage and intimidation, the Liberal Party became the overwhelmingly dominant force in a pseudo democracy which allowed only the marginal participation of the Conservative Party, and strongly discouraged the development of other alternatives. At the same time, the Somozas (frequently by questionable means) became heavily invested in the Nicaraguan economy and developed extensive influence and control.
The hold of the Somoza dynasty began to weaken in the 1970s. The earthquake of 1972 precipitated economic and political turmoil. The oppressive response of the Somoza regime to rising social unrest and economic difficulties strengthened and united opposition. Aided and encouraged by the gradual reduction of US support to the regime, both civil groups and revolutionary forces became more active and successful. In July 1979, guerrilla forces led by the FSLN overcame Somoza's military, forcing him to flee the country. A new government, dominated by the FSLN but including broad representation from other opposition elements, initiated a new era of political, economic, and social reforms based on the principals of political pluralism, a mixed economy, international non-alignment, and broad popular participation.
In the early years of the revolutionary period the FSLN consolidated its control as members of the governing coalition withdrew their support. There was widespread popular support within Nicaragua, as well as initial broad international political and economic assistance. Early reform efforts (most notably in education, health, housing and agrarian reform) were largely successful, if not without their critics. But the increasing dissatisfaction of some sectors of the population with the extent and abruptness of change, and the concern expressed by a conservative administration in the US, soon began to compound the problems faced by the Nicaraguan government. Over the next several years, US policies (including sponsorship of counter-revolutionary forces, the withdrawal of financial aid, and other activities which impeded international support) exacted a heavy toll on the Nicaraguan population and seriously undermined the revolutionary agenda.
Political reforms of the new government encouraged the formation of political parties and broad political participation. Among other notable reforms, a Supreme Electoral Council was established to organize and supervise elections and the activities of political parties, and a system of proportional representation for the Asamblea Nacional was established. Seven political parties participated in the national elections of 1984. Primarily because of its strong political organization and popular support, the FSLN (on a ticket headed by Daniel Ortega) won the presidency and the majority of the seats in the Asamblea Nacional in what was widely viewed (except by the US government) as being a generally free and fair election, especially given the state of war that existed in much of the country.
In spite of maintaining control of the executive and legislative branches, the FSLN found it ever more difficult to promote the revolutionary agenda. Economic problems and the impact of an increasingly unpopular war encouraged political opposition. In the national elections of 1990 opposition parties (strongly encouraged and supported by the US government) formed a united front against Ortega and the FSLN.
The opposition ticket was headed by Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, the widow of a national martyr. Widely known and respected, Chamorro was not considered to have a strong political following. Nevertheless, in an election that was criticized more for the extraordinary influence exerted by the US than for campaign and election irregularities, Chamorro was elected president.
The FSLN gained the largest block of seats (but not a majority) in the Asamblea Nacional. Ortega conceded gracefully, and promised that the FSLN would "rule from below" (that is, use their political, labor and popular organizations to exert influence on the administration).
The election of Chamorro brought about the eventual cessation of the war, and some return of political and economic support from the US. The process of moving away from a mixed economy was begun, and many state-owned properties and industries were privatized.
Considerable difficulties developed in attempting to resolve disputed titles to properties that had been confiscated during the revolutionary period, many of which had been transferred to individual peasants and cooperatives, or (during the lame duck period before the installation of the Chamorro administration) to officials and party loyalists within the revolutionary government. Chamorro was not viewed as a strong president, and most acknowledged that her chief of staff (and son-in-law) was the key policy maker in the administration.
The opposition coalition which brought Chamorro to power soon developed its own internal disputes and was not generally supportive of executive policy suggestions. The FSLN (both within the Asamblea Nacional and through its broad influence in much of the population) fought to impede the dismantling of social and political changes of the revolutionary period with only moderate success. Meanwhile Arnoldo Alemán, working from his political base as mayor of Managua, began to develop the organization and political influence of the PLC.
By the time of the national election of 1996, Alemán and the PLC had gained overwhelming dominance within the parties opposed to the FSLN. Although there were more than twenty parties which participated in the election, the PLC and the FSLN gained more than 80 percent of the popular vote between them.
Amid widespread allegations of fraud and manipulation of the vote count (not generally supported by international observers), Alemán and the PLC emerged victorious over Ortega and the FSLN. The PLC gained a plurality of the seats in the Asamblea Nacional (42 of 93), and the FSLN gained 36 seats (including one which was assigned to Ortega by virtue of his having earned more than 4 percent of the vote for president). The remaining 15 seats represented nine other parties.
Although Alemán and the PLC have enjoyed more consistent support in the Asamblea Nacional and less effective opposition from the FSLN than did the previous administration, the last few years have been extremely difficult.
