Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 185 | Diciembre 1996



Observing The Observers

Did international observers use a double standard to judge the elections? The complexity and diversity of the electoral crisis was matched by that of the electoral observation process itself, in which I participated as a member of Hemisphere Initiatives-WOLA, one of the observing groups.

Judy Butler

It hasn't yet occurred to anyone to do a comparative
study, but it's quite likely that Nicaragua had more people scrutinizing its October 20 elections per capita than any other country has ever had. Over a thousand foreign observers (1,228 to be exact) came from some 40 countries, and for the first time in Nicaragua's history, several new national organizations were also formed to oversee the elections. The largest of these, Ethics and Transparency, had more than 4,200 observers in the field on election day. And in the South Atlantic Autonomous Region, the Center for Human, Civil and Autonomous Rights fielded some 150 more.

In addition, anywhere from one to over a dozen party poll watchers monitored the proceedings at the nearly 9,000 polling places--more than twice the number in 1990--from early in the morning on October 20 until the end of the vote count in the wee hours of the next day. In some cases, both observers and party monitors accompanied the telegram form bearing the vote results to the local telecommunications office (ENITEL, neé TELCOR), where it was forwarded to the CSE computer headquarters in Managua. Many also followed the bags of ballots and supporting documents until they were deposited at the Departmental Computation Centers.

Any intentionality behind the anomalies--or worse--that riddled this year's elections for the first time since the fraudulent voting that characterized the Somoza regime remains elusive. Nonetheless, one would have thought that, with so many eyes trained on the process on election day, the multitude of problems that led the FSLN and several other parties to challenge the results in a number of departments the following days would not have come as such a surprise.

Where Were the Checks and Balances?

Observers and party monitors are key elements in the system of technical and human checks and balances set up by the Supreme Electoral Council to assure clean and effective elections. The human failure to detect the gravity of the problems on election day is perhaps because the inadequacy of the technical implementation was so dispersed. In contrast, the later slowness and in some cases even failure of observer organizations to acknowledge how widespread and serious those problems were speaks more to the politics of election observation itself. The inclination of some organizations to downplay the problems all the way to the end questions the impartiality of electoral observation in Nicaragua, particularly because they tended to be the very ones who expressed the greatest concern about the problems and errors that surfaced prior to the elections.

At various points over the weeks preceding and following the Nicaraguan population's complicated exercise of the vote, I had the unanticipated opportunity to work alongside many different observer organizations. I helped draft a study of the electoral process for Hemisphere Initiatives, accompanied a small group from an international women's delegation to observe election day in the Atlantic Coast, joined a team of AID funded observers still in the country after the elections who pooled their resources to follow up the post election review, and was invited to participate in an evaluation by observers from the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (CENIDH) who had worked with Ethics and Transparency--what we good naturedly called an "encounter" between national and international observers. I interviewed and was interviewed by representatives of other observer groups, including the Interamerican Institute for Human Rights/Center for Electoral Promotion and Advice (IIHR/CAPEL), the Organization of American States (OAS) and the European Union; chaired pre election panel discussions for observers from Global Exchange and the US Nicaraguan Friendship Office; and gave post electoral talks to members of these and other civil society delegations from the United States at the Ben Linder House in Managua.

This article recounts what I saw and heard--or didn't hear--as I observed the observers. It does not pretend to be inclusive; it hardly could be with such an army of national and international observers. But hopefully it will encourage all of us involved in such activities in the future to question our own practice more deeply.

Who Were the International Observers?

The Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) divides foreign observers into two categories. At the top are "international observer organizations," which sign special agreements with the CSE and the executive branch of government and may offer suggestions and advice (which the CSE is not obliged to take). This status was shared in 1990 by the United Nations and the OAS. This year it was enjoyed exclusively by the OAS, with 117 observers, since the UN did not participate.

It's not that the CSE didn't invite the UN; it did. But the UN is increasingly leaning toward replacing itself in this cumbersome and costly task with national observer organizations in each country. When it received no response to its letter to the OAS seeking to coordinate rather than duplicate official efforts, it decided to decline the CSE offer and exclusively pursue this other objective, explained in greater detail below.

