Nicaragua: Protest Abstention, Dedazos and Electoral Farce

By Kenneth M. Coleman*

A group of people holding Nicaraguan flags and banners protest outside

Organized by the Sandinista dissident group Movimiento Renovador Sandinista (MRS), protesters took to the streets last year ahead of the general elections to demand recognition of their party, and free and open elections. Many members of MRS will abstain from voting in the upcoming elections. / MRS / Flickr / Creative Commons

The surge in protest abstentionism in Nicaragua’s presidential election last November appears likely to worsen in elections this November 5 – undermining the legitimacy of the Daniel Ortega government but not threatening its control.  The  Supreme Electoral Council, dominated by the ruling Sandinista Party (FSLN), proclaimed that 68 percent of the registered electorate had voted last November 6, but two more credible estimates – that of independent observers (closer to 30 percent) and post-election public opinion polls (50 percent) indicated a much lower turnout.  Non-voters come in at least two variants: the disinterested, disengaged, and poorly informed; and protest abstainers.  The evidence points to the latter reason.

  • Critics of the now-autocratic FSLN had nowhere meaningful to go electorally. In June 2016, the FSLN-controlled Supreme Court of Justice (CSJ) withdrew recognition of the Partido Liberal Independiente (PLI) from Eduardo Montealegre, a prior presidential nominee who had finished second to Daniel Ortega in 2006, and recognized Pedro Reyes, a political non-entity soon booted from party leadership.  Years before, in 2008, the government withdrew recognition from the Movimiento Renovador Sandinista, which included most of the well-known Sandinista dissidents (including author Sergio Ramírez, once Daniel Ortega’s Vice President, and several surviving members of the Sandinistas’ original nine-person National Directorate).
  • Focus groups organized by scholars at Florida International University (FIU) and follow up studies confirmed high abstention rates driven by unhappiness with the election. Interviewees said, for example, “There was no candidate who fulfilled my expectations for making the country better … none … capable of taking the country forward.”

Protest abstentionism appears likely to be equally high or even higher in the municipal elections on November 5, reflecting frustration from an unexpected source:  loyal Sandinistas opposing the imposition of candidates by President Daniel Ortega, and his wife and vice president, Rosario Murillo.  Adapting Mexican political discourse, many FSLN nominees for mayors, vice-mayors, and municipal councilors are now criticized as representing dedazos, candidates “fingered” from above.  Two unhappy Sandinistas told the opposition paper Confidencial on August 29 of their discontent.  “It hurts me … but that is what [the party] has left me… not to vote in the municipal elections,” said one in Masaya.  “They didn’t take the party loyalists into account [in picking candidates], so the party loyalists will not take the party into account in the elections in November,” said a former FSLN supporter in Corinto.

  • Associates of the old PLI, reconstituted as Ciudadanos por Libertad (CxL), have been granted legal registration – and intend to compete as long as the Organization of American States observes the elections. The OAS role remains unclear, however, prompting the initial CxL candidate for Mayor of Managua to resign his candidacy earlier this month.

What the opposition proclaimed an “electoral farce” last November seems likely to be repeated on November 5.  Ortega has taken steps to allow “same-day registration” of voters on election day – apparently to counter abstentionism – and recent reports of distributing cédulas (national identity cards necessary for voting) to minors have surfaced in La Prensa, presumably also with an intent to increase electoral turnout.  However, anger over dedazos may be deep enough to keep many members of the FSLN away from the polls.  In spite of high abstention levels, the Ortega family enjoys control over all branches of government – National Assembly, Judiciary, and Electoral Council – and continues to enjoy an implicit corporatist accord with COSEP, the leading business organization, while having long proven adept at undermining potentially competitive leaders.  Overreaching via the dedazos may have caused visible cracks in the partisan foundation of the dynasty – strengthening party dissidents’ portrayal of Daniel and Rosario as usurpers – but no leader capable of undermining their grip over governmental structures is yet visible or appears likely to emerge in the near term.

September 18, 2017

* Kenneth M. Coleman is a political scientist at the Association of American Universities who directed the 2014 AmericasBarometer national survey in Nicaragua.

Haiti: Crisis Upon Crisis

By Fulton Armstrong

Haiti OAS

OAS Secretary General Almagro visits Haiti. Photo Credit: OAS / Flickr / Creative Commons

Haiti is stumbling, again, from one crisis into another, but the timing of this ongoing mess puts the United States and other international partners in a particularly bad position.  The country’s political institutions are dysfunctional, without an elected executive nor fully legitimate legislature, and efforts to rebuild them continue to be haphazard.  Under Interim President Jocelerme Privert (formerly leader of the Senate), the government has missed another deadline for resolving disputes over the first round of presidential elections held last October and re-running them or scheduling the second round.  Instead, Privert, who assumed the Presidency in February, on 28 April formed a five-member “verification panel” to take yet another look at allegations of first-round fraud and determine which candidates should participate in the runoff, with a 30-day deadline.  The deadline for Privert to step down passed on 14 May.

