Part one in a four-part series, “The Lineup,” that looks at the players who will dominate Costa Rica’s legislative playing field from 2022-2026: the 57 members of the Legislative Assembly. As a media organization committed to journalism from and about the country’s rural regions, we’re looking at how legislators from rural areas get elected—and what they do once they’re there.
When Priscilla Vindas was born at just six and a half months, her parents traveled up to two hours each way to and from the hospital to visit their preemie after they finished work. Her mom and dad are farmers from rural Alajuela, Costa Rica, but like some of their friends and relatives, they’d immigrated to New Jersey for a time to work and save money—so they made these trips in the snow. They lived only a half hour or so from the hospital under normal circumstances. However, a batch of severe winter weather had made transit nearly impossible.
“I didn’t have fingernails yet, or eyebrows,” Priscilla remembers, sitting in the backyard of a house in the little town of Poró de Grecia. It’s about 20 minutes from Naranjo, the agricultural town where she spent most of her time growing up. “The people at the hospital said my parents were crazy [to travel so far each day rather than staying over nearby], but they had jobs.”
It’s hard not to think of this story later in the afternoon when members of the Frente Amplio kick off their scheduled meeting. As they file in for this post-electoral gathering, hosted by a fellow party member who’s offered up his house for the day, some greet each other warmly: they’ve known each other since the early days of this 20-year-old party. Others are students who have been active in the party for as little as two weeks. Going around the table, they say a bit about their lives and what’s brought them here today. The owner’s dog hops between guests, making new friends and eyeing the traditional pastries on the table.
Priscilla, an unassuming 28-year-old in jeans and a black tank top, fits right in with the group—but when it’s her turn, she, unlike the rest, rises to her feet.
“I’m the legislator-elect from Naranjo,” she says.
Priscilla says she always shows up early everywhere. It seems to be true: she was early to her own birth, to this meeting, to a career milestone that’s generally achieved later in life. But when this political scientist walks through the doors of the plenary session hall in Costa Rica’s hulking Legislative Assembly building on May 1st, she won’t stand out because of her age alone. She’ll also be in the minority because she’s from rural Costa Rica.
Most any Costa Rican knows that this is one the most unequal countries on the planet. You probably also know that while that inequality is certainly present in greater San José, many of Costa Rica’s biggest gaps align with the ring of mountains that surround the Central Valley: income, employment, educational attainment, access to services, and positive perception of political entities are all lower in rural areas. On Feb. 6, 2022, these communities’ disconnection from the country’s central government made headlines through historically low voter turnout rates in rural areas.
In the days since, many have lamented that low rural turnout, asking why so many people stayed home. However, after dozens of conversations with leaders from across the political spectrum, a different question is revealed: why did so many take the trouble to turn out?
In a country where geographic representation in the Legislative Assembly is so tenuous, and when the path to power for rural residents is so convoluted—when it’s not blocked altogether—how have rural residents stayed engaged in legislative politics at all?
Can the systems one former legislator from a traditional party calls “exhausting, exclusive… and patriarchal” be reformed so that Costa Rica’s coastal and rural areas feel, and are, more fairly represented in the country’s legislation?
Finally: what will happen to Costa Rica if those changes never come?
Representation without representation
Before we can attempt to understand the factors that landed Priscilla Vindas in that backyard in Grecia, listening to her constituents, let’s zoom way out to review some basics. Because one of the first things to understand when looking at rural representation in the Legislative Assembly is that Costa Rica’s legislative rules do not ensure, or even incentivize, rural representation. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. And some of the party structures that did get rural communities a seat at the table disintegrated with the two-party era.
Mathematically speaking, each of Costa Rica’s 57 legislators represents approximately 80,000 people in Costa Rica. Last year’s documentary series Animales Políticos pointed out that this is well over the ratio in other small Latin American countries such as Panama, with 45,000 people per legislator, or Uruguay, with 30,000. The documentary also reminded us the formulators of the 1949 Constitution, when one legislator represented 15,000 Costa Ricans, planned for a new legislator to be added for every 30,000 people once the population surpassed 1.35 million.
