Emboldened by the recent defeat of the constitutional referendum to expand Hugo Chávez's "21st-century socialist revolution" in Venezuela, the opposition in Nicaragua has started to organize against what it claims is President Daniel Ortega's similar intentions to consolidate power in this country.
Mr. Ortega, an ally of Venezuela's president, has promised to implement his own version of "direct democracy," similar to the model of government in Venezuela and Cuba.
The ex-Marxist leader, whose first Sandinista government battled US-backed contras in the 1980s, has promised that his government will deepen the country's democracy by "sharing the powers" of his presidency with the poor people through the creation of Councils of Citizen Power (CPCs). Opponents, however, claim that behind the rhetoric of Ortega's "new revolution in peace" are authoritarian pretensions similar to those of Chávez.
"As Venezuela showed us, unity and organization is the only thing that can defeat the dictatorship," says Liberal lawmaker and National Assembly leader Wilfredo Navarro.
Opposition lawmakers, who represent a majority of seats in Nicaragua's unicameral National Assembly, yet are divided over leadership issues, came together in December to form a new "bloc against the dictatorship" – the first coordinated front against Ortega's government since it came to power last January.
But the opposition bloc's silver bullet may be to reenact a stalled law that Ortega himself devised two years ago to weaken the administration of his predecessor, Enrique Bolaños.
In a series of meetings over Christmas break, oppositionists agreed to back a reform that they have long opposed to transfer some governmental authorities from the presidency to the legislature. The reform law, which will take effect Jan. 20 unless suspended by lawmakers, was Ortega's original plan to consolidate power in the legislature in the event that he couldn't regain the presidency.
Not all of Ortega's opposition is from the right. The president faces growing opposition from many ex-Sandinistas, who fought the US-backed Somoza dictatorship in the 1970s and say Ortega and his wife, Rosario Murillo, are heading in a similar direction.
The president claims his government is only working to strengthen participative democracy. "The political will of President Daniel is to share the presidency with the people," Ms. Murillo said. "We are servants of the people, because it's the people who are really in the presidency. And how does this translate into daily life? Through the creation of the Councils of Citizen Power."
Critics worry that citizen councils are being created as a parallel government to undermine local authorities. "There is a distinction between citizen participation [in government] and the integration of citizens into the state," said Liberal lawmaker José Paillas, head of the legislative judicial commission. "The first is modern democracy, the second is totalitarianism."
In many neighborhoods, the CPCs are already organized under local Sandinista leadership. "The objective is to solve neighborhood problems, which in our case include security, road paving, and drainage issues; our CPC is providing a useful channel to the state and municipal institutions," says Alistair Thirkettle, a British citizen and longtime resident of the colonial city of León, where he joined his local CPC. "If this all sounds very parochial, that's because it is. I compare the CPCs here to Parish Councils in England. I remain optimistic!"