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Tortilla con Sal IV With Roberto Rivas

Interview with the President of the Supreme Electoral Council in Nicaragua , Roberto Rivas

The Nicaraguan opposition and their allies in the European Union and North America have mounted a systematic campaign to de-legitimise the country's institutions. They claim Nicaragua is subjected to an "institutional dictatorship" dominated by the two main political parties, the Constitutional Liberal Party (PLC) and the party currently in government, the Sandinista FSLN. Much controversy has been provoked with regard to the municipal elections scheduled for November 9th this year. At the beginning of September, Tortilla con Sal spoke with Roberto Rivas President of Nicaragua's Supreme Electoral Council. This is an abridged veriosn of the interview. The full version can be read here

TcS: We're just a few months away now from the municipal elections in Nicaragua. What are the main challenges facing the Supreme Electoral Council as you prepare for these elections?

RR : Unlike many countries in Latin America, Nicaragua's electoral system is a separate power of the State and as such organizes the elections. We don't outsource our work in any way except in the case of transmitting the results, which we do with the company responsible for communications in our country. We are dealing with two aspects. On the one hand the political aspect which has to do with credibility and with the behaviour of the political organizations and their political alliances.

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And on the other hand we have the organizational aspect. From the organizational point of view I think there is no doubt, among organizations, and they have said as much, including some of the non-governmental organizations that criticize us every day, they have said there is no doubting our capacity as an institution in the technical organization of the electoral processes.

In Nicaragua there are no spoiled votes as we have seen in some Latin American countries. In Nicaragua there is no loss of voting documentation for the voting stations. Everything gets to where it is intended to go. If such cases were to happen they would be perhaps one or two out of 12,000. But up until now no such situation has happened. So I think that the administrative side of things is completely under control. The complicated part is the political aspect.

We are a very passionate country as regards politics. If you check out newspapers from Canada to Chile you'll find newspapers carry coverage of economics, social matters and politics. Nicaragua has 99.9 per cent coverage of politics and 0.01 per cent coverage of other issues. In that context, some people try to disqualify the electoral authority. Those people are people I would describe as political failures. They are individuals who have left their parties.

Some have left the Frente Sandinista, others have left the Liberal Party, others have left the Conservative Party and some of these people are ex-rectors of universities, some are former Sandinista government officials. Now, today, they are the ones you see on the television every day trying to influence opinion against Nicaragua's institutionality. And logically, since the Supereme Electoral Council is the authority that carries out those elections it finds itself caught up in that struggle on a daily basis.

However, despite everything if you look at the opinion polls, even with all their bias, because the scientific basis of their design has never been published, you'll see that public approval of our institution is at about 50 or 51 per cent. You will tell me that is very low for an institution carrying out elections. That is so. But if you take into account the bias, the people who don't take part in elections and a series of other factors, in the end people do have confidence.

Why do I venture to affirm that? On the basis of the level of electoral participation in Nicaragua. Nicaragua is one of the few countries in the world with a high level of participation without compulsory voting. Based on the total voter roll, about 65% of voters participate in the presidential elections, which given the real electoral roll - because part of the roll is faulty, with people who have died, people outside the country - that works out at 94 or 95 per cent. And in municipal elections, like the ones coming up now, we at about 60% which corresponds, given the real electoral roll, to about 85 or 90 per cent participation.

TcS : In terms of the criticisms some people in the country have made of the electoral roll, do you think the Council still has problems with it or have they been overcome?

RR: Yes. but perhaps for these people it is rather too easy to criticise, because they hardly even know what they are talking about. Our electoral roll today has about 3.7 million citizens entitled to vote, people over the age of 16. Here people vote at 16. Of those 3.7 million you have about a million citizens in Costa Rica. So those people are not taking part in the electoral process and so the electoral roll does not reflect that and we cannot disqualify them from voting. There are about 200,000 deceased people, approximately, individuals who have died and their relatives don't report them to us as the law requires they should. We cannot remove these citizens.

