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The Nicaraguan Elections: An Exchange

In response to:

The Nicaraguan Tangle from the December 5, 1985 issue

To the Editors:

Mr. Leiken is correct in redirecting attention on the 1984 Nicaraguan elections [NYR, December 5, 1985], not only because “they remain poorly understood,” but also because the legitimacy of the present regime is dependent on an evaluation of what happened as part of the electoral process. Mr. Leiken’s interpretation, however, is singular among those who were present in Nicaragua for the purpose of preparing a serious evaluation of the elections. Even the conclusions of the official Dutch observers, relied on by Mr. Leiken, are not supportive of Mr. Leiken’s interpretation.

The report of the official Dutch observers deserves attention for two distinct reasons. First, Holland was the only Western government to send official observers to Nicaragua for the elections. Second, the two observers designated by Holland have considerable experience in Central American affairs, are sensitive to human rights issues, and had served as election observers in El Salvador several months earlier. Thus, they were in a position to compare the fairness of the 1984 elections in El Salvador and Nicaragua.

The Dutch observers concluded that the elections in Nicaragua were “more open than in El Salvador, in the sense that more people were able to take part: the opposition did not fear for their lives.” Moreover, contrary to the implications in Mr. Leiken’s article, the Dutch observers found no irregularities either in the voting or counting process.

The Dutch observers criticized several aspects of the Nicaraguan electoral process, as did the observers sponsored by LASA and those co-sponsored by my organization, the International Human Rights Law Group. Nonetheless, none of the observers present in Nicaragua, including Mr. Leiken, provided any credible evidence of vote tampering, either to increase turnout or to change the results.

Mr. Leiken assumes that the lack of crowds at polling sites suggests voter turnout lower than the 75 percent reported by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal. In fact, the lack of crowds was the result of a well-designed electoral system, which limited the number of voters assigned to polling sites and distributed the polling sites throughout the country. Nicaragua’s administration of its electoral process, from registration through the counting of the ballots, should serve as a model for its neighbors, particularly El Salvador and Honduras.

Admittedly, no electoral system is fraudfree. The role of outside observers is to evaluate whether there are sufficient checks in place to prevent such infamous practices as ballot-stuffing, double-voting, ballot-burning and irregular counting of the ballots. In Nicaragua, such checks were present; the fact that opposition parties did not take advantage of the access to polling sites cannot be blamed on the election administrators or the FSLN.

Recent developments in Nicaragua are cause for concern. The political opening that existed at the time of the elections may be closing. Yet those developments do not establish the unfairness of the elections, any more than a military coup proves that a preceding election was unfair.

Larry Garber

International Human Rights Law Group

Washington, D.C.

Robert Leiken replies:

Mr. Garber does not give an accurate account of the Dutch report I cited in my article. The Dutch observers found that Nicaraguan opposition parties were rendered “totally inactive” in the years preceding the elections by Sandinista “emergency” legislation and that

the parties were not able to organize and regroup their forces at grassroots level…. Moreover, the lack of press freedom coupled with the all-pervading image of the FSLN [Sandinista National Liberation Front] was hardly conducive to the building-up of party systems across the country. [p. 24]

Thus their report explicitly found the request of the CDN (the opposition coalition led by Arturo Cruz) for a postponement of the elections—the central issue in the negotiations between the Sandinista government and the opposition, and the only remaining one when talks broke down—was “in our opinion justified” (p. 24). Indeed the Dutch wrote that there should have been “a period of at least six to nine months” for parties to organize “with much greater freedom of expression, permission for meetings, etc., preceding an election campaign lasting a few months.” In this perspective, the opposition’s final appeal for a sixty-day delay was reasonable and moderate.

