Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 339 | Octubre 2009



What’s Going On in the Municipalities? And What’s With the CPCs?

The executive secretary of the Nicaraguan Democracy and Local Development Network, shares the findings of her organization’s monitoring of 39 municipal governments’ first 100 days in office.

Damaris Ruiz

Our network set up a Citizen Participation Observatory in 2007, in which we would “observe” the new municipal governments during their entire administration (2009-2012). The idea was to do a first survey—which was also our first such experience—after they had been in office 100 days (January 10-April 30, 2009). A second one would be done halfway through the period, in January 2010, and a third one when they were wrapping up their mandates in January 2013.

The objective of the first survey was to identify trends regarding civic participation and management of the municipal government. In doing this we wanted to accomplish two goals: come up with the best work strategies for the territories and provide local residents with information that would help them discuss issues with the municipal government.

Monitoring municipalities
influenced by fraud and other problems

Network members in 39 randomly selected municipalities collaborated in the research. Managua was not included, but some departmental capitals where the electoral results were strongly disputed were, such as Jinotega, Juigalpa, and León. The research was done by conducting 4,650 surveys: 4,019 with regular citizens, also randomly selected; 479 with leaders of local civil society organizations (community groups, NGOs and cooperatives were the three types chosen); and 110 with Municipal Council members representing different political parties. We decided not to survey the mayors for fear that their responses would be biased by their partisan ideological positions. When we asked citizens about their political preferences, 31% indicated Liberal sympathies, 43% said they were Sandinistas, and the remainder, an important group, claimed not to identify with any party.

We’re aware that our findings are strongly influenced by Nicaragua’s current political and economic context. First of all, a number of local authorities in some of the municipalities we’re monitoring ended up tainted with the suspicion of electoral fraud in the November 2008 elections. Second, the Citizen Power model imposed by the central government in all monitored municipalities means that the central government controls local power structures, in violation of the political, administrative and financial autonomy of municipalities guaranteed by the Municipalities Law. Third, the combined impact of the international economic crisis and the already high poverty levels affecting most of the population also influences responses. When a person’s basic needs aren’t met, they’ll look for ways to satisfy them—for example, accepting political manipulation or giving in to political patronage. This takes precedence over any other right, including critical and proactive participation.

Do political sympathies bias
appraisal of government performance?

Let’s look at some of the results. The Municipalities Law stipulates the responsibilities of municipal governments, as well as those shared with central government institutions or utilities, such as ENACAL, the water and sewage company. When we asked about the quality of the services provided by the municipal government, we found that most of the population considered them “good.” These services were most highly appraised in municipalities governed by the FSLN, where 49% of women surveyed defined them as “very good,” but women in PLC-governed municipalities had similar opinions. Upon crossing political sympathies with those who rated municipal services as “very good,” we discovered they always coincide with the party governing the municipality, while those expressing no political affiliation least frequently valued the services as “good” and most often qualified them as “bad.” This raised questions about the extent to which people’s responses were objective, and led us to think that people’s partisan leanings were determining the way they evaluated these services.

Government openness to the population

Another element influencing these responses is the direct control the central government exerts over the municipal governments headed by FSLN mayors. In these cases, all central government social programs—Zero Hunger, Zero Usury and others—go through the municipal governments. Meanwhile, in municipalities governed by the PLC, such programs go directly to the Councils of Citizens’ Participation (CPCs), which generates different perceptions of municipal services.

Given the perception that patronage policies have been established in municipal governments, we explored the extent to which municipal governments are accessible to the population. When we asked those surveyed if their municipal government is “open” to everybody, 26%—overlapping almost perfectly the 29% who expressed no political sympathies—said it wasn’t. The same 26% answered that the municipal governments are open first and foremost to people from their own party, secondly to relatives, and thirdly to friends. In cases where a mayor is from the FSLN, they add that the government is also open to the CPCs. Does this mean that all of those who aren’t party members, relatives, friends or CPC members are excluded? This finding merits serious attention, because it has dangerous implications. If this is already taking place during the first 100 days of government, we can imagine what will happen as we approach the 2011 general elections, when things become even more politically charged and party activists will only be concerned with obtaining votes.

