The FSLN deputies presented their bill for electoral reform on April 12th. Their proposal maintains unchanged the party’s control over all the structures of the electoral system. It also restricts financing for the opposition parties. Finally, it gives the National Police control over permits for marches held during the electoral campaign. This same police force has been the regime’s repressive arm.
The bill is already on the National Assembly’s legislative schedule. The Assembly itself is completely dominated by Ortega’s supporters: the FSLN controls 70 of the 91 votes.
The electoral reform as presented maintains the FSLN’s control over the Supreme Electoral Council. They will also continue controlling the departmental, regional and municipal electoral councils, and the pol workers. The Liberal Constitutionalist Party and a few other collaborationist parties have a small presence.
To dress up their changes, the Sandinista deputies have proposed that electoral positions be distributed using a “gender equity” lens. That is, 50% of the officials would be men and 50% women. The concept of gender equality must also be fulfilled in the lists of candidates up for election. The same gender ratio would govern the selection of directive boards and party poll watchers at each polling site.
However, there’s no mention of changes that could guarantee the independence and impartiality of the electoral apparatus.
Changes build on repressive laws
Another change proposed by the regime’s deputies is to expressly and conclusively prohibit all outside funding. Political parties, alliances, and candidates are barred from receiving any direct or indirect contributions from outside the country. “Of any kind, under no circumstances and for no goal.”
Other restrictions proposed in this reform bill are a continuation of the repressive laws already approved by the regime. The “Law for the Regulation of Foreign Agents”, already opened the door to close government surveillance. It allows the Nicaraguan government to examine all operations of the civil society organizations and those of opposition politicians. The Law of Sovereignty and Self-Defense for Peace inhibits opposition candidates if they were linked to the 2018 protests. The regime continues to classify these protests as an “attempted coup d’etat”.
Article 89 of the reform puts the police in charge of authorizing any campaign related activities that affect the public roadways. The political parties or alliances must present the police with a detailed request for any activity in the public streets. The request must be filed a week previously, and include the hours, the day, the place and the proposed route. A copy of this would go to the Supreme Electoral Council. The police will need to issue their decision within 48 hours.
Currently it’s the Supreme Electoral Council that approves any political party’s marches or meetings on the public roadways. The police are only responsible for offering security and preventing incidents. Nonetheless, since September 2018, after the mass killing and repression of citizen protests, Nicaragua has become a de facto police state.
Electoral reforms restrict citizen freedoms
The electoral reforms that the FSLN bench presented maintain their party’s complete control, right up to the individual polling places. Moreover, within the context of November’s presidential campaign,there are ever more restrictions on citizen freedoms and the opposition parties’ rights. As such, former opposition deputy and political analyst Eliseo Nuñez finds these reforms worrisome.
Nuñez noted that these reforms incorporate the Law of Foreign Agents, one of three repressive laws approved late last year. The laws are seen chiefly as instruments to be wielded against the opposition. Another of the laws establishes criminal sanctions for “hate crimes” and “fake news”.
Removing the powers of the Departmental and Municipal Electoral Councils to approve or disallow permits means increased restrictions for citizens. These permits govern demonstrations, mobilizations, and civic and party activities during the election campaigns. Nuñez noted that the faculty was now being handed over to the “Sandinista” police.
“Basically, what they’re doing with this is militarizing the electoral system. The Police already have all the rest [of the laws] as a parameter. They have the Foreign Agents Law, the Sovereignty Law, and all the other coercive laws they passed. They’re trying to set up a campaign where a loose tiger runs against a donkey tied to a post. They inserted into the electoral law all the coercive measures that were previously dispersed across several laws,” declared Nuñez.
With this law, Nuñez affirmed, no group will be able to express anything in any media, or anywhere at all. The only exception will be the political parties that are participating in the electoral campaign. That constitutes a violation of freedom of expression.
Nuñez said the official proposal is far from what the regime committed to pass in the 2017 OAS Memorandum of Understanding. It’s also distant from what was expressed in the OAS General Assembly in October 2020. It doesn’t address the fundamental topic of the electoral rolls. Nor does it address the demand for national and international electoral observation as a legal obligation. Nor the need to publish the results from each polling.
“All this indicates their complete distance from what the OAS proposed. There’s no movement towards de-emphasizing party control. The manipulation of the gender topic is interesting. Since it worked for them years ago, now they’re employing it as a shield. It’s a totally abject manipulation of the topic of gender. They’re putting it up like a shield, to hide what they’ve put in there [the law].”
The lawyer commented on yet another new provision of this draft electoral reform. The government will now be allowed to disburse electoral funds even to legal parties that haven’t obtained 4% of the vote. This indicates their willingness to offer patronage to the “mosquito” political parties, the ones who feign opposition but actually collaborate with Ortega.
From the legal point of view, the gender issue falls outside the scope of an Electoral Law. Distributing the seats on the Electoral Council evenly between men and women is a matter for the Constitution. That’s the legal framework, whether or not people agree with the idea.
Light years away from the OAS proposal
To lawyer and former deputy Jose Pallais, the proposed electoral reforms are light years away from the deep reforms demanded. Both the opposition and the OAS had urged real reform in the electoral system. This reform reduces “the competitive capacity of the opposition”. Further, it doesn’t advance any profound change in the electoral system.
This reform is about “restricting the opposition’s participation,” the attorney believes. “It seems to be principally oriented towards producing a weak opposition, without the capacity for influence. Such an opposition then comes up against a regime candidate, with full rights and all the advantages,” added Pellais.
The proposal incorporates “everything regarding the Foreign Agents Law and the Sovereignty Law.” As a result, it “expressly prohibits any foreign assistance, even from Nicaraguans residing outside the country,” Pellais commented. These elements “lead me to the conclusion that the objective of this law isn’t to open doors and guarantee transparency.”
In Pellais’ view, the way the proposal incorporates laws that restrict citizens’ rights is evidence of its goal. That goal is “to assure the regime’s continuity in power.”
In October 2020, the OAS approved a resolution on Nicaragua. The resolution was entitled: “Reestablishing the democratic institutions and respect for human rights in Nicaragua via free and fair elections.” The resolution established May 2021 as a deadline for the Ortega government to implement electoral reforms. These were supposed to be reforms that would guarantee free, fair and transparent elections in November of this year.
Although the regime’s proposal meets the timeline established by the OAS, the proposal’s contents are far outside it. Pallais stated: “It’s distant from the reforms the opposition has proposed, and very far from the seven points of the OAS.”