Costa Rica most important holiday - Election Day

A century-and-a-half tradition of free and honest elections forms the basis for today's political life. Instead of frequent coups d'etat so common in neighboring countries, Costa Rican governments change by balloting. Although members of the same, affluent families win office frequently, they tend to be civilians, intellectuals and for the most part, working for the good of the country as a whole, not just for one particular class. In 1889, the population survived a potential revolution when the defeated incumbents almost refused to recognize the election results. But at the last minute they decided to accept the will of the people, thus reinforcing a tradition of democratic process.

A truly significant event that totally separated Costa Rica from the ranks of other Central American nations occurred in 1948. The ruling party decided not to recognize the results of a disputed election and refused to give up power, ordering new elections because of the closeness of the vote and accusations of fraud. A crisis of democracy threatened. Pepe Figueres, a charismatic member of one of the wealthy families, stepped forward to lead an uprising against the illegal government and its attempt to use the army to hold on to power. The result of this successful action was a movement to abolish the army and replace it with the Guardia Civil, a civilian-controlled police force comparable to a city police or state patrol in the United States.

This was a brilliant and bold step. Barracks were turned into schools. Ex-soldiers were given jobs building roads. Money which would normally be absorbed by military corruption and graft was devoted to highways, education and medical care. Today, 27 percent of the national budget goes to education and culture. Public money pays for four universities, three symphony orchestras, and five autonomous state publishing houses. Of the gross national product, about 10 percent is spent on medical care, and there is a physician for every 700 inhabitants.

Many North Americans shake their heads in dismay at the lack of a standing army. They ask, "Without a military, how can you defend your country from aggression?" The answer is simple. The function of a Central American military has never been to deter aggression; its duty is to protect the rulers of the country from its citizens, to keep the people in line and protect privileges for the military and the country's financial elite. Democracy doesn't stand a chance when armed soldiers bully candidates, threaten voters, conduct the election and then count the ballots!

Election day is Costa Rica's most important holiday, a riotous celebration with a joyous spirit that goes far beyond mere politics. Voting is mandatory (non-voters pay a token fine), but few citizens would think of passing up the fun and excitement of an election. Weeks prior to election day all parties campaign vigorously, with folks everywhere waving their party's flags, cheering enthusiastically when a car displaying a favored flag drives past, or booing good-naturedly when an opposition flag passes by. On the day of election, all stores and businesses are closed. All transportation is free. Buses, taxis, even private cars are expected to stop when someone indicates they want a ride to a polling booth In practice most autos will stop for anyone who 22 Choose Costa Rica waves and asks for a ride in whatever direction the auto is headed. After all, this is a fiesta!

It's interesting to note that many Costa Ricans, when they move from their home towns to another part of the country, do not change their voting registration to their new address. Because transportation is free, this is an opportunity to return to their home towns to vote and to visit friends and family at the same time. Parties, reunions and celebrations are a most important part of election day.

Voters must dunk their thumbs into indelible ink, to prove they've voted (and cannot vote again), and this purple digit is worn as a proud badge of civic duty. Automobile drivers honk their horns and wave their discolored thumbs in the air as they drive along the streets, to show everyone they have voted and shouting, "have you voted yet?" There are so many horns blowing on Election Day that it sounds like New Year's Eve at midnight, all day long.

The result is a country intensely dedicated to notions of democracy. All segments of the political spectrum, from extreme right to far out left are represented; all are totally legal. Yet middle-of-the road parties always garner most of the votes. Despite vigorous campaigning, the Communists used to receive two percent of the vote, but have fallen to around one percent as party members become disenchanted with failed Marxist experiments in neighboring Nicaragua and elsewhere.

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