NicaNotes: A Briefing on Electoral Reforms in Nicaragua

By Louise Richards

(This article was published by the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign Action Group (UK) on May 17 on their web page: https://www.nscag.org/resources/NSCAG%20Electoral%20Reform%20Briefing.pdf )

With approval ratings for the government of Daniel Ortega and the FSLN consistently high, it is looking increasingly likely that they will be re-elected in November 2021. A national M&R Consultores poll, conducted in March 2021, found that 6 in 10 Nicaraguans support the government, while 2 out of 10 respondents support the opposition and 2 out of 10 said neither.

As the election calendar advances, the United States and its allies, the Organisation of American States (OAS), and Nicaragua’s right-wing opposition are now desperate and have launched into a new stage of aggression against the country in an attempt to undermine and sabotage the forthcoming elections.  In addition to illegal coercive measures (sanctions) imposed against the country by the US, the groundwork is being laid by the US and opposition forces to denounce the forthcoming elections as fraudulent before even the first vote has been cast.

Nicaragua’s recently introduced electoral reforms are being roundly and unjustly condemned by the various national and regional forces opposed to the Nicaraguan government. An OAS technical mission worked with the Nicaraguan authorities from 2017 to 2020 to make changes to Nicaragua’s electoral system. The recent reforms incorporate several recommendations of that OAS advisory team.

Despite this, the OAS has said that the electoral law is going in the wrong direction and does not promote free and fair elections and the United States Representative to the OAS stated at a special session held on 12 May that ‘The upcoming elections represent a crucial opportunity to return Nicaragua to full democracy. If President Ortega wants the international community to support election results in November, he should take steps in the coming days to rebuild confidence at home and abroad that those elections will be genuinely free and fair.’

These comments were made despite the fact that most of the electoral law has been in place since the 1980s, and that it is the same basic law which saw the opposition elected in 1990, 1996 and 2001 and attracted no complaints from the US. It is clear that the elections will only be considered ‘free and fair’ if the US-backed and financed opposition wins once again.

The following summary explains the main points of Nicaragua’s electoral reforms and deals with a number of the arguments that have been put forward by Nicaragua’s right-wing opposition and by the OAS and US and UK governments.

 

Electoral Reforms

A series of reforms to Nicaragua’s electoral law was approved by the National Assembly on May 4. The main purpose of the reforms was to modernise, strengthen and complement the existing law and to make it more transparent, accountable, equal and fair. This included bringing the electoral law up to date with other subsequent legislation that affected the electoral law’s provisions, for example in terms of gender equality. The reform was the result of a consultation process involving all 19 political parties legally registered with the Supreme Electoral Council.

The main points of the new law are:

  • A commitment to gender equality by mandating that all electoral structures of parties participating in the elections must comprise 50% women.
  • In order to protect national sovereignty, the introduction of measures controlling foreign funding aimed at interfering in the country’s elections. (This brings Nicaragua into line with the great majority of other countries, including the US and UK and most other European countries)
  • Guaranteed reimbursement of electoral costs even to small parties and abolition of the requirement that they have to poll four percent to qualify for reimbursement.
  • Strengthening the political rights of political parties and alliances.
  • Electoral mapping.
  • Respect for sovereignty, self-determination and independence.

In addition, the reform law regroups into a single section all the procedures to challenge the election result in case candidates and parties feel they have been victims of fraud or improper procedure.  Interestingly, both this and the reform regarding reimbursement of electoral costs were recommendations put forward by the OAS, something which the OAS has conveniently forgotten.

The reforms also strengthen the relationship and co-ordination between the Supreme Electoral Council’s national and departmental offices and the municipal civil registries administered by the country’s 153 local municipal authorities, for the purpose of improving the technical administration of the registries. This was yet another OAS recommendation.

The new law also empowers the Supreme Electoral Council to establish online electoral training programmes and to create computerised and digital mechanisms for the presentation of shortlists for the composition of the different national, regional, departmental and municipal electoral structures, for the registration and accreditation of public electoral oversight officials, for the auditing and traceability of the polling station voting material and also to enable a digital application that will allow the population to find the location of their polling station and how to exercise their vote.

Nicaragua’s opposition has condemned the fact that the new reforms give the police control over permits for marches held during the electoral campaign. However, public demonstrations have always been required to seek authorization from the police, naming legally registered organisations, for example a political party or an NGO, as responsible for any damages that might result.  Since the often lethal violence of opposition protests in 2018, the police have strictly enforced those requirements.

 

Supreme Electoral Council

With a historic representation of the multi-ethnic Caribbean Coast and 60% of women, ten new magistrates of the Supreme Electoral Council were sworn in on May 6, with seven proprietary and three alternate magistrates. In accordance with Nicaragua’s constitution, a total of 44 candidates were proposed by individual deputies of the National Assembly and by the country’s President and subsequently voted on one by one; if a candidate obtained 56 votes or more, then they were elected. With six women, four of them proprietary and two within the substitutes, the Supreme Electoral Council has gender equity for the first time in its history.

Those elected were as follows:-

Brenda Rocha, from Bonanza, North Caribbean Autonomous Region, lost an arm in a Contra attack in 1982 when she was 15. She was part of the militia defending an electricity tower and was the only survivor of the attack. She is a lawyer. Alma Nubia Baltodano lost both arms to a contact bomb in the insurrection in 1979. She is a lawyer and has specialized in supporting people with disabilities. Even after losing her arms, she went on the literacy campaign, picked coffee, and was in the militia. Lumberto Campbell (current vice-president of the electoral body, from Bluefields and Afro-Caribbean, was in the insurrection and has been a leader in many different areas. Maira Salinas was part of the previous CSE, also highly educated.  Cairo Amador was part of the Commission of Truth, Justice and Peace after the attempted coup of 2018. Devoney McDavis is part of the Miskito Indigenous group, from Waspán, most recently was President of the North Caribbean Regional Council. She is a specialist in defense of Indigenous people. Leonzo Knight is from the Indigenous group Ulwa, speaks six languages, educator and author, and was proposed by a Conservative Deputy. The three alternate magistrates are Adriana Molina, a lawyer from Jinotega, whose father was part of the political prisoners freed by the FSLN action of 1974. Maura Lisset Álvarez was proposed by PLI-ALN Deputies and Alberto Blandón was proposed by PLC Deputies.

After the inauguration of the members of the Supreme Electoral Council, they elected Brenda Rocha Chacón as President of the CSE and Cairo Amador as Vice President.

 

Electoral Calendar

Among the first acts of the new Supreme Electoral Council was the presentation of the electoral calendar on May 11, 2021.  The general elections for the Presidency, National Assembly and the Central American Parliament will be held on November 7, 2021. The election campaign will formally start on August 21, 2021. Participating political parties will have to define their candidates by mid-August with the definitive list being published by the Supreme Electoral Council on August 18, 2021.

The CSE resolution published in the official newspaper La Gaceta states ‘the participating political organizations are exhorted to duly comply with the Political Constitution; Electoral Law; Regulatory Foreign Agents Law; Defense of the Rights of the People to Independence, Sovereignty and Self-determination for Peace, as well as respect for Ethical Standards, Resolutions, Agreements and Regulations. Likewise, political organisations are urged to present 50% women and 50% men in their proposals for electoral structures and candidacies, guaranteeing equity and alternation.’

 

The opposition reacts

Predictably, Nicaragua’s right-wing opposition has condemned the electoral reforms, stating that they ‘reduce the competitive capacity of the opposition’ and that they do not advance any profound changes in the electoral system.

Having demanded that elections take place immediately during the 2018 failed attempted coup, the opposition now calls for a delay saying that the deadline for registering was too soon.  The fact is that the deadlines for the inscription of alliances and political parties were extended by the Supreme Electoral Council as early as July 2020 by way of a resolution which was published on July 14 of that year in the official newspaper La Gaceta.  The resolution stated that its intention was to ‘safeguard the certainty, legality, independence, impartiality and objectivity of the popular will in the upcoming elections’. The fact that alliances wishing to take part had to be registered in May 2021 has been known since last year, the newly elected Supreme Electoral Council simply set the precise date (May 12). Legally constituted political parties must register by mid-August.

