MANAGUA – Opposition lawmakers are hoping that the momentum generated from the surprising referendum defeat of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez earlier this month will translate into ammunition to shoot down President Daniel Ortega’s efforts to expand his own powers here.
“We saw how Hugo Chávez has accepted the ‘No’ vote,” said opposition legislator Eduardo Montealegre, referring to the unexpected Dec. 2 defeat of a referendum to broaden Chávez’s socialist revolution in Venezuela. “Now we have to return the National Assembly its ability to be independent.”
Critics of Ortega have called the referendum vote in Venezuela a wake-up call for the Nicaraguan president, whom many believe is also trying to broaden his powers through the implementation of the controversial Councils of Citizen Power (CPCs).
The CPCs are Sandinista-led community organizations that Ortega says will “strengthen direct democracy.” Critics, however, are comparing the groups to organizations that the Sandinistas used to spy on the opposition in the 1980s, and warn that Ortega is using them to undercut the National Assembly and implement a topdown control over government.
Although the National Assembly last month voted to sever the CPCs’ official ties to the presidency, the Sandinista judges in the Supreme Court last week overturned the legislature’s vote, worsening the crisis between the powers of government.
First Lady Rosario Murillo has recently asked for a dialogue with the opposition lawmakers – who this week formed a coalition group known as “the bloc against the dictator” – but many are saying that the CPCs must be suspended as a condition for the talks.
Ortega, meanwhile, appears to be moving full steam ahead on his “revolution in peace,” and has dismissed any attempts at comparison between the National Assembly’s opposition to his government project and the Venezuelan opposition’s growing rejection of Chávez’s “socialist revolution.”
“We can’t compare our situation to the referendum in Venezuela,” he said.
Instead, Ortega claims that Chávez’s position has only been strengthened by the outcome of the Venezuelan referendum.
“The campaign to make Chávez out to be a dictator has fallen,” he said.
Looking for Budget Support
A day after the referendum vote – the first time Chávez has ever lost an election – Ortega met with Montealegre and other opposition legislators in an apparent attempt to bury the hatchet and look for support for his 2008 budget, which he wants approved by the end of the month.
Lawmakers, however, took advantage of the moment to criticize the president on an array of other topics related to his leadership during his first year in office.
Ortega’s government, until recently, had benefited from a divided opposition in the National Assembly. But since Liberal and Sandinista dissidents rallied together last month to vote against the CPCs, the tide has started to turn against Ortega’s 38 lawmakers, with some opposition legislators even asking for the removal of Sandinista Assembly President Rene Nuñez.
Seated before the opposition lawmakers in search of support for his budget plan, Ortega took notes with his wife silently at his side while legislators took turns openly scolding him on topics ranging from the CPCs, to his inflammatory speeches at international summits, to his less-than-transparent handling of Venezuelan aid.
When the microphone was his, Ortega responded to CPC critics by insisting, “I can share my power however I want.”
The president then accused the National Assembly of “invading” his executive powers. Ortega last month warned that if the National Assembly continues to block his laws, he will be “obliged to govern by decree” (NT, Dec. 7).
Some opposition legislators warned Ortega that if he continues to try to bypass the Legislative Branch, the lawmakers will sit on the purse strings and withhold support for the president’s $1.5 billion budget next year.
“We won’t agree to approve the budget if that’s how it’s going to be,” said lawmaker Pedro Matus González, of the Liberal Constitutional Party.
Liberal lawmakers have also said that they won’t approve any administrative budget for Sandinista party headquarters, which has doubled as the unofficial casa presidencial for the past year.
Montealegre, meanwhile, said that having the budget ready for approval by the beginning of 2008 will be crucial for Nicaragua to confront external economic pressure from rising oil prices, problems with the electrical sector, damage caused by Hurricane Felix and a slowing U.S. housing market.
Economist Adolfo Acevedo said that Ortega’s visit to the National Assembly Dec. 3 appeared to be an attempt to make amends with opposition politicians after the CPC conflict in hopes of smoothing the way for his budget proposal.
However, the mood was soured two days later when the Supreme Court overruled the CPC vote – a decision that the opposition lawmakers think was political rather than judicial (see separate story).
Acevedo said that the National Assembly could now try to starve the CPCs by designing a budget in which funding wouldn’t be available to the controversial groups.
For instance, some legislators are considering giving banks or municipal governments funding to manage the government’s poverty relief program, known as “Zero Hunger,” among other programs where the CPCs could potentially use state resources to win party favor. But there are still political negotiations to be had before a final budget emerges, the economist said.
“Normally [the negotiations] happen behind doors,” he said.
He said if the 2008 budget isn’t approved by the end of this year, a provisional budget will go into effect until the Assembly makes reforms and approves a new budget next year.