Daniel Ortega sets an ugly precedent: Nicaragua may be a small country but it is an emblematic one. In 1979 the leftist Sandinista movement overthrew a corrupt dictatorship. In response, the United States organised the Contra guerrillas. In 1990 the Sandinistas agreed to hold free elections, which they lost. But their leader, Daniel Ortega, has returned to power, having won a presidential election in 2006 against a divided opposition. Now, armed with an alliance with Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, he seems determined to snuff out Nicaragua’s young democracy.
In the months before municipal elections on November 9th, Mr Ortega’s government manoeuvred to disqualify two opposition parties from the ballot. It sent police to ransack the offices of the country’s leading investigative journalist, Carlos Fernando Chamorro, and those of a women’s group. It is investigating another 15 organisations, including Oxfam, a British aid agency, for money-laundering and “subversion”. Many former Sandinista leaders have split with Mr Ortega, whose approval rating in opinion polls has slumped towards 20%.
For the first time since 1990, independent observers, foreign and local, were refused accreditation to monitor the election. Mr Ortega said that they were barred because they were backed by “outside powers”. To underline the fact that the Supreme Electoral Council, the supposedly independent electoral authority, is under the government’s thumb, its head accompanied Mr Ortega when he voted.
According to the electoral council’s provisional results, the Sandinistas duly won 94 of the 146 mayorships at stake. By far the most important is Managua, the capital and home to a third of the population of less than 6m. It has been governed by the Sandinistas for the past eight years. But in the run-up to the vote Eduardo Montealegre, of the centre-right Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC), was ahead of the Sandinista candidate, Alexis Argüello, a former world-champion boxer. The official count in Managua was suspiciously slow, but with 70% of the votes tallied the electoral council claimed that Mr Argüello had won 51.3% and Mr Montealegre 46.5%.
Mr Montealegre, a former banker with an MBA from Harvard University, was the runner-up to Mr Ortega in the 2006 presidential election, which was watched by observers from the Organisation of American States (OAS), the European Union and the Carter Center. On that occasion Mr Montealegre swiftly conceded defeat.
This time he says that he won the election, and that the PLC is being robbed of victory by fraud both in Managua and in León, the second city. His aides say that the electoral council handed out voter identity cards to those likely to support the Sandinistas while withholding them from opposition supporters. It also withheld credentials from opposition representatives to try to stop them witnessing the count. On election day, many of them were barred from polling stations, some of which closed early. Nevertheless the opposition managed to get hold of copies of the official tally at many polling stations, and it is from these lists that Mr Montealegre has compiled figures showing that he won.
Ethics and Transparency, an independent Nicaraguan group, organised tens of thousands of observers. Refused accreditation, they had to watch from outside polling stations. But the group estimates that irregularities occurred at a third of polling places. Their complaints were echoed by Nicaragua’s Catholic bishops. “People feel defrauded,” said Leopoldo Brenes, Managua’s archbishop. The OAS expressed “concern” while the United States’ government cast doubt on whether the election was free and fair. Opposition supporters clashed with Sandinistas, each side throwing stones at the other.
Mr Montealegre wants a recount supervised by international observers. The council offered a locally supervised review. Mr Ortega may try to ride out the protests. But European governments are increasingly fed up with the president’s authoritarianism, and are preparing to cut their economic aid (which accounts for a third of the government’s budget).
Unless there is a proper recount, an ugly precedent for Latin America will have been set. Electoral fraud is largely a thing of the past in the region, and democracy has become a habit (see article). A bigger test of commitment to the rules will come in state and local elections in Venezuela later this month. Mr Chávez, Venezuela’s socialist president, has manoeuvred to disqualify the most popular opposition candidate for mayor of Caracas. He has threatened other opposition candidates with spurious corruption probes. Despite what they claim is a crisis of capitalism, it seems that some of Latin America’s radical leftists fear the verdict of the people.
Pictures of Ortega’s followers violence here.
Video report on the electoral fraud: