Costa Rica: Historical Firsts in May Day Crisis of Headless Congress

On the first of May, for the first time since 1949, the Costa Rican congress was unable to elect new representatives to lead them. And also for the first time in 75 years, because of the headless congress, President Laura Chinchilla was unable to give her yearly review in the May Day speech.

Blogger Cristian Cambronero, nominated earlier this year for the Best of Blogs awards, explained how the situation got to this point in his blog post “1st of disMay” [es]. Basically, the opposition parties had agreed to ally themselves to create an opposition directory for the Legislative Assembly or Congress and had already wrangled enough votes to make it possible to take the power from the ruling party Partido de Liberación Nacional (PLN) on the May Day elections. Then, the ruling party reacted:

Como jinetes apocalípticos, los agoreros anunciaron el fin de los tiempos conocidos si el Directorio no quedaba en manos del oficialismo. “…la alianza opositora (…) asumirá una grave responsabilidad cuyos costos son hoy inestimables”, publicó La Nación en un primer editorial la semana pasada. “El peligro de la victoria”, tituló el periódico hace 3 días, en un segundo editorial sobre el tema, mucho menos sutil y mucho más nervioso. Otros sacaron del baúl al fantasma de la ingobernabilidad y lo pasearon por los pasillos de Cuesta de Moras como a un cadejo arrastrando cadenas de calamidad. “La amenaza se cierne sobre la Asamblea Legislativa”, dijo la Presidenta Chinchilla, seguramente al borde de un ataque de nervios.

Like the riders of the apocalypse, the birds of ill omen announced the end of time as we know it if the Directory didn't stay in hands of the governing party. “…the opposition alliance […] will bear a grave responsibility we can't even know how much it will cost us”, published La Nacion in its first editorial [es] last week. “The danger of victory”, was the title the newspaper [es] gave its 2nd editorial on the subject 3 days ago, which was a lot less subtle and much more nervous.  Others brought out from their storage chests the ghost of ungovernability [es] and paraded it out on the hallways of Cuesta de Moras [ed.note: where the Congress is located] like a ghoul dragging chains of calamity. “The threat that looms over the Legislative Assembly”, said President Chinchilla [es], surely on the brink of a nervous breakdown.

The opposition alliance had agreed that everyone would vote for their candidate since they had barely enough votes to make it happen, and that any member who voted for the ruling party would get expelled from their own party.

But, how would they know who voted which way? The alliance insisted on seeing their members’ votes and on having votes made public as insurance against members who might have been “bought” by the ruling party PLN. And PLN demanded for the vote to be secret. According to El Chamuko [es], an anonymous blogger who blogs extensively on politics and ever so often unearths dirty secrets of the Costa Rican ruling class, this is where the session fell apart:

El PLN varió las reglas del juego de la votación, si ellos querían defender la pureza del sufragio, debían dedicar más tiempo desde días anteriores, para ponerse de acuerdo con la oposición en la forma en que se iba a votar, no venir a cambiar las reglas a última hora,  lo que hicieron fue tenderle una emboscada a Alianza y de paso provocarlos para que hicieran el show de pedir boletas a gritos y de llamar a la violencia en las calles.

The PLN changed the rules of the game during the elections, if they wanted to defend the purity of suffrage, they should've done so days earlier, to agree with the opposition on how voting would take place, not come and change the rules at the last minute, what they did was lay an ambush to the Alliance and at the same time provoke them to make a scene by screaming for ballots [es] and calling for violence on the streets.
"Welcome to Costa Rica's Congress" by El Chamuko.

"Welcome to Costa Rica's Congress" by El Chamuko.

