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Government of Costa Rica - About the Goverment of Costa Rica - Costa Rica Travel Guide and Travel Information

Travel Guide - Costa Rica



The political system is represented by three powers, which are: The Executive Power, the Legislative Power and the Judicial Power. The Elections Supreme Court is considered the fourth power of the Republic. Every four years national elections are carried out. Among other positions of popular representation, the President of the Republic is elected through direct representation by secret ballot.


AREA: 51,100 km2 (19,730 square miles)

The politics of Costa Rica take place in a framework of a presidential representative democratic republic, with a multi-party system. Executive power is exercised by the president and her cabinet, and the President of Costa Rica is both the head of state and head of government. Legislative power is vested in the Legislative Assembly. The president and 57 Legislative Assembly deputies are elected for 4-year terms. The Judiciary operates independent of the executive and the legislature. Costa Rica is a republic with a strong system of constitutional checks and balances.[1] Voting is compulsory in Costa Rica but it is not enforced.

The offices of the Comptroller General of the Republic, the Procurator General of the Public, and the Ombudsman exercise autonomous oversight of the government. The Comptroller General’s office has a statutory responsibility to scrutinize all but the smallest contracts of the public sector and strictly enforces procedural requirements. Costa Rica has no military but maintains domestic Police and armed National Guard forces securing its interests.

The position of governor in the seven provinces was abolished in 1998. There are no provincial legislatures. In 2009, the state monopolies on insurance and telecommunications (in which one often needed to wait months to get a cellular phone line) were opened to private-sector competition. Certain other state agencies enjoy considerable operational independence and autonomy; they include the electrical power, the nationalized commercial banks (which are open to competition from private banks), and the social security agency.


The 1986 presidential election was won by Óscar Arias of the PLN. During his tenure he experienced some criticism from within his own party for abandoning its traditional social democratic teachings and promoting a neoliberal economic model. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for his efforts to end civil wars then raging in several Central American countries.

In the February 1998 national election, PUSC candidate Miguel Ángel Rodríguez won the presidency over PLN nominee Jose Miguel Corrales. President Rodriguez assumed office May 8, 1998. The PUSC also obtained 27 seats in the 57-member Legislative Assembly, for a plurality, while the PLN got 23 and five minor parties won seven. Social Christian in philosophy, the PUSC generally favors neoliberalism, conservative fiscal policies, and government reform. President Rodriguez pledged to reduce the country’s large internal debt, privatize state-owned utilities, attract additional foreign investment, eliminate social welfare programs, and promote the creation of jobs with decent salaries. The reforms he tried to promote found opposition from several parties, including his own, and he asserted several times the country was “ungovernable”. In particular, an attempt by the Legislative Assembly to approve a law that opened up the electricity and telecommunication markets (controlled by a monopoly of the Costa Rican Institute of Electricity - ICE) to market competition, known as the “Combo” law, was met with strong social opposition. The Combo law was supported by both major parties at the time (PLN and PUSC) as well as by President Rodriguez, but the first of three required legislative votes to approve it provoked the largest protest demonstrations the country had seen since 1970. The government quickly resolved to shelve the initiative. President Rodríguez’s approval would reach an all-time low, and he was indicted by the Attorney General after leaving office on corruption charges.

In September 2000 the Constitutional Court rejected an argument by former president Arias that a 1969 constitutional amendment banning presidential reelection be rescinded. Arias thus remained barred from a second term as president; however, in April 2003–by which time two of the four judges who had voted against the change in 2000 had been replaced–the Court reconsidered the issue and, with the only dissenters being the two anti-reelection judges remaining from 2000, declared the 1969 amendment null and thus opened the way to reelection for former presidents–which in practice meant Arias.[3]

In the 2002 national election, a new party founded by former PLN Congressman and government Minister Ottón Solís captured 26% of the vote, forcing a runoff election for the first time in the country’s history. Abel Pacheco was elected President, under a national unity platform, but continuing most of the neoliberal and conservative policies of Miguel Ángel Rodríguez. This election was also important because new parties won several seats in Congress, more than ever. The PUSC obtained 19 seats, PLN 17 seats, PAC 14 seats, PML 6 seats and PRC one seat.

During 2004, several high-profile corruption scandals shattered the foundations of PUSC. Two former presidents from the party, Miguel Ángel Rodríguez and Rafael Ángel Calderón, were arrested on corruption charges and are currently waiting for the investigation to end and trial to begin. Also involved in scandals has been José María Figueres, former President from PLN and former head of the World Economic Forum.

The 2006 national election was expected to be a landslide for former President (1986–1990) and PLN’s candidate Óscar Arias, but it turned out to be the closest in modern history. Although polls just a week before the election gave Arias a comfortable lead of at least 12% (and up to 20%), preliminary election results gave him only a .4% lead over rival Ottón Solís and prompted a manual recount of all ballots. After a month-long recount and several appeals from different parties, Arias was declared the official winner with 40.9% of the votes against 39.8% for Solís.

Since Óscar Arias returned to office, the political debate has centered on whether to approve or reject CAFTA. Main supporters of the approval include the President’s PLN, which has established a coalition with PUSC and ML in Congress to approve the implementation laws in Congress, as well as different business chambers, while the main opposition to CAFTA comes from PAC, labor unions, environmental organizations and public universities. In April 2007, former PLN Presidential candidate and CAFTA opponent José Miguel Corrales won a legal battle at the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, which authorized him to gather over 100,000 signatures to send CAFTA to a referendum and let the people decide the fate of the controversial agreement. As the February 28, 2008 deadline to approve or reject CAFTA loomed, Arias decided to call for the referendum himself, and it took take place on October 7, 2007.

Although the referendum approved the CAFTA, each new law had to be analyzed and approved individually; this has caused delays in Costa Rica’s compliance to CAFTA. As of September 2008, only one law remained to be approved, but was delayed because it had a faulty procedure for approval.

Executive branch

Executive responsibilities are vested in a president, who is elected directly by the voters, not by the National Assembly as it would be in a parliamentary system. There also are two vice presidents and the president’s cabinet composed of his ministers . A constitutional amendment approved in 1969 limits presidents and deputies to one term, although a deputy may run again for an Assembly seat after sitting out a term. The prohibition was officially recognized as unconstitutional in April 2003, allowing Óscar Arias to run for President a second time in the 2006 Costa Rican presidential elections, which he won with approximately a 1% margin.

The President of Costa Rica has limited powers, particularly in comparison to other Latin American Presidents. For example, he or she cannot veto the legislative budget, and thus Congress is sovereign over the year’s single most important piece of legislation. On the other hand, they can appoint anyone to their cabinet without any approval from Congress. This provides the single most important power versus Congress that any Costa Rican President has.