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Cablegate: Ortega Tightens Control Over Electoral Environment

VZCZCXYZ0004
PP RUEHWEB

DE RUEHMU #0153/01 0391651
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
P 081651Z FEB 08
FM AMEMBASSY MANAGUA
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 2058
INFO RUEHZA/WHA CENTRAL AMERICAN COLLECTIVE PRIORITY
RUEAIIA/CIA WASHDC PRIORITY
RUMIAAA/CDR USSOUTHCOM MIAMI FL PRIORITY
RHEFDIA/DIA WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY
RHEHNSC/NSC WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY

C O N F I D E N T I A L MANAGUA 000153

SIPDIS

SIPDIS

STATE FOR WHA/CEN
USAID FOR BONICELLI
NSC FOR FISK AND ALVARADO

E.O. 12958: DECL: 02/04/2018
TAGS: KDEM NU PGOV PHUM
SUBJECT: ORTEGA TIGHTENS CONTROL OVER ELECTORAL ENVIRONMENT

REF: MANAGUA 0105

Classified By: Ambassador Paul Trivelli, Reasons 1.4 (b) and (d)

SUMMARY
-------

1.(C) The Ortega administration is tightening control over
the electoral environment in the run up to the November
municipal elections. Beginning in late December 2007, the
Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) began firing technical staff
with ties to Liberal parties. Of particular concern were the
removal of the Liberal heads of four departmental-level CSE
offices and those responsible for cedulas (voter registration
cards). In addition, CSE magistrates told NGO leaders that
they are considering postponing elections in the Departments
of Chinandega, Matagalpa and the North Atlantic Autonomous
Region (RAAN). The CSE magistrates also threatened to deny
Etica y Transparencia, the most prominent domestic election
observer group, permission to observe the municipal elections
due to alleged violations of electoral laws in previous
elections. We can expect similar efforts in the months ahead
as the Ortega administration seeks to minimize the risk of
electoral defeat in the municipal elections. End Summary.


PURGING THE SUPREME ELECTORAL COUNCIL
-------------------------------------

2. (C) Beginning in late December 2007, the Supreme Electoral
Council (CSE) began firing technical staff with ties to
Liberal parties or "unreliable" FSLN members. The firings
began with the Liberal heads of the Departmental Electoral
Councils (CEDs) in Managua, Chinandega, Nuevo Segovia and
Rivas (key departments where the FSLN is likely to lose
municipalities in the November elections). According to
press accounts, these individuals were all replaced by FSLN
administrative staff. Elvis Armengol, the recently fired
Director for Cedulation in Managua, told us that by
mid-January 84 technical staff (reportedly all Liberals) had
been fired and that at least another 80-90 would be fired in
the coming weeks. The firings involved all levels of the CSE
(municipal, departmental and national) and covered all
regions of the country. By January 24, two NGO contacts
reported that as many as 300 technical staff may have been
fired in total, though some reportedly were re-hired.
According to two other CSE contacts, the CSE employed over
600 staff nationally as of December 2007 and confirmed that
at least 95 people have been fired to date.

3. (C) Armengol told us that the only office where no firings
occurred was the office responsible for production of the new
modernized cedulas. That office, consisting of approximately
forty-five people, remains entirely composed of FSLN
loyalists. According to Armengol and our NGO contacts, the
CSE claims the firings were for "incompetence" and/or
"negligence" and have created an "environment of fear" among
all CSE staff. As of late January, CSE officials were
claiming publicly that some offices had to be shut down due
to absence of an approved budget for 2008, and that the
firings were part of their normal practice and not
partisan-based.

4. (C) Armengol told us there was no "triggering event" for
the firings but that it was part of an early effort to
control the mechanics of the electoral process. Armengol
noted that the FSLN had taken control of the cedulation
effort in June 2006, by-passing the municipal CSE structures
and going straight to FSLN local party officials
to distribute cedulas. For the November municipal elections,
Armengol reported the CSE is planning to implement a
cedulation campaign through secondary schools to directly
distribute cedulas via the FSLN-aligned teachers union. This
strategy would again cut out municipal structures and ensure
a higher percentage of FSLN loyalists get cedulas. Armengol
and our NGO contacts stated that CSE Magistrate Emmett Lang,
a close confidant of Ortega, was personally directing the
effort to purge the CSE and to tighten FSLN party control
over the electoral process.

CSE LOOKING TO POSTPONE ELECTIONS AND BLOCK OBSERVATION
--------------------------------------------- ----------

5. (C) In a January 21 meeting with the Nicaraguan NGO Etica
y Transparencia (Ethics and Transparency), CSE Magistrates
Roberto Rivas and Emmet Lang confirmed the CSE is "seriously
considering" a proposal by local authorities to postpone
municipal elections in the RAAN (reftel). Rivas reported
that the damage to infrastructure was so severe and lasting
that the request by local authorities had merit and that the
CSE, with other government offices, would be traveling again
to the region in the coming weeks to make a final decision.

