MANAGUA – Following a year of political gridlock marked by warring branches of government and multiple constitutions, President Enrique Bolaños is proposing Nicaraguan voters be given the final say on the country’s problems in a constitutional referendum held during the Nov. 5 general elections.
The President, in his final State of the Nation Address to the National Assembly on Jan. 18, said he is going to present the referendum bill to Congress to let the people decide what type of government they want to have represent them in the years to come.
“The legality of the partial constitutional reforms is a matter that should be dealt with on the highest level of the nation, which is to say that it should be taken directly to the people to let them decide if they are in agreement or disagreement with the reforms taking effect,” Bolaños said.
“Honorable lawmakers: the people of Nicaragua expect that you will approve this and give us the opportunity to have a say on this issue.”
The issue Bolaños wants to put to vote is the legality of the constitutional reforms passed last January to strip the President of many of his authorities and pass them to the National Assembly. The reforms effectively changed Nicaragua’s model of government from a presidential system to a semi-parliamentary system – just without the normal checks and balances of a regular parliamentary system (NT, Jan. 21, Feb. 11, 2005).
The reforms were the brainchild of the infamous power-sharing pacto between Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega and Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC) leader Arnoldo Alemán, who is serving a 20-year sentence for corruption.
Political analysts explained the reforms in the following scenario: The reforms would best serve Ortega, who wields much control over Congress but has been unsuccessful in his last three attempts to return to the presidency. In exchange for the Liberal’s support for reforms empowering Ortega in Congress, the Sandinistas would support an amnesty measure to free PLC party boss Alemán (NT, Aug. 5, 2005).
The reforms sparked the worst governability crisis in Nicaragua since the Contra war ended in the late 1980s.
The United States described the legislative power play as a “creeping coup.”
A complete political meltdown was narrowly avoided in November, when Bolaños and Ortega agreed to a truce that shelved the political reforms until the next government takes power in the beginning of 2007.
Many argue this agreement between the President and the Sandinista leader is just postponing the crisis until the next administration – something that Bolaños now hopes to head off in the form of a popular referendum.
“I am not trying to cause problems with anyone,” Bolaños told the press. “There is nothing more democratic than a referendum.”
With Bolaños-sympathizing congressman Eduardo Gómez now in the president’s chair of the National Assembly (NT, Jan. 20), it remains to be seen whether he will be able to generate the bipartisan support necessary to get the measure through Congress. PLC congressman Carlos Norguera was one of the few lawmakers to break party ranks and applaud Bolaños’ call for a referendum.
“I think that when the reforms involve profound changes to the structure of the state it is convenient to have the support of the people,” Norguera said. “[The referendum] will clear the table for the next government so that the new President doesn’t have to come to the National Assembly to ask if the reforms are in effect or not, prompting a new crisis or a new political dialogue.”
The rest of the PLC formed a party huddle following Bolaños address and then announced they would present their own referendum bill. At press time, it was not clear how or if the PLC’s proposed referendum would be different, or when it would be presented.
Civil society movement Por Nicaragua also supports the idea of a constitutional referendum; it has been calling for one for almost a year.
The biggest obstacle right now is the Sandinista Front, which claims the referendum would violate the accord they struck with Bolaños last year.
Sandinista congresswoman Alba Palacios said the choice in the upcoming election is clear enough, and that there’s no reason to hold an additional referendum.
“We Sandinistas are proposing a radical change; a form of democracy that lets the people decide,” Palacios said. “The presidential elections will be the real referendum.”
The two traditional parties also criticized the rest of Bolaños’ state address as being void of substance and focusing on the future rather than real achievements by his government.
Still, the embattled President did lay out a number of social and economic advances that he claims for his administration, which he dubbed “The New Era.”
“We wish things could have been different, but they weren’t,” Bolaños said. “Yet despite the crises and stumbling blocks that we have faced during these four rough years, Nicaragua advances; we are climbing the ladder that will lead us to development and prosperity.”
State of the Nation at a Glance
The following are some of the key advances claimed by the four-year administration of President Bolaños. Note: growth statistics from the time Bolaños took office in 2002. Source: Jan. 18, 2006 State of the Nation Address:
*Internal Reserves increased by 90%, from $383 million to $730 million *Tax collection increased 88%, allowing the annual budget to increase to $1.4 billion *Exports – including free trade zones – have increased 83%, from $600 million to $1 billion.
*Bank deposits up 44%, while interest rates have fallen from 17% to 9%
*39 new free trade zones, creating 38,000 new jobs.
*The Central American Free-Trade Agreement was approved.
*3,845,000 people vaccinated against Rubella.
*New health centers have attended to 350,000 patients per year
*17,855 students trained in technical careers, and 80,000 in the business sector
*16,500 low-income people trained in basic computer skills at 120 “technology kiosks” across the country
*535 classrooms repaired, and 105 new classrooms built
*789 kilometers of road built or repaired
*270-km road built to newly expanded Atlantic Port at El Rama
*Millennium Challenge Account will bring in $92.3 million for new highways in León and Chinandega
*1,300 homes in Bluefields to be connected to drinking water this year