Local government under fire
Parliament approves changes presented by Ortega.
Nicaragua’s legislative assembly, controlled by the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front, or FSLN, approved a package of electoral reforms on May 15 ahead of November’s municipal elections that critics say will tighten President Daniel Ortega’s control of local governments.
Critics argued that the changes were not enough to improve the system, after allegations of fraud and other irregularities have swirled around Ortega’s re-election last November with 63 percent of the vote, and said it can make it worse.
The new law will triple the number of municipal council positions and allow the reelection of mayors.
Carlos Tünnermann Bernheim, who served as education minister during the Sandinista government of the 1980s and current Ortega critic, wrote in an opinion piece in Nuevo Diario that the reforms will “end municipal autonomy” and put these local governments in the hands of the Citizen Power Councils that are run by Ortega-sympathizers.
But Ortega, upon presenting the reforms in April, ahead of the Nov. 4 election, said the idea is to have more people serving Nicaragua’s communities.
When Ortega took office in 2007, he created the Citizen Power Councils, FSLN grassroot organizations. They became the “eyes and ears” of their party, and some of them recently criticized the re-election of candidates identified as corrupt in the local governments. Tünnermann and other critics say the government is trying to quiet these discontent parties by giving them the chance to run for municipal councilors.
“Municipal administration isn’t going to improve because of an increase in council members,” said Tünnermann. “In fact, it will become more difficult to reach a consensus. In the end, what it will do is … annul municipal autonomy.”
For First Lady Rosario Murillo, the proposal to increase the number of municipal council members to 6,534 from around 2,200 will increase citizens’ participation and direct democracy.
Each party will determine their candidates for the municipal councils, whose numbers will depend on each area’s population.
No budget increase
Another major criticism is that the increase in number of council members will mean an increase in the municipal budget, but the government maintained that is not planning to do it.
“If we are public servants, we have to propose serving, not to benefit ourselves or to get rich,” said Murillo, who is also the coordinator of Ortega’s Communication and Citizenship Council, which is in charge of the Citizen Power Councils.
This would mean that the existing budget would have to be divided among the higher number of council members who will be elected in November.
One former Sandinista council member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said an increase in spending would be inevitable.
Tünnermann agreed. “The municipalities, which have scarce resources, will have to assume the administrative and direct costs that will occur with the increase in number of council members, so the funds destined to municipal projects will be notably lower,” he said.
Alvin Salinas, an expert in municipality issues, said that increasing the number of council members will not necessarily mean more citizens’ participation.
“The number of council members in itself will not be more or less efficient in guaranteeing or representing the citizens’ interests,” he said. “I don’t want to call the reform good or bad [but] historically, in our country, citizens’ participation has been sadly subordinate to the interests of the governing administration.” —Latinamerica Press.