San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

How the Democratic Process Works

Sunday 2.5 million native-born and naturalized Costa Ricans 18 years or older will have the opportunity to draw Xs in little boxes and change the course of their country for the next four years. They will culminate a process to elect a new President, new Legislative Assembly and new city councils that began more than six months ago.

Costa Rica’s electoral system begins with the party. While two parties dominated this system for decades, the 21st century has given rise to a multi-party system that continues evolving. For the past two years new parties seemed to emerge every day, on the national, provincial and municipal level. These parties had until June 2005 to register with the Supreme Elections Tribunal (TSE) and 27 new political parties made the deadline. Of the 50 parties participating in Sunday’s elections, 14 are vying for the presidency (see separate story).

Parties had until October to present their candidates. These candidates were chosen through a series of party elections at district, municipal and cantonal levels. Beginning at the grassroots level, voters in the country’s 449 districts select representatives to go to a party’s municipal-level assembly. At these assemblies, five representatives are chosen to go onto the party’s provincial assemblies, where 10 delegates are named to represent the province in the party’s national assembly.

It is finally at these national assemblies, held by every party, where candidates are Chosen for the Legislative Assembly.While in the past, a party’s presidential candidate was chosen in a primary and based on popular vote, parties can instead name their presidential candidate at these assemblies. None of the candidates in Sunday’s election was chosen in a primary, reflecting a new trend of parties based more on the candidate than on party ideologies, according to analysts (see separate story).

Legislators are not voted for directly in Costa Rica. Instead, when voters go the polls Sunday, they will select a party’s list of legislators. For example a person from San José may vote for the Social Christian Unity Party’s list of 20 legislative candidates or the Citizen Action Party’s list of 20, but the voter cannot vote for some legislators from one party, and some from another.

The Legislative Assembly’s seats are divided among the provinces by population. San José has 20 seats, Alajuela 11, Cartago 7, Heredia 5, Guanacaste 4, Puntarenas 5, and Limón 5.

The seats are then divided based on the total number of votes each party captures. If everyone in San José votes for Unity, they will get all 20 seats. But more likely they will get a much smaller percentage of seats.

Voters Sunday will head to the polling place nearest their homes – usually a school –and receive three ballots, one for President, one for legislators, and one for city councilmen.

They will go behind a cardboard screen where they will mark their selections with an X and then place their ballots in a ballot box. In elections past, voters voted with a fingerprint; for nostalgia’s sake – and to indicate they have already voted – voters dip their finger in ink.

All of this happens under the watchful eyes of poll workers, party observers, international observers, and sometimes Tribunal officials (see separate stories).

At 6 p.m. the polls are closed, poll workers open the ballot boxes and the counting begins.

“The majority of polling places take about 40-60 minutes closing,” said Héctor Fernández, Tribunal Electoral Program Coordinator. “From there, the system is very fast.”

Vote tallies are sent by computer, fax, phone and hand delivery to the Tribunal. By 8:30 p.m. preliminary results are known and tribunal officials may announce Costa Rica’s future President, Legislative Assembly and city councils, who would take office May 8.

However, as 2002 proved, it may not be that easy. The entire process may need to be repeated in a runoff election (see separate story).


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