The phone rang. It was our neighbour, Magda: ‘When are you going to vote?’
‘Now, we’ll pick you up’.
When we arrived, Magda was getting her elderly father ready to go to the polling station. Disappointed that we were on foot, Don Juan got a stick ready for the 15 minute walk up the rough road. His much sprightlier wife, though the same age, was still inside applying her make up. I fully expected Doña Leonor to emerge wearing her customary miniskirt, but she must have decided this was a sombre occasion and required something more obviously ladylike.
Don Juan could only walk slowly, helped by his granddaughter, so we went ahead to get in the queue. This proved to be a questionable decision, as the queue was moving slowly anyway and soon after we arrived the electoral process was halted for lunch. When it eventually got going again, people were allowed into the school classroom two at a time. The search for their names on the register, even though the list was only 200 in total, was time-consuming, in part because there are so few different surnames in El Pochote. Then each person had to have their thumb marked with a foul-smelling ink. Only then could they retire behind a sort of three-sided cardboard box to cast their votes. The four ballots then had to be put into their respective boxes, and the voter was free to leave. Each one was taking about five minutes.
The delay was provoking a lot of banter between people in the queue and the officials inside. Things had started badly, it seemed, because the president of the polling station had arrived at 9.00am, not at 7.00 when the station was supposed to open. Two hours voting time had already been lost. Then she announced the half-hour lunch break. The Sandinista voters who seemed to form the majority of the queue were convinced that these were deliberate tactics, as she was a known Liberal.
Well after midnight, we accompanied the sealed ballot boxes on their journey into town. This is an important part of the ritual, accumulated over only four Nicaraguan general elections, of not allowing the voting papers to be out of sight for a single moment until they are handed over to the counting station. As a Sandinista, my wife’s car had been appropriated, and was full of aficionados (including Magda) who were already convinced of the impending victory by the margin of the votes in their favour in tiny El Pochote.
As the procession arrived in town, the first official results started to come over the radio. The Sandinistas were in the lead. This meant that the victors had to make as much noise as possible, notwithstanding the seriousness of their task in accompanying the ballot boxes. The leading car, driven by a Liberal, stopped. The driver refused to continue until the unseemly celebrations were halted. A policeman mediated. The noise abated for a few minutes then increased to even greater strength as we entered the town centre.
At this point a ‘caravan’ of cyclists swept past, two or three on each bike, waving red and black flags, already calling out to people to form a victory procession, on the basis of only five per cent of the results. Naturally this suddenly became even more important than delivering 200 votes and we joined in.
From a few dozen cyclists and a couple of cars riding down darkened streets, the whole thing seemed to grow uncontrollably until within twenty minutes there was a long snake of traffic, honking horns, screaming and playing the Sandinista election music, filling the road and threatening to sweep away the families that now emerged from most of the houses either to join in or just to watch the spectacle. By 3.00am the town seemed to be full of cyclists and cars, or of crowds gathered on street corners to wave them on. Almost everyone seemed to be sympathetic, although in one street a group of youths was setting fire to a Sandinista flag. Police emerged to control the traffic. People were selling food on the street. The ban on election-day drinking no longer seemed to be in force.
We arrived home at 3.30am, but the only available results were still based on a tiny percentage of the poll. By the following morning, however, a Sandinista victory seemed certain. It had been made possible only by a split in the opposition vote. Yet the electoral process had seemed open and fair. It looked as if, despite the strongly-held views which characterise this most political of countries, the Liberals would concede defeat peacefully – as the Sandinistas had done in the last three elections.
No-one has an appetite for renewed civil war, least of all the hundreds of Sandinistas youths cycling madly through town in the early hours, hoping that the result gives them a better chance of education and jobs. Half of Nicaragua’s population is under sixteen. Even more than people like Don Juan and Doña Leonor, this is the constituency whose needs the Sandinista government will be challenged to meet when it takes over in January. The task is both urgent and formidable.