Since last year, Nicaraguan parliamentary politics has been dominated by threats of a constitutional crisis. While the National Assembly debates corruption, and US-defined "good governance", however, outside parliament people are more concerned with the teachers' strike entering its third week, the looming water crisis and the rapidly degenerating health system.
The three main forces in the National Assembly are: President Enrique Bolanos's centre-right Alliance For The Republic (APRE); the far-right Constitutional Liberal Party (PLC); and the social-democratic Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), which is led by 1980s revolutionary Daniel Ortega. APRE is in a minority in the assembly, while the FSLN has the largest single number of representatives. Bolanos was elected by popular vote.
The November municipal elections revealed a shift in the balance of forces. The PLC, whose leader, former President Arnoldo Aleman, was convicted of corruption and jailed last year, polled very poorly. APRE came a distant third, dashing Bolanos' hope of building a significant alternative to the FSLN or PLC. The FSLN, however, was the clear winner, sweeping to power in 88 of the 152 municipalities and winning governance of the main towns in 15 of the 17 states. Voter turnout was just 54%.
In January, the National Assembly re-elected its office-bearers. Last year, US Ambassador Barbara Moore held discussions with all the parties to make sure that the FSLN was shut out of leadership positions. This year, however, the Sandinista candidate Rene Nunez Tellez, was elected to the post by a huge majority of votes, with the other six positions on the National Assembly Directorate evenly split between traditional enemies the FSLN and the PLC. Of the 21 parliamentary committees, 10 went to the FSLN and 10 to the PLC, with just one going to APRE.
The assembly is also discussing how to reduce the power of the executive. One bill introduced would move the authority to appoint and remove the heads of publicly owned utilities from the president to the National Assembly. This was provoked by Bolanos' intention to accede to an International Monetary Fund demand to privatise the country's water supply. The second bill will amend the constitution to remove the presidential veto over legislation and will make the appointment of ministers the responsibility of the assembly, rather than the president. Other reforms sought to make possible the impeachment and removal of a president from office.
Mostly concerned with the impeachment reforms, Bolanos sought the intervention of the Central American Court of Justice, which ruled on January 6 that both these reforms must be suspended. On January 7, the Nicaraguan Supreme Court declared this ruling invalid. On the same day, the Organisation of American States (OAS) released a statement supporting the Central American Courts ruling, and stating that it may well be necessary for the OAS to intervene.
Bolanos appears to be inviting foreign intervention in Nicaragua. He has already been welcoming of World Bank and IMF intervention, which is probably the key tension underlying the divisions in the National Assembly. Bolanos also recently aligned himself with the US, when Washington used the discovery of stolen weapons to argue that the Nicaraguan military was irresponsible in its handling of missiles, and should be forced to destroy them. The resultant furore led to the assembly passing a bill that took the power to purchase, sell or destroy arms away from the president and gave it to the assembly.
Adding to the pressure on Bolanos is a dispute with his ambitious vice-president, and also with the Catholic Church.
In January, the FSLN agreed to a "national dialogue" process to avert a constitutional crisis, heading off probable OAS intervention. Under the deal, Bolanos will be allowed to complete his two remaining years of presidential mandate, but the reforms shifting power to the assembly will progress.
Ortega and the Sandinistas appear to have thwarted US attempts to unite the right-wing parties, Bolanos' APRE and the PLC, in order to isolate the FSLN. It is hard to see Bolanos or APRE being able to return to any significant power after these events.
From Green Left Weekly, February 23, 2005.
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