The Dutch observers considered the identification of the Sandinista party with the state, whereby the party frequently takes “unilateral decisions regarding state institutions such as the ruling Junta and the Council of State, the composition of the cabinet, the Supreme Electoral Council, etc.” to be the relevant “background for understanding the hesitation of other parties to take part in the elections” (p. 22). The Dutch also reported widespread fears that abstention would be “interpreted by the CDSs as support for the counterrevolutionaries” (p. 23). According to the Dutch, the CDSs (Sandinista Defense Committees) are district committees which “form part of the fabric of the state” (p. 42). The Dutch report concluded that the absence of the CDN and the attempted withdrawals of other opposition parties produced “a sluggish campaign in which political choices were limited” (p. 26).

These statements by themselves justify my comment that the Dutch observers did not share the view of the LASA report that Sandinista “abuses of incumbency…did not cast doubt on the validity of the electoral process.” Contrary to Mr. Garber’s opinion, the Dutch report was quite “supportive of Mr. Leiken’s interpretation.” It is Mr. Garber who distorts the Dutch report. He cites one element of their comparison with El Salvador, but ignores their observations that “in comparison with El Salvador” the Nicaraguan election climate “was lethargic and the mood one of resignation” and that there was a more “competitive atmosphere” in El Salvador (pp. 25–26).

The report holds that in both countries significant groups were excluded: in El Salvador the left was excluded and the “battle was between the center and the right.” In Nicaragua

The situation was that in effect only parties of the left took part in the elections, and the fact that there were no great differences between these parties engendered a certain sluggishness in the electorate. [p. 23]

The Dutch observers in fact would seem to support my view that the Nicaraguan elections were “no worse but no better than those we have sponsored for a half a century in Central America.”

It would be foolhardy, however, simply to “rely on the conclusions” of any election report including the reports of official observers. The Dutch observers forthrightly acknowledged that governments invite foreign observers who they expect will legitimize their elections, hoping in this way “to influence public opinion” (p. 21). As I indicated in my article other Western and Latin American governments refused requests for observers precisely because official observers imply de facto legitimization. The Dutch government has been the most consistent supporter of the Sandinistas in Western Europe, contributing annual aid of about $20 million. I found it striking that the only official delegation—one whose view of the revolution is quite sympathetic to the Sandinistas—recognized so many serious flaws in the electoral process. While I agreed with most of their conclusions, I found one of them misleading: the observers found an “absence of irregularities in the processing of the election results” on election day and thus concluded that the “outcome was that the Frente [the Sandinistas] won a clear majority. The legitimation of the regime is thus confirmed.”

This conclusion seems unjustified in the light of the Dutch observers’ own observations on the justice of the opposition’s request for a postponement, the coercive use of the state apparatus, and the censorship of the press, among other criticisms. Moreover, the Dutch observers left Nicaragua two days after the elections and were not present during the long counting period.

The handling of the vote count struck some Nicaraguans (such as the staff of La Prensa) and foreign correspondents (such as Patrick Oster of the Knight-Ridder newspapers) as peculiar. In the ten days between the election day and the announcement of the official count, partial tallies were released by the Supreme Election Council on several occasions. Each succeeding count augmented progressively and disproportionately the average number of ballots cast per voting precinct counted. This was one of the reasons for the suspicion that the total was being inflated.

While I made it clear that such allegations remained unproved, I reported in my article the misgivings of many Nicaraguans, including opposition party officials, about the validity of the vote count. These observations did indeed take into account the large number of polling sites or precincts. Foreign correspondents, leaders of opposition parties and the editor of La Prensa, Jaime Chamorro, calculated the number of voters, the number of precincts, the number of polling booths and tables at each site, and the average time necessary to vote, and estimated that to accommodate the announced number of voters, the polling booths would have had to be open for seventeen hours. In fact, few precincts had lines after ten or eleven in the morning and polls were open for no more than eleven hours.

According to the official tally 75 percent of registered voters cast ballots. However, during the July registration, with an approximately equal number of polling sites and procedures lasting about the same time, it took four days to register the voters. Virtually all Nicaraguans I interviewed said that, nonetheless, registration lines were longer for the first two days than the lines on election day. (The opposition coalition participated in registration.)