What about the town hall meetings?

The Municipalities Law mandates municipal governments to invite people to participate in town hall meetings. The newly elected municipal governments are supposed to organize a first meeting in which the outgoing government reports on its administration. When we asked the Municipal Council members whether this first meeting had been organized, and whether the population actually took part, 65% indicated that a meeting had been organized, while 32% said it had not. We also asked civil society organizations the same question and 50% indicated that this meeting had not been organized.

It’s possible both that the Council members told the truth—that the town meetings were organized—and that the 50% of civil society representatives who said no meeting took place were actually indicating that they didn’t know about it. But the civil society organizations surveyed—cooperatives, NGOs, community organizations—are precisely the ones that are most aware of what’s going on in the municipal governments. They and their leaders always take part in everything.

In previous looks into why people don’t participate in town meetings, we discovered many reasons why people can’t take part: they often learn of them with only a day’s notice; the meetings are only publicized via loudspeaker announcements; and they are held during working hours. And, of course, many citizens aren’t interested in participating because they feel their opinions aren’t taken into account…

When we asked who had taken part in town meetings, the responses were consistent with those for whom the municipal governments appear “open.” The people who participate most actively in town meetings are those most closely aligned with political parties and involved in the CPCs. The people who expressed no political sympathies don’t take part, and are increasingly marginalized from municipal public management and, logically, from the national government.

Open discussion of the municipal budget

All outgoing municipal governments are legally mandated to leave the incoming government a municipal budget for the next four years. Fortunately, this practice has been obliging municipal governments to discuss this multi-year investment plan with the population, and in most municipalities these plans have been developed with a large amount of citizen input and active participation by NGOs, which have helped communities design local diagnostic studies and district plans, and even define their yearly priorities.

It’s common practice among almost all newly elected municipal governments to reform and change the budgets left in place by their predecessors. They usually do this to make room for their campaign promises to the population, but budget changes may be made not only to fulfill campaign promises. Municipal governments also know they’ll have fewer resources in the coming years because central government transfers, municipal tax collection and foreign donations are all going to shrink.

In this survey, we explored whether these new governments changed their budgets, and whether these reforms were discussed. The law states that if the budget is changed to increase an allocation or change its position, no consultation is required; it can be done solely with Municipal Council authorization. But if reforms are aimed at reorienting or changing projects, or cancelling some community project and using the resources to cover administrative costs, this must be discussed with the population.

When we explored this question, 81% of the Council members surveyed said there had been reforms, but when we asked if these were discussed with the population, 46% indicated they had not been. Some 67% of civil society representatives surveyed said they had no idea whether the budget had been changed, which is very alarming, since community leaders, NGOs, and cooperatives are usually aware of such issues. If they aren’t, it’s because the changes were made at a desk, without consulting the population. If this is true, these people have no idea about their real municipal budget, and if they don’t have a copy of their local government’s multi-year investment plan, they have no way of knowing if some project for a specific community has been cancelled.

The Municipal Development Committees…

It’s important to remember that the Civic Participation Law defines mandatory consultative processes that municipal governments must organize. There has always been a strong organizational dynamic in Nicaragua’s communities, with civic associations in rural communities and urban neighborhoods, parent’s committees and other groups. The law mandates the establishment in the municipalities of Municipal Development Committees (CDMs), whose members include institutions working in the given municipality and community representatives.

This 2003 law specifies the creation of the CDMs to promote local development in coordination with municipal governments. This is the institution the municipal government should fundamentally involve in preparing its budget and multi-year investment plan. The CDMs have been operating fairly well for some years now. In the beginning, the Bolaños government controlled this structure, but civil society and the local populations have gradually created another dynamic in some municipalities, converting the CDMs into more autonomous and pluralistic bodies that generate concrete proposals. They have allowed people to participate more critically and proactively in municipal management.

When we asked about the CDMs, 66% of the Council members from all political parties told us there’s one in their municipality, but when we asked if they were still functioning, only 44% said they were. And when we asked if the Municipal Council had called a meeting so it could work with them, 45% answered affirmatively. Crossing the municipalities that have functioning CDMs with which party was in office, we found that CDMs were operating in 80% of the municipalities with PLC mayors, but in only 37% of municipalities with FSLN mayors. In most FSLN-governed municipalities, the only functioning participatory spaces are the CPCs and Cabinets of Citizen’s Participation (GPC)s.

