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Nicaragua's Next Step Toward Democracy

By Jimmy Carter

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 13, 1996, edition of The Washington Post.

Nicaraguans and the United States face a critical juncture on October 20. Nicaraguans will go to the polls to elect a successor to President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro and to test their emerging democratic institutions. The United States will confirm its commitment to democracy by letting Nicaraguans decide their own fate and then supporting those choices if the process is fair.

In 1990, Nicaraguans took a historic step by conducting elections and peacefully transferring power from one party to another for the first time in the country's history. It took a revolution and nearly a decade of civil war to reach that point. And, it took a sea-change in international attitudes to provide the critical support and mediation to reinforce those who were committed to democracy and national reconciliation.

In 1986, Costa Rica President Oscar Arias presented a plan to his fellow Central American presidents to enable them to forge a regional peace pact and emerge from crippling civil conflicts. Arias insisted that a genuine democratic process in Nicaragua required that the U.S. government stop its military aid to contras.

The Reagan administration argued that free elections would never occur in Nicaragua if military aid to the contras was halted, but Congress, led by Speaker Jim Wright, agreed with Arias and suspended aid. In 1989, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker and Speaker Wright fashioned a bipartisan accord between the executive branch and the Congress that ended U.S. military support for the contras, supported the Arias Plan, and helped create the conditions for peaceful elections.

Likewise in 1989, the Sandinista government of Daniel Ortega moved up the election date and invited the United Nations, Organization of American States (OAS), Council of Freely Elected Heads of Government. and other international observers to monitor the February 25, 1990 elections. The council, a group of 27 former and current heads of government from the Americas and based at The Carter Center, mediated election disputes and sought to give the opposing candidates and the general public faith in a free electoral process.

On the eve of the election, many in the United States and Nicaragua who were certain that the Sandinistas would commit fraud to remain in power and that the contras would not return peacefully to their homes. They were wrong.

Next Sunday, Oscar Arias and Jim Baker will join me and former Ecuador President Osvaldo Hurtado in leading another council delegation to monitor Nicaragua's elections. In contrast to 1990, Nicaraguans have stopped fighting and are becoming reconciled under the leadership of President Chamorro. But they are still very divided as to the best route to economic recovery and are struggling to revamp their weak political institutions. The polarization of the electorate is evident from the polls, with most support going to two candidates -- Daniel Ortega and former Managua Mayor Arnoldo Aleman -- while the other 21 candidates languish in a fragmented center.

Besides electing a president, Nicaraguans are voting for mayors and their representatives to the National Assembly , the Central American Parliament and municipal councils. With six different ballots, a new voter registration system and new elections officials, these elections are extremely complex administratively. Electoral preparations have been delayed, officials are late in delivering the voter ID cards and voting materials needed on election day.

Added to the technical and infrastructural difficulties in carrying out elections in a poor country are the political tensions that always lie under the surface in a society as polarized as Nicaragua. So far, the campaign has been peaceful, and the political parties have not attributed the delays to any political motive. But given that the elections will inevitably have some technical imperfections, the risk is that such administrative irregularities could be viewed by one side as politically motivated by the other.

Nicaraguans have an opportunity on October 20 to take another step down the long road of democracy and to make some choices about how to solve the pressing national problems of severe unemployment and critical poverty. If they are to find permanent solutions to these problems, Nicaraguans must learn to foster a democratic climate beyond election day, one where losers learn to work constructively, not as obstructionists, to help shape the country's future, and where winners resist the temptation of triumphalism and instead listen to diverse points of view on Nicaraguans' common problems.

As Nicaraguans hold faith in the promise of democracy to improve their lives, the support of a united international community is equally imperative. Some in the United States are still fighting the Cold War in Nicaragua, opposing candidates rather than supporting democracy, exacerbating divisions rather than promoting reconciliation. But our council will continue working with the monitors from the OAS, the European Union and elsewhere to try to address legitimate concerns while reducing the level of fear and suspicion between the parties. International observers to Nicaragua's election will be there not only to monitor election practices but also to provide international support for democracy.

Ballot observers
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