By Miguel Angel Rodríguez Echeverría
The prestigious Journal of Democracy in its April 2006 issue published the article "Getting Costa Rica Right", in which former President of Costa Rica and former Secretary General of the Organization of American States, Miguel Angel Rodriguez, analyzes -in an exchange with Professor Fabrice Lehoucq- the deep roots of Costa Rica´s political developments in the last few years.
Miguel Angel Rodríguez Echeverría served as president of Costa Rica from 1998 to 2002,having been elected on the ticket of the Social Christian Unity Party.He was secretary-general of the Organization ofAmerican States from June to October 2004.
Fabrice Lehoucq ’s July 2005 essay in these pages,“Costa Rica:Paradise in Doubt,” analyzes the deterioration of politics and political parties in Costa Rica over the last 15 years.In the last paragraph of the article, Lehoucq concludes:
The country ’s hierarchically organized and closed political parties,while they have now shown themselves no longer functional for an educated and demanding electorate,did nonetheless ease the way to constructive longterm agreements on key aspects of development policy.The ease of relations between the parties,however,also opened the door to partisan collusion and violations of the public interest,as the recent scandals show.1
This hypothesis has a fundamental problem.If the Costa Rican system worked well up until about 1990 (Lehoucq does not give an exact date,but this is the drift of his analysis) and has deteriorated since, surely the cause must be something that began to exert its effect around that time.To cite the ability of the two major political groupings regularly to reach agreements on policy and to implement such agreements in the Legislative Assembly is to name a peculiar culprit.How can some-thing that had been present for many decades suddenly become the cause of recent problems?
Moreover, if the “ease of relations between the parties ” leads to collusion,,corruption,and political deterioration, how can we explain the relative health and effectiveness of the political systems in the United States,Great Britain,and many other European countries? Surely,one cannot postulate a hypothesis to explain one case and neglect its counterfactual implications for other cases.
In fact, I would argue precisely the opposite —namely,that it has been precisely the failure of the two main political parties to reach and implement agreements that has caused Costa Rica ’s recent political problems.
Until the early 1990s,agreements between the two main political organizations in Costa Rica —one essentially Social Democratic and the other Christian Democratic —kept the system functioning well.The signs of success included an illiteracy rate that dropped from 21.2 percent in 1953 to 6.1 percent in 1990,an incidence of infant mortality that fell from 90.2 per thousand births to 14.8 per thousand over the same period;an average life expectancy that shot up from 55.6 to 74 years;pensions that went from covering almost no workers to covering almost half the workforce;and health-insurance coverage that became universal.2
To a significant degree,these achievements rested on a rule that allowed two-thirds of the Assembly to end debate on a measure and put it to a vote.Of equal importance,during much of this period party leaderships were strong — in no small part because the possibility of reelection helped to lend them continuity —and they could make deals that would let the governing party reach a final vote on major legislation.
The 1969 constitutional amendment that banned presidents from immediate reelection and banned legislators from serving consecutive terms sapped this deal-making capacity,while a 1981 change in the Assembly ’s procedures ended the power of a two-thirds majority to force a vote.At first this meant little.Center-left governments from the Party of National Liberation (PLN)were in office from 1982 to 1990,during which time the center-right Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC)was in the process of forming out of what had previously been a coalition.
Conditions for interparty collaboration were strong —the PUSC ’s leaders needed PLN support for changes in the electoral code that would make PUSC unity viable —and cooperation extended so far that PUSC legislators cast the votes needed to pass several of the difficult and often unpopular structural reforms that stabilized the economy and reignited growth after the 1981 debt crisis.While those measures were consistent with the ideological principles and pragmatic proposals of PUSC,it is hard to imagine such considerations mattering in today ’s harsher political climate.Clearly,the “ease of relations ” between the parties during the 1980s was crucial in enabling the PUSC to support the economic agenda of PLN governments.
During the presidency of the PUSC ’s Rafael Angel Calderon (1990 –94),the institutional changes of the previous years began to make their full influence felt.It was also during this period that the new Constitutional Court began to enforce formal Assembly procedures, including the 1981 changes,which had previously often been ignored in practice.
With reelection banned,the struggle for the top spot in each party has become constant and consuming.While Lehoucq is correct to point out that the need to attract at least 40 percent of the popular vote in order to win the presidency encourages a focus on the median voter nationwide,3 this does not apply to leadership elections within each party.Instead, internal competition within a center-left party tends to give an edge to partisans who tilt left,making it risky for politicians who want that party ’s presidential nomination to make concessions to center-right proposals.This dynamic explains why Costa Rica,which the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB)considered an “early reformer ” in the 1980s,, saw the PLN kill “structural adjustment ” in the 1990s..From 1994 to 1998,PUSC legislators again lent their support to such unpopular measures as streamlining the teachers ’ pension system,,only to see the PLN, moving left in the midst of the inevitable leadership struggle,undercut the PLN administration of President José Figueres,Jr.
