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  Number 374 | Septiembre 2012
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The political grammar in the municipalities will change in 2013

This municipal expert reflects on how the changes designed by the executive branch will influence the municipalities after the upcoming elections, in both the composition of the municipal authorities and the way they are organized.

Silvio Prado

The framework of laws related to the life of the municipalities has been undergoing some changesin recent years, but none as daring as the ones this year. In March, the executive branch sent the National Assembly a bill to reform the Municipalities Law itself, with a request that it be fast-tracked. It was approved on March 8 (International Women’s Day) “in honor of Nicaraguan women.” The biggest attention grabber of that reform was to establish that all political parties must include half men and half women in their candidate slates for municipal mayor, deputy mayor, Municipal Council members and their alternates. The reform became known as the “50-50 law” in reference to this parity proposal. It appears to have been the fruit of improvisation, because in April, barely a month and a half later, the executive branch sent another bill to reform the same law, this time increasing the number of members in all Municipal Councils. If up to now there were just over 1,000 councilors in the country’s 153 municipalities, there will be 3,119 plus their alternates starting next January.

These reforms will
alter municipal autonomy

No proposals have changed the mainspring of municipal autonomy, i.e. the Municipal Council, as much as these reforms in the nearly 25 years of municipal life. As with any other form of autonomy, municipal autonomy involves the local governments’ capacity to generate their own norms, regulations and ordinances. The municipal government regulates the life of the municipality with these autonomously-decided rules, starting with territorial planning: where to establish residential neighborhoods, industrial zones, areas of tolerance for bars and the like, and determining what areas are risky for construction… The Municipal Council is the body that adopts all these norms, and its members are directly elected by the municipality’s eligible voters.

Municipal Councils were conceived as far back as the colonial period as a kind of mini-parliament. Today they are the maximum authority of each municipality. Many people believe the mayor is the municipality’s highest authority, but that’s not how it works. The law establishes the Municipal Council as the maximum rule-setting authority and the mayor as the maximum executing authority.

Thus, altering the composition of the Municipal Council alters that rule-setting body, which represents the municipality’s self-government and self-regulates the area’s life. The essence of autonomy resides in the council members. Many writers hold that without municipal autonomy there is no municipality, and I agree with them. Without it, municipalities are nothing more than central government delegations or agencies that implement national investment projects.

The reforms sent to the National Assembly in March and April were aimed at altering the centerpiece of municipal autonomy. It was as if the executive branch had sat down and thought how to influence municipal autonomy without having to totally reform the Municipalities Law and in the end decided that the way to do it was to alter the Municipal Council, among other measures by increasing the number of its members.

Improving proportional
representation is a good thing

Increasing the number of councilors was a proposal we municipal activists in the Nicaraguan Network for Democracy and Local Development agreed with. For many years we’ve been demanding a change in the proportionality between electors and councilors, considering that population growth has resulted in under-representation. In 1988, when the revolution restored the municipal autonomy that Somoza had eliminated 50 years earlier, the proportionality formula adopted was based on three very mechanical criteria: 20 councilors for Managua, 10 for municipalities with more than 30,000 inhabitants and 5 for municipalities with less than 30,000 inhabitants. We in the Network always believed that such an artificially decided proportionality needed to be changed.

As in all Latin American countries, Nicaragua has low representativity in the number of municipal councilors. In fact, the problem is even more serious, in that there aren’t enough municipalities. One author argues that Latin America as a whole suffers from the same problem. She offers France as a better example: that country has 58 million inhabitants and 36,000 municipalities, for an average of 1,611 residents per municipality, while in all of Latin America there are 440 million inhabitants and only 15,600 municipalities, for an average of 28,200. In contrast to such large populations per municipality in Latin America, Spanish municipalities only average 150 inhabitants, and in other countries of Europe and parts of North America, the mean is 110. Actually, we would argue that those places have too many municipalities.

But in Nicaragua, instead of thinking about how to improve the population’s representation by increasing the number of municipalities, and by so doing bringing the authorities closer to the citizenry to create new opportunities for the exercise of direct democracy, they took the easy road: increase the number of councilors in the same number of municipalities.

Worse yet, the formula adopted by the executive has no clear logic. Why give Managua 80 council members? What proportionality between population and councilors was adopted to determine that it would be 80? No one has explained it. And the same is true in the rest of the municipalities.

President Ortega said the increase in councilors seeks to deepen “direct democracy.” But that argument is contradictory: in the name of direct democracy we’re going to elect more councilors, who are an expression of representative democracy. Instead of bringing government closer to the people, it will just get bigger.