The fact that Liberal Council members indicated that CDMs are operating in their municipalities was not very encouraging, since we’ve heard about municipalities where PLC mayors are organizing “their” CDMs. They use the law to set up CDMs whose members are all affiliated with their own party. Not all municipalities operate this way, but if we aren’t careful, the CDMs—which we’ve worked so hard to create and develop as nonpartisan structures over the years—will end up being as politically exclusive as the CPCs, completely twisting their purpose.

… vs. the CPCs

With the arrival of the current FSLN government, the Communication and Citizenship Secretariat headed by First Lady Rosario Murillo created a new structure for what she touted as “direct democracy.” At the grassroots level, this meant the CPCs, while GPCs were created at the municipal and departmental levels. The new government eliminated the government-civil society consulting body called Nicaraguan Economic and Social Planning Council (CONPES) and created a National Cabinet of Citizens’ Power. We were critical of this initiative, since we saw no point in creating other structures if most people participating in the District and Municipal Development Committees had Sandinista roots. Murillo created a complex network of vertical structures controlled by the secretariat she directed. It is obvious to everybody that the CPCs are organized by the FSLN’s political secretaries, who tell them what to do and what tasks to get involved with.

One anecdote serves to illustrate both something positive and something negative about the CPCs. A woman from a municipality who had joined a GPC stated proudly: “Now we feel important. The mayor told us that if the GPCs didn’t certify that the bridge had been well built, then he wouldn’t pay the contractor.” A slightly more prudent individual asked her, “Do you know anything about bridges? What do you know about the quality of the materials? How can people who know nothing about this and didn’t even watch the bridge’s construction decide whether or not the contractors get paid?” It’s true that many people feel important in the CPCs, but letting them make this type of decision is irresponsible. What Nicaragua needs is more mature, critical citizens, whose participation is well informed, not based simply on saying “yes, sir” to everything they’re told. Hopefully, one day we’ll be able to organize truly participatory structures in Nicaragua that aren’t controlled by governments, political parties, churches or big money.

The legality of the CPCs is established in the Constitution, which states that Nicaraguans have the right to organize. The Constitution also states that civic participation will be regulated by corresponding laws. The Civic Participation Law makes no mention of CPCs because they’re a new invention, but the problem isn’t whether or not they are legal. It has to do with the role and dynamic the central government has assigned to them, with the way it’s using them, turning them into para-governmental structures that manage public resources, control municipal agendas and even subdue anyone who dissents, as we’ve observed basically in Managua.

Leaving aside the case of Managua, however, while we’ve seen people in the CPCs manipulated by the party to serve its own interests, most people in these organizations want to work for their communities, which is why they need to be recognized. But it’s also important to recognize all organizational arenas: community associations, the people working in CDMs, and those in the CDCs. The correct attitude is that all of civil society needs to take part in deciding how diminishing resources should be prioritized, but there has been a tendency in municipalities governed by the FSLN to consult only with the CPCs. Since the PLC repeats the same practice, both end up excluding significant segments of the population.

A full 81% of the Council members surveyed affirmed that GPCs were organized in their municipalities. The government’s goal of organizing both CPCs and GPCs is moving forward, albeit not as fast as initially announced. The new FSLN municipal governments have promoted this organizational structure much more than the ones that left office in late 2008 had. While 26% of the Council members explained that the CDMs in their municipality had become part of the GPCs, the opposite should have occurred. The GPCs should have joined the CDMs as one more represented sector, because the CDMs are the civic participation structure par excellence created by the Civic Participation Law.

Municipal financing strategies

Our investigation also explored the financing of local development by asking municipal governments about their financial strategies given the current economic crisis. Some 52% answered that their main strategy consists of requesting money from the central government. But since the central government is also in crisis, what are they going to ask for? Another 39% said their main strategy was to seek funds from international cooperation agencies. But given that allocations to Nicaragua are decreasing due to political concerns—particularly last November’s electoral fraud—and the international financial crisis, what are they going to ask for? We also know that various “sister city” relationships between European cities and Nicaraguan municipalities have been suspended following the fraud. Moreover, the central government is now demanding that some bilateral cooperation agencies cease working directly with municipal governments and make contributions only through the central government, which will then distribute funds to the municipalities.

