The structure of the government is similar to system in the United States in that it is divided into three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial. The Constitution established the separation of powers between these three branches similar to the United States checks and balances concept.
Administrative divisions in Costa Rica consist of 7 provinces including San Jose, Alajuela, Heredia, Cartago, Guanacaste, Puntarenas, and Limon. These provinces (similar to U.S. states) are then further divided up into different cantones (similar to U.S. counties). San Jose is the largest with 20 cantons, Alajuela with 15, Heredia with 10, Cartago with 8, Guancaste with 11, Puntarenas with 11 and Limon with 6. The cantons in turn are divided into territories headed by a Municipal government. There are 81 Municipal governments in Costa Rica. The municipalities are run by a mayor (alcalde) who are elected by popular vote and appointed by the Municipal Council (Consejo Municipal). Main control of the country, however, lies in the hands of the central government.
There is what is considered a fourth branch of governmentis called the Supreme Tribunal of Elections. This sector controls all aspects of the elections and is even given power to control security forces for periods around election time.
The Executive Branch
Executive power is exercised by the President, his/her two vice-presidents and his/her cabinet. The Executive branch is made up of the President of the Republic who is elected every four years through a general election. The presidency is won by popular vote in Costa Rica's multi party system. The President is both the Chief of State and the Head of Government. The vice-presidents and cabinet members are appointed by the president.
Presidents in the past could only serve one term according to the 1969 constitutional amendment limiting candidates to one term. However, in June of 2005 Oscar Arias Sanchez enrolled as a presidential candidate even through he had served as president in the 80's . After doing so, the Constitutional sector of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) declared that reformation of the Constitution was necessary due to the fact that impeding the opportunity for presidential re-election violated the basic rights of citizens. This is the first historical re-election in the last 36 years.
Another interesting fact is that the last 33 of 44 presidents from 1821 to 1970 are descendants of the three original colonizers in Costa Rica.
The Legislative Branch
The Unimerical Legislative Assembly or Asemblea Legislativa holds 57 seats. Members are elected by direct popular vote to serve four-year terms. The Legislature has two ordinary sessions (May 1st to July 31st and September 1st to November 30th). The Legislative Assembly has more power in Costa Rica than in other Central American countries.
The Legislative Commissions are composed of six permanent commissions which are responsible fore evaluating proposed laws. The six commissions are: Agriculture & Natural Resources, Economic Affairs, Government & Administration, Budgeting & Taxation, Judicial Affairs, and Social Affairs.
In 1992, the Legislature passed Law No. 7319 which created the office of the Ombudsman (Defensoria de los Habitantes). This is an independent office attached to the Legislature to whom they are accountable rather than to the Government in office. This office may take cases against the Government either on its own initiative or at the request of any third party.
The Judicial Branch
The legal system in Costa Rica is based on the Spanish Civil system and is independent from the executive and legislative branches.
There are three levels of courts; district, appellate and supreme. There is judicial review of the legislative acts. The administrative rules for the judicial branch are set fourth in the Ley Organica del Poder Judicial.
Judicial Power is exercised by the Supreme Court of Justice. The Court is composed of 22 Supreme court magistrates or justices who are selected for renewable 8 year terms by the Legislative Assembly and subsidiary courts. Judges may be re-elected and can stay in their position for life.
The Supreme Court is comprised of 4 chambers:
1) Commercial and civil law (Sala I) is presided over by seven magistrates and has jurisdiction over all civil and administrative matters.
2) Administrative and labor law (Sala II) is presided over by five magistrates and has appellate jurisdiction over civil matters including family law, estates, and labor law.
3) Criminal Law (Sala III) is presided over by five magistrates and only hears criminal appeals.
4) Constitutional Law (Sala IV) has exclusive jurisdiction over all constitutional matters.
In 1989, the Constitution was amended to create a Constitutional branch within the Supreme Court of Costa Rica. This fourth chamber (Sala IV) has specific jurisdiction over matters that involve the violation of constitutional rights. This chamber most controversial and frequently appears in local news due to challenges in legislation which are common, time consuming, and often have little result.