Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 213 | Abril 1999



The Comptroller’s Office and Corruption: What does Managua Think?

Is there corruption in Nicaragua? Who is involved in it, who is trying to stop it, and how is the fight against it being waged? Politicians talk about it, the news is filled with it. Although people are saying less, they do have their own opinions about the crisis that has erupted around the Presidency and the Office of Comptroller General of the Republic (CGR), the institution with a constitutional mandate to ensure the proper use of public property.

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On March 27-28, IDESO, envío's institute of surveys and opinion samplings set out to gather these opinions, which are so frequently neglected by the government and often by the -opposition- as well. We interviewed 980 Managua residents in their homes, including professionals, salespeople, students, housewives, the self-employed and the unemployed, all over 16 and thus eligible to vote.

As in IDESO's last two surveys, in September and November 1998, we selected a representative sample of Managua's urban population, which represents 41.8% of the country's urban population and 21% of the total national population. The margin of error in this survey is 5%.

Once again we asked the question, "Do you sympathize with any political party or organization?" This time, only 31.1% said yes, down from 39.6% in November. This drop suggests that the events of the past two months have even further eroded the population's faith in the established political parties, as a full two-thirds of the potential voters do not identify with any of them. FSLN sympathizers represent just 17.7% of the total interviewed (56.9% of those who admitted affiliation to a party) and Liberal Alliance sympathizers only 10.7% of the total (35% of those affiliated). Included within these overall figures of Liberal sympathizers are those who specifically identified with President Alemán's own Constitutionalist Liberal Party--4.6% of the total and 15% of those affiliated. Of the smaller parties named, not even those who won enough electoral votes to get at least one seat in the National Assembly mustered 1% of the total in this survey (Conservative Party sympathizers represent 0.9%, Christian Way sympathizers 0.6%, and all others combined 1%). We also asked if the person believed in some religion, to which 12.6% said that they did not, 56% responded that they were Catholic, 30% that they were Protestant and 1.4% preferred not to respond.

When was corruption most rampant?

Stories about corruption have made the headlines for months, while the topic of corruption and how to fight it has moved to the center of the country's political debate. The question we asked was, "In which period do you believe there was the most corruption?" People were offered a list of possibilities, covering the governments of recent decades.

The verdict is clear: nearly half of those surveyed (45.2%) believe that corruption has been greatest during the current Liberal government. Among those who hold this negative opinion of the current government, 62.8% said they are not affiliated with any political party. Of the 34.9% who said they are, 80% sympathize with the FSLN and 12.8% with the ruling Liberal party. Protestants of various stripes tend to be more critical of the current government's corruption than Catholics, as 54.2% of the former chose Alemán's government as the most corrupt compared to 41.9% of Catholics.

One surprising finding was how few people selected the notoriously corrupt Somoza government. This would appear to reflect a sort of punishment vote against the current government, since the nature of the question precluded picking more than one answer. This supposition is bolstered by the predominating choice of the Alemán government across age brackets, not just those between 25 and 50, which can be considered the angry "revolutionary" generations. Those in the 51-60 age bracket, who remember the Somoza government well, and those between 16 and 25, who have no first-hand memory of it, also picked Alemán's government in percentages very close to the overall average: 45.9% and 42.3%, respectively.

What is corruption?

What acts and attitudes do people identify as corruption? We asked the following question, "In your opinion, what is corruption?" then read a series of statements describing various practices. An overwhelming majority identified each act described as an act of corruption.

Using the first statement as an example of the breakdown of responses by party affiliation, 92.3% of FSLN sympathizers identified this practice as an act of corruption, compared to 79% of Liberals. A surprising 10% of the Liberals interviewed concretely responded that taking advantage of public office to enrich oneself or one's family does not constitute corruption.

One interesting finding is that the higher people's formal education level, the more likely they were to identify the practices described as corrupt. Using the same first statement as an example, 14% of those who were illiterate or had not finished primary school had no opinion, and while 79.4% of them said they do feel that taking advantage of public office for personal enrichment is corrupt, this figure is well below the average. In comparison, 91% of those who had finished high school described this behavior as corrupt as did 93% of those with a technical degree, 89.5% of those who had begun university studies and 96% of those who had finished a university degree.

Low-income people were also slightly less likely than the average to deem this practice as corrupt—82.1% of those who earn under 500 córdobas (approximately $40) a month and 86.1% of those who earn from 500 to1500 córdobas ($40-$120). Those households in the remaining four progressively higher income brackets listed in the questionnaire also progressively raised the affirmative answer above the average and brought down the weight of the low-income inclination not to respond.

Politicians: Honest or not?