  • The move coincides with growing perceptions that Privert is enjoying the perquisites of the job and may be dragging things out on purpose. Both sides to the contested elections – supporters of Jovenel Moïse, former President Martelly’s hand-picked successor, and the opposition party’s Jude Célestin – are mobilizing crowds, some numbering thousands, for almost-daily protests.  Calls for Privert to resign are growing intense as suspicions of his own ambitions and imputed bias for or against one of the candidates surge.  Several dozen gunmen, allegedly directed by an enemy of Privert, shot up a police station in the southern city of Les Cayes earlier this week, resulting in six dead.
  • International reactions to Privert’s delays have been mixed but predictably of frustration.  The former leader of an official OAS mission to Haiti in early April supported the verification process, and OAS Secretary General Almagro said recently that elections “shouldn’t be rushed.”  But U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry last month condemned “this process of delay” and urged Haiti’s “so-called leaders” to act.  His Special Coordinator for Haiti Affairs, veteran diplomat Kenneth Merten, called the new verification process a “black box” and said it was “opaque and non-democratic.”

The political mess coincides with other serious challenges.

  • The World Food Program (WFP) is increasingly concerned about hunger caused by a three-year drought, aggravated by El Niño, and the country’s economic situation. Some 3.6 million Haitians (one third of the population) face “food insecurity,” including 1.5 million who are “severely food insecure.”  A U.S. program to send Haiti surplus peanuts, which is one of Haitian farmers’ most successful crops, has deflated prices and further hurt local food production.
  • Shortages of medical supplies, worsened by corruption, have prompted doctors to conduct strikes. High-profile cases, including the death of a bleeding pregnant woman at the entrance of the Port-au-Prince General Hospital, have led to dramatic demonstrations, on at least one occasion parading around a victim’s corpse.
  • Fear of spread of the Zika virus is rampant. The University of Florida recently confirmed that Zika was present in Haiti before the outbreak in Brazil last year.  (Carried by the same mosquito, Aedes aegypti, it was mistakenly identified as chikungunya, which has almost identical symptoms except microencephaly.)  Haiti’s cholera epidemic, which has killed 9,200 people since 2010, continues to claim about 50 lives a month, according to some estimates.

The usual threats by the United States and Haiti’s other international partners to suspend aid if the government doesn’t resolve the political impasse have been muted presumably because they’re unlikely to be credible while such major threats to Haitian citizens’ wellbeing loom large.  Haiti’s political and economic elites assume that the outsiders will care for the Haitian people and continue bailing the country out while they pursue their internecine struggles.  Former President Martelly, who is not free from blame for the elections impasse, has been in Miami these days to promote his autobiography ($50 a copy) and reestablish himself as a naughty boy Kompa musician.  The international community is, once again, in a lose-lose situation.  A previous caretaker government, headed by Gérard Latortue, lasted two years (2004-2006).  The United States and others can ill afford a deeper humanitarian disaster, so while Haitian elites fiddle, outsiders will try to put out the fires.

May 19, 2016

Honduras Elections: Serious Challenges Ahead

Honduras coat of arms / public domain

Honduras coat of arms / public domain

Honduras faces an enormous challenge in the next two months:  ensuring that elections in November – when Hondurans go to the polls to elect their next president, 128 National Assembly deputies, and municipal authorities – are clean and transparent.  The elections are especially important because they are the first conducted outside the framework of the coup of 2009.  The elections that year, held five months after the coup, were conducted under the black cloud of the break in constitutional order and gave rise to the transition government headed by President Porfirio Lobo.  This year, nine parties are participating – a clear signal that the country’s traditional two-party system is ending.  The Freedom and Refoundation Party (LIBRE), with a base among supporters of ousted President Mel Zelaya, has nominated his wife, Xiomara Castro, as its Presidential candidate, and the Anticorruption Party, led by sports journalist Salvador Nasrala, represent a true challenge to the traditional political elite.

