As one of the strongest democratic republics in Latin America, Costa Rica has a long history of stable democracy with free and fair elections. This stability has allowed the various governments to garner enough respect from the populace to establish some of the cornerstones of Costa Rican contemporary culture such as abolishing the military, promoting education and opening the country to foreign investment.
The government's structure is familiar to those in North America and Europe. The executive and legislative branches are elected positions that are responsible for setting policies, producing budgets, overseeing the judicial and electoral system and running the country's utilities.
Costa Rica's center of power resides in the office of the president, the head of the Executive Branch. However, the constitution divides the power of government so no one branch has the ability to control everything. The president appoints the rest of the executive, two vice-presidents and a cabinet, from the elected Legislative Assembly.
The president oversees government programs and heads the country's police force. It used to be that the president was only permitted to be in power for only a single four-year term but recent changes to the law now allow former presidents to run for office again after they've been out of office for eight years.
Costa Rica's Legislative Assembly has 57 seats filled by politicians elected by the populace every four years. These deputies, or diputados, can only seek re-election after one term out of office. The assembly passes laws and legislation, imposes taxes and has some influence over budgets and foreign loans. The legislature is also responsible for appointing judges to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court is the third branch of the Costa Rican political system. There are 22 judges, each appointed by the assembly for an eight-year term, which is normally renewed. These magistrates, in turn, appoint the judges for the lower civil and criminal courts. The Supreme Court is the highest court of law and exercises ultimate judicial power over both the District and the Appellate Courts. Many outside observers believe that Costa Rica has the best judicial system in Latin America, as justice doesn't rely on bribes for judges or political affiliations.
A national Electoral Tribunal made up of unpaid, volunteer judges oversees all elections in Costa Rica. This tribunal ensures that every vote is counted and elections are above reproach. While the president is elected by popular vote, the 57 legislators are elected using proportional representation by province. In Costa Rica, this means that instead of voting for individual politicians, people vote for a party list and seats are given to the parties based on the percentage of popular vote they garner.
Two of the largest political parties, the National Liberation Party or PLN, and the Social Christian Unity Party or PUSC, have been around since the 1950s and the 1980s respectively. But proportional representation allows almost any of the current 50 active political parties to challenge the top politicians for assembly seats and even the presidency.
Costa Rica abolished their military in 1948 but still maintains a domestic police force and security personnel. In fact, Costa Rica only established a national Coast Guard service in 2000. There are almost ten thousand police officers in the country and approximately 20 thousand private security agents.
Costa Rica's bureaucracy also extends far beyond politicians and domestic security forces. The government is also a major player in utilities, social security, healthcare, banking, insurance and oil production with virtual monopolies on many of these services.
Despite its geographical size, Costa Rica has played an active and important role on the international stage. Its stable democracy along with its highly respected environmental and human rights records gives it a larger voice than most countries of its size. In 1993, the country proclaimed its permanent neutrality and throughout the last decades of the twentieth century, Costa Rica has helped neighboring countries negotiate peace agreements. These diplomatic efforts helped end civil war in Nicaragua and El Salvador and paved the way for fair elections in these countries. In 2007, Costa Rica was elected again to serve on the United Nations Security Council, with a term ending in December 2009.
Foreign Embassies in Costa Rica
Costa Rican Embassies Abroad
Government Fast Facts
- Governmental System: Democratic Republic
- Independence: September 15, 1821
- Constitution: November 7, 1949
- Subdivisions: Seven provinces - San José, Cartago, Heredia, Alajuela, Guanacaste, Puntarenas, Limón - are divided into 18 cantons and subdivided into 421 districts.
- Major Leaders & Heads of State: President - Oscar Arias Sanchez; President Elect - Laura Chinchilla
- Foreign Affairs Minister: Bruno Stagno Ugarte
- Ambassador to the UN: Jorge Urbina
- Main Political Parties: National Liberation Party (PLN), Citizens Action Party (PAC), Libertarian Movement Party (PML), Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC)
- Voting Age of Majority: Universal and compulsory at 18 years old.
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