Nicaraguan Elections Demand More Effective U.S. Support

Report Americas

Nicaraguan Elections Demand More Effective U.S. Support

September 10, 2001 17 min read
Stephen Johnson
Former Senior Policy Analyst
Stephen served as a Senior Policy Analyst.

The stakes will be high when Nicaraguan voters go to the polls on November 4 to choose a new president and National Assembly, and it is in the interest of the United States and the other countries of the Western Hemisphere to ensure that the electoral process is fair and open.

This will be the third set of national elections since February 1990, when ballots removed a band of Marxist revolutionaries from office and drew the curtain on a 169-year legacy of authoritarian dictatorships. The ensuing government of national reconciliation under President Violeta Chamorro facilitated the transition from civil war to peace, reduced the armed forces from 90,000 partisan combatants to 12,000 more professionally oriented soldiers, and labored to reinstate the economically isolated nation within the global market. Despite such progress, the country is now in danger of returning to strong-man (caudillo) rule.

Efforts by outgoing President Arnoldo Alemán to eliminate rival moderate political parties and strike a deal with the leftist Sandinista National Liberation Front have undermined the prospects for fair and open elections. Compounding the problem, voter rolls have not been kept up, registration efforts have languished, and the national system of electoral councils has become highly politicized and so poorly funded by Nicaragua's own government that it solicits foreign donations.

If elections were held today, it is unlikely they could be judged as fair. No matter who wins this year's contest, if the process is manipulated, the stability of the country and the region will be jeopardized. Nicaragua's fragile progress will be undermined, renewing the likelihood of civil conflict, further depressing the hemisphere's second poorest economy, unsettling Central American markets, and complicating already strained relations with the United States and other creditor nations.

Although President Alemán's political maneuvers are mostly to blame for the country's volatile condition, inconsistently implemented U.S. policies have aggravated the situation. Washington did little to signal its concerns while Alemán hacked away at many of the hard-won democratic gains Nicaragua achieved in the early 1990s. More worrisome, the United States fell behind this year in its effort to provide technical assistance to electoral authorities and in funding its portion of an international observer initiative to monitor elections.

To help Nicaragua safeguard past achievements and regain momentum toward institutionalizing its democracy, the Bush Administration should take the following actions:

  • Send a strong and clear message urging Nicaragua's current and future leaders to embrace more democratic behavior;

  • Accelerate efforts to provide technical assistance and contribute to an international monitoring effort that would be comprehensive enough to foil attempts at fraud; and

  • Work with Congress to reform current U.S. Agency for International Development (U.S. AID) funding procedures to ensure more timely assistance and prepare for wholehearted implementation in the future.


When the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) overthrew the sleepy dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza in 1979, its comandantes promised to establish a government of "democracy, justice, and social progress...without ideological discrimination." Instead, they erected a repressive one-party state that allied with Cuba to arm a guerrilla force in El Salvador and stoke an insurrection in Honduras. Pressured militarily by the U.S.-backed Nicaraguan Resistance, and diplomatically by the United States and the Organization of American States, the Sandinistas finally allowed open elections in 1990. Their president, Daniel Ortega, was defeated at the polls by Violeta Chamorro, the widow of an assassinated newspaper publisher.

Chamorro's administration went on to lay the foundation for a viable democracy and free market. With U.S. aid totaling $800 million (in addition to other foreign assistance), President Chamorro revived an economy that had been exhausted by spendthrift redistribution schemes, loosened the Sandinistas' proprietary grip on public institutions such as the army and police, and re-established Nicaragua's identity independent from the FSLN.

Chamorro's successor, Arnoldo Alemán, came into office promising to build on this progress but soon abandoned the national interest, allegedly for personal ones. In 1999, he forged a hasty pact with the rival Sandinista party to gain control of the country's judicial authorities at a time when he was facing charges based on a questionable transfer of government property to relatives.1

Goaded by Alemán, Liberal and Sandinista deputies approved constitutional changes in January 2000 that weakened the autonomy of the Supreme Court and other judicial bodies--including the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE), which was reconfigured as an exclusive Liberal-Sandinista commission. Space for political opponents was further reduced by a ban on independent candidacies and new laws imposing stiff requirements for all parties to maintain legal status. For example, to be legitimate, a challenging party had to win a minimum of 4 percent of the vote in a national election.