Nicaragua is still trying to recover from severe economic difficulties which have been exacerbated by the impact of international market fluctuations and natural disasters. Nicaragua has become highly dependent on foreign aid which, over the last several years, has been roughly equal to the total domestic product. Following the guidelines for structural readjustment and austerity imposed by international lenders has caused a widening of the gap between the wealthy few and the vast majority of the poor, and the consequent reduction of spending in the social sector has created widespread desperation and social unrest.
Further complicating matters, both of the key political leaders have had to deal with increasing political opposition to their political control of their respective parties. Both Alemán and Ortega, in trying to maintain political allegiance to themselves and to their party, have been faced with internal opposition. Both have been generally successful in repulsing internal challenges, but the outcomes have created disaffected individuals and groups who formed the potential for alternative parties which might threaten the dominant parties.
Both also have had to face charges against their personal conduct. Alemán, whose personal wealth has increased dramatically during his administration, has been accused of political corruption on a broad scale. Ortega has been accused by his stepdaughter of sexual abuse. Yet, both Alemán and Ortega have been able to avoid prosecution due to the immunity granted them as president and national deputy.
In January 2000, a new political accord between the PLC and the FSLN was declared. The Pact (as it is commonly called) was the result of several months of semi-public negotiations. While it has been defended as a response to the debilitating effects of partisan confrontation and the excesses of political pluralism, most observers see it as self-serving for the two major parties.
The two major impacts of the Pact (whose key elements were formalized through legislation) were to reduce greatly the potential for significant political opposition, and to assure shared political control by the two dominant parties of key governmental institutions. A significant additional element was to make the outgoing president a member of the Asamblea Nacional for life -- thus continuing immunity.
Three institutions -- the CSE, the Corte Suprema de Justicia (CSJ) and the Contraloría General de la República (CGR) -- ostensibly had been independent, but had been subject to efforts of each incumbent administration to control them. By formalizing shared political appointments to these bodies, the Pact prevents either of the dominant parties from taking over at the expense of the other. It also virtually guarantees that these institutions will be responsive to the combined interests of the dominant parties, and that no other political parties will be able to exercise significant influence.
The new electoral law establishes the rules for political participation, including the establishment of legal standing for political parties. The requirements are elaborate and daunting. Political parties are required to demonstrate broad-based organization and popular support before they can present candidates for elections. This includes providing proof that there exists a party organization not only at the national level, but also in each of the fifteen departments and two autonomous regions, and in each of the 150 municipalities.
In addition (unless the party was officially constituted in the last election and polled at least 3 percent of the vote), the party must present verifiable, unduplicated (from any other party petition) signatures and valid voter identification information from a number of eligible voters which total equals at least 3 percent of the total eligible voters in the previous national election. Parties which have legal standing must present candidates for all offices, and will lose their legal standing if the party fails to gain at least 3 percent of the national vote.
Further, national campaign funding, previously provided to all candidates before the election, is only available as reimbursement of legitimate and certified expenses after the election. And that reimbursement is only in proportion to the votes polled, and only if the party polled at least 3 percent of the national vote. Party coalitions may only be formed by individual parties which have themselves been legally recognized. Finally, all of the requirements must be satisfied at least one year prior to the election in which the party wishes to participate.
The municipal elections of November 2000 were the first national elections carried out under the new electoral law. This was also the first time that the municipal elections had been held on a different date from the presidential and assembly elections.
The first necessary step was to confirm or establish the legitimacy of the political parties that wished to participate. Only the FSLN and Camino Cristiano -- a minor party generally supportive of the PLC -- were legally confirmed by virtue of having polled more than 3 percent in the 1996 election. All other parties (including the PLC, which had run in 1996 as part of an alliance) were obliged to satisfy the onerous requirements established in the new electoral law. Numerous challenges were raised, both to the constitutionality of the law and to its implementation. The constitutional challenges were generally rebuffed by the CSJ, dominated by the PLC and the FSLN.
In spite of the great logistical and organizational difficulties of establishing party units and collecting the signatures of supporters, nine parties presented the required documentation in their petitions for legitimation. Of these, only two (the PLC and the Conservative Party -- PC) were eventually certified by the CSE.
The primary difficulty encountered was the very rigorous interpretation and enforcement of the requirement to provide verifiable and unduplicated signatures of eligible voters. In the review of some of the petitions the CSE rejected more than 50 percent of the names submitted. Names were invalidated not only because of a complete mismatch between voter registration and signature, but also for inconsistencies which might have been attributed to misspellings, typographical errors, handwriting variances, or failure to duplicate exactly the name on both documents.