When the bill to increase the number of councilors got to the National Assembly for consultation, our Network was the only civil society organization that presented an alternative proposal for a more appropriate proportion between population and councilors. We made a mathematical proposal for that ratio that also took into account the economic burden implied by increasing the number of councilors in the municipalities, because that’s a problem the government seems not to have considered in sufficient detail.

The reform establishes
numerous new meetings

Starting next January there will be more than 3,000 new municipal authorities, half of them men and half women. This and the other changes will unquestionably change the political grammar of the municipalities because they will upset all the principles and rules that have structured the most important municipal institutions. They will have various expressions, starting with the form and frequency of the municipal authorities’ sessions, because the reform also established new meetings.

As it now stands, the Municipal Council meets with the mayor and deputy mayor once a month in public sessions. In addition, based on Law 376, two town hall forums are held annually as expressions of participatory democracy. These open forums are well-attended, generally consultative assemblies that, unlike Municipal Council meetings, can’t make decisions or set new regulations. Anyone who wants to attend may; they can listen and speak about any issue that concerns them, but there’s no voting.

Up to now, one of the two forums has been held at the end of the year to present the budget for the following year, before it’s approved, and the other in February or March to account for everything done the previous year. The law established that they must be held with 60 days notice to give the participants time to inform themselves and come to the meeting well prepared.

Starting next year, there will be five forums a year. As before, one will be to get input on the budget and the other to account for the financial execution of the last one. The other three will be to report on the degree of progress in executing the budget and the investment plan. But in theory this is what the mayors already did every three months in their public sessions with the Municipal Council.

The reforms establish that the forums will be called with only 15 days notice, i.e. they’ll be “express forums.” And on top of that, each forum will be the conclusion of “massive”—to use the reform’s own word—community assemblies held in neighborhoods and rural districts. So far we know of no regulation specifying how these assemblies will be organized.

In addition to all these meetings, the reforms say that extraordinary forums can be held “when necessary,” with only 48 hours notice: “ultra-express forums.”

So, the reform not only means more councilors, but also more meetings. If we assume that Nicaragua’s calendar will continue to have 12 months, we can speculate that there will be an ordinary forum in January and another one in December, leaving the other three for April, July and October. And since the reformed law maintains the monthly Municipal Council meeting already mentioned, which is also open to the population, those 12 meetings also have to be added.

Moreover, as the five forums have to be the result of massive community assemblies, according to the letter of the reform, we need to add the time dedicated to the five corresponding assemblies: notification, meetings, synthesis of the information shared, reports… The process behind each assembly could possibly take three to four weeks from the time of the notification to the synthesizing of its results, particularly in areas with a larger population.

“Expanded” Municipal Councils

But not even that wraps it up: the reforms also create “expanded” Municipal Councils, a new concept whose concrete meaning has yet to be explained. If Municipal Councils are made up of people who were directly elected by the population, with whom are they going to be expanded: National Assembly representatives, as happens in the Autonomous Regional Councils in the Caribbean? Or the President of the Republic? These are the only other elected authorities in the country. Or will they be expanded with unelected people, which would be wrong? It also isn’t indicated when or how often they would take place.

Adding the extraordinary forums that could be called at any moment and these expanded Municipal Councils to the fixed meetings, when will the citizenry have time to work, study, relax or sleep? And it doesn’t even end there: to this marathon of meetings must be added the municipal congresses that the Nicaraguan Institute for Municipal Promotion’s Human Development Planning System requires to be held at all phases of the municipal budget.

What’s the idea behind all this?

What lies behind this multiplying of councilors and avalanche of meetings? One can easily think that those who came up with it have either never worked or live far removed from the life of people who must work. What time will be left for people’s own everyday life?

One begins to think that what’s behind this design isn’t expanded opportunities for citizens’ participation, but keeping the population constantly mobilized, brought together in mass meetings for the simple purpose of receiving “lines” from above, where many can talk if they want, but only a few decide. It’s a model that recalls Khadafy’s people’s Jamahiriya, based on grassroots assemblies. We never learned exactly how that system worked, but we do know how it ended.

Are we looking at a
plebiscite democracy model?

This assembly format is reminiscent of a plebiscite democracy, a political system in which decisions are made in assemblies by raising your hand, without having all the information about what you’re voting on or having discussed different options. Plebiscite regimes aren’t governed by laws, but by the “will of the people” that only charismatic leaders know how to interpret.

