Executive director of “E and T” warns against Daniel Ortega’s old tricks in political negotiations
By Leonor Alvarez (La Prensa)
HAVANA TIMES – The executive director of Ética y Transparencia (Ethics and Transparency), Roberto Courtney, fears the Sandinista’s experience in politics will entangle the members of the Civic Alliance opposition, in an eventual negotiation over electoral reforms.
Especially now that dictator Daniel Ortega has declared that the Electoral Law will be reformed, the least the opposition can expect is that Ortega has something “up his sleeve.”
Courtney warned that the president can tempt the ambitions of the new opposition characters -that rose out of the April 2018 struggle-, by offering more than the Civic Alliance asks for, with the purpose of creating a proliferation of parties that will greatly divide his adversaries in the next presidential elections.
This would be an advantage for the minority, but hardcore and disciplined base of the governing party, Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional (FSLN).
The electoral expert believes that one shouldn’t trust those “things too good to be true” that Ortega offers in regards to party politics and instead, center around strengthening electoral confidence, guarantees for citizen participation and respect for the vote.
Why is it important to reform the electoral system?
RC: It’s important because it’s the next point in the agreements and in the route to exit the crisis, according to the scenarios and according to all the actors.
Why has it been complicated to begin negotiating this issue?
RC: Because it’s not only about the reforms the Alliance may want, but also the reforms the government may want. So, that makes it a little more complicated for the Alliance and the opposition because, in addition to having your own list of things you want, you also have to think about how the list of things you want to reform will combine with what Ortega wants to reform and when there are things that coincide, you must ask yourself: Are you happy with these points that coincide with the government or does it mean that what was important for you no longer is important and that which you wanted, you don’t want anymore?
What does the governing party want?
RC: Even though we don’t know the FSLN’s proposal, it’s possible to know what a party that has suffered so many losses with its number of votes would normally want. So, when a party is in this position of no longer being a majority, when you are now a minority, the reform you want is precisely whatever will strengthen your position as a minority. What do they want? It’s simple.
Let’s take a look at a case. Curiously, Nicaragua is a good example. In 1995, a minority with capacity to make electoral reforms controlled the Assembly. It was a minority that clearly had didn’t have much expectations of winning elections of the following year and so the reforms made were characterized by the promotion of the proliferation of parties and also help these parties do well. Let’s see three elements of this reform made by a minority party. First, favorable conditions to form a political party, including registering the political parties. Second, prior financing for all political parties. And third, awards [National Assembly seats] for second, third, fourth and fifth places for the presidential candidates who ran on their own ballot and didn’t win.
If in this case the Frente were to go that route, the Frente is in full capacity when the Alliance comes and says to it: “I want to create a party for students”. Daniel will say to them: “No, we’re going to create three parties for the students, we’ll give them prior financing and all those who get more than one percent, will get a seat in congress”.
Let’s remember that in Nicaragua there is no runoff election (second round). If the party gets 19 percent and nobody else makes it to 19 percent, then that party wins the presidency. So, to atomize the opposition, to have a lot of electoral options to check, is very easy to engineer into the electoral reform, which will get the blessing for being pluralist, therefore, the OAS and the rest of the world would let it pass.
However, the issue of the proliferation of parties and awards for second, third, fourth and fifth place and prior financing could be things that would make it very difficult for a sector to stay united when unity is key.
In the 1996 elections, the electoral ballot offered more than 20 presidential candidates and even that way the opposition candidate Arnoldo Aleman won the presidency in the first round.
What’s not certain within a huge proliferation of parties is that citizens will be able to identify the winner. In the case of Nicaragua, we’ve had two elections we can take a look at: the one in 1996, which even though there were 20 or so parties people pinpointed the “winning rooster” in this case Arnoldo Aleman. Ten years later, in 2006, the ballot didn’t have twenty parties, it only had five and even then, people got tangled and confused with (Jose) Rizo and (Eduardo) Montealegre.
With political mechanisms you can facilitate and achieve having many, many political parties on an electoral ballot and that is almost impossible to attack, because it sounds like pluralism. So, you can have that, however what you won’t have is a guarantee that within all those parties—three for students, two for peasants and five for businesspeople from the Mercado Oriental–, what you don’t have is the guarantee that all those parties can achieve unity or that the citizens will locate the box to check which more or less represents those parties if they would’ve united. All this in this new context, because before you could be divided but then go to a second round anyway, because there was a second round. Now there isn’t. It you get there divided, Daniel gets 19 percent of the votes and if nobody else makes it to 18 percent, Daniel is president and you have an atomized legislature.
I’m not saying that there are things that shouldn’t be done, there are things that have to be processed when you talk about conditions for parties, because you could run into this: you come to Daniel and say: “look, I want a party for students” and to your surprise there are not only giving you one, but three. But in the end, it seems that is not such great news. You think you achieved three times what you asked for and instead what you did was a negotiation, like the one in electoral matters with Daniel (in 2000) where someone believes he won the negotiation and in a couple of years he was even imprisoned.
