Municipal autonomy isn’t a concession, but a right the government has undermined
This long-time municipal activist shares aspects
of the history of local government in Nicaragua
and reflects on the loss of autonomy suffered
by today’s municipal governments.
Local government autonomy isn’t a gracious concession by central governments. It’s a right all peoples have to govern themselves. Municipal autonomy is not, as some in Nicaragua think today, the invention of a few of us loose cannons. It has a long history.
Local government dates
back to colonial times
How far back does self-government go in both Nicaragua and the other Central American countries, whose histories are so similar to ours? It actually began when we were a Spanish colony. It formed very quickly in the arenas of territorial power being organized at the time, spaces that in the future would become municipalities. Far from Spain, those territories learned to govern themselves.
In Nicaragua, the municipalities, governed by elder mayors, were autonomous even before the population nuclei that would inhabit them had been created. The municipalities played a vital role in the independence struggles in Central America and in fact all of Latin America in the early 19th century. The power vacuum left by the king’s abdication after Napoleon invaded Spain contributed to those who governed territories in the colonies creating their own governing bodies, known as Provisional Juntas. Those municipal-based governing bodies gave new impetus to the already-existing spirit of local self-government and were the agitating force behind Latin America’s independence movements.
Local self-government had such strong roots that Nicaraguan historian Xiomara Avendaño argues that Central American citizens felt more loyalty to their municipality than to their new State and that the local elites who governed them paved the way for those States. But as sin can be found in all virtue, the virtue known as local self-government also triggered rivalry among the new city-States.
This rivalry occurred all over Central America. In Nicaragua it was between Granada and León, in Costa Rica between Cartago and San José, in El Salvador between San Salvador and Santa Ana, in Honduras between Tegucigalpa and Comayagua, and in Guatemala between Guatemala City and Quezaltenango. In Nicaragua the rivalries deteriorated into full-fledged civil wars.
The first municipalities law
sparked interminable debate
Central America had its first municipalities law as early as 1835, when the Central American Federation still existed and we were a single country. Inspired by the short-lived Constitution of Cádiz, proclaimed in Spain in 1812, it was very progressive in its defense of local autonomy, establishing that local authorities would be elected rather than appointed and that those posts could no longer be tendered and sold to the highest bidder, a practice that had existed for a time.
From that moment right until today, municipal autonomy has constantly been plagued by huge debates and conflicts. One was the continuing battle over whether the authorities should be elected or named. Another had to do with relations between the municipal and central governments: whether local government should be autonomous or simply an administrator of the central government’s dictates. Still another ongoing issue has been the relationship between local government and the population it governs, in which the issue at stake is that of the town hall forum. This concept came to us from the Spanish Crown as well, and arrived in two versions. One was an assembly of councilors, what today is called the Municipal Council, as an expression of collective government. The other was the kind of open meeting in which the entire population was welcome to participate. Very important decisions were taken in those forums, both during the colony and afterwards. In fact, Managua separated from Granada in just such an open forum held in Managua.
Administrative/financial autonomy maybe,
but political autonomy no
In 1894 Nicaragua’s Liberal President, General José Santos Zelaya, inspired by the French Enlightenment, approved “La Libérrima,” a Constitution that was very advanced for its time. Among other things, it recognized municipal autonomy for the first time in our country. But as Zelaya was an authoritarian ruler threatened by internal revolts, he saw autonomy as dangerous, so he suspended it barely five months later, together with the promulgated Constitution itself, then completely annihilated it in 1905.
The succession of Conservative governments that followed Zelaya recognized some measure of autonomy for the country’s municipalities. I say “some” because municipal autonomy has three major components: administrative, financial and political. All political regimes in Nicaragua since Zelaya, including that of Somoza, the revolution and the current one, have recognized administrative and financial autonomy to a greater or lesser degree. Likewise, all have balked at political autonomy.
Somoza pulled the plug on local autonomy
After the Conservative governments, which tolerated some measure of administrative and financial autonomy, came the first Somoza. He canceled municipal elections on August 12, 1937, the same year he took office. That decision effectively pulled the plug on any local political autonomy, as the election of local authorities creates a link between them and their local constituency. When elected, mayors feel backed by the people’s votes, and hence responsible to them. In Nicaragua, whenever an authoritarian regime has attempted to weaken democracy, affect local political autonomy, it typically does so by altering who selects the local authorities and how.
