Understanding State Disintegration: The Case of Nicaragua

By Isbester, Katherine | The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview

Understanding State Disintegration: The Case of Nicaragua


Isbester, Katherine, The Journal of Social, Political, and Economic Studies


It is becoming increasingly evident that Nicaragua is not merely a nation in crisis, as portrayed in the press, but a nation caught in a downward spiral into chaos.' The chaos stems from the inability of the state to resolve political instability and reactivate the economy. The legitimacy of the state is being undermined by a stalemated political process that seems incapable of devising policies needed to direct the state. This scenario has in turn polarized and fragmented political actors and groups making them incapable of halting state disintegration.

In light of the present situation, two outcomes are possible. First, out of the seemingly endless squabbling of the various parties, some form of a functioning democratic process could develop. The second, and more likely outcome, is the reemergence of authoritarian rule.

Given the weakness of the democratic institutions, the long history of authoritarian rule, and the incapacity of the present political institutions to resolve the country's problems, this writer expects to see the system eventually yield to authoritarianism. But an analysis of the forces moving the country along this path is necessary. This paper seeks to analyze the ongoing breakdown of Nicaragua's fragile democracy by exploring the political, economic, and social strains on the system.

The state is the broad political structure that includes practices and players, the government and a set of institutions more or less well coordinated by an executive authority.2 Kohli, one of the preeminent theorists of the state, has recently criticized literature on the state for underestimating the role of the economy in influencing authority patterns, weakening institutions, and contributing to the emerging crises.3 Nevertheless, despite the influence of the economy, states are conditioned, not shaped, by economic constraints.4 Thus the state has its own agenda distinct from socioeconomic interests with its own "underlying integrity and logic."5

This theory of the state's relative autonomy from economic interests appears to contradict the "democratic consolidation" school which insists that to create and stabilize a nascent state, there needs to be, among other things, a pact among the elites. With this view, the elites would have to agree on the rules of the game and the institutions of government as well as the organization of economic interests. In this case, the state would not be autonomous from the socioeconomic elites. However, the elite pact generally requires selfsacrifice to consolidate a democracy.6

In fact, neither the theory of relative state autonomy nor the theory of democratic consolidation explain what is happening in Nicaragua. The problem is, the state, though autonomous, lacks the capacity to act. Its autonomy is derived from the fragmentation of the elites rather than a pact between the elites to stabilize the state. Consequently, few agreements have been reached about the role of state institutions or about the rules of the game that govern them. The transition to democracy, so laued in the 1990 election, has been seriously threatened by fraud and irregularities in the 1996 election. Indeed, democratic consolidation has stalled. Since politics is in continual flux and stagnation in the political realm is impossible, the stalled democratic consolidation has contributed to the disintegration of the state.

This disintegration of the state, which is reflected in the increased inability of officials to recognize problems, and to devise and implement policies in response is the result of the erosion of four interrelated elements: efficacy, effectiveness, legitimacy, and stability. Linz and Stepan call the ability of a state to identify problems and solutions to its problems "efficacy", and the ability to implement solutions "effectiveness". They further suggest that a democratic regime must also enjoy legitimacy and stability. These four elements are critical for the maintenance of a democratic state. …

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