Thursday, November 20, 2008

Nicaragua's 2008 Municipal Elections

On November 9th, Nicaragua held municipal elections in 146 municipalities. It seems these elections have somewhat gone under the radar, but there is a growing conflict over the results of those elections. The Sandinistas have claimed to have won in roughly 100 of those municipalities, although coming up with an exact number is still difficult at this point because official results have still not been released. On Tuesday, there were violent clashes between Sandinistas (FSLN) and Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC) supporters in Managua, and last week there were a number of other conflicts between Sandinistas and Liberals in Managua, León, and Matagalpa.

The Washington Post on Sunday printed an editorial claiming that Daniel Ortega, the current President, is attempting to consolidate a dictatorship, although a number of the claims in this article have been refuted by the Nicaragua Network, which I reprint here (this was sent out on their email list, and is unfortunately not on their website):

There were international observers at the Nov. 9 municipal elections from respected groups of officials from Latin American electoral councils. The three teams of high level experts reported seeing no instances of fraud.

The opposition should pursue its claims of fraud through the available legal mechanisms rather than exclusively in the media.

The integrity of Nicaragua's elections is insured, just as it is in the United States, by the presence in each polling place of each party's poll watchers who also witness the vote count.

US favored Managua mayoral candidate, Eduardo Montealegre, was not favored to win. An independent and respected polling company-CID Gallop-put him five points behind the FSLN candidate, former world boxing champ, Alexis Argüello, a week before the election.

While, sadly, there has been post-election violence on all sides, the right wing Constitutional Liberal Party (PLC) initiated it, injuring several people including a Sandinista radio reporter who was stabbed and whose car was torched.

The Supreme Electoral Council is an independent branch of government. It has three Sandinista representatives, three PLC representatives, and the chairman is affiliated with no political party. It certified the results of the 2008 municipal elections.

Montealegre presented discrepancies in only two precincts out of 2,200 in Managua to support his claim of fraud.

An official recount in Managua confirmed the victory of the FSLN candidate Arguello.

It is unfortunate that this type of conflict is happening in Nicaragua, but not all that surprising as several months ago I suggested that an FSLN win would likely lead to more political unrest. It is important to place these elections in a context, which much of the reporting linked to above does not do. A lot of the problems that have come to a head in these elections are actually related to reforms from 1999-2000, commonly referred to as the PLC-FSLN Pact that was orchestrated by Ortega and former PLC President Arnoldo Alemán. As part of these reforms, the electoral law was changed to make it more difficult for smaller political parties to participate, although it was not all that restrictive compared to other Latin American electoral laws and has not really served until recently as a mechanism to block the participation of minor parties. Back in May, Nicaragua's Supreme Electoral Council banned the Sandinista Renovation Movement and the Conservative Party from participating in the municipal elections due to some violations of the electoral law. While both of these parties have very little electoral support in Nicaragua, it was a bad public relations move for Nicaragua's government, and it seems the requirements for political party participation were not evenly applied, as the minor Alternative for Change Party (AC) was allowed to participate in the municipal elections. Another major component of the 1999-2000 reforms was the partisan division of the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) which divided the seats between FSLN and PLC supporters, and has since lost a lot of legitimacy as an institution in charge of running elections. Finally, as part of the reforms, the percentage of the vote needed to win the presidency was lowered, and was really the crucial factor in explaining why Daniel Ortega was able to win the 2006 Presidential elections with only 38% of the vote.

However, there are two factors that are not really talked about much in all the vitriol spewed out against Ortega and the Sandinistas. First, the Liberals were just as much supporters of the Pact's reforms, as the Sandinistas have never had a legislative majority, and the PLC controlled the Presidency when these reforms passed. This does not make the reforms more legitimate, but the PLC was a critical player in designing the current institutions governing elections. Second, the Right, and principally the Liberals, have been divided since before 2006. In the 2006 elections, Ortega ran against two Liberal candidates who together won over 50% of the vote. Had the Liberals been able to coordinate better, Ortega would not be president. The same can be said for the most recent municipal elections. On the Left there was the FSLN, but on the Right there were four parties, the PLC, the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance, the Nicaraguan Resistance Party, and AC. Notwithstanding that these Right parties have very little to offer most poor Nicaraguans besides anti-Sandinista rhetoric and dubious claims about good government, they would be more successful at winning elections if they ran as a single coalition.

While the final results of the municipal elections have not been released, the CSE has released provisional results for 100 municipalities. I have analyzed these and compared them to previous results from 2004, when the FSLN won 87 out of 152 municipalities. Of these 100 municipalities, there is a slight increase in the number won by the FSLN, but not much. 77 out of the 100 municipalities for which I have results were won by the FSLN, but if I add together the votes on the Right, the FSLN would have lost 10 of these municipalities had the Right parties been able to coordinate. Out of the 100 municipalities, 15 changed hands from the PLC to the FSLN, of which 5 could have remained in PLC hands had the Right only ran one candidate. The FSLN lost control in only 2 municipalities.

When final results are finally released, I will try to write some more about this election. While there are a lot of claims right now that fraud occurred, I have not seen anything that suggests systematic fraud at the level of counting votes. There are plenty of stories about isolated incidents of polling place irregularities, and some ballots being dumped in León, but these incidents by themselves do not amount to a systematic attempt to commit fraud. However, the claims against the legitimacy of some of Nicaragua's electoral institutions, of which I tend to agree, date back before Ortega's presidency and the Liberals deserve as much blame for the reforms as the Sandinistas.