Municipal autonomy returns
in 1987, at least legally
Exactly 50 years would pass before municipal autonomy was legally reestablished in the amply consulted 1987 Constitution. But what measure of municipal authority really existed in the revolutionary period between 1979 and 1990, the year of the first elections following passage of that Constitution? None. If during Somocismo the local appointed authority answered to Somoza’s political chief in each department, in the revolutionary years he or she answered to the FSLN’s zonal authorities.
To the revolutionary government’s credit, it ordered an assessment of the municipal reality in 1986, at the peak of the US-financed contra war. That study revealed that things were even worse than before. The zonal FSLN authority not only ran things, but the mayor (still appointed) had been relegated to the lowest rungs of the command ladder, in charge of tasks such as garbage collection, and even providing coffins for the young draftees who fell in combat. That was what led to the decision to reestablish the role of the municipalities in the Constitution and pass the Municipalities Law in 1988, which forms the basis of the law we still have today.
To understand the municipal weakness in those years, the weight of the contra war must be taken into account, as well as the vast job of creating new state institutions that broke with the Somocista mold. The FSLN was also increasingly consolidating itself as a power above the State, and the idea of municipal autonomy was slow to mature within it. The issue was debated within the revolutionary government, between centralists, who argued that municipalities shouldn’t be given power because it would weaken the revolution, and municipalists, among them Mónica Baltodano, Manuel Ortega and several regional party secretaries, who insisted that if we’re talking about “popular power,” the role of the municipalities would have to be strengthened.
Municipal autonomy on the
rise between 1990 and 2008
But if there was a resurgence of the municipalities as of 1988, it wasn’t until the 1990 elections, in which the FSLN lost the presidential office and the revolution began to be rolled back, that the first municipal elections were held since before the Somoza years. And not until the 1996 elections did voters directly elect the mayor. In 1990 they only elected the Municipal Council members, who in turn elected the mayor from among their own number.
A few years ago I researched the development of municipal autonomy in the period between 1990 and 2012, choosing three municipalities for the field work. I wanted to compare the process in Estelí, a municipality the FSLN has always governed; Juigalpa, where both Liberals and Sandinistas have governed, and Nueva Guinea, where Liberals had always governed, until the 2012 electoral fraud.
I also wanted to study the degree to which the strengthening or weakening of municipal autonomy has influenced the strengthening or weakening of citizens’ participation in the local sphere. And finally, the investigation also had a national dimension, including certain information about the municipal reality all over the country.
In general terms, the research showed ascending curves between 1990 and 2008, with the strengthening of both municipal autonomy and civic participation. Both curves then began to drop in 2008 and continued to do so year after year until the end of the study in 2012.
The first experience of
elected municipal governments
Municipal autonomy was restored between 1990 and 1996, but only partially because political autonomy was still conditioned by the simultaneous holding of presidential, legislative and municipal elections, producing what is known as the “cascade effect,” the term used to refer to voting a straight party ticket on all ballots rather than contemplating the merits of other candidates for the different offices. In addition the law in effect in the 1990 elections determined that voters did not directly elect the mayors. Those later chosen by their Council colleagues thus had no way of knowing their approval rating with the electorate and tended to feel more loyalty toward their party and the Council members who had voted them into the mayor’s seat. Moreover, then as now, voters only chose party slates of Municipal Council candidates, not individuals.
During the administration of President Violeta Chamorro (1990-1997), the mayors used their political party’s power within the friction-riddled coalition of parties that had run her as its candidate to confront her weak central government. The rightwing mayors of municipalities in the departments of Boaco and Chontales headed the “Let’s Save Democracy” movement, while the FSLN mayors, of course, also organized to oppose her government, but from the opposite side.
In that same period, we saw the first experiences of local civic participation. Very rudimentary, ritualistic and formal in nature, they basically involved holding large town-hall assemblies in which not much was decided, as people were conditioned to seek some solution to specific needs rather than claim civic rights.