However, this was never done, and don’t hold your breath. Adding more legislators and related costs to an entity as reviled as Costa Rica’s Legislative Assembly would probably be about as popular as the assembly’s new building, a scowling tower whose design has been unfavorably compared to the Harry Potter movies’ Azkaban Prison. So 57 it is, distributed by the Supreme Elections Tribunal among the provinces, based on population (San José 19, Alajuela 11, Cartago 7, Heredia 6, Guanacaste 4, Puntarenas 5 and Limón 5).
How are legislators elected?
In Costa Rica’s proportional election system, parties choose the legislative ticket they want to put forward for each province. This happens through internal elections through which, in some parties, the presidential candidate has massive influence. Once the ballots are defined by the parties, voters choose the party they want representing their province. (In February 2022, voters faced a dizzying array of options; to continue with the example of Priscilla Vindas and her province of Alajuela, for example, voters there chose between a whopping 28 national and regional parties on their legislative ballot.) The number of legislators each party gets to send is based on the overall percentage they get of their province’s vote. Based on those results, a party gets left out of the assembly altogether; if it makes the basic cutoff, it sends only the first-ranked; double that, and it sends the first two; and so on. Later this month, we’ll be explaining the head-spinning math that goes into this process.
If legislators were elected directly, this might result in Alajuela’s 11 legislators coming from all over the province—but because of our proportional election system, parties have a strong incentive to top their legislative tickets with people from the biggest towns and cities in a province: those with the greatest name recognition and connections, explains Vanessa Beltrán, of the University of Costa Rica’s Center for Political Studies: “Usually, the people on the top of the ticket come from the provincial capitals.” (These are the cities that bear the same name as the province itself, except in the case of Liberia, the capital of Guanacaste.) The second place on the ticket might go to someone from the second-largest city, such as Ciudad Quesada in the case of Alajuela. But smaller towns often get left down-ticket and are at greater risk for exclusion.
You can see this at work in our map at the home voting districts in which Costa Rica’s 2022-2026 legislators, per the Supreme Elections Tribunal—giving at least an approximate idea of legislators’ community ties.
Do Costa Ricans vote where they live?
Not necessarily. Since Election Day is always on a Sunday, it’s common for Costa Ricans not to change their voting district even if they move to another part of the country. Someone who grows up in Los Chiles might spend her entire adult life in San José, but return home for a weekend with the folks every Election Day. Of course, some politicians have even been noted to establish a residence in a new voting district for the express purpose of getting elected from that region. And, of course, the voting district on a piece of paper is no way to assess a person’s commitment to certain regions, populations, or values. Still, this data provides at least one measure of legislators’ community connections.
“It’s an ordeal,” says Eduardo Rojas, a member of the traditional National Liberation Party (PLN) and an indigenous activist in what’s called the “sur-sur,” the rural regions of the province of Puntarenas that can rarely compete with the provincial capital for a top spot on a legislative ticket. “It all starts because the Costa Rican legal system, the electoral system, the [party] system doesn’t give space to rural communities. They just don’t! Because we simply don’t have enough votes.”
More parties, fewer rural legislators
What’s more, politicians and analysts explain that the proliferation of parties in the Assembly has made it harder for rural communities to get a seat at the table, not easier. One might think that the dramatic demise of Costa Rica’s two-party system in the first decades of this century might have opened up doors to representatives from new places and backgrounds—and occasionally, this is true, as we’ll explore next week. But because the system incentivizes parties to place more urban candidates at the top of their tickets, the rural legislators who generally rode in on the bottom of the ticket now get left out altogether.
