After months of repeating hangover promises to never again participate in another corrupt election process controlled by the same de facto magistrates accused of vote-rigging in 2008 and 2011, Nicaragua’s tattered opposition parties have decided to go along for the ride one more time in this year’s municipal elections.
Amid mutterings and grumblings of another inevitable fraud in the works, the Independent Liberal Party (PLI) and the Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC) will return to the whipping post in November, fully expecting to get flogged but hoping their executioners will at least be quick about it. Longtime Ortega ally Agustín Jarquín, meanwhile, announced—to very few cheers—that his pint-sized party, the all-but-forgotten Christian Democratic Union, will break from the ruling Sandinista Front to manage electoral defeat on their own.
The Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), which officially lost its party status in 2007 but ran in electoral alliance with the PLI in the2011 general elections, is the only opposition movement that is boycotting the municipal elections altogether.
“There are no conditions to have elections that are clean, transparent and competitive,” the MRS said in a statement Monday. “The electoral body continues under the total control of Orteguismo.”
The MRS noted that the government of Nicaragua did nothing to implement any of the recommendations made by the Organization of American States (OAS) or the European Union (EU) following the 2011 election process, which international poll watchers criticized for being riddled with numerous and intentional irregularities.
While the MRS will sit out this dance, Nicaragua’s other minority parties feel pressured to participate because failure to do so would mean automatically forfeiting their party’s legal status and ceding the country’s entire political pie to President Daniel Ortega.
As one opposition politician put it, “It’s absurd to participate in another election with the same rules and judges responsible for the two previous election frauds, but self-immolation would be a mistake also.”
Stuck in a lose-lose situation, the PLI says it’s going to participate in the elections to document the fraud with scientific curiosity.
“We know the conditions don’t exist to have free and fair elections here, but we will be occupying the elections as a platform for rebellion,” PLI lawmaker and Eliseo Núñez told The Nicaragua Dispatch.
The rebellion is afoot
The rebellion—or what passes as such in Nicaragua these days—started last weekend with the Supreme Electoral Council’s voter-registry verification process, which the opposition is denouncing as another flop.
The PLI’s top poll monitor, Sergio Alvarez, said according to his party’s parallel count, less than 10% of voters participated in the verification process. That’s less than half the voters the CSE claims participated—marking the first major mathematical discrepancy in the election process, a whole seven weeks before the official campaign even begins.
The PLI also denounced a long list of familiar irregularities in the verification process, including the improper use of state vehicles for partisan purposes and a block on PLI poll watchers from participating in the process. The opposition party says the Sandinistas—including members of the Sandinista Councils of Citizen Power (CPC)—were in total control of the voter-verification stations.
PLI congressman Javier Vallejos told La Prensa there were even cases of electoral authorities taking opposition voters’ IDs away from them after CPC poll watchers identified them as non-Sandinistas. Vallejos claims electoral authorities at his voting station in Granada told several opposition voters that their IDs were expired and that they could go to their local CSE office next week to pick up a new one. The PLI lawmaker said he denounced the situation to local CSE authorities and they promised to look into it.
Arnoldo Alemán’s PLC, meanwhile, decried similar irregularities in the voter-verification process. They too claim they were denied participation as poll watchers. The PLC questioned whether the voter verification was intended to be a national event, or just a private Sandinista get-together.
The Sandinista government and the CSE insist their critics are just fussing. The official narrative is that the process was a total success and that everything transpired with complete order, transparency and full participation from a cheerful and optimistic citizenry.
Julio Acuña, the CSE’s director of political party affairs, said some 700,000 voters participated in the two-day verification process, which incorporated some 80,000 new voters into the registries. CSE chief Roberto Rivas then set the record straight by clarifying—with his characteristic love for statistical exactitude—that 910,659 of Nicaragua’s 3,604,178 registered voters participated in the verification, or 25.27% of all voters. (The percentage might have been slightly more, but unfortunately Rivas only reported it to the hundredth decimal unit. Either way, it was a remarkable show arithmetical precision and efficiency for a man who still hasn’t announced the final vote count from the 2006 presidential elections).
“We have to remember that in the municipal elections, the level of participation is always relatively lower than in the national elections; plus, we just had an electoral process nine months ago and a lot of citizens already know where they vote, so I think this has been a success,” Rivas said.
Opposition politician Mauricio Diaz, a lawmaker in the Central American Parliament (PARLACEN) and the PLI’s spokesman for the verification process, says the weekend polling was “only a success for President Ortega and his one-party model of government.”
“The CSE has no credibility; they say whatever they want and they are not subject to any scrutiny,” Diaz told The Nicaragua Dispatch. “They have become a factory that produces statistics, but not ones that correspond with reality.”
According to the Institute for Development and Democracy (IPADE), which monitored last weekend’s verification process, the CSE’s claim of 25% participation implies that there were even more people participating in the municipal verification than in last year’s national election verification—in other words, the exact opposite of what Rivas said.
IPADE monitored 700 voting stations in 110 municipalities and is still carefully tallying its numbers, which will be presented Wednesday in a full report. Their preliminary data, however, show that the level of participation was perhaps closer to the 10% cited by the PLI.
“Turnout was very low; in Matagalpa, for example, it was only 10%,” says IPADE director Mauricio Zúñiga. “We are still processing all the data, but the preliminary numbers suggest turnout was much less than the 18% from last year’s national election verification.”
Zúñiga said the CSE is trying its hardest to present an image of normalcy and institutional order, but in reality the electoral system—a residual and unfortunate survivor of “el pacto”—is an anachronistic mess.
“We are still paying the consequences of el pacto; there is no institutional credibility and no interest in reforming the system,” Zúñiga told The Nicaragua Dispatch. “The whole election process is enveloped in a great lack of confidence. The conditions are the same as they were before and there is no sign that transparency will improve. The opposition parties are going into this election with the same rules as before—they couldn’t even negotiate minimal levels of equality, transparency or representation in the CSE.”