The second tier CSE status is "invited observer," which includes government and parliamentary representatives and foreign organizations or prestigious individuals invited by the CSE and other branches of state or by the political parties. This year it was shared by the European Union with 94 observers; five USAID financed organizations (the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute for Foreign Affairs, the Carter Center, the International Foundation for Election Systems and the Center for Democracy) with a total of 138; the independently funded Hemisphere Initiatives with 22; and IIHR/CAPEL with 23. Adding to this the numerous European government and parliamentary delegations, the Central American Parliament and electoral magistrates from all Central American countries, Panama and the Dominican Republic makes a total of 312 invited observers.

Observer groups from civil society, international NGOs, embassy personnel and the like were provided "courtesy passes." The largest governmental delegation in this category was USAID, with 47 observers. Among the largest civil society delegations were a group from Spain and Catalonia with 122, the US Nicaragua Friendship Office with 64, Global Exchange with 43, and the international women's delegation with 42 members from 18 countries. In all, 799 observers were given courtesy passes.

According to norms established by the CSE, accredited international observers had the right to move freely around the country and be in communication with all organizations putting up candidates. They were given access to the voting centers--known as juntas receptoras de votos, or JRVs--for all their activities. They were offered the collaboration of executive and electoral authorities to help them exercise their functions and were provided any information emanating from the CSE or its departmental offices, including the electoral rolls, the CSE information systems and all complaints regarding procedures filed with it. Delegates from each organization were also given access to the computer center during the period that the voting results were being received and processed.

And the National Observers?

Ethics and Transparency was born early this year with financial and other assistance funneled through four of the AID funded observer organizations (not including the Carter Center), and later with additional funding from the Swedish government. The chain of events leading to its creation began when the National Democratic Institute (NDI) financed a trip for two Nicaraguan NGO leaders--Violeta Granera of Fundemos and Salvador Talavera of the Nicaraguan Strategic Studies Center (CEEN)--to observe how a similar model worked in Peru's November 1995 elections. On their return, they got together with other NGOs and "notables" of a similar political bent and, with input from several of the US based groups, hammered out the model for their own organization.

Ethics and Transparency was conceived originally as a kind of elite "civil court" that would provide an impartial judgment on the elections, but it has become more flexible over time. While NGOs have been given a somewhat greater voice in its statutes, its board of directors is its exclusive decision making body, in consultation with its adviser group. The International Republican Institute (IRI) was instrumental in selecting the two no tables--Conservative political commentator Emilio Alvarez Montalván and Fundemos president Roberto Calderón--that made up its first board.

During that same period, UN Electoral Affairs Division director Dong Nguyen came to Nicaragua several times to discuss the UN's own ideas for national observation with representatives of the government, political parties and civil society organizations. The significant differences in the UN proposal were that a) the UN would finance and provide the observer training, b) the structure would be a loose network rather than a single organization, c) participants would include grassroots organizations as well as NGOs, d) the affiliated organizations would be directly involved in decision making, and e) there was no consideration of a strata of independent elites.

By Dong's final visit, Ethics and Transparency had been legally registered and joined the discussions. The invited organizations all expressed willingness to coordinate in impartial national observer coverage, but opposition came from other quarters. The political parties perceived any domestic observers as competing with their own monitors and some countries in the Support Group to Nicaragua reportedly feared that multiple domestic organi zations, each making its own statement on election day, could potentially spark further polarization. Since the UN also failed to get the official support it needed from the government, including the CSE itself, it withdrew.

By the time NDI arrived in Managua in April, Ethics and Transparency had a marked rightwing identity. Concerned that this could endanger its required image of impartiality, NDI urged the inclusion of additional board members, including former Barricada director Carlos Fernando Chamorro, and later Alejandro Bendaña, political director of the Sandinista government's Foreign Ministry and now head of the Center for International Studies (CEI). It also encouraged the more progressive NGOs that had participated in the UN conversations, in particular the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (CENIDH), to work under the Ethics and Transparency umbrella.

Although CENIDH did somewhat hesitantly climb aboard, joining CEPAD, the Center for Constitutional Rights and others, the NGO list still remained less pluralist than the board. A number of progressive NGOs working on electoral education had already made their own plans, and some resented being invited after the organization had already been formed, fearing that it was only to give token breadth to an organization in which they had no decision making role. Given the biased participation of the United States in 1990, there was also skepticism about the impartiality of a project so heavily influenced by US observer organizations (the extremely harsh tone of Senator Helms' backers on the IRI delegation that came down to observe the ad hoc registration in June further fueled this sentiment). On the other hand, several organizations on the left side of the political spectrum that did request an invitation to join Ethics and Transparency were snubbed--among them the Communal Movement, which had participated in the UN talks.