The opposition remains weak and fragmented, with no policies and no programme other than opposing Daniel Ortega and the government.  It is largely held together by US financing and attempts to unite around either a single group or a single candidate (in spite of US encouragement) have been marred by months and months of in-fighting and jostling for power, with as many as 14 different possible presidential candidates putting their names forward. Nicaragua’s right-wing opposition groups know that without a united front, they stand no chance of victory in the November elections. Yet they make excuses for their failure to unite, falsely claiming that their participation in the elections has been restricted. Their leaders have even argued that the reforms themselves aim to weakening the opposition, something in fact caused by their own failure to reach agreement.

By May 12, only one of the opposition alliances, the CxL (Citizens for Liberty), unable to come to an agreement with any of the other opposition groupings, decided to go it alone and submitted their registration. It is now likely that some of the more prominent opposition leaders such as Felix Maradiaga, Cristiana Chamorro, Juan Sebastian Chamorro and Medardo Mairena, all of whom had previously announced their wish to run for the Presidency, may seek either to become part of the CxL or to join up with one of the existing political parties.

 

Foreign Agents Law

A major criticism being levelled by the US, OAS and opposition groups relates to the introduction of measures controlling foreign funding of political parties which directly or indirectly interferes in the country’s elections. Nicaragua’s Law Regulating Foreign Agents was approved in 2020, along with a law addressing cybercrime, as part of the Nicaraguan authorities’ efforts to modernise and reinforce legal protections and integrity of the country’s public administration, including its electoral processes and citizen security in general. The law actually brings Nicaragua into line with the great majority of other countries in North America and Europe, including the US and UK. In fact, the UK government is proposing to enact legislation (Electoral Integrity Bill, included in Queen’s Speech on May 11, 2021) which will introduce measures to prevent foreign interference in elections. It is also proposing a Counter-State Threats Bill to introduce a US-style register of foreign agents to help counter espionage and influence from hostile governments.

The intention behind Nicaragua’s inclusion of the law as part of the programme of electoral reform is to create a tool that allows Nicaragua to prevent foreign powers, countries, governments, agencies or organisations from interfering in Nicaragua’s domestic affairs. Nicaragua’s position on this issue is based on resolutions in the United Nations, the OAS and judgements by the International Court of Justice. All these bodies condemn, in a clear and categorical way, acts of interference by any foreign government in the domestic matters of another country.

For more information about the law, see here.

 

Organisation of American States (OAS)

At a time when its attention would be better focussed on state repression and human rights abuses in Colombia (April and May 2021, with more than 40 peaceful demonstrators killed), the OAS has decided, yet again, to target  Nicaragua. After its infamous intervention in Bolivia’s elections in 2019, its relentless attacks on Venezuela’s legitimate government and its continued false demonization of Nicaragua, the OAS has lost all pretence of impartiality. Secretary General Luis Almagro in particular has been strongly criticized by various OAS member States including Mexico and Argentina for abusing his mandate. The OAS is widely regarded in the region as a puppet dancing to the tune of the US government.

On May 12, the OAS convened a special session of its permanent Council to ‘analyse the situation in Nicaragua’.  During the session, Secretary General Almagro referred to the reforms as ‘nothing more than a cosmetic change to a deficient legal body’, adding that Nicaragua is heading for ‘the worst possible election’ due to the ‘lack of guarantees to hold a free, fair, and transparent process’. He also made reference to the 2016 elections in Nicaragua, when Daniel Ortega and the FSLN won with 72% of the popular vote, alleging that these were ‘flawed’, even though they were praised by an international observer mission monitoring the electoral process and accepted as valid even by a hostile delegation from the European Union.

It Is worth recalling that the actions of the OAS are in direct violation of its own Charter, Article 19, which says that ‘No State or group of States has the right to intervene, directly or indirectly, for any reason whatever, in the internal or external affairs of any other State.  The foregoing principle prohibits not only armed force but also any other form of interference or attempted threat against the personality of the State or against its political, economic, and cultural elements.’

 

Conclusion

There are fears that the current actions of the OAS could well lead to a repeat in Nicaragua of what happened in Bolivia in 2019 when an interim OAS report claiming that Evo Morales had won the election fraudulently was instrumental in motivating the right-wing opposition to mount a coup against Morales, who was forced to resign. Much later the OAS backtracked.

