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Citizen Councils Push Forward

MANAGUA – Despite strong disapproval from the legislative National Assembly, President Daniel Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo continue to move forward with plans to implement their version of a “direct democracy” by installing their polemic Councils of Citizen Power (CPCs).

The controversy over the legality of the CPCs, partisan institutions that the Sandinista government is creating across the country under the banner of citizen participation, has become the latest challenge to the country’s fragile rule of law, pitting the branches of government against one another in a showdown over the Constitution.

Ortega qualified as “absurd” the National Assembly’s vote last week to sever the CPCs’ official ties to the presidency, and said that his government – regardless of the legislature’s efforts – will move ahead with plans to install a new CPC National Cabinet on Nov. 30.

“The attitude that we have seen today in the National Assembly is totally backward and reactionary,” Ortega said shortly after the Nov. 20 vote to hamper the CPCs’ government ties. “They want to deny the people the right to exercise power.”

The CPCs are advertised by Ortega as community organizations that allow concerned citizens to participate in government by helping to determine policy and budget allocations on a local level, while offering input on a national level. Critics, however, argue that the CPCs are instruments of the Sandinista Front – revolutionary throwbacks intended to implement top-down control over all levels of government and society.

Opposition lawmakers claim the CPCs are part of a totalitarian project to turn partyaffiliated civil groups into state institutions (NT, Aug. 10).

In a rare show of opposition-party unity, the 52 lawmakers of the right-wing Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN), the Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC) and the left-wing Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) voted Nov. 20 for a second time to limit the role of the CPCs, effectively reducing their status to that of any other non-governmental organization.

The National Assembly first voted against the CPCs’ state ties in September, but Ortega vetoed that effort, sending the reform back to the legislature which then overturned the veto last week. Ortega then got a reprieve from an appellate court and has appealed final word to the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court, over which he wields considerable influence.

Ortega responded angrily to the National Assembly’s defiance of his government program, calling it a “serious mistake” that is in violation of the Executive Branch’s right to organize itself and citizens’ right to participate in government.

“This is absurd; this cannot be,” Ortega argued.

Ortega and Murillo, who have made the CPCs the centerpiece of the administration, insist they cannot be stopped because, “the power resides with the people.”

That warning was also issued by Sandinista lawmakers, who said before the vote that the CPCs would move forward, with or without the Assembly’s approval.

Similar Arguments

Both boosters and critics of the CPCs use similar arguments to either defend or attack the citizen councils.

Ortega and his Sandinista lawmakers claim the CPCs promote citizen participation and democracy, while opponents claim the citizen councils violate the Law of Citizen Participation and mistake democracy for totalitarianism.

Ortega claims the National Assembly is abusing the separation of powers by interfering in the organization of the Executive Branch. Opposition lawmakers, meanwhile, argue that it is Ortega who has crossed the line by invading the Legislative Branch’s right to organize government.

Ortega and his opponents have both accused one another of violating the Constitution and the right to participate freely in a democratic system of government.

José Pallais, president of the National Assembly’s Commission on Justice, said the CPCs violate the Law of Citizen Participation because they create a discriminatory system where some citizen groups have official ties and privileged access to government.

Pallais said the “integration of people into the state is absolutely contradictory to the Constitution and the organization of the Nicaraguan state.”

“There is a distinction between citizen participation and the integration of citizens into the state,” Pallais said. “The first is a modern democracy, the second is to build a totalitarian [state].”

The lawmaker added that the Law of Citizen Participation already creates norms for civil society, the function of which can’t be reorganized by presidential decree, as Ortega has done in the creation of the CPCs.

Sandinista dissident lawmaker Victor Hugo Tinoco, of the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), said that the CPCs would give Ortega an excuse to listen only to one Sandinista-affiliated civil society group, while ignoring the majority of civil groups – especially women’s groups – that also have a right to participate in government. He said no one is questioning the CPCs right to exist, but that they can’t be given government functions or control over state resources.

Eduardo Montealegre, leader of the opposition Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN), has called the CPCs parallel government organizations of “blackmail and terror.”

Montealegre claims that public opinion is against the CPCs, which he likens to the now defunct Sandinista Defense Committees, which were known neighborhood spy groups in the 1980s.

Sandinista supporters, meanwhile, maintain that the CPCs are just the natural organization of concerned citizens, and represent the pulse of the neighborhoods.

The role of the CPCs has also been questioned, both on the Caribbean coast, where the groups have allegedly been used to distribute hurricane-relief in a politicized manner, and in other parts of the country where they have played a role in the government’s distribution of subsidized food items and poverty-relief resources (see separate story).



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