Has municipal autonomy been damaged? And what have we women gained?
This radio journalist specializing in municipal issues
discusses the implications, contradictions and possible meanings
of the Municipality Law reform, passed on March 8,
“in honor of Nicaraguan women.”
I wasn’t a municipality advocate when we began the “Onda Local” (Local Wave) radio program some 12 years ago. But over the years I realized that Nicaragua isn’t one huge amorphous landmass and that it isn’t just Managua. Nicaragua is the reality of the other 152 municipalities that aren’t the capital city, that resemble each other in many ways and are far different in many others. Those who have been in central government find it hard to understand that these 152 other municipalities have their own dynamics and identities.
So I learned to become a municipality advocate in the school of life, and in radio school. Along with the team of young journalists—over the years, four generations of graduates in journalism, or social communication, as it’s sometimes called, have been part of “Onda Local”—I learned to defend the municipalities and try to change the mass media’s belief that what happens in Managua is happening in the whole country. We’re trying to convince them to open their pages, microphones and cameras to the reality of the municipalities, which have extraordinary experiences from which we can learn important lessons because local government has a lot to teach central government.
President Ortega changes On March 2, President Daniel Ortega sent the National Assembly a bill to amend various articles in Law 40, the Municipalities Law, essentially administrative legislation that regulates municipal life, its authorities’ attributes and responsibilities and local public participation. It’s a very well-structured law, which has already been amended, and improved, with Law 261. The National Assembly unanimously passed the new bill in record time, on March 8, International Women’s Day. With that the Municipalities Law was amended for the second time, now with Law 786. I’m going to comment on these changes.
the Municipalities Law
But first, I want to mention four other laws dealing with local dynamics, since the recent reform doesn’t seem to take them into account.
The Municipal Budgetary System Law. This legislation, passed in 2001, regulates how municipal budgets should be drawn up, taking local diversity into consideration. That involved classifying the country’s municipalities according to size and population—because there are extensive municipalities, such as on the Caribbean Coast, and very small ones, like Masaya—and by the revenue each one collects. The law classified all municipalities, A through H, combining territorial and population size. The only municipality in the A classification is Managua, where all the central seats of power are situated, which is very large and has between 1.5 and 1.8 million inhabitants.
The Municipal Transfer Law. After much struggle and pressure from local people and authorities, this law, passed in 2003, established that 10% of the national budget must be transferred from central government to the munici¬palities, in compliance with Article 177 of the Political Constitution. That article establishes the central government’s obligation to allocate a sufficient percentage of the Republic’s General Budget to the country’s municipalities, distributed in a way that prioritizes those municipalities with less earning capacity. The Municipal Transfer Law regulates the proportionality of such transfers, based on the municipalities’ classification, described above. The transfers are the central government’s contributions to the local authorities and have two goals: to support investment in the municipality’s progress and to support the payment of running expenses, including the municipal workers’ payroll.
The Citizen Participation Law. This third law concerned with municipal life was submitted to the National Assembly by civil society organizations, after first consulting and informing large numbers of people in many municipalities about its content, and was passed in October 2003. It established a variety of ways citizens can both participate in municipal affairs and interact with central government institutions and all public authorities. The latter includes the possibility of citizens’ initiatives to introduce amend¬ments to legislation, with the sole exception of the Electoral Law and the General Budget.
The Equal Rights and Opportunities Law. All over the world the women’s movement has struggled hard to advance women’s rights from the State, and this law, passed in 2008, is an expression of those efforts. Many women put a lot of our time and energy into getting it passed, and it’s a very good law, despite deficiencies resulting from substantial modifications by the Catholic Church hierarchy and Protestant churches, consulted by the parliamentarians of that time. It establishes a framework for how government, all public institutions and all national laws must promote equal rights and opportunities for women. This law has very interesting aspects that merit reading… and being implemented, but it’s a dead letter. It has gone the way of many very good laws in Nicaragua and even of our magnificent Political Constitution: they become useless pieces of paper because those who wield power don’t comply with them.
The Municipalities Law amendmentsBack to our subject. The President’s bill amending various articles in the Municipalities Law was dated March 2 and was sent to the National Assembly with a request for fast-tracking. The next day, in a public event in Managua to turn houses over to their new owners as part of the Houses for the People Program, Rosario Murillo, wearing her Secretary of Communication and Citizenry hat, said that the Cabinets of Citizens’ Power and other unnamed social movements were asking for a bill aimed at complementarity, equity and justice for what we women do and represent. The President then held up the bill, affirming that he sought justice and dignity for women and publicly urging the National Assembly to pass it on March 8, which it dutifully did.
were rushed through the National Assembly
The fact that the bill was dated Friday March 2, announced Saturday March 3, arrived in the Assembly on Monday March 5 and was approved within three days is not an irrelevant detail. When we claim that the President now controls all branches of State, including the legislative, some say it isn’t true, that there’s a separation of powers, but the speed of this experience shows that this control is a reality. The fast-tracking request itself is another relevant detail, when we recall what typically happens to other vital laws for women: it took more than 20 years to get passage of a law against violence towards women.