Persons whose names appeared on petitions that were submitted for review were not allowed to sign the petition of any other party, even if the party they originally supported failed to be certified. Once submitted, a party was not allowed to withdraw a petition, nor were supporters allowed to have their signatures removed.
The petition of the MUN party, which was submitted very late in the process, was subjected to a more conservative interpretation of the rule requiring the signatures of 3 percent of the eligible voters in the 1996 election. In the cases of the petitions previously reviewed, the CSE required that the names be those of voters currently registered, and that the total number of valid supporters equal 3 percent or more of the number registered to vote in 1996. In the instance of the MUN petition, the CSE ruled that the signatures were valid only if the persons were actually registered for the 1996 election. This interpretation invalidated the signatures of most persons younger than 21 (who were not old enough to register in 1996), as well as most of those who had been living abroad.
The municipal election was conducted on Sunday, November 5, 2000. There were instances of civil unrest and violence both preceding and following the elections, and there were widespread complaints about the way that the CSE managed the election process. But international observer groups such as the Organization of American States, as well as ƒtica y Transparencia deemed the problems as primarily procedural. Logistical problems (such as insufficient ballots or polling stations closed or located incorrectly), delayed reporting of results, and lost or miscounted ballots were judged to be more the result of insufficient funding, and poor training and management by the CSE than evidence of fraud or partisan manipulation.
The results of the elections were mixed. The PLC came out ahead, winning control of 94 municipalities, while the FSLN won 52, and the PC won 5 -- very similar to the outcome of the previous municipal elections. The FSLN took solace in winning many of the larger municipalities (including Managua), and increasing significantly the proportion of the votes cast to over 40 percent of the total (virtually equal to the PLC). On the other hand, the voter turnout was significantly lower, dropping from 75 percent to 55 percent. Speculation as to the causes of this decline included increased voter apathy, poor management of the process by the CSE, and the separation of the municipal elections from the presidential and assembly elections.
The outcome of the municipal elections also determined the legal parties for the national elections of November 2001. Since the deadline for submitting petitions had passed, only those parties polling 3 percent in the municipal elections were legally recognized. Since the CC had chosen not to present candidates in the municipal elections, only the FSLN, the PLC, and the PC fulfilled the requirements for participation in the national elections of 2001.
The electoral law gives each party the right to establish its own rules for the selection of the candidates who will stand for election. The FSLN uses a national primary system for the selection of presidential, Asamblea Nacional, and Central American parliament candidates. Only candidates approved by the FSLN may run in the primary. This allows the FSLN to promote broad representation and assure the inclusion of under-represented groups (especially women and youth). But critics maintain that it also allows the FSLN to discourage internal dissent and promote party stalwarts.
Any eligible voters are allowed to participate in the FSLN primary, which is organized loosely along the lines of the national election. But the entire process (including the printing and distribution of ballots, the verification of the voter eligibility, and the counting of the votes) is run by the party rather than the CSE. The voting process may be observed by anyone, but the final vote count is conducted by the FSLN behind closed doors.
Following the election of Ortega in the FSLN primary in January, there were widespread allegations of fraud and manipulation of the vote count. Among other things, the FSLN was accused of withholding blank ballots at the polling stations, then marking them to favor the candidates preferred by the party. However, since the party elections were self-monitored, there was little recourse for protest.
The PLC and the PC use a party system. Convention delegates are selected at departmental party meetings. These delegates meet at national conventions, first to choose their presidential candidate, and later to select the party slates for the Asamblea Nacional and the Central American parliament. Although the convention votes are public, it is considered by most observers that the winners are determined beforehand by the key leaders within the party. In national conventions in 2001, the PLC named Enrique Bolaños (vice president under Alemán) to head the ticket, and the PCN chose Noel Vidaurre to head theirs.
In early July the CSE confirmed the candidates presented by the three parties. Various early presidential preference polls showed the FSLN and the PLC nearly equal (each commanding about 40 percent of the vote), and the PC a distant third (with under 20 percent).
It was widely perceived that a strong showing by the PCN would take votes away from the PCL, which might allow the FSLN to emerge victorious (especially given the rule that the winner may be declared with as little as 35 percent of the valid votes cast). There was intense pressure (especially from the United States) for the PC to withdraw. In mid-July, maintaining that internal dissension over the selection of Asamblea Nacional candidates had reached an impasse, Vidaurre withdrew. In early August the PC announced that he had been replaced by Alberto Saborio. Thus the stage is set for the national elections of November 4, 2001.
Administrative Bodies
Mechanics of the Nicaraguan Election
Nicaraguan Electoral Law, Ley 331, represents a standard to guide the election process approved by all major parties in the Asamblea Nacional in January 2000.
