A Sunday morning vote to elect Costa Rica’s Legislative Assembly president turned into a near political meltdown today, as ruling party lawmakers voted to re-elect Luis Gerardo Villanueva, current assembly president, without a quorum.
To meet quorum, 38 of the assembly’s 57 legislators must be present, and opposition lawmakers argued that procedural rules require a quorum to elect the assembly president and other leaders. When 30 opposition party lawmakers left the full session to hold discussions, 26 National Liberation Party (PLN) lawmakers voted to re-elect Villanueva, a move that analysts say is highly irregular. A few minutes after 11 a.m., interim president of the assembly’s directorate, Annie Saborío, declared Villanueva the winner.
The assembly’s directorate determines which bills are discussed and when. Elections to fill directorate posts are held by secret ballot among lawmakers each year on May 1. It is the first time in the history of Costa Rica’s legislative body that a quorum was broken during voting to establish the congressional directorate.
The vote set off a firestorm of protests, both from members of opposition political parties and protesters gathered outside under a hot San José sun for traditional May 1 celebrations commemorating International Workers’ Day. Lawmakers shouted each other down on the assembly floor, and opposition politicians accused the PLN of committing “an institutional coup d’etat.”
“This is a coup d’etat. We will not tolerate what happened today,” said Otto Guevara, leader of the Libertarian Movement party. “Today, citizens are fully aware how power-thirsty PLN lawmakers are.”
“We won’t return [to the assembly] until this illegitimate vote is voided,” said Claudio Monge, lawmaker from the Citizen Action Party (PAC). “Today democracy has been dealt a blow.”
On April 18, opposition political party leaders agreed to back Juan Carlos Mendoza, of PAC, for the post of assembly president. Following the vote, Mendoza said that “constitutional order had been disrupted,” and that what had happened is “an abuse of power and a clear demonstration of authoritarianism and violence against democracy,” newswire service EFE reported.
Opposition party leaders rallied dozens of supporters, encouraging them to protest in front of the assembly.
Ruling party leaders defended the controversial move by citing a rule that voting must continue once it has started. However, the legitimacy of that argument, as well as the timing of the vote, are questionable, analysts say.
“The PLN will not be responsible for a paralyzed Congress,” Villanueva said. “We will negotiate another election.”
Danilo Cubero, of the opposition Libertarian Movement party, and José María Villalta, of the Broad Front Party, called the vote a “fraud,” EFE reported.
At a 1 p.m. press conference, Villanueva announced that after speaking with President Chinchilla, he would “step down” as assembly president and new elections would be held in the afternoon. New elections still have not been announced.
President Chinchilla was scheduled to deliver a mandatory State of the Nation speech at 6 p.m. to lawmakers describing her accomplishments during her first year in office. That speech is now delayed.
At 5:50 p.m., members of the opposition said they would not return to full session until a new vote is called. At 6:10 p.m., members of the opposition block announced they would leave the assembly and boycott Chinchilla’s speech.
“All we want is to have the right to vote in the same way it has been done in the past,” said PAC’s Mendoza.
PLN lawmakers did return to full session, along with Justo Orozco and Carlos Avendaño, of the National Renovation Party.
Sunday’s chaos in Costa Rica’s top legislative body will likely mean political blowback for Chinchilla, whose poll ratings have dropped in recent months.