Sandinistas took to the streets jubilantly in the early morning hours Monday to celebrate what appears to be a resounding victory in the legally questionable reelection campaign of President Daniel Ortega.
A preliminary vote count announced Monday morning at 2 a.m., with 16 percent of the ballots tallied, shows the Sandinista strongman leading with 63 percent, followed by octogenarian radio producer Fabio Gadea, with 29 percent. Former President Arnoldo Alemán is in third place, with 6 percent. A final vote count will be announced today at noon.
The preliminary results for National Assembly are similar, meaning that, if the numbers hold, Mr. Ortega will win a majority in the legislature and essentially take full control over all branches of Nicaragua’s government – despite ongoing doubts that his election to a third term is legal under Nicaragua's Constitution.
For a man whose political career seemed washed up a decade ago – he had lost three consecutive election bids (1990, 1996, 2001), was accused of sexually abusing his stepdaughter and was reportedly teetering on the edge of financial hardship – the Sandinista leader’s comeback is nothing short of stunning. Not only does he have more political power now than he did in the 1980s, when he led the Sandinista revolutionary government as “the first among equals,” but he’s also now thought to be of the wealthiest individuals in Central America, thanks to his private investment of some $2 billion in Venezuelan aid over the past five years.
Ortega’s handling of Hugo Chávez’s largess has allowed certain Sandinistas to become part of Nicaragua’s nouveau riche, invested heavily in multiple sectors of the economy, from energy production and oil distribution to timber, cattle, agriculture, tourism, and media.
While Ortega’s political and economic positions appear stronger than ever, critics claim they are built on rickety foundations. In Ortega’s continued quest for power, they say, he’s seriously undermining the country’s democratic institutions.
Even Ortega’s candidacy was cause for international concern. Many argued that his reelection bid was strictly prohibited by Article 147 of Nicaragua’s Constitution, which states that a sitting president cannot be reelected to a consecutive term or to more than two terms. A new term for Ortega would be his third, and his second in a row. But a ruling by Sandinista judges allowed the former revolutionary to sidestep the constitutional bar.
Luis Yañez, chief of mission for the EU’s election observation team, said European leaders have their doubts about the democratic process in Nicaragua, but decided to observe the elections once the other candidates agreed to run and made it a “competitive situation.”
“We know in great detail the polemic regarding the pretentions of President Daniel Ortega to become a candidate when the Constitution apparently doesn’t allow that. And we have watched with worry as Nicaragua’s internal process ended up approving his candidacy without any possibility for legal recourse. That alone probably would have impeded us from coming here as a mission of electoral observers, but the moment in which the other four parties and coalitions entered the electoral process to compete with Ortega, it became a competitive situation,” Mr. Yañez said.
A dubious election
From beginning to end, Sunday’s elections were a clear example of how Ortega’s apparent position of strength could actually be quite fragile. While Sandinistas celebrate their “overwhelming victory” in the streets, opponents claim it could be a Pyrrhic victory that exposes the undemocratic and autocratic nature of his government.
Mr. Gadea’s campaign manager, Eliseo Nuñez, says the preliminary vote count by the Sandinista-controlled Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) is “totally unreal.” He claims there was “shameless electoral theft in Managua.”
Election monitors are also questioning the polling process. Electoral watchdog Ethics and Transparency says yesterday’s general elections failed to meet the minimum international requirements to be considered a credible and transparent process.
“For the first time in more than 20 years we had an election that failed” from a technical point of view, said Roberto Courtney, executive director of Ethics and Transparency, the Nicaraguan affiliate of Transparency International. The group says official poll watchers from the opposition PLI alliance were denied entry in “at least 15-20 percent of voting stations,” meaning the Sandinistas and their allies were left counting the votes by themselves. “There are no guarantees that the vote counting will reflect public will,” Mr. Courtney said.
Though the electoral tribunal denied Ethics and Transparency accreditation for political reasons, the watchdog monitored the elections anyway and declared the process a failed election before the first results were announced. “We are obligated to declare that this electoral process was not fair, honest or credible,” reads the group’s final statement.
The team of election monitors from the Organization of American States (OAS) also denounced a lack of transparency in the process. The OAS mission said it was denied entry to 20 percent of polling stations they visited.
Edmundo Jarquín, vice-presidential candidate for the PLI, says the problems experienced by international election observers will cast doubt on the election results.
“In the past, irregularities were an exception. Now irregularities are the norm,” Mr. Jarquín says.
There were also reports of bouts of violence, voter intimidation, and deliberate confusion of the process. Voting stations or electoral materials were burned in 16 parts of the country in protest.
But the Sandinistas and the CSE claimed the elections were exemplary in their peacefulness and orderliness. CSE president Roberto Rivas said he thought the election was the “most tranquil” polling process he’s ever seen in Nicaragua. He blamed the PLI for trying to cause “disorder” and “prevent people from voting.”
Nicaragua's standing diminished?
Despite Ortega’s apparent victory, which was predicted by all the polls, it could further tarnish his already checkered image abroad, making his political strength very provincial.
“All of the uncertainties that have been raised reflects a system that badly needs reform,” says Jennifer McCoy, director of the Americas Program for the Carter Center. The Carter Center did not officially observe Sunday’s due to the excessive and unclear conditions demanded by the CSE, but Ms. McCoy came anyway to watch the elections unofficially.
While the international reaction to Ortega’s apparent victory will not be known for another few days, it will be interesting to see what international dignitaries come to Nicaragua on Jan. 10, 2012, to celebrate the Sandinista leader’s controversial third term. With Chávez and Fidel Castro unlikely to make the trip, attendance could be slim.