US aggression against Nicaragua has intensified over recent months with the proposed introduction of the Reinforcing Nicaragua’s Adherence to Conditions for Electoral Reform (RENACER) Act in the US Congress which would require the US government to increase sanctions in coordination with Canada and the European Union and proposes new immediate measures against the Nicaraguan government and officials ahead of Nicaragua’s November elections, all under the guise of promoting democracy.

The latest statements coming from the OAS, the US and members of the OAS who are closely allied to the US are cause for grave concern that things could be moving towards renewed attempts to subvert Nicaraguan democracy and even encourage another coup attempt. It remains vital to do everything possible to defend Nicaragua’s democracy and the right of its people to elect a government of their own choosing. Nicaragua presents no threat in the region, much less globally. The country is under attack because its government implements a socialist agenda with which the US disagrees. Nicaragua’s people deserve to develop their economy and society in peace.

 

Briefs

By Nan McCurdy

Lowest Public Debt in Region
The Central American Institute for Fiscal Studies (ICEFI) presented its Analysis of the 2020 Macro-Fiscal Profiles of Central America on May 11. The report highlighted that “Nicaragua registered a fiscal surplus going from 0.3% in 2019 to 1.5% in 2020.” It also states that “at the end of last year, Nicaragua had the lowest public debt in the region registering 45.1% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), followed by Honduras 59.4%, Costa Rica 67.8%, Panama 69.8% and El Salvador 89.32%.” (Nicaragua News, 12 May 2020)

Nicaragua: Leader in Cyber Crime Fight
Nicaragua was elected by acclamation vice president and representative of Latin America and the Caribbean on the United Nations Ad-Hoc Committee established to create the international convention on the fight against use of information and communication technologies for criminal purposes. The Nicaragua Permanent Representative to the United Nations Office in Vienna, Sabra Murillo, stated that “Nicaragua assumes this new commitment to provide the international community with a convention that governs the efforts of countries in the fight against the use of technology for criminal purposes.” (Nicaragua News, 12 May 2021)

Avianca Increases Flights to Nicaragua
Beginning May 27, Avianca Airlines will expand its operations with direct flights to two Central American cities, including Managua. The airline explained that it will have seven weekly flights from the Augusto C. Sandino International Airport in Managua, while three flights will depart from the air terminal in El Salvador. Avianca’s U.S. operation includes eight destinations with the provision of more than 94 flights and 15,500 seats. Travelers flying to Miami will have connections to seven other U.S. destinations, including New York, Orlando, Washington, Dallas, Dallas, New York, Orlando and Miami. (Radio La Primerisima, 14 May 2021)

Nicaragua in Forum on Climate Change
On May 14, Nicaragua participated in the “Forum of Designated National Authorities under the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change,” organized by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, in the context of the 2021 climate week for the Latin American and Caribbean region. The objective was to identify opportunities, exchange ideas and share tools for scaling up mitigation actions in the region in preparation for the COP26 negotiations in the United Kingdom. Latin American and Caribbean governments, United Nations organizations, and multilateral and bilateral financial entities participated in the event. The Nicaraguan delegation included Javier Gutiérrez, Secretary of Climate Change of the Presidency; Vice Minister of MARENA Liliana Díaz; and Josué Cantarero, Analysis Officer of the Secretariat of Climate Change of the Presidency. (Radio La Primerisima, 14 May 2021)

Growth in Reserves and Deposits
The Central Bank (BCN) published its financial report for April 2021. The report states that the country’s Gross International Reserves (GIR) were US$3.474 billion dollars as of April 30, representing a US$120 million increase over the previous month. BCN President Ovidio Reyes announced that deposits in the National Financial System stood at 155 billion córdobas (US$4.4 billion), registering growth of C$751 million over March and 17.2% increase in comparison to the same period in 2020. (Nicaragua News, 13 May 2021)

Support for Small Farmers on Caribbean Coast
The Nicaragua Institute of Agricultural Technology (INTA) provided training and delivered Technology Packages to 400 small producers in 24 communities in El Tortuguero municipality, Southern Caribbean Autonomous Region. The Packages include improved seeds, agricultural tools, and inputs to promote cultivation of rice. The initiative is part of the Creative Economy Model the Government is carrying out in support of small producers. (Nicaragua News, 13 May 2021)

