Seanad Éireann - Volume 124 - 14 March, 1990
Nicaraguan Elections: Statements.
Mr. McKenna Mr. McKenna
 Mr. McKenna: I would like to give a report on our visit to Nicaragua. I would like to compliment Senator Manning for proposing that this should be allowed and also the Leader of the House for allowing both my colleague, Senator McDonald, and myself to make statements.
I was, indeed, honoured to be appointed a member of the Irish delegation to Nicaragua, which comprised Deputy Dick Roche, Deputy Bernard Allen and Deputy Michael Higgins. In the first instance, I think I should give a brief background to the history and the lead-up to these elections.
In February 1989, President Ortega offered to have the elections held in February 1990. To say that that was a surprising decision is an understatement, because the economy was in a dreadful state. Inflation in 1988 was running at a massive 30,000 per cent and the economic crisis was having an adverse effect on the FSLN, the ruling party, the Sandinista National Liberation Front. President Ortega's offer was aimed at President George Bush, who had been newly installed in the White House, in the hope that, if it could be proven to the United States and to the world at large that free democratic elections could be held, then the way could be paved for a restoration of peaceful relations between the US and Nicaragua and to bring to an end the dreadful Contra war that had needlessly cost so many lives and maimed many others, as indeed is the case with all wars.
The election campaign formally began on 4 December 1989. I must say that the Government went to extraordinary lengths to ensure that the democratic credentials of the election would be above reproach. The election was supervised by the Supreme Electoral Council, which was comprised of five magistrates — two Sandinista, two opposition and one independent. There was an army of some 3,000 observers from numerous international bodies, including the United Nations observers, who had been in Nicaragua since August; the Organisation of American States observers,  who had been there since April. Former President Jimmy Carter had a team of observers there, as had Raul Alfonsin, the former Argentine President. The European Parliament had a delegation and there were numerous other international parliamentary delegates, including, of course, our own.
The two main parties were the FSLN, or the Sandinistas, headed by President Ortega, and the UNO Alliance of some 14 parties, ranging from the extreme right to the extreme left in the political divide, and had as presidential candidate Violetta Chamorro, who is editor of the paper, La Prensa, and whose husband had been allegedly murdered by the Samosa régime in 1978.
The two main issues that dominated the campaign were the Contra war and the economic crisis. The Contra war had claimed in the region of 30,000 lives and had injured as many more people. That war, plus the US economic blockade, had a devastating effect on the economy, with many of the population not being able to afford the basic necessities of life. Housing conditions in Nicaragua are absolutely appalling. The people have just grown weary of their plight. The political debate dominating the campaign was over who should take the blame for the crisis. The Sandinistas, while admitting that they did make mistakes in managing the economy, blamed the crisis on the war, while the UNO Alliance put the whole blame on the Sandinistas.
The voting age in Nicaragua is 16. Registration is mandatory, but voting is not. Members of the armed forces did not vote at military barracks but at their local polling booth where they registered. Nicaraguans who were abroad at the time of registration, which incidentally took place on the first four Sundays in October, could register at Nicaraguan consulates abroad but had to return to vote. The country was broken into nine regions for electoral purposes. The Supreme Electoral Council elected nine three-person regional electoral councils who, in turn, elected three-member ballot receiving boards, or presiding  officers, for each polling place in their respective regions. There were 4,394 polling places with an average of 450 to 500 voters at each polling place.
In relation to the funding for the campaign the Supreme Electoral Council had allocated 700,000 US dollars in public financing for the political parties. Half of this allocation went to the political parties in equal parts and the second half was divided among the parties according to the proportion of votes gained in the 1984 elections. The law was also changed to permit foreign contributions to political parties and candidates, but 50 per cent of such contributions had to go to the Supreme Electoral Council's Fund for Democracy to cover the electoral expenses. The regulation of that particular funding was one of the most difficult tasks that was undertaken by the Supreme Electoral Council.
All political parties had access to television media at various times. Parties could also purchase time on two channels from a minimum of three minutes to a maximum of ten. Access to State radio was also available, and again the parties could purchase time on the private radio stations.
On the days prior to the election we interviewed numerous people — from members of the Supreme Electoral Council, the United Nations representatives, Organisation of American States representatives, members of the Carter delegation and through to representatives of different political parties. While we did find normal accusations and counter-accusations associated with electioneering, all involved were quite satisfied by the manner in which the electoral process was being conducted.
