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Costa Rica: Chaves forms his government through private methods

The president-elect of Costa Rica, Rodrigo Chaves, has surprised many with the strong change of mood he has shown immediately after his electoral victory. From a rupture and anti-system discourse to a conciliatory and unitary one, such as the one he pronounced to receive the defeated candidate, José María Figueres, the following day. However, this change of attitude has not prevented him from showing his heterodox vision regarding the formation of the government and the functioning of public administration management. Reproducing the personnel selection methods of private entities and international organizations, Chaves seeks to form a government beyond the party system and without prioritizing the government program he presented to the elections.

The basic issue is that the president-elect’s proposals, made from a technocratic perspective, even though they are proposed with all goodwill, entail serious risks to the performance of democracy. It is not only a question of specific changes in the current regulations or institutional framework but also with respect to the conceptual foundations on which the democratic system is based. Perhaps such approach is a matter of knowledge, since Chaves knows much more about economics than about political sociology, and I am not talking about institutionalist political science, but about the approach that also contemplates the relationship between the governors and the governed, as well as the civic and political culture of the citizenry.

In bringing this issue to the current juncture, the issue of the role of parties in the formation of government becomes particularly relevant. As is well known, parties have suffered greater deterioration within the framework of communicative intermediation functioning, especially since the emergence of social networks. But their role as political actors has also been relativized. In fact, they are no longer alone as important actors in the political system.

However, the devaluation is less pronounced with respect to a classic function of the parties, which is to supply managerial and technical cadres to the government administration. Above all, they have been criticized for losing relevance in other fields and becoming electoral and government staffing machines. In any case, this role of political parties refers to a key element in the functioning of the democratic system: the organic maintenance of the so-called programmatic commitment that must exist at the core of the political system.

In Costa Rica, as in other countries of the region with a presidential regime, the electoral legislation requires the parties that contest elections to present a government program. This not only refers to the definition of its programmatic profile but also constitutes the basis on which the National Development Plan of the incoming government will be configured. Thus, the government program of the elected candidate is projected as the fundamental matrix of the government’s action after the elections. In short, a normative and institutional process is thus established that seeks to guarantee citizens that electoral promises will not be blown away.

The president is within his rights in stating that he will not ask them which party they voted for when choosing his ministers. But he should ask them a simple question: do you know the government program with which I stood for election? Because that constitutes the basis on which the Chaves administration must act in the various areas of governmental performance. Otherwise, the president-elect would be deceiving the people who elected him and the country as a whole. Likewise, when the president-elect assures that he will constitute his government free of ties and acquired commitments, he is telling a half-truth. He has an unappealable commitment to his government program and the promise to put it into practice.

In this context, the role of the parties is multiple. Foremost, it means the incarnation in people and organic mechanisms of the government program presented. It is the guarantee that the electoral proposal is not incorporeal or personal. On the one hand, it presupposes that the government program is not a product of unilateral occurrences, but a result of a collective process embodied in organic structures.

In addition, the party embodies a certain ideological proposal that should offer the voters the general reference of what will be the orientation of the government. In the case of Chaves’ program, it is stated that it is inscribed in “modern social democracy”. And it does not matter if it is difficult to specify what this ascription means, the important thing is that it shows some signs of identity that the citizenship can recognize. The explicitness of the party profile provides something fundamental for the functioning of democracy: it facilitates the possibility of choosing.

Candidate Chaves insisted in his campaign that the traditional parties had become political and family plots, lacking internal democracy and prone to corruption. And he was right. But a party without these scourges, made up of people who share a set of political and programmatic ideas, represents the ideal space to supply the public administration of hierarchies and cadres.

Choosing high positions from within the political party that has won the elections means taking advantage of a space of confidence and security regarding the fulfillment of the government’s program. Of course, this should not be an obstacle to choosing other people who do not belong to the party, if it is demonstrated that they have greater competence. But the formula of seeking excellence outside the community of party ideas and outside the programmatic commitment, using similar methods of private entities of personnel selection, although it may seem a good technocratic solution (which could be imitated in the rest of the region), may generate instability and unnecessary disruptions, as it happens in countries where parties are ephemeral.

The reorganization of the parties is necessary. But this should lead to a reform of the party system and not to its elimination. Not only because the parties are fundamental political actors according to the Constitution, but also because, although they are no longer alone, they represent the guarantee of fundamental rights such as the right of association, which in essence represent the protection of pluralist democracy.

In this way, far from showing off the lack of party solidity, the president-elect should present the country with a proposal to restructure the political parties and reconfigure the system of parties and political representations. Parties are not only the organic and human incarnation of the programmatic commitment, but they also represent the possibility for a government proposal to be projected in time.

The president-elect should be aware that he has before him a set of reforms and actions of sociopolitical order, among which is the strengthening of a party system that improves Costa Rica’s pluralist democracy. Rather, he should take the opportunity to consolidate the Social Democratic Progress Party as a robust political organization, which will allow the maintenance of his government proposals, beyond the next four years, which, as he should know, are going to fly by.

Translated from Spanish by Janaína Ruviaro da Silva


Enrique Gomáriz Moraga ha sido investigador de FLACSO en Chile y otros países de la región. Fue consultor de agencias internacionales (PNUD, IDRC, BID). Estudió Sociología Política en la Univ. de Leeds (Inglaterra) con orientación de R. Miliband.


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