Daniel Ortega appears set to win presidential election in Nicaragua
But critics say that Daniel Ortega's overwhelming electoral win, of dubious constitutionality and marred by irregularities, will only serve to underscore Nicaragua's autocratic government.
Sandinistas took to the streets jubilantly in the early morning hours Monday to celebrate what appears to be a resounding victory in the legally questionable reelection campaign of President Daniel Ortega.
A preliminary vote count announced Monday morning at 2 a.m., with 16 percent of the ballots tallied, shows the Sandinista strongman leading with 63 percent, followed by octogenarian radio producer Fabio Gadea, with 29 percent. Former President Arnoldo AlemĂˇn is in third place, with 6 percent. A final vote count will be announced today at noon.
The preliminary results for National Assembly are similar, meaning that, if the numbers hold, Mr. Ortega will win a majority in the legislature and essentially take full control over all branches of Nicaraguaâ€™s government â€“ despite ongoing doubts that his election to a third term is legal under Nicaragua's Constitution.
For a man whose political career seemed washed up a decade ago â€“ he had lost three consecutive election bids (1990, 1996, 2001), was accused of sexually abusing his stepdaughter and was reportedly teetering on the edge of financial hardship â€“ the Sandinista leaderâ€™s comeback is nothing short of stunning. Not only does he have more political power now than he did in the 1980s, when he led the Sandinista revolutionary government as â€śthe first among equals,â€ť but heâ€™s also now thought to be of the wealthiest individuals in Central America, thanks to his private investment of some $2 billion in Venezuelan aid over the past five years.
Ortegaâ€™s handling of Hugo ChĂˇvezâ€™s largess has allowed certain Sandinistas to become part of Nicaraguaâ€™s nouveau riche, invested heavily in multiple sectors of the economy, from energy production and oil distribution to timber, cattle, agriculture, tourism, and media.
While Ortegaâ€™s political and economic positions appear stronger than ever, critics claim they are built on rickety foundations. In Ortegaâ€™s continued quest for power, they say, heâ€™s seriously undermining the countryâ€™s democratic institutions.
Even Ortegaâ€™s candidacy was cause for international concern. Many argued that his reelection bid was strictly prohibited by Article 147 of Nicaraguaâ€™s Constitution, which states that a sitting president cannot be reelected to a consecutive term or to more than two terms.Â A new term for Ortega would be his third, and his second in a row.Â But a ruling by Sandinista judges allowed the former revolutionary to sidestep the constitutional bar.
Luis YaĂ±ez, chief of mission for the EUâ€™s election observation team, said European leaders have their doubts about the democratic process in Nicaragua, but decided to observe the elections once the other candidates agreed to run and made it a â€ścompetitive situation.â€ť
â€śWe know in great detail the polemic regarding the pretentions of President Daniel Ortega to become a candidate when the Constitution apparently doesnâ€™t allow that. And we have watched with worry as Nicaraguaâ€™s internal process ended up approving his candidacy without any possibility for legal recourse. That alone probably would have impeded us from coming here as a mission of electoral observers, but the moment in which the other four parties and coalitions entered the electoral process to compete with Ortega, it became a competitive situation,â€ť Mr. YaĂ±ez said.
A dubious election
From beginning to end, Sundayâ€™s elections were a clear example of how Ortegaâ€™s apparent position of strength could actually be quite fragile. While Sandinistas celebrate their â€śoverwhelming victoryâ€ť in the streets, opponents claim it could be a Pyrrhic victory that exposes the undemocratic and autocratic nature of his government.
Mr. Gadeaâ€™s campaign manager, Eliseo NuĂ±ez, says the preliminary vote count by the Sandinista-controlled Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) is â€śtotally unreal.â€ť He claims there was â€śshameless electoral theft in Managua.â€ť
Election monitors are also questioning the polling process. Electoral watchdog Ethics and Transparency says yesterdayâ€™s general elections failed to meet the minimum international requirements to be considered a credible and transparent process.
â€śFor the first time in more than 20 years we had an election that failedâ€ť from a technical point of view, said Roberto Courtney, executive director of Ethics and Transparency, the Nicaraguan affiliate of Transparency International. The group says official poll watchers from the opposition PLI alliance were denied entry in â€śat least 15-20 percent of voting stations,â€ť meaning the Sandinistas and their allies were left counting the votes by themselves. â€śThere are no guarantees that the vote counting will reflect public will,â€ť Mr. Courtney said.
Though the electoral tribunal denied Ethics and Transparency accreditation for political reasons, the watchdog monitored the elections anyway and declared the process a failed election before the first results were announced. â€śWe are obligated to declare that this electoral process was not fair, honest or credible,â€ť reads the groupâ€™s final statement.
The team of election monitors from the Organization of American States (OAS) also denounced a lack of transparency in the process. The OAS mission said it was denied entry to 20 percent of polling stations they visited.
Edmundo JarquĂn, vice-presidential candidate for the PLI, says the problems experienced by international election observers will cast doubt on the election results.
â€śIn the past, irregularities were an exception. Now irregularities are the norm,â€ť Mr. JarquĂn says.
There were also reports of bouts of violence, voter intimidation, and deliberate confusion of the process. Voting stations or electoral materials were burned in 16 parts of the country in protest.
But the Sandinistas and the CSE claimed the elections were exemplary in their peacefulness and orderliness. CSE president Roberto Rivas said he thought the election was the â€śmost tranquilâ€ť polling process heâ€™s ever seen in Nicaragua. He blamed the PLI for trying to cause â€śdisorderâ€ť and â€śprevent people from voting.â€ť
Nicaragua's standing diminished?
Despite Ortegaâ€™s apparent victory, which was predicted by all the polls, it could further tarnish his already checkered image abroad, making his political strength very provincial.
â€śAll of the uncertainties that have been raised reflects a system that badly needs reform,â€ť says Jennifer McCoy, director of the Americas Program for the Carter Center. The Carter Center did not officially observe Sundayâ€™s due to the excessive and unclear conditions demanded by the CSE, but Ms. McCoy came anyway to watch the elections unofficially.
While the international reaction to Ortegaâ€™s apparent victory will not be known for another few days, it will be interesting to see what international dignitaries come to Nicaragua on Jan. 10, 2012, to celebrate the Sandinista leaderâ€™s controversial third term. With ChĂˇvez and Fidel Castro unlikely to make the trip, attendance could be slim.