6. (C) Surprisingly, Rivas also revealed that the CSE is
considering delaying elections in the departments of
Matagalpa and Chinandega. In Matagalpa, severe flooding in
September and October had damaged key infrastructure and
sixteen thousand cedulas for the department were "lost." In
Chinandega, Rivas cited "migration" as the reason for
considering a postponement, but did not elaborate on what
kind of migration or how it impacted CSE's ability to conduct
the local elections. Chinandega lies in the heartland of
FSLN support but public opinion polls show that support
eroding.

7. (C) In the same meeting and a subsequent January 24
meeting with Etica y Tranparencia (EyT), Rivas and Lang
suggested that EyT was unlikely to be registered to observe
the municipal elections because of violations of electoral
law in previous election cycles, e.g., EyT published quick
count results prior to the CSE's publication of official
results, a supposed violation of electoral regulations. EyT
board members report they have also come under increasing
individual pressure to scale back their criticism of the
Ortega administration or risk losing their ability to conduct
election observation or even face investigations into their
personal finances.

OPPOSITION CONCERNED ABOUT CEDULATION
-------------------------------------

8. (C) Kitty Monterrey, a senior advisor for the Nicaraguan
Liberal Alliance (ALN), told us that the firings, potential
election delays, and the continued problems with likely
voters getting cedulas seriously threaten the democratic
opposition's ability to compete in the local elections. In
particular, Monterrey believes that the firing of some key
technical staff would negatively affect the ability of
Liberal and independent voters, especially in Managua, to
obtain cedulas thereby suppressing the pro-democratic vote
and raising the FSLN proportion of the voting population.
Enrique Saenz, head of the Sandinista Renewal Movement (MRS)
party in the National Assembly, echoed this sentiment in a
January 31 meeting with the Ambassador. He noted that ALN
and MRS potential voters are much less likely to have cedulas
than FSLN voters. He cited a recent poll that showed 17
percent of potential ALN voters and 28 percent of potential
MRS voters simply do not have the ID cards. With these
ongoing cedulation problems and lack of transparency in the
CSE's actions, Saenz suggested that civil society and the
political parties will have to take on an even greater, more
aggressive, role in electoral observation to hold officials
accountable.

CSE DOWNPLAYS REPORTS OF PARTISANSHIP
-------------------------------------

9. (C) In meetings with a US NGO providing election support
to the CSE, Rodrigo Barreto, Rivas' chief of staff,
discounted the reports of widescale firing and election
delays. He confirmed that "about 80 people" were fired, but
that none of them were from "critical" positions. He claimed
those fired included mechanics, drivers, operators, "the
lover of one magistrate" and the daughter of another and was
unaware of the political affiliation of any of those fired.
The lack of funding and the need to modernize CSE operations
was cited as the reason for the majority of the firings.
Barreto asserted that the CSE magistrates are interested in
transparent elections and would not engage in partisan
actions, such as the firing of Liberal staff or the
postponement of elections where one party could lose.
Barreto also claimed that three of the Liberal CED presidents
removed in December will be replaced by ALN representatives.
(Note - ALN President Eduardo Montealegre has publicly and
privately said this is not true, and press reports indicate
these officials were replaced with FSLN staff. End note.)

COMMENT
-------
10. (C) The Ortega administration, with the clear support of
the Arnoldo Aleman loyalist magistrates on the CSE, is
seeking to establish early control over the electoral
mechanisms in order to minimize the risk of an electoral
defeat in the November municipal elections by tilting the
playing field in the "Pacto's" favor. In the RAAN and the
Departments of Chinandega and Matagalpa, the FSLN stands a
serious risk of losing a majority of the municipalities to a
united PLC-ALN party ticket. Delaying the elections would
give the FSLN a greater opportunity to minimize the potential
damage and divide the pro-democratic forces. In addition, as
the opposition seeks to turn the elections into a referendum
on the Ortega administration, turnout of the electorate will
become key. The FSLN, as evidenced by the apparent purges of
technical staff in the CSE, is looking to control the
mechanics of who votes in order to manipulate turnout to its
own advantage. In this effort they have a willing partner in
Aleman's loyalists on the CSE. Aleman clearly does not want
a strong turnout either - as much of the PLC base is
increasingly vocal in opposition to the Almena-Ortega
powersharing "Pacto" and his personal efforts to disrupt
Liberal unity. A strong turnout could undermine his ability
to select candidates and control the municipal party
structures.

11. (C) We can probably expect more efforts like these,
especially restricting the ability of NGOs to observe the
elections, in the coming months. Ortega gambled once on open
elections and lost. Now that he is in power, he is unlikely
to make the same gamble twice. In this opaque electoral
environment, we also believe it will be all the more
imperative that civil society has the training, resources and
capacity to mobilize voters and oversee the elections.
TRIVELLI

© Scoop Media

 
 
 
 
 
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