As a result, most of Nicaragua's minor parties lost their status. Even the 150-year-old Conservative Party, the third largest political party in Nicaragua, could lose its charter if neither its presidential candidate nor any of its candidates for at-large Assembly seats receive more than the required portion of the vote this November.2

Although Alemán claims the Liberal-Sandinista pact was intended to strengthen bipartisanship, two constitutional provisions enacted under his leadership suggest otherwise. One provision creates seats in the National Assembly for the outgoing president and the second-place finisher in presidential elections. Another grants prosecutorial immunity to assemblymen. These clauses conveniently protect Alemán from being tried for corruption after he leaves office and also insulate former Sandinista comandante and current assemblyman Daniel Ortega from charges that he molested his stepdaughter.3

On a broader scale, these provisions function to keep both the presidency and the legislature in the hands of Liberal and Sandinista party leaders Alemán and Ortega. In the forthcoming November presidential elections, Ortega will face 73-year-old Enrique Bolaños of Alemán's Constitutional Liberal Party (PLC)--already a tight race. If Ortega wins, Alemán and Bolaños will become assemblymen at-large, with the former president conceivably assuming the leadership. If Bolaños wins, Alemán and Ortega will receive seats in the Assembly, each commanding his party's powerful bloc.

A Bolaños presidency may be expected to pursue lean government and free market policies as well as to try to unravel some of the self-serving constitutional changes that Alemán rammed through the Assembly. But if Bolaños loses, the Liberal-Sandinista pact could turn back the clock to a more authoritarian time when members of the Somoza family took turns leading the country, on one occasion enlisting a family friend to become president and give the appearance of democracy.4

Several members of Alemán's party say that he has struck a personal deal with Ortega to alternate with him between the presidency and control of the legislature, since no president can succeed himself, but Ortega might not abide by such an arrangement once in office. Although the former comandante has promised not to revisit the leftist regime he once headed, he leads what is left of the FSLN's radical core. Moderate Sandinistas like Sergio Ramírez (Ortega's former vice president) no longer back him and claim that he is interested only in regaining power.5

Despite pledges to pursue more friendly relations with the United States, Ortega is no friend of free markets or property rights. Both as a comandante and later as president, he presided over expropriations worth billions and reportedly transferred money from the Central Bank into his own pocket during his last three weeks in office. His return also could revitalize unsavory alliances with Cuba, Libya, Iraq, and China--countries with which the FSLN continues to maintain close ties.6


As a result of the constitutional provisions that President Alemán pushed through the Assembly to enhance the dominance of the Liberal and Sandinista parties, the FSLN may hold key advantages in the forthcoming elections.

Predominance in Electoral Councils. On July 5, Roberto Rivas, president of the Supreme Electoral Council, dismissed workers who belonged to the Conservative and other minority parties from the national, departmental, and municipal councils. Although the practical effect of the order is unclear, Liberals claim that it leaves Sandinistas in dominant positions in most of the councils.7

A Powerful Corps of Supporters. Daniel Ortega's candidacy benefits from a cadre of FSLN militants left over from the Front's former neighborhood surveillance committees and turbas divinas ("divine mobs" or organized demonstrators). By mid-July, the Front had already trained 30,000 poll workers ("electoral commandos") to challenge the credentials of voters and question ballots in the country's 8,400 precincts.8 Enrique Bolaños should have inherited an equivalent legacy from Alemán's party machine. Instead, he had to pry the leadership of a tepid campaign and lackluster poll-worker training effort from Alemán's grasp and reorganize it.

Weak Voter Registration Effort. A half-hearted campaign to register voters that received scant publicity concluded on August 7. During the final week, the CSE, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, launched a mobile registration drive in Managua and 33 remote communities. Yet an estimated 300,000 citizens remain unregistered, mostly in remote mountain areas once controlled by the Nicaraguan Resistance, which opposed the Sandinista regime. Moreover, some 200,000 voter identification cards have yet to be delivered to those who have recently registered.

Opportunities for Fraud. Various deficiencies in the electoral system present easy opportunities for fraud. There are no recent census data, and the current voter list, or padrón , is badly outdated. The CSE has not devised a reliable means to transmit vote tallies from rural communities to municipalities to departments and on to its national headquarters. Last year's attempt to report municipal election results by fax failed because of operator error, power outages, and unreliable phone lines. Finally, constitutional changes restructuring the CSE required that the Council would need a quorum of five of its seven members to meet to ratify the totals. If representatives of either party do not like the results, they can refuse to meet--throwing the country into constitutional chaos.

Under these circumstances, a fair vote in a contest in which the two major candidates are running neck-and-neck is far from certain. Regardless of who is elected, it is critical that the results reflect the will of the people. An unfair or fraudulent contest could result in economic and political volatility both within the nation and throughout the region.


