Will democracy survive elections?

Electoral Farce or Imperfect Democracy? Part I in an in-depth look at the 2011 presidential elections.

MANAGUA—If the storyline for Nicaragua’s Nov. 6 presidential elections had been invented by a Hollywood script writer, it would read like an exaggerated and comic tale of democracy run amuck in some fictional tropical republic.

But the events and characters in this story are real.

On the left is incumbent Daniel Ortega, whose candidacy challenges a constitutional law that prohibits consecutive reelection and limits presidents to two terms in office. Opponents argue his candidacy is doubly illegal.

On the right are the challengers: one a former president and ex-convict with the dubious distinction of making Transparency International’s Top 10 list of most corrupt leaders of all time; and the other a 79-year old radio producer trying to posture himself as the new kid on the block.

Rounding out the cast is Roberto Rivas, who once again is playing the role of the surly president of the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE), even though his term in office expired more than a year ago. Rivas, in addition to being accused of usurping office, is also accused of electoral fraud, illicit enrichment, customs fraud, and embezzlement. Nicaraguan judicial authorities have refused to investigate any of the allegations against Rivas.

As foreign observers arrive in Managua and try to figure out their uncertain roles as “electoral accompaniment”—an indistinct term used at Rivas’ semantic insistence—local watchdogs are briefing their international colleagues on what they’ve missed so far. And their evaluations are cause for serious concern.

“This is an electoral process with great possibilities of ending fraudulently,” said Roberto Courtney, executive director of electoral observation group Ethics and Transparency, in a recent report.

That’s putting it diplomatically. Last year, Courtney told me he thought Nicaragua has “the worst and least credible electoral system in all of Latin America.”

Watchdog group Hagamos Democracia (Let’s Make Democracy) is also unfurling a long list of concerns about Nicaragua’s troubled electoral process, and its democracy in general.

“The problem in Nicaragua is that there is a serious undermining of democracy. What Nicaragua needs is a Glasnost,” says Pedro Xavier Solís, executive director of Hagamos Democracia, referring to the political and social reforms implemented by Mikhail Gorbachev in the waning days of the Soviet Union.

Local election monitors say even if the voting process runs smoothly on election day, the Sandinistas and their allies have already done everything in their power to make the playing field as uneven as possible: from gerrymandering and withholding cédulas (state ID cards) to the opposition, to restricting observation and repressing protesters.

“This whole electoral process is contaminated,” says Gonzalo Carrión, legal director for the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH). “This is going to be an imposition, not an election.”

Carrión says Ortega has gotten a helping hand from the “abuses of the CSE” and “a repressive police force.”

“Democracy and rule of law exist in Nicaragua in name only,” the rights activist charged. “The civil and political rights of the whole population are at stake.”

Symptoms of stress

Critics of the government point to recent bouts of political violence in a half dozen municipalities in the northern zone as symptoms that all is not well with the electoral process.

Brewing frustrations and mistrust over the CSE’s issuing of cédulas has led to brief but violent uprisings in seven northern municipalities in the departments of Estelí, Nueva Segovia and Madriz—areas that traditionally vote anti-Sandinista.

A heavy handed response by National Police and Sandinista party operatives, who partnered with cops in door-to-door searches for “rabble rousers” in Nueva Segovia, has alarmed human rights groups.

Opposition candidates and election monitors complain the issuing of cédulas has been done with extreme partisan bias, using Sandinista party structures to hand out state ID cards to Ortega supporters while creating obstacles for everyone else. There are also unconfirmed reports of Sandinistas issuing voting cards to minors and foreigners, especially Hondurans along the northern border in areas where Sandinista support is weak.

The CSE denies any irregularities in the issuance of cédulas. CSE boss Rivas says the majority of requested cédulas have been issued in an orderly manner, and the remaining 30,000 or so will be issued before election day. He says the CSE has handed out nearly three times more cédulas this year than in previous elections.

But citizen complaints are not unfounded, according to national election monitors.

The Institute for the Development of Democracy (IPADE) recently monitored 101 municipalities across the country and found that in 64.5 percent of municipalities the CSE has illegally delegated the issuance of cédulas to other government or party institutions. The ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front is involved in most of the cases, IPADE found.

“Observers reported that only members of the FSLN were getting their cédulas in 70.7 percent of the municipalities where groups other than the CSE are issuing cédulas,” IPADE found.

Even in cases where the CSE is functioning properly, it’s rarely functioning well.

Of the 94 municipalities IPADE monitored, only half of the CSE offices remained open to the public full time, while 20 percent opened only one or two days a week. In many instances, the study found, CSE offices closed for days on end claiming they had run out of materials.

The CSE is also being criticized for politicizing the polls on election day by stacking municipal and departmental voting stations with Sandinista operatives. IPADE found that there is a “lack of proportionality and equity” in the distribution of party representation at voting centers throughout the length and breadth of the land.

Thanks to the CSE’s maneuverings, Sandinistas and their allies will control the lion’s share of voting stations, while the PLI-UNE opposition headed by presidential candidate Fabio Gadea, has been relegated to a superficial and secondary role, the electoral watchdog group found.

CSE boss Roberto Rivas

Despite the numerous concerns, CSE chief Rivas maintains his position of hear no evil, see no evil. In an Oct. 19 statement, Rivas told politicians and the media to stop whining about irregularities in the electoral process, which he considers orderly and above reproach.

