A light of truth on Nicaragua’s shady election

A brave group of private poll watchers undercuts the regime’s legitimacy by exposing low voter turnout.

A man walks past a mural of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega during general elections in Managua, Nicaragua, Nov. 7.

A record number of migrants from Nicaragua have shown up at the U.S. border so far this year. Why the surge? Many have fled the authoritarian rule of President Daniel Ortega, a former leftist guerrilla leader whose regime has killed hundreds of protesters, jailed political opponents, and ruined the economy. With many democracy activists fearful of reprisals, Mr. Ortega confidently held an election last Sunday to give himself a fourth consecutive term. After all, seven leading presidential hopefuls had been arrested. He easily won, but more importantly, officials claimed voter turnout was 65%.

Yet in a brave act of truth-telling, more than 1,450 Nicaraguans in a group called Open Ballot Boxes quietly tracked the number of people who voted at 563 polling stations. They estimated the average turnout was about 18%, not 65%, for the country’s 4.4 million registered voters. Many of those who did cast ballots were driven to the polls in government vehicles or coerced to vote, the group witnessed.

“You don’t feel fear,” one poll observer told the Los Angeles Times about her experience. “You feel that at least you’re doing something.” Several members of the group were detained by security forces.

This independent estimate of voter turnout has helped puncture a big lie about Mr. Ortega’s legitimacy to rule. It also confirms that the opposition’s campaign for an election boycott, called “Let’s Stay at Home,” had largely worked. 

While the election was condemned as fraudulent by dozens of countries, a return to a full and fair democracy in Nicaragua seems far off. Mr. Ortega has a firm grip on the military. But the stealth counting of voters by Open Ballot Boxes hints that democracy advocates have adopted a tactic made famous during the Cold War when public protests in the Soviet empire were nearly impossible. The late Czech dissident Václav Havel advised people to “live in truth,” or conduct their daily lives in a way that exposes a regime’s false narratives.

“I have my conscience and thumb clean,” one Nicaraguan retiree told the Havana Times after refusing to vote.

The truth about the voter turnout sent a subtle message to a ruthless regime that it is individuals, out of their innate dignity and freedom, who set society’s norms.

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