Nicaragua’s Elections: Abstaining Is a Mistake

The null vote – deliberately turning in invalid ballots – has a strategic advantage over abstention, since the former lets the protest votes be computed.

By Umanzor López Baltodano  (Confidencial)

A woman protests in Managua against the Supreme Electoral Council Foto: Mario López/EFE
A woman protests in Managua against the Supreme Electoral Council demanding free and transparent elections. Foto: Mario López/EFE

HAVANA TIMES – Following the nullification of Eduardo Montealegre’s legal right to represent the PLI [Independent Liberal Party], the National Coalition for Democracy and groups from civil society have chosen to denounce the electoral process set to finalize next November. They’ve called for abstention, under the slogan “I won’t throw away my vote,” or “No one to vote for.”  If their aim is to repudiate the electoral panorama and call for political resistance, this isn’t the most effective method.

Let’s start with the assumption that their diagnosis of the electoral process is correct.  In effect, the current political system in Nicaragua doesn’t allow a true electoral contest: the organizations charged with supervising the elections are controlled by the governing party; international and national observation have been blocked; political corruption is rampant at all levels; the state apparatus has been placed at the disposition of the official machine; and finally, the principal political opposition group has been decapitated.

I agree, then, that there are abundant reasons to denounce the next elections, although there’s also the pertinent question of whether these conditions are any different from past elections.  It seems clear that the chief characteristics of the electoral system were very similar at several other moments, except that previously the party of Montealegre and company was allowed to participate in the race and to obtain under those conditions some marginal number of seats in the Parliament.

Setting to one side this consideration, what stands out is the method they’ve chosen to denounce the system once their group was definitively cast out of the electoral race.  We’re referring, of course, to the call to abstain from voting.

Within an electoral system, everything has a political meaning.  This encompasses not only a vote for one or another party, but also the intentionally blank or void ballot (null vote), or abstention from voting altogether. The latter case, however, has been traditionally viewed as indifference or disinterest.  That is, the citizens didn’t turn out to vote because they weren’t particularly uncomfortable with the status quo.  It’s possible that they dislike the situation up to a certain point, but not enough to exercise their right to vote.

As a result, abstention is by definition democratically passive, without generating any political message except apathy.  Strangely, part of the opposition claims that this could be converted into a message of repudiation of the system.  We ask ourselves: if some 50% of the electorate, for example, should stay home and not vote – would that mean that they’re protesting the current Nicaraguan politics, or that they’re simply indifferent or apathetic?  As you can see, it’s impossible to differentiate one from the other, and as such there’s no possibility of reaching a conclusion or sending a definitive political message about the population’s discontent and active condemnation of the system.

It’s also not clear that a high percentage of abstention automatically signifies an illegitimate process.  To offer an example close at hand, Chile is one of the healthiest democracies in Latin America, but in the last election where Bachelet was victorious 59% of the population abstained.

On the other hand the intentionally null ballot is clearly understood as an open message of dissent and protest.  The elector’s message is that they feel that voting is an important right and they’re not thinking about giving up that right even in adverse circumstances, but they abominate the electoral options that they’ve been presented with.

In addition, invalid ballots are counted separately from the valid party votes, and this helps to differentiate them from mere apathy.  Going back to the previous example – if 50% of the electorate were to turn in invalid ballots, the result would be a clear internal and external message of condemnation, not only of the candidates presented but of the entire political system.  In addition, the null vote would reduce the percentage of votes for the official party and the other satellite parties.

Many might argue that the officials in power can well handle an avalanche of null votes, given that they control the electoral apparatus.  That’s correct.  But it’s also certain that the proposed alternative of abstention makes things even easier for the Ortega apparatus, since they wouldn’t even have to lift a finger to deactivate a strong showing of discontent in the ballot boxes by recounting the null votes as favorable to them.  If opposing voters stay home, the election results will immediately appear overwhelmingly favorable to the official party, without the need for any fraudulent maneuvers.

Another strategic advantage of promoting the null vote over abstention is that the former could draw into the protest vote all those individuals who are obligated to offer their visible support for the Ortega-Murillo pair in one way or another, but who internally reject their actions and the direction in which the comandante has taken the country and his party.

But, you might ask: we’ve been told that the objective of elections is to win or lose them, and that’s already not in question, so what’s left but to vote or not to vote?  Here we have another elemental distinction between abstaining and turning in a void ballot that is also of great importance in today’s Nicaragua.  Between these two positions lies a huge difference in behavior and political activism.  In the former case, the ballots don’t enter into the picture, while in the latter they are clearly manifest.

In the opinion of this writer, one of the great problems of the Coalition is that they haven’t known how to energize a large part of the population that has shown itself to be apathetic in the face of the political and social future of the country.  They haven’t known how to mobilize people, and they haven’t really attempted to do so in any forceful way.  Up until a few weeks ago, they had placed their bets almost exclusively on the electoral race. Now they flee all demonstrations of protest about this framework, and advocate instead for a measure that tends to confuse and to fuel people’s inaction and indifference – one of the indirect causes of the growing authoritarian trend in our political system.  As such, the opposition falls once again into the mistake of neither promoting nor actively inciting political participation.

For that reason, the first responsibility of this or any other opposition coalition, with a view towards seeking a political regeneration of our society, should be to promote discussion, mobilization and political organization in all areas, including of course the electoral arena.  Far from promoting abstention in the next elections, the call should go out for an active and massive protest vote that not only would demonstrate conclusively the repudiation of current political conditions, but would also act as a catalyst for a true and inclusive social-democratic movement in the country.  This is what Nicaragua will most need in the time to come.

The author is a lawyer and political scientist from the European Union