The Miami Herald
November 3, 2001

Election observers eye Nicaragua


 MANAGUA -- Nearly 250 international observers -- among them former President Jimmy Carter -- have started to descend upon Nicaragua to watch over Sunday's fractious presidential elections that could put former leftist guerrilla Daniel Ortega back in power.

 The number of watchdogs is far smaller than the thousands that swarmed the country 11 years ago, when a dictatorship, back-to-back civil wars and a revolution had kept democracy at bay for five decades.

 But the use of outsiders from the Organization of American States, the European Union and the United States -- plus more than 10,000 locals -- illustrates how
 Nicaragua's presidential election process remains a delicate endeavor plagued with deep mistrust.

 ``In 1990, we had more observers than voters,'' joked Board of Elections President Roberto Rivas. ``We need international support. We've spilled too much blood in this country to go back to instability.''

 Observers say they are chiefly concerned about the highly politicized Board of Elections and a little-tested electronic ballot transmission system that some fear will
 collapse on Election Day. One group said its preelection survey encountered peasants who were willing to sell their votes.

 The observers will join more than 10,000 local volunteers and political party representatives watching the two million votes expected Sunday.

 ``It's more important that they be seen than that they see,'' said Foreign Minister Francisco Aguirre. ``The Nicaraguan people still need that crutch. It gives greater
 credibility to the electoral effort.''

 Ortega, whose Sandinista Front ruled from 1979 to 1990, is back on the ballot. Polls show him neck and neck with the country's former vice president, Enrique Bolaños, a businessman who was jailed and stripped of his properties during the Sandinista reign.

 Under Nicaraguan law, President Arnoldo Alemán is not eligible to run for reelection.

 In 1990, Ortega lost to Violeta Chamorro in an election that was scrutinized by 2,500 witnesses from the United Nations alone. Ortega lost again in 1996 in an election so fraught with problems that 14 percent of Managua's ballots were tossed out because exhausted poll workers, tired of standing in line to turn in their ballot boxes, left their cargo in the street and went home.

 This year's dead heat has heightened tensions and fear that a razor-thin election will prolong the ballot-counting and the challenging process. The army has deployed
 6,000 soldiers to protect polling places and will address civil unrest should the president declare a state of emergency.

 To ensure this year's results, the OAS and a Nicaraguan watchdog group, Ethics and Transparency, will conduct partial parallel counts as representatives of the political parties look on with their own observers.

 ``We don't do that so we can say who won and who lost,'' said Santiago Murray, head of the OAS mission. ``We do it to see trends. If our numbers and the official
 numbers are markedly different, we know something happened.''

 Rivas, head of the Board of Elections, acknowledged that past elections have been troublesome. Many people did not appear on voter rolls during last year's municipal races, and the government has been slow in issuing crucial identification cards needed to cast ballots.

 During a test run last month, it took 4 1/2 hours to count 250 votes. In last year's municipal election, some cities waited four weeks before finding out who won.

 ``There is a pattern of lack of trust,'' Rivas said. ``People think we can press a button and have the results.''

 But it is Rivas' own Supreme Elections Council that has most observers worried. A deal hatched between Bolaños' right-wing Liberal Party and the left-wing Sandinistas split the board 4-3, dividing each vote along party lines.

 Observers fear the council system could break down if the board cannot agree to ratify results or settle challenges. The council had to suspend its own quorum rules to make sure members would not boycott meetings to stall results.

                                    © 2001