Luis Yáñez-Barnuevo led the European Union mission to observe the elections in Nicaragua on 6 November 2011. He told me that he had once been invited to fulfill a similar role in one of the republics that had emerged from the disintegration of the Soviet Union. There, the party's longstanding supreme leader was now wearing the costume of a presidential candidate: playing the democrat in the new era.
The day of the vote, Luis visited a rural area fairly distant from the capital to see how the process was going. He approached a school that was serving as a poling-station where a teacher, head of the local electoral scrutineers, denied him entry. Luis showed his credentials, and insisted on his right to inspect the proceedings. The teacher resisted, then suddenly grabbed the sole ballot-box and carried it into a nearby office, locking the door. When Luis managed to open it, the teacher had scattered all the voting-slips on the floor. The man, holding the empty ballot-box, looked at Luis with a triumphant expression.
The scene was a better illustration of the fate of democracy in that country than any technical report could hope to be. It seems redundant to add that the old-new leader won the election, and was later succeeded by his son. The electoral officers no doubt continued to flee, carrying the ballot-boxes like booty to where they could be safely emptied and refilled.
In any work of literature, a character who runs away with a stuffed ballot-box would be a comic one - though with a tragic undertone in that his action embodies the real story, gives it a face and a meaning. It is an image worthy of Gogol or Pirandello. It is also a profound illumination of what happened in Nicaragua on 6 November.
There too, the official party carried off the ballot-boxes full of votes and locked itself away, alone, threw the ballot-papers on the floor and began to count them without witnesses. Any observer who managed to open the door and catch sight of the fraudulent task could only have laughed.
The ghostly vote
In thousands of Nicaraguan polling stations the votes were counted in isolation, according to a deliberate and substantial plan concocted from well before the election to exclude the opposition’s representatives. The latter were denied credentials through all manner of tricks; in rural communities where it was impossible to prevent the opposition's scrutineers joining others, the trick was simply not to open the polling stations.
In response, thousands of citizens laid siege to the electoral offices where their identity-cards had been retained, blocking roads in the process. In a few cases they even stormed the offices and seized the cards, which they then handed to a priest to distribute to their legitimate owners. In mid-drama the scene switched from a Pirandello play to a Berlanga movie.
The identity-cards were withheld in areas where the official party was afraid of losing; in parallel, the party delivered cards to their own supporters at their home. Moreover, thousands of the deceased (back to Gogol, and Dead Souls) were listed on the electoral roll, which people were obliged to consult to discover where they should go to vote. In Matagalpa, a humble voter called Jacinto Villalta López read the name of his daughter Claudia Carolina Villalta Cano, who had died of cancer in 1999 at the age of 20. She had already voted from the other side, or rather somebody had voted on her behalf. There was nothing left but to weep.
Roberto Courtney is the director of Ética y Transparencia (Ethics and Transparency, a prestigious institute that has observed and evaluated previous elections in Nicaragua but which was refused such a role in this one. He says that of the thirteen international rules that serve to measure the transparency of elections, Nicaragua's latest broke twelve. In other words, the elections have zero credibility. Roberto Bendaña McEwan, president of Hagamos Democracia (Let’s Do Democracy) - another organisation dedicated to observing elections that was denied the right to participate in Nicaragua's - came to the same conclusion. He described the process as an embarrassment.
There were 12,000 polling stations in these elections; in 4,000 of them, the official party counted the ballots alone, at its pleasure. In places where no opposition representative was present, the voters were faced with the instructions of election officials either from or affiliated with the official party; with officials from the official party; and with election police nominated by the ministry of governance (that is, by the official party).
And in all the other structures involved in the election, from top to bottom, the official party was present with its many hands and thousands of faces - right up to the Consejo Supremo Electoral (supreme electoral council), composed entirely of magistrates from the official party or those faithful to it.
This theatrical performance was one where all the principal and supporting actors and actresses, stagehands, directors, producers, writers, and librettists without exception belong to the official party. A great production; a great farce.
By such means, Comandante Daniel Ortega - whose candidacy was illegal in any case, because consecutive re-election is banned under the constitution - was declared the winner with more than 60% of the votes (and more than 70% in Managua). He is well on the way to the unanimity he will doubtless one day achieve - not least as the number of deputies awarded to the official party in the same elections is enough to change Nicaragua's constitution in the direction of unlimited re-election. A parallel process will instal a political regime of direct democracy ruled by "civic-power committees", an obsolete dream already taking flesh.
Did Comandante Daniel Ortega win these elections? How many votes did he really get? How many votes did his opponent, Fabio Gadea Mantilla, really get? It seems we shall never know.
At the end of the performance, the lights fall on the face of the solitary man who counts the votes, seated on the floor after emptying the ballot-box with which he absconded.
This article was translated by Isabel Hilton
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