by Christopher Baker

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Government Branches

Costa Rica is a democratic republic, as defined by the 1949 Constitution, which guarantees all citizens and foreigners equality before the law, the right to own property, the right of petition and assembly, freedom of speech, and the right to habeas corpus. As in the United States, the government is divided into independent executive, legislative, and judicial branches, with "separation of powers" consecrated under Article 9 of the Constitution (none of the powers, for example, can delegate to another the exercise of its functions). In 1969 an amendment ruled that neither the incumbent president nor any former president may be reelected (they must also be secular citizens; i.e. not a priest).

The executive branch is composed of the president, two vice presidents, and a cabinet of 17 members called the Council of Government (Consejo de Gobierno). Legislative power is vested in the National Assembly, a unicameral body composed of 57 members elected by proportional representation. Diputados are elected for a four-year term and can be reelected only after four more. The Assembly holds the power to amend the president's budget and to appoint the comptroller general, who checks public expenditures and prevents the executive branch from overspending. Like its U.S. equivalent, the Assembly can override presidential decisions by two-thirds majority vote and reserves unto itself the sole right to declare war. The power of the legislature to go against the president's wishes is a cause of constant friction (Costa Rica is governed through compromise: a tempest may rage at the surface, but a compromise resolution is generally being worked out behind the scenes), and presidents have not been cowardly in using such tools as the executive decree to usurp power to themselves. The Oduber administration (1974-78), for example, issued 4,709 executive decrees; the legislature enacted just 721 laws in the same period.

The Legislative Assembly also appoints Supreme Court judges--"as many Magistrates as are necessary for adequate service"--for minimum terms of eight years. They are automatically reappointed unless voted out by the Legislative Assembly. Currently there are 24 judges on the Supreme Court. These judges, in turn, select judges for the civil and penal courts. Together, the courts have done much to enforce constitutional checks on presidential power. The courts also appoint the three "permanent" magistrates of the Special Electoral Tribunal, an independent body which oversees each election and is given far-reaching powers. The Tribunal appointees serve staggered six-year terms and are appointed one every two years to minimize partisanship (two additional temporary magistrates are appointed a year before each election).

Provincial Organization

The nation's seven provinces--Alajuela, Cartago, Guanacaste, Heredia, Limón, Puntarenas, and San José--are each ruled by a governor appointed by the president. The provinces are subdivided into 81 cantones (counties), which in turn are divided into a total of 421 distritos (districts) ruled by municipal councils. The provinces play only one important role: as electoral districts for the National Assembly. The number of deputies for each province is determined by that province's population, with one member for each 30,000 people; seats are allotted according to the proportion of the vote for each party. In the past three decades, the municipalities have steadily lost their prerogatives to central authority and now are relegated to fulfilling such functions as garbage collection, public lighting, and upkeep of streets, with a marked lack of success in some cases!


There is no shortage of political parties in Costa Rica. However, only two really count. The largest is the National Liberation Party (Partido de Liberacion Nacional, or PLN), founded by the statesman and hero of the Civil War, "Don Pepe" Figueres. The PLN, which roughly equates with European social democracy and American-style welfare-state liberalism, has traditionally enjoyed a majority in the legislature, even when an opposition president has been in power. Its support is traditionally drawn from among the middle-class professionals and entrepreneurs and small farmers and rural peones.

Its arch rival is the Social Christian Unity Party (Unidad Social Cristiana, or USC), which represents more conservative interests and is a loose coalition of four different parties known as La Oposicion and led by the current president, Rafael Angel Calderón Fournier, a conservative lawyer. (Calderón enjoyed a close friendship with George Bush during the latter's tenure. His 1990 election campaign was aided by Bush's own campaign mastermind Roger Ailes and carried election promises that much resembled Bush's own "impossible dreams," including cutting taxes.)

Between them, the two parties have alternated power since 1949 (in every presidential election but two, the "ins" have been ousted). Still, enough Costa Ricans switch their political colors every four years to make the outcome of an election hard to predict.

