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OAS Electoral Observation Mission in Costa Rica says that the Costa Rican electoral system is robust

  February 5, 2018

The Electoral Observation Mission of the Organization of American States (EOM/OAS) for the national elections held on February 4 in Costa Rica congratulates the Costa Rican people on their commitment to democracy, as demonstrated once more in a successful election day. It also wishes to underscore the strength of Costa Rica’s electoral system, whose good practices could serve as a benchmark for other countries of the region, and recognizes the high level of professionalism and technical expertise with which the Supreme Electoral Court (TSE) organized these elections.

The EOM was headed by the former President of Colombia, Andrés Pastrana, and consisted of fifteen observers and experts of thirteen different nationalities, who conducted a substantive analysis of the elections technology and organization, campaign financing, electoral justice and gender.

On the day of the election, the Mission visited polling stations (JRVs) in San José, Alajuela, Cartago and Heredia, starting when the polling booths opened until the votes were counted and the results published. The Mission also observed voting abroad in the Costa Rican Consulate in Washington D.C. in the United States. Election day was a celebration of democracy, with a respectful coming together and a spirit of cooperation among the various players in the elections despite their ideological and programmatic differences.

The Mission notes the efforts made to help older adults and handicapped people to vote: wheel chairs, ballots in Braille, magnifying glasses for a better view of the ballot paper, and crayons for easier use, among other things. The Mission also saw students and volunteers from the Costa Rican Guides and Scouts Association who were helping citizens find and enter their voting places.

The EOM is also appreciative of the continuation of the good practices instituted by the TSE in prior elections to ensure the right to political participation, such as election-day issuance of identification cards processed within the lawful deadlines; the setting up of special polling places in old peoples’ homes, prisons and mental health centers, and the distribution of information on voting procedures in the five indigenous languages.

The OAS observers noted that the voting booths are designed to ensure that the vote is secret but at the same time allow the polling place officials and the political party watchers to see whether the voter was taking a photo of the marked ballot paper, a practice that is prohibited in Costa Rica and sanctioned by annulment of the vote. The design of these voting booths helps prevent and combat vote buying.

At the time the polls opened, the OAS observers reported that a considerable number of polling places had to be staffed by elections assistants, since the representatives of political parties who were supposed to serve as polling officials did not arrive.  This is a challenge that the OAS electoral observation missions have been observing in Costa Rica. It is suggested that for future elections, a member of the TSE be added to the membership of the polling place.

The OAS observers noted the professional way in which the voting process was conducted by the elections officials, and noted that the polling place officials were well briefed on how to perform their functions. The Mission compliments the Instituto de Formación y Estudios en Democracia (IFED) on its work to train elections officers, and its efforts to provide ongoing training for the political parties.

The Mission acknowledges the efforts of the TSE to modernize the process of announcing the election results with the introduction of smart phones to obtain the results from 1,934 polling places and transmit the information directly to a TSE database using a mobile app. Continuing to modernize the process of transmission of results would help improve the speed and security of this phase of the electoral process. The Mission also recommends that the results by polling place be published on the TSE website and on the app #VotanteInformadoCR.

Turnout in the elections this past Sunday shows that non-voters continue to challenge Costa Rican democracy, as it does in other consolidated democracies in the region.

The Mission notes the democratic spirit and maturity with which the candidates acknowledged the election results at the end of the day, and applauds their statements that they would work together.

In an effort to support Costa Rica’s ongoing efforts to strengthen its electoral system, the Mission offers a number of observations and preliminary recommendations. It will present a complete report to the OAS Permanent Council at a later date. That report will also be presented to the Supreme Electoral Court and circulated to the actors in the elections.

Election campaigning
The Mission noted the fierce competition and the numerous positive debates in the media, which allowed voters to hear the candidates’ proposals and take an informed decision about their electoral preferences. However, the EOM noted that the political choices showing lower in the opinion polls found it difficult to participate. Thus, the Mission noted the use of public opinion polls to determine which parties were invited to the debates, and to calculate the amount of financing provided by the banks. Both region-wide and in the specific case of Costa Rica, the OAS Missions have observed that surveys are sometimes not exact, and are used politically, even though they are not effective in predicting results.  