The problem with requesting money from the central government and/or international cooperation for local development is that neither strategy is sustainable. The central government is going to transfer the same amount or less to the municipal governments than last year, even though the law specifies annual percentage increases for such transfers. The real amounts transferred will be less because of slashes in the national budget. Furthermore, the Emergency Social Investment Fund (FISE), the Nicaraguan Institute for Municipal Development (INIFOM) and the Rural Development Institute (IDR), which also work with municipal governments, have already had their budgets cut.

How are NGO-municipal
government relations?

We also looked into relations between municipal governments and NGOs, because NGOs play an important role in municipalities despite the official campaign to disparage them. We wanted to know how NGOs were perceived in the municipalities. Among Municipal Council members surveyed, 70% said NGOs contribute to local development. We figured that if this were the perception of most Council members, they would logically want to work with NGOs on complementary or alternative tasks. But curiously only 64% indicated a desire to work with them. And to a question regarding which issues they would work on together, most Council members cited food security and infrastructure, while only 13% listed civic participation.

This response is significant and discouraging for anyone working on issues related to civic participation. We already knew that municipal governments generally don’t want to promote civic participation. Perhaps they still don’t recognize that without it, a food security or infrastructure project will never generate more comprehensive development. And herein lies the contradiction: everybody says they want to work for local development, but not with civic participation. If this is what they say after only 100 days governing, we’re afraid that this trend of rejecting the population’s participation will only become more accentuated as the 2011 elections draw near, or if it doesn’t it will be for the wrong reasons.

The importance of local democracy

In recent times, municipalities have gained enormous political relevance throughout the world. It has been shown that municipalities are the most suitable place for insuring better relations between the State and citizens, since local authorities, mayors and Council members are well known and accessible. In one form or another, everybody either knows or finds out what’s going on in the municipality. Local democracy has taken on greater importance, because it’s where democracy is the most participatory.

We also examined community organizations, because it’s important to know who municipal governments are working with in their towns and neighborhoods. Most Council members said they work with the CPCs, the official Citizen’s Power model. In the FSLN-governed municipalities, 61% of the Council members said that they work only with them. In those governed by the PLC, 36% indicated that they work with the Auxiliary Mayors, who represent the larger communities and districts in the municipality.

Who does the Municipal
Council relate to most?

We investigated the relationship between Municipal Councils and civil society, the main indication of which is participation in the Council’s public sessions. We found that 54% of civil society organizations don’t even know when the Council meets, which means that they don’t participate and aren’t involved in the municipalities’ public administration.

The relationship between Municipal Councils and political parties is more fluid. Some people feel that since Council members obtain their position through membership in political parties, it makes sense that other party representatives would attend Council sessions. In reality, it’s not bad that they attend. What’s bad is that they voice opinions and influence the decisions made. This is not legally permissible, since the law only allows them to sit in on sessions. If they have an initiative to introduce, they must do so through a Council member. This same process is followed in the National Assembly, where citizens have the right to introduce any type of initiative through an elected legislator willing to support it.

When we analyzed which political party representatives are voicing opinions in Council meetings, we suspected that it would only be true of the FSLN. But both the Sandinista and Liberal ones do so, and particularly in Municipal Councils where the balance of power is closest between the two parties because that’s where confrontations take place. No one goes to Council meetings if one of the two parties has a dominating majority. Several sessions have been suspended due to discord between the two power blocs. Council meetings in the Caribbean coast region are only attended by FSLN representatives. But disagreements between parties, suspended sessions and political interference by party representatives happen everywhere, not only in municipalities where the electoral results have been questioned.

So what trends and
conclusions did we identify?

After analyzing the results of these surveys, we reached several conclusions and can identify numerous trends. Local management during this period—more so than previously—will be characterized by patronage practices. The FSLN and the PLC will work most closely with their respective party faithful, while both will also work with other party members, friends and relatives. This type of clientelism damages democracy overall, as well as local democracy, governance and civic participation.

