A little more than two weeks ago, elections took place in Nicaragua in which the Sandinista Front for National Liberation won an unprecedented 62.46 percent of the national vote. Throughout the past year, Cid-Gallup, the Gallup institutional affiliate in Central America, and M&R Consultants, an independent private polling firm, had repeatedly predicted a decisive win for Daniel Ortega. As the year progressed, the poll margin lead held by Ortega became wider and reached 53 percent (with the closest opposition candidate holding 19 percent of the vote) of the vote two weeks prior to the elections, according to Cid-Gallup.
In an interview on channel 12 in Nicaragua, Vania Soza, project director for Cid-Gallup polling, affirmed that
“In our polls in the past year, voter intentionality has been for the candidate of FSLN…we consider that we hit it on the bulls eye with our polling results. It’s worth mentioning that we—in all the countries where Cid Gallup exists—have nailed it in terms of presidential elections.”
Speaking about polling results prior to the elections in a post-election interview, Raúl Obregón, general manager of M&R Consultants, said:
“For us, as polling consultants, this election has been the least stressful, I’m talking about numbers here, not about political issues…for example, in September of 2010, we got 44 percent [for Ortega]; then, in December of the same year, we got 46 percent; by April [of 2011] we were getting around 50 percent…by mid-year we had 56 percent, and later, in the last [poll] we did in October, [Ortega] was at 58 percent. What does this mean? That voter intentionality was showing a tendency toward the candidacy of Daniel Ortega.”
Despite the seemingly overwhelming support the FSLN garnered for these elections, the opposition parties repeatedly made claims of fraud and threats of post-election violence even before the elections occurred. Interestingly, denunciations of fraud flew in the face of an electoral system that had last been reformed and approved by past governments in which the FSLN was not in executive power and did not have a legislative majority.
Prior to the elections, the Supreme Electoral Council of Nicaragua (CSE), a separate branch of the government that oversees the electoral process and whose members are elected by a minimum 60 percent vote in the National Assembly, permitted the OAS, the European Union, and the Council of Electoral Experts of Latin America (CEELA), among others, to accompany and monitor the electoral process during and after the elections, which took place Nov. 6.
The agreement to accompany the elections, which was highly criticized in the media as restrictive, actually received praise by the OAS Secretary Insulza. In a Sept. 28 OAS press release, Insulza affirmed that “we have not a single limitation and the agreements signed yesterday with Foreign Minister Samuel Santos and with the President of the CSE, Roberto Rivas, are exactly the same as all those we have signed in all countries where we have observed elections when we have been invited by their respective governments”.
Of the three main monitoring groups, the OAS and the EU accompaniment teams were the most critical of the electoral process. Among the most cited criticisms that both monitoring groups made were: 1) that there was a double standard used in the accreditation of the different political parties and/or that the CSE was late in delivering accreditation materials to the Independent Liberal Party (PLI). 2) That the CSE curtailed the rights of the national observer organizations by negating their accreditation to monitor elections. 3) That the CSE did not resolve issues with regard to the adequate distribution of voter-identity cards, “whose distribution has been left, in many cases, in the hands of the FSLN”.
In regard to the first point concerning accreditation, the CSE had accredited, weeks in advance (electoral law mandates at least 10 days before the elections), all legally requested party representatives for voting centers. However, two days before the elections were to take place, the PLI party requested that the CSE replace around 9,500 party representative credentials.
The PLI party representatives argued that many of the credentials they received beforehand contained errors related to names and national identification numbers, which would have disqualified their representatives from monitoring and approving voter tally sheets at voting centers. This claim is dubious on two counts: the first being that none of the other parties participating in the elections requested a massive number of credential replacements (even though there might have been some errors in the production of the credentials). Secondly, if it were actually the case that 9,500 credentials contained errors, then the PLI could have brought this to the attention of the CSE much earlier, and not two days before the elections, when the deadline for these kinds of request had already passed.
In the end, the CSE did deliver on the PLI request for credential replacements. However, the PLI, accompanied by EU and OAS mission representatives, took this opportunity to make it appear as though the CSE was delivering their credentials late in the process. They condemned the electoral process and the elections, claiming, without any evidence, that the system was rigged against them.
But what the events demonstrate is that the PLI attempted to thwart the electoral process by intentionally clogging the CSE with massive bureaucratic requests so that it could then claim that they had not been permitted to have representatives at voting centers. Meanwhile, the OAS and the EU missions both enabled the PLI’s destabilizing tactics. In terms of electoral observation, what this incident demonstrates is the inability of the OAS and EU observation mission representatives to be impartial in documenting and accompanying the Nicaraguan electoral process.
