Election Preview I: Colombia 2018

Congressional elections were held in Colombia on March 11, 2018. The first round of the presidential election will be held on May 27, 2018 with a second round, if necessary, scheduled for June 17, 2018. Two open presidential primaries were held in parallel to the congressional elections on March 11.

This unusual election preview below includes a lengthy explanation of Colombia’s political institutions and electoral systems, as well as more theoretical and perhaps esoteric reflections on Colombian democracy and politics which may help explain some of the main puzzles or intrigues of the country’s messy and often infuriating politics. Time dependent, I may post a second preview post prior to next Sunday’s first round ballot. I welcome readers’ questions on the topic.

Colombia’s Political and Electoral System

Colombia is a decentralized presidential republic. It has three branches of government – presidential, legislative and judicial – with, in theory, separation of powers and checks and balances. In addition to the three branches, there are two independent autonomous ‘control bodies’ (órganos de control) – the Public Ministry, made up of the Inspector General (Procuraduría General) and the Ombudsman (Defensoría del Pueblo), and the Comptroller General (Contraloría General). The Inspector General (Procurador, not to be confused with the Attorney General’s office, Fiscalía) monitors compliance with the Constitution and the laws and protects human rights and societal interests, but – more importantly – he wields significant disciplinary power over public officials, allowed to remove them from office and ban them from holding public offices for an extensive range of offences, open to discretion and abuse (see article 278 of the Constitution).


Rear entrance of the Casa de Nariño, presidential palace in Bogotá (own picture)

The President of the Republic (Presidente de la República) is the head of state, head of government and supreme administrative authority (and commander-in-chief of the armed forces). The President is directly elected to a single, non-renewable four year term in a two round election, with an absolute majority required to win in the first round. Because Colombia recognizes blank votes (votos en blanco) as valid votes, an absolute majority is not required to win in the runoff.

The original text of the 1991 Constitution limited presidents to a single, non-renewable term, thereby banning both consecutive and non-consecutive reelection (under the previous constitution, written in 1886, non-consecutive reelection was allowed). In 2004, the Constitution was amended to allow one single reelection (either consecutive and non-consecutive), setting a two term limit. In 2009-2010, a highly controversial attempt to hold a citizen-initiated referendum to allow for a second reelection (for a total of three terms) was ruled unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court in February 2010. The 2015 constitutional reform abolished presidential reelection, returning to the original text of the 1991 Constitution. The President must be a natural-born citizen over the age of 30.

The President freely appoints and dismisses cabinet ministers, diplomats, directors of administrative departments and other heads of public institutions. In addition to these direct appointments, the President nominates three candidates for Attorney General (elected by the Supreme Court for a four-year term), one of the three candidates for Inspector General (elected by the Senate for a four-year term), three of the nine magistrates of the Constitutional Court (elected by the Senate from lists of three nominees, for staggered eight-year terms) and the seven members of the disciplinary jurisdictional chamber of the Supreme Council of Judiciary (elected by Congress from lists of three nominees). The President also appoints five of the seven members of the board of directors of the Bank of the Republic (central bank), in addition to the finance minister and a general director elected by the other members.

Through the government, the executive branch has significant influence over lawmaking – unlike in the United States, ministers can directly introduce pieces of legislation, and in practice it often intervenes throughout the legislative process to ensure approval of the government’s agenda (sometimes using ethically questionable, if not illegal, means). Any piece of legislation passed by Congress must be sanctioned (approved) by the President, as head of government, who has between six and twenty days (depending on the length of the bill) to object to it, either partially or in its entirety. If objected to, a bill is automatically returned to Congress, which can override the presidential objection with the support of an absolute majority of members in both houses, except if the bill is objected to on grounds of unconstitutionality, in which case the bill – if both houses insist – is sent to the Constitutional Court, which rules on the matter within six days.

According to the letter of the Constitution, the President and the government’s key powers include foreign relations, national defence, public order, the management of public administration, the oversight of public services, fiscal and economic policy.

Whereas under the 1886 constitution, the president was all-powerful with weak or nonexistent checks and balances, the 1991 Constitution has – at least in theory, if not always entirely in practice – limited executive prerogatives. For examples, the President’s power to declare states of exception (state of foreign war, state of internal disturbance, state of social, economic or environmental emergency) and rule by decree is limited in time (e.g. the state of internal disturbance is limited to 90 days, renewable twice, the second renewal requiring senatorial approval) and scope (e.g. decrees must be directly related to the situation, the Constitutional Court must rule on the constitutionality of decrees and human rights cannot be suspended).

