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Court gives green light to citizens councils
Inforpress Centroamericana, Latinamerica Press
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Controversial direct democracy model triggers power struggle.

President Daniel Ortega officially inaugurated Citizen Power Councils, or CPCs, on Nov. 30 in a ceremony attended by thousands of government supporters. The event followed an intense 10-day power struggle between the executive and judicial branches, and lawmakers.

On Dec. 5, the struggle seemed to have been resolved when the Supreme Court upheld Ortega’s veto of a bill repealing the installation of the councils.

The CPCs, created by decree last January, had been revoked on Nov. 20 by the National Assembly through Law 630, which declared that the Citizen Councils could not be “instruments of political control” used by the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN).

Legislators from the Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC) and Liberal Nicaraguan Alliance, from the right, and the leftist Movement for Sandinista Modernization (MRS), integrated by dissidents of the FSLN, formed a block of opposition to achieve the approval of Law 630, with 52 out of 91 votes in favor.

President seeks to block measure
Ortega immediately rejected the legislative action, announcing his appeal to the Supreme Court for legal protection against the measure.

A week later Ortega made Presidential Decree 112 official, creating the CPCs that will form part of the National Economic and Social Planning Council, and named his wife, Rosario Murillo, executive secretary.

The appeal for legal protection ended with the judges’ decision to declare the CPCs legal and highlight the citizens’ constitutional right to organize and participate directly in public affairs.

Few could have been surprised by the Supreme Court’s decision, given the institution’s highly politicized nature. Following a notorious pact signed in 1999 by former president Arnoldo Alemán (1997-2002) between the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) and the main opposition, the Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC), the Court’s 16 judges are split evenly between the two parties.

According to Decree 112, the CPCs would exist all over the country. They would consist of 272 people at a national level while at the local level officials, mayors and FSLN members will participate.

Under the legislation passed over Ortega’s veto, CPCs would not be part of the executive branch but could be party structures of the FSLN, without any government budget or official standing. Opposition parties fear that, as one of the most organized groups in society, FSLN supporters would dominate local participatory democratic bodies such as the CPCs.

The Councils have been controversial from the get-go. Some have suggested that they represent a return, in a new guise, of the Sandinista Defense Councils (CDS) of the 1980s — known then as “the eyes and ears of the revolution.” Others say that creation of the CPCs is an attempt to establish a partisan system loyal to the FSLN and argue that the CPCs will be vulnerable to cronyism.

Participants cheer councils
The supporters of the Councils, in turn, have many positive experiences in their favor, including the organization of health campaigns, the reestablishment of potable water, lawsuits against mayors’ offices and meetings with different ministers.

But most criticisms have been directed at the head of the CPCs, Rosario Murillo, the president’s wife and Minister for Communication and Citizenship.

According to congresswoman Mónica Baltodano, of the Movement for Sandinista Modernization (MRS), Murillo’s ministry is where “all the important political decisions are made.” Baltodano also claims that the First Lady uses her territorial control, gained through the CPCs, to “lord it over all the other ministries.”

Murillo has repeatedly countered these allegations, arguing that the CPCs represent the epitome of “direct democracy” as promoted by Ortega’s government.

“The Councils allow power to flow directly from the regions to the President, with the demands of families and communities passing one way through local municipalities and departments; while, flowing the other way, the programs and policies of the National Cabinet can be put into practice on the ground,” explained Murillo on Nov. 2.

In terms of concrete results, the FSLN’s political secretary in Managua, Elías Chévez says CPCs in the capital have developed at least six savings and credit cooperatives that help small and medium-sized businesses to grow. The CPCs have also been involved in the “Zero Usury” project, run by the Interior Ministry using US$2.1 million of public funds.

The program, designed to help small-business owners, has benefited 7,000 women who have received loans with a 4-percent interest rate.

The program is expected to help 15,000 other women in 2008. “There are hundreds of women who have received these [loans],” says Chévez. He adds that the CPCs do not touch the money, but instead suggest possible beneficiaries.

But not all are as cheery as Chévez. In the middle of the recent crisis caused by Hurricane Felix — which caused serious damage with its appearance in September — congressman Víctor Duarte said that campesinos from the so-called mining triangle of the Caribbean coast had been coerced into forming a CPC in order to gain government assistance
“The distribution of aid has been a mess, if the government wanted to be truly impartial it should have put religious leaders in charge of handing out supplies as they are apolitical,” said Duarte.

Duarte also believes the CPCs are needlessly replacing other systems of participatory democracy already in place, such as the Communal Development Councils and auxiliary mayors, which have vast experience in administering power locally.

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