In 1990, U.S. support for national elections helped to create the basis for a viable electoral system in Nicaragua. In 1996, similar assistance built on that foundation and helped to establish the respected local non-governmental organization (NGO) Grupo Etica y Transparencia (Ethics and Transparency Group), which fielded 4,000 volunteer observers in that year's contest and conducted a crucial "quick count" as a check on official results. But when Nicaragua's progress toward a truly democratic electoral system ground to a halt as a result of Alemán's attempts to manipulate the system for his own ends, the Clinton Administration chose a low-key approach in its bilateral relations with the country.

Washington's rhetorical response was muted, probably to avoid re-igniting old arguments over U.S. policies toward Nicaragua that had raged in the 1980s. U.S. assistance levels remained intact at about $20 million a year, and the official U.S. position became that the White House would work with whoever won a fair contest. Such signals implicitly minimized the importance of the political damage done by the so-called Liberal-Sandinista pact and made the status quo seem acceptable.

Meanwhile, systemic weaknesses that were evident in the 1996 contest that put Alemán in office were never corrected, either for the 2000 municipal vote or for the 2001 national elections. Neither the U.S. Embassy nor U.S. AID elevated the matter to a priority high enough to pressure the Alemán government to effect any reforms. A national census conducted in 1995 has never been updated even though new potential voters have reached the legal age of 16, others have died, and many continue to cross borders into Honduras and Costa Rica to seek employment. Nor has the voter list ( padrón ) been updated to reflect many of these changes or properly verified.

Although U.S. AID grants were available this year to help the Supreme Electoral Council register voters in marginal areas where non-Sandinista parties do well, the U.S. mission did not promote the effort until it was nearly too late to make a difference. Nor did it urge the Nicaraguan government to extend registration for a longer period. Critical technical issues such as the unreliable fax reporting system wait to be addressed as the CSE complains of funding shortfalls from the Nicaraguan government and reportedly has been reduced to asking donors (including the United States) to pay its employees' salaries.

Finally, U.S. AID began funding its selection of international observer organizations only at the end of the registration period in July--too late to augment local NGO monitoring efforts during the crucial lead-in period before the elections. Voter education and poll-worker training initiatives are only now being organized and have little time to prepare for the election.

In addition, local pro-democracy groups are complaining that U.S. support for Nicaraguan NGOs has become unbalanced in favor of those with Sandinista ties. Specifically, they claim that in 1999, the coordinating role for a three-year project to support civil society and human rights was given to the Nicaraguan Development Center (NDC), whose principal officers include two former officials of the Sandinista regime. Of the sub-grantees funded by the NDC in 2000, two thirds reportedly have Sandinista ties, including one headed by former comandantes Jaime Wheelock, Luis Carrión, and former Vice President Sergio Ramírez.


Not only does the United States have a clear interest in promoting democracy and the rule of law in Nicaragua, but it should also be concerned about protecting its ongoing investment in a free society and the fragile market economy of that nation. In the long run, it is far less expensive to aid friendly democratic nations than it is to counter the threatening moves of errant dictatorships.

The rationale for assisting other countries in organizing elections and funding observer missions is to help train government officials and to educate the public in the conduct of a fair and transparent voting system. Such support helps to deter fraud and to document unfair or illegal practices if they do occur. For example, electoral assistance helped Mexico carry out the fairest contest in its history on July 2, 2000, when an opposition party candidate was elected president for the first time in 71 years. International electoral assistance also helped Nicaragua conduct honest elections in 1990 and 1996.

Tragically, the momentum toward a fair and open electoral system in Nicaragua has been lost--in part because of President Alemán's self-serving actions and the recent reluctance of the United States to do much about them. Rather than pursue a half-hearted effort, the United States should ensure that any assistance it provides is purposeful and effective.

In July 2001, President George W. Bush pledged $2.1 million in addition to the $3.2 million the United States has already committed to the Nicaraguan elections. To ensure that these resources do, in fact, promote fair elections, Washington should:

  • Condition support on accountability. The Bush Administration should not wait until after the vote to outline a new bilateral relationship with Nicaragua. Nor should the Administration merely say it will work with anyone who wins a clean election.

    Instead, Washington should clearly urge a return to the objective of establishing accountable government and inform Nicaragua's current administration and this year's candidates that it will offer cooperation and trade incentives conditioned on progress toward transparency in the electoral process, the expansion of open markets, and respect for civil liberties and property rights,9 all of which have gone off course. Conversely, any administration that ignores the will of its people, hinders the creation of local enterprise, or tramples on the civil liberties and property rights of its citizens should know that it will receive no assistance from the United States.

  • Re-energize U.S. electoral assistance and observation efforts. The United States should urge the Alemán government to provide provisional documentation or extend the registration period--now closed--to facilitate suffrage for some 300,000 rural citizens who have not yet registered to vote. In addition, the period for delivering completed credentials should be extended through October to allow enough time for rural citizens to receive them.

