Discrepancies in Nicaragua election results highlight importance of election observers

The blocking of observers at Nicaragua election sites and a strange pattern of results at the unobserved sites raises serious questions about the victories of Daniel Ortega and his party. 

Oswaldo Rivas/Reuters
A man pulls his cart past graffiti reading "Long Live Daniel" in Managua on November 16, 2011. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega's party, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), will have 63 out of 92 seats in the National Assembly after this month's general elections, according to results released last week by the electoral council.

Prior to the Nicaraguan election, there was significant controversy in how the government managed the topic of international and domestic observation of the elections. International actors were only allowed to "accompany," not observe. On election day, officials from the OAS were barred from 20 percent of the sites they tried to visit to monitor the election.

The domestic observation efforts were even tougher. Several civil society groups were told they would not be able to monitor the election. The main opposition party, Fabio Gadea's PLI, says the election council (CSE) rejected or stalled the credentials for a number of poll watchers who were to monitor the vote for each side. That last point on credentialed poll watchers is very important for understanding what occurred on election day.

The Nicaraguan website Confidencial describes the results in the department of Jinotega. The PLI worked hard to get every voting site observed in that department, but had a number of credentials for observers blocked. In the end, the PLI deployed observers to 94 percent of the sites, 690 of the 732 poll stations (Junta de Receptora de Votos, JRV).

In those 690 stations, according to the opposition observers, the PLI led the Daniel Ortega's Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) by a slim margin of 48 percent to 46.8 percent in the congressional vote. Yet, the CSE announced the results of the department showing FSLN 50.2 percent, PLI 44.7 percent, giving the FSLN the extra congressional representation.

For that result to occur, it would require that the 6 percent unobserved vote sites had a 70-30 lead for Mr. Ortega's party. According to Confidencial, cross checking with the historical record, in half of the 42 sites that were unobserved, the opposition had won in previous elections. The unobserved JRVs were not Sandinista strongholds, meaning a 70-30 split going against the trend in the rest of the department would be highly unlikely. The government's CSE has not released the results by JRV, making confirmation of those results impossible.

The story from that one department can be replicated across the country. The final results counted by the CSE show a big FSLN win, but that isn't matched by what observers saw during the day. That would mean that the JRVs where credentialed opposition observers were banned reported statistically improbable margins in favor of the FSLN.

This is why observers and a transparent vote count are important for elections. The fact the CSE will not publish the results for each JRV is problematic as it prevents civil society from checking the results compared to the limited observations that they were able to make. The blocking of domestic and international observers combined with such a strange pattern of results at the unobserved sites raises serious questions about the credibility of the election, Ortega's margin of victory and the congressional results.

Also see my article from Americas Quarterly about previous disputed elections in the hemisphere and what lessons they might hold for Nicaragua.

--- James Bosworth is a freelance writer and consultant who runs Bloggings by Boz.

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