San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Political coalition challenges ruling party

Unsatisfied with the current political landscape, a group of opposition lawmakers are building a nascent coalition that aims to wrest political power from the ruling National Liberation Party (PLN) in 2014 elections. But will the coalition last?

On May 2, lawmakers from five opposition parties blocked the reelection of PLN legislator Luis Gerardo Villanueva to the presidency of the National Assembly (TT, May 6). Juan Carlos Mendoza, of the opposition Citizens Action Party (PAC), won the post instead, a product of a united opposition against the PLN candidate.

Adopting the moniker “Alliance for Costa Rica,” the coalition has since May promoted a legislative agenda that includes, among other initiatives, support for an in vitro fertilization bill and the Free Trade Agreement with China. The former bill was shelved due to lack of support while the latter was approved nearly unanimously (TT, June 15, 3).

“Although the alliance’s main objective is to gain control of Congress, a separate goal is to reaffirm the legislative branch’s independence,” said political analyst Luis Guillermo Solís. “The alliance has functioned well despite the different ideologies of its members.”

The block includes members of the Libertarian Movement Party, the Social Christian Unity Party, Access without Exclusion Party and the Broad Front Party. 

“Convergence of opposing political forces is a positive [development],” Solís said. “Unfortunately, Costa Rican society somehow forgot how it should function because of the increasing polarization of opinions and the exclusion of smaller groups from discussions of national interest. Hopefully the 2014 elections will be an opportunity to return to real democracy.”

But before they can focus on 2014 campaigns, coalition members will first have to gain credibility and prove they can work together, said Manuel Rojas, a political analyst and professor at the University of Costa Rica.

“Members of the alliance should stick together for at least one year,” Rojas said. “They should also establish effective communication with other groups, including trade unions, business chambers and environmental groups. If they are effective at doing that, then they’ll have a better chance to gain voters’ trust in 2014.”

If PLN lawmakers and leaders are concerned about growing opposition to their political influence, they aren’t showing it. “The ideologies of members in the congressional alliance are just too different to become a real electoral alternative,” said PLN President Bernal Jiménez. “I think it’s going to be difficult for this coalition to succeed.”

The opposition’s strength may be tested in coming months by many of the same issues that have driven them apart in the past. One issue is the National Electricity Bill, which seeks to open the electricity market to private competitors (TT, Sep. 4, 2009). That bill caused intense debate last year.  

Tax reform is another hot-button issue. Lawmakers scrapped an earlier tax reform plan drafted by the administration of President Laura Chinchilla (TT, Jan. 17), and a new plan could be equally divisive.

“If the alliance can endure upcoming debate on politically charged issues, then it will become stronger,” said Solís, adding that, “I believe the alliance has already been put to the test during recent discussions over the Free Trade Agreement with China. Despite [ideological] differences, everything turned out really well.”

While the PLN remains a political powerhouse, challenges from a block of smaller, more diverse parties can influence traditional politicians to take a more modern approach to governing.

“The most important changes in the country were made because of political coalitions,” said David Diaz, a history professor at the Central American Historical Research Center.

One of Costa Rica’s most famous coalitions took place in 1943, when the National Republican Party and the Communist Party joined together to confront León Cortez, presidential candidate for the Democratic Party. This coalition called itself the “Victory Block” and won the elections of 1944. 

“Thanks to that alliance, the great social reforms of the 1940s took place, providing our country with the Social Security System, new labor laws and the University of Costa Rica,” Diaz said. “Though the historic context back then was different, and voters were persuaded more by political figures than organized parties, the current reality is a fertile ground for new coalitions to take place.”

“The only way parties can counter the PLN’s power is by creating coalitions, otherwise I don’t think any of them could act on their own to change the political landscape,” Diaz said.

“Currently, coalition lawmakers are focusing on working on legislation to benefit [Costa Ricans],” PAC President Elizabeth Fonseca said. “If we are successful at that, I have no doubt a political coalition will be part of the electoral battle in 2014.”

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