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Don’t forget Nicaragua

Sergio Ramírez
10 October 2006

The Nicaraguan presidential and legislative elections on 5 November 2006 are fast approaching. The questions put to me here in Berlin, as before in Seville, quite rightly centre on the subject. Before leaving Managua I had already answered inquiries from the Latin American correspondent of the magazine Der Spiegel, and I would like to take the opportunity of this openDemocracy article to offer further reflections on this vital event.

There are grounds for cautious hope in the present conjuncture. Those of us who have tried to open up the electoral space over the last few years in order to break the political monopoly created by the power-sharing pact between Daniel Ortega and Arnoldo Alemán have achieved our goal. All attempts to outlaw parties and prevent candidates from competing have been thwarted.

This time, the Nicaraguan electorate has the opportunity to choose between five options, two of which represent opposition to the pact's ostracising purpose and polarising impulse: the Movimiento de Renovación Sandinista (Sandanista Renewal Movement / MRS) whose candidate is Edmundo Jarquín and the Alianza Liberal (Liberal Alliance) represented by Eduardo Montealegre. Either of these figures will serve to create a new, alternative, more modern and democratic leadership in Nicaragua.

If the elections were to take place today these two candidates together could win more than half the votes, and their two parties would be able to form an Asamblea Nacional (national assembly) with a big enough majority to repeal the abusive reforms made to the constitution by the Ortega-Alemán alliance; such a process would abort their plan to divide the spoils of power between themselves and to force the judicial system to submit to corruption and caprice.

The harmful, anti-democratic constitutional reforms facilitated by the cynical Ortega-Alemán pact have done the greatest damage to the integrity of Nicaragua's institutions. It is essential that they should be abolished - or, even better, that a national constituent assembly is called to give the country a new democratic order right from its foundations.

Sergio Ramírez is a Nicaraguan writer. He was vice-president of the country from 1984-90 during the period of the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN) government. In 1995 he broke from the FSLN with Herty Lewites to form the Movimiento de Renovación Sandinista (MRS). His latest book is El reino animal (Alfaguara, 2006). His website is here

Also by Sergio Ramírez on openDemocracy:

"Nicaragua's hijacked democracy"
(18 November 2005)

"After Herty Lewites: a crossroads for Nicaragua"
(4 July 2006)

The pact is manifestly on the rubbish-heap in other ways, too. The party of Alemán's presidential candidate, the liberal Josè Rizo will (according to opinion polls) win few assembly seats, which means that one of the main supports of the pact will fall. The shadow of corruption which has enveloped Alemán, coupled with the fact that Alemán has not stopped running the party behind the scenes, has made Rizo look weak.

Moreover, Daniel Ortega - the eternal candidate for the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional [Sandinista National Liberation Front / FSLN] - today has no more than 31% in the opinion polls, 10% less than in the last electoral campaign on the same date. In those same opinion polls the level of rejection for Ortega reaches 65%, which indicates that his only supporters are his own party diehards, while the less hardline faction of the Sandinistas is backing Edmundo Jarquín.

A chill in Managua

But not everything smells of roses, and these successes or advances in Nicaraguan democracy could disappear in an instant if the votes aren't counted openly on 5 November. It must be spelt out loud and clear: it is certain that electoral fraud will take place and we must look for ways to prevent it.

As a result of the pact, the Consejo Supremo Electoral (supreme electoral council) has become Ortega and Aleman's hunting-ground; the two caudillos handpicked the magistrates who preside over it, who were then elected to the Asamblea Nacional under their control. It follows that that the Ley Electoral (electoral law) was also given their blessing, as were the electoral committees and the vote-counters. All the electoral mechanisms, then, are under the control of Ortega's FSLN and Alemán's Partido Liberal. Electoral jurisdiction from top to bottom is not independent but partisan - partisan from the heads of departments and technical managers who monitor citizens' documentation, to those who control the electoral register and even the computer system.

So we face the challenge of holding truly free and transparent elections, despite the vote-counters. The vigilance of the independent parties' attorneys at the ballot-boxes will be key, as will the presence of national and international observers in the greatest numbers possible at polling stations. It is not for nothing that Ortega has fought vehemently against the presence of observers from the Organización de los Estados Americanos (OEA / OAS). He would like to see them sent home, as he himself would be the beneficiary of any fraud, given that Alemán's presidential candidate Josè Rizo cannot compete.

Ortega is well aware that if he does not win outright in the first round of elections, he will go to the second round in a losing position. The candidate who qualifies with him, whether it's Jarquín or Montealegre, will (again, according to current polls) emerge with more than half the electorate's votes. And it was in order that Ortega might win in the first round that Alemán, his pact partner, agreed to help him reform the Ley Electoral, decreasing the percentage of votes needed to qualify to 35% (with the important proviso that there are more than five percentage points between the two leading candidates).

It is in the mechanics of these important percentages where the traps will be set which may prevent a second round. A precedent exists: in the last municipal elections in the city of Granada, the count was held away from the public's gaze, and the independent candidate who won was stripped of his victory by a ruse that deprived him of a significant number of votes.

The logic of this manipulative procedure is that the results will have to be "arranged" so that Ortega reaches the 35% mark and his main rival wins fewer than 30% (or vice versa). This outcome could be secured by disallowing or forging votes, by changing information in the course of communication, or by interfering with the centralised computer system. The two candidates' operatives control all these systems without exception.

There is always a tendency to say that a country's elections are the most important in its history. Today, there is nothing gratuitous about this observation in Nicaragua. This time, our democratic progress might be not just halted but crushed. Therefore I say to those who ask about these elections - in Berlin, Seville, and across the world: don't forget Nicaragua. This election is a gamble with our future.

This article was translated from Spanish by Siobhan O'Connell

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