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When ‘politician’ is a dirty word

Dear Tico Times Readers,

I am proud to introduce a new monthly column of political opinion that will examine not only Costa Rican politics but also regional and global issues. Like many TT readers who have come to Costa Rica from other countries, I am also away from home: I am a Costa Rican pursuing my doctoral degree in politics at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. No doubt my academic and professional experience will influence my thoughts, but this will be mainly a space for personal opinions. At its core lies my belief that “politics” is something much bigger than the politicians and political parties we see in the news. As citizens, unless we are lonely Robinson Crusoes on a deserted island, we practice politics every day: when we settle a dispute with a neighbor, when we follow traffic rules, or when we meet with friends to discuss a public issue. Politics is a civic exercise that allows us to coexist while respecting each other’s traditions, beliefs and opinions. In this broader sense we are all politicians, and this is how I will approach my readers. Politics matters, and I hope this will become a shared space of analysis and reflection on this essential part of life.

In that spirit, I make available to you the email address, where I am ready to receive your opinions, questions and suggestions of political issues you would like to see addressed here. I hope to hear from you, and that you will keep an eye out for my reflections on the first Monday of each month – beginning with the thoughts below.

A few days ago, the human-rights lawyer Monserrat Solano was elected to the position of National Ombudswoman, or Defensora de los Habitantes, an official elected by the Legislative Assembly to serve as a voice for the Costa Rican people regarding the respect and fulfilment of their rights. The process to fill this coveted post was characterized by a massive number of applications (98 to be exact), last-minute candidacy proposals by the “Christian” parties in the Assembly, and run-of-the-mill political negotiations. In general terms, it looked like a conventional election. However, it was exceptional in discursive terms. There was a phrase commonly repeated by legislators, the media, candidates and Solano herself that caught my attention during the whole process, and that established a precedent for upcoming elections in the Assembly: “The person we should elect must not be a politician.

What does it exactly mean to be a “politician”? Why do the politicians who made these comments insist on cherishing “apolitical” people, thereby denigrating their own occupation? Furthermore, why do we mistrust politicians but trust in their legitimacy to elect the new ombudswoman?  Is there a downside to making “politician” a dirty word?

The position of ombudswoman is by all angles political. First, the candidate put her name to public scrutiny. She was running for public office. She was elected by our legislature, the most political entity in any democracy. She will be accountable directly to legislators and indirectly to citizens. She will have to deal with the executive, the legislative, the judiciary, the entire public administration and private citizens to advance her agenda (yes, even she will need to have a political agenda if she is going to define her priorities and achieve her goals). She will have to shake hands, to negotiate, to compromise, to represent the country abroad. She will have to show her achievements and explain her failures. She will have to fight for a budget and for employees. Furthermore, she will have to defend her positions and initiatives from an ideological point of view: her view of human rights, of the powers of the State, of the principles of equality and non-discrimination, of the meaning of the constitutional norms and international treaties, and so on. I don’t know about you, but all this sound quite political to me.

Alberto Font/The Tico Times
Alberto Font/The Tico Times

Now, if the ombudswoman and all the people involved in her election meant by “politician” a person who has run for office or has the intention to do it later, they should have said so. Yet, I do not see the crime here either. Does this mean that if a person was a legislator, then in the future, he or she can only be a legislator again, a Cabinet minister, a local official or president? And what if he or she was a great legislator? Shouldn’t he or she have been considered, with a discussion that focused on the merits of the person – whether elected before or not – and not on a required “apolitical” background? Having run for, or served in, public office is not inherently shameful; in fact, such a belief is dangerous for our democracy. If we can see this, then we can start having a discussion about what really matters here: how good or bad a politician is; what his or her achievements and failures are; with what degree of ethics and responsibility she runs her office. If, in the end, meritocracy is the goal, then “politicians” should have not been ruled out automatically. That, by all means, was prejudicial.

I understand concerns about bringing certain political practices and interests into the Defensoría. However, in order to avoid that, the approach should be different: one which does not demonize politics just because, or (what an irony) for political returns. Politicians, who often accuse others of undermining their work, should be the first ones to realize that their words and statements have an impact. Serious damage is done when we make “politician” into an insult or, even worse, something that looks like a crime on someone’s résumé. Young people, citizens and students are now aware that exercising their political rights may have bad consequences for their future careers – that “politics as a vocation,” in the words of Max Weber, can be a curse rather than a laudable call.

Is this the type of political culture we want? I do not think so, and we should start amending these repetitive and erroneous discourses. Otherwise, sooner than later, we will start thinking that politicians should not be electing defensores or justices either or, even worse, enacting laws. We cannot escape reality, and we will not fix the real problems at the core of our political system by stigmatizing public service. Monserrat Solano may have not been a politician a few days ago, but she will be one four years from now.

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