By Sergio Araya*
On Tuesday, Costa Rica held its annual democratic ritual to elect the National Assembly directorate, whose members will serve for one year, and hear the president’s State of the Nation speech, which she is required to present to Congress.
Unlike last year, when assembly elections were postponed a day and the president’s speech was read in a regular assembly session three days later, this time the process was carried out without a hitch.
Political negotiations conducted days earlier by the ruling National Liberation Party (PLN) and one-fourth of the lawmakers in the opposition block gave control of the crucial directorate seats to the Access Without Exclusion Party (PASE). PLN will now control most of the legislative commissions, including the highly important Finance Commission.
In the early evening, President Laura Chinchilla spoke to lawmakers and citizens about her administration’s accomplishments and shortcomings. It was a peaceful and predictable day.
But what can we expect from this May 1 political shift?
Without question, difficult days are ahead for lawmakers in the republic’s first power, as well as for the Executive Branch.
The manner in which the negotiations that put PASE in a leadership role were held has generated profound resentment inside assembly halls, especially among the lawmakers of the opposition block, who noted in PLN’s conduct a traditional form of political praxis characterized by dealings carried out in the shadows. It is a form of politics characterized by clientelism and service of short-term interests.
The political deal ceded formal control of the assembly to a minority group, because under any other arrangement, the ruling party would not have been able to achieve its goal of controlling the assembly and its most relevant and important permanent commissions.
The opposition, under the banner of the Legislative Alliance for Costa Rica, can be expected to maintain a tense and combative relationship with the ruling party and its new ally, PASE, which the opposition openly accuses of betrayal for having abandoned them in exchange for obtaining the assembly directorate.
In such a tense atmosphere, the Executive Branch needs to establish a strategy for political dialogue in order to increase the number of votes it can count on in the assembly. With PASE and the two evangelical lawmakers on its side, Liberation successfully removed the opposition alliance from the assembly directorate. But it needs more allies to secure enough votes to pass procedural goals, including fast-tracking a bill.
This is a challenge that must be met by the Executive Branch led by Chinchilla and her presidency minister – one that requires conciliation, clarity of vision and effective permanent negotiation. Otherwise, the administration’s legislative agenda could by doomed for failure, as was the case with the president’s fiscal reform plan, killed by a ruling from the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court following a dispute filed by opposition lawmakers alleging excesses and errors in legislative procedure.
It will also demand the president set forth a clear and concrete political agenda that represents the interests of the heterogeneous society that is Costa Rica.
The current political panorama post-May 1 demands new strategies that must be carried out in an atmosphere of tension, with open wounds that need to be healed with great tact and political sensibility.
* Sergio Araya Alvarado is a political scientist and former president of the Costa Rican Political Science and International Relations Association.