After a long period of bipartisanship in Costa Rica, new political forces emerged in the most recent elections. The redrawing of the Legislative Assembly into several political parties will make it necessary for agreements to be reached among the various parties in order to achieve the necessary reforms.

A number of actors in the elections told the EOM about the rhetoric that permeated the campaign in the last two weeks. The Mission noted that the advisory opinion from the Inter-American Court on Human Rights on gender identity and non-discrimination against same-six persons dominated the political debate. Since the views of the candidates that will compete in the second round on this issue are already well know, it would be important for the campaign to concentrate on program issues as a whole.

Social media became an important platform in these elections for sharing information. Social media enabled the TSE to bring the elections to the people; helped the political parties share their proposals, and allowed voters to understand the different political options. Equal access by all candidates to social media helped put the parties vying with each other on a more even basis. However, it was sometimes noted that social media were used to launch attacks and spread false information. The Mission urges the various actors in the process to use social media responsibly, since if properly used, they can contribute to equity and transparency of the election.

Access to information
The Mission notes the TSE’s commitment to transparency and to development of innovative means of providing citizens with information about the elections. In addition to the free citizen information services at 800ELECTOR and calls to 1020, the Mission observed that for this election, a new cell phone app was launched, #VotanteInformadoCR. This allowed voters to obtain information about the candidates, and find out about their polling place, and was also a means of filing complaints and seeing the results of the elections.

The Electoral Observation Missions deployed in Costa Rica in recent years have been observing the challenges that the campaign financing system poses for political parties. The EOM notes with pleasure that proposals have been introduced in the Legislative Assembly for debate on this matter, and urges the parties to resume their deliberations in order to move forward to agree on a model that will enable the parties to draw on campaign funds appropriately and in good time.

Several political parties told the Mission of difficulties they had had in drawing on state funding, which forced them to rely on private contributions to finance their campaigns and, at times, to take out bank loans. In an effort to break this dependency and ensure equity in the election, the Mission recommends facilitating access to public financing and giving consideration to providing free airtime on radio and television.

The Mission also reiterates the recommendations made in previous reports on the need to set limits on campaign spending and a ceiling on contributions from private sources.

Political participation
The Electoral Code approved in 2009 replaced the gender quotas that had been in effect in Costa Rica since the nineteen nineties with the principles of parity and “alternance”, which were implemented for the first time in the 2014 general elections. However, in spite of this step forward in the rules, the fact that the majority of the lists (78%) were headed by men meant that that year, the percentage of women elected fell from 38.6% in 2010 to 33.6%. 

In view of this, and in line with the recommendation contained in the EOM/OAS report at that time, in May 2016, the TSE adopted a resolution to the effect that the principle of parity stipulated in the code should be extended to the heads of at least three of the seven lists presented by a party. The Mission noted that implementation of horizontal parity resulted in a notable increase in the percentage of lists headed by women: from 22% in 2014 to 43.39% in this present election. The EOM hopes that this increase will be reflected in the number of women elected to the Legislative Assembly.

The Mission congratulates the TSE on having promoted the introduction of horizontal parity, and recognizes Costa Rica’s efforts to seek ways of achieving greater equity political representation. Along the same lines, the Mission also hopes that the political rights of LGTBI persons will not be adversely affected by the polarization generated in the campaign over the discussion of equal marriage.

The Mission thanks the Government of Costa Rica for its invitation to observe these elections, and thanks the Supreme Electoral Court for its openness and cooperation in facilitating the Mission’s work. It also wishes to emphasize the hospitality of the Costa Rican people. The EOM is also grateful for the financial contributions of the Governments of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, France, Korea, Peru and the United States, which made it possible to deploy this Mission.

The OAS Observer Mission will continue to support the electoral process in Costa Rica. Its presence in the second round of the Presidential elections will depend on contributions from member states and Observers to the Organization.

Reference: S-001/18