San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Passions High as Historic Decision Nears

Campaign leaders are scrambling to galvanize their bases and woo undecided voters in what everyone hopes will be the final week in a nearly four-year drama over whether to approve the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA).

As the country nears the Oct. 7 referendum on the controversial pact, a statistical tie between the two sides in polls has given a kick to the already frenetic campaigns. Because despite the animus and the attacks, the back scratching and the back stabbing that have characterized the debate, the two sides agree on something:

This is a historic moment for Costa Rican democracy.

It is the first referendum in Costa Rica since 1821, when inhabitants voted to declare independence from Spain. It is also believed to be the first referendum in the world on a free-trade pact (TT, April 13).

“We are making history,” Supreme Elections Tribunal (TSE) president Luis Antonio Sobrado told The Tico Times. “We are writing an important chapter in the history of political participation by the Costa Rican people.”

Getting to this point wasn’t easy or expected. Legislators changed the Constitution to permit referendums in 2001, but stalled for four years before passing a law required to regulate the process. Even then, most assumed the referendum could and would not be applied to CAFTA. That is, until elections officials unexpectedly set the process in motion in April of this year in response to a query by a handful of citizens.

Constantino Urcuyo, a researcher for the Center for Political Research and Training (CIAPA), has rooted for a referendum law since the early 1990s. He says it’s a good way to end political stalemates over disagreements between the President and legislators.

And in the case of CAFTA, he says, a national vote is crucial.

“Just imagine that we didn’t have the referendum today. Ooh, we would be in the middle of a kind of civil war,” said Urcuyo, who also teaches public policy and government at the University of Costa Rica (UCR).

For more than 10 years, Urcuyo said, a powerful group of Costa Ricans – political elites, trade unionists, students, intellectuals, members of the Catholic Church – has been working to push for change outside of formal democratic institutions. Much of this group has joined the CAFTA opposition.

If the trade pact had been decided in the largely pro-CAFTA legislature, Urcuyo said, opponents might have called for extended, paralyzing protests. (In 2000, the Legislative Assembly had to call off a project to open the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) after protestors took to the streets for 20 days.) The referendum allows this group to be heard, he added.

The implementing law passed in 2005 allows referendums to be called in three ways: by a petition signed by 5% of eligible voters, a request by two thirds of legislators (38); or a call from the Executive Branch with the support of a simple majority of legislators (28) (TT, March 3, 2006). Under the law, referendums cannot be used to decide national security or tax matters, and they cannot be called more than once a year.

Even after the law was passed, a referendum on CAFTA was initially thought unlikely, if not impossible. Then-Ombudsman José Manuel Echandi, now a legislator, said in 2005 that CAFTA could not be held to a referendum because it contains tax material.

The Government Attorney’s Office, which serves as the legal advisor to the government, issued a report corroborating Echandi’s opinion.

The Elections Tribunal, the highest authority on electoral matters, surprised nearly everyone in April, when it declared that CAFTA could be held to a national vote because it was about much more than tariffs.

“The Tribunal opened the door so that (CAFTA), which was being considered in Congress, could be resolved at the polls,” Sobrado said.

The Tribunal gave a small group headed by former National Liberation Party (PLN) legislator and anti-CAFTA activist José Miguel Corrales a green light to collect signatures to call for a referendum on CAFTA (TT, April 13).

Barely 24 hours later, President Oscar Arias fast-tracked the process by calling for referendum through an Executive decree. It was a 180-turn from his earlier stance that Congress should decide the pact (TT, April 20).

“The President acted very intelligently,” Urcuyo said. “He could get the vote in Congress after a very hard political fight with the (anti-CAFTA) Citizen Action Party, but he realized he would be in the middle of protests and social unrest.”

Arias also didn’t want to wait the 14 months some thought it might take to reach a vote through Corrales’ signature-collection method. (The deadline for approving CAFTA, Feb. 29, 2008, was less than 11 months away.)

The Tribunal, considering time constraints, put Corrales’ efforts on hold and convened the referendum (TT,May 4).

That was the beginning of an uneasy and often sour relationship between elections officials and the CAFTA opposition. Applying the referendum law for the first time, the Tribunal has issued decrees that alternatively raised eyebrows and provoked outrage among CAFTA opposers.

Perhaps the Tribunal’s most controversial decision allowed public officials –including vocally pro-CAFTA President Arias – to participate actively and even use public resources (within limits) in campaigns for and against CAFTA.

But though the face of the anti-CAFTA movement, Costa Rican Technology Institute rector Eugenio Trejos, has questioned the road to the referendum, he vows to accept its results.

Several commentators told The Tico Times the problem lies in the 2005 referendum law itself.

Rodolfo Cerdas, a researcher at CIAPA and political science professor at the UCR, says the law was drafted hurriedly, after the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) ordered legislators to pick up the pace.

Under pressure, legislators did not adequately address crucial issues such as campaigns by public officials and campaign financing, Cerdas said. Elections officials have had to interpret the law using the Electoral Code – itself flawed – and their own judgment. Cerdas suggested legislators reform the law before the country’s next referendum to address these problems.

By most accounts, this will be a learning experience both for Costa Rican voters, who traditionally cast their votes along party lines for candidates, not issues, and for electoral officials, who are organizing a historic vote on one of the most divisive issues to ever face the country.

“After the process, we have to review what worked, and what should change,” said Tribunal head Sobrado. “This is, for us, a great responsibility, a great challenge, but it is also exciting to feel that, in a way, we are creating history.


Comments are closed.