Full recognition of local autonomy
and civic participation in development
In 1995, a year before the next elections, the National Assembly, which had fractured into a number of separate party benches with the collapse of the rightwing coalition ironically called UNO and a major split in the FSLN, reformed the Constitution and later the Municipalities Law. For the first time ever, political municipal autonomy was recognized together with administrative and financial autonomy, although the latter remained mainly on paper given the country’s postwar financial straits. The municipal elections were separated from the presidential ones, with the former held every four years and the latter every five years. In addition, mayors were to be directly elected on their own ballot and their political power was recognized.
After this initial recognition of autonomy came a series of new laws that deepened it. The following year we saw an explosion of participatory processes in which the local populace played a role in preparing strategic plans for municipal development. The most famous, although not the only one, occurred in the municipality of Estelí between 1997 and 2000, with an exemplary pluralist and creative level of participation in what came to be known as Municipal Development Committees (CDMs). As these committees successfully took root all over Estelí, they were recognized as paradigmatic and the model was extended to other municipalities around the country. In those same years, the Nicaraguan Communal Movement, a more autonomous remake of the old Sandinista Defense Committees, emerged as an important local actor. Participation in local government gradually became more plural and the levels of polarization left by the armed conflict in the eighties began to dissipate.
The peak years of local autonomy
The first municipal elections separated from the presidential ones were held in 2000. It must be admitted that Enrique Bolaños, elected President in November of the following year, did the most of any President to strengthen municipal autonomy. He not only recognized the local actors in the political dialogue but also was the first President with the courage to guarantee local government financial autonomy by transferring a percentage of the national budget to their coffers. That amount grew by scheduled increments until reaching the 10% of the national budget the municipal governments receive today. By law, those transfers are assigned to the municipalities based on four criteria: fiscal equity, i.e. more resources to areas of greater poverty; efficiency in local tax collection; the size of the municipality’s population; and efficiency in the use of the transfers.
In addition to the Budgetary Transfers Law, other legislation also passed during his administration to strengthen local autonomy (2002-2007) included the Municipal Budgetary Regime, the Citizens’ Participation Law and the Municipal Administrative Career Law. These forward steps were accompanied by a high degree of institutionalization of civic participation processes. The CDMs were strengthened as were the Sectoral Working Groups, and there was even talk in the municipalities of participatory budgets.
International development cooperation agencies contributed significantly to Bolaños’ successes in this area. Bilateral and multilateral development agencies played a decisive role in bolstering the administrative capacities of the inexperienced municipal governments, providing crucial tools for their autonomous performance. They developed institutional strengthening and transparency programs and instruments, among them the Municipal Performance Recognition System and the Municipal Institutional Strengthening Plan, and even went so far as to certify municipal governments according to their managerial capacity. Those agencies also stressed promoting civic participation in local government and contributed heavily to the first central government transfers to the municipalities, giving a major boost to the implementation of the nascent development plans.
Enter the new Ortega government
This new autonomy was barely getting underway in all the different spheres involved when the new FSLN central government took office in January 2007 with Daniel Ortega’s reelection on his fourth try. One of the first things the governing couple did was call together the mayors the party had in 106 of the country’s 154 municipalities to set them straight about the future: the political autonomy they had enjoyed since their election in 2004, in some cases to extremely good effect, was history.
Henceforward, the FSLN mayors would make no decisions by themselves, much less in dialogue with the population. They would faithfully follow the lines sent down from the central government. In that first year, however, 47 municipal governments were not run by the FSLN and there was still some measure of coexistence in them between the CDMs and the Councils of Citizens’ Power (CPC) newly created by the central government. Tensions and feuds, however, increasingly restricted and dissuaded the citizen participation that had been developing.
The 2008 elections were the
death knell for local autonomy
This local political autonomy was weakened even more after the next municipal elections, in 2008, when the municipal governments in the hands of the FSLN lost all capacity for initiative. By then they had to consult everything with Managua and found themselves subjected to the triple control of the party’s territorial political secretary, the Nicaraguan Institute of Municipal Promotion (INIFOM) and FISE (initially the Emergency Social Investment Fund, but newly in charge of rural water and sanitation services). As a result, local autonomy had come and gone before it could even prove itself: decisions were no longer made in Municipal Council meetings but in the governing party secretariat in Managua.
