The Carter Center has followed election processes in Nicaragua since 1989, including the January 2000 reform of the electoral law and subsequent reorganization of the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE). As in 1990 and 1996, The Center was invited by the CSE to monitor the municipal elections scheduled for November 5, 2000. In order to better understand the conditions for the municipal vote and developments pertaining to the presidential elections scheduled for 2001, the Center sent three election experts to Managua, Nicaragua from September 26 - October 1, 2000.
The study mission was led by Dr. Shelley McConnell, associate director of the Center's Latin American and Caribbean Program, who was joined by Dr. George Vickers, director of the Washington Office on Latin America, and Dr. Luis Alberto Cordero, former director of CAPEL, the Center for Electoral Promotion and Assistance. The team met with election authorities, all four political parties competing in the municipal race, three of the candidates for mayor of Managua, two citizens groups seeking to establish themselves as political parties for the presidential election, former President Violeta Chamorro, as well as domestic and international observers and the news media.
Nicaragua now faces a crucial test of great importance to the international community of democratic nations. For the first time, Nicaragua will hold local elections on a separate date from the national vote, and the outcome is expected to shape the political context for the presidential and legislative races next year. Constitutional and electoral reforms that came into effect last January have changed the legal and institutional framework for elections, and November's vote will provide important evidence about the impact of these changes on Nicaraguan democracy. Many of the decisions made now by the Supreme Electoral Council will set precedents that could shape the national races in 2001, including decisions about staffing for local election authorities.
The Legal and Institutional Context for the Elections
The first point of analysis is the impact of the new legal framework on the electoral process and its consistent application to all citizens. The broad effect of the January 2000 reforms was to reduce the number of political parties able to compete in elections, as described in previous reports by International IDEA and the United Nations.
The constitutional and electoral reforms made in January 2000 placed election administration in the hands of only two parties, and some citizens told the Carter Center team they feared officials may be conspiring to exclude other groups. More specifically, the reforms increased the size of the Supreme Electoral Council and resulted in a change in its leadership. New appointments were made along partisan lines, raising concerns that the CSE may conduct elections in a partisan manner.
These concerns were amplified by the fact that the partisan character of the election authorities extends to the Departmental and Municipal Electoral Councils, and could shape the voting boards (Juntas Receptoras de Votos). In our interviews, some Nicaraguans took comfort in the fact that two rival parties, the Sandinista National Liberation Front and the Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC), share control of the CSE, such that one may act to check the partisan behavior of the other. However, others expressed concern that the two parties had allied to disadvantage third parties. In the past, Nicaragua's highest election authorities have been guided by the democratic principle of inclusiveness where the law allowed.
We recommend that for future elections Nicaraguans develop a non-partisan, professional electoral administration whose neutrality will be unquestioned. Absent such a structure, and in order to reassure citizens that the election authorities serve the public as a whole rather than particular interests, it is essential that the deliberation and actions of the electoral authorities be highly transparent and subject to verification through monitoring by election observers. It is therefore praiseworthy that the CSE has invited all recognized political parties to appoint agents to monitor elements of its activities, and we encourage the CSE to submit key decisions for public scrutiny by sharing its meeting records, including information on how each member voted.
It is also commendable that the Nicaraguan government has invited the Organization of American States, The Carter Center and other international organizations to observe the municipal elections this year. It is further preparing to accredit as many as eight thousand national observers from Etica y Transparencia, El Consorcio Civil para la Educacion, Analysis y Observacion Electoral and other groups. During our visit we were informed that domestic observers must obtain their credentials at Departmental rather than Municipal Electoral Councils, and this imposes an undue hardship of travel to and from the Departmental capitals. We urge the CSE to do whatever it can to facilitate the distribution of credentials to national observers, and guarantee them access to observe election processes on all levels of electoral administration, not just the local level.
Municipal Electoral Preparations
Nicaragua is on track for holding municipal elections that have the potential to meet international standards for free and fair elections. Nicaraguans expect that their vote will be secret. They face clear and meaningful choices among competing parties, four of whom will present candidates in the municipal election. The Carter Center team inquired about a number of concerns expressed in the media, finding some of less concern than others. There are some troubling developments that should be remedied as soon as possible, and in the spirit of support for democratic development, we offer recommendations on how best to proceed.
Some Nicaraguans expressed concern that the ballots would not be printed in time for the November 5 vote. The CSE informed us that their contractor had obtained an extra printer in order to meet the deadlines, and that a contingency plan had been developed in the event that a machine broke down. Nicaragua has now completed the printing of ballots. A related concern was that the CSE's purchase of a printer could lead to fraud, however proper enumeration of the ballots and auditing of their package and shipment can secure the ballots, and all recognized parties have been invited to appoint agents to monitor ballot production, packing and transfer.
Most adult Nicaraguans will have a credential with which they can vote on election day. Of the 2,786,530 electors, roughly 405,000 must vote with a substitute document, a number which is regrettably high given the time and resources spent on getting voters their permanent identification in past years, but which should not jeopardize the vote if citizens receive the documents in time. At the time of our visit, approximately 200,000 voters had not picked up their identification documents from the electoral authorities. We were assured that every effort was being made to contact those voters through the postal service and encourage them to pick up their identification document.
Although it is the CSE's responsibility to notify citizens when their documents are ready, given the shortage of time between now and the election, we urge that this list be made public so that political parties and civic organizations can assist in notifying voters and help them overcome any logistical obstacles that may have prevented them from picking up those documents before now.