The 18 NGOs affiliated with Ethics and Transparency supported its work in various ways--sponsoring local candidate debates, producing voter education materials, running campaigns to encourage people to vote and know their candidates, and the like. While those with a network of activists such as CENIDH and CEPAD also contributed observers, Ethics and Transparency set up departmental and municipal offices to directly recruit local observers, with CEEN and the rightwing human rights organizations ANPDH and CPDH playing a major role. National and local training seminars were held on the electoral issues that should be observed as well as on the importance of honest and impartial observation. A significant number of observers in the outlying areas, however, report that the seminars they attended were brief and perfunctory while others say that they were only given written materials since the scheduled workshops in their locale did not take place.

The early failure of Ethics and Transparency to represent all of Nicaragua's extremely wide political spectrum and its continued equating of civil society with middle class NGOs limited its ability to convince the left of its pluralism and credibility. Alejandro Bendaña's announced acceptance of an invitation to join the board in August was overshadowed weeks later by Arnoldo Alemán's naming of Ethics and Transparency president Emilio Alvarez Montalván as foreign minister should he win. Even though the latter resigned immediately from the observer organization, the announcement raised more suspicions about his motives in helping found it.

The reticence of political parties to accept the importance of Ethics and Transparency and the CSE's resultant delay in accrediting its members until days before the elections meant that its observers were not formally allowed inside the JRVs during the ad hoc registration. In a few cases they were not even permitted in on election day. National observer organizations in virtually all other countries, it should be added, initially encountered the same official bias.

Like the OAS, Ethics and Transparency did a quick count of the presidential election, in consultation with Neil Nevitte of Toronto University, an expert in quick count methodology. It claimed that its count would only have a 1% margin of error, since its planned sample was large (831 JRVs) and well distributed around the country. By the time it had received roughly 500 reports, however, the first CSE results were being announced in the media, so it stopped incorporating new inputs to avoid contaminating its data with results potentially altered by observers to reflect the winning trend. After also rejecting any reports with incomplete information or inconsistent figures, it was left with a sample of 497 JRVs.

The CSE initially required Ethics and Transparency not to publish its results until after its own official announcement, but then reversed its decision a week into the post election review process. The chart below compares Ethics and Transparency's quick count with both the CSE's initial percentages (when it stopped with 87% of the JRVs counted) and its complete provisional results at the end of the review process.

The obvious curious feature of this comparison is that all but the FSLN figures for Ethics and Transparency fell remarkably within its 1% margin of error in relation to the CSE's first partial results, whereas the spread between the two lead candidates in the CSE's final provisional results increased not only relative to its own first figures, but even more with respect to E&T. Ethics and Transparency hopes to have a comparative audit done of the JRV tallies it received for its quick count and those of the CSE for the same JRVs.

What Was Seen, What Has Been Said

National Observers:

Hemisphere Initiatives wrote the following in "Democracy and Its Discontents," its study of the 1996 electoral process: "Despite its inauspicious beginnings, Ethics and Transparency has a role to play in these elections. If the elections are indeed technically clean, the voice of Nicaraguans saying so will help restore the prestige of the CSE among the citizenry and contribute to silencing the early predictions--particularly but not only on the US and Nicaraguan right--that there would be fraud. If there is any foul play, Ethics and Transparency will demonstrate its own merit in the degree to which its description of where it was found is fair and dispassionate. In this sense, the 1996 elections are also a referendum on the future of national observation in Nicaragua." Since this is also true of international observation, we now come to what was seen and what was said.

Ethics and Transparency has so far made no overall qualitative evaluation of the elections, pending the conclusion of its processing of over 4,000 forms titled "What I observed," which contain some 50 questions and 118 variables and which it appears to be in no hurry to publish. It was reportedly prepared to praise the elections immediately, but refrained from doing so after several of its member NGOs threatened to withdraw. As CENIDH president Vilma Núñez noted in another context, the mutual mistrust among the groups in Ethics and Transparency reflects the national reality.