While I was president from 1998 to 2002,I tried to circumvent the partisan wrangling in the Assembly by means of a national consensus-building process known as the Concertación.While this approach of working with civil society at first seemed to be succeeding,it hit a wall when public-employee unions,university students,some individuals within the Catholic Church,small left-wing parties,and the more extreme social-democratic sectors of the PLN mobilized popular opposition against the idea of opening up public-sector monopolies in telecommunications and electric power.Worried PLN legislators responded to this pressure by withdrawing their support from most of the reforms that the Concertación process had already approved.The political costs associated with an intraparty power struggle were too large for moderates among PLN elected officials to face.
This is all very different from what Lehoucq argues.The increasing difficulty of achieving interparty agreements and the impossibility of getting the Assembly to vote are the barriers that stand in the way of accelerated structural reform and hence of improved prospects for economic growth and poverty alleviation.New parties have been emerging since 2002 primarily because of struggles within the PLN and the Left more broadly.Lehoucq is right to say that better-educated voters will demand more sophisticated platforms from parties.But this cannot be the whole story; otherwise,why would the political parties not respond to such a challenge?It is also true that,with the end of the Cold War,ideology has become less important as a determinant of party affiliation and voting behavior.Political debates now revolve around mundane matters such as police efficiency,education,social security,and health care.These are complex technical issues that force politicians to deliver a different message.It is no longer enough simply to wave the flag of freedom and democracy;details must be explained,which can be hard to do while remaining popular and attractive to the electorate.But again,this cannot be the explanation for the deterioration of the political climate in Costa Rica,for the same evolution has taken place in other countries without a similar slippage being observed.
Finally,I also agree with Lehoucq that Costa Rica needs new laws and institutions better suited to meeting the expectations of our fellow citizens and the other demands of the new political age in which we find ourselves.This is why in 2001 I proposed a constitutional reform that would have moved us from a presidential to a semipresidential system.
My hope in suggesting this change was to force an alignment between the executive and legislative branches that would be strong enough to break the impasse which currently exists between competing political groupings.Taking up this reform proposal again would represent a good start toward answering the political challenges that Costa Rica faces today.
1.Fabrice Lehoucq,“Costa Rica:Paradise in Doubt,”Journal of Democracy 16 (July 2005):152.Among the examples of “recent scandals,” Lehoucq mentions the criminal investigation that I currently face.I have no quarrel with that,but feel that a few comments are in order.Readers should understand that,as of this writing in February 2006,no prosecutor has filed any formal charges against me.I still do not know what if any charges will be presented in court,or when this will occur.
The only “evidence ” against me is the testimony of José Antonio Lobo,,a person who has already confessed to corruption and dishonesty while a member of the Board of Directors of ICE,the power and telecommunications government company that had awarded the contract.In late 2004,I resigned my post as secretary-general of the Organization of American States (OAS)and voluntarily returned to Costa Rica in order to defend myself in court,informing the attorney-general ’s office of my desire to refute any charges against me.Readers should also know,finally,about the gross violations of my constitutional and legal rights that I have suffered.Against the express limitation established by the court not to detain me until I had completed my term as secretary-general of the OAS,I was arrested while still holding that post.In clear violation of my human rights,I was considered guilty before trial.On my return,I was subjected to illegal psychological torture,public exhibition,and cruel treatment.As the Judicial Inspection Office has confirmed,the Office of the Prosecutor has illegally violated the confidentiality of the investigation procedures and has furnished them repeatedly to the press so as to make me appear guilty.Notwithstanding my voluntary resignation and return,I was in jail and under house arrest for a year with no valid reason.
2.It is important to note that,notwithstanding the difficult political circumstances,Costa Rica continued to make significant accomplishments between 1990 and 2002.Economic growth was stronger than it was in the rest of Latin America, with growth in export income and foreign direct investment particularly robust.
Moreover,poverty,infant mortality,and illiteracy continued to fall while life expectancy rose.Finally,the country enacted substantial reforms in the areas of social security and social policy,including laws promoting the rights of labor and the duties of responsible fatherhood.
3.Fabrice Lehoucq,“Costa Rica:Paradise in Doubt,” 144..
DIFFERENT TIMES, DIFFERENT DEMANDS
Fabrice Lehoucq is a faculty member in the division of political studies,Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE),in Mexico City.His essay “Costa Rica:Paradise in Doubt ” appeared in the July 2005 issue of the Journal of Democracy.
I am flattered that former Costa Rican president Miguel Angel Rodríguez (1998 –2002)has written a comment on my essay about his country ’s political travails.His standing as an important economist,together with his longtime involvement in the public affairs of his country,makes his observations of great interest.I hope that his comment is a harbinger of a political memoir of his involvement in public affairs.