One serious allegation was made to us by the legal representative of the UNO Alliance, which was the leading opposition party. He claimed that the number of their poll watchers — we call them personation agents — had been arrested and put in prison to prevent them from acting on election day. When we offered to investigate the matter the representative told us that it would be a waste of time, that we would be told by the  authorities that those people were not being held and that there was no way to prove that they were. However, we did follow up the matter subsequently ourselves and received the information that, of the list that was supplied in relation to the alleged people who were put in jail, only three of them had been detained and none of those three was in fact a poll watcher.
Polling began at 7 a.m. on 25 February. We visited some 50 polling stations, both in and around Managua and outside, including the northern territory where the Contra war had been fought. We found without exception that the voting procedures were carried out in the strictest and most stringent manner and there was absolutely no way that either impersonation or any other act of fraud could succeed. I was quite amazed at the rigour with which the officials at each polling place carried out their duties. Queues had formed at all polling stations hours before they were due to open. The patience of the people and their determination to exercise the franchise was a revelation. Some of them told us they had been queuing for seven to eight hours to vote. Only one voter was dealt with at a time and the scrutiny to which each one subjected himself or herself had to be seen to be believed.
One would have to acknowledge that the procedures were so stringent that there is no way that some of them would be agreed to or adopted in Western democracies. One example of how stringent the regulations were is this: where there was any doubt about the identity of a voter then that person could not get a ballot paper prior to it being signed by a number of the poll watchers verifying his or her identity. The voters identified themselves by presenting registration cards. When they were accepted as being bona fide they each got a separate ballot paper for the elections taking place — one for the President and Vice-President, one for the National Assembly and one for the Municipal Council. Each ballot had a stamped number on it corresponding to the number on the voting table at which they voted. This number  was chosen by the officials at the table just before the polls opened on the morning on 25 February.
Poll watchers from each of the political parties were entitled to be present to verify that no fraud was attempted either before, during or after the vote. At one polling booth we visited the poll watchers were taking their job so seriously that they were signing all of the voting papers and this led to considerable and enormous delays. When the polls closed at 6 o'clock the polling officials counted the votes in the presence of the poll watchers and the final tally was entered. Poll watchers could then receive copies from each polling place. All the tallies were eventually sent to the headquarters of the Supreme Electoral Council in Managua where they were processed through a most sophisticated computer network.
The first results indicated that a surprise was possibly on the cards, but as the results continued to come in it became obvious that a major upset was going to take place. In the end, the UNO Alliance received—these are the official results — 777,552 votes or 54.7 per cent of the vote; the FSLN received 579,886 or 40.8 per cent; MUR — Movement of Revolutionary Unity — 16,751 votes or 1.1 per cent; and the PSC — the Social Christian Party — 11,136 votes or 0.7 per cent. There was also a provision in the Constitution whereby defeated presidential candidates who received a minimum specified vote could also be elected to the Assembly and under that regulation Daniel Ortega of the FSLN and Mosises Hassan of the Movement of Revolutionary Unity also became members of the Assembly.
During our stay, we were treated at all times with the utmost courtesy and hospitality. We were allowed access to every place to which we wished to travel and we were never hindered or questioned about our movements. In short, we were treated extraordinarily well.
Questions have been asked as to why the result was as it was. My own view is that two factors had a very important bearing on the outcome. The first I have alluded to already: the economic crisis —  poverty and lack of services. The second reason, I think, was conscription. The people just grew tired of the plight and, rightly or wrongly, saw the election as an opportunity to get some relief from the dreadful conditions. In fact, an FSLN supporter, to whom we were talking subsequent to the elections, when asked why he thought that the result turned out as it did, said: “The Sandinistas promised the Nicaraguan people bread, housing and dignity. We gave them dignity and now they want the bread and houses”. I think that is an accurate estimation of how the people felt at that time.
I sincerely hope that there will be no triumphalism on the part of the UNO Alliance. There were no major victory parades or anything like that at the time we left there. I have to say also that I was very taken by the gracious manner in which Daniel Ortega accepted the outcome in a speech he gave subsequently. I would also have to commend former President Carter, who accompanied President Ortega to the home of Violetta Chamorro when the results became known. I think that if there was any type of triumphalism on anybody's part it would be a recipe for disaster under the present circumstances.
I sincerely hope that the Nicaraguan people are left in peace to sort out their own affairs, that whatever outside aid, in the form of finance or advice, which they so urgently need will be given without any conditions and that the whole purpose of any assistance, financial or otherwise would be to let those people get on with their own lives and to try to pick up the pieces without interference from any side whatsoever. That is absolutely crucial. The elections in Nicaragua will have a very important bearing on all activity in Central America, so it is extremely important that the people who have exercised the franchise and brought about the result would be left to sort out their own affairs.
