San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Experts Say Elections Law Fraught With Peril

Giovanni Solerti eats casados every week at Ticos Restaurant in the U.S. state of Connecticut and talks politics and sports with his fellow Tico expatriates. He is already supporting a candidate for the 2010 elections in Costa Rica.

There’s just one hitch: He can’t vote. Solerti and about 300,000 other Ticos living abroad are casualties of an electoral code that analysts say is woefully outdated. But disenfranchising expats is only one of their concerns.

The code so poorly regulates political donations, it could allow special interests and their money to sway elections.

“Political parties can be penetrated by foreigners or drug money without us even knowing,” said Luis Antonio Sobrado, president of the Supreme Elections Tribunal (TSE).

Lawmakers are now discussing reforms to the 1953 electoral code, which was last changed 12 years ago. But approval will be tough, analysts say, because the reforms hold parties more accountable and limit their independence.

“It’s like throwing the noose around one’s own neck,” said Ronald Alfaro, a researcher for the annual nonpartisan State of the Nation report.

When congressional leaders defined their priorities in an annual May 1 celebration, electoral reform was absent from speeches by heads of three of the four major political parties.

Campaign finance appears to be the most controversial issue – and the most urgently in need of reform. During electoral campaigns, parties must send the tribunal a monthly list of contributors and amounts donated. But parties fudge or lie, and the tribunal lacks tools and authority to verify the information, Alfaro said.

Plus, the law allows companies to contribute to parties without disclosing the names of shareholders. Foreigners can easily violate a legal prohibition against funding political campaigns here.

In 2002, the two main parties – the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC) and the ruling National Liberation Party (PLN) – reportedly lied to the tribunal while accepting gifts from foreigners and donations exceeding the legal limit.

“These unfortunate events could happen again,” Sobrado said.

The financial scandals, together with criminal charges filed against two former presidents, have eroded Ticos’ faith in politicians and parties, Sobrado said. After oscillating around 18 percent between 1962 and 1994, voter abstention levels surged to 30 percent in 1998 and 35 percent in 2006, according to the State of the Nation.

The elections reform bill, in its current form, would prohibit companies from donating to political parties. The parties would have to deposit all donations in a single account at a state bank, and the tribunal would be able to investigate fishy gifts.

The bill tackles a second problem: The electoral system is stacked against small and would-be parties. The state does not give money to parties until after national elections.

Then only parties that win at least 4 percent of the vote – or a seat on the Legislative Assembly – are reimbursed for their campaign expenses. The state allots money according to the number of votes parties receive, with the most cash going to the biggest winners.

Lawmaker José Manuel Echandi remembers struggling to raise funds as a presidential and congressional candidate in 2006 for the National Union Party (PUN), then two years old.

“It was a really hard experience,” he said, noting that volunteers were scarce. “(Politics) has lost its magic. People come and say, ‘I’ll help you, but how much will you pay me?’”

Echandi is now looking to join the bigger and richer PUSC.

The bill would help level the field by distributing state funding before the elections: About 0.026 percent of gross domestic product (some $6.95 million last year) would be divided evenly among the parties looking to capture the presidency or assembly seats.

These numbers could change when lawmakers discuss campaign finance reform in the coming weeks.

Costa Rica’s assembly is 38.6 percent female – the highest fraction of any Latin American congress, Sobrado said. The bill goes further, calling for a 50-50 ratio. To achieve those numbers, parties must alternate between men and women on lists of candidates.

The number of votes a party gets determines how much of the list is sliced off, starting from the top, and sent to the assembly.

For Echandi, the bill’s greatest advance lies in allowing Tico expats to vote. Their voice could have decided the 2006 election, when National Liberation Party (PLN) candidate Oscar Arias beat Citizen Action Party (PAC) leader Ottón Solís by about 18,000 votes.

Solerti, the Tico living in Connecticut, has tight ties to his home country. He reads Tico newspapers daily and watches Tico soccer games on satellite TV. His parents, siblings and daughter live in Costa Rica, and he hopes to move back within five years.

If lawmakers allow expats to vote, Solerti will campaign and raise money from Connecticut for the 2010 elections. If not, he may make the 2,250-mile journey home at election time.

“We have a right to decide who governs our country.”


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