In the CENIDH seminar, roughly 100 of CENIDH's nearly 400 Ethics and Transparency observers debriefed on what they had seen in the areas they covered, namely Nueva Guinea, Juigalpa, Estelí and La Trinidad, as well as Ciudad Sandino and Districts 3 and 5 in Managua. Without pretending to upstage Ethics and Transparency's qualitative findings, it is worth mentioning a few of the more revealing comments, particularly those referring to situations not likely to have been contemplated in its form. In fact, one of the more common complaints by CENIDH's observers was that the form did not provide enough space for all the incidents they witnessed.

* In some of the many JRVs without car bon paper, the table president wrote out each copy of the tally for the party monitors, without anyone overseeing that all were the same; in other cases the president gave each monitor a blank tally and let them fill it in themselves; in still others the monitors asked the president to sign the blank, saying they were exhausted and would fill it in later.

* In one JRV in Juigalpa, several early voters were given two presidential bal lots. When they realized they still had one ballot after depositing all six in their respective boxes, they were told to put it in the box. No monitor complained.

* A common comment was that the monitors, with the exception of those from the Liberal Alliance, were not vigilant enough and even slept through the ballot count. Many were extremely young and seemed not to have been sufficiently trained. In some cases two monitors were present for the same party.

* Only in a few cases did the JRV president review the figures when the physical ballot count did not match the mathematical calculation of how many ballots should have been deposited.

* Most of CENIDH's observers accompanied the telegram to Enitel (though only the JRV president was allowed to enter) and the ballots to the departmental reception center. Those from Juigalpa reported no delay in turning in the materials at the departmental reception center, but nor was there any possibility of checking to see if all materials were there, since CSE personnel were not allowed to open the bags.

* Observers in Juigalpa also reported seeing journalists from Radio Corporación and Channel 8 in the Ethics and Transparency office there, passing quick count results to their stations (the results should have been in a sealed envelope).

* Although CENIDH provided 10% of the observers, virtually none of them were selected to participate in the quick count.

* Several cases were reported of people with no credentials being allowed to vote and in a few cases credentials were duplicated. In one case the photo on the credential did not match the person bear ing it.

* The ballots for some elections were entirely or partially missing in Juigalpa, Estelí and Ciudad Sandino, which de layed the opening of the JRV for several hours. In cases where they were finally brought, they were not counted before being put to use.

Referring to the fact that international organizations such as the OAS only spent between a few minutes and an hour at their JRVs, gathering quantitative data, one local observer from Ciudad Sandino summed up both the resentment and the pride these new observers felt: "We did the testimonial work while the international observers get the coverage."

International Observers:

Among the international observer reports on June's ad hoc registration, two stand out in particular. One is Hemi sphere Initiatives' relatively brief statement, for its illustrative comparisons with voter registration in neighboring El Salvador, where it has also observed several elections. HI notes that, in contrast to Nicaragua, which sets up thousands of polling places so citizens can register and vote relatively close to home, the process in El Salvador is totally centralized in the cities and electoral rolls are ordered alphabetically rather than by polling place. It adds that if El Salvador had adopted the ad hoc registration in former war zones as Nicaragua did, many more people would have been able to vote.

The other interesting report is a particularly comprehensive one by the OAS, whose mission is headed by Oscar Santamaría, former chief of staff and foreign minister of El Salvador's Cristiani government. It enjoyed extremely limited official circulation, but was undoubtedly shared more widely through unofficial channels (the OAS reports are so internal that even the CSE is not sure it has them all). This report gave a detailed (though unquantified) listing of problems found during the ad hoc registration, most of which were attributable to inadequate staff training at the JRVs where the registration took place, lack of proper or sufficient materials, or inappropriate decisions by local technicians when impromptu situations occurred that were not clearly covered by normal procedures.

Alongside each problem, the OAS warned of the grave repercussions that could befall the elections themselves if it were not solved--ranging from the impugning of JRVs or deferring of voting in them, all the way to "paralysis of the electoral process." The report assigned responsibility for correcting these problems variously to the CSE--without distinguishing which ones corresponded to its department heads--and the political parties. It remains to be seen whether the final OAS report accepts paternity for its dire predictions, which indeed came true after many of these same or similar problems--together with numerous important new ones--occurred on election day for much the same reasons.