What should the opposition be concentrating on?
RC: One must concentrate on the issue of guarantees. It’s important that guarantees be established so citizens can participate, place their votes, and know that this vote is counted. If those guarantees are established, we can get citizens to vote, which would be new—because many have been abstaining for these last elections—then you can have circumstances in which the elections, with everybody being truly present, can resolve the crisis of governability based on having a chance to vote. People are not going to vote if the Electoral Council (CSE) is not renewed, therefore the CSE’s renovation is probably issue number one on the list for everyone. The issue of making voting stations non-partisan is also important for many.
Another red lined issue, probably the last big one, is that the voter registration list cannot be divided into a passive and an active list, where the passive is made up of all those who didn’t vote in the last elections, given that they didn’t vote because they believed it was a fraud. And so, it’s the opposition that’s left out of the electoral register. The electoral register needs to be unified again, along with purging it. The key is that every citizen who cares to vote gets a chance to do so without being banned from voting for not having participated in the last two elections.
Why would Ortega yield to electoral reforms?
RC: If there’s anything Ortega has clear, it’s the United States’ ability to send Nicaragua to bankruptcy. He has experienced that personally. Second, poverty is a very poor counselor. People who are gradually becoming impoverished, are a people that tend to express more rebellion, which generates more repression. And to govern a people who are permanently in increasing poverty, with increasing repression, tends to head towards a final explosion, the last day will be very tragic. Therefore, the possibility that you, your party, your family, your people may have a decent future will depend on things not getting worse during the short period of time you are still in control.
How important are early elections?
RC: Anyone with half a brain can see that when everything is priority, nothing is priority. So if you have two priorities, you have to decide which is the real priority, and in this case it’s easy. If you say to the Alliance: “you can have fair elections, however later on, or you can have early but unfair elections.” They will answer: “Let’s have them later, but fair.” In this sense, it is clear that in the negotiations where you ask for early elections, there is one other thing that is more negotiable than the other for the Alliance, and that’s time because the issue of fair is not negotiable.
While, on the other hand, Ortega may also, in exchange that you acknowledge the date, acknowledge some things about justice. It’s to say, Daniel likes 21 and you like fair, and it seems that’s where the marriage is. You give a little on early and he gives a little on the rigged elections.
Is it necessary to change all the magistrates of the Supreme Electoral Council?
RC: There are two scenarios here. Changing the rules for electing the magistrates means to change the Constitution and to change the Electoral Law. In the election of the magistrates in the Assembly, one thing Ortega has played with in the past is with three magistrates from one side, three from the other and a scale’s pointer who in the past was chosen by cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo. And this is the model that works in almost all Latin American countries: the model of partisan quotas.
One assumes Ortega would accept this: three to three, with a candidate of consensus. You find out that if you don’t want to reform the Constitution and don’t want to go very deep into the Electoral Law, in which Ortega has the capacity of pulling out all possible traps and tricks, including giving you what you ask for which in the end isn’t convenient for you.
What do you think the citizens’ attitude will be if all the magistrates aren’t changed?
RC: In general conditions, when political competitors encourage their electorate, beyond whether the conditions are perfect, or bad or barely enough. Apart from the real conditions, if the political class calls on their electorate to vote, makes good proposals and offers good candidates…the electorate will come out to vote. That electorate tends to vote less when their own political class doesn’t get along and says “it’s certain they’ll get stolen, go do something else”. And that is very important because to achieve that a citizen shows up to a voting station (JRV) is a challenge in itself. And it’s one of the biggest challenges for the opposition, because the disciplined base of the Frente makes it so that it is to their advantage that there be little participation in the elections.
Do the reforms proposed by the OAS match the reforms that are being posed?
RC: The OAS has been clear that it isn’t here to discuss the electoral reform. They say: we are going to discuss technical reforms, not political reforms. Well, here we are saying that the heart of the reforms are political reforms. If we are talking about political parties, whether we go the two-party or multi-party route, the OAS will say: that’s none of our business. And see how interesting it is, and just as well, because if Ortega offers an excess of parties to atomize democracy, you’ll see that the OAS isn’t going to stop that, because conceptually it isn’t bad, however in practice it’s bad for the opposition.
Do you think Ortega can really be forced to leave power?
RC: There doesn’t seem to be the conditions, but that is precisely what we are aiming to do, create the conditions. The fact that Daniel doesn’t want to step down should never be complemented with the defeatism of “we can’t”.
Knowing that Daniel’s Achilles heel are the sanctions, the expert in electoral transparency, Roberto Courtney stated that it should be recognized that that issue is not in the hands of the opposing Civic Alliance
According to the expert, Canada and the United States are key pieces in the next steps to negotiate electoral reforms with Ortega, which will assure free, fair and transparent elections in exchange for withdrawing the sanctions.
“Free elections in exchange that he can make it to the elections without sanctions. The Alliance is not in the position to withdraw the sanctions, that is why it has to come from Canada and the USA to be able to negotiate with Ortega,” concludes Courtney.