It is important also to mention that when we were interviewing Carlos Munez, who was the President of the Assembly, he made an important point  — and this was prior to the voting day — putting the election in context, saying “It is great to have so many international observers here with us at this particular time, but I would appeal to you not to forget us when the elections are over. There are people here from throughout the world, but we need you people to look to Nicaragua when this is over and to keep an eye on what happens afterwards. It is one thing to come here and spend a week or a fortnight seeing what is going on, but what we would ask you to do is this. When you go back to your own countries and governments encourage those people to take an active part in affairs in terms of what support and assistance can be given to the people of Nicaragua and stress that this is extremely important.”
Nobody was left in any doubt as to the enormity of the problem they had in relation to trying to rebuild the economy of Nicaragua. All I would hope is that they are left to get on with the job. The job of rebuilding the economy is an extremely important one. I could just say, in passing, that I became a millionaire in Nicaragua because I changed $20 and in exchange for the $20 I got 1,200,000 cordovas. That in itself is an example of the extremely difficult economic situation those people found themselves in. I must say that the capacity of the people to endure enormous difficulties, enormous poverty and dreadful conditions was absolutely amazing. I think it would put things into perspective. All I would wish is that everybody who complains about little things could see for himself or herself at first hand the tremendous difficulties under which those people exist.
Briefly, that is a very broad summation of what went on. There were so many different aspects to the campaign that one could go on indefinitely talking about it. But I hope that I have given a broad outline of how things were in Nicaragua. The coming years will be extremely important for those people. The eyes of the world will be on them. They deserve their place in the sun. I hope that over the coming years they will be able to sort  out their own affairs. I would love to go back there in five years' time and see what sort of changes have taken place. I sincerely hope they will be all for the better of the people of Nicaragua.
Mr. McDonald Mr. McDonald
Mr. McDonald: I would just like to place on record my appreciation of the Leader of the House and the Leader of the Opposition in arranging this kind of debate to give a follow-through to the decision of the Inter-Parliamentary Association to accept the invitation to send observers to Nicaragua. I think it is very appropriate. On the Order of Business there were a few points raised about a foreign affairs committee but I do not think we have really cottoned on to the situation where we, as a nation, have such a strong voice in international politics at the present time and especially through the period of the Presidency. One notices the fact, when one meets colleagues or politicians from other countries, that they are very conscious of the input we have the possibility of making.
I do not wish to cover the same ground as Senator McKenna. I very much agree with the points he made. I will try not to go over the areas he covered. Before Christmas, I declined to let my name go forward for consideration for inclusion as part of the Irish delegation, although at the executive meeting of the IPA I did propose that the Oireachtas should be properly represented. That proposal was very kindly seconded by the Cathaoirleach, Senator Doherty, and carried. When the composition of the Irish delegation had been settled, just last month, I did accept an invitation from the International Union of Christian Democrat Parties to join their international team of senior politicians to observe the elections in Nicaragua. The reason I received that invitation was that I was part of a similar team which observed the first free elections after dictatorship in both Spain and Portugal in the seventies. Both were very sharply fought contests and there was a little more than skin and hair flying. With that experience, I was not altogether an enthusiastic volunteer to take on the role in Nicaragua.
 We spent some 12 days there. The delegation consisted of members of Parliament from practically all of the European countries — from the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Spain and Italy — and also from the Dominican Republic and from Venezuela. We had the opportunity of speaking with — I think it was 30 — people representing that many organisations. We visited nearly all of the electoral headquarters, not just of the UNO and the FSLN but of the constituent party organisations — the 14 parties that comprise the UNO — and then there were eight other parties apart from the UNO and the FSLN that contested the election separately. We had the opportunity of having discussions with those, mainly with their presidents, and after the elections we were given the opportunity of a review of the elections and to listen to their hopes and aspirations for the future.
Among the people we had the opportunity of holding discussions with and being briefed by were the Commandante Bayardo Arce who is about third in command of the FSLN. We met him at the election headquarters. We met the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Fr. Miguel D'Escoto and the Secretary General of the Foreign Affairs Department, Senor Alejandro Bendana. We had discussions with Dr. Mario Fillos, President of the Supreme Electoral Council, with Mr. Elliot Richardson, the personal representative of the Secretary General of the United Nations, with Dr. Jennifer McCoy, the director of the Carter Centre.
Seanad Éireann 124 Nicaraguan Elections: Statements.