Had the chronology of events happened differently, this year’s municipal campaign would have been the deadliest in Nicaragua’s history.
Some 200 candidates running for city council this Sunday have died, according to estimates by the Independent Liberal Party (PLI). Fortunately, only two of them actually died during the campaign; the rest passed away long before their names were randomly plucked from an outdated voter registry to serve as ballot-fillers for the zombie parties that the Sandinista Front keeps locked in the barn to create an image of democratic pluralism during election season.
Fittingly, most of the dead candidates are running on the ticket of the Conservative Party, a once-formidable political movement that has been suffering from a severe case of rigor mortis since 2009. The other phony-baloney parties—the incorporeal Alliance for the Republic (APRE) and the fatuous Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN)—allegedly resorted to usurping identities of living Nicaraguans who have moved abroad or reside in other parts of the country and have no idea they are running for public office, according to an investigative report by Esta Semana journalist Alvaro Navarro.
For weeks, the independent media and the half-cognizant opposition parties have been complaining about dead candidates, stolen identities, and Sandinista spies who have allegedly infiltrated the ballots as candidates running for different parties. In response to the complaints, the waddling gaggle of de facto magistrates from the Sandinista electoral council, who dress like a bunch of potbellied fishermen in their superfluous electoral vests, belched with disinterest.
Suspicions of fake candidacies started last August, when the Sandinista-controlled electoral council (CSE) banned the opposition Christian Democratic Union (UDC) from participating in the poll, allegedly for not fulfilling registration requirements. In the same breath, the CSE said that APRE—a party so small, poor and unorganized it doesn’t even have a Facebook account—successfully registered candidates in 95% of the 153 municipalities, outperforming the two leading opposition parties and essentially becoming the second-strongest political force in the country (a distinction that must have come as some surprise to the dozen or so members of the party).
The ALN and Conservatives also passed the candidate-registration test, even though neither party has a national party structure. The successful registrations of the three third-rate parties, which together represent less than 1% of the population, according to polls, is even more risible considering the Sandinistas made registration infinitely more difficult this year.
Under the guise of gender equality, the Sandinistas first passed a reform obliging all parties to run 50% female candidates on the ticket, which presented an immediate challenge to several minority parties that are too addlebrained to attract any women. The second reform fattened the municipal government three-fold, forcing parties to round up three times as many candidates.
One could reasonably expect that those two reforms would pose a rather daunting challenge to a party such as APRE, which would essentially have to convince all of its supporters to run for public office, and coax more than a few of them to have a sex-change operation.
Instead, APRE, which has never won any public office in its short and silly existence, allegedly outperformed all the other opposition parties by registering candidates in 95% of the country. In comparison, former President Arnoldo Alemán’s PLC, which just a decade ago controlled the presidency and 58% of all municipalities, could only muster enough support to put candidates on the ballot in 90% of the municipalities.
The CSE then made a series of additional moves to further facilitate electoral shenanigans. The magistrates decided to remove the candidates’ photos from the ballots and eliminate the list of councilman candidates. Essentially people don’t know who they are voting for for city council—even if it turns out to be themselves or a dead relative.
The CSE also employed the “passive” voter roster—a list of citizens who haven’t voted in the past two general elections (2006 and 2011), either because of apathy, because they’ve left the country, or because they’re dead.
Acutely aware that electoral mischief was afoot, the PLI began to investigate who these mysterious candidates are running on the tickets of APRE, ALN and the Conservative Party. In a sample survey of 5% of the municipalities, the PLI discovered 12 dead candidates and others who had no idea their identities had been usurped.
“By my estimate, there are thousands and thousands of candidates who don’t know they are candidates because the list of candidates was never published,” says PLI congressman Luis Callejas, who spearheaded the investigation into the CSE’s phantom menace.
Callejas presented his findings to the merry magistrates, but says “they couldn’t care less.” As a result, Callejas stopped investigating for now.
“We don’t have the money or time or manpower to investigate 24,000 candidates, especially in the middle of a campaign,” Callejas told The Nicaragua Dispatch. “After the elections, we’ll look into it further.”
Callejas says it’s difficult to know exactly how many dead people are running for office, but PLI campaign advisor Eliseo Núñez estimates it’s no less than 200. Dead or alive, the minority parties’ rosters of poll-watchers are stacked with Sandinistas, creating an electoral Trojan Horse, Callejas claims.
The opposition congressman claims the Sandinistas are attempting to control the 13,000-plus voting booths—and therefore the vote count—by stacking the list of accredited poll-watchers with party operatives. By disguising themselves as members of fake minority parties, the Sandinistas hope to create the image of democratic pluralism to fool international observers, Callejas charges.
“On election day, the voting stations will be stacked with four different Sandinista poll-watchers, each wearing a different party hat,” he says.
The CSE has announced there will be 80,000 partisan poll-watchers counting the votes on election day. The Sandinistas have said they hope to win 95% of the municipalities—a level of victory that would consolidate President Daniel Ortega’s single-party control over Nicaragua.
Political observers don’t doubt that will happen.
“The electoral system is set up so that you don’t have to cheat very hard on election day if you have made it hard for your opponents to get access to the vote,” says John Booth, a political science professor at North Texas University and author the recent report “Political Culture and Democracy in Nicaragua 2012.”
The electoral system, Booth says, is designed to operate in a way that benefits the Sandinistas and hampers the opposition.
“The wind is blowing out for the Sandinistas right now, and they are at bat,” Booth says. “Everybody else is in trouble right now.”
Former guerrilla leader and Sandinista dissident Dora María Tellez agrees. She says the Sandinista Front already has more control over Nicaragua than it did in the 1980s. And Sunday’s election will serve only to strengthen Ortega’s grip on the country, she says.
“These elections are designed to elevate Ortega’s power over the political apparatus of the state, so he can control the only thing that is missing,” the former Sandinista health minister told The Nicaragua Dispatch. “I think [the Sandinista Front] will steal no less than 80% of the municipalities. They will leave a symbolic representation for the opposition, but nothing that puts in doubt their total hegemony over the state.”