A second common claim made by both the OAS and the EU was that, in the words of the EU, the CSE curtailed the rights of the national observer organizations by negating their accreditation to monitor elections. However, their use of “observation rights” with regard to “two critical organizations” is questionable given that the electoral law does not give any inherent “observation rights” to non-governmental organizations. The law states that the CSE is the sole body that can “regulate the accreditation and respective participation to observers of the electoral process” (Article 10). In the end, it is the sole decision of the CSE, which is elected in a bi-partisan manner, to give accreditation to whomever it deems appropriate—in this case the OAS, the EU, the CEELA and the National Council of Universities (CNU), among others.
The rights of groups, like Ética y Transparencia, were not infringed upon, as the EU report suggests. Ética y Transparencia did not apply for accreditation because they, unlike the OAS, were not satisfied with, among other things, the limitations that the CSE mandated accompaniment agreement imposed. That groups like Ética y Transparencia had a history of receiving funding from U.S. government supported organizations like the National Endowment for Democracy was not an issue of concern for national and international media outlets critical of the electoral process.
The third common claim about identity cards represents another case of ignorance by the OAS and EU with regard to the Nicaraguan electoral system. To begin with, in Nicaragua, like in other Central American countries, you need to have a national identification card, which is necessary for a number of legal procedures, to vote. Nicaraguan citizens must apply for their voter registration cards; to do this, they must go to a CSE office and present an original birth certificate and a photograph. After about two to four weeks, the individual must return to the CSE offices to pick up their identity card, which they can use for voting. So what does this mean? It means that if you do not apply for your ID card with plenty of time in advance of an election, you may not get to vote. This is plain and simple. So it is the fault of those voters, or parties that want their supporters to vote, if they do not have ID cards at the time of the elections.
In the case of the FSLN, which the EU and OAS say have had the power to distribute these ID cards, it is not that they have some vertically integrated system from the CSE to the voters in which they discriminatorily distribute ID cards. It is that the FSLN, as a party, is much more organized (just ask any opposition party member or the U.S. Embassy) in encouraging their supporters to apply ahead of time for their ID cards.
In all, the CSE has, in actuality, done a tremendous job with distributing voter-identity cards. According to the nationally respected and independent president of the National Council of Universities, more than 95 percent of the eligible voting population has an identity card. A Cid-Gallup poll in May of 2011 revealed that 91 percent of adults polled had national ID cards. What is more, the poll shows that people affiliated with the Sandinista party have a smaller probability of having a national ID card. And, shortly before the election, the CSE announced (as it had before previous elections) that expired voter cards could be used to vote. This means that claims of fraud based on opposition voters not having access to identity cards do not carry much weight.
Therefore, it is either the ignorance or the deliberate disregard by the OAS and EU monitoring bodies of the Nicaraguan legal and political system that leads them to make these unfounded conclusions concerning electoral problems.
What is also revealing are the events or ‘irregularities’ that the OAS or EU mission teams do not report.
Among the number of things that the OAS report fails to admit is that an OAS mission official had to be taken out of the country for assaulting the secretary of a municipal electoral council (CED) in a southern town. The national newspaper, El Nuevo Diario, reported that the OAS official forcefully attempted to gain control of the distribution of a certain set of national ID cards, the sole responsibility of an electoral council official.
Both reports also fail to mention denunciations made by the CSE, which condemned the main opposition party, PLI, for attempting to sabotage the transfer of electoral material to and from voting centers. The CSE even accused a foreign electoral observation group of distributing PLI electoral credentials, an act far beyond the scope of involvement of any observation body.
In a Nov. 10 opinion piece, columnist Andres Oppenheimer recounts how he was personally surprised when the secretary general of the OAS, Miguel Insulza, was quoted as saying that, “in Nicaragua yesterday, democracy and peace took a step forward.” Oppenheimer called Insulza to question him about how he could have made this comment. Insulza responded that it had been an “error” to say that. However, as anyone can observe from the context given to the OAS’s troubling analysis above, it does not appear likely that “democracy and peace have suffered a setback in Nicaragua,” as Oppenheimer states. In fact, the evidence available demonstrates that quite the opposite occurred.
What should be of international concern is the fact that the OAS and EU permitted themselves to be used by the opposition party in such an obvious and partial manner. This case of international electoral observation points to significant legitimacy issues for the OAS and the EU in regards to their regional and global involvement with the practice of democracy.
Daniel McCurdy is a Nicaraguan-American who grew up in Managua and studied Economics and Finance at Guilford College in North Carolina. He currently works as an intern for the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington DC.