“There were two types of diputados: the nacionales, who were elites, and then local people. Their job was to vote with the party… and keep the people happy at the local level,” explains political scientist Fabián Borges. “In fact, what the two parties would do is almost carve out invisible districts within the province and give them to the diputado. You’re in charge of keeping Naranjo happy; you’re in charge of keeping Pérez Zeledón happy. That was a big part of their mission.” These “local” legislators were supported in this mission by the partida específica, essentially a discretionary fund for local needs, eliminated in a 1998 reform, Fabián explains.
The politicians who spoke with me for this edition confirmed that internal assignments to a certain region still take place—but in a multi-party system, and without the partida política, the connections are diluted. Priscilla, for example, is the only Frente Amplio legislator for the province of Alajuela. Two other interviewees, outgoing legislator Gustavo Viales of National Liberation and legislator-elect Yonder Salas of the New Republic Party, are one of two representatives for their respective provinces and parties; they explain how they carve out their vast provinces (Puntarenas for Gustavo, Limón for Yonder) between two people.
In either scenario, the “keep Naranjo happy” mission has lost its focus—for better and for worse, as we’ll explore next week. A more fragmented Assembly has meant a more metropolitan Assembly. And without accountability to a larger party to keep a specific territory engaged and satisfied with that party’s work on its behalf, legislators have little incentive to answer to their rural regions. That is, if they manage it, it is because of their own internal drive.
“It’s up to you to take [rural] issues with you” to the Assembly, says Karla Prendas, who served as a PLN legislator from Puntarenas from 2014-2018. “The system is so [Central Valley-focused] that if you don’t have them clear up front, they’ll assign you to the national agenda, and that’s it.”
What’s at stake?
Most democratic systems favor population centers. It’s always a numbers game. And any election process has its flaws. But in Costa Rica, the reason that the relationship between the Legislative Assembly and rural communities is so important—a relationship that was never really healthy and fair, according to our interviewees across the board, but is also deteriorating still further—is that rural voters are tuning out. A La Nación headline after the election stated simply that “areas far from the GAM [Greater Metropolitan Area] have stopped voting.” The piece itself showcased how in the 1986 election, turnout didn’t have a strong urban-rural bias—some rural communities showed voting rates around 90%, surpassing that of some urban areas—but that panorama has changed drastically. This past Feb. 6th, the three coastal provinces, Puntarenas, Guanacaste and Limón, show the lowest voter turnout rates, with Puntarenas at under 50%.
According to some of those I spoke with, there’s really no reason to believe that this isn’t going to continue getting worse. This is because in terms of attaining power, both in Casa Presidencial and in the legislature, parties have little incentive to invest time and energy in getting out the vote in rural areas.
“In the elections of 2014 and 2018, the PAC won the [presidential] election thanks to the votes of urban centers, especially in the GAM,” says José María Villalta, outgoing legislator and two-time presidential candidate from the Frente Amplio. “This, despite having almost zero structure in the coastal provinces.”
Vanessa Beltrán points to Rodrigo Chaves—who landed himself in the second-round presidential runoff and whose upstart Social Democrat Progress Party, led by popular former TV news anchor Pilar Cisneros, will make its Assembly debut with a relatively huge showing of nine legislators—as the leading 2022 example. Without a party history or structure, or a rural base, he achieved an outstanding result in both the parliamentary and presidential elections, she observes. Why should other parties approach things differently?
If these trends continue, the results will be dire.
“There are no voids in social life,” says José María Villalta. “Who’s taking power? Organized crime… and when the State is not present, churches of various kinds suddenly spring up, normally not Catholic.” In other words, should political parties choose to continue to divert their focus from urban areas, Costa Rica’s fraying social fabric will continue to rip apart, with alternative forces gaining control of the country’s periphery.
So: in this context, who’s trying to shake things up?
Can changes be made on the field, without revolutionizing the very rules of the game?
Who are the players—legislators past, present and future, lawyers and doctors, teachers and activists, young and old, dyed-in-the-wool partisans, new party adherents—who are trying to forge an alternative future?
Stay with us.
Next week: How small parties are creating new in-crowds and raising their voice on behalf of rural regions.