San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Inflexibility Hounds PAC

A lawmaker’s defection from the Citizen Action Party last week highlights divisions within the party that could challenge its 2010 electoral campaign.

Citizen Action (PAC) pressured Andrea Morales to leave the party after she refused to filibuster laws required to implement the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA), approved by public referendum in October.

Still, 58 percent of PAC sympathizers, who largely oppose the treaty, agree with Morales that lawmakers should respect the referendum’s results, according to a CID-Gallup poll released early this year.

The divide underscores what is perhaps PAC’s greatest challenge as this leftwing party prepares for the 2010 elections for president and Legislative Assembly. Party leaders must cater to a diverse constituency, defined as much by opposition to other parties as loyalty to PAC.

Sometimes (PAC) seems to be addressing issues to the left, and then people (further to) the right get discontent. And then when (PAC) tries to correct (itself), they infuriate people on the left, said Luis Guillermo Solís, a political analyst at the Latin American Faculty for Social Sciences (FLACSO).

Known best for its opposition to CAFTA, the Citizen Action Party had trouble articulating a new position once voters approved the pact. In the end, the party leaders decided to filibuster laws required to implement the treaty because they were anxious to appease hardline PAC voters and repelled by apparent disrespect from the government’s pro-CAFTA National Liberation Party (PLN), said Rodolfo Cerdas, a political analyst at the think tankCenter for Political Research and Training (CIAPA).

PAC lawmakers presented hundreds of amendments to the CAFTA implementation bills and refused to attend extra legislative sessions, sometimes causing them to be canceled for lack of a quorum.

That’s a legitimate thing to do in politics, said Constantino Urcuyo, another political analyst at CIAPA. People have made a lot of noise, calling this (behavior) a sin. It’s not a sin. But (PAC) didn’t have the political support to do it. People were tired of CAFTA.

According to the January CID-Gallup poll, just 28 percent of PAC sympathizers thought the party should block the CAFTA bills, while 58 percent said lawmakers should pass them immediately and without hesitation.

Influenced by unfavorable press coverage and the Arias administration’s relentless criticism of PAC, the public lost faith in Citizen Action. In an April CID-Gallup poll, just 7 percent of respondents said they supported the party, down from 15 percent in July 2007.

A ‘Sick Relationship’

Morales, who at 27 is one of the youngest lawmakers in Costa Rican history, first diverged from her party in early February. Criticizing her colleagues’ filibuster techniques, she attended extra sessions even while they stood outside the legislative hall in protest.

What happens at the voting booth has to be respected, for better or worse, she told reporters Friday when announcing she was splitting with PAC to become an independent. Unable to pass the CAFTA bills in time to meet a Feb. 29 deadline for entering the pact, the Arias administration had to ask trading partners for a seven-month extension. As the new Oct. 1 deadline approaches, lawmakers are again scrambling to pass the bills.

Once again, the assembly is up to its neck in water, Morales said.

The last straw for PAC came earlier this month. Morales, president of the Legislative Affairs Committee, convoked extra sessions to debate an intellectual property bill intended to put Costa Rica in compliance with CAFTA.

PAC leader Ottón Solís, who narrowly lost the 2006 presidential elections, told the daily Diario Extra last week that he no longer trusted Morales to keep party secrets.

Morales said she was stung by criticism from Solís and other PAC lawmakers. This is a sick relationship, she said, calling the party dogmatic, intolerant and inflexible. There wasn’t space for me to give my opinion … You can’t breathe in this party.

Francisco Molina, who heads PAC’s congressional faction, said Morales was elected on a party list not as an individual and should be expected to follow the party line.

All parties ask their lawmakers to follow a certain course. That’s normal in politics, he said.

Still, Morales wasn’t the first lawmaker to call PAC inflexible.

Renewing the Message

Solís founded PAC in late 2000 to attract voters disgusted by corruption within the two main parties, PLN and the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC). But the PAC’s campaign against political sleaze may have gone too far, said analyst Rodolfo Cerdas. PAC’s ethics code allows lawmakers to hire just two assistants using state funds. Lawmakers cannot eat or drink on the assembly’s dime, and they cannot use the assembly’s cars or drivers, even on official trips.

(The code) makes it almost impossible to govern, Cerdas said. You have to be flexible. Otherwise, you shouldn’t be in politics; you should be in a convent.

In 2003, eight of the party’s 14 lawmakers defected, claiming they could no longer work for a party that adhered to such rigid and fanatical rules (TT, Feb. 28, 2003).

If a committee has to receive a president or magistrate from another country, and the assembly has a lunch the PAC lawmaker can’t eat, said Rafael Varela, one of the eight defectors. It doesn’t look good.

Varela said he lobbied Solís to make the code more lenient, but the PAC leader did not budge.

I don’t know if we’re a little rigorous, a little strict, but that’s the message we want to give, said Beatriz Rodríguez, the party’s undersecretary. We don’t waste The Citizen Action Party believes in austerity.

The party’s message resounded among voters disillusioned by political corruption scandals over the past decade. PAC grew remarkably quickly, ending five decades of two-party rule. Their 16 seats represent 28 percent of the assembly, making them the second largest voting bloc.

But the party could lose ground in the 2010 elections if it doesn’t make key changes, analysts said.

As PAC grows and becomes more diverse, party leaders must listen better to dissenters, said analyst Urcuyo. The party must also reach out to moderates put off by its filibuster tactics and show voters it can propose as well as oppose, said Cerdas.

Fighting CAFTA is outdated, Urcuyo said. They have to show what their vision for development is.

With 20 months until the 2010 elections, PAC is working on a new message. PAC leaders are now meeting with party members in small groups across the country to devise campaign strategies. Their target market, Rodríguez said, is low-income voters with low education levels.

Solís, a likely presidential candidate, gave a taste of his party’s platform in a speech to press and party members earlier this month. He said PAC would enforce environmental laws, promote local agriculture and improve state services especially in health and education.

Aware of his critics, Solís was quick to add that the party’s positions are flexible.

PAC is anxious to listen and ready to debate, he said.


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