On October 15 the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) announced that about 1.1 million Nicaraguans had registered. Later, however, the CSE announced that the number was “erroneous” and corrected it to approximately 1.5 million. Chamorro wrote that he believed the extra 400,000 were created to be drawn upon in case the CDN participated. In the absence of the CDN, he wrote, the votes were distributed to the various parties in accordance with a pre-election agreement. As I wrote, leaders of two opposition parties told me that they were party to such a pact. These ballots, Chamorro alleged, were added to the vote count in progressively larger batches throughout the “counting” period, thus providing for Chamorro an explanation for both the length of the vote counting period and the uneven partial results.

Again, in Chamorro’s view, those discrepancies could not be rationalized by assuming that the small precincts reported first. Such an argument is unconvincing precisely because (as Garber correctly points out) the large number of precincts limited the number of voters at each one and thus there were relatively minor discrepancies in their size. The number of voters at each site was about three hundred, and in Chamorro’s words, “to count seven hundred ballots only takes an hour more than two hundred.”

As I stated in my article “no one produced documentary evidence of a preelectoral pact or of tampering with the ballot” and I know no way “to verify the official figures or the opposition’s charges.” As in the case of El Salvador in 1982, where there was no documentary evidence either, I reported the misgivings of many citizens about a possible “concerted inflation of the results.”

Vote tampering could have taken place without the knowledge of observers at at least three points: at unobserved times in irregularly observed polling sites, at unobserved polling sites, or during the subsequent, central vote count. The best guarantee against such tampering would have been the continued presence of opposition observers. The Dutch observers did not agree with Mr. Garber’s conclusion that the absence of such observers from the small opposition parties that did participate “cannot be blamed…on the FSLN.” They take a far more comprehensive view of the electoral process. After commenting that the period allowed for parties to organize was “much too short,” and that there should have been “much greater freedom of expression, permission for meetings, etc,” the Dutch observers go on to say,

In the present system, it was inevitable that splinter groups would form, most of them identifiable to a certain extent with the FSLN. Result: large-scale confusion, which is reflected in the absence of “fiscales”—party observers—during the elections. [p. 24]

Mr. Garber argues that “recent developments causing ‘concern”’—i.e., the Sandinistas’ October crackdown on trade unions, political parties, and the Church—do not cast doubt on the elections any more than a subsequent “military coup proves that a preceding election was unfair.” Here again the Dutch observers have a different view: the elections would be significant, they wrote, if they contributed to the revolution’s stated objectives of pluralism, mixed economy and non-alignment. “Only time will tell whether the new government adheres to these points.”

Indeed Mr. Garber contradicts the very report he helped to draft for the International Human Rights Law Group. That report, consponsored by the Washington Office on Latin America, a group sympathetic to the Sandinistas, found the electoral process “meaningful” because it “permitted a political opening…. This opening, however, must be built upon if it is to have long-term significance.”

The recent Sandinista repression has included increased censorship, the arrest and questioning of more than one hundred political, labor, and religious leaders, and the confiscation of a church newspaper. These “emergency measures” were decreed by the president put in office by the elections of 1984 and were given legal authority by legislation virtually suspending civil liberties including freedom of expression, of the press, and of movement, and the rights to assemble, to form labor organizations, and to strike. Such legislation was pushed through the very National Assembly that was produced by the elections (and was further emasculated by the Sandinistas). To compare the repression now to a military coup overthrowing a civilian government seems sadly sophistical. The elections were advertised as a “political opening,” but when that “opening” has proved illusory, we are told that the subsequent repression is irrelevant to a judgment of the elections’ legitimacy.

Far more forthright and accurate is the view of Comandante Bayardo Arce, in his “secret speech” of May 1984, which I cited in my article: by approving the elections, he said, liberals and social democrats would provide “the arms” for “terminating this whole artifice of pluralism…which has been useful up to now, but has reached its end.”

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