After a two-day meltdown in the Legislative Assembly, a weakened ruling National Liberation Party (PLN) this week lost control of key legislative posts in a political row that will resonate for months.
Rows of white chairs, reserved for diplomats and foreign dignitaries, sat empty on the assembly floor May 1 as lawmakers argued, complained and shouted at each other about voting procedures to elect a new assembly directorate. A block of opposition lawmakers stormed out of the room.
While images of the political melee were broadcast live across the country, Costa Ricans waited in vain to hear President Laura Chinchilla’s first-year State of the Nation speech to Congress (see story below). Chinchilla never arrived. Guests’ chairs remained empty. And the speech never happened.
“The scenes we all saw on television were embarrassing. It shows nothing but the decay of political leadership, and political leaders who have lost all sense of shame and don’t mind being part of a sad show,” said Alberto Cañas, a political analyst and PLN co-founder.
The fracas began as lawmakers met to elect legislative directorate posts, including assembly president – a key political position – as required by law. Lawmakers must meet each year on May 1, which marks International Workers’ Day, to elect the directorate. President Chinchilla must also deliver a State of the Nation report to the assembly the same day.
A debate over secret balloting sparked an argument between ruling PLN lawmakers and a block of 30 opposition legislators, who eventually broke quorum by walking out of the full session. A 31st opposition lawmaker was taken to the hospital earlier in the day with a weakened heart condition.
To meet quorum, 38 of the assembly’s 57 legislators must be present.
While opposition lawmakers were absent, the remaining 26 ruling party legislators voted to re-elect the PLN’s Luis Gerardo Villanueva as assembly president, a move that prompted an outcry from opposition lawmakers, who spilled out onto the streets of San José.
Joining with International Workers’ Day marchers who had gathered in front of the assembly, opposition lawmakers stirred up the crowd with fiery speeches as riot police stood at the ready.
“This is a coup d’etat. We will not tolerate what happened today,” said Otto Guevara, leader of the Libertarian Movement, one of the opposition parties. “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 left-leaning Citizen Action Party (PAC). “Today democracy has been dealt a blow.”
As tensions rose, Villanueva eventually resigned the directorate post Sunday afternoon, two hours after he had declared victory.
Chinchilla a No-Show
President Chinchilla had scheduled her May 1 speech at 6 p.m. At 5:50 p.m., members of the opposition said they would not return to full session until a new vote was called. At 6:10 p.m., it was clear that lawmakers would not return and Chinchilla’s speech wasn’t going to happen. Instead, she sent a written copy of the State of the Nation report, as required by law.
The next day, On May 2, as the contentious political battle continued, lawmakers met behind closed doors to negotiate an end to the crisis.
At 3 p.m. Villanueva addressed the assembly with a surprising announcement: the PLN would not run a single candidate for any of the electorate posts, essentially handing the opposition control of the assembly.
“Though we legitimately won the election, we can not tolerate a constitutional crisis,” said Viviana Martín, head of the PLN. “We understand that negotiation means ceding certain things.”
At 5:35 p.m., 31 opposition lawmakers elected Juan Carlos Mendoza, of PAC, as the new Legislative Assembly president, bringing the two-day crisis to an end. It is the first time since 1966 that the head of the assembly does not belong to the ruling party. Mendoza is the first PAC member elected to a high government post.
“Today, we have demonstrated an example of political dialogue and negotiation,” said Mendoza. “This alliance was born out of an urgent need to recover the democratic practice of division of powers.”
According to analysts, the PLN’s loss of control over the assembly may be a consequence of a series of political faux pas in the past year.
Internal divisions and scandals are beginning to take their toll on the historically social democratic party. Some experts say the events of May 1 are an indication that party leaders may be desperate to cling to power.
“PLN members have not yet understood that most voters did not vote for PLN candidates,” said political analyst Francisco Barahona. “The [PLN] is used to controlling the legislative, executive and judicial branches, as their lawmakers appoint judges. But as far as power-sharing, things are now even.”
“The [PLN’s] problems started during the second term of President Oscar Arias (2006-2010),” said Rodolfo Cerdas, an independent political analyst. “Arias barely won the elections, and that shows a new and more diverse political reality that the PLN has declined to acknowledge.”
Cañas, PLN’s co-founder, says his party is facing a crisis because lawmakers lack experience.
“Everything wrong that has happened to the party has to do with the people the PLN picks to run for the assembly. They’re third-class politicians,” he said.
Analysts also say the PLN’s attempt to maintain control of the assembly directorate was “clumsy.”
“What happened [May 1] is the biggest sum of errors and negligence I have ever seen in my life. They don’t understand what happened, they don’t accept responsibility and they don’t comprehend what happened,” said Cerdas. “There will be blowback for the PLN, and they will have problems recovering.”
For some PLN members, the party could stand for internal reform.
“Internally, it is forbidden to think and to criticize. Loyalty inside the party has been misunderstood. Nowadays it means to be only a ‘yes man’,” said Walter Coto, political analyst and a party affiliate. “It has become merely an electoral machine, where no creative thinking and no serious analysis takes place.”
“Costa Rican democracy has become more diverse. We have to accept this. When I say these things inside the party, people give me awful looks, but someone has to say it,” said Coto.
Setbacks for the National Liberation Party (PLN)
In the past 12 months, political scandals and miscalculations have weakened the PLN’s influence. A few examples:
May 2010 – Unsuccessful Salary Hike
A few days after being sworn in, PLN legislators proposed a salary hike that would have increased monthly wages from $5,000 to $8,000. Though most of the legislative factions supported the idea in the beginning, lawmakers backed away from the bill after public pressure (TT, May 28, 2010).
November 2010 – Crucitas Mine Project Shut Down
In November 2010, an appeals court revoked operational permits granted by former President Oscar Arias to the Crucitas Mining project, operated by Industrias Infinitos, in San Carlos, near the Nicaraguan border. Judges recommended an investigation into Arias’ involvement in the deal (TT, Nov. 24, 2010).
February 2010 – Rodrigo Arias Investigated
An investigative report by the daily La Nación suggested that Rodrigo Arias, former presidency minister and brother of former President Oscar Arias, may have attempted to influence prosecutors to stop an ongoing investigation against him for handling of public funds TT, Feb. 04). Although he continues to deny the charges, the investigation has sparked internal divisions among PLN members between those who support the Arias brothers and those who don’t.
April 2011 – Libertarian Movement Stops Backing the PLN
The right-leaning Libertarian Movement Party broke its “governability pact,” signed a year prior with the PLN, after considering that the ruling party did not honor its commitments.
January 2011 – Tax Reform
President Laura Chinchilla sent a tax reform bill for discussion in Congress (TT, Jan. 21). The bill is crucial for reducing the country’s burgeoning deficit. This month, opposition lawmakers, who hold majority in Congress, announced the bill was dead.
May 2011 – Changing of the Guard
In what will go down in history as one of the most memorable days in Congress, the party loses its control over the legislative directorate.