Nicaragua: The Aftermath of the Election Day Abstention Protest

The challenge lies in transforming the protest expressed by abstention into a new political and social force for democratic change.

By Carlos F. Chamorro  (Confidencial)

Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo on election night.
Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo on election night.

HAVANA TIMES — The second consecutive reelection of Daniel Ortega, this time with his wife Rosario Murillo as Vice President, occurred as had been foreseen by the official script.  In elections with no transparency and no political competition, the Supreme Electoral Council registered a very high level of participation: 68%, according to their figures, leaving an abstention level even less than in the last elections in 2011.  They then determined that Comandante Ortega had received 72% of the vote with the other 28% generously distributed among the five collaborating parties, allowing Arnoldo Aleman’s PLC (Constitutionalist Liberal Party) to reappear as the “second political force”.

Having prohibited the independent national and international observers, the Supreme Electoral Council then paraded our “shameless observers”, among them several former presidents of Latin American countries. These figures puffed themselves up proclaiming that they had observed an election with “equal opportunity for all the parties and candidates,” even though the opposing National Coalition for Democracy, grouped around the Independent Liberal Party (PLI) represented by Eduardo Montealegre, was outlawed on June 8 and its candidates blocked from participating in the elections.

Comandante Ortega then added an additional quota of discredit to his own reelection by maintaining intact the Supreme Electoral Council, stained by fraud, irregularities and party control.  The Council continued with Roberto Rivas at the head, one of the maximum symbols of the regime’s corruption.  In May 2014, while airing before Ortega an x-ray of the electoral collapse, the Bishops from the Episcopal Conference demanded his word of honor that he would promote dialogue and change from the roots up in order to reestablish citizens’ trust in the vote.  The entire country of Nicaragua waited for some gesture before November 6, but the only response was evasion and the closing of political spaces.

Ortega defied the country and the international community by imposing his model of voting without democracy as the ritual of a one-party regime.  However, he never foresaw the massive dimension of the protest vote that would be unleashed in the form of abstention.  On 11/6, the FSLN machinery – whose voters had also demanded independent electoral observation – failed badly.  However, beyond all else, the triumph belonged to the people’s will to resist and their determination to impose a definitive limit on authoritarianism. Many thousands of independent voters, opponents and even Sandinistas who oppose a regime composed of a family dynasty, turned their backs on Ortega’s reelection in an authentic national protest.

We’ll never know what the true level of abstention was – if it was the 31.8% that the Electoral Council alleges or over 60% as the opposition claims – because we are faced with a system impossible to audit.  The Cid Gallup surveys alerted us to the fact that there would be a greater level of abstention than in all the previous elections, but between the clumsy manipulation of the electoral rolls and the structural opaqueness, the official statistics from the Electoral Council represent nothing but another “black hole”.

Without a trustworthy electoral system, and without independent electoral observation, what will prevail of the 11/6 results is the political data that everyone could confirm: the empty polling places; the anxiety of the FSLN electoral guarantors to bring in voters; the official voting tallies showing a squalid participation; and the unbelievable numbers of Magistrate Rivas.  In sum, the bonfire of the abstention was left burning in the sight of all, illuminating the end of the tunnel.

The question of how to transform that protest vote into a political and social force for democratic change represents the greatest challenge for the group previously known as the National Coalition for Democracy, now split between Citizens for Freedom and the Broad Front for Democracy.  It won’t be an easy task, beginning with the fact that the regime holds a full hand of cards for maintaining intact the status quo, especially after the uncertainty and threat represented by the Donald Trump’s presidency in the United States.

The principal card is the offer of more corporate control without democracy, in economic alliance with the large business executives who are the main political actors and the regime’s counterparts.  Ortega has the imperial necessity of consolidating his authoritarian stability without political opposition, while the business leaders could promote an agenda of change if in reality they were willing to run the risk of becoming a force for democracy.  But, in addition, after resuscitating the PLC and habilitating the new “mosquito bite” parties, Ortega disposes of other cards in his favor, such as the promise of restoring legal status separately, one by one, to political forces that when united had presented the greatest challenge over the last few years.

That’s the bet that Ortega plans to have rubber-stamped in the political dialogue with the OAS, against the spirit of the Democratic Charter.  But his apparent strength rests on feet of clay.  Repression and corruption, twin accompaniments to the centralist nature of a regime that revolves around one person, will sharpen the inevitable economic and social tensions to come.

In the face of a future scenario marked by greater conflict, the only hope for change rests in linking the demand for electoral reform with the social struggles, and the demands of the Sandinistas themselves who are also opposed to a family dictatorship.  Only the pressure of a new political force that is authentically pluralist, as was the Election Day protest, and not external factors or the petitions of the OAS, will clear the road towards democratic change.

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