President Daniel Ortega’s counter-constitutional reelection bid has been nagged by scandal, uncertainty and illegitimacy since it started nearly five years ago. But it became a “competitive race” the moment other candidates agreed to throw their hats in the ring and accept the Sandinista boss’s electoral challenge, according to Luis Yañez Barnuevo, chief of mission for the EU’s election observation team.
Yañez, a member of the EU parliament as a representative of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, says the four opposition candidates who agreed to participate in the Nov. 6 elections have essentially legitimized an electoral process that otherwise wouldn’t have passed the basic sniff test.
“We know in great detail the polemic regarding the pretentions of President Daniel Ortega to become a candidate when the Constitution apparently doesn’t allow that. And we have watched with worry as Nicaragua’s internal process ended up approving his candidacy without any possibility for legal recourse. That alone probably would have impeded us from coming here as a mission of electoral observers, but the moment in which the other four parties and coalitions entered the electoral process to compete with Ortega, it became a competitive situation,” the EU chief of mission told The Nicaragua Dispatch. “So under these circumstances, we consider that we had to come (observe the polls), even though we are aware of the difficulties and the problems facing this electoral mission.”
Yañez avoided making any categorical comments about Nicaragua’s election process, noting that it’s still far from over. But he did list several early causes for ambivalence, which he says isn’t helpful to a democratic electoral process.
Problems with the issuing of cédulas (state identification cards), doubts over the legality of 50 opposition candidates running on the ticket of the Liberal Independent Party (PLI), concerns with the legality of Ortega’s candidacy, and a highly politicized Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) are all worrisome features of this election, Yañez said.
Some of the concerns, specifically those related to cedulation, the legality of opposition candidates and accreditation of domestic election observers, are still fixable. But the systemic problems will need to be addressed after the elections, he said.
And so far, Yañez says, there doesn’t appear to be much political will in Nicaragua to make needed systemic reforms. Indeed, most of the suggestions the EU made after the 2006 elections appear to have been ignored.
“In our final report from the ’06 elections, we said it would be desirable to organize the CSE with independent and professional magistrates,” Yañez said.
Instead, Nicaragua has kept the same magistrates in power, even though some of them are now occupying their posts after their term limits have expired. Coincidentally, the CSE has been accused of orchestrating fraud—to varying degrees—in the past three regional and municipal elections.
“I am not criticizing individuals rather the system, which is based on party quotas, which contaminates the process,” Yañez said.
When pressed on the issue, the EU chief of mission added, “It is obvious that this is an electoral council of partisan composition. And what party is benefited from that situation? Don’t make me tell you what everyone already knows. It’s obvious.”
Yañez said it’s generally not a good sign for democracy when a country’s electoral magistrates continually make headline news for their involvement in politics and scandal.
“The best news for a democracy is when the people of that country don’t know who their electoral magistrates are, because that means they are career professionals who operate on rotating terms and are not nominated by the political parties,” Yañez said. “In Spain, no one even knows the names of our electoral magistrates because they don’t make the news and no one asks about them and they are not involved in political polemic.”
Will electoral observation be restricted?
When the electoral process began officially earlier this year, CSE president Roberto Rivas insisted on beating his chest and saying national and foreign observation would not be permitted, and that any foreigner who questions the electoral process “will be put on the first plane home.” Rivas and the CSE have since modified and softened their stance a bit, but now without confusing protocol in the process.
The CSE first published a manual regulating foreign poll watchers and specifying that their role will be one of “accompaniment,” rather than “observation” (contrary to the norms in the country’s Electoral Code). According to the electoral handbook, which critics claim flies in the face of established electoral law, the CSE would essentially lead observers around by the nose on election day and then have the right to proofread and approve their final report before it went public.
The terms were unacceptable to most. The Carter Center, which has been observing elections here since 1990, said they couldn’t work under those conditions and essentially bowed out. The group later announced it will send a five-member team to Nicaragua to prepare a report on the country’s political climate and post-electoral perspectives, but “Will not serve as election observers nor seek credentials under Nicaragua’s Election Accompaniment Regulation to access voting sites, and therefore will not be in a position to evaluate the voting process itself.”
Facing the risk of totally delegitimizing their own electoral process—and potentially alienating the next Sandinista government— the CSE sat down privately with representatives from the EU and Organization of American States (OAS) to hatch separate agreements to regulate their participation as election monitors.
While both the EU and OAS claim they are confident with the new terms, the legality of the situation is a bit confusing to everyone else. Nicaragua now has an Electoral Code, an operations manual and two bilateral agreements—all of which say something slightly different but supposedly regulate the same election process.
