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
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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