Nicaragua Table of Contents

The Nicaraguan Constitution promulgated on January 1, 1987 provided the final step in the institutionalization of the Sandinista regime and the framework under which the Chamorro government would take office. It was the ninth constitution in Nicaraguan history. The Sandinistas' revolutionary mythology and aspirations were glorified in the preamble, and the Nicaraguan army was constitutionally named the Sandinista People's Army. Yet, even though drafted and approved by a Sandinista-dominated assembly, the constitution was not a revolutionary document. It established a democratic system of government with a mixed economy based on a separation of powers that could guarantee civil liberties. There was some discontent with parts of the new system. Early objections were raised that the executive branch was too strong, that property rights were not adequately protected, and that some of the language was vague and subject to widely differing interpretations. These objections continued to be an issue under the Chamorro government.

The Executive

The constitution provides for a strong executive branch, although the legislative and judicial branches retain significant powers of their own. Under the constitution, the president has broader powers than does the president of the United States. The president is commander in chief of the military, has the power to appoint all ministers and vice ministers of his or her cabinet, and proposes a national budget. The executive shares legislative powers that allow him or her to enact executive decrees with the force of law in fiscal and administrative matters, as well as to promulgate regulations to implement the laws. The president assumes legislative powers when the National Assembly is in recess. He or she has extraordinary powers during national emergencies, including the powers to suspend basic civil liberties and to prepare and approve the national budget.

The president's term was set at six years by a decree promulgated in January 1984, during the period when the country had no constitution. Elections held under that decree resulted in Daniel Josť Ortega Saavedra's beginning a term as president on January 10, 1985. The 1987 Constitution reaffirmed a six-year term for the president. Esquipulas II, the international peace accord that ended the Contra insurgency, however, set February 25, 1990 as the date for the next election. Violeta Chamorro assumed the post of president on April 25, 1990, more than eight months before the constitutionally mandated date of January 10, 1991. It was understood that Chamorro would serve for the additional eight-month period created by the advanced elections, as well as for the full six-year term from January 10, 1991 to January 10, 1997. The next elections are scheduled for late 1996, although pressure has been mounting for these elections, to be advanced also.

The Legislature

The 1987 constitution replaced the bicameral Congress, which had existed under previous constitutions, with a unicameral National Assembly. The makeup of the National Assembly, first established under the 1984 decree and confirmed by the 1987 constitution, consists of ninety members directly elected by a system of proportional representation plus any unelected presidential or vice presidential candidates who receive a certain percentage of the vote. In 1985 the National Assembly had ninety-six members and in 1990, ninety-two. Terms are for six years, to run concurrently with the president's term.

The National Assembly has significant powers, and its cooperation is essential for the smooth functioning of the government. Under the constitution, representatives to the National Assembly propose legislation, which is made law by a simple majority of the representatives present if the National Assembly has a quorum (a quorum is half the total number of representatives, plus one) The National Assembly can override a presidential veto by quorum. The constitution also gives the National Assembly the power "to consider, discuss and approve" the budget presented by president. The National Assembly chooses the seven members of the Supreme Court from lists provided by the president and has the authority to "officially interpret the laws," a prerogative that gives the National Assembly judicial powers.

The Chamorro administration has faced a legislature that, despite its division between the Sandinista members and the members of the UNO coalition, has proved a formidable power in its own right--and one with which the executive branch is often in conflict. In the 1990 elections, of the ninety-two seats in the National Assembly, the UNO won fifty-one and the FSLN gained thirty-nine. The FSLN won thirty-eight seats in assembly races, and President Ortega was given a seat under the provision granting a seat to each losing presidential candidate who earns a certain percentage of the vote. Two other parties of the ten on the ballot gained single seats. One was won by the Christian Social Party (Partido Social Cristiano--PSC) in a legislative race; another was awarded to the losing presidential candidate of the Revolutionary Unity Movement (Movimiento de Unidad Revolucionaria--MUR), a breakaway faction of the FSLN. The only significant brake on UNO's power was that its majority of 55 percent fell short of the 60 percent needed to amend the Sandinista-approved constitution, a goal of some members of the UNO coalition. The slim UNO majority also presented practical problems for the UNO president because it was possible for relatively few defections from the UNO coalition to undermine the UNO government's programs and initiatives.