Yañez, however, seems unconcerned by the discrepancies. He says the EU observers will do the technical work they were trained to do, and not worry about Rivas’ semantic peculiarities. “The EU’s mission is to determine if the electoral process here complies with international standards or doesn’t,” he said.
But he acknowledges that the CSE’s hang up on accrediting national and international election monitors “is going to reduce the presence of observation” this year.
“It is not the same to have one medic give you a diagnosis as it is to have a team of doctors consult and give you an informed opinion,” he said.
Yañez also laments the exclusion of national election observation groups such as Ethics and Transparency, Hagamos Democracia and IPADE.
The CSE’s Rivas has said he won’t accredit the national watchdog groups because of their alleged political agendas and ties to opposition groups. The CSE has, however, accredited the National Council of Universities (CNU), a student group with no previous experience in electoral observation.
Undeterred by Rivas’ fiats and shoe-thumping, Ethics and Transparency and Hagamos Democracia claim they don’t need an invitation to the dance because they’ll be there anyway.
“Hagamos Democracia is already observing and will continue to observe the electoral process,” says Pedro Xavier Solís, executive director of Hagamos Democracia. “The inhibition by the CSE will not affect our organization; it only forces us to adjust our strategy for operating.”
The position of Ethics and Transparency is similarly defiant.
“Ethics and Transparency informs the citizen in general and electoral authorities in particular, that this civic group, as is our obligation, will continue observing this electoral process with independence, without prejudice and with seriousness and respect,” said Roberto Courtney, the group’s executive director, in a release. “We have all the elements needed to guarantee the people of Nicaragua a clear understanding about the validity of the electoral process and the true results of their right to vote.”
What will it all mean on election day?
Human rights groups are concerned that the combination of accredited observers and non-accredited observers could create an explosive formula on election day.
Vilma Núñez, president of the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH), worries the situation could lead to violent clashes between non-accredited observers and university students “who are being used by Ortega.”
Nuñez, a former student activist herself, says the university students have a right to participate in the election process, but she worries they are being “used as state observers” by the president of the university council, whom she calls “an employee at the service of the government interests.”
Núñez also worries about the role of other election observers, specifically the OAS. Núñez met recently with OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza to express her organization’s concerns about a “series of irregularities and anomalies” that she thinks “doesn’t create an appropriate environment for free and transparent elections.”
After the meeting, Núñez said she warned Insulza that “What is at stake here is not only the OAS’s role in Nicaragua’s democracy, but the prestige of the OAS itself.”
Insulza, for his part, says the OAS will observe the elections normally, as it has in previous polls.
“We are all satisfied that there is going to be a good observation process,” he said.
“Everyone is participating in the elections, and so we are here to observe an election in which everyone is participating; no political force was left out. I think that’s important, everyone is participating,” Insulza said redundantly.
But unlike Yañez, Insulza is reluctant to acknowledge any irregularities in the electoral process so far. Instead, he chalks everything up to political tensions in an election year.
“People always say thing in an electoral cycle that aren’t said at any other time. And Nicaragua is no exception. It’s a time of strong debate. A time when society opens up and says stuff with more liberty than at other moments, and that’s part of democracy,” Insulza mumbled in a whispered voice, as if he were thinking aloud an unfinished thought.
The mission representing the Council of Electoral Experts of Latin America (CEELA), a group of Latin American observers comprised of former electoral magistrates from the region, is also downplaying concerns about the democratic process here.
“We separate political problems from those that are technical and electoral,” said CEELA president Nicanor Segundo, of Ecuador. He added that his mission will comment only on electoral and technical problems, and not political problems, which are Nicaragua’s to sort out on its own.
Conveniently for Segundo, all the problems he’s seen so far seem to fit neatly into his political, do-not-discuss category, leaving him little to say.
“Political problems are normally aired in every election. In many election processes, some of the candidates lash out against the electoral authorities. This is very common. When I was president of the electoral body, I suffered the same thing. And all of us in CEELA who have been presidents of our countries’ electoral bodies have lived through moments like these,” he said, apparently in solidarity with the CSE’s Rivas.
He added, “We can’t take sides in political problems because they are issues that need to be resolved politically within the country—that’s why you have a national assembly and laws; it’s part of democracy.”
Asked by The Nicaragua Dispatch if he thought issues such as problems with cedulation, a basic function of the state, is a technical problem or a political one, Segundo answered, “They are political problems, that’s right.”
Segundo remains confident that everything will be resolved democratically on election day.
“There is never a moment in politics when everyone is content because there are winners and losers. The situation gets heated. But that’s normal,” he said. “The day following the elections, on Nov. 7, Nicaragua will continue life as before, in democracy.”
The way things are going, that might be a bold prediction.
Next: what the opposition candidates say about why they’ve decided to run.