The law provides for a four-tier administrative architecture, each with representation from the three leading parties, the PLC, FSLN and PC.
Supreme Electoral Council (CSE)
The CSE consists of seven members, three from the FSLN, three from the PLC, and one independent.1 Each party also names one suplente, or substitute. The CSE hires its own staff, appoints the departmental electoral councils, is the final appeal from all lower bodies, and makes the final call on elections. Beyond the CSE, there is no appeal to the judiciary or other branch of government.
Departmental and Autonomous Regional Electoral Councils (CEs)
There are 17 departments and regions, varying considerably in population. Each departmental CE comprises three members, one from each of the leading parties, and their respective suplentes. The president is always either PLC or FSLN. The departmental CEs appoint the municipal CEs below and coordinate logistics for the election for the entire department.
Municipal Electoral Councils
As is the case with the departmental CEs, each municipal CE comprises three members, one from each of the leading parties, and their respective suplentes. Again, the president is always either PLC or FSLN. Municipal CEs appoint the Juntas Receptoras de Votos (JRVs) below, from whom they receive the paquete electoral, which contains the ballots, tallies and other documents used on election day.
Juntas Receptoras de Votos (JRVs)
The JRV conducts the elections at the local level for a maximum of 400 eligible voters. As with the departmental and municipal CEs, each JRV comprises three members, one from each of the leading parties, and their respective suplentes, and the president is always either PLC or FSLN. There may be several JRVs at any Centro de Votación (CV). Furthermore, each JRV is required to have at least two voting booths, with four urnas, or ballot boxes, per booth, one for each of the four elections taking place simultaneously. There will be some 9,000 JRVs located at some 3,000 CVs.
There are other bodies that play an important role in the election:
Key Documents
The law recognizes a number of key documents used in the electoral process:
Cédulas de Identidad (Identification Cards): This is the principle identity card used by eligible voters. It is punched at the time of voting as a safeguard against voting twice. Eligible voters who do not have a cédula can use a documento supletorio, or substitute document, in its place.
The Electoral Process
The electoral process can be divided chronologically into the campaign, the voting itself, the transmission of the vote results and the proclamation of the victors.
The electoral campaign officially opened on August 18, 2001 and will continue until October 31, 2001 -- 72 hours before the polls open -- a period during which parties are prohibited from actively soliciting votes. During the campaign parties are forbidden to use the national colors in their emblems, propaganda, or demonstrations, to use public property, to denigrate the character of opponents, and to use intimidation or threats. Time on publicly owned media is available on an equal basis to the contending parties. Non-incumbents understandably feel the incumbent has an advantage. On private media, whoever has the most funds has the advantage, although their propaganda is limited to 10 percent of the broadcast day.
The polls open at 7:00 a.m. and close at 6:00 p.m., although anyone in line at closing is permitted to vote. The limit of 400 voters per JRV should avoid disproportionate crowds that could discourage voters. No propaganda of any kind is permitted at the polls.
Upon opening, the fiscales check to assure the urnas are empty and document the number of ballots available. During the voting, disputes are decided by a majority of the three-member JRV. If a member and his or her suplente are absent, the president breaks the tie.
To vote, an elector submits the cédula or supletorio and the JRV checks it against the Padrón Electoral or the catálogos de electores. If the elector's name does not appear, as long as the identification demonstrates he or she is at the right JRV, then he or she still votes, and this is documented in the acta de cierra. There may confusion for some voters whose communities are divided into more than one election district when they show up at the wrong CV. Soldiers and voting officials may vote in whatever CV is closest to their assignment.
The JRV president explains how to vote and the elector enters the recinta and marks the ballots with an "X" or any other mark inside the appropriate circle or close enough that his or her intention can be understood.2 After depositing the ballots in their respective urnas, the voter's cédula or supletorio is punched and his or her thumb is stained with indelible ink. Thus, it will do no good to use counterfeit, misappropriated, or duplicate IDs to vote twice, as some have feared, and this ink has proved its effectiveness in Mexico. Blank ballots or those whose intention cannot be determined are considered null votes and are not counted when determining the percentage of votes gained.
The escrutinio, or counting of votes, is carefully prescribed and layered with redundancy and safeguards. After the polls are closed, the JRV opens the urnas and verifies first that the number of ballots inside match the number who have voted. Then they count the votes for each party and record the disposition of all ballots (valid, null, unused, challenged and total) on the acta de escrutinio. The results are then sent by fax to the municipal CE, the departmental CE and the CSE, which publishes this information as provisional results. Simultaneously, the JRV publishes the results and posts them outside the CV. The ballots, along with all related documents, are then assembled into an electoral packet and shipped, accompanied by what might be a small army of fiscales, to the municipal CE.
Upon receiving the electoral packet, the municipal CE checks the JRV's arithmetic and again publishes the results, sends them by fax to the departmental CE and CSE, and forwards the electoral packet to the departmental CE.
Very importantly, only the departmental CE may open the electoral packet to resolve, within 48 hours, a challenge to the entire vote at the JRV level. With the acta de revisión (the departmental CE's review of all JRVs under its jurisdiction), the provisional results already published by the JRV and CSE may begin to change, or an entire JRV vote may be annulled. Once its work is done, the departmental CE forwards its electoral packets to the CSE.
If annulled votes amount to more than 50 percent of the padrón electoral or catálogos electorales, the entire election will be annulled.
The presidential race goes to whichever candidate achieves a plurality of 40 percent of the valid votes cast, except that he can win with 35 percent if he has more that a 5 percent advantage over the second place candidate. Deputies to the Asamblea Nacional are elected by a complicated formula that reserves 20 out of 90 seats for proportional representation. Three additional seats go to the presidential runners-up and the outgoing president. Parties that fail to win at least 4 percent of the vote lose their juridical identity. In effect, they cease to exist.
When the final results are announced by the CSE, the parties have three days to challenge those results and the CSE then has five days to resolve the appeal. Thus, the CSE has eight days to ratify or nullify the election. There are no provisions whatsoever for extending the electoral contest beyond those eight days. Some of our informants have expressed the desire that observers be prepared to continue working throughout this period.
Once the elections are concluded and the winners proclaimed, the ballots and all other electoral materials may be "recycled."
Electoral Issues
There are three primary concerns that have been raised about the electoral process: questions regarding the legitimacy of the entire process, technical procedures and funding.
The electoral process has been attacked by those who maintain that the political spectrum was unfairly limited by the electoral law reforms that made it difficult for many parties to present candidates. These critics contend that even if flawless elections were held on November 4, 2001 the process is already tainted because political options have been unfairly restricted. However, there is nothing illegal about the two dominant parties proposing an electoral law reform, which was then ratified by the Asamblea Nacional. Similar criticisms are offered in many other countries, including the United States. Furthermore, voting participation in the 1990 and 1996 elections indicates that even when given a multiplicity of options, the majority of voters (in excess of 80 percent) still voted for the two major parties (or in the case of the Liberal party, a coalition in which they dominated). Given these considerations, the context of the elections must be considered legitimate.
Technical procedures
Questions have been raised about the procedures established by the CSE for voter registration, casting of votes, and collection and transmittal of the vote tallies. Some of the problems are: people not receiving the cédulas that allow them to vote, people not appearing on voting lists, voters unable to get to the polls, and disputes over counting the votes without adequate procedures to settle challenges at the polling place. There are concerns about timely transmission of data, given Nicaragua's underdeveloped conditions and sometimes remote areas. Dependence on regular, satellite and cell phones, computers, and faxes in a country with power failures and low levels of technological development raises potential problems for a speedy transmission and count. People fear that in a close race, such delays may lead to chaos or a challenge to the political system. Clearly, these are serious challenges. Resolving many of the technical difficulties will depend on the third and even more problematic issue.
The necessary personnel and equipment depend on funding. Nicaragua is virtually bankrupt, and as of early September, the federal government had not given the CSE its funding. Whether these issues can be resolved before November 4, 2001 remains to be seen.
Both of the leading political parties and many political observers are worried about fraud, and are encouraging foreign observation in the hopes of forestalling such attempts. However, some argue that both parties feel it is important to have clean elections in order to legitimate their victory. Many Nicaraguans contended that there was widespread fraud in 1996. Foreign observers, most notably the Carter Center, recognized that there were widespread irregularities, but stopped short of calling it fraud. It would appear that at least some of the problems have been solved, partly by the election law reform that requires the CSE to have both Sandinista and Liberal employees at each polling place.
Estelí and Matagalpa
The cities of Estelí and Matagalpa, both in regions of the same names, seem far from the oppressive heat of Managua, located as they are in the northern hilly tobacco and coffee-growing areas of Nicaragua. Nonetheless, natural disasters seem to find them, be they hurricanes or droughts. Much of the fighting during the revolutionary period took place in the north, making its character even more distinct from the rest of the country.
From the surrounding hills, Estelí, Nicaragua's sixth largest city, with 88,000 inhabitants, looks like a picturesque Central American town tucked in a valley that is dominated by a cathedral, bordered by the Río Estelí, and divided by the Pan American Highway. Life revolves around the central square, as it has for decades.
