Nicaragua is headed for the worst possible election on November 7th. We’re facing an election without guarantees or electoral reforms, and with tightened FSLN control over the electoral apparatus. Ten magistrates loyal to President Daniel Ortega were recently named to the Electoral Council.
In addition, it’s an election to be held under a police state, with more than 120 political prisoners and no public freedoms. With a divided opposition – Citizens Alliance for Freedom on one side and the National Coalition on the other – the electoral scenario could be even worse.
On Tuesday, May 18, the Electoral Council definitively suspended the legal party status of the Democratic Restoration Party (PRD). The Council’s decision is final under Nicaraguan law, with no legal recourse to appeal. The decision eliminates the National Coalition from political competition, since they had entered into alliance with the PRD.
The Sandinista Front will go into the election as the strongest political minority, while the opposition will be fighting for the loyalty of the blue and white majority. Such division will inevitably weaken them. Meanwhile, five small collaborationist parties, grouped under the PLC party of former president Arnoldo Aleman, are ready to harvest whatever votes the fraud machine sends their way.
In 2014, the FSLN eliminated the second-round requirement from Nicaragua’s Electoral Law, in cases where no party receives a clear majority of the votes. With that move, the competitive advantage of the largest minority became much greater. The FSLN controls the electoral power, from the appointment of Ortega-loyal magistrates to the Electoral Council right up to the poll workers of individual polling places.
Amid this disadvantage, an opposition tendency for dispersion can be glimpsed. Ortega need only declare that he’s won 10, 100, 1000 or 10,000 votes more than the party in second place to be reelected to the presidency. In contrast, the opposition needs to obtain an irrefutable advantage, meaning a margin of some 200,000 votes more than the FSLN, to neutralize the fraud. In the legislative elections they need to show an even greater advantage – some 750,000 votes – to give them a qualified majority in the Nicaraguan Parliament and defend their right to govern.
Given these prospects, the unity or an electoral alliance among the principal opposition groups was imperative. Those groups – the Civic Alliance, the Blue and White Unity, the Farmers’ Movement, the Citizens for Liberty Alliance – all needed to appear in a single ballot space. According to projections from all the polls, only this scheme for national unity, with a single presidential candidate and an agreed-upon list of legislative candidates, could succeed. Only with such unity could the opposition inspire the high electoral turnout needed to defeat Ortega, despite the fraud. Only unified action could win a qualified majority in the National Assembly, to dismantle the structures of the dictatorship.
Nonetheless, be it from arrogance, sectarianism or political ineptness, an electoral alliance was rejected. There were outrageous allegations that the other forces were dispensable. The same allegations insisted that on November 7th the “useful vote” of the opposition would lean towards the Citizens for Liberty candidates, because it was “the securest ballot slot.”
The experience of 1990 is cited to back this theory. At that time, the anti-Sandinista vote defeated the FSLN. My mother, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro was the candidate then, for the UNO coalition. The same group cites 1996, when the vote was concentrated on PLC candidate Arnoldo Aleman, despite the existence of more than 10 other non-FSLN options. However, none of this occurred in 2006, when the vote of the majority who opposed the FSLN was divided, facilitating Ortega’s triumph in the first round.
It’s clear that Daniel Ortega ordered the elimination of the National Coalition from the electoral competition. It’s a blow to the self-organized movements that arose from the April 2018 protests, demanding that Ortega and Murillo leave power. The protesting citizens demanded a profound democratization of the country, with justice and an end to impunity.
Ortega and the FSLN don’t only control the electoral power, from the Electoral Council to the poll workers who’ll count the votes at the individual polling places. Now, they are also going to decide which of their opponents they’ll allow to participate, under the conditions and rules established by the dictatorship.
This ruling was a mortal blow to the credibility of the electoral process. It puts the opposition bloc organized as the Citizens’ Alliance at a crossroads. Their right to a space on the ballot is also threatened, left to the dictatorship’s discretion.
It’s the worst possible scenario for an election. There are no electoral guarantees, political freedoms or political competition. If the opposition leaders really want to make a last-ditch attempt to form a “de facto” alliance to defeat Ortega, they need to begin by agreeing upon a strategy for unified action. Such action must be aimed at reinvigorating civic protest, until the police state is suspended.
The realization of televised debates and opinion polls are important elements for selecting a presidential candidate and the deputies. These can help assess each candidate’s strengths for unifying the county and governing in a democracy.
However, debates and polls aren’t enough to rekindle hope in the blue and white majority, regarding their right to vote. With a divided opposition and the National Coalition excluded from political competition, it’s imperative that civic resistance be revived.
That’s the true challenge of the presidential precandidates: the ones who signed on with the Citizens Alliance; the ones excluded; and those who remain independent. They must all support the leadership of a “single candidate” who can unite the opposition in this national crisis.
If freedom of mobilization isn’t fully restored in the next 60 days of pre-electoral campaign, we’ll have elections under house arrest. The activities of the opposition will be caged in, under the custody of the Ortega-loyal police force.
The only way out lies in recovering and fully exercising the right to freedom of mobilization to demand the suspension of the police state. Only then could the opposition and their candidate press for electoral reforms. Then they could decide, under equal conditions, if they will or will not enter into competitive elections with no guarantees.
Otherwise, the November 7th elections will merely formalize the third consecutive reelection of Ortega, via an electoral fraud, leaving the country on the cliff of illegitimacy.