Expert Recommendations on Elections in Nicaragua

Roberto Courtney, director of “Ethics and Transparency”, gives the key to electoral reform.

Voting in Nicaragua. File photo: Carlos Herrera / Confidencial

First, fair elections with national and international observation; second, the electoral vehicle.

By Ivan Olivares  (Confidencial)

HAVANA TIMES – Nicaragua knows how to defeat Daniel Ortega at the polls, even if he’s cemented into the government and enjoying all the advantages of illegitimate administration of omnipotent power. The nation already did so in 1990, and will soon have to do it again, be it in 2019, in 2020 or in 2021.

One of the first step towards this is for the representatives of the citizens engaged in anti-dictatorial civic struggle to begin conversing across the entire political spectrum – differentiating between parties that collaborate with the government and those that don’t – in order to build the consensuses that will be needed when the big decisions must be made.

“In forming a political party, you have to speak with the others, so you should probably begin to speak with them from the beginning. This is the way to succeed in achieving an electoral reform through a joint effort, which is probably the only way to achieve it,” assured Roberto Courtney, executive director of the electoral observation group “Ethics and Transparency”.

He’s part of a group of experts whose responsibilities included the elaboration of a proposal for electoral reform. This proposal was presented before the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy and is now being presented to different organizations across the country, in search of such a consensus.

In speaking with all the sectors, “you also advance along the road to unity.” During an interview on the internet news program Esta Semana, Courtney spoke about ways to achieve a repeat of the electoral triumph of 1990, which involved an alliance involving the entire political spectrum.

The expert feels that it’s necessary to talk with everyone about the electoral reforms: about the convenience of electing one or another political party or conforming a new one; or of building alliances with an eye towards voting, be it an early election or not.

Choosing an electoral vehicle

In any case, it’s clear that many elements of the lesson of 1990 continue to be pertinent.

One of them is to assure the massive participation of the population. To do so, Courtney explained, there’s a series of minimum requirements as in 1990, among them plurality in the electoral apparatus, broad “pure and hard” observation, and a definition of the rules for financing.

Robert Courtney at a press conference back in March, 2019.

Although it was true that in 1990 the electoral apparatus was “absolutely controlled by the Sandinista party, it was enough to assure plurality among the lower-level magistrates, to guarantee electoral observation, and to implement financing conditions that allowed private financing to enter, and even financing from outside, even though the government had all the State money at their disposal,” Courtney detailed.

All of that was sufficient “to give the citizens the courage to go out and vote, and also to generate minimum competitive conditions,” he stated, considering that in the current circumstances “this could be a starting point, a kind of red line.”

There are risks involved, for example “that, in the name of pluralism, Ortega might look for a way to atomize the opposition through fiscal, financial and other incentives, as happened in 1996. In that year, “due to early financing; the consolation prize offered to presidential candidates; and the facilitation of legal non-profit status, there ended up being 30 political parties on the ballot,” Courtney recalled.

Another possibility is that “Ortega may try to distort the law. In the name of transparency or combatting drug trafficking, he could largely close off the faucet of private financing, without which the opposition would probably lose the ability to wage an effective campaign,” he explained.

Another element to consider is that if there isn’t an electoral reform that facilitates the formation of political parties, “the position of the National Blue and White Unity movement as well as any other entity that hasn’t advanced its gestation as a political party would probably be to utilize the available electoral vehicles.”

By electoral vehicles, he refers to the existing political parties which – given the lack of political openings for participation – would have to take in the Alliance. However, that’s a matter for another type of negotiations,” he admitted.

One additional warning was that “it’s worth the trouble of reminding the citizenry that the country currently has no provisions for a run-off election, but that the party with the most votes wins,” even though it be with a mere 25%.

First work for fair elections, then consider moving them up

While it’s true that the country is engulfed in a demand for early general elections, Courtney noted: “this must remain secondary, because the main issue is that they be fair… There’s a situation in which early elections could even occur because that would be convenient for Ortega,” he warned.  

“In 1989, the then president of Nicaragua allowed the realization of free elections for several reasons: “because the economy was more broken that it is now; because the Contra [counter-revolution] was after them; and also because [Ortega] believed that he was going to win,” Courtney enumerated.

Unfortunately, at the moment, none of those three things is happening.

He believes that Ortega might feel encouraged to negotiate “because he believes that he has already negotiated well,” and also because “in exchange for free elections, he could ask for the sanctions to be lifted”, sanctions that seem to be really affecting him.

In any case, Courtney recognized that “the main issue is to achieve conditions that guarantee free and transparent elections. This requires political negotiations that may be a bit complicated. Hence, we’ve also tried to illustrate for the different sectors how to maintain an adequate posture so that the country can have access to such clean elections,” he explained.

The other thing is not to believe that the election has already been won, but to realize that Ortega can accept changes “because things have gone well for him [in the past] at the negotiating table. Let’s recall that through the electoral reform he negotiated with Arnoldo Aleman, in less than two years Ortega went from leading the second-place party, to having the former leader in jail.” Therefore, “he may want to negotiate to see if he can take away from you the things you’ve won from April 18th onwards,” Courtney warned once again.


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