Estelí played an important role in Nicaragua's recent history. Insurrections against Somoza's guard occurred in Estelí in September 1978, and in April and July 1979. The people of Estelí continued to fight against Somoza, and he, in turn, ordered his air force to bomb Estelí for thirteen days, allowing estelianos, the people of Estelí, to justifiably call the city "Estelí Heróico." In 1985, the contras attacked the small town of La Trinidad just to the south of Estelí, but Estelí was generally perceived to be the real target and goal. Estelianos, strongly supportive of the revolution and the FSLN, came to think of themselves as warriors who sacrificed themselves and their children first for Sandino and then for the revolution. Viewing themselves as a model for the rest of Nicaragua, the majority of people continue to support the FSLN, despite varying levels of support in the rest of the country.
By 2001, the Sandinista government appeared to be firmly in place in Estelí -- organized, confident and optimistic about their city, even though the economy continued to struggle.
Matagalpa, the eighth largest city with a population of 73,000, is not far from Estelí. Instead of tobacco, its primary product is coffee. Its local government, too, is presently controlled by the FSLN. While the tobacco business in Estelí may not be good, the coffee crops in Matagalpa are in worse condition, affected by a sustained drought and drop in coffee prices.
Current Issues in Estelí and Matagalpa
Both Estelí and Matagalpa are struggling with hunger and poverty exacerbated by a drought that has ruined crops across much of Central America. The drought, which has wiped out up to 80 percent of crops in some areas, piggy-backs an existing longer-term crisis in coffee production, especially in the Matagalpa region.
As reported in many international newspapers, the success of coffee in Vietnam and other Asian countries has come at the expense of the rest of the world's coffee industry. "Coffee is the spinal column of this region," said José González, Matagalpa representative in the Asamblea Nacional. But when Central American coffee growers defaulted on their mortgages, many workers lost their jobs, and hardest hit was Nicaragua. The resulting poverty was politicized when President Alemán questioned why it was just in areas of FSLN leadership - Matagalpa now has a FSLN mayor - that poverty occurred. The mayors of Matagalpa, San Ramón, El Tuma, y La Dalia urged governmental assistance that seems to be lacking in the polarized atmosphere of the election year. President Alemán continued to insist, "There is no famine."
In Matagalpa, more than 60,000 temporary workers and 25,000 permanent workers are employed during the height of a full coffee harvest season, but the crisis has sent 4,025 families from their homes to look for help, food, and medicine. More than 1,879 heads of families are now unemployed, and with an average of six people to a family, more than 11,000 people are now living in serious difficulties.
Natural and market disasters have deeply affected this area and certainly will heavily impact the elections.
Electoral Concerns
Estelí continues to be a city with high level of organization, strong FSLN governance and an efficient CSE. Participation in all sectors appears to be high as does interest in the election and electoral process on all sides. Much has been learned from problems encountered in previous elections, such as giving cédulas to people too young to vote and logistical problems with the transmission of votes, but officials hope the problems have been corrected. The PLC's bright red office is large and dominant as is the mural of the FSLN's Daniel Ortega riding into the city on a white horse. Overall, Estelí does not appear to have serious election problems. That is not to say that violence may not occur. In fact, the day before our departure from Nicaragua, a conflict developed among young partisans in the city's central park.
Both the FSLN and PLC were concerned about the community of San Nicolás due to questions that have developed over changing department boundaries that may change the designated voting place for residents of the small, but growing city. Other areas of concern were Condega, San Juan de Limay, and Pueblo Nuevo, mostly due to remoteness and difficulty of accessibility. While many people expressed their concern that the election be clean, that the Supreme Electoral Council reach a quorum,3 and that the period between the election and the actual turning over of power be peaceful. Yet they have also said that the winner is the winner, the loser the loser, and life will go on. Nicaragua, as many have said, has had enough of war.
The main electoral concerns in Estelí and Matagalpa are related to misuse of state and church power.
State Power
Church power
Many people reported that the Church subtly weilded its power over voters. For example, Catholic Church authorities allegedly stated that if Nicaraguans do not vote, they will go to hell and/or commit a mortal sin. While we saw no evidence of Church coercion, we obtained a church poster in Estelí that used the city's patron saint, la Virgin Rosario, and Pope John Paul's reference to the "dark night" of the FSLN to encourage the faithful not to vote for the FSLN. While parties are prohibited from campaigning during the three days before the election, the Church does not have to remain quiet during that period.
The delegation interviewed mayors, heads of electoral councils and the desperately poor. In all areas, the people reinforced the importance of international observers to lessen the likelihood of fraud and give legitimacy to the election results.