The seemingly endless battles between the Presidency and the Comptroller's Office and the large number of cases of corruption denounced daily in the media have made for constant ups and downs in the image of many politicians. In the midst of the current storm, how does the public view some of these politicians? We gave those surveyed a list of names and asked them, "On a scale of one to ten, how would you rate the following public figures for their degree of honesty?" The results were grouped as following: scores from 1 to 4 were categorized as "very honest," 5 to 7 as "somewhat honest," and from 8 to 10 as "seldom honest."

Violeta Chamorro received the highest marks by far, as over 70% of those interviewed feel that she is "somewhat honest" or "very honest." Comptroller Agustín Jarquín's largely favorable rating—a total of 54.7% feel that he is "somewhat honest" or "very honest" as compared to 24.2% who say he is "seldom honest"—suggests that the President's series of accusations against him have not significantly tarred his image. In both these cases, there was very little difference in the answers of self-identified party sympathizers and those who said they had no sympathies. Conservative Party leader Noel Vidaurre, one of the loudest voices against corruption in the National Assembly, also gets high ratings, although the high No Response percentages for both him and Jarquín dilute the message somewhat. On the other hand, the leaders of the two main political parties get very poor ratings indeed, with over half of those interviewed believing that Arnoldo Alemán is "seldom honest" and Ortega's percentage in the same category following close behind. It is worth noting that 15.5% of those who describe the President in this way were Liberal sympathizers, which suggests that Alemán's image has been eroded even among his own party's grass roots.

Is the work of the Comptroller's office impartial?

For the past year and a half, the CGR's investigations and resolutions have sparked controversy, as the Presidency sharply and repeatedly questions the motivations behind them.

To some extent, the fact that this institution is just beginning to operate as an autonomous institution independent from the executive branch may well encourage such doubts. To find out, we asked the following question: "Do you think that the work of the Comptroller's Office is impartial and evenhanded?"
Nearly half of those interviewed said that it was impartial, while just over a third disagreed. Compared to other questions, a relatively high percentage didn't know or didn't respond. This was particularly true of the unemployed, who made up an overwhelming 61% of those who did not answer. And here as on several other questions, people with no party affiliation were also more likely not to answer: 17.4% of this group didn't know or didn't respond, as compared to only 9.7% of people who do have a party affiliation. Those who sympathize with a political party were also somewhat more likely to view the Comptroller's work as impartial, the response given by 52.2% of this group as a whole, compared to 45.6% of those with no party sympathies. As might be expected, somewhat sharper differences of opinion emerge according to party affiliation. Among FSLN sympathizers, 59.5% view the CGR's work as impartial while 33.3% disagree. In contrast, while only 38.8% of Liberals believe it is impartial, this is a significant minority not to have been swayed by their President's campaign. In fact, those who do believe the CGR's work is partial (44.7%) fall short of representing a majority of the self-identified Liberals. A significant 15.5% of Liberals chose not to answer or said they did not know, compared to only 6% of FSLN sympathizers.

Is the work of the Comptroller's Office politically motivated?

The President has also been insisting for some time now that the work of the CGR is motivated by the Comptroller's personal political ambitions. In order to find out what Managua residents think about this repeated charge, we asked this question: "Do you agree with the following statement: `The work of the Comptroller's Office is pure political campaigning on the part of the Comptroller'?"

Opinions were fairly evenly divided on this question, although slightly more agreed that the Comptroller is using his office as part of a political campaign. This might suggest that the President's campaign against him has been effective, though it could also reflect the population's generalized political skepticism. Liberals are more likely to share this opinion, as 50% agreed with the statement, compared to a significant 33.3% who did not. Among Sandinistas, 40% agreed, while 53.3% did not.

With respect to age, those in both the 16-25 and the 56-60 age groups tend more to feel that the work of the CGR is part of the Comptroller's political campaign. A larger share of those between 26 and 50 disagreed with the statement. With respect to education level, the more educated people are, the less likely they are to accept this charge. Among people who did not finish primary school, 42.8% agreed with the statement while 33.3% disagreed. Among those with a technical degree, however, 35% agreed and 56% disagreed, while 36% of those with a university degree agreed and 61% disagreed.

Should the Comptroller be barred from running for office?

With talk of a pact between the PLC and the FSLN, the two parties that won most votes in the last elections, and with persistent rumors that they are working on a package of constitutional reforms, the question of whether certain people should be barred from running for the Presidency has come up.

Specifically, there has been talk of the possibility of barring Comptroller Jarquín from seeking the presidency in the elections in the year 2000. What do people think about this? The question was phrased as follows: "Do you agree that the Comptroller should not be allowed to run for President?"
The answer is clear: nearly two-thirds of those interviewed do not agree that the Comptroller should be barred, including 74.4% of Sandinistas and 57.1% of Liberals.