All of the polls give the edge to Xiomara Castro, with a lead ranging anywhere from two to eight percentage points, over the candidate of the National Party, Juan Orlando Hernández, who is President of the Congress.  The polls also show that a majority of the population, having witnessed multiple accusations of fraud during the primaries held by the two traditional parties (including Hernández’s), expect the elections to be marred by fraud.  Casting further doubt on the credibility of the outcome is the narrow representation of the parties and lack of professionalism of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), which is charged with organizing and supervising the elections.  Only the three traditional parties have representatives serving on the TSE and, unlike in other countries, they are distinguished as militants of their parties rather than independents or experts in electoral processes.

Should the results of the election not be seen as legitimate, the potential for conflict is worrisome, and there are ample grounds for concern that the security forces that have proliferated under the Lobo government could be deployed to suppress protest.  Only strong international pressure and strong citizen pressure can guarantee that the elections will be clean and open the possibility for Honduras to overcome the political crisis that has now been damaging the country for several years. 

A number of events – including the firing of Supreme Court justices last December and the National Congress’s intervention in matters far outside its jurisdiction – underscore the continuing tendency toward authoritarian and illegal actions to suit ambitious politicians’ pursuit of power, with potentially dire consequences for the elections. An ongoing economic crisis, including a nearly 50 percent unemployment rate, and a serious deterioration of government finances, also contributes to political fragility. Against this backdrop, the United States and the rest of the international community can play a positive role in promoting elections that are fair and impartial and taking proactive measures to ensure that security forces ill-suited to managing social unrest not be deployed to suppress political dissent.  Failing to do so would waste an opportunity to help effect a truly democratic outcome in Honduras, and invite a further deterioration of a political, economic and social climate that is the most worrisome in Central America.

Venezuela Update: Confusion in Caracas…and Washington

Photo credit: INTERNATIONAL REALTOR / Foter.com / CC BY

Photo credit: INTERNATIONAL REALTOR | Foter.com | CC-BY

Three weeks after elections to choose Hugo Chávez’s successor, confusion still reigns in both Caracas and Washington.  The Venezuelan opposition has rejected the results of the election, which the electoral tribunal says Chávez’s handpicked man – Nicolás Maduro – won by only 1.8 percent.  Opposition candidate Henrique Capriles originally asked only for a vote recount – considered reasonable by many because of the narrow margin – but his lawyers upped the ante on 2 May when they officially demanded that the vote be invalidated and new elections be held.  Isolated incidents of political violence turned up the heat in Caracas, although the Götterdämmerung scenarios in the streets that some analysts predicted have not yet materialized.

Every major country of the hemisphere has recognized Maduro as President – except the United States.  (Canada wavered at first but seems to have moved on.)  Washington has invested millions of dollars in “democracy promotion” programs over the years and has provided Capriles and the opposition enduring political support in their efforts to beat Chávez at the polls and later to beat Maduro as his hand-picked successor.  Since the April election, the U.S. government has endorsed the opposition’s call for a vote recount.  So has the OAS, which offered experts to assist in the process.  But only Washington has said that while it is “working with” the Maduro Government, it doesn’t recognize its legitimacy.  The State Department spokesman dodged the issue repeatedly last week, and in an interview with Univisión broadcast at the conclusion of his visit to Mexico last Friday, President Obama himself refused to say whether his Administration officially recognized Maduro as President.  He left little doubt as to his real position, however, when he said that basic principles of human rights, democracy, press freedom and freedom of assembly were not observed in Venezuela following the election.

As AULABLOG pointed out on 23 April, the irony of the United States demanding a hand-count of the ballots is not lost on millions of Latin Americans who remember Washington’s performance in the 2000 Bush-Gore vote – and that it was a politically divided Supreme Court that made the final decision.  The tightness of the vote, Venezuelan electoral realities (past and present), and President Maduro’s over-the-top rhetoric – last week he again accused Washington of backing “neo-Nazis” allegedly trying to overthrow his government and accused a filmmaker of being a spy – make it hard for observers to argue that the elections are legitimate.  President Obama’s statements, including his remark that the spying charge was “ridiculous,” have been measured and continue a noteworthy shift since the near-hysteria about Venezuela during the Bush Administration.  But the fact remains that the U.S. Government’s posture on Venezuela – perhaps unique in its bilateral relations with Latin America since the Cold War – has made it once again the outrider and, among people who remember the Bush-Gore decision, the butt of many jokes.  Importantly, Capriles may be reading Washington’s stance as an endorsement of his own increasingly puzzling demands.  As our 23 April post suggested, Capriles ought to see himself as having a historic chance to lead, poised to challenge Chavismo easily at the polls the next time around.  Yet, like Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador in 2006, he may be squandering an opportunity to present himself to the Venezuelan electorate as the responsible grownup in the room.