But in real terms, the roll is a clean electoral roll because whoever has an identity document that qualifies them to vote, who is a Nicaraguan citizen registered as such with documentary support, that makes the electoral roll work. As I explained it is not entirely clean. It is an electoral roll that is not clean for the reasons I mentioned, but not really one that does not meet the relevant requirements, I wouldn't use the word minimal, but the international standards for an electoral roll that qualifies citizens to vote. We cannot remove anyone form the electoral roll here. There is a direct relationship between the identity document and the electoral roll. An identity document cannot be issued if the information system does not include it in the electoral roll.

So these criticisms that people make, sometimes they don't even know what they are talking about from a technical point of view. What can we do in future? There is a simple way of cleaning up electoral rolls and that is by issuing a new identity document. Obviously, these are factors that in this area you can update for a year or for two years. Because within two years if citizens fail to meet their legal responsibilities, the electoral roll again has big problems.

We already have a programme in action for next year. We are ready to issue a new identity document that has all the relevant security components as required at globally. In accordance with the struggle against terrorism, against narcotics, against all this kind of evil that affects humanity today. We have not wanted to implement it now so as not to generate another complicating element into the elections. Once the elections are over, we are going to begin the process of renewing identity documents and at the same time clean up the electoral roll that logically should give us an up to date roll.

TcS : Can we look now at some points of specific criticisms that have been made in recent months which have even been made internationally? First they criticise the fact that elections in the Northern Atlantic Coast region have been postponed. Can you talk a bit about why that happened?

RR : There was a hurricane that provoked a human and material disaster in the North Atlantic region that affected eight municipalities in the area. But of those eight, three suffered much more than the others. What was the effect? A great deal of movement in the electoral roll. So basically, although we have the mechanism I mentioned to you before that people can vote even if they are in the wrong voting station, this is for exceptional cases not for whole municipalities for everyone to vote in that way. So to guarantee a transparent election, with not the least room for suspicion of fraud, the Council decided that the conditions were not appropriate and so the elections were postponed.

What happened was that the politicians like to be in the game on a daily basis. So here we were visited by a delegation of the executive commission of the National Assembly, our parliament. They asked myself and my colleagues to do an on-site inspection of the conditions prevailing. We went and the truth is that we found that conditions did not prevail for carrying out elections. Obviously the political parties, some, not all, want to interpret things their way and some thought it was some kind of trick on our part to try and complicate things, obtaining results other than the results they might expect at that time. But one was dealing with something no more than an absolutely technical matter.

We would have preferred the last Sunday of April, because that is a time when it does not rain in Nicaragua. Our seasons are not like yours, who have four well-defined seasons. In our case it either rains or it does not. Here we have three or four months when it does not rain so we wanted to take advantage of the last month in which it does not do so, which is April, so as to be able to carry out better elections. After a series of political negotiations in the National Assembly, it was decided to postpone them but to carry them out on January 18th and not at the end of April. Well, there are only two months between April and January. Does that really help much? But I hope that we will be able to do the impossible so that things work out OK in the North Atlantic Region.

TcS : And there are three municipalities there?

RR : Now it is a case of all the municipalities of the RAAN. We were talking of three. They expanded it to all eight.

TcS : The Assembly...

RR : The National Assembly.

TcS : Another point on which they have strongly criticised the Supreme Electoral Council has been for the cancellation of the legal personality of some small parties, for example the Movimiento Renovador Sandinista and the Partido Conservador. Are these cases the same? Or what are the circumstances in those cases?

RR : They are completely different. I have just got back from a meeting today of the Inter-American Union of Electoral Organizations where all the electoral bodies of Latin America took part and as it happens I was explaining this case because the people there like to know these things out of an interest in procedural hstory. The case of the MRS is completely different to that of the Conservative Party.