Another Women’s Police Station Opens
On May 20 the National Police and several government institutions will inaugurate the Women’s Police Station Number 68, in the municipality of Mozonte, Department of Nueva Segovia and a new Citizen Security Unit on May 21 in Totogalpa, Madriz. (Informe Pastran, 18 May 2021)

Support for Small-scale Farm Families
The government has delivered 400,000 production packages for basic grains, fruits, vegetables, coffee, cocoa, bananas, roots and tubers, and pasture to small-scale farm families. “We will accompany and develop technical capacities with 350,000 producer families in the generation of added value and agricultural, forestry, fishing, and aquaculture transformation; irrigation management in vegetables; efficient water use; integrated pest and disease management; management of quality coffee plantations with environmental sustainability; integrated management of hazardous and non-hazardous waste for the conservation of Mother Earth; and agro-ecological practices appropriate to climate change,” according to the plan. (Informe Pastran, 18 May 2021)

CSE Advancing Toward the Elections
Last week the first official steps towards the polls in November were taken with the registration and approval by the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) of the political party alliances that will run in the elections. The Sandinista National Liberation Front registered the Alliance called United Nicaragua Triumphs, which includes nine political parties, six political movements, four social movements and two personalities. The only other electoral pact registered with the CSE was the Alianza Ciudadanos por la Libertad (Citizens for Freedom Alliance), headed by the Citizens for Freedom Party (Ciudadanos por la Libertad). The rest of the parties did not manage to form alliances and will present themselves separately on the ballot. The President of the Supreme Electoral Council, Brenda Rocha, announced that the period of citizen verification of the electoral roll will be July 24 and 25. “The calendar is already running; the ethics regulation has been consulted with all the political parties; it is already published in the Gazette, and we are in the period of the assignment of the polling places to each political party,” she said. “Proposals of lists have been submitted to form the departmental and regional councils so that they can later assign the municipal councils,” she added. The next important date on the election calendar is July 28 for provisional registration of candidates for the presidency and vice presidency and deputies to the National Assembly and Central American Parliament (Parlacen). August 18 is the final publication of candidates to be registered according to political party or alliance. The electoral campaign begins 75 days before the elections on Nov. 7 and the electoral roll must be ready 60 days before. On October 10, the Voting Boards must be formed with 50% men and 50% women, including in the northern and southern Caribbean. On November 7, more than three million Nicaraguans will vote for the presidential ticket, 90 deputies to the National Assembly and 20 to Parlacen. (Radio La Primerisima, 17 May 2021)

Free Trade Zone Production Growth
The Central Bank published a report on Foreign Trade during the first quarter of 2021. The report states that the Free Trade Zones generated US$770.6 million in sales between January and April of this year, an 11% growth in comparison to the same period in 2020. Alfredo Coronel, Vice President of the National Commission of Free Trade Zones, explained that “the data presented indicates a strong recovery of production and exports by companies in the Nicaraguan Free Trade Zones that were impacted by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the global economy.” (Nicaragua News, 17 May 2021)

Army Arrests Illegal Loggers
From March 25 to May 17, the Naval Detachment for Inland Waters of the Naval Force and the Ecological Battalion of the Army seized 4.6 million board feet of timber from banned species including Cedro Real (mahogany), Níspero, Cedro Macho (Crabwood), Genízaro (Monkey Pod Tree) and Guanacaste (Monkey Ear Tree) among others, which were being illegally transported in violation of the country’s laws. Likewise, three trucks and a motorcycle were seized and ten citizens, linked to this crime, were detained and handed over to the corresponding authorities together with the evidence. (Radio La Primerisima, 17 May 2021)

Covid Report May 11 to 17, 2021
For the week of May 11 to 17 the Health Ministry reported 82 new registered cases of Covid, 71 people recuperated and one death. Since March 2020 there have been 5,731 registered cases of Covid-19, 5,439 people recuperated and 185 deaths. (Radio La Primerisima, 18 May 2021)