Thursday, October 14, 2010

Nicaragua: Ortega Against Democracy

Three weeks ago, in my commentary on the book of Leslie E. Anderson, I referred to some issues that the author considers important about the Sandinistas. In particular, she underlies the absence of charismatic leaders within the movement and the way it promoted the building of social capital among the population: developing strong ties between citizens, instead of responding to the fluctuations in the interests of a leader. Undoubtedly, this situation is no longer the case in the Central American country. The growing presence of Daniel Ortega in Nicaraguan politics, his clear interest in perpetuating himself in power, the decrees issued as well as other unilateral decisions in order to achieve it, are all evidence of this.

Last January, the Nicaraguan government decreed the extension of the mandate of the Supreme Electoral Council officials and the Supreme Court of Justice, which will allow the executive to control the entities that will supervise the elections of November 2011. Given this decision, which in normal conditions should have passed through the National Assembly, six judges close to the opposition went on strike two months ago. This week, five of the six judges on strike returned to the Supreme Court which is considered a victory for President Daniel Ortega, who now overcomes one of the major obstacles he had to remain in power. Things are further complicated by the exclusion from the legislative agenda the proposal of revocation of the decree in question (the "decretazo") and the President's refusal to dialogue with sectors of the opposition about electoral transparency. All this has led the call to nationwide protest.

Overall, it has been emphasized that democracy works best when it comes from the citizens themselves, when they perform activities that make them used to democratic mechanisms and when they autonomously decide to organize politically. However, there is the possibility that in the absence of such social capital, political institutions assume the role of democratizing society. An example of this is the role of the courts and the Argentine Congress in the return to democracy in this country in 1983, or the decision of the Constitutional Court of Colombia to block the re-election bid of President Alvaro Uribe, before his intent to remaining in power. Thus, the independence of the courts and the legislative branch are the guarantors that democratic practices are not completely eliminated after the emergence of caudillos who seek to manipulate the law at their will. Although Nicaragua is characterized by high levels of social capital, the political transformations the country has experienced in recent years suggest the need for stronger branches of power, independent from the executive, to ensure continuity in its  democratization process. Unfortunately, Nicaragua has also been historically characterized by its weak political institutions.

The dramatic nature of the situation we are seeing today in the Central American country is the combination of the strengthening of a charismatic leader, accompanied by a significant weakening of at least one of the branches of power. Turning to the recent experience of a couple of weeks ago in Ecuador, the future of a democracy where the leaders are the first to have little respect for it and its rules is not promising. With this behavior, they are implicitly inviting citizens and disgruntled sectors to do the same. As we know, the results of these practices are always regrettable. The decision of the Nicaraguan judges to return to their posts, and of the opposition to exclude the bill declaring the nullity of the "decretazo" strengthens Ortega significantly, while gives a harsh blow to democracy in Nicaragua. We are yet to see whether the Nicaraguan society responds once more in defense of democracy, as it has done it in the past.

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