By Joel D. Hirst
On Sunday, November 6, 2011 Nicaragua's 3.4 million voters went to the polls to choose their President and their ninety-two Congressional representatives. Vying for the highest office in the land were five candidates, the most important of these being the sitting President Daniel Ortega, 66 year old former Sandinista revolutionary turned elected president; and Fabio Gadea, a 79 year old radio celebrity turned candidate of the united opposition.
This most recent electoral event was fraught with controversy. First and foremost, the candidacy of President Ortega was itself illegal; the Nicaraguan Constitution prohibits presidential re-election. President Ortega out-maneuvered the constitution by obtaining a ruling by his Pro-Sandinista Supreme Court stating that the constitution violated Ortega's human rights.
Election Day was also polemic. Luis Yanez, the head of the European Union's electoral observation mission declared, "I don't understand why there are so many obstacles, so much opacity and so many tricks in a process that should be clean and transparent." For his part Dante Caputo, head of the Organization of American States' (OAS) observer mission stated concern that 10 of the OAS teams around the country were not allowed to enter the voting booth.
"We faced a series of difficulties . . . We were blocked from being where we were supposed to be. This kind of situation has not happened before. It is worrisome," said Caputo.
The two largest domestic election organizations, Hagamos Democracia and Etica y Transparencia went further. In their first press release following the election, Etica y Transparencia (who was not granted observer accreditation by the Ortega government) stated, "We estimate that the electoral process does not meet with the required minimum universal guarantees for an election."
Hagamos Democracia, who did not apply for accreditation, reported that four people suffered gunshot wounds and twenty were arrested in the north of the country.
"We cannot accept these results, since they represent not the will of the Nicaraguan people but of the Supreme Electoral Council," said Opposition candidate Fabio Gadea.
The Nicaraguan government has responded to allegations of violence through army chief General Julio Cesar Avilas who called the reports of violence "isolated incidents," saying the polls were "the calmest elections" in the country's recent history. With approximately 85% of the votes scrutinized, President Ortega is headed for an almost 40 point blowout. On Tuesday, multiple reports of violence were reported by Ortega sympathizers celebrating and opposition supporters protesting.
The real question in the aftermath of the vote is, "Why would Ortega allow election day to be less than free and fair?" Thanks to the incredible economic support of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez through Nicaragua's membership in the Chavez sponsored Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas (ALBA), President Ortega has received approximately $500,000,000 a year in off-budget assistance to a private company he controls called ALBANISA. This has allo
wed Ortega to spend hundreds of millions on social projects - which in turn led to his increased popularity. Polls in the run-up to the election showed Ortega with an easy win.
The first answer to this question seems to be that, while President Ortega remains popular, that popularity does not extend to those around him. Yet, he needs to obtain a super-majority in the National Assembly if he is to carry out the radical "21st Century Socialism" reforms being encouraged by Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez. Ergo, vote rigging was required to assure total control of the Nicaraguan government.
The second reason is that President Ortega is not a democrat. While pretending to work within the rules of the modern world, he does not believe in those rules. This was clearly outlined in a document filtered by the Sandinista party outlining the activities necessary to consolidate the "Second Sandinista Revolution."
None of this is good news for the Nicaraguan people, or the United States. Already President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela is touting Ortega's victory as the "consolidation of the ALBA." The ALBA is a vitriolic anti-American organization which makes common cause with Muammar Gaddafi and Mahmud Ahmadinejad and encourages the setup of "popular and protagonist democracy;" another term for mob rule, usually funded from their coffers.
President Ortega's next term appears to be guaranteed; and the United States may have to work with the Nicaraguan leader - but the Obama Administration should not recognize the election as free and fair. The United States could point out that voting does not equal democracy and use this as an opportunity to challenge Ortega at the Organization of American States for violating the Inter-American Democratic Charter. This document, signed by all of the 34 then-democracies in the hemisphere on September 11, 2001 commits the nations to abide by the rules of representative democracy, rule of law and constitutional government. This President Ortega has clearly not done.
Constitutional, representative democracy is a fragile flower; easily trampled by personal ambition. The concerns of the lovers of freedom are with the people of Nicaragua as they enter this new, darker time.Joel D. Hirst is a Principal at the Cordoba Group International. A former Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), he was USAID Acting Country Representative in Venezuela from 2004 to 2008. He tweets at www.twitter.com/joelhirst and www.twitter.com/cordobagroupint