Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 139 | Abril 1993



Measuring Municipal Power in Nicaragua

Alfredo César has said that "all we have left are the municipalities." Are they a bastion of the ultra right? What do Nicaraguans think of their mayors and municipal councils?

Institute of Nicaraguan Studies (IEN)

In December 1992, the Institute for Nicaraguan Studies (IEN) did a study of "Decentralization and Local Democracy," with support from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the Friedrich Ebert Foundation and the Spanish Agency for International Cooperation, together with two national nongovernmental organizations, the Manolo Morales Foundation and the Popol Na Foundation.


The methodology used qualitative interviews along with focus group workshops, combining those with the quantitative element of a national survey.

Forty eight in depth interviews were carried out throughout the country, with the exception of the Atlantic Coast and the Río
San Juan region, while three focus group workshops took place in León, Managua and San Juan del Río Coco. The survey was done with a sample universe of 1,200.

Two types of territorial division were used to organize the survey results one by region, and the other using three broad
distinctions: the city of Managua, the rest of the country's urban areas and the rural areas.

At the end of the survey, respondents were asked who they voted for in the 1990 elections: 43.5% said they had voted for UNO, 35.0% for the FSLN, and 15.8% said their vote was secret. (In the graphs, all results are expressed in percentages.)

The Municipal Problematic

The key municipal problems that came up in the research are lack of jobs, health problems and lack of safe drinking water. In the urban areas, these are followed by problems related to crime, and garbage and sanitation, while the lack of financing comes up frequently in the rural areas. The lack of potable water is most acutely felt in the countryside.

Comparing these results with the perception of the key national problems from a municipal perspective, it can be seen that the common denominator among both municipal and national affairs is the economic crisis. The political crisis identified at the national level seems to have much less impact at the local level. The crime problem is of concern to 15% of those surveyed in Managua.

Based on the interviews and the focus groups, a hypothesis can be put forward that Managua is more politically polarized than the areas outside Managua. The exceptions tend to be those municipalities with a Liberal mayor a common denominator between those areas and Managua, since Mayor Alemán is from one of the Liberal parties. The survey also demonstrates greater political problems (those of "revanchismo," or revenge fueled policies or attitudes) in Managua than in the rest of the country.

The polarization in Managua is complicated, since it is the capital of a highly centralized country, and monopolizes political and labor activities. Other complicating factors are that the mayor is a presidential aspirant, one of the key opposition figures to the central government and one of the most outspoken adversaries of the principal opposition party, the FSLN.

* To sum up, economic and social elements are considered the most pressing municipal problems, over and above political problems, which tend to have a greater impact at the national level. The interviews suggest that it is more feasible to achieve consensus at a local level than at a national one.

Priorities for the Mayors' Offices

In accord with the results of the national survey, the priorities of the different municipalities should be: improving the health care situation of the population and generating more jobs, followed by improving garbage collection in the urban areas and resolving problems related to potable water in the rural areas. The fourth priority, in both cases, is greater educational opportunities.

The departments where potable water is of the highest priority are: Carazo, Boaco, Chontales, Madriz, Matagalpa and Jinotega.

In depth interviews with key actors at the municipal level showed the following as the most pressing priorities: solving the job problem and improving health care, sanitation and potable water. Pointed to as additional priorities are:
* Moving from daily activities to forms of economic action, organizing the population into productive and community projects.

* Making effective demands of the central government regarding solutions, even if partial, to the problems of extreme poverty and hunger in the country's dry zones.

* Taking on a more aggressive attitude in the face of ongoing and indiscriminate deforestation.

* Improving the work of the municipal council members.

* Linking inter municipal actions.

None of the priorities put forth as important for the municipal administrations are currently being undertaken. Thus a need is implied for a far more assertive role in the economic and social arenas, based on political leadership, the consolidation of the municipality, unity between analysis and action, institutionalization and inter municipal actions.

