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Nicaraguan Elections: Trip Report by Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, Nov 4-7, 2006

November 9, 2006

The purpose of this trip was for The Carter Center to monitor our fourth Nicaraguan election. The first was in 1990, while the U.S. Contra War was still being waged. The Carter Center has had six delegations of pre-election observers in the country this year and seven long-term observers since September. A number of our major suggestions have been adopted by the Supreme Electoral Council. Technical preparations and the conduct of the campaign have been far better than those in the past.

Former presidents Nicolas Barletta (Panama) and Alejandro Toledo (Peru) were my co-chairmen, and Carter Center staff members Jennifer McCoy, Shelley McConnell, and Jaime Aparicio were leaders of our team. On November 3, we deployed 62 observers from 20 nations, and cooperated with delegations from the Organization of American States and the European Union.

The election captured international interest, primarily because Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega (FSLN) was leading in public opinion polls and was opposed by three major candidates, Eduardo Montealegre (ALN-PC), José Rizo Castellón (PLC), and Edmundo Jarquín (MRS). Additional drama existed because Montealegre had broken away from the Liberal party (PLC) and Jarquín is a former Sandinista. The new parties were formed mostly in opposition to an agreement (El Pacto) reached between Liberals and Sandinistas that lets them control the parliament, judicial appointments, and other spoils of government.

One result of the Pact is the requirements for an election victory: 40% overall, or 35% provided the second candidate is five points behind. This is an arrangement that made it easiest for Ortega to be elected, with his proven inability to gain a majority.

The United States has openly supported Montealegre and done everything possible to condemn Ortega, threatening a cut-off in financial aid if he should win, and this may have been costly to Montealegre. The unpopularity of the war in Iraq and memories of U.S. Marine occupation, the former alliance with dictator Somoza, and Washington's sponsorship of the Contra War were all negative factors. Oliver North's campaigning against the Sandinistas provided a vivid reminder of those days. On the other hand, Venezuela has been supportive of Ortega by making cheap oil and fertilizer available to low income families, mostly distributed by the Sandinistas. The Carter Center condemned any effort by foreign governments to influence the outcome of the election.

We met first with members of the Consejo Supremo Electoral or CSE (elections commission) and found them proud of their preparations, which were quite thorough and generally accepted by the major parties. We three co-leaders made statements to a large press contingent and then returned to our hotel where we met with Daniel Ortega, the only candidate whom we were unable to see during our most recent visit in July. His wife, Rosario, is his campaign manager and has been instrumental in a strong effort to change his image from a revolutionary with harsh colors and a fighting rooster symbol to pastel colors and an emphasis on peace and reconciliation. I have known them since 1979, when they visited Washington after the revolution, and I first came to Nicaragua in the mid-1980s to help build Habitat houses.

Ortega seemed calm and confident, expressing the moderate political and economic proposals that he was espousing. His campaign obviously has not lacked for funding, and his attractive billboards were dominating the streets of Managua even in July. We promised that – if he were elected – The Carter Center would help with easing differences within the country and possibly between his government and Washington. I urged him to be moderate in his public statements no matter how harsh the rhetoric might be from the United States.

Having returned from India the previous night, I went to bed early, after a "thank you" supper with the Danish ambassador and his wife for his government's support for our mission. They were proud of their adopted Nicaraguan child. The Danes are the most generous nation in foreign aid, giving $0.80 per $100 of their national income. (The U.S. government gives $0.16, the lowest of any industrialized country.)

On Election Day, November 5, we drove to Masaya to observe early voting, and completed 24 polling sites before returning to Managua for a ten o'clock press conference with my co-leaders. Except for some inevitable delays in starting, the voting was going well all over the country, with long and patient lines, meticulous officials, and observers ever-present from all four major parties. Then I had one-on-one interviews with U.S. media before lunch.

During the afternoon we met with candidates Montealegre, Rizo, and Jarquín. Rizo claimed that his own polls showed him with 42% on the first round, but the others were hoping for a run-off and professed confidence that they would be in second place contending with Ortega. All of them expected support from the two defeated parties. Late in the day, as usual, we went back to polling sites to observe the closing and counting of votes. This was a closely watched process, and all the election officials (required to be from different parties) plus party poll watchers have to certify the results and record them on tally sheets. One copy was immediately posted outside for the public to see, one was forwarded to the regional office, and the others were retained by the party poll watchers.

The perpetration of fraud would be almost impossible for the presidential election, but easier (still difficult) for the more obscure national and regional legislative races. Despite this, the U.S. embassy issued a statement during the vote count casting doubt on the election procedures.

It should be remembered that all the major parties could learn the results of the presidential election well before midnight, with observers at every polling station eager to call in the vote count. Although Ortega refrained from making any public statement, his supporters began celebrating about that time, with fireworks, bands playing, and horns blowing up and down the main streets. A definitive quick count at 6:45 a.m. predicted FSLN 38.49%, ALN (Montealegre) 29.52, PLC (Rizo) 24.15, and MRS (Jarquín) 7.44, and because of the size and accuracy of the sample, these figures were likely to prevail. With 60% of the official returns released by Monday night, the two were reasonably compatible, showing a clear victory for Ortega.

Toledo, Barletta, and I had final meetings with all the candidates, in hopes that we could encourage some degree of reconciliation. Under the terms of El Pacto, whatever alliance can form 60% of the assembly [now the FSLN and PLC] will still share extraordinary power, and the ALN may replace the PLC in this privileged position. It is unknown now what the coalition might be. Our chief of mission, Jaime Aparicio, will remain in Nicaragua to supervise observation of any challenges and will keep us informed as the newly elected officials negotiate with each other and assume their duties.

I gave my assessment of the election to Secretary Condoleezza Rice, who assured me that the White House and State Department would accept the results of the election graciously and would respond positively to similar attitudes by the Sandinista government. After constructive meetings with top leaders of the news media, business, professions, and finance, we had a heavily attended press conference before returning to the United States. Subsequently, Montealegre conceded, and he and Ortega had a harmonious meeting. Our tentative plans are to return next month for a reconciliation conference, if it can be arranged.

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