One of the least productive legislatures in history left office in May, clearing the stage for 57 new lawmakers to try to improve that dismal record. It wouldn’t be easy: the 2006-2010 Legislative Assembly, like the parliament from the preceding term, is highly fragmented, a change from the assemblies of the bygone partisan era.
The National Liberation Party (PLN), which brought President Oscar Arias to power, took over from the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC) as the assembly leader, but is two legislators short of a simple majority in the 57-member group. PUSC dropped from 19 legislators to only five, and the anti-CAFTA Citizen Action Party (PAC), whose presidential candidate gave Arias a considerable scare in the neck-and-neck elections in February (see separate story), took over as the leading opposition group with 17 lawmakers.
Six seats went to the anti-tax Libertarian Movement, which from 2002-2006 became known for its effective blockade of tax increases and many other bills, but in this term has appeared determined to change its tune and promote action.
Four one-man parties round out Congress (National Restoration, Access for All, the Broad Front and National Union).
The new assembly showed not only the increasing diversity of Costa Rican politics, but also women’s growing clout. An all-female cast led the factions of Liberation, PUSC, PAC and the Libertarians, a move that – according to Mayi Antillón, Elizabeth Fonseca, Lorena Vásquez and Evita Arguedas – was part of the reason parties enjoyed better communication and better negotiations.
The assembly approved a host of bills in its early months, including foreign loans for education and a new sewer system just before their expiration dates. However, it made mistakes as well. The Arias administration touted the approval of the Public Works Concessions Law as one of the biggest achievements of its first 100 days, but the Supreme Court ruled the assembly had violated its own procedure by not sending the bill to the court before a vote. At year-end, the assembly was still trying to get the bill passed, again.
In August, sexual harassment allegations sent shock waves through the assembly and brought new attention to the issue, a relatively new one in Costa Rica. A former aide to Liberation legislator Federico Tinoco filed a complaint alleging he had made sexual advances toward her. In response, Tinoco first told the press he’d like to apologize “before the altar of my country and to Costa Rican women,” but later denied any wrong doing.
The assembly appointed an independent commission to investigate the claims. The verdict? Not enough evidence to proceed.
As 2007 loomed, the assembly was poised to sink its teeth into the most controversial items on its agenda, some of which the previous legislature debated for months or even years without result. Assembly-wide debate of the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA) was expected to begin in January after being approved in commission in December, and controversial reforms to lift the state telecom and insurance monopolies were under discussion in commission.
Will tax reform come anytime soon? Looks doubtful. Only three of the Arias administration’s planned nine-part reform had been submitted to the assembly by the end of the year.
Also a long shot: reforms to make the assembly’s procedures simpler and faster. Lawmakers discarded proposals to set deadlines for votes on certain bills, and though analysts say more profound changes would greatly increase legislative efficiency, there was little steam for such reforms in 2006. Will 2007 be any different? Only time will tell.