President Rodríguez claims that my argument is self-contradictory. While I credit the party system with producing the agreements that have helped the country,for example,to increase its GDP per capita threefold since the 1950s,I also indict that same party system for being unable to continue forging agreements to solve development problems by the 1990s.“How can something that had been present for many decades,”
President Rodríguez quite reasonably asks,“suddenly become the cause of recent problems?”
President Rodríguez ’s reflections are especially relevant because something clearly has gone awry in Costa Rica.To begin with,the legislature ’s ability to pass laws in a reasonably expeditious fashion (“legislative productivity ”)has fallen to long-term lows during the minority government of President Abel Pacheco (2002 –2006),even once we control for the way in which the ban on consecutive terms leads to the productivity-sapping decay of presidential powers by the third year of the political cycle.
Moreover,bureaucratic agencies are not performing very well.Social policy has been unable to reduce the share of Costa Ricans living in poverty,which has stayed at around 20 percent of the population since the mid-1980s.While the public-health system did manage to lower infant-mortality rates to developed-world levels by the 1970s,it is been much less successful at providing more advanced health care on a timely basis.Though Costa Rica ’s development performance remains superior by developing-world standards,the country ’s ability to maintain and build upon past successes is in doubt.In 2005, the World Economic Forum ranked Costa Rica as having the 64 th most competitive economy in the world,a fall of 14 places since 2004.The 2006 Bertelsmann Management Index,a composite measure of the ability of a political system to forge consensus,has Costa Rica slipping from 8 th to 19 th place since 2003.
While no single factor is responsible for the political system ’s decline,some factors are more influential than others.The deterioration of policy-making effectiveness flows from a profound crisis of political representation,one that institutional weaknesses also fuel (and that less than impressive economic-growth rates do not help).There is nothing contradictory about recognizing that,in the aftermath of the 1948 civil war and the politically turbulent decade of the 1950s,agreement among party elites laid the basis for several decades of sustained growth and that,by the 1990s,the hierarchically organized party system was no longer conducive to effective policy making in a radically changed society.
As my essay explained,the party system that a previously less educated and more rural electorate had unabashedly supported between the 1950s and the 1970s was becoming increasingly unpopular by the 1990s.From the mid-1980s to the early 2000s,the share of independents among registered voters more than doubled,going from 17 to 40 percent.President Rodríguez ’s PUSC obtained less than 4 percent of the vote in the February 2006 elections,while newly elected President.
Oscar Arias of the PLN,who barely cleared the 40 percent threshold needed for a first-round win,will have to work hard to prevent his own party from suffering a similar fate in a multiparty Assembly.
Narrow local interests continue to dominate internal party affairs enough to inhibit the parties ’ ability to act as effective transmission belts between citizens and the state.The failure of parties to modernize and to open up policy making (the lack of roll-call votes,among other things,makes it hard to hold deputies accountable)helps to explain why Costa Ricans hold their political class in such low regard.Indeed, the recent scandals that landed two former presidents in jail are nothing more than the climax of a political narrative that citizens and the state have been writing for more than a decade.
Declining legislative productivity has much more to do with this crisis of political representation than it has to do with 1981 procedural changes that President Rodríguez so insightfully discusses.Eliminating the ability of a two-thirds majority in the Assembly to end debate and to call for a vote on an issue has undoubtedly made reaching agree ents harder.Indeed,this rule —along with the ability of ten or so deputies to ask the Constitutional Court to judge the constitutionality of any bill —empowers partisan minorities to obstruct lawmaking.This is especially true in fragmented legislatures,which,as the 2002 and 2006 legislative results confirm,are here to stay in Costa Rica.
Yet this rule did not prevent President Rodríguez from reaching an agreement with the opposition PLN to open up telecommunications and electricity to private-sector involvement in 2000.What unfortunately killed these far-reaching reforms (known as “Combo 2000 ”) was that the public never really supported them.The existence of a bipartisan agreement “to betray the national interest,” as street protesters must have phrased it,only confirmed to many citizens how out of touch their political class was with their concerns.
In retrospect,Combo 2000 symbolically marks the end of the post –civil war style of policy making,in which the political class made decisions (many of them good ones)behind closed doors and with support but not necessarily much input from the citizenry.Indeed,the Rodríguez administration ’s use of extralegislative committees to build consensus among NGOs,interest groups,and ordinary citizens marks an important (and welcome)shift toward a more open and participatory style of policy making.
One final point:I share the grief of many Costa Ricans that a remarkable man landed in jail because of accusations of bribe-taking made by a former confidant.In my article,I made it clear that no court has yet convicted President Rodríguez of any charges.To his credit,he resigned his post as secretary-general of the Organization of American States in order to voluntarily return to his country to face these accusations.I wish him (and Costa Rica)a fair and speedy trial plus the best of luck.