The Movimiento Renovador Sandinista held a congress in February 2007. And in that congress or convention it took the decision to replace all the executive commissions at municipal and departmental level, equivalent to US counties and states, and to name provisional commissions in the 153 municipalities and the 17 departments nationally. They told the Council two months later about this situation. So the Council sent them correspondence saying "On the resolutions of your congress, despite resulting from the action of your own statutes" - since we have to supervise their compliance with their statutes - " you are not complying with what you yourselves resolved. We are not going to say whether the results of your congress were correct or not, only your compliance with its results, the targets that you set for yourselves."

To this day we have yet to receive the names of the people making up those commissions. I can tell you of thirteen departments in which they don't exist. And where they do exist I can point out very specific examples of individuals who even say they were not consulted before they appeared in a provisional executive commission. In summary, they did not meet their own rules despite having this drawn to their attention officially month after month. They were told, they were warned and they were notified again and again. They never put their situation in order so a decision had to be taken and the decision was what the law stipulates, namely to cancel the legal personality of that party.

This is a case that is not closed. They have an appeal lodged with the Supreme Court of Justice. Electoral decisions cannot be appealed once the Council makes a resolution, except in the case of political parties in relation to their legal personality. The appeal is with the Court. If the Constitutional Division of the Supreme Court of Justice judges that this party should again receive its legal personality we have no other option but to do what the Supreme Court of Justice orders.

TcS : With regard to the situation of the MRS, perhaps this is a question you cannot answer but perhaps you could give your own opinion? Would it be fair to describe the behaviour of the MRS faced with this problem of compliance with the law as something deliberate, or is it incompetence, or what might explain it?

RR : That is a question that we magistrates in charge of the matter asked ourselves every day. Could it be intentional that they are leading us to take a decision of that nature? Because everything indicated, with all our formal legal warnings that they were quite uninterested in complying with their own resolutions. It was not an imposition of ours. But those are things on which I cannot offer an opinion except that it was something we asked ourselves and, for me, you have hit the target. It is an interesting question. Again , for us, if the Court admits their appeal and rules in their favour we will comply. I have no difficulty on that score and neither do my colleagues.

As for the Partido Conservador, the case is different. The law says that to maintain legal personality a party needs to present candidates in every electoral process in every election. In the municipal elections they should put up candidates in at least 80% of the municipalities, with 80% of possible candidates in each municipality. The Partido Conservador presented their candidates with just barely 80% of candidates. So then if one of their candidates died along the way, things got complicated for them and in fact 500 of their candidates resigned. And among the candidates were serving police officers which the Constitution prohibits. Here the armed forces and the police can vote but cannot stand for any office without resigning from service a year previously.

And so they were asked to replace the 500 candidates that had resigned. Only 101 replacements were received. There was no way. To date there is still not. That requirement has not been made good. They have two recourses. An appeal for review by ourselves that we have not received yet in fact for the same reason, since there is non-compliance with regard to candidates, and an appeal lodged with the Supreme Court of Justice. That is also pending. But again, if the Court rules in their favour we will comply.

TcS : The last of these criticisms that have been made so consistently of the Supreme Electoral Council has to do with election observers. Recently the complaint has been made that bodies like IPADE and Etica y Transparencia are not going to be permitted to be observers in this year's municipal elections. Some people say the body that has been accredited to observe the elections in November is aligned with the government. What do you think on this issue?

RR : There is an organization accredited which is CEELA the Council of Latin American Election Experts. These are people who have been electoral magistrates, or presidents of electoral bodies, who have carried out elections. We are talking about people who are experts. We are not talking about people who spend their lives observing. but who have spent their lives carrying out elections. A group of them met together, apparently on their own initiative, some of them suggest it was perhaps in the context of the organization of Latin American electoral bodies.

They invited us as observers, since at the end of the day we are all either ex-magistrates or magistrates in active service, all of recognised prestige among the electoral tribunals. They asked this Council if they could come and observe the elections, they offered support with technical assistance and we have authorized them and said to them fine, if they do things as they should be done. These are people who are very respectful of the rules because they have had their election processes observed. They are professionals. Most are academics, rectors of universities. They work very well.