The gigantic fraud the Ortega government organized in important municipalities that year was the worst municipal autonomy shake-up our country had ever experienced. With it already undermined in the FSLN-run governments the previous term, centralism was now extended to the many other municipalities it the party “won” for the first time in 2008. The result was a generalized rupture between electors and elected that took us all the way back to 1937. The mayors felt they owed their post to the party, not the voters, and the voters felt the same. We quickly moved from the tense coexistence between the CPCs and the CDMs to open polarization. The central government even ordered the annulment of everything the CDMs had done.
The population’s participation was also controlled by the governing party because a figure that had been disastrous for autonomy was now back, deciding and running things in the municipality: the FSLN’s municipal political secretary, elected by no one but with more influence thanany elected authority. They are in charge because they are backed by the departmental political secretary, who in turn has Ortega’s support. The mayors, who owe their post to those above, quickly learned to obey the political secretary, who represents a party that drowns out any public authority despite being a private institution.
Still more centralized after 2012
Following the new fraud in the 2012 elections, which was even greater than in 2008, the Sandinista mayors must now come to Managua every Monday to meet with the central government and be given their “orientations.” Then on Wednesday they have to report back to it on the progress they’ve made in implementing them.
Just before those elections, the FSLN-controlled National Assembly passed what is known as the 50/50 Law for both municipal and legislative elected political posts, stipulating that half must be women and half men. We thus now have many more women mayors than before, but if that was an attempt to win over the women’s vote, the country’s organized women aren’t fooled. No elected municipal officials of either sex have any space to come up with and implement their own initiatives.
Discouraging international cooperation
Many new elements have been put into place since then to annul municipal autonomy. For example, the previous strategic municipal development plans, some of which were very expensive and almost all of which were financed by international cooperation to be implemented over a 10- to 15-year period, were scrapped. Those plans, many of them developed with the participation of the CDMs, were replaced by the central government’s National Human Development Plan, which was sent down to the municipal level for adaptation to local conditions. This happened in all municipal governments, all over the country.
The Ortega government has gone so far as to discourage municipal development aid. Since 2008 the aid allocated to governability, human rights, citizen participation and political rights projects in general has been disappearing. Most of the vigorous cooperation agencies or NGOs committed to municipal development we had in the first years of this century have left the country, or been pressured to leave. Others have taken refuge in more “neutral” issues, such as children, maternal health, the environment... Some municipal governments run by other parties still have some cooperation support, but they are under threat. And some agencies that caved in to the government to avoid conflicts have found themselves accepting everything imposed on them. Cooperation workers and diplomats have come to the country only to have what they’re going to do and whom they’re going to see imposed on them, literally prohibiting them from being seen with certain groups. How can international officials from countries committed to respecting human rights accept such requirements?
Even financial autonomy
has been rolled back
The municipal budgets have also been weakened since 2012. The Ortega government requires local governments to allocate a percentage of the budget to finance national health, education, environmental and drinking water programs, which means that the central government is using the transfers to the municipalities as a petty cash fund to adjust the national budgets for these four categories.
The central government has also reformed the Municipal Budgetary and Budgetary Transfers Regimes, rolling back some of what had been achieved since 2001. For example, as of 2012 the central government wiped out the multipartite commission that assigned the transfers to the municipal governments. That task is now in the hands of a commission in which non-Sandinista mayors have no participation. Instead of the transfers being strictly weighted by the criteria mentioned above, that weighting is now manipulated with a strictly political focus.
Let’s look at an example of how that’s taking place, using the case of Pantasma’s municipal government. That municipality is governed by the Liberals, although it was very nearly stolen by the FSLN in 2012 and the Managua government is punishing it through the transfers. Since Pantasma is one of the poorer municipalities in the department of Jinotega, it should receive a larger transfer according to the fiscal equity criterion, but it receives the same as the less poor ones. As for tax collection, only 2.62 córdobas (C$) is transferred to Pantasma for every one it collects in taxes, whereas La Concordia, a neighboring municipality with less poverty but governed by the FSLN, gets C$10.62 for every córdoba it collects. Looking at the population criterion, Pantasma, with more than 52,000 inhabitants, is assigned C$621.67 per capita, whereas the less-populated La Concordia receives C$3,277.33 per capita. Finally, with respect to the criterion of execution of the transfers, Pantasma has received an invariable amount of C$30 million (just over US$1 million) for the past three years despite being among the municipalities with the best track record in Nicaragua’s northern zone.