In the same critical mode, Santamaría repeatedly pressed the CSE to speed up its delivery to the voting population of their ID/voter cards or substitute credentials. On October 18, three days before the elections, he made public his worry that some 220,000 people would be unable to vote because they had still not received them, saying that this 9% of voters exceeded a reasonable limit of 5%. He even suggested that the remaining documents be distributed at the voting tables on election Sunday itself, an idea overruled by the parties, which set a final deadline of noon on Saturday.

Also on October 18, however, the OAS mission made clear in an article in El Nuevo Diario that its critical mode would not be applied to the elections themselves. While admitting that abundant problems and errors could reasonably be expected on election day given the complexity of the new system, the OAS distinguished between operational irregularities and fraud and ruled out the existence of any fraudulent political or technical elements.

Sure enough, in a press conference at the CSE computer center on election night, even before any votes had come in, OAS secretary general César Gaviria pronounced the results "legitimate." While acknowledging "deficiencies" in the elections such as the late opening of many JRVS, the lack of ballots in some and weaknesses in the electoral law itself, he called on all parties to respect the vote, which "expresses the free and sovereign will of the Nicaraguan people."

It must be said that Gaviria was not the only international observer chief to praise the elections immediately afterward. To a one, all observer organizations did so, though with more or less reservations depending on whether or not they were agile enough to have released their statements before Daniel Ortega's alert about the missing votes the next afternoon. The praise was heartfelt and well warranted, since it was mainly directed to the voters themselves, who turned out in huge numbers--as they also had in the past two elections--and stood relatively patiently in long lines under the hot sun waiting to exercise their right to grapple with the multiple ballots longer than their arm.

Observers interviewed the morning of October 21 generally waxed euphoric about the voters' participation level and their ability to deal with the complicated ballots. Like Gaviria, they quite reasonably shrugged off the long lines and late opening of many JRVs as having no effect on the transparency of the results. One of the few to even hint at anything else was Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros Lehtinen, who expressed hope that "the technical delays do not contribute to any alteration of the results, since these elections represent another historic step in this country."

No, the problem wasn't so much with the first day after the elections. The signs of a double standard did not begin to show up publicly until the next day--discounting, of course, State Department spokesperson Nicholas Burns' anti Ortega comments on October 4 and the US request that the FSLN withdraw a campaign spot showing Ortega and Democratic Rep. Bill Richardson together because it gave the impression that Ortega was "close" to the United States. The United States could hardly be expected to "level the playing field" for Ortega after showing the Nicaraguan people for 10 years that it was anything but close to his government.

Post Electoral Observation

Unlike in 1990, when enough JRVs had sent in their presidential ballot count for the CSE to declare the winner by 6 am the next morning, the tallies this year rolled in late and slowly. This was due partly to the late closing of many JRVs, but mainly to a decision by the parties that all six elections should be counted before the JRVs sent in any results.

By the afternoon of October 21, Daniel Ortega had made his surprising announcement that the FSLN would not immediately recognize the CSE's provisional results, and his formal request that the CSE review the count at the departmental level, based on the copies of official tallies housed there. The news was hard to assimilate, both because no observers had seen enough problems to warrant such a decision and because the observers were expecting Ortega's gracious concession, as in 1990. Even the chaos at the ballot reception center in Managua and later TV and newspaper images of ballots and tallies found in rain ditches and garbage dumps did not seem to cause many observers major distress.

Jimmy Carter and Oscar Arias met with both Ortega and Alemán, and Arias reportedly persuaded the latter to lower his triumphalist tone, reportedly in exchange for an agreement that the CSE not halt the still incomplete count to review Ortega's charges. Since these charges appeared to reside in a discrepancy between the JRV tallies and the telegram results received by the CSE, particularly in Matagalpa, Carter got photocopies of the original telegrams for that department for the FSLN to check against their monitors' tally copies. While the FSLN never provided complete information on the results of that check, it told the Carter Center that the problems were worse than it had originally thought.

By Tuesday, October 22, eight other parties were demanding a recount of the ballots and the third place presidential candidate, Camino Cristiano's Guillermo Osorno, was threatening to impugn the entire elections. Just before leaving Nicaragua that same day, Carter and other members of his delegation held a press conference in which Carter said he still did not believe that the anomalies had been of a sufficiently large scale to alter the will of Nicaraguan voters. He did, however, support Ortega's request to resolve the problems in accord with the Law as a "legitimate right," as did the Socialist International and the International Foundation for Election Systems (IFES).