    Given the polarized nature of the Supreme Electoral Council and the disorganized preparations for the upcoming vote, the elections could be held hostage to partisan manipulations and acrimonious disputes. A well-organized observer effort could minimize this possibility and give notice to local officials that their actions will be subject to scrutiny. With the grant money already available, the United States should ensure that its monitoring project is extensive enough to cover rural polling stations as well as departmental capitals and Managua itself. The capacities of such organizations such as the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, and local monitors such as Etica y Transparencia should be utilized to the fullest extent possible.

    Beyond these elections, the United States should also encourage reforms establishing a nonpartisan and more efficient electoral council.

  • Reform the funding mechanism to improve future response. Monitors should not have to wait until four months before elections to receive authorization to plan their observation and training efforts. Funding decisions that are now in the hands of U.S. AID missions overseas should be made in consultation with the Agency's Latin American and Caribbean Bureau (LAC) in Washington and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). Congress should reallocate sufficient electoral assistance funds from U.S. AID to NED to allow observer planning efforts to begin at least a year in advance.

    Additionally, grants to local NGOs should be allocated in accordance with a principle of equal distribution when funds are awarded to organizations with partisan links. The fact that more NGOs with Sandinista ties than other organizations in Nicaragua are involved in electoral issues should not mean that more funding necessarily goes to these groups.


After a considerable investment on the part of Nicaraguan democrats and their international allies, Violeta Chamorro's presidency brought the beginnings of a free society and a market economy to Nicaragua. Yet, as a result of President Alemán's self-serving maneuvers, many Nicaraguans now question what democracy has done for them.

Ironically, Alemán's bid to wield power beyond his term as president could ultimately lead to his downfall. There is potential for a Sandinista government to use Alemán's "reforms" to get rid of him and his party.

Regardless of who wins the November 4 presidential election or what party dominates the contest for the National Assembly, a clean election will be critical to Nicaragua's stability. A vote clouded by suspicion of fraud could reduce the new president's ability to govern, promote civil unrest, encourage capital flight, and spark new waves of migration out of the country, negatively affecting both close neighbors and the United States. That would compound the region's existing problems of high poverty, low levels of education, poor infrastructure, and fragile economies.

The United States should not ignore the opportunity to help ensure that the election process is fair and that its results reflect the will of the Nicaraguan people. The Bush Administration should make a clear statement regarding how it will work with Nicaragua's new leaders if they will facilitate a return to more democratic and free-market practices so that past gains are not lost. Finally, a strong, wholehearted observation effort will help guarantee a clean election, reinforce habits of compromise, and give evidence of international interest in the continued progress of democracy in Nicaragua.

Stephen Johnson is Policy Analyst for Latin America in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.


1. When Controller General Vidal Jarquín asked the president to explain allegations of illicit enrichment, a judge ordered Jarquín's arrest on a trumped up fraud charge. The case was dismissed by an appeals court after several international donors complained and threatened to cut off assistance. Shortly thereafter, constitutional reforms went into effect replacing the controller's function with a five-person board.

2. Conservative presidential candidate Noel Vidaurre resigned in July to protest the skewed electoral laws. It is possible that neither his replacement, Alberto Saborío, nor the party's at-large Assembly candidates will draw enough votes to reach the 4 percent threshold.

3. Eloy O. Aguilar, "Stepdaughter Accuses Ortega of Rape," Associated Press, May 27, 1998.

4. In 1963, the Somoza family allowed René Schick Gutierrez to run for president giving the semblance of democratic order. At the time, Conservative Party candidate Diego Chamorro protested that his own campaign had been unfairly restricted. Ralph Lee Woodward, Jr., Central America--A Nation Divided (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 222.

5. Stephen Kinzer, "Country Without Heroes," The New York Review of Books, July 19, 2001, p. 32.

6. Circumstantial evidence may also link the Sandinistas to the Irish Republican Army. See Juan Forero, "Colombia Arrests Three as I.R.A. Bomb Experts," The New York Times , August 15, 2001, at (August 16, 2001).

7. William Briones Loáisiga, "FSLN y PLC se reparten cargos en el CSE," La Prensa , at (July 13, 2001).

8. See José Adán Silva, "FSLN capacita 90 mil comandos," La Prensa , June 26, 2001.

9. Efforts to reshape and manipulate the judiciary have weakened Nicaragua's nascent rule of law, still challenged with guaranteeing liberties and property rights formerly suspended under Sandinista rule.


Stephen Johnson

Former Senior Policy Analyst