Nicaragua passes critical test of democracy

Nicaragua has had a long history of failed and fraudulent elections. That is one of the reasons that about 80 percent of the eligible voters in Nicaragua waited in long lines on Oct. 20 to vote. They sensed that their vote would make a difference. For most of their lives, Nicara-guans have been told what to do; on election day, they spoke.

The Carter Center has had a long history of involvement in the Nicaraguan electoral process. In July 1989, I was invited to attend the 10th anniversary of the Nicaraguan revolution, and I brought a letter from former President Jimmy Carter to the leader of the Sandinista party, then-President Daniel Ortega. I also met with leaders of the opposition. I asked all of them whether they thought it would be useful for The Carter Center to monitor the electoral process, which was to culminate with presidential elections on Feb. 25, 1990. All sides encouraged the idea and sent letters of invitation within a month, guaranteeing that we would have access to all stages of the election.

We set up an office in Managua, and Jennifer McCoy, associate professor at Georgia State University, directed it and organized monthly visits by high-level bipartisan and international delegations. These teams, many of them led by President Carter, listened to the complaints of all sides and then conveyed the most serious complaints to the authorities. Each time the government or the Supreme Election Council responded positively to the complaint, the opposition found itself obligated to take the election more seriously. Each time that the opposition or the U.S. government corrected a problem identified by the Sandinistas, President Ortega found himself taking the process more seriously.

There were some in the United States, notably officials from the Reagan administration, who believed that Daniel Ortega was a communist and would never permit a free election. They criticized the Carter missions for being dupes of the leftists, but they had to swallow their criticism when Ortega conceded defeat in the early morning hours of Feb. 26, 1990.

Violeta de Chamorro won that election and governed for the next six years, often inviting The Carter Center to help in dealing with problems of hyper-inflation or property disputes. Again, in the summer of 1996, the Chamorro administration, the Supreme Election Council and the Sandinistas--this time, the opposition--all invited the Council of Freely Elected Heads of Government, a group of 27 current and former presidents and prime ministers of the Americas, led by President Carter and based at The Carter Center, to Nicaragua to monitor the elections.

By this time, the Council had gained wide international recognition for the pioneering work it had done to help 10 different developing countries make the transition toward democracy. From Nicaragua to Haiti, Panama, Paraguay, Guyana, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, all the way to the West Bank and Gaza, The Carter Center had worked with political parties to make sure they were comfortable with the rules of the electoral game in their countries. When they begin to treat their enemies as opponents, to borrow from presidential candidate and former Sen. Bob Dole, their country has crossed a critical threshold of civility and peaceful political change.

In October, Carter co-chaired the delegation with former Costa Rica President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Oscar Arias, former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Ecuador President Osvaldo Hurtado. The group was composed of 47 people from 10 different countries. Most of the group arrived the week before the election on Oct. 20. They heard briefings and then were divided into teams of two or three and sent all over the country.

Their reports permitted the delegation to assemble a full picture of the election. The turnout was high. The high number of poll watchers was a very positive sign, because they keep the process honest. Six elections were held--for president, two votes for assembly, mayors, municipal councils and the Central American Parliament. The counting proved to be very complicated with a large number of irregularities.

The day after the U.S. elections, most everyone knew the results. Two weeks after the Nicaraguan elections, few people were certain of the results. Finally, on Nov. 8, the Supreme Election Council announced that Arnold Aleman, the former mayor of Managua and the leader of the Liberal Alliance, had defeated Ortega by a vote of 51 percent to 38 percent. Ortega's party raised questions, but pledged to pursue their concerns through legal channels. This second election was an important milestone for Nicaragua on the path to democracy. All parties were working within the law and on the political terrain. Ballots had prevailed over bullets.

Robert A. Pastor is professor of political science at Emory and director of the Latin American and Caribbean Program of The Carter Center.

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