Costa Rica has long emphasized the development of democracy and respect for human rights. Until recently, the country's political system has contrasted sharply with many of its Central American neighbors; it has steadily developed and maintained democratic institutions and an orderly, constitutional scheme for government succession. Several factors have contributed to this tendency, including enlightened government leaders, comparative prosperity, flexible class lines, educational opportunities that have created a stable middle class, and high social indicators. Also, because Costa Rica has no armed forces, it has avoided the possibility of political intrusiveness by the military that other countries in the region have experienced.
Costa Rica is a democratic republic, as defined by the 1949 Constitution, which guarantees all citizens and foreigners equality before the law, the right to own property, the right of petition and assembly, freedom of speech, and the right to habeas corpus. As in the United States, the government is divided into independent executive, legislative, and judicial branches, with "separation of powers" consecrated under Article 9 of the Constitution (none of the powers, for example, can delegate to another the exercise of its functions). In 1969 an amendment ruled that neither the incumbent president nor any former president may be reelected (they must also be secular citizens; i.e. not a priest).
The executive branch is composed of the president, two vice presidents, and a cabinet of 17 members called the Council of Government (Consejo de Gobierno). Legislative power is vested in the National Assembly, a unicameral body composed of 57 members elected by proportional representation. Diputados are elected for a four-year term and can be reelected only after four more. The Assembly holds the power to amend the president's budget and to appoint the comptroller general, who checks public expenditures and prevents the executive branch from overspending. Like its U.S. equivalent, the Assembly can override presidential decisions by two-thirds majority vote and reserves unto itself the sole right to declare war. The power of the legislature to go against the president's wishes is a cause of constant friction (Costa Rica is governed through compromise: a tempest may rage at the surface, but a compromise resolution is generally being worked out behind the scenes), and presidents have not been cowardly in using such tools as the executive decree to usurp power to themselves. The Oduber administration (1974-78), for example, issued 4,709 executive decrees; the legislature enacted just 721 laws in the same period.
The Legislative Assembly also appoints Supreme Court judges "as many Magistrates as are necessary for adequate service"for minimum terms of eight years. They are automatically reappointed unless voted out by the Legislative Assembly. Currently there are 24 judges on the Supreme Court. These judges, in turn, select judges for the civil and penal courts. Together, the courts have done much to enforce constitutional checks on presidential power. The courts also appoint the three "permanent" magistrates of the Special Electoral Tribunal, an independent body which oversees each election and is given far-reaching powers. The Tribunal appointees serve staggered six-year terms and are appointed one every two years to minimize partisanship (two additional temporary magistrates are appointed a year before each election).