In addition, there are a number of less influential parties representing all facets of the political spectrum. Together they managed to collect only some two percent of votes and three seats in the National Assembly in the 1990 presidential ballot. Since Costa Ricans tend to vote for the man rather than the party, most minor parties form around a candidate and represent personal ambitions rather than strong political convictions. (Former president Figueres once accused Ticos of being as domesticated as sheep; they are not easily aroused to passionate defense of a position or cause.) The peasantry are the least represented constituency.


Costa Rica's national elections, held every four years, always on the first Sunday of February, reaffirm the pride Ticos feel for their democratic system. In the rest of Central America, says travel writer Paul Theroux, "an election can be a harrowing piece of criminality; in Costa Rica [it is] something of a fiesta. `You should have been here for the election,' a woman told me in San José, as if I had missed a party." The streets are crisscrossed with flags, and everyone drives around honking their horns, throwing confetti, and holding up their purple-stained thumbs to show that they voted.

Costa Rican citizens enjoy universal suffrage--everyone, male and female, over 18 has the vote--and citizens are automatically registered to vote on their 18th birthday, when they are issued a voter identity card. Since 1959 voting has been compulsory for all citizens under 70 years of age. After being ushered into voting booths by schoolchildren decked out in party colors, voters indicate their political preferences with a thumbprint beneath a photograph of the candidates of their choice. Splitting votes across party lines is common, as separate ballots are issued for the presidency, legislature, and municipal councils; disillusioned voters register their dissent with the dominant parties by turning in blank ballots. If the president-elect fails to receive 40% of the vote, a special runoff election is held for the two top contenders.

The daily press is full of political messages for months preceding an election. Most papers take an overt partisan stance and journalists "print news stories that may be extremely biased, and allow supporters of opposing points of view to reply the next day," say the Biesanzes in their book, The Costa Ricans. As in the U.S., campaigns tend to stress personalities rather than issues, with one blessed difference: attacking your opponent's personal life is considered taboo. "Costa Ricans may copy a lot of things Americans do," said Figueres, "but they would never use sex scandals against their worst enemies." The Supreme Electoral Tribunal rules on campaign issues and can prohibit the use of political smears, such as branding an opponent as communist.

Control of the police force also reverts to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal during election campaigns to help ensure the integrity of all constitutional guarantees. All parties are granted equal air time on radio and television, and all campaign costs are largely drawn from the public purse: any party with five percent or more of the vote in the prior election can apply for a proportionate share of the official campaign fund, equal to 0.5 percent of the national budget. If a party fails to get five percent of the vote, it is legally required to refund the money, though this rarely happens.


Little Costa Rica is big on government. Building on the reforms of the calderonista era, successive administrations have created an impressive array of health, education, and social-welfare programs plus steadily expanding state enterprises and regulatory bodies, all of which spell a massive expansion of the government bureaucracy. In 1949, the state employed only six percent of the working population; today the government pays the salaries of approximately 25%, or one in four employed people. For the nation, this represents a huge financial burden. Public employees are the best paid, most secure, and most highly unionized and vocal workers, and the supposedly neutral bureaucracy has become the largest and most insatiable pressure group in the country. Public employees' repetitive demands for higher pay, shorter hours, and greater fringe benefits (backed up by the constant threat of strikes) are so voracious that they eat up a vast proportion of the government benefits intended for the poor. "The state," says one Tican, "is a cow with a thousand teats and everyone wants a teat to suck."

Unfortunately, Costa Rica's government employees have nurtured bureaucratic formality to the level of art. Corruption is part of the way things work, though to a lesser degree than in other Latin American countries. And travelers may find a lot of their time being tied up in interminable lines. The problem has given rise to despachantes, people who make a living from their patience and knowledge of the bureaucratic ropes: for a small fee they will wait in line and gather the necessary documents on your behalf. Travel agencies can usually arrange a trustworthy despachante.