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Elections cast long shadow on democracy in Nicaragua

MANAGUA – Former electoral chief Rosa Marina Zelaya has overseen some pretty contentious elections in Nicaragua’s recent past. But the 2011 presidential election, she claims, presents a unique new challenge to the country’s democratic future.

In addition to President Daniel Ortega’s efforts to get himself reelected illegally, she said, the de facto Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) lacks the professionalism, political will, legality and legitimacy to conduct the elections.

The result, she said, is a long-term disaster in the making.

“What legality or legitimacy are the elected authorities going to have after the Nov. 6 elections? That is my most serious worry,” the former CSE president told The Nica Times in an interview in her Managua home. “Many people think, ‘What’s the problem? Daniel is going to run and Daniel is going to win and nothing will happen’.”

But Zelaya insists the situation isn’t as simple as Sandinistas want to think. She said any illegal and illegitimate electoral process that starts now will end badly for Nicaragua, casting a long, permanent shadow over the next government and the future of democracy.

“Even if this turns out to be the most peaceful elections we’ve ever had, and even if Daniel Ortega wins with the greatest number of votes without vote fraud, there is an illegitimacy  to the entire electoral process that will never be removed,” she said. “Daniel could go on to have the best government ever, but he will always have that original sin of how he was elected. And, unfortunately, he will never be able to get away from that.”

Zelaya said it’s impossible to predict what the national and international repercussions will be of Ortega’s illegal candidacy and – according to the polls – his likely victory against the divided and feckless opposition. But his candidacy and potential victory would institutionalize the Sandinistas’ increasingly de facto rule characterized by Ortega’s “permanent and repeated disrespect for the Constitution, rule of law and democracy,” Zelaya said.

“Instead of strengthening democracy, we continue to devolve. And the danger is how many years is this going to go on before we return to the path of institutionalism and democracy in the country?”


Concerned: Former CSE president Rosa Mirna Zelaya laments that efforts to professionalize the Electoral Branch in the 1990s have since been undone.

Tim Rogers

In a country like Nicaragua, with a long history of civil wars and political unrest, the continued dismantling of constitutional democracy is very dangerous, Zelaya warned. She says Nicaraguans have a lot of patience for abuse, but warns that “We end up resolving issues with civil war and violence.”

The tipping point is unclear, she said, but it’s unwise to keep pushing.

“Will it be this year’s election? Or the next one? I don’t know. But the cycles in Nicaragua are sad and terrible and we end up falling back into violence, which no one wants,” she said. “Nicaragua is like a volcano that continues to accumulate gas and pressure, until it eventually explodes.”

   Past Electoral Challenges

A discredited CSE, plus Ortega’s anticipated candidacy, which is doubly prohibited by Article 147 of the Constitution, won’t be the first challenges facing Nicaragua’s rocky electoral history.

In 1990, following a decade of brutal war and economic collapse, Nicaragua faced what is still considered to be its most complicated election to date. In an atmosphere of mistrust, grinding poverty, threats of violence and international pressure, Nicaraguans went to the polls to vote in an election that was managed by an untested electoral council that many considered to be controlled firmly by the ruling Sandinista Front.

Despite the challenges, the elections were conducted admirably, resulting in Ortega’s uncontested defeat to Violeta Barrios de Chamorro.

The elections of 1996 were also contentious. As early results started to show Ortega losing to Liberal Party challenger Arnoldo Alemán, the situation in many voting stations unraveled as party activists started to destroy ballots in an attempt to invalidate the polls and sabotage the elections.

That situation broke down ever further on a municipal level, when electoral officials divided along partisan lines and threatened to undermine the whole civic process.

Zelaya, who was president of the CSE during the 1996 elections, said she remembers feeling like a pilot trying to fly a plane through a storm, desperately trying to get the passengers and crew landed safely. She said the day was ultimately saved by the professionalism and determined leadership of the CSE magistrates, who were able to save the election from the grips of partisan factions.

But in 2011, she said, that professionalism and nonpartisan dedication to the job is no longer evident in the CSE. Instead, she says, electoral president Roberto Rivas and the other magistrates have destroyed the institutionalism that the CSE had worked so hard to achieve during the 1990s.

Rivas, in addition to usurping his role as president of the CSE, is also accused of orchestrating electoral frauds in the 2008 municipal elections and the 2009 elections on the Caribbean coast. And he still hasn’t announced the final vote count of the 2006 presidential elections – won by Ortega with 38 percent of the vote, according to the last published vote tally, with 91.4 percent of the ballots counted.

 “I don’t think there is any professional will in the CSE; I don’t see that they have any desire to do things better,” Zelaya said about her successor.

Instead, she said, Rivas and company are already manipulating this year’s electoral process by advancing the electoral calendar by four months for parties to present their candidates, and by violating the electoral code by trying to replace electoral observers with the invented concept of “electoral accompaniment.”

The de facto CSE also tried to legitimize itself last November by requiring political parties to present a “letter of intent” stating their desire to participate in the elections. The CSE has no legal authority to do that, Zelaya said.

“They want to have a legitimacy that they will never get because of their notorious violations of the Constitution,” the ex-CSE head said. “They have no legal or legitimate mandate, and that is worrisome heading into the elections.”

Zelaya, who dedicated more than a decade to helping professionalize the electoral branch, can only shake her head in frustrated disgust at the institutional deterioration of the CSE.

“It’s like caring for a seedling and helping it to grow into a flower. And then someone comes along and knocks the pot over,” she said. “How sad! All that energy that was dedicated to it.”

Who Cares About Legitimacy?

While Zelaya and other analysts worry about legality and legitimacy, they may be in the minority of Nicaraguans who concern themselves with such issues, according to political analyst Arturo Cruz, Jr.

“I don’t think that the Nicaraguan citizen relates to the issue of legality or legitimacy as long as the fundamental services are provided in an immediate way,” Cruz, a political science professor at INCAE Business School, told The Nica Times. “And an indication of that is how popular Daniel is in the most recent polls.”

But for the vast majority of Nicaraguans who are “overwhelmed by life,” Cruz said, the main concern is to have a government that is effective in delivering basic needs.

And if Ortega and the Sandinista government is able to do that, he said, most Nicaraguans won’t get too worked up about the implications of a de facto CSE, Rivas’ irregular fiddling with the electoral calendar, or the brazen violation of Article 147 of the Constitution.

“Legality and legitimacy are academic arguments that apply to the Facebook crowd,” Cruz said. And in Nicaragua, he said, that group represents a very small, educated elite.

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