According to the design emanating from the reforms, the Municipal Councils could turn into plebiscite assemblies in which there’s a lot of shouting but no deliberating, steamroller votes are used to mow down dissenters, or arguments are blocked to impede agreement with them.

Will there be genuine deliberation in the 61% of the Municipal Councils that will now have 16 councilors, the 22% that will have 23, the 10% that will have 28 or the 1% that will have 35? And what kind of deliberation can there be in Managua, with 80 councilors? Experience tells us that a meeting in which 80 people participate is already an assembly.

It needs to be taken into account what this number of people means for deliberation and debate. Deliberation means being able to compare different viewpoints about the information shared, debating and discussing it, then deciding, choosing the best option. This is always complex and difficult. We all know how important a deliberative body’s institutional design is. We know that the way the discussion is organized to ensure its effectiveness is as important as what is discussed.

And what about the cost?

We also need to be aware of all the new costs. For example, when a session discusses the new manual of organization and functioning for the mayor’s office, a many-page document that the Municipal Council must approve, photocopies will first have to be made for each councilor. If Municipal Councils that used to have 5 members had to make that many photocopies of such 50-page documents, now they’ll have to make 16, which is a lot more paper and ink. And that’s only one example of the operational costs implied by the new model.

The reform says that even though the number of councilors will increase, the budget line for the per diems they receive won’t; it will stay the same as when there were only a third as many councilors. Council members receive per diems for each session they attend rather than a monthly salary because they are public servants, not mayor’s office employees. Yet they also have to prepare for those meetings by studying and informing themselves about the issues to be discussed. The per diems they receive are calculated based on two variables: a percentage of what the mayor earns and the category in which their municipality is included, which ranges from A to H based on its annual current income.

Let’s look at some cases. In the municipality of San Isidro, Matagalpa, each councilor received a per diem of 2,500 córdobas (roughly $105) per ordinary Municipal Council session. By quadrupling the number of councilors in that municipality, each will now receive 625 córdobas (under $27). If the councilor is a farmer or makes rosquillas [traditional Nicaraguan cornmeal crackers], will he or she abandon the business for 625 córdobas, an amount that barely covers transport plus food if one lives far from the municipal seat, much less any sort of honorarium? In Pantasma each councilor received 2,700 córdobas a session. Now with the increase in councilors, that drops to 1,173 córdobas ($50). In Nueva Guinea, a sprawling municipality with a lot of wealth, councilors received 9,087 córdobas per session and will now receive 2,336 (about $100). In Santo Domingo, Chontales, they received 4,900 córdobas per session and starting next year will be given 1,850 (a little less than $79).

Assuming these per diems aren’t increased, other colleagues and I have made calculations and found that travel expenses—transportation, fuel and food—to get to the session from remote districts could eat up 72% of them. That’s without even considering the many additional forums and assemblies and whatever that they’re now expected to attend. If the budget line for per diems isn’t going to increase, how will they cover the cost of all those other meetings?

And in addition to what will have to be spent in stationery and other paper supplies, plus equipment, there will be the cost of remodeling the meeting venues to cope with so many more people. There will be cases of municipal governments with offices so small they’ll have to hold their meetings outdoors or somewhere else.

Looking on the bright side

But not everything is a cause for concern, and not everything has to be negative, so let’s look at some of the new model’s advantages. Having more councilors will mean that the municipal commissions will get more input. Before, with fewer councilors, each one was often in more than one commission. The same councilor might be in the infrastructure commission and the social commission, or in the commission on women and the one on the economy. Now, with more councilors and thus more varied voices in each commission, it might just streamline the solution to the problems each commission looks at.

It might also be that more councilors will guarantee better attention to the population. It’s positive that people will have more doors to knock on. They’ll make demands on their councilors and the councilors will have to respond to them, as long, of course, as they behave as representatives of the population and not of their political party. It could also be that with more councilors there will be a greater presence in all the budget and planning consultation forums.

But we need to be clear that all this will increase the costs of municipal government. I was recently in a consultation assembly in Matiguás that took two to three hours to reach by vehicle from the outlying districts, which at over US$5 a gallon for fuel can get pretty steep.

Is municipal autonomy being served?

It’s positive that there’s more representativity, that more people will be discussing, that those elected will be closer to their constituents; and that the under-representation we had has been somewhat surmounted… But the big issue is whether all these new people entering into local politics, into all these meetings and assemblies, will function autonomously. Will they discuss their community’s problems and hammer out decisions to them or will they wait for orientations from above to tell them what to discuss, which problems to address and which to ignore?

Why are we so concerned about a possible reduction of municipal autonomy? If the central government were really thinking about the municipality’s own good, it would have pushed through approval of the Municipal Tax Code rather than leaving it shelved in the National Assembly’s Municipal Affairs Commission, where it has been gathering dust since 2001, when Alemán was still in office. This tax code was proposed by the Association of Municipalities of Nicaragua—back when it was still an independent guild of the country’s mayors—to replace the morass of old tax laws that straightjacket the municipal government’s tax management by preventing autonomous initiatives to make their territories attractive to private investment.

Today, five years after having promised a national decentralization policy, we still don’t have one, unlike Honduras, which recently approved its own. In Nicaragua, President Bolaños announced one in 2006 and we were promised one by President Ortega’s own National Human Development Plan, but neither came to fruition.

The Municipal Tax Code bill, an expression of the decentralization policy we need, would give the municipal authorities the capacity to build fiscal strategies that respond to their own population’s development needs. Not long ago a mayor said to me, “I just forgot about the hobbles and told the producers I would exonerate the property tax on farms with grouped forests; I did it in an effort to preserve the watersheds of the rivers whose water we drink.” The Municipal Tax Code is a way to build a sustainable and competitive municipality, but the authorities currently lack this mainspring that would allow them to be proactive in local development.

If the new municipal governments are going to operate autonomously, I welcome these reforms, because they could translate into greater wellbeing for the population. If they discuss and approve their own plans, priorities, fiscal strategies, property appraisal strategies and local development, then it’s all to the good. But if they wait for “the line” from Managua before they lift a finger, everything will remain at the level of pure rhetoric and could even produce more exclusion.

The fate of social accountability

Will there be any social auditing in these massive community assemblies? What we’ve observed in the current life of the municipalities is that their accountability processes have already been weakened. There’s a backing off from the progress made over the years, a certain stagnation in the citizenry’s capacity to keep tabs on what’s being done.

The municipal governments have increased their tax collection—sizably in some cases. In this new context, the number of contributors has grown, and so have demands, but people are no longer claiming their rights. Because the central government gives them stuff, they act grateful if they get something. What you no longer see are the watchdog or comptroller citizens. Those untrusting citizens who ask for an accounting don’t appear anymore. And it’s not because they’re more trusting; it’s because all that matters now is political loyalty. We have evidence that social audits have been the most important victims of the current political polarization.

What we can expect from the 50-50 law

What’s the possibility that with the 50-50 law women’s differentiated interests will make it onto the municipal development agenda? It might happen. There are already municipalities that haven’t needed a majority of women on the Municipal Councils for some of their most immediate demands to get into the investment plans. All I can say is that the parity established with the 50-50 law doesn’t respond to a gender logic, but is limited to the self-complacency of quotas and numbers.

Will increasing the number of women in the Municipal Councils mean raising the gender demand? I personally think that to do that there has to be a lot of work beforehand. It’s not easy to put differentiated gender needs into operation. For all that, though, I think that the entry of so many women into the Municipal Councils could be a window of opportunity to push beyond numbers, because in politics, a quantitative increase doesn’t automatically lead to a qualitative one, as it does in physics. Up to now we’ve seen very few municipal investment plans that incorporate an exhaustive gender analysis. How will it be achieved by municipal technical teams without teaching them the needed knowledge and skills? It will take a lot more work, more preparation, other methodologies and thinking that breaks with the romantic idea that if a woman has made it far enough to hold the post, she’s empowered to deal with it. She may have been given the post, but she’s not necessarily empowered. What could even happen is that others take control over her by having her in the post just as they do with men who respond to their party rather than their municipal obligation…

There have been notable efforts to get youth to participate in the forums and to get the Municipal Councils to create youth commissions. But in a study of political culture we did recently, young people told us they were sick of the same old thing always being prescribed for them: sports fields, carnivals, music, folk dancing… Although young people are very enthusiastic about participating in the municipality, the municipality hasn’t figured out how to come to terms with them in a new dimension that isn’t music, sports and partying. They neglect productive issues, the ex- periences of innovation... Will more young people get into the Municipal Councils now, and have more of a role? Could be.

Will there truly be direct democracy?

If this whole batch of new councilors decides to do a differentiated assessment of their municipality’s gender needs, it would deepen autonomy and enrich it with the gender perspective. If they find new dimensions to get closer to youth, we’ll all come out winners. But if they wait for the central government’s orientations, what we’ll see are assemblies of “spring-head dogs” like the ones people stick on their dashboards: participants who only come to nod their head.

I very much hope that the “direct democracy” this government says it’s promoting isn’t just a contingent of people whose only contribution is to nod their head in a massive assembly. Direct democracy is about coming into direct contact with the objective of the discussion and the decision—investments, projects, budgets—and influencing, even modifying the decisions of those who govern. Will the new democracy be direct? We mustn’t forget that the word “advocacy” is prohibited in the current government’s political project.

The quality of citizen’s participation has a whole lot to do with the personality of the authorities. We’ve found that there are more and more conscientious authorities; very few still question the political pertinence of the population’s participation. But permitting that participation to alter decisions is harder, although there are notable, admirable exceptions. We saw such an experience in Matiguás, where in a budget consultation exercise the municipal authorities met with the population and deliberated with it about how to invest back into the community 80% of the taxes collected in each micro-region of the municipality. That’s really positive: allocation being discussed with those who live in the very place where the money was generated (property taxes, fees for registering cattle brands, bills of sale for cattle, etc.). Initiatives like that foster quality participation, because it’s not about how many people fill an assembly hall, but about what gets discussed and how things are decided.

Three possible scenarios

While only time will tell what consequences all these reforms to the Municipalities Law will have, we see three possible scenarios. The first is that the municipal government is effectively energized and the new model is legitimized by good management, by a population that feels closer to its representatives and finds better, more open channels for its demands. But even in this scenario, which is obviously the best one because it would improve the quality of the relationship between the population and its representatives, we need to remember that it has already been announced that the investment ceiling won’t be raised. As one councilor from Mozonte said to me, “What’s the point of having more councilors if we don’t have any more money? If more demands don’t make it into the budgets it’ll be because we don’t have more money.”

A second scenario is that the Municipal Councils turn into a “box of crickets” in which everyone talks, shouts and offers opinions, but nobody really listens and in the end, a handful of people make the same decision they would have made even without all the commotion.

In the third scenario these boxes of crickets evolve into blockades, in which minorities block the quorum, consensus building or unanimity with which some would like the decisions to be made, thus stifling the functioning of the local government, in turn undermining the institutionality and functionality of the mayor’s offices. We would then see meetings and assemblies that go nowhere because the dissenting political groups block them. That would de facto lead to the municipal governments ceasing to function, becoming mere executors of national public investment. With that we would be witnessing the requiem of municipal autonomy. The municipality would have lost its reason to exist through the inability to turn the population’s demands into concrete responses.

The elections on November 4 will be crucial for our municipalities because such complex and serious reforms will modify the composition and functioning of the municipal organs of autonomy. These reforms will very likely introduce a more mobilizing than participatory dynamic, without necessarily increasing the quality of participation. Despite everything, however, I’m confident that the municipality will survive. Somoza dealt municipal autonomy the death blow in 1938, the revolution resuscitated it in 1988, and although it’s now “going over Niagara Falls on a bicycle,” I’m sure it’s going to survive all these challenges. They can weaken its autonomy and even turn it into an agency of the central government, but the municipality and municipal life will survive.

Twenty-five years of municipal autonomy

Municipal autonomy will celebrate its 25th anniversary in 2013. We in the Network want to create a campaign to celebrate it starting this year. We want the public to remember that municipal autonomy is a victory of the revolution of the 1980s and that we won’t turn our back on that conquest. We want to create a celebration with that perspective.

We want to show who we are and demonstrate that autonomy isn’t just rhetoric, that 25 years of history of municipalities have contributed good lessons in all spheres. In public administration, we’ve seen cases of very good management of the municipal governments. In public investment, it has been shown that the mayor’s offices are oftentimes more efficient and effective than central government agencies in executing the assigned funds and implementing projects. In civic participation, the municipalities have been schools of democracy, where citizens have their first contact with those who govern them, with the close contact allowing the social capital and level of empathy to be built up… There are also many rich lessons in tax administration, in the property appraisal sphere, in transparency…

We want to make a pro-active, positive recounting of what these 25 years of municipal autonomy have meant, so no one can think or say that autonomy is a hollow word. And we want to do it so that the municipality isn’t erased and doesn’t erase itself, but remains among us like another member of the family, with its own identity and the emancipating grammar that the municipalities have always had.

Silvio Prado is a member of the Nicaraguan Network for Democracy and Local Development.

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