As they began their campaign, the parties voiced no complaints of election-related violence or intimidation, such as those we had heard in the 1990s. Recent reports of disturbances in several neighborhoods suggest the electoral climate may be deteriorating, however, and we urge the candidates to keep their campaigns positive and call upon their supporters to act peacefully.
Channel 2 reported that election authorities had verbally requested it not broadcast a television advertisement for the Conservative Party, but that incident was resolved satisfactorily, and candidates told us they were able to get their messages out to the public through rallies and the media. Our concerns with respect to media focused instead on the long-term suppressive effects that may result from pressures by state tax collection and social security agencies on opposition media. We support rigorous tax collection, but trust that it will not be conducted in a punitive manner or in a way that gives the appearance of trying to influence the electoral process. Naturally, tax law must be applied equally to all media regardless of their political sympathies.
Campaign finance was another area of concern for our evaluation team as we visited Nicaragua. The law has been reformed such that state contributions are awarded as reimbursements after the elections, not in advance. Absent state funding during the campaign, parties must obtain their own resources. We understand that civil servants have been invited to make a contribution to the governing party which will be directly deducted from their paychecks. While we respect the right of all citizens to contribute to the party of their choice, and understand that participation in this program is voluntary, it blurs the lines between state and party in disturbing ways reminiscent of Nicaragua's revolutionary years, and we strongly urge the PLC to end this practice.
Furthermore, we were informed that party poll watchers will not receive payment from the state for their work on election day, and understand that some parties will be unable to field poll watchers in one hundred percent of the voting centers because they lack the funds for transportation and meals. Two political parties with minority representation in election administration told us they expect some fraud on election day at the level of the voting tables and Municipal Electoral Councils, and in the transmission of the vote.
The scenarios for fraud were not well-detailed nor very credible, especially given that election officers will post the results from each voting table for public viewing immediately after the count, but given their concerns the parties should make every effort to propose members of the local voting boards (Juntas Receptoras de Votos) even if they can only be second members, a limitation which The Carter Center deplores. Unmonitored procedures will be subject to suspicion and rumor, and it is thus in the election authorities' best interests to eliminate any obstacles to including third parties in the JRVs.
The CSE will also benefit if domestic observers are rapidly accredited, fully trained and on duty, especially in those voting sites where some parties are unable to post party poll watchers or where the JRV is composed of officials proposed by only two parties. We applaud the efforts by domestic observer organizations to coordinate their deployment. We urge that only those with adequate technical expertise undertake quick counts, and that others engage in the equally important task of qualitative observation at the election tables, counting centers, and in the transportation and storage of voting materials and ballots. We also note that the CSE affirms it will carry out simulations of the system for vote transmission between the 20th and 30th of October, whose successful conclusion under domestic and international observation would raise confidence in a transparent process.
Preparations for National Elections
The accreditation of political parties and candidates for the municipal elections was controversial, especially the exclusion of Pedro Solórzano as the prefered Conservative candidate for mayor of Managua. It is essential that there be no such shadows lingering over the presidential elections.
Groups wishing to form political parties to run candidates in the national elections next year must receive approval from the CSE by November 4, 2000. This early date has placed an administrative burden on the CSE, whose staff resources are already stretched in an effort to hold the municipal elections on November 5, 2000. In particular, the election authorities must certify the formation of municipal boards for aspirant parties in each municipality, and must review the applications for party status, including verifying signatures from three percent of the registered voters and determining that no signature was previously used to support a different party.
This responsibility is placed upon the CSE from two sources. First, the legislature's decision to reform the law less than a year prior to the date for forming new parties left little time for organizing them, especially since the law raised the requirements for party registration, making Nicaragua's law one of the most stringent in Latin America. Second, the CSE's own interpretation of the law resulted in a complex signature verification process, and also briefly suspended the formation of municipal party boards and changed the process to require that party boards be certified by Departmental rather than Municipal Electoral Councils.
Although it rejected several applications from parties that competed in the 1996 elections, the CSE did approve the application of the Conservative Party after a key decision to accept thumbprints as valid signatures toward the required three percent of registered voters. Only one group that did not compete in 1996 has completed the application to become a political party for the presidential election, namely the National Unity Movement. Though time is short, the Supreme Electoral Council has a civic duty to review this application, and it began to do so on October 11. It also authorized the National Unity Movement to name two party agents to provide oversight for the review, and invited the recognized political parties and election observers to do the same.
This decision is commendable, especially since the CSE has indicated willingness to bring extra staff resources to bear in carrying out its review. Lest these efforts bear no fruit, we urge the CSE to publicly commit itself to finishing its review before November 4, 2000 and to maintaining open channels of communication with the National Unity Movement throughout the process so that any obstacles may be overcome. Furthermore, the law must be applied equitably to all.
Nicaragua's desire to limit the number of political parties to those which have a reasonable expectation of support is understandable given the proliferation of micro-parties in the past, and can help to develop a stable and functional party system. But politics should have no place in electoral administration, and the democratic principle of inclusion should guide election officers in any discretionary decision-making.
The Carter Center intends to send a second study mission to Nicaragua in early November to watch the municipal elections. We will again meet with political parties and candidates, as well as election authorities and the media. We hope at that time to be able to report our full satisfaction with the election campaign and preparations.