This case shows clearly how the central government has used financial manipulation to punish municipalities not run by its party. The objective is obviously to weaken the mayor’s authority for electoral ends, to get Pantasma to “switch to the FSLN t-shirt” after seeing how much better things are going for La Concordia. It’s extortion, pure and simple.
Resources are one of the keys to making political autonomy a reality. Today the central government is using the traditional carrot and stick tactic: good behavior gets you the carrot and bad behavior the stick, meaning I take away your resources.
And this doesn’t only happen with the transfers, as we can see in the case of Pantasma. It also happens with projects. They told me in Pantasma that the central government projects don’t even go through the mayor’s office now; instead the central government has set up a “parallel municipal government,” which is where the education, health and infrastructure projects are sent and decided on.
Re-centralization isn’t just happening here
Admittedly, central government control over local resources is a trend also being seen elsewhere in Latin America. Some months ago a text by Argentine academic Daniel Cravacuore was published showing how municipal recentralization is being produced all over the continent, especially via financing, with the obligatory transfer of resources being replaced by conditioned transfers, while royalties for natural resource exploitation are concentrated in the central government.
It is a trend observed in governments independent of their ideological orientation, and is happening under the argument—not backed up by any serious evaluation—that the central government should manage the transfers and royalties because local ones manage resources poorly, are bad administrators and are corrupt. But who can argue that local governments are more corrupt than central ones? And more importantly, who controls a government better, a local population close to its government or the national population that is unwieldy and increasingly removed and alienated from the central government?
Padding the Municipal Councils
Another reform by the Ortega government to weaken municipal autonomy, while claiming to strengthen it, was to increase the number of councilors on the Municipal Council, which are of varying sizes depending on the size of the municipality. It was done willy-nilly, with no logical criteria. Now, three years after the measure was ordered and put into effect, we can verify what we had feared: it has made no improvement in the representativity of the Municipal Councils.
What is the sense, for example, in having 80 municipal councilors in Managu
a, if an assembly of that size is both unmanageable and very costly? An assembly doesn’t gain its legitimacy from the number of people in it but by the quality of the debate it organizes, by the different projects it discusses, opting for the ones with the most advantages or least disadvantages. But when there’s no deliberation among different alternatives, there’s no excuse whatever to have an even larger Municipal Council. Moreover, if the government says it’s putting its efforts into direct democracy, why enlarge the Municipal Councils, which are an expression of representative democracy? I frankly think the government made this decision to give the appearance of more democracy rather than actually ensure greater participation. Three years after having bloated the Councils there’s no evidence of any impact and the populations in the municipalities are neither more nor better represented, because what was needed was strong local government, not more councilors.
Further palpable evidence that there is no political autonomy in the municipalities is the continual firing of elected mayors, a practice that has increased significantly since 2008. Just between 2013 and May of last year 19 mayors, both male and female, have left their post, without even counting the councilors who have also left.
One of the reasons for changing the law in 1995 so that mayors would no longer be chosen by the other councilors was that the councilors elected in 1990 had felt free to change the mayor they had chosen if the political winds changed or for whatever other reason. Once mayors were directly elected by the people, only the people could remove them, and only in a process guided by regulations and procedures. But apart from a couple of accusations of corruption, the causes that have been made public for most of this spate of removals during the Ortega government lead one to conclude that either Nicaraguan mayors have a much higher than average illness rate, since most claim to be leaving for “health reasons,” or are the most disciplined in the world, following their party’s orders without complaint. Managua’s current mayor, Daisy Torres, said on taking office in 2013 that she was “a soldier of the FSLN.” How is it possible for someone elected by the population and receiving a salary from our taxes say something like that?
In addition to the municipal fraud, voters are now seeing mayors they may even have elected being fired arbitrarily, without following any norms. This obviously has an impact on people’s motivation. I personally believe that, in addition to capturing power in more municipal governments, the frauds have a second objective: to discourage a civic attitude and generate ever more widespread abstention. The parties with greater political fidelity and discipline are the ones that benefit from abstention, because it allows them to win every time.
And this year?
If the current authoritarian government used fraud in the 2008 and 2012 municipal elections to weaken local political autonomy, what does it have up its sleeve for this year? With little explanation, it just announced that the municipal elections will be postponed until next year.