According to Juan Carlos Hidalgo who writes the political analysis blog Por la Libre [es] elections within Congress have never been secret: in past elections representatives have voted on their desks, they've shown their ballots to their candidates, and party leaders have picked up other representatives’ votes to make sure they are all voting for the same candidate. Yet now PLN insisted on the sanctity of the secret vote supported by Legislative Assembly “rule book”. The opposition had a different interpretation of the rule in question and decided to break quorum, trusting that elections wouldn't take place if they departed, since a minimum of 38 representatives was needed for any election:

La oposición justamente protestó el cambio de reglas, y abandonó el recinto legislativo. Y ahí vendría el acabose. Siguiendo el manual electoral de Robert Mugabe y Daniel Ortega, el PLN llevó a cabo la elección sin que hubiera quorum (los diputados de oposición se encontraban en el Salón de Expresidentes) y eligió a Luis Gerardo Villanueva con tan solo 26 votos. Rápidamente los liberacionistas salieron a justificar dicha movida, e incluso la presidenta Chinchilla corrió a felicitar a Villanueva. La oposición pegó el grito al cielo y acusó al PLN de atestar un “golpe de Estado institucional”.

The opposition justly protested the change of rules and abandoned the room. That's when everything fell apart. Following the election manual of Robert Mugabe and Daniel Ortega, the PLN held an election without quorum (the opposition representatives were in the Expresident's Room) and they elected Luis Gerardo Villanueva with only 26 votes. Quickly the PLN supporters ran out to justify this move, and even president Chinchilla ran to congratulate Villanueva. The opposition protested vehemently and accused PLN of staging “an institutional coup d'etat”.

In the comments [es], Alejandro Jenkins tries to make sense of the rules cited during the Congressional Elections:

Es un poco irónico que ahora el PLN defienda tan vehementemente el secreto de ese voto, cuando en 1999 había exigido al presidente del Congreso que entregara las papeletas para revisar la letra de cada una. Creo que eso indica que lo que estaba de por medio el domingo pasado no era un asunto de principio.

It is a bit ironic that now the PLN is defending so vehemently the secret vote, when in 1999 they demanded the president of Congress to hand over the ballots to review the writing on each one. I believe this indicates that what was driving them last Sunday wasn't a matter of principle.

So what do the PLN sympathizers have to say about what took place on Sunday? Political analyst Federico Ruiz W. [es] agrees that it was a childlike tantrum, but considers that the opposition was the one who didn't act appropriately. He analyzed Article 201 of the Legislative Assembly Code and concluded:

La elección para Presidente del Directorio inició con el quórum debido. Se llamó a los diputados a retirar las papeltas, escribieran el nombre del diputado de su preferencia y la depositaran en una urna. Este artículo, al señalar que las papeletas no deben ir firmadas por los votantes, indica que la votación es secreta. Ahí queda resuelto el primer misterio sobre si el acto debe ser o no secreto.

The election for Directory President started with the appropriate quorum. The representatives were called to get their ballots, write down the name of their preferred candidate and deposit it in an urn. This article, when it points out that the ballots are not supposed to be signed by the voters, shows us that voting is secret. There the first mystery on whether voting should be secret or not is resolved.

He also goes on to explain the rationale behind the actions of the PLN on Sunday's elections which resulted in Villanueva being appointed President of the Directory. He backs all examples with interpretations of the code which prompted the decisions to continue regardless of the opposition's exit from the voting venue, and how they added their votes to the candidate with most votes because according to the rules they cite, breaking quorum is not a possibility during elections, and when it happens votes of representatives who excuse themselves get reassigned.

However we look at it, it was a shameful show that will have repercussions. President Laura Chinchilla first congratulated Villanueva, but then had to take it back when the Alliance declared the proceedings were invalid. And sadly it seems that even if there is PLN or Alliance control over Congress, the President who couldn't even give her yearly report due to the conflict in Congress will still be left on her own, as Julio Córdoba writes in his blog post “Check Mate to the 1st of May” [es]:

Mejor no le pudo salir al PLN antilaurista (aunque reconozco de no ubico a un solo chinchillista) ya que colocaron a la mandataria en el peor de los mundos: con un oficialismo partido, enemistada de la cúpula partidaria y con la relación con la oposición al mínimo.

It couldn't have been better for the anti-Laura PLN (although I recognize that I couldn't point out a single Chinchillista) since they have placed the president in the worst world possible: with a broken ruling party, at odds with the party leadership and with a minimal relation with the opposition.

Finally on Monday, Villanueva decided he wasn't going to preside over Congress [es], the elections took place, PLN removed their candidate and the Alliance got their opposition candidate Juan Carlos Mendoza from the PAC elected [es] as the new president of Congress –the first time the opposition wins in 41 years.

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