Wednesday, November 16, 2011

80% Turnout for Nicaragua's Elections Followed by Controversy

On the 6th of November, Nicaraguans went to the polls to choose their next President. Official election results show that between 75 and 80% of registered voters turned out, and that Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) candidate and current President Daniel Ortega won in a landslide with 62.66% of the vote. Of the five parties on the ballot, the closest opposition was the Independent Liberal Party (PLI), trailing behind with just 31.13% of the vote. More than a week later, the leaders of Europe and North America have yet to call Ortega to congratulate him.

The PLI is alleging “monstrous fraud,” saying that they should have gotten more than 50% of the vote. In the past week, their supporters have caravanned and blocked roads in protests that have mostly been confined to the wealthy neighborhoods of Managua. In northern Nicaragua there have been 3 incidences of politically-related violence, resulting in 4 deaths and dozens of injuries, including the hospitalization of 7 police officers.

While they maintain that 20% of the vote was stolen from them, 10 days later the PLI continue to speak in general terms without specifying in which precincts the fraud was carried out nor have they produced any corroboration for their claims. The European Union, with the largest observer group participating in the elections, appears to vacillate, saying that while there were many “imperfections” in last Sunday’s elections, Daniel Ortega won.

What is going on here? Last Thursday I had the opportunity to talk to Adolfo Pastran, a well-respected Nicaraguan journalist, about the elections.

According to Pastran, it’s clear that Daniel Ortega won the elections. All the polls in months, weeks and days before the elections showed very similar results to the official vote tally. “The opposition was divided,” Pastran points out. “It’s very difficult to beat an incumbent with a divided opposition.” Many people who had never voted for the FSLN before voted for Ortega in what Pastran is calling an overwhelming vote of confidence.

“This doesn’t mean that these people are no longer Liberales or Independents,” he says, “but they are saying ‘I like your programs, I’ll give you another chance.’”

Overall, says Pastran, people feel that the situation in Nicaragua has improved – just one week before the elections polls showed that 70.4% of the populace thought the country was on the right track. “Economically, things are better,” says Pastran. “There are new taxis, new buses, transport and electrical subsidies, fewer people are emigrating…things are visibly better.”

The polls support this: one week before the election, the Ortega administration had an exceptionally high approval rating of 65.2%. Additionally, 72.9% said Ortega’s government gives them hope, 70.4% said health care had improved, 71.7% said education had improved, and 45.3% said poverty was down. It’s hard to compete with those numbers.

In the past, the FSLN’s opposition has run its campaigns based on fear: in 2001 television ads showed images of Saddam Hussein, Gadhafi, Fidel Castro, Osama bin Laden and then Daniel Ortega in military uniform. The standard campaign involved threats that if Ortega were elected, the country would return to war, and impose the draft again along with property confiscations and supply shortages. “Those empty threats don’t work anymore,” says Pastran, “because everyone can see that in the past 5 years we haven’t gone back to the 1980s.” This year, says Pastran, the opposition had absolutely nothing to offer. “They basically said ‘we’re going to keep on all of the current social policies, but we’ll do it better.’”

The PLI claims that on election day, their designated party observers were not allowed into 20% of the polling places. “If that’s so,” says Pastran, “then why did they wait until after the results were known to say so? Why were their observers not clamoring at the polling stations and calling the media?”

Pastran has also called for those who did independent quick counts of the vote – including the the European Union (EU), and the Council of Private Business in Nicaragua – to make those results known so they can be compared with the official results. “If they did rapid counts, why are they not making those public?” Yesterday the Organization of American States (OAS) finally made their count public, saying it matched with official results. The National Council of Universities, which was accredited as a Nicaraguan observer group with 20,000 participants all over the country, reported early on that its quick count was within a few percentage points of the official tally for all parties.

What about the observers? Of the national and international observers present for these elections, some observers from the OAS had trouble getting into polling places but once these difficulties were reported, the situation was remedied. In its official communiqué, the OAS said “In Nicaragua yesterday democracy and peace advanced.” In its final report the OAS cited “inconveniences” which included difficulties in obtaining voter cards prior to elections and access to voting places for some official party observers. In the report the OAS made recommendations for reform of electoral law in those areas, while backing up the official results that Daniel Ortega won. The Latin American Council of Election Experts (CEELA) said the electoral process proceeded positively with “agility in the voting process and effective organization with tranquility and peace.” As to the irregularities alleged by the opposition, CEELA said that members of their group did not find evidence of them. The EU continues to seed doubt, the head of the observer mission said, “The total of irregularities shows many imperfections but as to whether or not Daniel Ortega won, he won. Beyond that I won’t say.”

After remaining quiet during the campaign and refusing to back a particular candidate for the first time since the Somoza years, the United States has now come out to say that the elections were not free and fair. Yesterday the Voice of America, the U.S. government’s official media outlet, called for the OAS to sanction Nicaragua and to annul these elections.

What’s behind all this? Pastran’s analysis of the situation is that Ortega’s policies have managed to please the people of Nicaragua as well as national and international business, and because of that, the current claims of fraud are posturing and will die down soon to avoid creating instability. They know the elections were good, but the opposition is starting now to try to erode Ortega’s power for the 2016 elections.”

Other analysts have speculated that with the current economic climate in Europe and the United States, these countries may be looking for a pretext to discontinue aid to Nicaragua, and declaring these elections fraudulent will provide them with the excuse they need.

Pastran maintains that the Nicaraguan elections were free and fair. “Except for a few isolated incidence of violence things are generally calm here. The people know how they voted.”

Pastran cites Ortega’s social programs as the reason he won the election by such a wide margin, and tells the story of a woman in rural Nicaragua who received a sack of food from Ortega’s campaign. She told the media “Thank God that Daniel Ortega remembered me. No government has ever remembered me. I have a son who died fighting with the contra and no government ever remembered me until Daniel Ortega.” -- Becca