Nicaragua’s two opposition Liberal parties and the Sandinista-controlled Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) have found themselves in a Mexican standoff over four municipalities awarded to the ruling Sandinista Front following the Nov. 4 elections.
The opposition argues that the CSE’s political arithmetic used to proclaim victory for the Sandinistas in the municipalities of Matiguás (Matagalpa) Ciudad Darío (Matagalpa), El Almendro (Río San Juan) and Nueva Guinea (RAAS) does not add up. Their own math, based on adding the actual vote tallies from each municipality, shows the ruling party lost all four polls, the Liberals insist.
Electoral watchdog group Ethics & Transparency, the Nicaraguan affiliate of Transparency International, agrees with the opposition. In a parallel count using 100% of official voting tallies (“actas” in Spanish) from Matiguás, Ciudad Darío and El Almendro, Ethics & Transparency claims the Independent Liberal Party (PLI) won all three municipalities by margins that varied from 374 to 978 votes. The Sandinistas dismiss Ethics & Transparency’s claim, arguing the watchdog organization is an “opposition group” and electoral calamity howler. “They are neither ethical nor transparent,” sniffs Sandinista lawmaker Walmero Gutiérrez.
But Ethics & Transparency are not the only ones questioning Nicaragua’s chronically fumbling electoral system. The Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH) has also said the Nov. 4 polling was deeply troubled. CENIDH is now accompanying the Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC), which claims it won the municipality of Nueva Guinea by more than 2,000 votes and is now being “selectively persecuted” for defending its victory.
Both the PLC and the PLI are officially challenging the CSE’s preliminary report with formal appeals for recounts. The CSE has until Nov. 21 to publish the final list of winners.
In the meantime, opposition party leaders in all four municipalities are keeping the pressure up in the streets to defend the vote—a task they weren’t up to in 2008, when the Sandinistas finagled 37 municipalities that they couldn’t win honestly.
“Right now we are continuing with the civic pressure, but if that doesn’t work, we’ll see what comes next,” PLI legal representative Luis Callejas told The Nicaragua Dispatch yesterday in a phone interview, as he drove up to the Matiguás, which has essentially been militarized for the past two weeks.
In Nueva Guinea, incumbent Mayor Denis Obando says his supporters in the PLC are planning a massive march this Saturday, similar to the one they held last week in which people came on foot and horseback from 20 kilometers away to support their mayor. He says the Sandinistas have been trying to organize a countermarch, but he doubts they can muster as much real support as they claim to have on the ballot.
“The situation remains very tense in Nueva Guinea,” Obando told The Nicaragua Dispatch. “We have been defending the vote for two weeks and we will continue to do so until the very end.”
Worse fraud than 2008?
According to Roberto Courtney, director of Ethics & Transparency, this year’s “electoral fraud” was not just limited to the four contested mayoral contests. He says the CSE also rigged voting in 66 other municipalities to usurp 382 city councilmen seats.
“There was fraud in 70 municipalities,” Courtney told The Nicaragua Dispatch. That’s more than 45% of all municipalities.
In Ethics & Transparency’s final report, released on Wednesday, the group said no fewer than 35,000 voters were denied the right to vote on election day, and one in five voters appeared on voting registries in municipalities other than where they live—a bit of election day mischief known as the “raton loco.”
The group, which observed the polling without official accreditation, says much of the electoral shenanigans occurred months before election day. A total of 198,000 citizens were excluded from the election process because they were denied their state ID cards (cédulas), while in 43% of the municipalities the CSE entrusted the ruling Sandinista Front with handing out cédulas “without any controls,” Ethics & Transparency reports.
Courtney says the CSE’s alleged voter-repression tactics in the months leading up to election day were like a “preemptive strike” to “kill the vote prophylactically.”
“If you keep have the army off the battlefield, you don’t have to commit as many battlefield atrocities during the war,” Courtney says.
There is more than one way to steal an election, he says. And deterring voter participation is no better than stealing ballots on election day.
“If you are to diagnose an electoral system by asking, Which is worse: stolen votes on election day or a system where people don’t vote because they have no faith in the process, the second is worse,” Courtney said.
Nicaragua, however, has both—the abstention rate over 50% and there were stolen votes to boot, Courtney says.
Post-election high jinks
The third phase of mischief-making comes after the vote, and that’s where the CSE has gotten slightly sneakier since their 2008 efforts, Courtney says.
For example, in previous municipal elections, the CSE essentially dug its own grave by publishing proof of its fraud, Courtney says.
“Using official data from 2008, we spotted more than 500 municipal polls where there were more votes than voters,” Courtney says. “Not only were there cases of the Sandinistas winning polls by a margin of 400 votes to zero, but it was occurring in voting precincts where there were only 150 registered voters and only 150 ballots distributed.”
“In 2008, they got caught red handed by their own photos,” Courtney says.
As a result, the CSE became less transparent about their voting-rigging efforts, Courtney says. Not only did the CSE distribute a massive amount of ballots this year (printing nearly 2 million more ballots than needed), but they were also more opaque about reporting numbers of registered voters, he says.
From an auditing point of view, the lack of a paper trail doesn’t let the CSE off the hook, Courtney says.
“If Enron kept papers that are self- incriminating, that’s bad. But if Enron simply says ‘We don’t do any bookkeeping,’ that’s even worse because it suggests the corruption is more systematic,” Courtney says.