MANAGUA—Election season in Nicaragua is usually cause for celebration, citizen participation and fits of partisan paroxysms.
This year, however, the mood is different. Repeated allegations of irregularities, institutional failings and illegal maneuverings by the ruling party have cast a pall of uncertainty over the quinquennial democratic celebration.
The sullied Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) has tried its best to behave itself with a bit of decorum in recent weeks, allowing foreign observers to witness poll preparations and issuing press releases, after nearly four years of honing its obstructionist tactics. But continued problems with the distribution of cédulas, doubts about domestic observation, continued corruption scandals and the long shadow of from the allegedly fraudulent 2008 elections has made regaining trust and credibility an elusive prospect for the current band of magistrates.
The president, too, might face additional challenges of credibility in his next term, at least internationally. President Daniel Ortega’s impressive polling numbers have made him the easy favorite in Sunday’s vote, but that doesn’t change the fact that incumbents are constitutionally prohibited from running for reelection in Nicaragua. Ortega, whose increasingly reclusive behavior has been proportional to the thickening tarnish on his international image, could risk becoming a pariah if his reputation gets much worse.
The four opposition candidates running against Ortega haven’t seen eye to eye on much, but they all agree that Ortega’s candidacy is “illegal” and claim the prospects of fraud on Nov. 6 are likely.
Former President Arnoldo Alemán, candidate for the Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC), has gone so far as to say that he doesn’t even recognize Ortega’s candidacy or the authority of the CSE.
“There is no Supreme Electoral Council. There period is expired,” Alemán told The Nicaragua Dispatch. “We are going into the elections with magistrates who aren’t magistrates. We have denounced these elections as invalid and unconstitutional. These are the kind of people who weren’t even ashamed to steal 40 municipalities in the 2008 elections. How many (votes) are they going to steal now?”
Alemán says Ortega has learned his lesson from his surprise defeat in the 1990 elections, and has made contingency plans accordingly.
“Daniel is not going to run any risk of losing this election,” Alemán predicts.
Fabio Gadea, the top challenger for the Independent Liberal Party (PLI), claims Nicaragua is already living under dictatorship and has little faith that Sunday’s elections will be free and fair.
And Alvaro Somoza, campaign chief for third party longshot Enrique Quiñonez, calls the CSE the “Sandinista Electoral College” and says “It’s enormously unlikely any of us on the democratic side wins.”
So why, then, are any of these guys running for president?
The answer, they say, is simple: “We don’t have a choice.”
Gadea says fraud is already in the works but his party has got to give it their best shot.
“We have no other choice but to fight against this,” Gadea told The Nicaragua Dispatch. “Because if we don’t fight, and if we don’t participate in the elections, (Ortega) will go into the elections by himself and will make himself president like (Hugo) Chávez in Venezuela.”
Still, Gadea remains hopeful. “We are not falling into (Ortega’s) trap; we are almost certain we are going to win the election, despite everything they’ve done.”
For Alemán, a political survivalist who has managed to maintain control of his party against all odds, the strategy seems to be to stay alive now to fight another day.
“The electoral law says if parties don’t run in the elections convoked by the CSE, they lose their party’s legal status,” Alemán said. “Plus, there are examples of boycotts not working. In 1984, opposition candidate Arturo Cruz dropped out of the race and Daniel died of laughter. The other case was what happened in Venezuela: the opposition said we aren’t running and Chávez didn’t care; he won alone with 90 percent of the vote. What do you think would happen here if we did the same?”
Analysts agree the opposition candidates are doing the right thing by running, despite the hurdles.
“The opposition doesn’t have good options and confronts a classic dilemma—whether or not to participate in an electoral process that could have the effect of legitimizing Ortega’s authoritarian machinations. Few would argue that the opposition faces a level playing field, or that Ortega doesn’t have the system wired,” says Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, D.C. “But a boycott would likely be self-defeating, as it has been in other cases, and would not generate much sympathy or support for the opposition. Ortega would probably use such a decision to his political advantage and accuse the opposition of refusing to play the democratic game.”
Shifter adds, “It’s not an easy call, but in light of the overall political context and the lessons from comparable situations in Latin America, the opposition’s position probably makes the most sense.”
Nicaraguan analysts agree—even those who criticize the electoral process as illegitimate.
“I think they have to run, definitively,” says Vilma Núñez, president of the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH). “The have a sword of Damocles hanging over their necks; if they don’t participate, they’ll lose their legal party status.”
She insists the presidential elections of 1984, when opposition candidate Arturo Cruz Porras dropped out at the last minute and handed Ortega a landslide victory, is a clear example that boycotts don’t work.
“We have already seen the results of what happens here if they don’t participate and instead promote voter abstention. Nothing positive for democracy comes out of that. In the context of this country, that would only increase Daniel Ortega’s victory.”
Núñez agrees with Gadea and others that the best way to prevent fraud is for Nicaraguans to vote massively on Sunday.
“If everyone votes, it is going to be much more difficult to consolidate fraud,” she said.
For PLC vice-presidential candidate Francisco Aguirre, Nicaragua’s former Ambassador to Washington, D.C., participation in the Nov. 6 elections is imperative because Nicaraguans have to solve their own problems.
“The U.S. not willing to invest in change here anymore; now we are on our own,” Aguirre said. “It’s all over but the shouting.”
Next: Lessons learned from 1984: an exclusive interview with former presidential candidate Arturo Cruz Porras.