The New Nicaraguan Constitution: Uniting Participatory and Representative Democracy

Article excerpt


For the past two centuries, the United States has defined democracy as representative government. For James Madison and the Federalists who drafted the U.S. Constitution, direct participatory democracy was an evil, tantamount to mob rule. They favored representative democracy, based on large electoral districts and separation of powers, which they believed would make it difficult for the majority to enact what Madison termed "schemes of injustice," such as the renunciation of debts or violation of property rights. On the bicentennial of the Constitution's drafting, the United States government extols the virtues of a representative government and views the holding of national elections as the litmus test for democracy, at least where it approves of the results.

Revolutionary socialist governments have generally rejected this definition of democracy for two reasons. First, Lenin argued in his seminal work State and Revolution, that parliamentary democracy is fundamentally flawed in that it is based on the separation of the state structure from the masses of people themselves. His cure for this separation was the revival of "primitive" or direct democracy, where "the mass of the population will rise to taking an independent part, not only in voting and elections, but also in the every day administration of the state."1 The salient feature of this new form of government would be not representative democracy, but participatory democracy to be based on the actual involvement of the population in state affairs.

The second reason for the Marxist-Leninist rejection of the Western model of pluralistic representative democracy lies in the hostile environment faced by victorious socialist revolutions. The capitalist states have either directly intervened to overturn these revolutions as was the case in the Soviet Union and Vietnam, or used surrogate forces as in Cuba, Mozambique, and Angola. Moreover, every government in Latin America which has sought to introduce radical changes has faced military intervention of some sort inspired by the United States--Guatemala in 1954, Cuba in 1961-62, Dominican Republic in 1965, Chile in 1973, Grenada in 1983, and now Nicaragua. It is therefore not merely overreaction or paranoia that has caused communist parties to believe that an organized domestic opposition would aid international military and economic intervention.

The newly drafted Nicaraguan Constitution seeks to unify and transform these diverging views of democracy, and to develop a system of government combining social justice with this new political vision. The Sandinista Liberation Front (FSLN) has attempted over the last eight years to integrate elements of Western notions of pluralistic representative democracy with a Marxist-Leninist view of participatory democracy. Whether the Nicaraguan experiment in combining political pluralism with radical social and economic change is ultimately successful in the face of U.S. aggression remains to be seen. The mere effort, however, represents a new development in the concept of democracy in post-revolutionary society.

The Nicaraguan Revolutionary Model

The Nicaraguan attempt to combine representative and participatory democracy stems fundamentally from the FSLN's strategy for the social, economic, and political transformation of their society. The Sandinista revolution has been termed "anti-oligarchic" and not socialist.2 It is a nationalist revolution, uniting various sectors of Nicaraguan society including the anti-Somocista middle classes. The FSLN has sought to ensure that the needs and interests of workers, peasants, and the poor and marginalized strata of society are dominant in all aspects of Nicaraguan life, while at the same time preserving political, economic, and cultural space for capitalist relations. In economic life this has meant that the state has taken over the commanding heights of the economy--the financial system, foreign trade, mining, strategic industrial sectors--in order to secure economic development designed to serve popular needs. …