After six laborious months of politicking, glad-handing, video gaming, canal dreaming, gum flapping, unilateral legislating and opposition arm-flapping, the 91 lawmakers of Nicaragua’s honorable National Assembly have turned off their cell phones, grunted into their bathing suits and head off to the beach for some well-deserved R&R.
The National Assembly’s generous midyear recess began this week and will stretch into the second week of August. For the next month, the country will have to somehow manage its affairs without the erudite leadership of its democratic vanguard.
Critics, however, claim lawmakers have been shirking their responsibilities for so long that a month of vacation probably won’t affect the government’s job performance to any noticeable degree. Though the National Assembly passed about 15 laws during the first semester of 2012 (it’s hard to get an exact count since the National Assembly stopped updating its congressional records page in May [apparently vacation started a few months early for some]), lawmakers failed to attend to the seemingly important task of electing new magistrates, judges, attorneys general, comptrollers, ombudsman and other important-sounding positions which are currently occupied by folks whose term limits have expired—in some cases, as long as two years ago.
The opposition Independent Liberal Party (PLI) claims there are currently more than 50 government functionaries occupying posts after their constitutional term limits have expired. Other lawmakers consulted by the Nicaragua Dispatch say the number is closer to 30, while others say they’ve lost count altogether.
The de facto situation is thanks to a questionable presidential fiat in 2010 that magically extended public servant’s term limits indefinitely, despite the best efforts of the Constitution to establish some rules and regulations for Nicaragua’s democracy.
The Sandinistas last year argued valiantly in defense of President Daniel Ortega’s so-called “decretazo,” insisting it was a necessary move to protect Nicaragua from the chaos of a gridlocked legislature that was unable to reach consensus and elect new officials. That argument, however, became slightly less convincing this year when the Sandinistas assumed a supermajority in the National Assembly and freed the country from the cumbersome confines of democratic compromise. During the first semester of 2012, Ortega’s lawmakers displayed a willingness to legislate unilaterally on several bills they wanted to get passed, yet still failed at the task of replacing the de facto functionaries, including the two who died in office waiting to be relieved.
The opposition, whose numbers in the National Assembly prevent them from doing anything other than whimpering softly, say Nicaragua’s increasingly irregular situation is a symptom of a broken democratic system. And, they add, the ruling party’s unwillingness to rectify the situation is telltale sign of Ortega’s disregard for institutionalism and rule of law.
“There are no democratic institutions in this country,” opposition congressman Luis Callejas, head of the minority Nicaraguan Democratic Bloc (BDN), told The Nicaragua Dispatch this week. “Practically every government institution is now in a de facto situation due to an illegal presidential decree. They continue to violate the Constitution and I don’t see any perspective for this getting better—it will only get worse.”
A week before the National Assembly stood for its midyear stretch, congressmen Callejas asked the National Assembly Directorate to suspend recess until lawmakers fulfilled their duty to elect new officials. The directorate, led by Sandinista lawmakers, scoffed at the proposal and dismissed it as “political posturing.”
That has Callejas and his band of minority lawmakers feeling glummer than ever about their ornamental role in the National Assembly.
“What we have here is a dictatorship,” Callejas said.
Enrique Sáenz, an opposition lawmaker with the leftwing Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), says the de facto situation is no longer an anomaly in a democratic system of government, rather a “symptom of an anomalous and unconstitutional government.”
The situation, Sáenz says, is not entropic or a product of neglect, rather one that is being careful designed and crafted to erode the country’s institutional democracy and establish a new model of power concentrated in the presidency.
“This is an expression of the dictatorial desires of Daniel Ortega,” Sáenz told The Nicaragua Dispatch.
A pragmatic calculation
Political analyst Felix Maradiaga, a professor of political science at the UAM, says the Sandinista government’s resistance to change any of its chess pieces (including the ones that died and fell off the board) is based on the calculation that there are no immediate risks or consequences for riding roughshod over democratic norms. Plus, he says, the current model is consistent with the Sandinistas’ plan to centralize power with an army of tenuously placed government officials who serve at the whim of the president.
“The ruling party has a very pragmatic philosophy,” Maradiaga says. “They do not perceive any concrete or specific consequences for their unconstitutional behavior, so they think they can keep doing it.”
There’s also no significant internal pressure for the Sandinistas to change their ways. The opposition parties, despite occasional chest thumping in the media, are as divided and feckless as ever. And the streets are quiet. A recent hunger strike by several activists in front of the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) brought some media attention to their demands for new electoral authorizes, but it hardly rattled the Sandinistas’ resolve to change nothing.
Most of the country continues to shuffle along silently, either browbeaten or thankful for the government’s handouts and other eleemosynary programs that respond to the immediate needs of the poor.
“Democracy is still an issue for the middle class,” Maradiaga says. “Rule of law is not a top priority for most Nicaraguans.”