One young observer, however, voiced an opinion commonly circulating after Ortega's announcement: Why doesn't he concede now and complain later, rather than hold everything up by waiting for the conclusion of the review? Asked if she believed anyone would have taken him seriously had he done that, she admitted that they probably would not.

At a going away party for the IFES delegation that night, Carter Center field representative Shelley McConnell broached the subject of doing follow up observation of the review process, but few of the other US delegation staffers were in any mood to talk shop. Many had hoped to have a week's vacation between election rounds, should there be two. One diplomat present even suggested leaving the follow up to the OAS observers.

Observers Asked to Stay

On Wednesday, however, the observers' mood changed. Rosa Marina Zelaya encouraged all of those still in the country to continue, and that afternoon President Chamorro called a meeting of them, including those from civil society such as the Spanish group and the women's delegation, to beg them to stay. When she asked those present for their view on the elections, the Catalonians were the only ones to strongly disagree with the Carter Center's response that there was no evidence of fraud.

Immediately following that meeting, the AID funded observers got together to decide how to proceed. With McConnell acting as the catalyst due to the abundance of information the Carter Center was receiving, they decided to pool their remaining vehicles and staff members to cover the review in the different departments.

Carter Center staff assistants had already spent the morning in Matagalpa. They were met by parties who gave them copies of documents showing evidence of falsified data in 12 JRVs and criticizing the role of departmental CSE president Alberto Blandón Baldizón, whose removal from the CSE they had been unsuccessfully requesting for some time.

The Carter Center observers were also taken to see some 30,000 blank ballots found in a warehouse owned by Blandón's children and rented to the municipal government. One young observer later said she found Blandón's explanation that the ballots were "extras" convincing, though another understood Blandón to be saying that they had been sent to supply JRVs that were missing them, but had arrived too late to distribute, so he had locked them up for safekeeping. Asked if that meant that 30,000 people in those JRVs had been unable to cast their vote for the various elections these ballots represented, the staffer could not say.

As the only remaining member of the Hemisphere Initiatives delegation in the country, I was called on Thursday to join the team effort. Several members of the women's delegation who had not yet left also participated for the first few days and by the following week AID staff members joined in. Between us we visited 12 of the country's 17 departments over the course of the next two weeks, talked to the presidents of the 2 Departmental Electoral Councils on the Atlantic Coast and consulted with observers who had visited the other 3 departments. In each department we spoke with party leaders and poll watchers, departmental CSE officials and often with OAS observers who had been sent to each departmental center to oversee the review on a full time basis.

Although CSE president Rosa Marina Zelaya has been criticized for excessively centralizing day to day decision making, we found the departmental CSE officials operating in a very autonomous fashion. For example, only some departments followed the CSE directive to first check the tally numbers for mathematical accuracy then proceed to compare the correct ones with the telegrams. At least one department went through the entire process on a JRV by JRV basis, including a ballot recount if necessary. In the more conflictive departments of Managua, Matagalpa and Jinotega, this autonomy took on greater proportions as the days passed.

New Problems in the Review

As it turned out, no department could compare the tallies directly with the telegrams, since few JRV officials had known how to handle the sets of duplicate telegrams with treated paper to make copies automatically, so the copies left in the departments were usually smudged. Instead, the comparison was done against copies of the computerized results based on the telegrams, which the CSE sent. No one except the FSLN appeared interested in knowing whether the original telegrams had been deliberately altered or the scribes had just skipped a line when writing in some results. By coincidence, a page of these computerized results that a CSE official in Managua pulled for me at random showed a tiny party in Waspán, Río Coco, receiving 74 votes for president and the FSLN--directly below it--receiving none. By the same token, the column for the Central American Parliament elections gave the Liberal Alliance no votes while the party just below it got 135. Zelaya had said that the computer automatically rejected such obvious anomalies, but this sheet was pulled from the set headed for the Departmental Electoral Council (CED) in the north Atlantic Coast.

