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Nicaragua's Disputed Election Result

Daniel Ortega's re-election as president is not being recognized by his challenger, Fabio Gadea. What happens next?
Ortega's main opponent, Fabio Gadea. heads to the voting booth on November 6. Photo: Courtesy of Jorge Mejía Peralta. Homepage Photo: Courtesy of Jairo Cajina / Presidencia de Nicaragua.

Fabio Gadea announced on Monday that he would not recognize the election results published by Nicaragua's Consejo Supremo Electoral (Supreme Electoral Council—CSE), declaring the results part of a "fraud." The CSE, which should be an independent institution but is widely acknowledged to be controlled by President Daniel Ortega, says that the president was reelected by a surprising margin, winning over 60 percent of the vote compared to Gadea's 30 percent.

Most polls prior to the election suggested that Ortega would win a plurality of the vote. However, a majority was unexpected and topping 60 percent seems a stretch even under the most favorable scenarios for Nicaragua's polarizing president. His candidacy was already questionable with re-election being prohibited by the Nicaraguan constitution. Meanwhile, the government restricted international observation and rejected accreditations for several civil society organizations. On election day, the Organization of American States (OAS) and other organizations were prevented from entering a number of voting locations, preventing them from monitoring as they had hoped. The organizations that did monitor the vote, including several of the restricted civil society organizations who braved potential prosecution by the government for their efforts, reported problems and irregularities with ballots and process that should be investigated.

What happens next? The hemisphere has a history of recent contested and rejected election results. Sometimes, they are due to fraud. In others, the opposition complained unfairly. In others, there were irregularities, but perhaps not enough to warrant calling the election anti-democratic. Should Gadea continue to reject these results, looking at previous examples across this spectrum might be a good place to start.

Perhaps the most famous example is the 2000 election in Peru. President Alberto Fujimori ran for a third term, which many viewed as unconstitutional. Fujimori was able to run because he controlled the electoral and judicial institutions, blocking any legal objections. Fujimori then engaged in a campaign that included media manipulation, censorship, bribery and outright fraud. Opposition candidate Alejandro Toledo rejected the results and refused to participate in the second round, leading protests instead. Later that year, Fujimori was forced to resign over corruption scandals including bribing politicians. Toledo would go on to win the new elections when they were held.

However, the events in Peru are the exception, not the rule.

In 2004, many in the Venezuelan opposition rejected the results of the recall referendum as fraudulent. This led them to boycott the 2005 legislative elections, which in hindsight is largely viewed as a strategic error because it left the opposition without any representation in that branch of government.

In 2006, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) said the Mexican election had been stolen from him by Felipe Calderón. AMLO's subsequent protests in Mexico City and his inaugurating himself the "legitimate president" in a farcical ceremony that December turned Mexican public opinion against the runner up. Within a few months of Calderón's inauguration, AMLO was not viewed as a particularly serious opposition leader and had divided even his own party. The political debate moved on without him.

In 2008, Nicaragua's opposition rejected the results of the municipal elections in that country. They claim several dozen mayoral posts were stolen by the Sandinista government. The US and European governments agreed that there were significant questions about the democratic legitimacy of those elections and cut aid to Nicaragua in response. However, there was no action at the OAS, the country moved on, and the disputed FSLN mayors remain in their posts today.

In 2009, following the coup in Honduras, the Frente Nacional de Resistencia Popular (National Front of Popular Resistance—FNRP) chose to boycott the election and reject the winner's legitimacy, saying the conditions under the Micheletti regime were undemocratic and a fair election could not be held. Participation was a bit lower than usual, but most Hondurans accepted the elections as legitimate in spite of some anti-democratic measures put in place by the coup government. Pepe Lobo easily won the presidency and eventually managed to gain full international recognition, though it took a few years. The FNRP is now rethinking their strategy and elements of it are expected participate in the coming elections.

Given these examples, does Gadea end up being compared with Peru's Toledo in 2000 or Mexico's AMLO in 2006? Can he turn this into a political game-changer or is this just a temporary distraction before Nicaragua moves on to the next issue in Ortega's new term? Does Nicaragua's opposition consider boycotting future elections in spite of the failed examples by the Venezuelan and Honduran oppositions? And what position should the international community take?

For that international question, we should look back to Peru's election in 2000 and Honduras in 2009. In both cases, the international community helped broker a dialogue between the sides. Creating a similar mesa of dialogue in Nicaragua, through the OAS or other international group, could help address the opposition's concerns while avoiding unwanted instability. It's a process that is slow, but it is one of the few existing tools that can balance the positions of the two sides and prevent the dispute from escalating.

Neither side is going to like this answer. This is a question that goes to the very legitimacy of the government, meaning neither side believes there is a middle ground. The government and its international supporters will claim that outside help is not needed, is a violation of their sovereignty and is being used to portray their win as illegitimate. The opposition and those who reject the election internationally will complain that the process lacks actions that punish fraud and unfairly benefits the government by allowing them to remain in full control while the dialogue plays out. The government will want to move on with its next term; the opposition will want concrete actions that punish the government and reject its legitimacy. It's up to the international community to look for where they can compromise to help preserve and build Nicaragua's peace, prosperity stability and democracy.

As one final point, Nicaragua's disputed election results are simply the most recent in a line of rejected elections that show the OAS democracy charter needs reform. The charter only handles grave breaches of democracy such as when an executive is overthrown, like Honduras's coup in 2009, and does not deal well with nuanced questions of elections where results are disputed or other branches of government may have been manipulated by the executive branch. The fact that we've seen multiple election disputes in recent years and there is still no formal mechanism or process to handle those tough questions is a weakness at the OAS that should be resolved.

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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega, Fabio Gadea

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