MASAYA – Seven months after last November’s contentious municipal elections and the bouts of political violence that followed, representatives of civil society returned to the streets last weekend to remind the government of President Daniel Ortega “We haven’t forgotten the fraud.”
Chanting “Democracy Yes, Dictatorship No” and other rhythmic trills comparing Ortega to former dictator Anastasio Somoza, some 1,000 citizens marched alongside politicians and several ex-mayoral candidates claiming they were robbed of victory last Nov. 9.
Despite previous Sandinista threats to block the path of demonstrators, the march was well attended and conducted peacefully.
The protesters, claiming the Sandinistas rigged the vote in more than 40 municipalities, repeated public calls for a full recount of the final ballot tallies. They also demanded that the country’s electoral officials be removed from office immediately.
“Nov. 9 will remain in the memory of all Nicaraguans forever; it was the day they stole our right to elect our leaders,” said former Liberal Party mayoral candidate for Masaya Francisco Valdivia, who claims victory was stolen from him. “We haven’t forgotten. This struggle that is staring today in Masaya is going to spread throughout all of Nicaragua until they give us back what they stole!”
Civil society leaders echoed that call and urged other Nicaraguans to join the movement to “recuperate what little democracy we have left,” in the words of march organizer César Castillo, of Movement for Nicaragua.
“The right to peacefully resolve the great problems of our society through voting is more threatened today more than ever before, which is putting peace and political stability at risk in our country and the region,” Castillo told the throng of cheering and flag-waving protesters who occupied three street blocks in downtown Masaya.
The Sandinista government released a press communication before the march dismissing the protesters as right-wing “puppets of the empire.”
Sandinista officials maintain the elections are over and there’s no turning back. But they’ve had a hard time convincing others to forget the past. The Catholic Church, opposition parties, civil society groups, the United States and the European donor community have all insisted the electoral issue needs to be resolved for the country to move forward.
European donors, currently in talks with the administration over last year’s suspension of $70 million in budget aid, have insisted the electoral issue needs to be put on the table if the government hopes to possibly unfreeze foreign aid. Meanwhile, the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) was scheduled to meet June 10 to make a final decision on whether or not to cancel $64 million in suspended aid over similar concerns about last year’s municipal elections (NT, May 22).
“We blame Daniel Ortega and his fraudulent magistrates for this disaster,” said Movement For Nicaragua’s Castillo.
Despite the government’s attempt to sweep the election controversy under the rug, Sunday’s march in Masaya showed that much of civil society is unwilling to let it go. Organizers noted that protesters showed up en masse even though the Sandinistas declared a last-minute parallel march several blocks away – a tactic government supporters have repeatedly employed over the past seven month to intimidate the opposition and clash with protesters.
But this time, protesters outnumbered the Sandinistas marchers by at least four-to-one.
Riot police were on hand throughout the city to ensure the government and anti-government groups remained separate from one another, just in case. But both marches were conducted peacefully and without incident.
It was the first time since November that a march against electoral fraud has occurred without violence.
Analysts, however, speculate that the peaceful march might have had more to do with the fact that international donors are currently negotiating with the government rather than an indication the administration has suddenly become more tolerant of dissent.
The People Remember
For opposition leaders, the sizeable turnout at Sunday’s protest march – the largest of the year – was heartening.
“This means people haven’t forgotten and aren’t willing to accept or tolerate the theft of their votes,” former Managua mayoral candidate and opposition political leader Eduardo Montealegre told The Nica Times at Sunday’s march.
The opposition Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) said the number of people in the march represented just a small sampling of the population demanding justice.
“Each one of us who attends represents many more, hundreds and thousands of others who wanted to come but couldn’t,” the party said in a written statement.
Indeed, a nationwide survey released this week by electoral watchdog group Ethics and Transparency shows that 70 percent of selfidentified “independent” voters said the elections last November were conducted “without transparency and with serious anomalies,” according to the poll, which surveyed 40,000 people across the country.
Of those who identified themselves as anti-Sandinista, 80 percent said there were serious problems during the election, while three of four Sandinistas polled qualified the elections as “normal and transparent.”
A separate question asking people to qualify Ortega’s performance as president demonstrated the same partisan split, with 60 percent of Sandinistas answering “good” or “very good” and 60 percent of anti-Sandinistas answering “bad” or “very bad.”
However, notes Ethics and Transparency director Roberto Courtney, almost 90 percent of “independents” said Ortega was doing an “average,” “bad” or “very bad” job, meaning less than 10 percent of independents say he’s doing a good job.
“The independents are totally aligned with the opposition,” Courtney told The Nica Times. “And that speaks of a big political problem for the government.”