The scene in several departmental counting centers was eloquently illustrative of the number of problems. In Managua, for example, a small room with warehouse sized shelving had been closed off to handle the folders of JRV documents. Five days into the review, the top shelf, marked "consistent," had perhaps 50 folders on it. The next two, labeled "inconsistent," were packed tight with hundreds upon hundreds of folders. A CED official estimated that about 80% of Managua's tallies had at least minimal inconsistencies between the arithmetic calculation of how many valid votes had been deposited (arrived at by subtracting the number of unused and annulled ballots from the number of fresh ballots counted on election morning) and the actual valid ballots counted by party. He added that, at that time, all materials for 267 JRVs, including both ballots and tallies, were missing. When Managua finally got around to counting JRVs in which the discrepancy was 10 votes or greater, it had to set up over 30 tables. Even then the recount took days.

By the second week, most departments had finished the review and turned in their new tallies. The last one to do so other than Managua, Matagalpa and Jinotega--which finally had to be intervened by central CSE technicians to get the job done--was Carazo. It hit a last minute snag when it opened up some of the bags to count ballots: a roll of ballots belonging to a completely different JRV had been found in one bag.

The decisions of Sandinista party monitors varied depending on the department and the context. In departments where the problems were minimal and thus resolved early--including all of those in which the CED president was an FSLN member--the monitors had agreed to a CSE directive for cases in which the official tally was missing or lacked the JRV president's signature: if at least three monitors could produce identical tallies, the ballots would be recounted and a new tally would be drawn up. In Jinotega, however, only the Liberal Alliance and FSLN had placed monitors in a number of such cases and the FSLN monitors refused to agree to a CSE suggestion to accept these two copies of the tally as sufficient. They explained that they opposed this extra legal solution in general, since it sets a precedent for large scale premeditated fraud in the future: the tallies are not coded and could be easily reproduced by several like minded parties. As an afterthought they added that, with all they had seen, they no longer even trusted the ballots themselves.

Any Patterns to the Mess?

If during those weeks there was any consideration in the observer organizations of how the CSE could have lost control of the process, or of the possibility that the "mess" was intentional and may have altered the results, it was entertained at other levels. I was apparently the only one who even pursued the intentionality hypothesis, by asking all those I interviewed whether they were seeing any pattern at all. The various clues all led me down blind alleys, either because the CEDs were not systematizing the information to permit such clues to be followed up, or because the available information did not substantiate the idea of a single party author or beneficiary of a given pattern. For example, when I asked the FSLN member of the Managua CED which party the JRV presidents belonged to in the cases of lost materials, he said that about 40% were from the Liberal Alliance. But that of course meant that 60% belonged to other parties.

Only one pattern was mentioned for which there seemed to be no reasonable explanation. The CED president in the South Atlantic Autonomous Region said he was puzzled by frequently finding that one or two more ballots had been deposited in a number of JRVs than were accounted for by their tally math. He did not buy the exhaustion theory since--as I had seen myself--the RAAS had received its materials in time so most JRVs had opened soon after 7 am and, due to relatively low voter turnout, had also closed on time. Nor could he put the problem down to low education levels, since he personally knew most of the candidates for JRV president offered by the parties and had largely chosen those who were math teachers or bank workers. I briefly toyed with the idea that a few anti Sandinista voters in each JRV around the country where this happened, aware of the technical tie in the last pre election polls, may have agreed to surreptitiously slip an extra marked ballot into the box. But I quickly discarded it as impossible since the JRV president and one other table member signed each ballot right before it was passed to the voter. It was only after I heard the CENIDH observer mention a JRV president giving two presidential ballots to some voters that I saw how it could be done. We will never know if there was anything to this theory, however, since the many JRVs with such small discrepancies were not recounted and even if they were it would be impossible to know who was favored and by how many votes.

No Debate among US Observers

The joint observer group met almost every day to debrief on what we had learned the previous day and coordinate trips for the next. As the days wore on with little progress, the main theme around the table was how much longer each department needed to finish. Frustration with the slow progress even led the OAS to publicly urge the departmental staff and party monitors to move faster. Considering the bleariness of these workers, who had been carefully trying to sift through the mounting examples of errors day after day, it seemed a futile if not callous criticism.

I was surprised at first by the lack of any substantive discussion among the US observers of what we were seeing, even if only from the perspective of stability and governability, which are about the only aspects of Nicaragua's reality that still interest US power circles. I put it down at first to the probability that most participants had little authority to comment--and possibly little interest as well, since they don't live here. There was even a chuckle at the table when someone reported that the remaining European Union observers were "debating" the issue. Only when a controversial op ed article by a former IRI president, titled "Leave Them Alone Mr. Carter," was reprinted in a local paper on November 8, the day the CSE announced its final provisional results, did I recall that, like Ethics and Transparency, this homogeneous seeming group was not exempt from mutual mistrust. Conversations among these observers about what we were seeing, I was later told, only took place informally, in smaller, more like minded groups.

