Sunday’s dubious electoral process, followed by subsequent bouts of street violence in Managua and other parts of the country, is reinforcing Nicaragua’s international image problem and could have serious consequences for the country’s young democracy and economy, according to sources consulted this week by The Nica Times.
“It is very lamentable what is happening in the country – 20 years of elections and now this setback,” said César Zamora, president of the Nicaraguan-American Chamber of Commerce (AMCHAM).
Zamora said that business leaders are finalizing a formal request to call for a nationwide recount with international observation, adding, “This is a key moment for Nicaragua’s democracy and the health of the country’s economy.”
Following the indecisive Nov. 9 election, in which both Liberal and Sandinista candidates declared victory in Managua and several other hotly contested municipalities – and then took to the streets violently to defend their vote – serious doubts are being raised about the ability of the country’s fledgling democracy to resolve what one veteran analyst is calling a “national crisis.”
Eduardo Montealegre, Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC) candidate for Managua, declared himself the victor Monday morning, despite a preliminary vote tally by the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) that showed him trailing by 5 percentage points to Sandinista candidate Alexis Argüello, who also declared victory.
Montealegre insists that he won the election with more than 50 percent of the vote, according to his party’s own parallel vote count. He and the PLC are calling for a nationwide recount and have threatened to completely paralyze the government if their request is not met.
The perception that the Sandinistas are trying to steal the elections from the Liberal candidates prompted widespread political violence in Managua Monday, with smaller protests in León, Masaya and Matagalpa.
Political analyst and philosopher Alejandro Serrano said the street violence that erupted Monday after the elections – resulting in at least two deaths, an unknown number of injuries and untold property damage – is not a symptom of most Nicaraguans’ anti-democratic convictions, rather a profound frustration with “incompetent government institutions” that are hampering the country’s evolution toward democracy.
“The problem is not the conflict, but the institutional incapacity to resolve it,” the analyst said.
The most serious government criticism has been reserved for the embattled Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) and its president, Roberto Rivas, who critics claim acts as a lackey to President Daniel Ortega.
The CSE, which has been criticized for a slew of controversial decisions over the past year – starting with its decision in 2007 to strip Liberal congressman Alejandro Bolaños of his lawmaker status after he criticized the Ortega government, and culminating with its decision to ban several minority parties from participating in the municipal election and then denying requests to allow electoral observers – has been called “arbitrary” and “partisan” by its critics.
The U.S. State Department, which had earlier lamented the CSE’s decision to ban the minority parties and deny traditional electoral observers, noted reports of “widespread irregularities taking place at voting stations throughout the country” and said the CSE’s decision to “not accredit credible domestic and international election observers has made it difficult to properly assess the conduct of the elections.”
U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Kristin Stewart said amid Monday’s post-election violence that the U.S. government was continuing to “monitor” the situation here.
The British Embassy, meanwhile, updated its travel warning its citizens “to avoid any political rallies or large gatherings and monitor local media reports.”
The tense climate of uncertainty in Nicaragua could also have very serious economic repercussions, according to private sector leaders.
AMCHAM president Zamora said that if the country’s democratic institutions are perceived as not working on a basic level, the whole house of cards could come down.
“This is what is at play here,” he said. “If elections are not working here, then what is?”
Former Central Bank President Mario Arana told The Nica Times this week that the international donor community, which provides Nicaragua with some $300 million in direct budget support, most of which goes toward social spending, is “very worried” about the situation in Nicaragua.
Arana said that if the electoral situation is not resolved “transparently,” foreign donor governments could follow the recent example of Finland, which earlier this month suspended $2.5 million in budget support aid for Nicaragua due to concerns over a lack of electoral transparency (NT, Nov. 7).
Arana also warned that if the Liberals follow through on their threats to paralyze the entire government in protest over the elections, Nicaragua would only be dragged back deeper into the recesses of ungovernability.
“If they decide that government doesn’t work, it won’t,” he said.
However, Arana added, it is still premature to say what impact the elections and subsequent violence could have on the overall investment climate in Nicaragua.
“Most investors don’t make decisions like that from one day to the next, and their decisions are based on other considerations, such as macroeconomic stability,” he said.
Still, he added, the current situation in the country definitely isn’t helping the business or investment climate.
“The obvious question now is what direction this crisis takes,” the economist said.
Bad Week for Tourism
Tourism boosters also aren’t too happy about the images of warring political tribes fighting each other in the streets with machetes, rocks and sticks.
Lucy Valenti, president of the National Tourism Chamber (CANATUR), said that continued street violence could have “serious consequences” on the country’s image as a tourism destination, especially as the high season approaches.
“Tourists in the United States are planning their December vacations now,” she said.
“They are going to see what is happening here and change their plans and go somewhere else.”