But not many Nicaraguans seem to put much stake in what Rivas has to say. A survey published Oct. 21 by the Center for Investigations of Communication (CINCO) found seven out of 10 independent voters have little or no confidence in the CSE, and 68 percent say the electoral process has had little or no transparency.

Voter verification or rehearsal for fraud?

Opposition parties and national election observers have also raised serious concerns about the July 23-24 voter verification process, when citizens reported to their polling stations to verify their name on the voting list, cross off dead relatives and report changes of residency.

In many ways, the voter verification process is managed like a rehearsal for the elections. And that’s exactly why the opposition is so worried.

“The verification process was plagued with irregularities all over the place,” said opposition candidate Gadea, whose party was excluded from observing the process in various voting stations.

Topping Gadea’s list of concerns about the voter verification was the questionable role that the Sandinista Councils of Citizen Power (CPCs) were allowed to play inside voting stations. In several cases, Gadea said, the CPCs were put directly in charge of running voting stations, and went as far as blocking opposition observers from entering the polls. In extreme cases, Gadea said, the CPCs even beat up and chased off by authorized PLI election observers. And in one instance, the CPCs had police arrest the PLI’s accredited electoral observers, Gadea charges.

“This set a precedent for using the CPCs and police to terrify the people and prevent them from voting on Nov. 6,” Gadea said.

“The verification process confirmed all the suspicions we had about how the CSE is going to act,” Gadea supporter and PLI congressional candidate Eduardo Montealegre told The Nicaragua Dispatch. “They are going to try to make sure the elections are not free and not transparent. But we are sure that if we all go out and vote, we are going to win because they are not going to be able to steal all the votes.”

Roberto Rivas, for his part, said 1,794,400 Nicaraguans—nearly 53 percent of the 3.3 registered voters—participated in the voter-verification process, which he considered exemplary. Rivas said the turnout for the verification was orderly and massive—a claim that didn’t seem to be supported by any of the media reports that showed empty polling stations in different parts of the country.

“(Rivas) says verification was massive, but it appeared like a cemetery out there. And everyone saw it,” Gadea said.

Ortega’s polemic sixth candidacy

For opposition leaders and legal analysts, the 2011 presidential elections were born into original sin when Ortega decided to sidestep the Constitution to run again for president.

After Ortega failed to muster the votes he needed to reform the Constitution in the National Assembly, he opted for the path of least resistance by turning to Sandinista judges in the Supreme Court. In October 2009, the Sandinistas challenged the Constitution arguing that Article 147, which prohibits consecutive reelection, was a “constitutional anomaly” that violated Ortega’s human rights and the basic constitutional guarantee that all citizens are equal before the law.

Ortega on top: critics say the elections started fraudulently and will probably end the same way

Lawyers and opposition judges scoffed at the ruling, calling it Sandinista pettifoggery based on false arguments made by an illegally assembled court. A year later, on Sept. 29, 2010, Sandinista magistrates met again—this time with help from bench-warming substitute Sandinista judges to replace opposition magistrates—and ruled to uphold the questionable interpretation in “full court.”

Again, the opposition argued the Court had not been convened legally, and therefore the ruling was void. Even Vice President Jaime Morales sheepishly admitted the ruling didn’t smell right to him, comparing Ortega to Alexander the Great cutting through the Gordian Knot—not exactly a compliment to the president’s democratic handling of the situation.

A group of 35 distinguished lawyers, including former Sandinista ministers and a former Supreme Court president, claim Nicaragua’s constitutional breach is so serious that the Organization of American States (OAS) should intervene.

“Ortega’s candidacy doesn’t only violate the Constitution but also the Inter-American Democratic Charter,” the erudite group wrote in a joint declaration.

The lawyers concluded their protest letter warning that Ortega’s candidacy “represents a profound infringement on the rule of law” that could have serious consequences for the country’s social integration and peace.

Any violence that results from Nicaragua’s stray from rule of law will be Ortega’s fault, the lawyers argue.

Don’t count on me for this farce

While opposition parties, church groups and business chambers are calling for a massive voter turnout on Nov. 6, others argue it’s a waste of time.

Outgoing congresswoman and former guerrilla leader Monica Baltodano, head of the Movement to Rescue Sandinismo (Rescate), is spearheading a protest movement called “Don’t count on my vote for this farce.”

The group argues that the electoral process is too sick to be revived, the arbitrators are too crooked to be straightened, and the opposition candidates are too weak to put up a fight against Ortega.

“Simply put, there is no law here. There’s only the reign of a caudillo and the toadies that surround him,” reads a Sept. 20 statement issued by Rescate.

Will massive voter turnout turn into street protests?

Still, some believe the act of voting could be the spark that wakes up a sleepwalking nation.

Youth activist leader Jairo Contreras, of the movement Rejudin (The Youth Resistance for National Dignity) says opposition candidates were foolish to participate in elections where “fraud is guaranteed.” But now that they are, citizens must vote, he says.

Under Contreras’ leadership, Rejudin has quickly grown from a dozen or so activists in Managua to a nationwide organization with upwards of 500 “focal groups,” according to Contreras, who has been beat up by Sandinista activists and arrested three times in the past 10 months.

The elections might not be clean, he says, but if people show up at the polls to cast their ballot, they’ll be more likely to defend their vote afterwards.

“The elections could be the best opportunity we have to completely wake up people,” Contreras said. “It could spark a social explosion.”