The “50-50 rule”The best known of the amendments to the Municipalities Law made through this questionable procedure appears with the name given it by the media: the “50–50 rule,” because it states that half of the parties’ lists of municipal candidates must be men and half women.
With this provision, the reform tries to address one of women’s historical problems: we’ve been excluded from the public arenas, including those of local government, leaving us no say in municipal life much less a leadership role that would allow us to more effectively vindicate women’s rights locally. From this perspective the bill theoretically responds to an important longstanding problem. But, assuming this intention, which is good, many questions come up that I can’t answer.
One is whether this historical deficit of women in municipal leadership is best resolved by a decree or law, because this problem is both structural and cultural in such a patriarchal, machista and undemocratic society as ours. A second question is: Why so urgently reform the Municipalities Law in a year with municipal elections? Why not take the time to hold discussions in the municipalities about what kind of law would be the most appropriate law to open real possibilities for women to participate autonomously in local positions of power? This discussion is relevant because I believe we have more than half a million women in Nicaragua, outside of political parties, who are willing and able to engage in this discussion and improve municipal life.
In its explanatory statement, the law proposes the equality of women and men “for the eradication of poverty, deepening of democracy, our country’s economic growth and sustainable human development.” All very positive, but the law’s articles don’t specify how to achieve such important goals.
The law amends article 19 in the Municipalities Law, which established that local authorities are elected through direct and secret votes. The amendment now stipulates that the elected mayor and deputy mayor are “binominal” and should be elected “from gender equality,” which we assume means that if the mayor is male then the deputy mayor is female and vice versa. In order to achieve this pairing, the law stipulates that political parties’ electoral lists for this November’s municipal elections must have an equal number of male and female candidates. Nonetheless, it doesn’t specify what sanctions would follow if they don’t comply. What’s the point of having laws that aren’t binding?
The reform seems aimed at political parties, but that isn’t clear, because the law doesn’t specify how parties should organize their electoral lists. Are women supposed to head the lists, be in the middle, or even bunched at the bottom, or should they be “braided” man-woman, man-woman? It says absolutely nothing about the procedure for compiling these lists. Another question I ask myself is: what’ll happen in about 87 of the country’s municipalities, classified in categories G-H, which have less than 30,000 inhabitants and the Municipal Councils only have five members. How can they comply with the law: two men, two women… and what about the fifth councilor? Nothing is specified.
Is this amendment even legal?In addition to this lack of precision, the most questionable aspect of these amendments is that they attempt to regulate political parties within a law about municipalities, which was never the spirit of the Municipalities Law. We have the Electoral Law, Law 331, for regulating party or electoral matters, which is a higher law.
The highest law in Nicaragua is the Constitution and no law may oppose it, because it’s the Magna Charta. Below it are other constitutional laws, including the Electoral Law. And beneath them are the codes, ordinary laws and their regulatory laws. In this case, the President’s reform of the Municipalities Law, an ordinary law, de facto amends the Electoral Law, which can’t be done… and yet was done.
Why not make a better Political Parties Law? Why introduce political party issues into the Municipalities Law? Why not reform the Electoral Law? In 2005, the Inter-American Human Rights Commission recommended that Nicaragua reform the Electoral Law, yet it hasn’t been touched.
An article in the Equal Rights and Opportunities Law says that political parties should regulate their electoral lists to ensure gender equity. That article is actually more specific and better formulated than the President’s reform to the Municipalities Law. Wouldn’t it have been better to enforce that law than invent a new provision in a less appropriate law?
Why 50-50 only in municipal government?Is there some evaluation by the executive branch showing that deputy mayors are going wrong or that men don’t make good local authorities and more women have to be included? No such evaluation has been made public showing us the principal problems with local authorities that gave rise to this reform. If there are no such problems, why start the 50-50 rule with local authorities? Why not with the executive branch or the other branches of government? Someone said, whether joking or seriously, that the government invented this reform because it wanted a way to commemorate March 8. There are already a number of instruments for women to exercise more public power so all that’s needed is enough political will and resources to advance our rights through them.
Do the Councils of Citizens’ Power (CPCs) and the Cabinets of Citizens’ Power (GPC) comply with the 50-50 rule? There are many women in both the CPCs and the GPCs, which have to have 22 people in charge of their various areas of work, but not 50%, because all those who direct and decide, who have public representation and who negotiate with state institutions, are men.
There’s some of everything in the CPCs and the GPCs, which were also created by presidential decree. Some started out as exclusive nuclei of government party people but because there were people in many municipalities with prior local participation experience in district or municipal development committees or there were even citizens’ committees working for the municipality, a hybrid emerged in some of those municipalities between what had existed previously and the CPCs and GPCs. Some of those hybrids still persist, particularly in Santa María and Mozonte in Nueva Segovia … The party machine doesn’t predominate in these areas and a balance has been achieved between the leadership that existed before and people from the ruling party, in which they work together. There are some very negative experiences, where the GPC leader sparks conflicts, and others that are very good, in which the GPCs are run more intelligently and have influence in the municipalities, as happens in Matagalpa. There are also municipalities where the GPCs have become the channels through which all government resources flow, which makes them into para-governmental organizations, administering and distributing at their own discretion social programs such as the Zero Hunger Programs’ production bonuses.
Where does municipal autonomy fit?The presidential reform’s explanatory statement and justification doesn’t say the municipal authorities had asked for this reform. We don’t know if they were even consulted or gave their opinion on its relevance. In fact, there’s no reference to municipal authorities at all, which are autonomous from central authorities. The reform isn’t justified by any improvement to municipal life. According to the First Lady, it responds to a petition from the GPC and the social movements, which aren’t municipal authorities.
The concept of municipal autonomy is new in Nicaraguan political life. Its purpose is for municipalities to have their own life, to acquire and deepen their identity, to develop their own development policies and progress. Although autonomous, each municipality joins up with others when they have common goals. Masaya joins with Nindirí because they have similar problems. Granada joins with Malacatoya to develop joint projects. Autonomy allows each municipality to define its own vision of development and its citizens to participate in this definition. It doesn’t mean breaking with central government but it does mean not having to obey central government’s orders. The amendment, passed on March 8, damages municipal autonomy. And it’s very significant that it’s being violated now, since municipal autonomy was born in the revolutionary years.
What about resources?They boast that the reform will enable women to become local authorities, but we wonder if the resources will be available to the women in office after this law is passed to enable them to ensure local women’s rights and opportunities. Because the solution to a lack of equity isn’t to be in office, it’s to be able to do something from that post. It’s not enough to have an assembly of women in the municipality if they can’t respond to the urgent needs of other women. And in order to respond, they need resources.
The presidential reform to the Municipalities Law doesn’t address any of the provisions of the Municipal Budgetary System Law, which directs how investments should be made in the municipalities. It contains no proposal to expand municipal transfers. The cap is still 10% of the national budget. At this point, it’s urgent for Nicaragua to pass a municipal tax code, which doesn’t exist, and put municipal taxes in some order. In Nicaragua, taxes have been organized by the central government. Previously, municipalities charged taxes that stayed in the municipality; now they remain at central level. I think the local tax system has to change in order for more than half of Nicaragua’s municipalities to progress. Given our people’s poverty and the current tax system, it’s hard to see how the municipalities could progress with only these scant municipal transfers.
Changed functions of the deputy mayor’s officeArticle 34 of the Municipalities Law was also amended in a way that interferes with the municipal government’s internal organization. Until now, this article established some 28 powers, responsibilities and tasks incumbent on the mayor, among them to represent the municipality, chair the municipal development committee, approve the budget bill… It also indicated that the deputy mayor’s office would have the responsibilities or tasks delegated by the mayor; a model consistent with central government, where the country’s Vice President is responsible for tasks delegated by the President.
Two years ago the First Lady decided to issue a municipal ordinance—although by law, only Municipal Councils can do so—that established the functions of the deputy mayor’s office. As the ordinance didn’t fly, given the lack of a law to support it, this presidential reform is now introducing numerous new functions for that office. This poses a risk because if there isn’t a democratic process to override our country’s top-down culture, the “two bosses” model may lead to conflicts. The deputy mayor manages the mayor’s office and answers directly to the mayor. Will that person now have to answer to two bosses? Why risk conflict when the priority should be to consolidate the municipalities?
According to the amended Municipalities Law, the deputy mayor will be responsible for tourism projects and must coordinate all social aspects (health, education, culture, environment, and clean-up) as well as the Women’s Secretariat. Knowing who has historically been assigned responsibilities for everything “social,” we can assume that the project intends that deputy mayors should be women.