From these trends we also see that political polarization will likely worsen as the 2011 national elections draw nearer. And if there’s already polarization now, we can only imagine what will happen when the motivation shifts to getting votes.

Another conclusion is that there are greater opportunities for structures associated with the Civic Participation Law to function in municipalities governed by PLC mayors, but we must evaluate the quality of such structures. In FSLN-governed municipalities, these entities will reach an impasse. I don’t think they’ll start up again unless municipal governments realize that it’s a mistake to concentrate on just a few arenas rather than generating pluralistic processes that seek truly national solutions.

And one more conclusion. The central government’s new way of interacting with the population generates a high level of dependency, which isn’t healthy for either democracy or family economies. The government’s social programs are good, but shouldn’t be the only way to resolve the poverty plaguing this nation. They aren’t strategies that generate development. Zero Hunger, Zero Usury and other government programs are only stop-gap tactics until sustainable strategies are designed. It’s good to donate farm animals to families, but this approach will fail unless it’s accompanied by other strategies. Ten years ago, I worked with an organization that used a similar approach but its projects were accompanied by commercialization strategies, technical assistance, revolving credit funds, seeds for planting… all of which generated community organization whose benefits spread from one family to another. The government’s current strategy is good for resolving urgent needs, but can’t help people get out of poverty because it isn’t sustainable, at least not the way it’s being run.

A positive discovery
about women’s participation

Something positive we discovered through this review process is that women and young people are participating more in local power structures. Nonetheless, only 14% of the mayors are women, while 61% of the deputy mayors are women. In other words, the lower the position, the higher the percentage of women holding it, while the opposite is true for men. It’s also worth noting that an interesting percentage of young people hold positions in Municipal Councils, although they are generally quite timid and passive, remaining silent while older Council members express opinions. Young Council members still haven’t exercised control over the Councils and have yet to develop their own agendas.

The CPCs have been criticized a lot, but a blanket criticism with no nuances is of little use. We criticize the system, but not those who are in it. Many people involved with the CPCs simply want to work. The reality is that CPCs are gaining ground because they’re the only reference point for the central and municipal governments. People already know they need to go to the CPCs, not the CDMs, if they need something, or even just a response, for their neighborhood, community or sector. Change will only occur when people join the CPCs, but don’t allow them to be controlled by a political party. It will only occur when people learn that their vote isn’t a fair price for receiving social benefits. Social benefits are a right and the government’s duty is to respond to its citizens’ needs

Big brother is a fact of life

All governments, without exception, are centralist. No government enjoys sharing power. The point of seeking decentralization is to free the autonomous regions and the municipalities from the central government’s orbit. This is because we have more opportunities in the municipalities to influence public administration, and because projects can be implemented with fewer resources. A project directly implemented by FISE can cost as much as double what it costs the municipal government. In the municipalities, people are participating and taking a more active part in implementing projects. But hardly anybody is talking about decentralization today. Rather than continue the trend of municipal decentralization, this government has re-centralized.

The current government hasn’t respected municipal government autonomy, as stipulated in the Municipalities Law. These governments are entitled to make decisions with the population, without awaiting central government orders. They need only follow the citizenry’s orders. This is political decentralization, and it hasn’t been respected. Financial decentralization means that the central government guarantees sufficient resources for the municipal government to carry out the agreements it has made with the local population. Having sufficient resources means that enough funds are transferred from the central government and received from municipal taxation.

Hopefully, the municipal governments will wake up soon and demand their autonomy. Hopefully Municipal Council members will discover and embrace the idea that they are the authorities in the municipality, led by the mayor, who should administer and implement the decisions made by the Municipal Council. A common problem is that Municipal Councils view the mayor as the maximum authority, when in reality the Council is the highest local authority.

Hopefully we will begin to understand that we, the citizens, are the ones who can bring about change, not the political parties and their leaders. And hopefully we’ll begin to give voice to the municipalities, and see beyond Managua. If all this happens, maybe we’ll begin to really overcome poverty—that terribly strong force that is currently suffocating our weak democracy.

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