The Vice President (Vicepresidente de la República) is elected simultaneously to the President on a single ticket (fórmula vicepresidencial). The Vice President’s only constitutional duty is to replace the president during temporary or permanent vacancies, although the President may appoint the Vice President to any office in the executive branch or entrust him/her with special assignments or responsibilities. Historically, since the office’s recreation by the 1991 Constitution, the Vice President has not been a high-profile office, unlike in the United States, and the choice of running-mates during presidential campaigns has received far less attention than in the United States. However, since 2014, there are signs that the vice presidency is becoming a more important office – both in terms of public visibility in office and its possibility as a stepping stone to the presidency. A sitting Vice President cannot run for President unless he/she resigns from office at least one year before the election.


The Colombian Congress (Congreso) is a bicameral legislature composed of the Senate (Senado) and House of Representatives (Cámara de Representantes), both elected simultaneously for fixed four-year terms beginning on July 20.

Departments of Colombia (source: Wikimedia)

The Senate will have up to 108 seats. 100 are elected in a single national constituency (which includes voters abroad) and two are elected in a special national constituency for indigenous communities. Since the 2015 constitutional reform, the runner-up in the presidential election will be automatically entitled to a seat in the Senate. As part of the November 2016 peace agreement, the FARC will be entitled to at least five seats in the Senate ex officio, for two terms (2018-2022, 2022-2026) regardless of their actual electoral result.

The House of Representatives will have up to 171 seats. 161 are elected in regular territorial constituencies corresponding to the country’s 32 departments and Bogotá (capital district) with each constituency having a minimum of two seats with additional ones for every 365,000 inhabitants (or fraction greater than 182,500 above the first 365,000). The district magnitude for the territorial constituencies vary between 2 and 18.  12 departments have 2 seats, 7 have 3 or 4, 5 have 5, 6 have 6 or 7 and three (Valle, Antioquia, Bogotá) have more than ten (13, 17 and 18 respectively). A 2005 constitutional amendment established that the number of seats by department would be adjusted on the basis of population growth, and that no department would have less seats than it had in 2002, but it has been hard to rigorously apply that rule given that there has been no legally recognized census since 1985 (there will be one this year – assuming they actually remember to recognize it by law, unlike in 2005).

3 are elected in two special national constituencies – one for Afro-Colombians (2 seats) and one for indigenous communities (1 seat). The international expatriates constituency elects one member, down from two. Since the 2015 constitutional reform, the runner-up’s running-mate (vice presidential candidate) in the presidential election will be automatically entitled to a seat in the House. As part of the November 2016 peace agreement, the FARC will be entitled to at least five seats in the House ex officio, for two terms (2018-2022, 2022-2026) regardless of their actual electoral result. The 2015 constitutional reform created a special seat for the raizal community of San Andrés and Providencia, but it has not yet been implemented by secondary legislation.

Both houses are equal in the regular legislative process, and bills may originate in either house with two exceptions (revenue bills in the House, international relations bills in the Senate). Both houses have exclusive powers, which, on balance, make the Senate superior in the formal constitutional hierarchy. The Senate, among other things, elects the magistrates of the Constitutional Court and the Inspector General (Procurador General), approves the resignations of the President and Vice President, allows the transit of foreign troops and authorizes declarations of war. The House’s exclusive powers are of lesser importance, although, like in the United States, it begins and votes on impeachment proceedings against senior public officials including the President the judges of the three highest courts (the trial is held in the Senate, although its conviction powers are limited). The House’s Commission of Accusations – which recommends articles of impeachment – is where accusations against senior public officials go to die, earning it the nickname “commission of absolutions”.

Congress of the Republic in Bogotá (own picture)

In political culture, the Senate is clearly hierarchically superior and more prestigious, with the House being a stepping stone to the Senate in the typical political career path. Senators, in part because because they are elected in a single national constituency, are far more well-known and receive the bulk of media coverage and attention, while few representatives get national attention (those who do are those from Bogotá, often there on the way to higher places). Senatorial candidates usually unofficially run with one or more candidates for the House as a fórmula or ‘ticket’ – a way of coordinating or managing vote distribution in a competitive preferential vote system. The fórmula also have a clear clientelist function: the senator is the cacique, while his/her representatives are the operators or gamonales. But ‘non-clientelist’ senators also run with a fórmula. The fórmulas also show that, despite the national constituency, many senators have regionally-concentrated bases of support, in the most extreme of cases not extending beyond the boundaries of their departments. Senators are seen – by themselves, by voters, by observers and by analysts – as representing their region or department, and it is rather simple after each election to calculate ‘how many’ senators each department has. Most of the smaller departments are unrepresented in the Senate (unlike before 1991, when senators, like representatives were elected by department) — there have been proposals, most recently in the first versions of the 2015 constitutional reform, to create territorial constituencies to provide senatorial representation to the smaller departments.

Electoral system for Congress

Both houses of Congress are elected by proportional representation. The threshold is 3% of the valid national vote (Senate), half of the quota (House districts with 3 or more seats) or a third of the quota (House districts with 2 seats).

Parties run a single list by constituency which may be either closed (non-preferential) or open (preferential). For closed lists, the list of candidates is pre-ordered and cannot be altered, and voters only mark the party’s logo on the ballot. For open lists, voters may vote for one individual candidate on the party’s list, identified on the ballot by a number. The list is entirely re-ordered based on the number of preferential votes obtained by each candidate, with the allocation of seats done in descending order, beginning with the candidate who has the most votes. Voters may also vote only for the party list, but that vote is valid only for purposes of the threshold but not for reordering the list. Most parties run open lists, which allow for different political factions to aggregate under a single party but to avoid any infighting over list ordering.

Seats are first distributed between parties (lists) using the d’Hondt method/cifra repartidora and only then between candidates on the lists, so there is an incentive for vote pooling – or to recruit individual candidates who will win enough votes on their own to help their party over the threshold.

The current electoral system, somewhat unique in the world although similar to the Brazilian electoral system, was adopted by the 2003 political reform. Prior to 2003, Colombia’s electoral system was an astounding monstrosity – officially a closed-list single quota largest remainder (SQLR) system, parties could run more than one list per constituency, so in practice it was essentially a single non-transferable vote (SNTV) because so few lists reached the quota so the bulk of seats were allocated to lists in descending order of largest remainders. Parties – particularly the Liberal Party – came to understand that they could win more seats by running multiple list, perfecting a widespread practice which was known as operación avispa, conjuring up an image of a swarm of wasps (avispas). This electoral system reinforced and worsened the extreme personalism of Colombia’s political system, and led to the collapse of the traditional party system as personalist factions became recognized one-man ‘political parties’, the so-called microempresas electorales (electoral micro-businesses).

The 2002 congressional elections illustrate the sheer horror of the pre-reform electoral system. For the 100 seats in the Senate’s national constituencies, there were 321 personal lists from 63 parties (148 of them from the Liberal Party), with 96 lists from 41 parties obtaining seats. Only 12 seats were attributed on the basis of the quota, all other seats were therefore distributed by largest remainder, i.e. essentially SNTV. Only three lists won more than one seat.

The new electoral system, first used in the 2006 elections, was initially med by cautious optimism in the electoral studies literature. After four elections under the new system, it has – unsurprisingly – not been the silver bullet. Its greatest success has been to significantly reduce the number of parties, if only by re-ordering personalist electoral competition under the umbrella of a reduced number of recognized parties. There are fewer parties, artificially upheld by arbitrarily rigid legislation on political parties, but it is questionable whether parties are any stronger as a result. Most parties run open lists, which means that congressional campaigns remain focused on the person (candidate) rather than the party and, much like under the pre-reform electoral system, parties therefore still have very little incentive to develop coherent policy platforms for congressional elections. Open lists tend to encourage or aggravate problems including excessive personalism, internal fragmentation of parties, expensive campaigns, vote buying, clientelism, infiltration of illegal money or groups and lower female representation. The design of the ballot paper – with individual candidates, up to 100 in the Senate’s national constituency, identified by a number in a small box – is confusing to voters, so there has been a high number of unmarked or invalid votes in congressional elections (16% in 2014). Political reforms in 2015 and 2017 included proposals to gradually move towards mandatory closed lists, but this provision was removed from the 2015 reform and the 2017 political reform died. However, it is also debatable whether closed lists would be the silver bullet – you cannot change a political culture where personalism is so ingrained only through electoral reform, and intra-party democracy remains very poorly developed in Colombia (despite constitutional and legal mandates for it) so there is some degree of ‘fear’ that closed lists would lead to the ‘dictatorship of the pen’. Unfortunately, valid compromise solutions between the open lists and mandatory closed lists – like semi-open lists – are rarely taken seriously.

The sheer number of congressional candidates (2,737 in 2018) makes the vote counting process lengthy and open to manipulation and fraud, without most people noticing, particularly with individual candidates who are only a few thousand votes for gaining or losing a seat. The most serious recent case of evidenced electoral fraud is the MIRA party, which fell below the 3% threshold in the 2014 elections and lost three seats in the Senate. In February 2018, after a gargantuan process, the Council of State ruled in the party’s favour and ordered the party’s top three candidates to be sworn in as senators (although with only a few months left in the term). In short, the Council of State’s ruling (ref. # 11001-03-28-00-2014-00117-00) found evidence of unexplained irregularities (differences between individual precinct results and official consolidated results), valid votes for the party being counted as invalid because of pens’ ink stains and irregular actions in the log archives of the vote count software. Similar allegations have been made about some of the results in the March 2018 elections.

All ballots include a box for a blank vote – voto en blanco – which is counted as a valid vote. Unmarked ballots and invalid votes (mistakes, marking more than one box etc.) are counted separately but do not count as valid votes. According to article 258 of the Constitution, an election must be repeated if there is a plurality of blank votes (prior to the 2009 political reform, it required an absolute majority of blank votes). In the event that a congressional election must be repeated, lists which did not reach the threshold may not participate. There were a plurality of blank votes in the 2014 Andean Parliament elections and the 2006 and 2010 elections for the indigenous special constituency, but these elections were not repeated because of the high costs it would have involved for ‘unimportant’ elections which draw exceedingly low turnout to begin with. In fact, Colombia abolished direct elections to the Andean Parliament, a little-known talking shop widely dismissed as irrelevant, after 2014.

The ‘special constituencies’ for indigenous peoples and Afro-Colombians

The Senate has a special constituency for indigenous peoples which returns two senators, and the House has special constituencies for Afro-Colombians and indigenous peoples which return two and one representatives. These special constituencies were created by the 1991 Constitution to ensure special representation for groups which had hitherto been largely underrepresented in the political process.

Unlike with the Maori seats in New Zealand, there is no separate ‘electoral roll’ for Afro-Colombians or indigenous peoples, so all the different constituencies appear on the same ballot and it is up to the voter whether to vote in the national/territorial constituencies or in one of the special constituencies – but you may only vote in one (this only adds to ballot design confusion). In practice, the ‘black’ and indigenous seats are elected by very few voters – in 2014, 0.8% of votes were cast for the indigenous seat in the House (116k), 1.7% of votes were cast for the Afro seats (237k). Slightly more votes (310k or 2.2%) were cast for the two indigenous seats in the Senate. Yet, in the 2005 census, at least 1.4 million identified as indigenous and 4.1 million as Afro-Colombian.

Candidates for the indigenous constituencies must have held a position of traditional authority in their community or have been leader of an indigenous organization (accredited by the organization and confirmed by the Ministry of Interior). Candidates for the Afro constituency in the House must be “members of the respective community” and endorsed by an organization registered with the Directorate of Affairs for Black Communities of the Ministry of Interior – a much vaguer definition, which has been inconsistently applied and resulted in endless obscure legal battles. Since 2011, national parties cannot legally run for the special seats, which are therefore only contested by supposedly ethnic/racial parties or groups, which do not have to meet the threshold to maintain their party registration and face very little legal scrutiny from the authorities. The opposite, however, is not true: Indigenous and Afro-Colombian parties can endorse candidates in other elections and constituencies, which has turned many of them into highly prized ‘endorsement factories’ (fábrica de avales) or wholesale satellite parties. The 2003 electoral reform, which also extended to the special constituencies, paradoxically increased inter-party competition and party fragmentation — because it is very difficult for a single party list to be able to win both seats (a similar trend occurred in departments of low district magnitude).

The sparse literature on the special ethnic minority constituencies is largely critical and negative, for good reason. The Afro constituency has turned into a freak show, which has failed to provide any effective group representation for Afro-Colombian communities — the seats have, since 2002, gone either to celebrities or criminals, neither of which have proven to be particularly talented at representing the communities they are supposed to represent. The seats have increasingly little legitimacy in the eyes of many Afro-Colombian community leaders and activists, who have turned to NGOs and even the Congressional Black Caucus in the US to lobby for their interests.

The 2014 elections for the Afro seats turned into an absurd circus. Both seats went to the ‘Ebony Foundation of Colombia’ (Funeco), an obscure group controlled by the controversial Yahir Acuña (Afro representative 2010-14, regular representative 2014-15), investigated for parapolítica. The kicker: both of the two Afro representatives were whites (and both of them equally as shady as Yahir). Their election was challenged in court(s) on various grounds (including that they did not represent the black population), which began a protracted legal battle with a confusing series of contradictory rulings and judicial orders between and within jurisdictions – a circus whose absurdity was complemented by the death of one of the representatives, who had never been able to take her seat, which obviously began a new legal battle about who should replace her. In 2016, the election of the other representative was finally invalidated by the Council of State, which later ruled that only candidates endorsed by Afro-Colombian community councils (rather than ‘base organizations’) were allowed to run. This meant that the open seat went to the strongest candidate endorsed by a community council – which in this case was former Miss Colombia Vanessa Mendoza, who won only 500 or so votes on a list which finished sixteenth.

Eligibility and ballot access

Senators need to be natural-born citizens over 30, representatives need to be citizens over 25.

Inside courtyard of the Congress (own picture)

Anyone who has been imprisoned (except for political offences and criminal negligence); held public employment within the year prior the election; participated in business transactions with public entities or concluded contracts with them; holds ties of marriage or kinship with civil servants holding civil or political authority and those who have previously lost their congressional mandate (investidura) are ineligible; as are relatives through marriage or kinship in the same party.

Breaking the rules of ineligibility, incompatibility and conflict of interest lead to the loss of one’s mandate (investidura) – as does absenteeism, embezzlement of public funds and influence peddling. The loss of congressional mandate/investiture (pérdida de investidura), commonly known as ‘political death’, is any congressman’s greatest fear. It is decreed by the Council of State within 20 days of a request being made by the bureau of the corresponding chamber or by any citizen.

Congressmen, like all other civil servants, may be removed from office by the Inspector General (Procurador General) on ‘disciplinary grounds’ like breaking the law, infringing on the Constitution or deriving undue profit from the office. Incumbent congressmen may only be arrested and tried by the Supreme Court. A 2018 constitutional amendment guarantees congressmen and other aforados the right to a ‘double instance’ in trials – in other words, the right to appeal.

The 1991 Constitution’s aim of ‘opening’ the political system to new actors inadvertently led to the complete collapse of the party system by 2002, and strengthening and ordering the party system became one of the core objectives of the 2003 political reform – and subsequent political reforms. As a result, Colombia has rigid laws on political parties (Law 1745 of 2011) which provide, in theory, for hefty sanctions to parties and politicians who break them. Membership in more than one party (doble militancia) – which may also mean publicly campaigning for the candidate of a party other than your own – is banned, and this also requires incumbent elected officials who wish to seek reelection for a different party than they one they were elected with must resign their seats twelve months before the candidate registration period begins. Floor crossing is banned (although exceptional floor crossing windows were opened following the 2003 and 2009 political reform), which is understandable in a proportional representation system, but in Colombia this has led to absurdities like congressmen being kept a member of his party against his will, begging for expulsion to no avail.

There are basically two ways to make it to the ballot in Colombia. It is not overly difficult.

  • Endorsement by a legally recognized political party or movement. Parties lose their legal recognition if they win less than 3% of valid votes nationally for either the Senate or the House.
  • Gathering signatures as a ‘significant group of citizens’ (grupo significativo de ciudadanos) – 50,000 for Senate, 3% of valid votes in the last presidential election for President, 20% of the result of dividing the departmental electoral roll by number of seats to be filled for the House. Candidates who obtain ballot access by gathering signatures are colloquially known as candidatos por firmas (‘candidates by signatures’), similar to candidates by nominating petition in the US.

The law now allows for coalition candidates – registered with several parties or ‘significant group of citizens’ – for uninominal offices (president, mayors, governors) and the 2015 constitutional reform allows parties, who have won up to 15% of the vote combined, to run coalition lists for collegiate bodies (like Congress).

Electoral administration

Colombia’s electoral administration infrastructure is messy and convoluted. It is made up, primarily, of the National Electoral Council (Consejo Nacional Electoral, CNE) and the National Civil Registrar (Registraduría Nacional del Estado Civil) although the Council of State has the power to nullify election results. The CNE is made up of nine members elected by Congress for a four-year term, proportionally between candidates proposed by parties or coalitions. It regulates, inspects, controls and monitors the activities of political parties, certifies election results, hears complaints against electoral results and procedures, legally recognizes political parties, oversees electoral campaigns, regulates campaign finance and revokes candidacies for ineligibilities. Yet, the CNE is not an electoral court or tribunal like in many other Latin American countries, and its investigative powers and capacities are very limited in practice. The CNE is an ineffective, woefully inefficient, politicized and incompetent institution where files go to die. Despite an abundance of proposals – from politicians and civil society alike – to reform Colombia’s messy electoral infrastructure, all three existing bodies – particularly the CNE and Council of State – tend to be zealously protective of their established interests and hostile towards any change (most proposals would involve abolishing the CNE and creating an effective ‘electoral tribunal’ like Mexico’s TEPJF)

The National Civil Registrar, chosen by the presidents of the three highest courts for a four-year term, has several non-electoral duties (civil status, civil registry, birth and death certificates, national ID cards) but its electoral duties include candidate registration, voter registration, organizing and running electoral processes (including setting up voting locations, counting the votes and reporting results). If the CNE is widely derided as ineffective and politicized, the Registraduría is sometimes held in rather high regard as an effective and independent electoral body in Latin America.

