Two hundred and five aspiring legislators sat in a backroom of a San José hotel with pens erect.
They had given up a sun-filled weekend – unusual for July – for a 65-hour boot camp on how to be a politician. The course – conducted in a windowless banquet room of the Hotel Ambassador on Paseo Colón in San José – included instruction on parliamentary etiquette, constituent services, political processes and controversial issues before the Legislative Assembly.
After a series of interviews and exams, roughly 17 of the 200-plus participants will be selected to represent the party in a run for the 57-seat legislature.
“It’s a new way to do politics,” said Olga Marta Mena, a municipal employee from San Rafael de Alajuela, who has a whole booklet of ideas she’d like to implement if selected as a legislator. “If we want to bring change to the country, we have to change how we govern. And to change how we govern, we have to change how we do politics.”
Moving away from the traditional system through which politicians schmooze and fundraise their way into office, the young Citizen Action Party (PAC), which came to prominence in just the past eight years, is looking to base its selections for public offices on merit.
Engineers, oceanographers, journalists and economists responded to their call for candidates and enrolled in the three-weekend course.
“They are old and they are young; they are from all over the county; they are party founders and new to the political scene,” said agronomist Ronny Barboza, a coordinator for the program. “They all have different backgrounds.”
The training program started when the PAC began, Barboza said. “It’s part of the philosophy of PAC…to encourage citizen involvement at all levels.”
The PAC became the second most-dominant party after the Social Christian Unity Party fell off the political stage as a result of serious corruption charges against its most prominent leaders. PAC almost captured the presidency in the 2006 elections, when party figurehead Ottón Solís came within two percentage points of defeating the victor, current President Oscar Arias of the National Liberation Party..
All sixteen PAC legislators presently serving in the Legislative Assembly went through a program similar to the current one. During a break from a lecture on healthcare conducted by Dr. Guido Miranda, former president of the Costa Rican Social Security System, Daniel Alvarado said, “This is the only party in Costa Rica and the only party in the world that teaches its legislators how to serve in elected office.”
The 46-year-old lawyer from Alajuela said he considers this training program an opportunity to move the country forward.
“With the same politics,” he said, “the country is not going to move forward. But PAC is doing something different.”
Barboza added that the training benefits the party and also is intended to improve the country.
“We have the obligation to give the country qualified legislators with enough knowledge to do their jobs correctly,” he said.
Also, he said, it can help party leaders ensure that members maintain a unified stance on issues.
“While it’s a good opportunity to let people know our thinking so that they are assured they are in the right party, it’s also a chance for us to confirm they are in the right party,” Solís told The Tico Times. “We want our stance as a party to be homogenous.”
Only a handful of the 205 aspirants will make it into the legislature, but that doesn’t matter to Mena.
“I came here to learn,” said the forceful middle-aged woman. “Really, this is a university experience for me.”
How Are Members
of the Legislative
Unlike in the United States, where voters choose candidates directly in both party primaries and the general election, in Costa Rica candidates for the Legislative Assembly are chosen by political parties and presented to the voters as part of a party slate for each province. Seats in the Legislative Assembly are allotted proportionately to each party based on the votes received by the slate.