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Nicaraguan elections fraught with tension, reports of fraud

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

Signs of renewed political tensions began to surface in late October as Nicaraguans waited for a recount of votes from presidential elections held Oct. 20. Over the past two decades, this country has experienced a people's revolution, a U.S.-backed counterrevolution and economic strife so severe that Nicaragua ranks as one of the most underdeveloped nations in Latin America.

Preliminary tallies from the Supreme Electoral Council suggested that Arnoldo Alemán, from the Liberal Alliance party, claimed 49 percent of the votes, a tally that would put him far enough ahead of the 38 percent garnered by second-place contender, Sandinista candidate Daniel Ortega, to avoid a second-round runoff.

High-profile delegations of international observers immediately declared the elections free and fair. The United States and Central American government officials congratulated Alemán.

These results were a reversal of a Sept. 28 Gallup poll that put Ortega ahead of Alemán by six points, 42 to 36 percent. A Gallup survey a month earlier had Alemán polling 34 percent of the vote, Ortega 30 percent.

Reports of electoral fraud and irregularities have surfaced throughout Nicaragua. Ortega, who ran the country first as part of a junta then as president during the decade following the 1979 Sandinista revolution that ousted the brutal, 43-year dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza, refused to accept Alemán as victor. Alemán's father and brother have been linked to the Somoza regime.

With 10 other presidential contenders, Ortega demanded the electoral council conduct a recount based on the signed statements of polling officials present at voting tables during the election. That tally began Oct. 24 and was expected to last through the first week of November.

Meanwhile, a coalition of independent observers from solidarity, religious and grassroots organizations working in Nicaragua issued a statement through the Internet claiming that reports of irregularities cast "doubt on the integrity of the electoral process." The groups also urged the international community to "withhold judgment about the results of Nicaragua's elections until the legal resolution of the process by the CSE (Supreme Electoral Council) and its acceptance by the major parties."

Assemblies of God minister Guillermo Osorno, listed in third place after Ortega, quipped: "You've got to be blind not to see the errors that plagued the voting process from the very beginning." Osorno claimed that if votes cast for him had been correctly tallied, the country would be planning a second runoff between Alemán and Ortega.

Sandinista leaders contested the results of mayoral elections in Managua, calling for an entirely new vote.

As for reports of fraud, one polling station tallied 325 votes then claimed 1,433 of them had been cast for Alemán. Throughout the country, reports surfaced of ballots arriving late to polling stations, of individuals voting more than once, of lost ballot boxes, of discrepancies between tallies of votes on the ground and of those produced by a centralized computer data base.

Anomalies were reported at 1,200 of the 2,267 voting booths in Managua alone, and results disappeared from 260 -- over 10 percent -- of these stations. In both Managua and Matagalpa, Liberal Alliance party members hold top posts on electoral councils.

Despite the confusion, Nicaragua's conservative Roman Catholic bishops criticized the recount of the votes for president as unnecessary and called on the CSE to recognize Alemán as the winner. Cardinal Miguel Obando Bravo, Managua's archbishop, had implicitly endorsed Alemán two days before the vote by allowing the candidate to read during a Mass held for the success of the elections. Many Nicaraguan's interpreted a story Obando Bravo told during his homily about a viper to be a reference to Ortega.

In the 1980s, Obando Bravo spoke strongly against the Sandinistas and witnessed the closing by the revolutionary government of the archdiocesan newspaper and radio.

Obando Bravo had previously warned against bitter and angry rhetoric from candidates, stressing that such expressions lead to violence and war.

Pre-electoral slants came from Washington. State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns was quoted in the Nicaraguan press as saying that a vast majority of U.S. citizens would not consider Ortega a democrat. U.S. Ambassador to Nicaragua, John Maisto was quoted in the Nicaraguan daily La Prensa saying the United States would be open to working with any winning candidate that respected the rules of democracy.

The impact of Washington's assessment of Nicaraguan politics cannot be underestimated. Political analysts attributed the 1990 electoral demise of the Sandinistas and the victory of Violeta Barrios de Chamorro in part to public fears. Nicaraguans, they said, reasoned that an electoral result that displeased the U.S. government would bring Nicaraguans more strife in the form of intensified economic sanctions and continued violence through further U.S. support of the anti-Sandinista contra-revolutionaries.

Similar to 1990, economic improvement and peace lead the list of concerns of the 1996 Nicaraguan electorate. Some analysts fear the doubts surrounding the elections will exacerbate political polarity, not bring about the minimum consensus needed to govern.

Presidential campaigns leading up to the elections reflected concern over prevailing political tensions. Alemán attempted to temper his own anti-Sandinista rhetoric by stating he was open to working with some Sandinistas. He did, however, accept anti-Sandinista business leader Enrique Bolanos as his vice-presidential candidate.

Ortega's campaign, meanwhile, was characterized by an attempt to show that the Sandinistas represented anything but extremes. Claiming his party was a place where Nicaraguans could "find the center," Ortega chose as his running mate Juan Manuel Caldera, a non-Sandinista farmer whose land was confiscated by the Sandinistas in the 1980s. Ortega further claimed the Sandinistas had developed a new relationship with Washington characterized by "a framework of respect, quality and justice."

The Sandinistas have also replaced their revolutionary song that described the United States as an enemy of humankind with Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." While they tried to depict themselves as moving toward the center, the Sandinistas during the campaign associated Alemán with the extreme right-wing Somoza legacy.

Paul Jeffrey is a freelance writer living in Honduras. Material for this article was drawn from Latinamerica Press, based in Lima, Peru.

National Catholic Reporter, November 15, 1996