Colombia’s democracy and political system

According to the 2017 edition of Freedom in the World, Colombia is a ‘partly free’ electoral democracy with an overall score of 65/100 (slightly higher than Mexico). In their view, continued violence and insecurity as a result of the internal armed conflict remains the main threat to civil and political liberties – a view which is far from wrong, although perhaps somewhat simplistic. The Economist’s Democracy Index ranks Colombia 53rd overall, as a ‘flawed democracy’, on par with Poland and a bit behind Brazil and Argentina.

The paradoxes of Colombian politics

Colombia’s democracy and political system – and their problems – require some greater explanations and comments. Colombia’s history and politics have long tended to stand out in South America as an ‘exception’ or ‘paradoxical’. The country of magical realism lives up to its name. Colombia is one of the oldest democracies in Latin America – although its actual qualification as a democracy for many of these periods is questionable – with a long tradition of regularly scheduled elections, peaceful transfer of power and quasi-uninterrupted civilian rule since the nineteenth century. The first peaceful transfer of power following an electoral-type event occurred as early as 1837. During the Depression era (1930), a very turbulent period in Latin America which saw several coups or uprisings, regime change in Colombia came through electoral means with an opposition victory in the presidential elections – although this election quickly sparked a wave of partisan violence. Presidents who didn’t serve their full constitutional terms have been the exception than the rule – unlike in Ecuador, where a president serving their full constitutional term was an extraordinary achievement until very recently. Unlike most South American countries, Colombia has had very few successful military coups and few military regimes – the most recent and famous one being General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla (1953-1957), who came to power in a quick coup described as a golpe de opinión by civilian supporters, and who was promptly removed from power as soon as he lost the support of the civilian political elite which had initially backed him. However, while Colombia is one of the “oldest democracies” on the continent, it is also a country with a long history of political violence, expressed in a dozen-odd civil wars in the nineteenth century, the madness of the Violencia or the barbarity of the current armed conflict in all its plural forms. Regular elections and civilian rule (not necessarily real democracy) have, for long periods of time, coexisted and collided with political violence and internal conflict.

A weak and illegitimate state

Mauricio García Villegas (2009) highlighted two structural features of the Colombian political system – the ‘inefficiency’ of the state, or its inability to control certain territories or impose its decision; and the ‘illegitimacy’ of the state, which he claims stems from the hyper-politicized nature of political debate. The Colombian state is one which has often failed to meet Max Weber’s basic definition of the state – holding a “monopoly of the legitimate use of violence within a given territory” – both because it lacks a monopoly on the (legitimate) use of violence (and has, at times, even willingly conceded or subcontracted this monopoly) and because it has failed to control significant parts of its national territory. Colombia is a geographically fragmented country, with a difficult terrain and topography which has made transportation and communication difficult, even today (look at a road map of Colombia). Large swathes of the country – like the Llanos Orientales (Orinoquía) or the Amazon – remained unsettled after independence in the nineteenth century, and colonization processes in these and other ‘frontier’ regions were often conflictual, with the state unable to impose its authority and seldom appearing as a neutral arbitrer in land rights conflicts. An additional cause behind of the state’s historic weakness is that, after independence, a small and poor central government in Bogotá subcontracted the task of nation-building and regional development to intermediaries – the Catholic Church, hacendadosgamonalescaciques and (after the 1840s) political parties, thereby laying the foundations of a clientelistic political system which has endured to the present-day. Clientelism, mediated by the two traditional parties, became the primary means of integrating and mobilizing local populations into a weak national political community, but it also entrenched a corrupt, exclusivist and oligarchic political system.

An additional oft-cited factor in the weakness and fragmentation of the Colombian nation-state is the absence of a unifying national myth – like the Mexican Revolution in contemporary Mexico. Two historical figures who could have played the role of uncontested unifying national icons, Simón Bolívar and Francisco de Paula Santander, have long been identified with particular political/ideological factions – Bolívar with conservatism (and, in the later twentieth century, radical leftist ‘revolutionaries’) and Santander with liberalism. Bolívar and Santander, among other historical figures of independence, are honoured and memorialized as ‘founding fathers’, but not nearly to the same extent as Bolívar’s cult worship by the chavista regime in Venezuela or even Mexico’s patriotic heroes.