As for the others, we have not said that observers are not going to be authorized. There are two requests. One from IPADE and one from Etica y Transparencia. What has definitely been sought here is to generate controversy on this score, but we have said that if they abide by the law, respect the rules, then we are studying the matter and for me they are likely to get their accreditation in due course. The collegiate body will have to see. I think there will be no problems in that sense. I think they will be accredited.

Even so, one day recently someone from Etica y Transparencia, Señor Robert Courtney specifically, at least from what I read in the media, said that with or without accreditation they were going to send out 6000 observers. I have asked the communications media, "why are they asking for accreditation if they are determined to observe either way?" And there is also the suggestion that why don't the people observe, that he had been to Bolivia and has seen in Bolivia that the people observed and I suggest to him, would someone recognise a failing simply because they were observing those elections? Does Señor Courtney even understand the Nicaraguan electoral process when the people here participates via its political parties who are all represented in the voting stations. They participate as oversight officers. They participate depositing their vote exercising their right to vote?

The law in Nicaragua demands that once voting is finished, oversight officers representing the different parties are present for a count of the votes deposited. A resolution confirming the votes is signed, a copy of which has to be posted outside the voting station so that this result can be compared with official announcements on the Council's web site, or listened to or seen on the radio or TV so as to compare whether the result from that voting station conforms to what the Council is publishing. So the people as such does in some measure participate.

I would say this is not a closed chapter. The Council is considering this. The only thing we want is a commitment that things should proceed according to the law. Yesterday, there was a resolution by all the Latin American electoral bodies that took into account some elements relating to election observation. Whether it be international or national - and I already made this observation to you - it should respect the legal framework of the countries where it is carried out, as much the national one as the international one, that's secondary. The principal thing is that observation should be neutral and should not be used as a mechanism for intervention so as to go and look at, or try to get involved in, the internal affairs of a given country, it ought to be made to work as a contribution to democracy.

And another element that the resolution touches on is to say that observers should communicate with the electoral authority before making known a given result. Why? Because you can come, say you are an observer and give a report saying these people are committing a fraud and base that on made up facts that are not the case. So that throws doubt on the process, questions the electoral process and makes our life more complicated. One has to be completely serious in these matters and very careful not to use the funding these organizations receive for training oversight officers, or voting station representatives, for political parties. Because the Electoral Law has a chapter on Electoral Offences which states that it is not possible to receive funding from other States or from mixed bodies like the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, to be transferred to political parties. And one way of transferring funds for that purpose is that one trains them, one calls them observers and then hands them over to be oversight officers or members of voting stations for the political parties.

We are saying that in this case, people will be authorized but they must hand over a database of whoever they are training as observers and we in accordance with the law will register them, and these individuals cannot be registered as voting station representatives or oversight officers. They will have to be registered as electoral observers, in the voting station they want to observe. Here there is no problem for the observers to work wherever they want to.

TcS : A very broad issue that generates controversy almost every time there is an election is precisely the independence of the Supreme Electoral Council. Some people insist the magistrates, as a result of their political affiliation, have to be biased in favour of one or other of the political parties. La Prensa for example has argued this. And I think Maximino Rodriguez one of the PLC leaders has also alleged that the Consejo Supremo Electoral is now totally in the power of the Frente Sandinista. What do you make of such accusations?

RR : I think that what is happening here firstly is that electoral bodies are political bodies par excellence. There are very few countries in Latin America where the electoral bodies are not made up of representatives from political parties. And that is logical. I can't see President Bush of the United States naming someone to a court that will decide elections, naming a Democrat. I can't see it. So then, if that's all right for them there, then why is it bad for us here? The same happens in every other country.

There are countries too that are even more biased in a party political sense, for example El Salvador. El Salvador says that the president of the electoral body should be a member of the party that won the last election. And the vice-president should be a member of the party that came second in the last election. So that is a party political representation that you have there.

