The Nicaraguan elections

Our syndicated columnist, the Latin American specialist, Andrés Oppenheimer, opined on Sunday that the Organization of American States (OAS) electoral observation mission in Nicaragua “made a bad mistake by not offering a more comprehensive view in its first statements about the Nicaraguan election” held on November 6 last.

According to Mr Oppenheimer, the re-election of the socialist former Sandinista guerrilla leader, Daniel Ortega, by a landslide was tainted by his manipulation of the constitution to allow him to run for a second consecutive term and his third term in all – both unconstitutional – and by electoral irregularities. Article 147 of the Constitution states that a sitting president cannot be re-elected but the Supreme Court, under the complete control of Mr Ortega it is claimed, had decided that it was inapplicable.

According to the country’s elections commission, the same body that presided over the 2008 municipal elections denounced as fraudulent by international observers and also supposedly under the control of pro-Ortega officials, Mr Ortega won 62 per cent of the vote; his nearest rival, Fabio Gadea, got 30 per cent and the discredited former president, Arnoldo Alemán, got 6 per cent. In addition to Mr Gadea crying foul about electoral fraud, the independent press in Nicaragua, owned mainly by opponents of Mr Ortega, it is true, are also alleging voter disenfranchisement and the illegal use of state resources for campaign purposes.

Ironically, Mr Ortega would probably have won the elections anyway without the need for his supporters to become too enthusiastic in their management of the electoral process. Pre-election polls had put him comfortably ahead of his rivals, who were, in any case, hopelessly divided among themselves.
We will have to await the final OAS report before we can gauge with some degree of accuracy the extent of the alleged irregularities but this may be all rather academic, given that Mr Ortega was able to don the cloak of constitutionality even as his cynical manipulation of the country’s constitutional bodies undermined the quality of democracy in Nicaragua.

It is not enough, however, to point the finger at the guerrilla political tactics of the ex-revolutionary, although the irony of the former fighter against dictatorship seeking to entrench himself in power seemingly on a permanent basis is not lost on anyone.

There is widespread poverty in Nicaragua and populism and patronage are a powerful combination when it comes to securing votes. Thus, the economic support of President Hugo Chávez and his petrodollars, contributing, according to some estimates, between US$1 and 1.5 billion, or approximately 8 per cent of the national GDP of the second poorest country in the Americas after Haiti, have been put to good political use by the Sandinista government to finance social programmes aimed at securing a solid voter base among the country’s impoverished masses.

It would be wrong to depict Mr Ortega as a clone of Mr Chávez, for he has a more pragmatic approach to relations with the USA and free trade, with the Nicaraguan economy benefiting from high commodity prices for its exports. Also, Mr Ortega has been content to allow members of the private sector to flourish as long as they do not get involved in politics. And, importantly for a very Catholic country, he has maintained a good relationship with the Catholic Church

Unfortunately, the Nicaraguan elections have demonstrated how constitutional order can be compromised, how incumbency can be abused and how state patronage can buy votes. Obviously, principles and issues matter little in the face of the daily grind and putting food on the family table. Generally, the poorer the country, the weaker the democracy and Mr Ortega’s victory is regarded by many as a defeat for the rule of law, constitutional order and democracy.

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