The Judiciary

Under the 1987 constitution, the Supreme Court is an independent branch of government, whose members are selected for six-year terms by the National Assembly from lists submitted by the president. From among those members, the president selects the head of the Supreme Court. The constitution also provides that the Supreme Court justices appoint judges to the lower courts. Supreme Court justices can only be removed constitutionally "for reasons determined by law."

In National Assembly-approved 1990 reforms to the Organic Law of Tribunals, the Chamorro government enlarged the Supreme Court's membership from the constitutionally mandated seven justices to nine, as a way of breaking what was perceived as Sandinista domination of the court. Those seven members had been appointed to their six-year terms in December 1987, and their terms were to expire in 1993. In 1990 President Chamorro also dismissed the court's Sandinista-appointed head and replaced him with one of her own choosing. The evaluation of this act depended on one's political point of view. According to Nicaraguan analysts, the nine-member court decided that it would take decisions only on the basis of consensus, a procedure some saw as guaranteeing Sandinista influence on the court, others saw as neutralizing Sandinista influence, and still others saw as effectively paralyzing the operations of the court.

Local Government

Municipal governments have introduced a new element to Nicaraguan politics that promises to substantially decentralize political power and influence. Established by the Law on Municipalities adopted by the Sandinista National Assembly in August 1988, the first municipal governments were selected in 1990. The municipal government structure with basic governing authority is the Municipal Council (Consejo Municipal). Under the provisions of the law, citizens vote directly for council members; the number of these depends on the size of the cities. Once elected, council members select their own leader, the mayor, who serves with their approval.

Administratively, Nicaragua is divided into nine regions, which are subdivided into seventeen departments (fifteen full departments and two autonomous regions in the Caribbean lowlands that are treated as departments). In 1992 the country had 143 municipal units of varying sizes. Of the municipal units, fifteen were cities with populations estimated at more than 50,000; Managua, the capital city, was the largest, with an estimated 1.5 million inhabitants. Of the remaining municipal units, thirty were cities with populations estimated between 20,000 and 50,000, twenty-three were towns of 10,000 to 20,000 inhabitants, and seventy-two had fewer than 10,000 inhabitants. The number of council members is based on the number of inhabitants; in 1992 Managua had the most, with twenty council members. Cities that are department capitals or have 20,000 or more in population have ten council members; towns with fewer than 20,000 inhabitants have five.

The responsibilities and powers of the municipal governments and their method of conduct are based on constitutional provisions and on the 1988 Law on Municipalities. Article 176 of the constitution provides that the municipality is the "basic unit" of the administrative political divisions of the country. Article 177 provides that municipal authorities "enjoy autonomy without detriment to the faculties of the central government." The Law on Municipalities enumerates the responsibilities of the municipal government, specifies its taxing powers, and establishes rules for its functioning. Among the responsibilities are control of urban development; use of the land, sanitation, rainwater drainage, and environmental protection; construction and maintenance of roads, parks, sidewalks, plazas, bridges, recreational areas, and cemeteries; verification of weights and measures; and establishment of museums, libraries, and other cultural activities. As is true in the United States, the primary taxing power of municipal governments is assessment on property, including houses and vehicles.

Public Administration

Nicaragua's public employees are not perceived as civil servants; new appointments are usually made on the basis of political patronage rather than through a selection system based on merit. Nevertheless, both the Sandinista government and the Chamorro government have respected the positions of those whom they found occupying public administration posts when each successive government took power. The primary motive of the Sandinista government, which took power after a revolution, may have been expediency, as it needed at least a core of persons who had occupied posts under the previous Somoza administration to instruct it in the workings of the government. In the case of the Chamorro government, the position of public employees was guaranteed by the transition pacts and was protected by law.

Public employee ranks include not only office workers but also medical and other professional personnel hired by the Sandinista government to work in public programs and state-owned businesses. Soon after the Chamorro government took power, the number of public employees was estimated in newspaper accounts at 150,000, most of whom were Sandinistas. Efforts to restructure the laws to eliminate some public employees led to a strike in May 1990. When the Chamorro government sought in early 1991 to cut the number of public employees, it had to offer incentives for workers who volunteered to leave, as well as additional incentives for businesses to hire former government workers or for the workers themselves to set up private enterprises. By the time the severance program expired in April 1992, some 23,000 workers had resigned to take advantage of the plan, and some 20,000 soldiers and police officers has been dismissed.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress