While last month voters went to the polls to select politicians to represent them, last week their power to represent themselves grew exponentially. The Legislative Assembly approved legislation allowing controversial topics to be brought to public vote through referendums and also allowing citizens to propose bills to the assembly.
Last year, when union heads, business leaders and politicians from various parties reached a rare consensus about the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA), nothing could be done to take advantage of it. The leaders agreed that CAFTA should go to a public vote, but the mechanisms did not exist to allow a referendum in Costa Rica. Now they do.
Although a constitutional reform was passed in 2001 to allow referendums, accompanying legislation regulating and instructing how public votes would take place was never passed. Public votes on important national issues have, therefore, never been possible.
Last week, legislators unanimously approved this regulatory law. The public will now be allowed to approve or revoke laws and participate in partial reforms to the Constitution through referendums. Referendums cannot, however, be used to decide matters related to national security, the budget, taxes, pensions, government loans, contracts or other monetary issues.
“This is a great democratic advance… Clearly we are far from a culture of consulting the public, like that in the United States, Switzerland and other countries. It’s something that traditionally has not been a part of the political practice here,” said Luis Sobrado, magistrate of the Supreme Elections Tribunal (TSE), which is in charge of overseeing the referendum law.
Sobrado added that he doubts referendums will be used with great frequency.
“Convoking a referendum is complicated. So they will be concentrated on truly important topics,” he said.
Under the law, referendums are limited to once a year and cannot be held six months before or after a presidential election.
They can be called for in three ways: a petition signed by 5% of legal voters (or 125,000 people today considering the voting population of 2.5 million); a request by two thirds of legislators (38); or a call from the Executive Branch with the support of a simple majority of legislators (29).
Depending on the type of issue being brought before the public, at least 30% or 40% of voters must participate in the referendum for it to be valid.
Referendums could be used to resolve national dilemmas in which clashes between political parties block decision making, such as the debate about whether to eliminate the state’s monopolies on telecommunications and insurance, Sobrado said.
President Abel Pacheco agreed.
“If through dialogue, we can’t come to agreement, the referendum opens doors to Costa Ricans so the sovereign people can decide,” he told the press Tuesday following his weekly Cabinet meeting.
While leaders once considered CAFTA a good candidate for a referendum – and many Costa Ricans continue to do so – now that its ratification is finally being discussed in the Legislative Assembly, Pacheco said a referendum might not be the best route.
“It is a route if it becomes necessary,” Pacheco added.
The Legislative Assembly last month also approved a bill allowing citizens to present legislation to the assembly.
“This expands our democracy. Four million Costa Rican minds can… make more suggestions than 57 legislators. Imagine the things,” the President said.
These bills must also have the support of 5% of the voting population and, like with referendums, fiscal matters are excluded. Legislators must vote on the bills within two years of their submission.
In addition, a group of 16 legislators last month presented legislation to reform the Constitution to allow Costa Ricans to recall the President through a public vote. A recall would be allowed only halfway through a President’s term and a recall effort allowed only once per term. The bill is under study in the legislative commission for constitutional matters