San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Analysts: Legislature Needs Drastic Reforms

Will allowing legislators to be reelected improve their productivity, which is at a historical low? Perhaps increasing the number of lawmakers in the Legislative Assembly will help the “paralysis of the legislative process,” as described by the State of the Nation report. How about granting legislators the right to impeach the President?


Or will it just take electing 57 new, fresh faces Feb. 5 to put an end to a Legislature that more than two-thirds of Costa Ricans consider a cause for national shame?


While many Costa Ricans are hoping the last suggestion may be all that’s needed to turn the legislature around, experts say that unless serious reforms are made – such as the first three ideas – Feb. 5 will bring more of the same unproductive, ungovernable activity to the Legislative Assembly 2006-2010.


Analysts and some politicians say the 180-degree shift in recent years of Costa Rica’s political landscape away from a two-party system requires a series of equally dramatic changes to the country’s political system.


In 2002, legislators from five different parties were elected to the Assembly. These parties have splintered into at least 12 different groups as legislators have become dissatisfied with their parties and left to start their own, or become independent. For example, just months after taking office, internal disputes caused six legislators to leave the Citizen Action Party (PAC) and form another party in the legislature.


Even before these divisions, President Abel Pacheco’s Social Christian Unity Party never held a majority, and neither has any other party. Last legislative year (May 2004- May 2005), the assembly approved only four laws proposed by the Executive Branch, and few of the two dozen other laws approved that year were of national significance.


Costa Rica’s “catch-all” parties – the National Liberation Party (PLN) and the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC) – that once defined a bipartisan system are a thing of the past. They are being replaced by myriad single-issue parties that have not yet learned how to negotiate with one another, explained political analyst Constantino Urcuyo, who works with the Center for Political Administration Research and Training (CIAPA).


Costa Rica can win if the system adapts to this more pluralized reality, and the various parties learn to negotiate, Urcuyo said.


“If we achieve this, the system will live. If we don’t achieve democratic conversation, the system will collapse,” he said.


Seeking a Legislative Majority

Presidential candidate Oscar Arias, who holds a 25-point lead in the polls, told members of his National Liberation Party late last year that a Liberation majority in the Legislative Assembly is essential to turn his platform into a reality (TT, Dec. 2, 2005).


The Liberation campaign in recent weeks has shifted from focusing on Arias – a Noble Peace Prize laureate and former President (1986-1990)– to ensuring the party wins 29 seats in the 57-seat assembly.


“Vote verde en las tres, una buena asamblea tendremos esta vez” (Vote green on all three, we’ll have a good assembly this time), sings a new campaign jingle to the tune of the popular Elvis Crespo merengue song “Suavamente.” The song refers to the green and white colors of the Liberation party and the triumvirate up for election – president, legislators and councilmen.


“Don’t break your vote, because to do so is condemning the country to waste four more years,” Liberation vice-presidential candidate Kevin Casas told voters recently while campaigning, referring to a growing voter tendency to vote for a presidential candidate of one party and legislative candidates from another party.


So far, the polls indicate Arias and Liberation could have a tough time getting the 29 votes, suggesting 25 or 26 are more likely.


“This is a people that is afraid of giving one person all the power. That’s why we have seen the tendency to break the vote. They say, ‘I’ll vote for Oscar, but I don’t want to give him all the power,’” Urcuyo said.


Negotiation is Key

“If we find ourselves with 13 legislative fractions, like we have today, there is no hope, but if this election results in four fractions, I think that it will be much easier,” Urcuyo said. “It is not the same to negotiate with 13 as to negotiate with two or three.”


These four fractions will likely be Liberation, PAC, Libertarian Movement party, and Unity, Urcuyo said. But none is likely to hold a majority, meaning that a degree of ungovernability may be unavoidable.


Without a majority, whoever is elected President will have to negotiate. However, Arias will have an easier time with more Liberation legislators. How easy depends on how many legislators he wins.


“If it is 26, getting three votes is easy, particularly if there are legislators from small parties, but if there are 23, six votes is much harder,” Urcuyo said.


In Costa Rica, forming alliances between parties is considered “a sin,” the analyst explained. Small parties may be tempted to form a general alliance with Liberation, in exchange for, say, naming four or five ministers; but they would risk getting lumped with the ruling party.