The Caribbean Coast
The Caribbean region of Nicaragua has a distinctly different history and political role than the rest of Nicaragua. Until recent increases in the mestizo population -- people of mixed Spanish and Indigenous blood -- the majority of the population had consisted of the Indigenous Miskito, Sumu and Rama peoples, Creoles and the Garífuna people who are descended from African slaves. The Spanish made few inroads in the region, which is geographically as well as culturally distinct from the Pacific zone. The area was instead dominated by the British, either informally or as a protectorate. The region was not formally incorporated into Nicaragua until President José Santos Zelaya sent troops to the region in 1894.
Then named the Department of Zelaya, the Atlantic area's incorporation into Nicaragua was more nominal than real. The main languages spoken in the area were English, Creole and Indigenous languages. The dominant church was the Moravian, not the Catholic. And the dominant economy was foreign-owned, as British and then United States companies exported bananas, gold, wood and fish/seafood.
The Somoza regime was noted for its benign neglect of the region. Somoza received a substantial cut from foreign companies, which provided jobs and are often remembered fondly in the area. Otherwise, much of the coast was largely left alone and did not feel the repression that drove the Pacific population to join the FSLN. The revolution came to the coast in the form of a government that seemed much more interventionist than any previous government in Managua.
As far back as the 1969 Historic Program of the FSLN, the FSLN announced their intention to "incorporate this area into the nation's life." This was to include the end of exploitation by foreign companies, the preparation of suitable land for agriculture and ranching, the encouragement of fishing and forest production, the support of local culture and the eradication of discrimination.
However, in practice the FSLN approach reflected Pacific prejudices. FSLN officials sent to the coast were Spanish speakers, and the literacy materials they brought were in Spanish. After protests, materials were reprinted in English and in native languages. Further conflicts arose as the region was drawn into the Contra War. The FSLN relocated the Miskito people from the region to a safer zone, launching a firestorm of controversies as they were seen to be wrenching people from their lands.
The FSLN defused contra activity in the region by agreeing in 1987 to the creation of two autonomous zones: The North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN) and the South Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAS). Elections for the autonomous regional assemblies were scheduled for 1989, but the devastation of Hurricane Joan forced a delay until February 1990, the same day as the elections that brought Violeta Barrios de Chamorro to the presidency. Neither Violeta's administration nor that of her successor, Arnoldo Alemán, has enacted the regulations to carry out autonomy.
Current Issues on the Coast
Nicaragua is virtually bankrupt. Imports and debt payments far outdistance the mere US $600 million in exports. At least US $400 million of the exports were generated by production from the Caribbean Coast, particularly fishing. The statistics make it clear that whether a liberal or conservative government comes to power, officials will be eyeing the Atlantic region as the main source of income to support the country. Miguel Martínez, assistant to the RAAS regional governor, noted, "The Atlantic Coast is what maintains the Pacific economy." As a result, many costeños, or people from the Atlantic Coast, continue to view the national government warily, assuming that Managua will go on making decisions at the expense of the coast. Furthermore, the economic contribution of the coast to national exports does not mean that the regional economy is thriving. Government concessions to large, foreign fishing interests have cut out local fishermen and drastically decreased the fish and seafood population, making local conditions harder than ever.
Costeños also fear that the economic importance of Atlantic resources is likely to overshadow the the preservation of the fragile ecosystem. While US $250 million was allotted for the establishment and protection of a biological corridor, officials say the funding never arrived. Furthermore, political and economic leaders are committed to the idea of a dry or wet canal across Nicaragua, and the most significant ecological impact of such a project will be on the coast.
An additional pressure in recent years is the migration of mestizos from the neighboring department of Chontales in such great numbers that a new term has entered the lexicon: chontalización. The subsistence farmers have been clearing and burning rain forest land to plant corn and beans, agricultural methods that are inappropriate to the region. And while the RAAS has gained population from the influx of chontaleños, or or people from Chontales, it has not received a corresponding increase in its representation in the Asamblea Nacional.
Electoral Concerns
During municipal elections in November 2000, protests erupted in Puerto Cabezas in the RAAN because candidates from the indigenous party Yatama were excluded from participating because they had missed the deadline for registering candidates. Furthermore, some boxes of ballots were lost when transported by small boats that capsized. For the 2001 elections, regional parties have been given ballot status in the area. In the RAAS, parties will include the Partido Indigenista Multiétnico and Yatama. In the RAAN those parties will be joined by the Movimiento de Unidad Costeño. Despite the addition of the minority parties an issue that is generating a great deal of interest in the Pacific region few people seem concerned about the breadth of representation. The smaller parties do not have the recognition and support locally that the PLC and the FSLN receive.
Observers in Bluefields consistently described the political climate as one of fear and uncertainty. Costeños worry about what actions will be taken by any new government, and many equate the FSLN with the contra war and fear a return to bloodshed, despite the lack of evidence that any forces are likely to initiate an armed conflict. Fears, however, are unlikely to be translated into voting, since few feel that a costeño vote is meaningful. With only 9 percent of the nation's electorate, costeños have little influence on the government in Managua. Furthermore, many described the cultural context as one of passivity. As one observer noted, "We are the Atlantic, but we are very Pacific."
There are a limited number of people who are actively involved in politics in Bluefields, and their efforts are not able to reach beyond a small group. For example, the Bluefields Black Association for Autonomy, represented by Johnny Hodgson, signed an accord with the FSLN pledging electoral support in exchange for coast-friendly policies in a FSLN government. However, two prominent Creole members of the community had never heard of the agreement, nor of the group. One local described the leaders as well-intentioned people who have not organized at the lower reaches. Another described a demonstration against the Sandinistas which occurred while Daniel Ortega visited Bluefields, a meeting that Hodgson had described as the one where the agreement was signed. It should be noted that this phenomenon is not unique to the coast. In Managua, the delegation met with several groups that purported to speak for "the people," but there is no evidence of mass support for, or awareness of, many of them.
Most of the electoral concerns on the Atlantic Coast are related to the dispersed nature of the population in the sparsely settled region and conditions of underdevelopment that may interfere with technical aspects of voting and transmission of data and ballots. However, interest in the elections is limited, and many predict a voter turnout of only 48-50 percent of the eligible electorate. While most of the likely abstention has been attributed to lack of faith in the process, there is also significant absenteeism related to workers "shipping out" on cruise and commercial vessels or moving to Miami, Florida in search of work.
The CSE will use Nicaraguan Air Force helicopters, accompanied by CSE personnel, to get material to central areas, and then ground or water transport to move the materials to the JRVs. Additional JRVs were to be added to accommodate new population areas and no one is to be farther than four kilometers away from a polling place.
The CSE sent people house to house in the region to deliver cédulas and encourage people to make sure that they were on voting lists. However, others noted that people frequently were not home when CSE workers arrived and paid little attention to notices left behind. While ballots will be available in English, Spanish, Miskito and Sumu, most voter outreach announcements have only been in Spanish.
CSE spokesman Vidal Ramón Díaz Chow voiced concerns about scattered communities, distance from polling places over rough terrain, the difficulty of getting to the polls and the transmition of the vote -- especially if it rains. In the past, it has taken as long as five days for ballots to be physically transmitted from the coast. The counts will be transmitted by telephone (including cell phones and satellite phones) and by fax machine from the JRVs to the municipios, on to regional CSE headquarters in Bluefields, and from there to Managua.
The CSE needs to round up and train a significant number of employees -- 57 workers are needed in Bluefields alone, with another six to eight in each municipio. They are also planning to create an electoral police force, trained to know the law and prevent campaigning near the polling places.
Costs are also a significant concern. The cost of fuel for water transport is twenty times the cost for ground transportation. Even in Managua, the CSE had not received its funds from the government to move forward with the electoral process.
An effort is being made to establish electoral observation on the coast, to be coordinated by the RAAN by the Managua-based Instituto para Democracia and in the RAAS by the Bluefields-based Centro para Derechos Humanos en la Costa Atlántica (CEDEHCA). Plans are for 395 observers in the RAAS and 262 in the RAAN. Observers will be trained, in coordination with the CSE, and will wear photo identification cards, and identifying hats and/or T-shirts. Wilder Wilson, CEDEHCA'S observation coordinator, was confident that there will be observers at the vast majority of the polling places. As in the Pacific region, there was a strong belief that observation, both by domestic and international organizations, was crucial to keep both sides honest; the preemptive role of observation was stressed.
In addition to the three main election concerns -- legitimacy of the electoral process, technical procedures and funding -- the delegation is also concerned with the following related issues:
Despite the many problems identified by the delegation, we believe that the Nicaraguan elections can be reasonably free and fair. The overwhelming unanimous support for international observers is a sign that Nicaraguans care about having transparent and honest elections. Their own election observation organization, Etica y Transparencia, whose goal is to transfer democratic accountability to Nicaraguans, is planning to train and position 4,000-5,000 observers across the country. This team, in addition to numerous international observers, will play an important role in preemptively discouraging fraud and giving legitimacy to the elections.
1 At this time, the seventh member is considered to be aligned with the PLC.
2 This has the potential to be Nicaragua's "hanging chad," especially if fiscales challenge such ballots, as PLC activists fear, in their own interests.
3 The CSE signed an agreement on September 4, 2001, not to break the quorum.
Published by Global Exchange
October 2001
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