Would you vote for the Comptroller?

The question of whether Jarquín should be barred from running for President is particularly relevant since he has been mentioned for over a year now as a possible presidential candidate. The Comptroller has repeatedly denied that this is his goal, insisting that he hopes and fully expects to continue his present work until April 2002, when his term expires. Despite this, we asked about people's willingness to vote for him, since this is also a way to measure his credibility. The question was, "If the elections were held today, would you vote for the Comptroller?"

The 30.2% yes vote, while significantly overshadowed by the 50.5% who said no, is still striking in that it suggests a level of support well above that expressed for any other candidate in recent surveys. The figure is also significantly higher than the percentage that said they would vote for Jarquín in a somewhat different question in IDESO's last survey in December 1998. Who is being damaged by the conflict between the President and the Comptroller? The answer is obvious.

One surprising finding is that support for Jarquín is actually higher among people affiliated to a political party than among those who are not: 36.5% of those with some party affiliation would vote for him, compared to 28.2% of those with no affiliation. This includes 44.7% of FSLN sympathizers and no less than 21.9% of Liberals.

Do you believe the accusations against the Comptroller?

In order to find out the opinions of those surveyed on the President's accusations against the Comptroller, we gave them a choice of two statements. Over half chose that "these accusations are pure pretexts which President is using to divert attention." A minority of 18.8% believes that the Comptroller is guilty. A very significant 26.9% did not answer the question, perhaps confused by the complexity of the President's most recent accusations. People with no party affiliation were most inclined to reserve their opinions on this subject: 29.7% of those interviewed in this group did not give their opinion, compared to only 19.7% among those with a party affiliation.

Over three-fourths (77.1%) of FSLN sympathizers feel that the accusations are a maneuver designed to divert attention, while only 12.4% of them believe the Comptroller is guilty and 10.6% did not give an opinion. Among Liberals, 37.1% believe the Comptroller is guilty, a significant 29.5% believe that the President is using the accusations as a pretext and an even more significant 31.4% did not answer.

Are the documents against the Comptroller valid evidence?

The Presidency displayed a series of documents—photocopies, checks, payrolls—on March 16 to disqualify the work of the Comptroller's Office and begin the process of removing the Comptroller from office. The presidential office's possession of this information and the way the case was put together was denounced as evidence that it has a secret security apparatus working at its service. Does the end justify the means? To find out people's opinions on this most recent presidential attack against the Comptroller, we gave those surveyed two alternatives with which to respond to a question on the validity of the new evidence presented by the Presidency against the Comptroller.

Opinions were divided here, although somewhat more believed that the documents "are not valid because they were taken illegally from the Comptroller's Office than those who believed them to be valid "even if they were taken illegally" (40.3% to 35.5%). A relatively high number did not know how to answer or chose not to. Those with a party affiliation were less inclined not to respond (14.1%) than those with no affiliation (22%). They were also more likely to consider the evidence not valid, the answer given by 46.4% in this group, as compared to 38% among those with no affiliation.

Should the Comptroller be stripped of immunity?

Many have charged that another piece in the machinery of the government-FSLN pact is the removal of Agustín Jarquín as Comptroller General. This would have to begin by stripping Jarquín of the immunity against prosecution enjoyed by public officials in Nicaragua, which would require the votes of 48 of the 93 National Assembly deputies. People were asked if they agreed with the statement, "The National Assembly should strip the Comptroller of his immunity so that he can be tried in court."

The percentage of those who do not want to see the Comptroller stripped of his immunity is significant (47.7%). In general, both those who sympathize with a party and those who do not are inclined to reject stripping the Comptroller of his immunity, although the percentage is somewhat higher among those with a party affiliation (53.5%) than among those without (45.2%). Again, those without a party affiliation are more likely not to answer (15.1%) than those who are affiliated (9.2%).

Among FSLN sympathizers, 62.1% reject stripping Jarquín of his immunity and 30.2% are in favor, while 7.7% did not answer. Among Liberal sympathizers, 46.7% would strip him of immunity, 40% would not and 13.3% did not answer.

Should the Comptroller be removed from office?

Even if the Comptroller were to be stripped of his immunity, actually removing him from office would require a series of additional legal steps. What do people think about this politically complex and legally uncertain objective?

Close to two-thirds of those interviewed do not agree that Jarquín should be removed from office, compared to less than a fourth who do. Once again, the higher the education level, the lower the support for removing Jarquín. Among those who did not finish primary school, 49.4% oppose removing him from office, compared to 57.5% of those with a primary school education, 66.7% of those with technical training, and 73.8% of those who have gone to the university. Those with less education are also more likely not to respond, in this case reaching 20% of those who are illiterate.

