San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Elections Here are a Model for Democracy

The last time the results of an election in Costa Rica were seriously challenged, it provoked a civil war, inspired the abolishment of the army, and stimulated the creation of Costa Rica s current electoral system, one that is so fraud free it serves as a model around the world.

Costa Rica has the process nailed down, like few countries do in Latin America, or Europe for that matter, said Bruce Wilson, an international observer in Sunday s elections.

But this was not always the case. Nearly 60 years ago the country was torn apart and  put back together again by an electioninspired uprising. It started when the results of the elections of February 1948 suggested a convincing victory for opposition candidate Otilio Ulate. But ruling party candidate Rafael Angel Calderón Guardia claimed systematic fraud and refused to recognize the results. The Legislative Assembly annulled the elections, civil war erupted, and, in the end, the Costa Rican state was reformed with the abolition of the army and a new Constitution.

Learning a lesson from the experience, the authors of this Constitution paid particular attention to the country s electoral system.

They institutionalized fairness and transparency in Costa Rican elections by establishing a government agency to oversee elections independent of any other government body the Supreme Elections Tribunal (TSE).

The institution is both organizer and judge it carries out all election-related activities and makes the final decision regarding electoral issues. These decisions cannot be appealed to any higher body or court.

A Fourth Branch

This idea of having a quasi-fourth branch of government has been replicated in other countries and it should be in the United States.When things are controversial in an election, the TSE takes the process out of the hands of people who could benefit, who have a vested interest, said Wilson, an associate professor of Political Science at the University of Central Florida.

The professor, who observed the past two Costa Rican elections, points to the first round of the 2002 elections, during which President Abel Pacheco received just over 39% of the vote, fractions of a percentage point less than he needed to win the election outright without a runoff.

You can imagine if this was Florida. There would have been lawsuits, there would have been uproar, but here there was nothing. It was damn, I didn t get the 40%, let s go to the second round. He trusted the system, Wilson said, referencing the chaos that followed the U.S. elections in Florida in 2000.

Héctor Fernández, electoral program coordinator for the Tribunal, agreed.

People trust that we are in control of the process, and they don t worry about fraud, he said.

The system isn t foolproof, and candidates from time to time make claims of electoral fraud, however the system is set up to address such complaints.

This system includes polling places run and observed by people from each party, which keeps the whole thing pretty honest, Wilson said (see separate story).

The Tribunal s job is facilitated by the fact that it is a joint institution with the civil registry, where Costa Rican birth and death records have been kept since 1888. Costa Ricans are automatically registered to vote when they turn 18 and request their cédula, an obligatory identity card, from the Tribunal.

We can essentially track the voter from the moment they are born until they die, Fernández.

Other Central American countries have looked to Costa Rica as a model in this regard, he added.

Observers and Delegates

To further guarantee fair and safe elections, the Tribunal has the support of the Cuerpo de Delegados (Delegate Corps), a group of more than 800 apolitical volunteers who work night and day to protect political activities.

Their work is concentrated in the streets, protecting attendees of party-sponsored rallies, festivals and town hall meetings in short, anything election-related. On Election Day, they insure safe travel to voting centers and schools where ballots are cast.

For example, if PAC (Citizen Action Party) is holding one of its town hall meetings, we are there to make sure members of other parties don t come along to try to disrupt the meeting and bother the public, explained Nuria Aguilar, national head of operations for the corps. We are guaranteeing that parties can hold their activities freely, feeling safe and protected.

The delegates back these words with  police power. From Oct. 1 until the day after the elections, they have jurisdiction over the police during all electoral events. The police cannot act until they are ordered by a delegate, Aguilar explained, adding that delegates  and police normally work closely at theseactivities.

We see few problems. People are very respectful, she said. A nationwide ban on liquor sales on Election Day, the day before and the day after, helps maintain the peace (TT, Jan. 27).

Adding another layer of oversight and transparency are international observers such as Wilson, 80 of which are expected from throughout the globe. Several dozen from Central America and the Caribbean will be hosted by the Costa Rican government as part of the election-monitoring group TECAL. Others cover their own costs.

The observers will be briefed on Costa Rica s electoral system and this year s election and have the opportunity to interview various candidates, to hear any grumblings they might have, Wilson said.

On Election Day, observers travel throughout the country to observe polling places, and return to the Tribunal at 8 p.m. to observe the collection of voting results.

Wilson said he has never seen any serious problems in Costa Rica, adding that the job is so problem free, many international observation groups, such as the CarterCenter, don t bother sending anyone to Costa Rica.

Observers usually comment that Costa Rica is a model system, with strict democratic standards, said Javier Matamoros, coordinator of Tribunal s international observers program. Although it is proven that Costa Rica has clean, transparent elections, its important to have confirmation of that.

(Observers) give a lot of credibility to the process, and legitimacy to the people who win, agreed Wilson.

Improvements Fernández envisions for the future include creating an absentee voting system for Costa Ricans living out of the country and making it easier for new political parties to register with the Tribunal.


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