Nicaragua Reinvents Government

Legislators of the left, right, and center rewrite the Constitution, weakening presidential powers and banning succession by relatives

NICARAGUA'S lawmakers brought their country closer to democracy by approving sweeping reforms to the Constitution last week, four years after leftist Sandinistas fell from power in an election.

The constitutional changes redrew the country's political map, upsetting the plans of presidential aspirants and stripping the presidency of excess powers. Praised for boosting long-term stability, the new charter directly affected some presidential hopefuls.

The main victim is Antonio Lacayo Oyanguren, minister of the presidency and chief decisionmaker in the government of Violeta Barrios de Chamorro. Though not widely popular, up to last week he was seen as Mrs. Chamorro's heir apparent and the government's candidate for the 1996 election.

Mr. Lacayo is also Chamorro's son-in-law, however, which became a stumbling block with approval of the constitutional amendments. Three of the most important reforms ban immediate reelection of a president, bar close relatives of the president from running for office, and create a two-round voting system for future presidential ballots.

Support for the mass of amendments came from a broad coalition of lawmakers belonging to the left-wing Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), the ruling, right-wing National Opposition Union (UNO), the centrist Christian Democrats, and other, minor parties, which banded together to forge a 70-vote block in Nicaragua's 92-person National Assembly. Both the size and extent of the consensus across Nicaragua's political spectrum were striking.

``Two factors explain the consensus,'' says political commentator Emilio Alvarez. ``First, the competition sparked by Antonio Lacayo's bid to be president, and second, Nicaragua's historical antipathy to reelection, dynastic succession, and the abuse of presidential power.''

The 1987 Constitution was passed during the heyday of the Sandanista revolution, which overthrew the 43-year dictatorship of the Somoza family in 1979. Under attack from the US-backed contra rebels, the Sandinistas devised a centralized constitution with a very strong executive unchecked by other powers of government.

SSEVERAL of Nicaragua's political forces are looking out for their own interests in wanting to change the 1987 document. UNO politicians who supported Chamorro in 1990 have long scored Lacayo for keeping them out of government while using executive power to make deals with the Sandinistas behind the scenes, such as allowing them to retain property confiscated during the Sandinista's 11-year revolution.

And Sandinista lawmakers, who initiated the amendments, say Lacayo has been using their Constitution against them. ``This government has used the Constitution to implement an extreme neoliberal economic policy,'' deputy Dora Maria Tellez says.

By shielding economic policy from legislative scrutiny, the Constitution has allowed the government to make deals with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to the detriment of workers and peasants, argue Sandinista legislators, who traditionally represent Nicaragua's poor.

Both UNO and FSLN lawmakers banded together to strengthen the powers of the legislative branch against the executive. ``The reforms establish a new balance of power, making the Assembly the exclusive lawmaking organ and placing the right to levy taxes squarely in the legislative domain,'' says Christian Democrat and Assembly President Luis Humberto Guzman.

From now on the government will also have to submit loan agreements with international financial institutions to the legislature for approval. Liberal deputy Jaime Bonilla, another key participant in the process, argued that ``in the medium-term, we will have much more stability as a result of these reforms.''

But trouble could arise in the interim. After last Thursday's crucial votes, the left-wing majority of the Sandinista Front, the party loyal to former President Daniel Ortega Saavedra, disowned the bulk of the Sandinista legislators, mostly moderates, for selling out party interests in the constitutional bargaining.

The left resented the lawmakers' decision to create a runoff election if no presidential contender gets more than 45 percent. Deputy Nathan Sevilla, an Ortega loyalist, declared ``this hurts the FSLN. Although we are the largest party, we don't have an absolute majority.''

Mr. Ortega is thought to have little chance of attracting allies if a second round were held in elections, scheduled for 1996.

While observers speculate about what trouble an angered Ortega might cause, skirmishing between the government and the Assembly is certain to continue for months, as the reforms must be ratified a second time early next year. At the very least, the reformers expect Chamorro's son-in-law, Lacayo, to resort to the courts, asking them to strike down the changes on procedural grounds.

With the two sides digging in for a standoff, some even fear a full-blown crisis in relations among the powers of state. More likely, the legislature will smoothly emerge with the upper hand. ``There is something compelling about a majority of 70 out of 92 votes. The burden on will be on the executive to find a way out of this,'' says a US official.

So though Lacayo may find a way out of the current dispute, he will also find himself out of a job in 1996.

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