“And the way to grow as a party, is with opposition,” Urcuyo said.


The key, instead, according to analyst Carlos Sojo of Latin American Faculty of Social Studies (FLACSO), is a mature negotiation between legislators, to create a legislative agenda. This would require Liberation legislators to be more than “missionaries” to the presidency, he said.


Further threatening union in the legislature is the reality that internal discipline within parties has faded. Since 2002, 13 legislators left the party they were elected with. And legislators do not always vote their party line.


“Our party system is based on the ideologies of the revolution in 1948. It divided the people, who gave loyalty to their party. After 60 years of peace, these loyalties are insufficient,” Urcuyo said. “So we have to re-found the political system, based on other things.”


In response to the division that took place in PAC in 2002, PAC legislative candidates all recently signed an agreement saying they would give up their seats in the legislature if they stray “even a millimeter from the platform we swore to” explained PAC legislative candidate Alberto Salom.


He admitted there is no way of guaranteeing future PAC legislators will abide by the agreement. Salom said PAC is willing to negotiate on most issues.


“There is a very large sphere of consensus,” he said, referring to the Liberation agenda. However, he said they will not budge on CAFTA, which is supported by Arias.


“We will exercise our opposition,” Salom said, adding that the party will not use delay tactics to stall bills, which is a common practice of the Libertarian Movement Party. “A majority is a majority and a minority is a minority,” Salom said.


Reforms Needed

Many people, legislators included, blame a “lack of leadership” for the current assembly’s low productivity, an easy excuse considering Pacheco’s inability to guide any law though the assembly from start to finish. But the defects of the assembly go beyond this.


“There is definitely a leadership void at this point; but, when we talk about governance, there is a more structural element to it,” candidate Casas said. “The system itself is not working.”


Urcuyo, who has authored various books on political reform in Costa Rica, suggests drastic changes.


To begin with, the assembly has no reelection, making Costa Rica and Mexico the only two states in Latin America and among a handful in the world without reelection of legislators, Urcuyo said.


“So politicians cannot become experts in creating legislation, as happens other places,” he said.


The political scientist also says Costa Rica needs more legislators in the assembly. Costa Rica’s assembly is disproportionately small considering its growing population.


An addition of 18 legislators would allow for legislators to be elected for regional representation and national representation, similar to systems to Germany and New Zealand, according to Urcuyo.


Urcuyo admits that both reforms would face opposition since the public has such a low opinion of legislators, people would not want to add “lazy thieves” to the assembly or give them more time in power.


However, the political will might exist for such reforms because parties would likely be willing to add more legislators and extend their time in office, Urcuyo said. Both Casas and Salom said they would be open to structural reforms.


Urcuyo says the other great reform necessary is a change in the relationship between the Legislative and Executive branches. He recommends Costa Rica shift toward a “semi-presidential” system, with tendencies of a parliamentary system but in which the President continues to be an important figure. For example, under such a system, legislators would be able to impeach the President and oust ministers.


“There are ministers who commit horrible acts, and legislators can do nothing,” said Salom, adding he supports the switch to a more parliamentary-style division of powers.


Equally, if a President’s party holds a minority in the assembly, he would be able to dissolve the assembly and call new elections to try to get a majority, as is possible in a parliamentary system, Urcuyo explained.


Countries that use “semi-presidential” systems include Finland, Iceland, France and Portugal. It also has been popular among Eastern European countries that have made the switch to democracy, Urcuyo said.


“This is a big step for the country. What we need to do is make little adjustments to create more equilibrium between the Executive and Legislative branches. We need to come to an agreement on five or six key reforms, consensually, and do them gradually,” he said.


Possible Snapshot of the 2006-2010

Party                                                    Probable Number of Legislative Seats

National Liberation Party (PLN)                       24

Citizen Action Party (PAC)                               13

Libertarian Movement Party                              8

Social Christian Unity Party                               4

Union for Change (UPC)                                  2

National Union Party (PUN)                             2

Costa Rican Renovation Party (PRC)                2

Broad Front (FA)                                             1

Homeland First Party (PPP)                              1


*According to Demoscopía Poll, published Wednesday in the daily Al Día. The poll of 1,200 Costa Ricans of voting age was taken Jan. 16-21, and has a margin of error of 3%. Probable Number of Legislative Seats




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