This is the first time in 20 years that municipal elections have coincided with the presidential and legislative ones, as the former have a four-year term and the latter a five-year term. The government’s justification was that it’s better if municipal elections don’t happen at the same time as the general elections to avoid the “cascade effect.”
In fact, this was the precise reason the terms were made different in the electoral law reforms of 1995. But given this government’s track record, which is not exactly transparent, the immediate reaction to this announcement is one of suspicion. Why would a party that virtually monopolizes power want to change something that works in its favor? And if it wants to make a gesture of political plurality, why decide it with no public discussion? Why not do it differently?
How do people feel?
It’s not easy to draw a direct link between all these efforts to undermine and annul municipal autonomy and their effects on people’s participation. What many people have made very clear, however, is that the fraud in the 2008 elections made them feel desperate and disaffected with democracy. Starting with the revolution’s elections in 1984 and 1990, after nearly half a century of fraudulent ones, Nicaraguans felt confident about the power of their vote, about electoral democracy. Particularly in 1990 Nicaraguans had seen, to their great surprise, that their vote had force, that it could change things. It was touted as the first time in Nicaraguan history that government had changed hands through a clean vote rather than by fraud or the barrel of a gun. But when the electoral branch of government demonstrated in 2008 that it was no longer an independent and autonomous institution that guaranteed respect for the popular will, people began losing hope, especially as the frauds were repeated in the succeeding years. One person in Juigalpa told me that “in 2008 we felt like something had broken inside of us.” It felt as if they had lost their bearings.
I wouldn’t go as far as to say that the Nicaraguan population is now totally demobilized. There is certainly some apathy, but an even stronger feeling is fear. I recently returned to Nicaragua after three years away and what I’ve found is a lot of fear. We’ve gone back to speaking in a low voice when we talk about politics. That means we’ve already incorporated the fear of repression… not that the police will throw us in jail, but certainly that we could lose our job or our scholarship; that they could invent any old accusation, and there’s no longer anybody or any institution to defend us. There’s also fear because the Police is no longer independent and no longer investigates or punishes anything the government doesn’t want it to. People are taking all of this on board and now say “I’m not going to stick my neck out.” It’s what this government wants: to convince us that the best citizen is the one who doesn’t get involved in anything, who leaves it to others…
The cicada will sing again
As in the eighties, the party’s weight in the State leaves the latter with little relevance because nothing can be done without the FSLN’s permission. I belonged to the party in the eighties and since we were in a war, there was more consensus around defending a aingle party’s country project.
Afterward, however, it was demonstrated that you can’t manage a municipal government, much less a country, with strictly party-based criteria, because the government is there to serve the entire citizenry, not just those from “my party.”
Discontent always finds a way to express itself. If there were complete demobilization there wouldn’t be cases such as the peasant movement against the canal in various municipalities, or the movement against the gold mining concession in the municipality of Rancho Grande. Both of those movements are challenging the central government and transnational corporations, and in the latter case also the local FSLN government. Given that the “Guardians of Yaoska,” as Rancho Grande’s movement calls itself, stopped the mining company in its tracks, I talk about that example everywhere. Their struggle should raise our morale, because they showed us that “Yes, we can.” Like them, people in different places are doing things, although they are still quite dispersed. In Nueva Guinea, the fraud was horrific in 2012. People protested and were repressed, yet a year later that was the first place to react against the threat of losing their land to the canal.
Municipal autonomy has been denied many times, but it has always returned. And it does so because it isn’t a concession of the central governments. It is the people’s right, the right of those from Diriomo to be governed as Diriomeños, those from Juigalpa as Juigalpinos, those from Matagalpa as Matagalpinos… It’s the right we all have to self-government. There are nearly 18,000 municipalities in all of Latin America, and all of them are currently engaged in struggles to govern themselves, to be autonomous, to make their own decisions. We in Nicaragua still have a strong recent memory, and though we’ve now lived through 10 years of a central government that has undermined autonomy and is trying to annul it, I think it has failed so far because we’re like the cicada, which despite spending years underground, keeps on singing. Autonomy will be back when we recover democracy.
Silvio Prado is a sociologist and political scientist and a long-time member of the Network for Democracy and Local Development.