Why gender-specific statisticsThe amendment also establishes that the mayor should develop a “municipal planning system for human development,” a mission described in somewhat bombastic terms. In order to promote women’s rights, this system should incorporate gender-specific data about everything that happens in the municipality. All investment plans, assessments, consultations, works and spending must indicate the number of men and women who participated and benefitted. All statistics should be gender-disaggregated.
only in the municipal governments?
Why are the municipalities required by law to disaggregate statistics by sex when the central government institutions aren’t required to do so? If they were to demand that central government do it, we’d applaud, because it would show just how little the country invests in women. Just one example: the Nicaraguan Women’s Institute is a central government institution that should promote our rights but ever since it was created, during the Chamorro government’s term (1990-97), it has received ever less national budget resources. Its current share of the budget is just 0.001%. Not even one cent in a $100.
The idea of gender-disaggregated data is good but putting it into practice requires resources. The municipalities may have all the best intentions but only two computers and a shortage of skilled people. I can guess what the Totogalpa mayor’s office will do, with about 12,000 inhabitants, 32 municipal government employees and only four cooperation-donated, computers… Can they possibly comply with what the amended law now demands of them?
The planning system the law now imposes breaks with all prior practice but doesn’t provide resources or build skills. Remember that there’s already a System for Information, Planning, Use and Control of Municipal Transfers from the Treasury, which is coordinated by the Ministry of Finance and Public Credit. If the law provided resources and training to launch this new system of gender-specific statistics in G- and H-classified municipalities, those with smaller populations and greater impoverishment, it would be different. But, here as elsewhere, the presidential reform doesn’t address the procedures to comply with what it imposes, and in this regard, through lack of realism, it could become a trap or simply stay as a declaration of good intentions.
Seeing all these things so far removed from the municipalities’ reality, we wonder what the President was thinking when he launched this reform. And also, why did the legislative branch, or at the very least the findings committee, accept the fast-track procedure without question and pass the reform unanimously? Given the urgency, was it even submitted first to the findings committee?
What citizens are permitted to participate?The Municipalities Law stated that the mayor should present the annual municipal budget to organized citizens of the municipality. The amendment states that the mayor should now present it to a “broad participation of citizens through the application of direct democracy and citizen power.” And we know what “direct democracy” and “citizen power” means: it means people connected to the ruling party. By focusing public participation in the exercise of “citizen power” by the CPCs, this law violates the Citizen Participation Law, which establishes that any hundred people can gather and go to the mayor’s office and register as a residents’ association and then participate in municipal life. It’s not necessary to be linked to the CPCs in order to organize and participate.
This provision, too, damages municipal autonomy. Although the concept of local autonomy is very new in our political history, we’d become familiar in recent years with municipal development committees in which those most interested in their municipality’s development participated. They had an annual Municipal Investment Program (PIM) or even formulated multi-annual investment plans with longer-term prospects. These committees already have a place in municipal history. In some municipalities they functioned better or had more skills and resources than in others, but almost 90% of municipalities had some such development committee with its investment plans. The best example was the departmental development committee in Las Segovias, an experience rich in the exercise of democracy because, after drawing up their separate development plans, the municipalities all came together and negotiated and melded a development plan for the whole department. Estelí, Nueva Segovia and Madriz even made a regional plan, jointly identifying how they wanted to see their municipalities, their department and their region over the next ten years.
Recentralizing municipal affairsCentralist and authoritarian governments don’t like such things because they go against “Managua-centric” governmental policies and their age-old logic that all decisions emanate from Managua, which they believe to be Nicaragua’s nexus.
around the central government
The new planning system will now be directed from the Ministry of Finance and Public Credit, damaging municipal autonomy even further because it undermines decentral¬ization. The municipalities aren’t given the option of deciding on their investments or their planning according to their abilities. There’s no commitment to enhance what’s already there, but rather to recentralize responsibilities and resources. By trying to bring the municipalities back into line, it’s an assault on the right of local people to organize autonomously and rides roughshod over both the legal framework already in place, which precisely guarantees decentralization and autonomy, and the municipalities’ recent, but very real history. This reduction of the profile of local authority, turning municipalities into little bits of central power, is characteristic of a centralist government seeking to make everything revolve around the Executive.
Manipulating women’s interestsIn conclusion, this presidential reform, by appearing in a municipal election year and with such urgency, raises certain suspicions. I think the law serves two purposes: to manipulate women’s interests and buy votes.
