Nicaragua’s secret polling observers. How they monitored a questionable presidential election

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They planned their mission for months, communicating through encrypted texts to avoid detection by the authorities.

The Nicaraguan government had excluded traditional international observers to monitor Sunday’s presidential elections. So around 1,450 volunteers lined up at 563 polling stations across the country to do the job themselves.

There was no doubt who would win. On the eve of the elections, the government of Daniel Ortega, former guerrilla president since 2007, had seven potential candidates arrested and jailed dozens of critics. Officially, his Sandinista National Liberation Front won 75% of the votes.

The popular poll monitoring effort, led by a group known as Urnas Abiertas (Open Ballot Boxes), has led to some transparency in an election widely denounced as illegitimate. Volunteers observed paramilitary control sites for voting, Sandinista militants lobbied residents to vote, and government vehicles were used to transport residents to the polls.

But most surprising was his estimate that only 18.5% of eligible Nicaraguans had voted, far below the official 65% turnout.

In a country with little political freedom, it appears that many Nicaraguans have heeded the appeal of opposition activists who urged residents to boycott the elections and spread the hashtag #QuedateEnCasa, or “stay home”.

“In silent form, we saw activism,” said Juan Diego Barberena, a 25-year leader of the Blue and White National Unity, an opposition movement that said eight of its members were illegally arrested the day before. of the elections. “It is a lesson for all Nicaraguans that if we unite we can reject the dictatorship.”

Ortega’s re-election was quickly condemned as undemocratic by the European Union, neighboring Costa Rica and the United States. In a speech Monday, Ortega claimed that his critics in prison were the “sons of the bitch of the Yankee imperialists”.

Instead of independent election observers, the government claimed to have accredited more than 200 “electoral comrades” from foreign groups considered friends of the Sandinista government.

The National Assembly, controlled by the ruling party, issued a statement saying that observers “seemed satisfied with the free and democratic Nicaraguan electoral process.” The Supreme Electoral Council, which oversees the elections, did not respond to a request for comment on the remarks made by Urnas Abiertas pollsters.

A canceled vote says

A canceled card says “Sandinista killers” and “freedom for political prisoners”.

Urnas Abiertas was formed last spring and is run by a handful of people from different academic disciplines, according to Pedro Fonseca, one of its founders. It has partnered with five civilian groups to recruit election observers.

One volunteer said she visited three polling stations in her small town, traveling on foot, by car and by motorbike to throw off anyone who could track her.

“You are not afraid, you feel that at least you are doing something,” said the 20-year-old student, who would only give her name – Alejandra – out of fear for her safety. “This is something you can do for your country even if it’s not that significant.”

Throughout the day she remained in contact with her family. He said he saw about five people enter polling centers every hour.

Some government employees have sent her photos showing how they canceled their vote by ticking boxes for multiple candidates or writing messages like “freedom for political prisoners” or “free Nicaragua”.

When she got home, she closed the doors and windows, suddenly worried about the backlash.

“I think that’s when you are aware of the risk,” he said.

Despite their attempts to be discreet, many other observers were arrested.

Jennie Lincoln, a senior consultant for Latin America at the Carter Center who helped monitor past Nicaraguan elections, praised the group’s effort.

“At high, high personal risk, national monitors were able to gather information about what was happening on Election Day, when the government had placed numerous obstacles to any serious election observation efforts,” he said.

The group’s estimated 18.5% turnout was based on voter counts in about one fifth of the country’s polling stations.

“It is very difficult to be certain of a number, but the fact that we have photos and videos from all over the country showing empty polling stations suggests that this figure could easily be corrected,” said Hilary Francis, a Nicaraguan historian at Northumbria University in England. . .

Opposition leaders said voter turnout would likely have been lower were it not for the government’s efforts to force people to vote.

Barberena said observers reported seeing voters delivered to the polls in government vehicles and members of Citizen Power Councils – neighborhood committees controlled by the Sandinista party – going from house to house, telling residents to vote early and reminding them. who have benefited from government social programs.

She also overheard a medical student who reported that she was asked to show her thumb inked as proof of her grade before entering a military hospital in Managua. The Nicaraguan newspaper La Prensa reported on similar cases.

“We are experiencing political violence in Nicaragua when the Sandinista front thinks it can do what it wants with public workers and students,” Barberena said.

A 17-year-old student from Managua who would only reveal her name – Ashly – said four neighborhood committee members showed up at her home on election day morning to escort her family to a polling station in a truck.

“We came to get you,” he told them saying.

Family members said they would go to church and vote later. But when Ashly got home around noon, the committee members were waiting. Ashly and her relatives told them they would go to the polls at 3pm

The committee members returned and accompanied Ashly and her mother to the polls. The family convinced officials that Ashly’s grandmother could not leave the house due to a toothache and that her great grandmother could not go because the pandemic made it too risky.

At the nearly empty polling station – just a two-minute drive away – Ashly ticked the boxes for all candidates, canceling her vote.

“I was really nervous,” she said. “I thought, ‘Let’s hope they don’t do anything.'”

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