Commentary: Daniel Ortega could have won fairly in Nicaragua, but he didn't

Glenn Garvin of The Miami Herald (C.W. Griffin/Miami Herald/MCT)
Glenn Garvin of The Miami Herald (C.W. Griffin/Miami Herald/MCT) MCT

Nicaragua may be the only country in the world that’s perpetually under a full moon, so it’s no surprise that the big news out of Sunday’s presidential election was not that incumbent Daniel Ortega was piling up suspicious landslide voting totals, but that he wasn’t a vampire.

For the first time in months, Ortega was seen in broad daylight when he went to cast his presidential ballot. He conducted virtually his entire campaign during nighttime rallies, which led to widespread jokes among Nicaraguans that he bled the country dry during his dictatorship of 1979-1990 not because he was a communist, but a nosferatu.

Of course, Nicaraguans don’t really think Ortega sleeps in a coffin or can change himself into a bat. (Well, not many think it.) What they do believe is that he suffers from an extreme sensitivity to sunlight triggered by the medication for a mysterious blood disease for which he regularly seeks treatment in Cuba. The medication at times swells Ortega’s face to gargantuan proportions. “He looked like a Thanksgiving parade float out there,” a reporter who covered one of Ortega’s nocturnal political events last month told me.

Ortega has never publicly acknowledged either the illness or its treatment. Nicaraguans have pieced the story together from his regular week-long disappearances from the public eye, a sighting or two in Havana and occasional revelations from defecting members of the president’s political cadres.

If that sounds weirdly opaque for a country that calls itself a democracy, well, Nicaraguans had better get used to it. Ortega, who got clobbered in three presidential elections in a row between 1990 and 2001 before slipping into the presidency past a divided opposition in 2006, was apparently reelected Sunday.

The word “apparently” is necessary because Ortega’s government is at least as secret about how the ballots were counted as it is about the president’s health. The restrictions on international observers who have kept Nicaraguan elections honest the past 22 years after two centuries of unremitting fraud were so onerous that the Carter Center refused to even participate.

That was probably the wise choice. Election monitors from the Organization of American States were prevented from entering about 20 percent of the country’s polling places on Sunday and kicked out of another 10 percent. Accredited poll-watchers from the opposition Liberal Independent Party were blocked from a fifth of the precincts they tried to visit.

Ethics and Transparency, the Nicaraguan affiliate of Transparency International, declared that Sunday’s voting flunked on 11 of 13 benchmarks of honest elections. “For the first time in more than 20 years we had an election that failed,” the group’s executive director Roberto Courtney told the website NicaraguaDispatch.com. Voters in the tiny and appropriately named village of Peligro (Spanish for danger) were less verbal but more eloquent: When they arrived at poll-opening time to find ballot boxes already stuffed full of votes, they torched them.

With nobody but Ortega’s Sandinista party flunkies watching how ballots were cast or counted, the results were predictably strange. In four previous elections (including three losses) Ortega has collected between 38 and 45 percent of the vote. By mid-afternoon Monday, the count showed him with 62 percent of this election’s ballots, in excess of even the most optimistic Sandinista polls.

In an honest count, Ortega might very well have won the election fair and square. He was once again facing a splintered opposition, dividing its ballots between two candidates, and Nicaraguan election law permits a candidate to be elected with as little as 35 percent of the vote.

But that wouldn’t have given him the two-thirds congressional majority Ortega needs to rewrite the Nicaraguan constitution to make him president-for-life. And as his countrymen are about to discover, vampires can live for a very long time.

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