* In summary, the priorities defined for the municipal administrations constitute a demand for both decentralization and a more active role by the mayors' offices, so as to have a direct impact on the most pressing problems in the population's daily life.

Forms of Organization

Of those interviewed, over 60% think that the best organizational form by which to resolve community problems consists of sharing responsibilities among the municipality, the government and the community itself. There was largely agreement on this among those who voted in 1990 for both UNO and the FSLN and those who wish to keep their vote secret (63.0%, 63.8% and 56.9% respectively). The least support for this position came from those who did not vote (28.6%), which indicates a minority with the least developed civic sense, a group that does not believe in joint forms of organization to resolve community problems.

More than a quarter of those surveyed feels that the best way to resolve problems is either by uniting a whole neighborhood or rural district, or by joining with neighbors. In the city of Managua, this position is held by more people, which indicates a consciousness about the need for actions at the sub municipal level in the country's largest city.

The focus groups reflect the view that democracy, understood as the government of the people through their representatives and through the possibility of direct participation in decision making, does not yet exist in Nicaragua. They also indicate that the governability of local government systems is very dependent on the correlation of forces of adversarial political groups.

The comment that the population and its abilities are not being used to the best advantage in tasks of either community or national benefit persistently appeared in the in depth interviews. It was noted that this participation only exists in the vaccination campaigns and in some self construction housing or latrine projects, two activities more associated with international nongovernmental organizations than with governmental or municipal actions.

It also came out in the in depth interviews that grassroots participation is not part of the current government's national policy for executing plans and projects, which the government prefers to carry out with private firms. To a lesser degree, others stated that the current government should not repeat the mass mobilization that characterized the Sandinista years.

* To sum up, a broad majority wishes to see shared responsibilities between municipalities, the national government and the communities themselves, as well as grassroots participation in development programs and projects.

Evaluation of the Current Municipalities
The evaluation of the municipalities as they exist and function today is largely negative, with the majority of those polled questioning both the municipal council members' representation of the citizenry and the work carried out by the mayors.

The assessment of the work carried out by the mayors is largely "fair" or "bad" (62.3% against 34.3% who characterize it as "very good" or "good"). This perception is much greater at the rural level, where the "very good" or "good" response does not reach 20%, while the "fair" or "bad" responses total 75%.

In Managua, the evaluation is more evenly divided, with 49.6% characterizing the mayor's work as "very good" or "good" and 47.3% as "fair" or "bad." The perception of the central government's relation with the municipalities is also negative. Over 65% of those surveyed feel that the government is not concerned about resolving municipal problems.

The majority of those surveyed also responded negatively to these statements:

* The Constitution responds to the needs of the country.

* The Supreme Court of Justice is fulfilling its legal role.

* The National Assembly is fulfilling its role.

* The national government represents your interests.

* The political parties are concerned about resolving the population's problems.

The research identified different facets of the largely negative evaluation of the municipal councillors and mayors. In the case of the council members, their behavior regarding social problems is rated negatively, while the mayors have credibility problems and are subject to criticism for "being too mixed up in politics" and "not paying enough attention to the municipality."

The opinion of the Managua respondents did not differ significantly from those in the rest of the country.

In terms of the mayors' credibility, a majority of those surveyed feel that there is no correspondence between what the mayors say and what they do. While a considerable minority of the total says there is correspondence, the urban areas are evenly split on this issue and the rural areas have a largely negative evaluation.

In Managua, the overall evaluation is more positive (59.6% say yes, while 36.2% say no).

Opinions are relatively evenly divided among those who say that the mayors are concerned about the municipalities, those who feel they are too mixed up in politics and those who feel they have generally abandoned the cities. The overall evaluation, however, is more negative than positive: a combined 59.1% feels that the mayor is either too mixed up in politics or is not attending to the municipality.

In Managua, 42.9% say that the mayor is concerned about the municipality, 44.9% say he is too mixed up in politics and only 8.3% feel he is inattentive to municipal problems.