It’s no coincidence that, for the first time in Nicaragua’s legislative history, there are four women on the National Assembly’s directive board. This is positive because our traditional mindset is that men have been in charge and should go right on being so. We may not phrase it that way, but when we vote, we vote for men. It’s how we’ve been brought up, both men and women. Violeta Chamorro stands alone on the list of male Presidents. And she’s still being criticized because she was a housewife, but isn’t this the historical role assigned to women? Although I’m no fan of Violeta Chamorro, I have to admit that she symbolically broke with the notion that only men can be in the highest public position, which was terrific. The four women who now occupy the National Assembly’s directive board are also a symbolic power. But we can’t remain at the level of symbols. What are these women doing for women’s rights? Because, what are they there for if not to represent our interests?
The FSLN also brought in a majority of women as National Assembly representatives. Nicaragua now boasts of being the country with the second highest number of women parliamentarians in the world. But, are numbers enough? I met many of these women when they were leading important struggles in defense of women’s rights, and also men’s rights, when those rights were being trampled on. But now that they represent the FSLN in parliament I don’t hear the voices of these women I knew back then. I know they have something to say; I know they think; but the ruling party doesn’t let them talk or think. They’re civil servants, subordinate to the party’s interests, because that’s where they get their quotas of power.
Feminists worldwide are struggling to get more women in public office, participating in public life and in the public arenas where we’ve historically been absent. These are even included among the Millennium Development Goals, which means that governments complying with them can receive funding. Remember that Nicaragua has been put under the magnifying glass by five committees from the United Nations system for violating women’s rights by criminalizing therapeutic abortion, among other rights that have been denied. We could thus also reasonably think the government is trying to improve its image by reforms such as the 50-50 rule. And, just as this government is manipulating young people, it’s also trying to manipulate women’s rights and claims. It’s not enough for a woman to hold public office; that woman must identify with other, historically marginalized women in order to respond to our demands.
Electoral clientelism I believe there’s another purpose besides manipulation: vote buying. Telling women they will form half of the listings and that’s how “we’re now in charge” sends an electoral message. And there are women who believe that we indeed are now in charge. But the events where the government puts women “in charge” are disturbing, as we saw on March 8: women all dressed in the same T-shirts, sitting in rows, all clapping at the same time, all the same…
Well-made laws—and there are many in Nicaragua—define their concepts so that it’s clear what they’re about. In the Equal Rights and Opportunities Law, “equality” is defined, “equity” is defined; all concepts are defined so we’re all on the same page. The Municipalities Law amendment was done in a hurry and, technically speaking, the result is very poor. What is meant by “complementarity,” which appears in the explanatory preamble to the reform and would seem to be implicit when it talks about mayor/deputy mayor pairings but is never defined in the reform? Personally, I’m allergic to this concept.
Among other limitations, “complementarity” reflects a heterosexist vision of society, where women should feel and be complementary to men. I’m already acquainted with this concept from a document by Cardinal Ratzinger, before he became Pope Benedict XVI. He is one of this concept’s standard bearers and in his document he overlaid it with wide-ranging theological and philosophical arguments. In response, we must remember that in the evolution of human rights we’ve learned that there are many other ways to live in the world and to live sexually without women being or feeling they’re men’s complements.
If the positions are autonomous,I’m convinced that there are enough women in Nicaragua to make the 50-50 rule a reality in all the power arenas if it’s a question of filling autonomous positions. There are enough capable women with gender awareness. In the municipalities one finds committed, courageous women, willing to take risks. We’ve met many in the Northern Women’s Network. In Muy Muy, in Waslala, in Río Blanco, in San Ramón, in Las Segovias, in many municipalities, these women work as human rights defenders and activists, and are threatened by aggressors or the families of aggressors or even the police, for the work they do. I think these women would do a much better job than men as local authorities, although I know there are also very honorable men capable of carrying out these responsibilities.
there are enough women to fill them
These capable women already exist in Nicaragua, despite the fact that we women were not brought up—as men were—to be autonomous, which means being able to decide what we want to do with our lives and to act according to our own ideas and tastes. We were trained to be submissive but we’ve learned autonomy. These non-submissive, autonomous women aren’t generally found in the parties. So far, there hasn’t been the necessary reflection in the ranks of any Nicaraguan political party to allow active members to be autonomous.
In recent years we’ve made extraordinary progress in Nicaragua with respect to knowledge and courage. But while I insist there are truly autonomous women capable of taking office and effectively asserting our rights, I don’t believe most of them are active party members. If the Electoral Law were to be reformed in Nicaragua, restoring the rights taken away by the Ortega-Alemán pact—i.e. candidates by popular subscription, which could be submitted independent of party slates with just 5,000 signatures—there would be more than enough women willing to manage any mayor’s office in our country with ability and gender awareness.
Patricia Orozco is a journalist with 12 years’ experience as a municipality advocate leading the weekly radio program “Onda Local.”