Here in effect, of the seven of us who make up the tribunal, not including our deputies, three people were proposed by the Frente Sandinista, three people were proposed by the Partido Liberal Constitucionalista and myself who was proposed by different parties, including the self-same Maximino Rodriguez. And with every respect for him, we will see if perhaps in the end Maximino Rodriguez is a magistrate from 2010 onwards and if you interview him then maybe he will have the same opinion that he is throwing out now. Some of the people that you see every day on television in Nicaragua who are supporters of the MRS, and I say this because they have openly expressed it, if you were to name them magistrates on the Supreme Electoral Council they will tell you they are not biased, that they are impartial and they will cease the criticism that they are making today.

In good Nicaraguan, because it is not good Castilian Spanish, this is a "Clear off you. Make room for me". That is how I understand the upshot of this situation. If it's you, then you are biased. But if it's me, then I am not biased, although still in representation of a given political party. And so on. I sometimes say to myself that perhaps after all if we put Dr. Tunnerman or Maximino Rodriguez then things will get better and the Supreme Electoral Council will be impartial.

But, Nicaragua is a country where it is more than clearly demonstrated that the popular will is respected. Our electoral system was worked out by a group of nations during 1988 and 1989 so as to permit a large number of observers and to ensure a virtual home vote. Here, in a poor country, voters do not have to go more than five kilometres in rural areas. We are not talking about England or Spain or Holland or the United States. Here our rural areas are very different to the rural areas of Europe.

So there is no more than five kilometres distance for voters to travel and in the city it is no more than a kilometre. Voters almost have people turning up to their door to say, "Here ma'am, here's the voting box, please place your vote for the person you support." It is almost a home vote, extremely costly, but that is the system. But it is done like that too so as to make it highly participative. And here the Council as a collegiate group does not decide who wins or who loses the election. Here the Council simply transmits the results.

Every time I see a politician or member of the National Assembly talking ill of the electoral authority, questioning why vote? when everything is fixed, saying that here there will be fraud, the only thing I am watching is someone whom I am certain is going to get a bad result in the election and for that reason is trying to rubbish it.

TcS : One issue we come across constantly in our little online magazine is what I call anti-reporting when national journalists and analysts make false reports. We have found this in our reporting on Venezuelan cooperation for example. I suppose the same thing happens on election issues. For example Envío recently published an article in which, among many other things, it alleges that the FSLN manipulated events so as to select you as the CSE President. I should imagine that is false.

RR : No, it is not true. Our electoral law has had many reforms but from '93 or '94 the mechanism to elect the president was that parliament decided once the magistrates were elected who would be the president of the Supreme Electoral Council. With the constitutional reforms of 2000 it seemed to me extremely anti-democratic because if you elect someone as president of the electoral tribunal and that president is not up to it, as one might say, or does not perform well, or is a poor administrator, a poor organizer of elections, you cannot change them because you have to depose them, you have to pass through a process to change them. I proposed that the president be elected by the magistrates themselves for a period of one year to give the tribunal a chance that, if it didn't work out for them, to say so and elect someone else whom they think might do better.

So what the Frente Sandinista had was three votes and one needs five votes to be able to be president of the Supreme Electoral Council. There has to be a consensus of the Council's members for that to happen. So no, the Frente was part of it because to a certain degree it proposed magistrates, but once here as elected magistrates they are Nicaraguan citizens vested with electoral authority and among themselves they sought consensus and elected their president because they preferred an individual like myself who did not come from a particular political party or ideological current.

That gives rise to huge criticism. They tell you that such a one was with Alemán or that this one was with Ortega. To cap it all they say President Ortega is threatening me... they say any number of things. But these magazines like Envío are aimed more to the international level where one has no chance to reply. So then you say the president of the Council is a thief, is corrupt, the president of the Council is not transparent, the Council president has no defence nationally because the communications media do not allow it and there is little contact internatinally like this interview with you now. But there is not the least evidence and I can do absolutely nothing because the day I present a lawsuit in a court somewhere to denounce a calumny, that day then I will be threatening freedom of expression and so already they have alleged that here is a totalitarian country and that a left-wing dictatorship has taken over the country.