Another indicator of the negative evaluation of the municipal administrations is that over half of the total respondents and two thirds of the rural respondents feel that the taxes they pay are not channeled back into the municipality. There is a clear difference of opinion on this between the urban and rural areas.

In Managua, the opinion is more positive than negative, with 59.6% saying that taxes do go to the municipality, and 36.6% saying no.

The evaluation of what happens to municipal taxes is less negative than the opinion of the use to which national taxes are put.

Well over two thirds of all respondents feel that corruption exists in the municipal administrations. Of those who voted for the UNO, 71.4% take this position, as do 82.2% of those who voted for the FSLN. In Managua, the sentiment is similar: that a great deal of corruption exists. The national opinion about corruption in the central government is also similar.

The following indicators of corruption at the local level were identified in the in depth interviews:
* The formation in the municipal administrations of groups loyal to the mayor based on cronyism or nepotism, rather than on any concept of civil service or, at the least, some technical personnel selection process.

* The resulting homogenous groups combine their public responsibilities with their representation of private businesses which leads to corrupt practices in the purchasing of goods and awarding of public works projects.

* Unnecessary trips abroad with padded expense accounts.

Those interviewed also emphasized that the results of corruption are visible in the ostentatious lifestyles of many public officials, which do not correspond to their salaries as public services and are not in keeping with the extreme poverty affecting the country.

* In summary, the assessment of the municipalities is generally negative. Also negatively perceived is the relationship between the government and the municipalities. In the case of the municipal councillors, the evaluation of their behavior regarding social problems is negative. The mayors have credibility problems and are criticized for being too mixed up in politics and not attending to their cities. With the exception of the Managua respondents, more than half of all respondents, and two thirds of those in the rural areas, feel that their municipal taxes are not channeled back into benefits for their municipality. A significant majority say there is corruption in the mayors' offices.

Information about Municipal Government

In an open question, only a small minority of respondents, even in the urban areas, was able to state correctly whom the population elects directly. (According to the Municipal Law, the municipal councillors are directly elected by the population, and they in turn elect the mayor from among their own numbers.)

There is also an enormous lack of knowledge about what issues are discussed and decided upon in the municipal councils.

The same is true regarding awareness about the projects being carried out by the mayors' offices; again, the level of awareness of such projects is barely higher in the urban areas.

In addition, most respondents cannot validate that the cabildos abiertos, or open town meetings, are functioning, with over 90% stating that they have yet to participate in one. (Holding regular open town meetings is a responsibility of the municipal councils, according to the Municipal Law.) Participation is slightly higher in the rural areas.

* To sum up, more than 85% of the population does not know who is directly elected in the municipal elections, is unaware of the issues taken up in the municipal councils or the projects being carried out by the mayors' offices, and has never participated in a municipal town meeting.

Nongovernmental Organizations in the Municipalities

Asked to identify a nongovernmental organization (NGO) working in their municipality, over 60% were unable to do so. Only 10% recognized religious entities such as CEPAD and the Catholic Church, and the percentages dropped drastically from there.

Of the less than 40% who could identify an NGO working in their area, nearly 41% said that they work separately from the mayors, while less than a quarter believed cooperative relations exist between the NGOs and the mayors' offices.

The in depth interviews indicate that the relationship between the NGOs and the mayors' offices are more characterized by cooperation in the municipalities with the lowest levels of polarization. In those with Sandinista mayors, such as León and Estelí, there are high levels of cooperation. This is also now the case in the Juigalpa municipality, which has an UNO mayor, after a political depolarization led to much better levels of cooperation in 1992 than had been noted in 1990 91. In highly polarized municipalities, such as Managua, Masaya and Matagalpa, there are low levels of cooperation and coordination.

* In conclusion, only 40% of the population was able to identify any NGO working in their community, and, of those, less than a quarter feel that there is cooperation between the NGOs and the municipal governments. Where cooperative relations exist, according to the in depth interviews, they function best in municipalities with low levels of political polarization.

