NICARAGUAN President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro has decided to start 1993 with a dramatic political reversal aimed at stabilizing her power base.
Coupled with this sudden shift over the weekend - in effect, creating a center-left coalition with the Sandinistas - she is launching a social action program to tackle some of her country's crying social problems.
Her decisions may come as a surprise to those who thought Mrs. Chamorro's main enemies were the Sandinistas, whom she defeated in elections in 1990, or that her government was wedded to tough policies that have made life difficult for most Nicaraguans.
In an address to parliament Sunday, Dona Violeta, as the Nicaraguans call Chamorro, proclaimed 1993 as the year of reactivating the economy, but with a social consciousness. A newly created Ministry of Social Affairs, she said, will coordinate "a social agenda that will resolve problems of health, education, housing, and unemployment." Although she didn't mention it, conditions in these areas have worsened during her tenure.
The day before, in a sharp reversal of political roles, moderate legislators supporting Chamorro teamed up with the left-wing Sandinistas to elect a new slate of officers in Nicaragua's National Assembly. The new Assembly line-up cast out the right, which includes the majority of deputies from the National Opposition Union (UNO), the coalition of 14 small parties that backed Chamorro three years ago. In protest, the right-wingers boycotted, and now say their own government is an enemy of democracy.
While a center-left alliance was being consumated inside the parliament building, about 2,000 UNO supporters at a rally outside heard Chamorro chastised for collaborating with Sandinistas.
The peculiar Assembly vote comes two weeks after a government decision to wrest control of an Assembly election away from outgoing legislative chief Alfredo Cesar, leader of the right-wing, and instead vest it in a provisional junta. In a press conference last week, Mr. Cesar and his allies cried foul, exclaiming, "We are at the door of a new military dictatorship similar to that of Fujimori."
In their view, Chamorro is in cahoots with Sandinista Army leader Gen. Humberto Ortega to emasculate the parliament and deprive it, as in Peru, of its rightful role.
Nothing so dramatic, says the government. Presidential legal advisor Tomas Delaney argued in a Jan. 8 interview that "there has been no attack on parliament - not even one soldier, and the doors are open." He justified the government's decision to intervene in the election as a defense of the Constitution, noting that the Assembly leader refused to abide by a Supreme Court ruling striking down interim election of Assembly officers in September.
The background to Chamorro's decision to jettison her right-wing allies is murky. Throughout 1992, Cesar, a former contra, was the thorn in Chamorro's side. In addition to engineering the legislative stand-off - and then blaming the government for attacking democracy when it challenged his maneuvers - the controversial ex-contra also joined forces with Republican US Sen. Jesse Helms to cut Chamorro's US aid lifeline, earning Cesar the epithet of "traitor."
Apparently, he had some sidekicks helping him. A high government source has told the Monitor that Chamorro will shortly replace her ambassador in Washington for additional acts of disloyalty. According to the source, the expected sacking of Ernesto Palazio, who was in the 1980s a press spokesman for the "contras," results from evidence that either the ambassador or his underlings funneled information damaging to their government to Senator Helms' staff, which issued a negative report to the US Congress i n September to keep the aid tap shut.
Other government sources confirm Mr. Palazio is leaving, but will say only that Chamorro wants someone in Washington capable of forging good relations with the Clinton administration.
The government hopes that rooting the traitors out of the woodwork, and carving out a parliamentary majority to lend it firmer support - even if it means collaborating with some of its Sandinista foes - will provide a modicum of political stability in 1993 and underpin its drive to reactivate a stagnant economy.
The government and Sandinistas also say the right will now cease to be an opposing force. "The UNO hasn't a chance of surviving," Sandinista legislative leader Sergio Ramirez said Saturday.
But while this scenario provides for stability on the surface, there are problems. Drawing legislative support from the Sandinistas, who occupy 40 percent of the seats in the Assembly, is awkward for a government whose tough economic policies have been constantly scored by the Sandinista opposition. Implementing an effective social policy will be difficult. But another serious problem is that the UNO may not disappear as scheduled.
Politics in 1993, ironically, could be even more problematic for the Sandinistas. "The Assembly vote is a victory for Sandinismo," avers the moderate former ambassador to the US, Carlos Tunnerman, "but the executive may now propose laws that are unsatisfactory, and we will be responsible for them."
The larger question is whether these sorts of political maneuvers, combined with a show of social conscience, will be able to strengthen the political center that Chamorro would like to represent against the extremes of right and left, helping her make 1993 the year of recovery that ordinary Nicaraguans ardently hope for.