Among FSLN sympathizers, only 17.8% agree that Jarquín should be removed from office, while 76.9% disagree. Among the governing party's sympathizers, opinions are sharply divided: 41.9% agree and 47.6% disagree. These latter figures are especially interesting given that it is President Alemán himself, the indisputable Liberal leader, who is personally bent on removing Jarquín from office.

Should the Comptroller's Office be made up of several comptrollers?

Another of the routes open to the executive branch in its efforts to neutralize the work of the Comptroller's Office—and which is being discussed as part of the government-FLSN pact—is to change the law regulating this institution in order to place a collegial leadership at its head.

Despite the legal and political subtleties involved in modifying the work of the Comptroller's Office in this way, which are virtually never explained to the public, we decided to ask this question directly: "Do you agree with the idea of creating a Comptroller's Office made up of several comptrollers?"
Opinions were split down the middle, with 46.3% in agreement and 43.1% in disagreement, with surprisingly small percentages indifferent or unwilling to take a position. To help in the interpretation of these results, it is worth adding some extra, anecdotal information that was gathered in the course of carrying out the survey.

During the interviews, people often take time to think through their responses, and do much of this thinking out loud. Thus, those conducting the survey are often able to learn the reasoning behind people's responses. Most of the responses given by people who favor the Comptroller's Office being run by several comptrollers can be grouped into two categories.
One is of those who believe that if there were several comptrollers, they could mediate conflicts between the parties and thus there would be no justification for accusing anyone of partiality. The other believes that everyone's work should be supervised, including that of the institution in charge of supervision, and that a group management structure would facilitate this.

What is the conflict between the President and the Comptroller about?

We asked those surveyed to describe the conflict between the President and the Comptroller by choosing one of three options to complete the statement, "In your opinion, the conflict between Alemán and Jarquín..."

Opinions were divided, with nearly a third feeling that the conflict will "make a difference in the fight against corruption," a similar percentage feeling that it is merely a "personal battle between Alemán and Jarquín," and just over a fifth seeing it as a conflict between the two institutions. One interesting finding is that opinions cut across party lines on this question, with an identical percentage of Sandinistas and Liberals (27.6%) believing it to be a personal conflict, while the percentages of those who believe it to be an institutional conflict (24.1% of Sandinistas and 20% of Liberals) or one that will make a difference in the fight against corruption (38.8% of Sandinistas and 32.4% of Liberals) are quite similar.

When should probity declarations be made?

The investigation the Comptroller's Office launched in February on the President's acquisition of properties and on holes in his property declarations have sparked a public debate as well as a legal battle between the two state institutions. When should those who hold public office be required to report on their personal property? According to the President, they need only make these reports before taking and after leaving office. The Comptroller's Office, however, maintains that, by law, they should do so whenever their property increases in value, or whenever the Comptroller's Office requests that information.

What do people think? The question was asked as follows: "In your opinion, when should the President and other public officials declare the material goods they possess?"
Nearly two-thirds of those interviewed (63.5%) believe that officials should report this information when requested, not only before taking and after leaving office, although just over a fourth (27.8%) feels that this is sufficient.
In general, a majority of both those affiliated to a party and those not feel that the President and other officials should declare increases in their possessions and provide information when requested by the Comptroller's Office. However, those with a party affiliation are somewhat more inclined to feel this way: 69.4%, as compared to 61.3% of those with no party affiliation. Among those with a party affiliation, only 24.7% believe that these reports should be made only before taking and after leaving office, while among those with no affiliation, this percentage rises to 29.9%.

Among FSLN sympathizers, 78.8% believes that the information should always be provided when requested, while just 16.5% feels that this need only be done before taking and after leaving office. Among Liberal sympathizers, a very significant 55.2% believe that officials should respond to requests for the information from the Comptroller's Office, while 37.1% believe it is only necessary to file these reports before taking and after leaving office.

Do you agree with the discretional use of the budget?

From the beginning of his term, the President has included large sums of money in the national budget for "unforeseen" expenses and transfers with unspecified destinations, so that he could manage these sums in a discretional way. In the 1999 budget, according to reports from the Comptroller's Office, these sums amount to some 1.5 billion córdobas (US$130 million), no less than a fifth of the total budget. People were asked, "Do you agree that the President should make use of the national budget as he deems fit without any form of control?"

This turned out to be another of the questions with a resounding answer: 87.6% of those interviewed do not agree that the budget should be managed in this way, while only 7.3% do agree. In general, both those who sympathize with a party and those without party sympathies disapprove of discretional management of the budget, though there is slightly more support for this practice among those with party sympathies, 11.9% of whom agree with discretional management as compared to 5.1% of those who are not affiliated with any party.

Among FSLN sympathizers, a full 95.9% disapprove of the discretional management of the budget. Even among sympathizers of the governing Liberal party, 65.7% disagree with this practice, although a significant 25.7% feel that the President should be free to manage the budget in this way.

Did the President tell the truth?

After President Alemán's adviser and political mentor Jaime Morales Carazo publicly presented incriminating documents against the Comptroller and the CGR, the debate over the validity of each side's position heated up. Many in the press insisted that the President's real objective in publicizing the documents was to force the Comptroller's Office to abandon the investigation underway of his property and divert the public's attention away from it. Have people in fact forgotten about this investigation?

First we asked people if they agreed with the following statement: "The Comptroller's Office should continue to investigate the President's property and how it was acquired." An overwhelming 88.3% said yes and only 4% reserved their opinion. Among FSLN sympathizers, 97% feel that the investigations should continue. Even among Liberals, a notable 69% agree. Among people without any party affiliation, 89.3% want the investigations to go on.
We also asked people for their opinion on the following statement: "The President told the truth when the Comptroller's Office asked about his property and that of his family." Only 18.5% of those interviewed believe that the President told the truth, compared to 57.8% who believe that he did not.
People without party affiliation were more apt to reserve their judgment on this question, as a record 27.7% of them did not answer the question, compared to 14.5% of those with party affiliation. Among FSLN sympathizers, only 8.8% believe that the President told the truth about his property, while 80% believe that he did not. Among Liberals, 45% said they believe the President, but a very significant 34.3% do not believe him, which again reveals Alemán's loss of credibility among his own sympathizers.

Does corruption scare off investment?

When asked whether they agree or disagree with the statement, "Corruption creates problems that scare off foreign investment," an overwhelming 86.5% of those interviewed said it does. This statement has been repeated numerous times by both the Presidency and the Comptroller's Office, as well as by people backing one institution or the other. The results show that it has been fully assimilated.

Has corruption been punished?

One concern perceived among the population has to do with what happens after an act of corruption has been discovered, after it has been denounced and above all, after it has been investigated and proven. Are the guilty punished, or does everything go on as before? Have we only gained a greater awareness of corruption, or is there greater justice as well?

We asked those surveyed, "In your opinion, have officials guilty of acts of corruption in Arnoldo Alemán's government really been punished?" An overwhelming 73.3% said no, with the remainder evenly divided between those who believe that they have been and those who preferred not to respond. Of those who said no and have a party affiliation, 65.4% are Sandinistas, 28% Liberals, 4% are from the Christian Way and 2.3% are Conservatives.

What should be done about corruption?

What do citizens feel should be done to stop the problem of corruption? Is it an inevitable evil, one that is useless to try to stop? Whose task is it? The overwhelming majority of those interviewed said that all Nicaraguans have the responsibility to fight corruption.

New lessons in the fight against corruption

Nicaragua is a school, and this is a time of new lessons. Or of make-up for missed classes. People identify the current government period as the one in which corruption has been most rampant. Were the harmful consequences of corruption this clear in the past? The battle between the Presidency and the Comptroller's Office has mainly eroded the President's own image. The majority does not believe or endorse his decisions on issues related to corruption. What lessons should the Presidency draw from this: should it insist on following the same course or should it change tack?
If the initiatives taken by the President against the Comptroller's Office are not backed by the majority of the population in general, a rather large share of Liberals do not approve of them either. Is the government listening to public opinion or is it only remembering the election results at the polls?

Disenchantment with the political system continues to mount. The politicians' actions and attitudes do not seem to be attracting people but rather distancing and even disgusting them. Their behavior in this dramatic post-Mitch period and throughout the Presidency's lengthy battle with the Comptroller's Office appears to have swelled the ranks of those who would like to wish a pox on all of their houses. If politics continues to focus solely on the fight for office and on electoral results, of what use is it to anyone?

Traditional political leadership figures are in crisis and at the same time an awareness is growing of the evils that ride on the back of corruption. Doesn't this suggest that the candidates with a strategic reserve of ethical capital will be the ones to receive the largest share of support in the next elections?
Finally, what kind of support are the donor countries and multilateral organizations such as the World Bank, IMF and IDB, which will meet in Stockholm next month, willing to give to the work of the Comptroller's Office and the initiatives being undertaken by Nicaraguan civil society in favor of an honest, transparent management of public goods?

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