Elements for Strengthening
Decentralization and Local Democracy

The current term of office for the municipal administration six years is supported by only 7.3% of those surveyed. Nearly three quarters of those surveyed support terms of four years or less, and just under 60% prefer terms of two years or less.

In the in depth interviews, people expressed that the municipal elections need not be the same as the national elections, since two very different dynamics are involved. It was felt that greater turnover is necessary for municipal authorities, which would in turn lead to greater consensus and participation among politicians and citizens. These were viewed to be substantive elements that should be taken into account in any political effort at legal reforms.

Even more striking is the prevailing opinion about who should elect the mayors. Nearly 95% of all those polled disagree with the current parliamentary type system in which mayors are elected by the council members. This system appears not to be accepted within Nicaraguan political culture, which has a strong presidentialist tradition. With equal percentages among UNO and FSLN voters, they feel that the mayors should be elected directly by the population. Underscoring the strength of this view is the virtual disappearance of the DK/NR category.

This constant that the best way to elect the mayors would be a direct, secret ballot also emerged in the in depth interviews, combined with the view that mayoral terms should be reduced to two years. Those interviewed also expressed the need for laws establishing sanctions for or removal of mayors and council members, and for mechanisms for replacing any ousted official.*

In an open ended question about who the maximum authority is in a municipality, 65.8% named the mayor, independent of the real power he or she really has in a given case. Just under 71% of those who said they voted for UNO, 68.8% of those voting for the FSLN and 56.9% of those who responded "secret vote" say that the mayor is the municipality's maximum authority. This is yet another reflection of the political system in Nicaragua which sees power residing in single strong figures.

Another open ended question, asking what the municipal council's tasks should be, reinforced this perception even further.

The population sees the tasks related to supporting and advising the mayor as much more important for the councillors than their involvement in decisions involving strategic issues facing the municipality or overseeing the mayor, even though these latter two are the council's key functions.

Regarding the relationship between the central and municipal governments, the most frequent responses were: mutual respect and cooperation, and coordination.

Asked whether the municipal government can give better responses to the problems of the community than the central government, slightly more a simple majority said yes. Of those who voted for UNO, 60.3% said yes, and 30.7% no, while 51.6% of the FSLN voters said yes and 39.1% said no.

In the in depth interviews, many people felt that the municipal governments are much more able to respond to the population's needs, given the following considerations:
* Community problems are better known at the local level, as are the available resources and the sectors of the community that are able to participate in carrying out a given public works project.

* It is easier for the community to receive a hearing from the municipality than from the central government.

* The central government is more concerned with large scale projects and productive programs, and has very centralized criteria.

On the question of territorial identification, nearly half of the respondents feel more identified with the municipality; in the rural areas, that proportion jumps to 61.7%. Just under 28% of the rural inhabitants surveyed feel identified with the department and only 19% identified with the region, a distinction that is made primarily by FSLN voters, who identify more with the region (a territorial definition created under the Sandinista government) than with the department.

In the in depth interviews, people tended to identify with their municipalities when they were of a significant size or when something important in historic terms had taken place there. Otherwise, they identified with the department. In the interviews, no identification with the region was noted.

* In conclusion, the current six year term for municipal governments has the support of only 7.3% of those surveyed. The majority prefer that the municipal councils be elected for either two years (37.9%), or one year (18.9%). Over 94% want mayors to be directly elected by the population.

* The in depth interviews revealed a decided preference for electing mayors through a direct and secret ballot, reducing the term for municipal authorities, and establishing laws to assure sanctions for mayors or council members and removal where necessary.

* Two thirds see the mayor as the municipality's maximum authority, independent of the real relations of power that may exist. On relations between the municipal and central governments, the most common answers were 1) mutual respect and cooperation and 2) coordination. A majority of those interviewed in depth felt that the mayors' offices can offer the best responses to the population. A majority also considers that the municipal administrations could do a lot ranging from efforts to move toward depolarization and later consensus to community development tasks.

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