Partisanship, violence and elusive legitimacy in Colombia

Colombia’s two traditional parties, the Liberals and Conservatives – rojos y azules (reds and blues), were founded at roughly the same time in the mid-1840s or early 1850s, one in reaction to the other. The parties were founded before the state was consolidated and became key actors in the imagination and inculcation of a precarious national identity. With the Catholic Church, they were among the few institutions which provided a semblance of ‘national unity’ over a large, fragmented geography. These parties became authentic inimical political subcultures, with large bases of followers cutting across class and regional boundaries, perceiving the adversary as an enemy. This sectarianism, or ‘inherited hatreds’, led to a succession of civil wars in the nineteenth century and was the initial trigger for the Violencia in the 1950s. Partisan competition for power, which took place both at the ballot box and on battlefields, was violent and losers often found themselves excluded from power. The state, rather than a neutral or autonomous arbitrer, became a commodity with little autonomy from partisan politics.

Throughout Colombian history, regardless of ideology or partisanship, violence has often appeared as an appropriate – if not the only – way to resolve political, social, economic and cultural disputes. Carl von Clausewitz said “war is the continuation of politics by other means”, but in Colombia it often seems as if “politics is the continuation of war by other means”. Violence has been a defining factor of Colombian politics, and unfortunately often the main stereotype foreigners associate with the country.

For ‘left-wing’ guerrillas in the 1960s, ‘defeating the system’, revolution and profound social changes were only possible through armed struggle, and cycles of repression and frustrated peace openings reinforced that view among guerrillas in subsequent decades – for far longer than any other revolutionary guerrillas in Latin America. ‘Right-wing’ paramilitaries felt that violence was the only means to defeat ‘communist subversives’, protect private property or defend (or re-create) a very authoritarian far-right fatherland (patria). Hacendados (particularly cattle ranchers – ganaderos), later joined by the new narco-landowners of the early 1980s, felt that violence – ‘self-defence’ – was the only way to protect their property and business model from guerrilla extortion, harassment and kidnapping. Some politicians, to win elections and retain power, have conspired to physically eliminate their rivals and critics – for example, Liberal senator and regional baron Alberto Santofimio, connected to Pablo Escobar, was finally convicted in 2011 for his role in the August 1989 assassination of rival Liberal presidential pre-candidate Luis Carlos Galán. Certain particularly vulnerable groups – human rights activists, social and community leaders, land restitution activists, trade unionists and journalists – continue to be targeted because of their work, with over 200 social leaders and human rights activists assassinated since 2016 according to the Ombudsman (as of March 2018), increasing to an alarming level in 2017 and 2018. Land conflicts, territorial disputes and illegal economic interests (mining, coca cultivation, drug trafficking, contraband etc.) are often the main reasons behind the murder of social leaders in Colombia. But beyond politically-motivated violence and the armed conflict, interpersonal and domestic violence is a widespread – in 2017, at least 1,800 homicides were the result of ‘interpersonal violence’ (fights or settling of scores) or domestic violence.

Following the bloodshed of the Violencia, triggered by partisan sectarianism, Colombia’s bipartisan elites agreed to a formal power-sharing system, the National Front, which was intended to end traditional partisan violence by removing the main object of dispute (single-party control of state power) and giving both parties access to the state and all its entails (bureaucracy, patronage). Unlike the Puntofijo Pact of 1958 in Venezuela, which led to the consolidation of the two-party system around AD and COPEI which survived until the early 1990s and Hugo Chávez, the National Front in Colombia was a formal, constitutionally and legally entrenched power-sharing mechanism between two parties (and no-one else) which formally lasted until 1974 and informally until 1986. Between 1958 and 1974, the Liberals and Conservatives alternated in the presidency, seats in elected bodies (Congress, departmental assemblies and municipal councils) were divided equally between both parties, cabinet positions and other bureaucratic appointments were also split equally between the two parties and the bulk of laws initially required two-thirds super-majorities for adoption. All other parties were excluded from political or electoral participation, although in practice they could participate as disguised ‘factions’ of either party. While the strict 50/50 division of legislative seats ended in 1974 and the requirements for ‘parity’ between both parties in ministries, public administration and local government expired in 1978, article 120 of the 1886 Constitution required that appointments in the executive branch and public administration continue to be done in such a way that “adequate and equitable participation” was given to the opposition party. Only in 1986 did the opposition party – the Conservatives – refuse to participate in government.

