San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Irregularities Abound on Election Day

When 74-year-old Roger Ocón showed up in his wheelchair at the voting station Sunday to cast his ballot for mayor of Granada, electoral authorities told him he had already voted.

The determined Ocón showed others around him his unequivocal proof to the otherwise – his clean thumb. Had he voted, his thumb would have been stained purple with ink used by election officials to mark those who have cast ballots.

Supreme Election Council (CSE) delegate Erika Chavarría said someone must have voted for Ocon earlier in the morning.

“His voter ID may have been cloned,” she told The Nica Times.

In an election in which the government of President Daniel Ortega refused to accredit domestic and international electoral observers, election day anomalies such as Ocon’s phantom voter were widespread. In a fledgling democracy where elections typically bring a swarm of international observers, the lack of traditional observation groups Nov. 9 has provided fuel to allegations of electoral fraud.

“It was vulgarized circus,” said Liberal Party legal representative Lulio Marenco, who alleges the Sandinista Front stacked the official network of vote counters with its own party loyalists.

The Nicaraguan electoral observation group Ethics and Transparency, which was not accredited to participate but sent out a vote-counting network of 30,000 observers in an unofficial voluntary capacity, said Sunday’s election had “the least transparency and most intimidation of any election (here) since 1996.”

Along with Nicaraguan election watchdog the Institute of Democracy and Development (IPADE), Ethics and Transparency was denied requests for accreditation.

CSE spokesman Felix Navarrete said the 12-year-old electoral group has become a politically driven “protagonist” of Sandinista opposition. The group’s president, Roberto Courtney, said being unaccredited only makes the group “more independent,” comparing his group to unaccredited vote counters that monitored the 1988 referendum that toppled Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

The Ortega government also refused to invite the traditional group of international observers to the Nov. 9 elections.

Though the handful of Latin American electoral observers here on election day reported no signs of major fraud, Ethics and Transparency and opposition parties pointed to an array of irregularities casting a shadow of doubt over the-results – in which the Sandinistas were poised to take some 91 of the 146 mayor seats up for grabs, including Managua, as of press time.

Entire “voting acts” – official ballot tallies signed by electoral delegates from each of nearly 12,000 voting centers across the country – were found in the trash, according to the Liberal Constitutional Party’s mayoral candidate for Managua, and self-proclaimed victor, Eduardo Montealegre.

He said Liberal electoral delegates – or “fiscales,” as they are known here – refused to sign an act at a voting center in which the Sandinistas allegedly won all 400 votes, which would have meant that even Liberal fiscales monitoring the station had voted for the Sandinista candidates.

In a post-election conference, Liberal Party boss and ex-President Arnoldo Alemán held up a voting act in which a voting center reported more “null” votes than valid votes – further proof of fraud, he alleged.

“We will not allow Nicaragua to lose its democracy,” said Alemán, who still roams the country freely despite a 20-year sentence for corruption.

On election day, poll stations were stacked with Sandinista authorities who denied or limited access to Liberal electoral delegates, said PLC legal representative Lulio Marenco.

Beginning Sunday morning, the Sandinista government’s electoral police denied entrance to Liberal Party delegates and expelled others who raised concerns, Marenco says.

Early closings of some polling stations caused outcries from voters still waiting in line to cast their ballots. Once polls closed, electoral officials in Managua dashed through the night with bags full of ballots headed to the computation center at the National Stadium for the final count.

At the stadium, Liberal Party electoral delegates say Sandinista delegates and CSE officials “kidnapped” the election by giving Liberal delegates a marginal role in the vote count.

Delegates were told to stand two meters away as CSE officials counted votes, and only 10 Liberal delegates were allowed to monitor nearly 50 computers where final results were being tallied, according to Marenco.

Electoral officials tampered with results using techniques as crude as whiteout on voting acts, Marenco alleged.

“It was a chain of fraud. We’re requesting a recount, so we can check act by act. That way we’ll be able to prove total fraud,” he said.

Similar allegations were made by party leaders in Masaya and León, where, similar to Managua, both the Liberal and Sandinista party leaders have declared victories.

After the CSE demanded Montealegre provide documentation to back his claims of fraud, the Liberal candidate met with CSE President Roberto Rivas Tuesday and provided him with photocopies of two voting acts that he says were tampered with.

Rivas said he would look into the matter but that a nationwide recount was “not contemplated by the law.”

In an interview Monday night with TV journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro, Montealegre said that he accepted electoral defeat in the 2006 presidential elections because his parallel vote count confirmed his loss to Ortega. This time, however, his parallel vote count, which was based on 95 percent of 2,107 Managua voting acts, shows that he beat Sandinista candidate Alexis Argüello with more than 50 percent of votes, he says.

Montealegre insists that any contrary results provided by the CSE are fabricated. After declaring victory, Montealegre said he would “not negotiate” with the Ortega government and called for international backing.

The U.S. State Department, for its part, noted reports of “widespread irregularities” in Sunday’s election.

“Unfortunately, the Supreme Electoral Council’s decision to not accredit credible domestic and international election observers has made it difficult to properly assess the conduct of the elections,” said U.S. State Department spokesman Robert Wood.

A member of a different foreign diplomatic mission who has observed past elections here and monitored Sunday’s vote informally, told The Nica Times this week that he and other foreign embassy observers – none of whom were accredited – agreed there was an “unfortunate lack of transparency” to the electoral process.

He said in certain polling stations electoral officials were denied entry, and in another voting station in Managua a “gang of 25 teenagers marched in like an army” and intimidated voters.

Breathing more haze into the cloud of doubt surrounding electoral outcomes was a series of investigative reports in the daily La Prensa the week before the election that-prompted a CSE investigation of counterfeit voter IDs allegedly being used for electoral fraud.

Equally suspicious was a series of meetings among Sandinista leaders in towns where the FSLN was losing or slipping in polls the week before election day.

The presence of former spy boss Lenin Cerna – ex-head of the defunct Sandinista State Security Directorate which targeted domestic enemies in the 1980s – generated allegations from local press that the Sandinistas were cooking up an election day scam, which Cerna and colleagues denied.

“It was nothing like that, quite to the contrary. We were working with the electoral network to guarantee that everything happens in order. We were planning the opposite of fraud,” said outgoing Sandinista mayor of Masaya Carlos Noguera, who met with Cerna two days before the election.

Yet from early on, the electoral process here was marked by doubt and scandal. Ethics and Transparency said the Nov. 9 elections were “designed and intended to be the least transparent and most conflicted electoral process in recent history.”

On Sunday morning in Granada, the feeble Ocón sat in his wheelchair outside of the polling station, robbed of his vote and livid.

Electoral authorities told him that his case “would be taken care of” before shooing him away to make way for a line of voters that snaked out the door.

As his family members conferred with electoral delegates, Ocón mustered the strength from his frail body to bellow his political will to whoever was listening: “I … am … a Liberal!” he said, with a beat to his chest.

Nica Times Editor Tim Rogers contributed to a this report.


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