- The Washington Times - Friday, September 21, 2001

Amid growing economic and political tensions in Nicaragua, the International Republican Institute concluded its third pre-election assessment mission Aug. 26-31 in preparation for national elections scheduled for Nov. 4. The prognosis: a flawed electoral process that could lead to political and social instability in this troubled Central American country.
The IRI assessment team met with political party representatives and candidates, electoral authorities, civil society groups and Nicaraguan citizens in an effort to further assess a heavily curtailed electoral process. We are gravely concerned that this process has been compromised by an undemocratic pact formed in January 2000 between the governing Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC) under President Arnoldo Aleman and the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) under Daniel Ortega. The pact substantially alters the requirements to win the presidency, allowing for victory with only 35 percent of the popular vote. This all-encompassing political agreement essentially eliminates competition from third parties, forcing their extinction, thereby instituting a two-party system in Nicaragua.
The upcoming elections provide the first real test of this highly criticized agreement between Mr. Aleman and Mr. Ortega, the former revolutionary dictator. The PLC's Enrique Bolaos is challenging Mr. Ortega to win the presidency, and the PLC and the FSLN are squaring-off over all 90 seats in the National Assembly and Nicaragua's quota of 20 seats in the Central American Parliament.
In IRI's visits to Managua and the departments of Matagalpa and the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN), IRI heard numerous complaints that citizens had been excluded from the voter registration process, thwarting their participation in the elections. In the historically neglected RAAN an area heavily populated by former "contra" freedom fighters our IRI-led delegation of congressional staffers and think-tank experts met with representatives of several indigenous groups and community leaders who reported omissions of entire towns and settlements in the voter registration process.
The possible disenfranchisement of these Nicaraguans is of great concern, particularly as the country continues to forge a participatory democracy. As the exclusion of many Nicaraguans becomes increasingly irreversible, we fear a serious compromise of the country's electoral process will result.
The Supreme Electoral Council's (CSE) inability, or its unwillingness, to ensure the participation of all interested Nicaraguans decreases the level of confidence in an already problematic electoral process. Indeed, we are concerned that this lack of confidence will result in widespread abstentions on election day.
Of additional concern is the possibility of the Sandinistas preventing a quorum of the CSE, disabling the electoral authority from operating, as occurred in June. While the CSE magistrates formally agreed to prevent a repeat of the June incident, actual compliance with the agreement is far from guaranteed.
Since early August, we called on the CSE to implement a comprehensive credential distribution campaign to guarantee that those citizens who registered to vote can do so. The CSE has promised to implement an aggressive distribution effort in mid-September. If the CSE fails to perform, Nicaraguans and international observers will be highly disappointed.
As of Aug. 31, more than 225,000 voting credentials had yet to be distributed, not including 125,000 credentials to be produced by Sept. 5. An inadequate distribution effort will further mar the process and call into question the fairness of the elections.
The IRI recognizes the challenges faced by the CSE, the political parties, and most importantly, the Nicaraguan people.
With less than two months before the elections, every effort must be made to ensure the participation of every interested Nicaraguan. A tainted election could create a groundswell of political chaos in Nicaragua and possibly lead to violence and regional instability. The United States and other hemispheric democracies must work to ensure that every effort is being made to support freedom in Nicaragua.
IRI has worked continuously in Nicaragua for several years and has observed numerous electoral processes in the country. The current electoral process is of great concern, and we will continue to closely monitor developments in the country. We will field a delegation of approximately 50 observers to monitor the Nov. 4 national elections.
In the meantime, we will conduct two additional assessment missions aimed at gauging the fairness of the electoral process.

George A. Folsom is president of the International Republican Institute.

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