Virtually the only exception to the group's focus on number crunching was the day Shelley McConnell reported on a conversation she had had the night before with an FSLN political spokesperson about the party's plans with respect to the election results. She explained that he had presented a sincere seeming argument that the FSLN could not sign off on such deficient elections and still face its base. When someone cut in that third world elections cannot be held to first world standards, another reminded the group that the FSLN's standards were Nicaragua's own 1984 and 1990 elections, which exhibited no such anomalies or room for manipulation.

McConnell went on to say that the FSLN was gathering evidence in the hope of annulling the elections in at least Matagalpa and Managua, and that if the CSE came under too much pressure to agree to this, the party would not formally recognize the new government. With a wry smile, one observer commented: "How ironic. The Sandinistas are taking a cue from the US government, which withholds recognition of governments it doesn't like in the hopes that they will fall."

If the invited observers discarded foul play from the outset, the international civic observers were generally more reluctant to do so. Over two dozen such observers from different countries who remained in Nicaragua right after the elections compiled and distributed a list of the irregularities and technical and administrative anomalies that had been detected in many of the JRVS around the country in a document titled "Integrity of Nicaraguan Elections Called into Question." The Nicaragua based, 100 member Ecumenical Committee of Religious Personnel sent the CSE a select list of the irregularities that its 20 observers had seen. And the nongovernmental observer group from Spain, Italy and Switzerland issued a strong statement in which it referred to "numerous situations of electoral fraud."

On behalf of the invited observer organizations, it should be pointed out that the following duties are listed among the CSE's regulations for observers: "to avoid interfering with or hindering the development of the electoral process" and "to avoid issuing declarations that could be denigrating to the electoral officials and organizations, or that hinder or interfere with the investigation of complaints or denunciations presented." These organizations are thus usually careful to offer any criticisms or suggestions privately to the CSE and only go public afterward if they believe that their concern warrants the additional pressure. Such was the case with a communiqué by the Carter Center on November 15, urging the CSE to publish detailed data on the irregularities before announcing the final results--which it did not do. We may never know what transpired in private conversations between these organizations and the CSE about both the elections and the later review process.

Did They Apply a Double Standard?

Just before the elections, the OAS had publicly defined the yardstick by which virtually all major observer organizations ultimately measured the electoral results: the irregularities can even be serious, but if their volume does not alter the popular will, they do not invalidate the electoral process.

As the review process was winding down, Shelley McConnell reflected similar thinking when asked to comment on Daniel Ortega's criticism that international observers would never have accepted all the anomalies that appeared this year if the FSLN had won. She responded that it does not take into account the expectations created by the polls about how the election would turn out. Since the vote generally reflected those polls, she said, it appeared in the observers' eyes to express the popular will. She added for good measure that no one really cares anymore whether Daniel Ortega wins or loses.

The last part of her answer may be right, but the first part does not hold up when set alongside what happened in 1990. With polls showing that the Sandinistas would win by a comfortable margin, Virgilio Godoy, vice presidential candidate of the US backed National Opposition Union (UNO), informed Jimmy Carter shortly after noon on election day that the ink used to mark the finger of those who had already voted was not indelible (it later turned out that the acetone used to clean voters' fingers before dipping them into the ink had increasingly diluted its strength.) As Mariano Fiallos, CSE president at that time, later told it, Carter was sufficiently agitated by this problem to privately propose to him that the elections be suspended on the spot, since it was evidence of planned fraud. Fiallos finally convinced him that most of the electorate had already voted and that other checks and balances were in place to prevent people from voting again. "I told Carter that to suspend the elections at that hour would be like calling for civil war," recalled Fiallos. The next morning at 6 am, enough results were in for Ortega to concede the upset victory by Violeta Chamorro, the UNO candidate. No further word was heard about the internationally donated "disappearing" ink.

Judy Butler is translation editor of the English-language edition of envío and member of the US observer organization, Hemisphere Initiatives/WOLA.

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