TcS : So the allegation that the FSLN chose you is false.

RR : Totally false..

TcS : You and your colleagues are certainly more than well aware that the country's electoral law has come through recent periods with many changes. Do you think those changes will stand or will it be necessary to make further changes to the country's electoral law?

RR : I think from my own technical point of view that the electoral lw has to be reformed. I'd go further and say that we do not have a law of political parties. The Council supervises compliance with the one law of the political parties that states that the parties must comply with their statutes. I would say that Nicaragua ought to have an Electoral Code covering Political Parties, a Registry of Births and Deaths, citizen's identity and which also covers the administrative part of the electoral law. An Electoral Code should exist. I think there are people who call daily in the media for possible electoral reforms. Of course the reforms they suggest are again just trying to get an advantage through those reforms.

But they are not looking at reform from our point of view who know the system's weaknesses from an organizational point of view. What we want is for that to be reformed and I will explain why. For example, the law has a chapter on the communications media. The original law was made in 1983 when communciations media were all in the hands of the State. Today they are all in private hands. The State only has a radio station which has been got to work with hardly any funding and a TV channel that is closed. So how are we going to give the political parties media space in something that is closed and non-existent? And then it says that the Supreme Electoral Council should control the media in their own spaces.

Do you think at this point in the game we are going to try and control the communications media in their own spaces? We can invite them to obey the law. But if they fail to comply, we are not going to walk into the trap of trying to limit them or close them down or fine them, because we would be attacking freedom of expression. So that is an area where some balance has to exist.

There are other elements, for example the law contemplated this article that here you are permitted to vote, contrary to what is the case in many countries in the world, where you do not appear in the roll of voters. It is logical that this offers an opportunity for fraud. It is included because the identity documents have not finished being processed so everyone in Nicragua has their identity document to hand.

Today now I think that should not exist. The law includes an ad hoc inscription process which was what was used in our countries many years ago when there were no permanent electoral rolls. One turned up four Sundays prior to the elections to register in a catalogue of voters, you were given a document with which to exercise your vote three or four weekends later. And that was eliminated. It had no reason to continue. There is a series of measures giving more flexibility to certain elements of the electoral tribunal so that it may decide on the issue of what is economically appropriate in budgetary terms for a very poor country. For example they put a ceiling of 400 voters to every voting station. But we have a problem. If there is one voter extra we have to open another voting station and that means a lot of money for the Council and the need to change boundaries or limits for that electoral canton or unit just for that one extra person.

So we are trying to work out some mechanisms for reform to make a serious proposal for an electoral reform not designed to benefit the Frente Sandinista or the Partido Liberal Constitucionalista or the MRS or the Partido Conservador but rather a proposal that benefits and facilitates the democratic exercise in Nicaragua guaranteeing people that their popular will is going to be permanently respected. Reforms were made to the law here in 1996 at least five times in the same year. The culmination was a reform in the assignment of seats twenty days after the elections took place, a reform that took place in the Council. I was a member of the tribunal then. I did not sign that reform because I was not invited to the meeting. But nobody mentions that now. But as a result of that reform the marital partner of the then president of the Supreme Electoral Council was elected as a deputy.

Here everything depends on the angle from which you view things and there is plenty of ill-intentioned work devoted to trying to detroy the image, not just of the Frente Sandinista but also of the Partido Liberal which is a very strong party and which I consider an extremely valid component of democracy in Nicaragua so there exists a balance and a counter-balance. I always think that in our countries we should have logical balances because if we do not have those balances, things will go badly for us. That leads to other types of systems that are not appropriate for our countries that have suffered some very hard things in years gone by.


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