Academic and popular opinions on the National Front are largely negative, and its restrictive character is often blamed as a cause of the armed conflict. The National Front’s primary achievement was ending traditional partisan violence, although in hindsight it perhaps merely replaced that with new forms of violence. The National Front’s effect on the political system was, however, particularly negative. The absence of inter-party political competition drained both traditional parties of their ideological contents and political identities, reducing the political system to its clientelistic forms. During this time period, professional or brokerage clientelism, dependent on access to public administration and resources, replaced traditional agrarian clientelism, based on hierarchical patron-client relations between hacendados and peasants. A new emergent class of ‘professional politicians’ gained power based on their control clientelist relationships based on vote buying, personal favours and brokering access to public resources or jobs. The National Front further fragmented the two parties and the elites. The loss of strongly-defined political identities reinforced the Liberals and Conservatives’ characters as federations of local and regional clientelist networks. National leaders lost their pre-eminence over regional leaders and both parties – but especially the Liberal Party – became highly factionalized and without much national cohesion. The predominance of regional caciques became particularly clear under Liberal President Julio César Turbay (1978-1982).

Given the ‘illegitimacy’ of the state and the restrictive nature of the political system, it is no surprise that democratization and political reform have been major issues on every successive government’s agenda since the 1980s – culminating in the progressive 1991 Constitution, but continuing beyond as the imperfections and shortcomings of the 1991 Constitution quickly became obvious. However, the strength of traditional regional and local clientelistic politicians in Congress, who have an obvious stake in ensuring that political practices are not changed in ways that could threaten their interests, but also the zealously guarded self-interests of other branches and public institutions like the judiciary, has blocked or weakened many, if not most, attempts at meaningful political reform since the late 1990s. Recent Colombian political history is cemetery of failed or watered-down attempts at political reform which all began, in theory, with the best of intentions – increasing popular participation, building a more inclusive political system, opening the political system to new actors, reforming broken or corrupted institutions, moralizing public life and so forth. The most recent example being the 2017 political reform (which never was).

Hybrid institutions

Mauricio García Villegas argued that in Colombia, “institutional stability and formal routines of law coexist with authoritarian and degraded institutional practices. This gives rise to a hybrid – or informal – institutionality which favours the reproduction of violence and legitimacy deficit.” This idea of ‘regime juxtaposition’ is fairly common in accounts of Colombia’s political and institutional history – Fernán González claimed that Colombian history has been characterized by the “coexistence of a modern state, with formally democratic institutions and a more or less consolidated central bureaucracy; and an informal structure of power represented by the traditional party system, which operate as two opposing but complementary federations of local and regional clientelist networks”. The coexistence of formal democratic institutions in the ‘centre’ with informal or authoritarian structures, especially at a subnational level, is not unique to Colombia: Edward Gibson showed how ‘subnational authoritarianisms’ subsisted in democratic states like Mexico (Oaxaca), Argentina (Santiago del Estero) or even in the American South before the Civil Rights movement. The gap between the theory (or written word) and actual practice, between de jure and de facto, has always been wide in Colombian politics and law – and it likely widened with the 1991 Constitution, which theoretically provides a progressive, democratic estado social de derecho which has not always been translated into actual practice by the institutions it created. Therefore, a hybrid or informal space – existing between formal legality and illegality – has been a feature of Colombian public life. This hybrid space is, among others, ‘populated’ by corrupt clientelism with its bureaucratic patronage ‘quotas’ (cuotas), pork-barrel spending/’marmalade’ (mermelada) and backstage alliances with unsavoury characters.

Prior to 1991, the classic example of this hybrid space were the quasi-permanent ‘state of siege’ under article 121 of the 1886 Constitution. In cases of ‘internal disturbance’, the president could indefinitely declare a ‘state of siege’ giving him extraordinary powers to ‘restore public order’ and legislate by decree, with very weak checks and balances from the legislative or judiciary. After 1949, this exception became the norm – between 1970 and 1991, Colombia lived 206 months (17 years out of 21) under states of exception; between 1949 and 1991, Colombia lived for more than 30 years under states of exception. These ‘states of siege’ were used by successive ‘democratic governments’ not only to fight the guerrillas and other threats to public order, but also against social protests and to impose several restrictions on civil liberties – like Turbay’s security statute (1978), which expanded military tribunals’ jurisdiction over civilians and imposed incommutable detention for (among others) occupying public spaces, disobeying authorities or ‘subversive propaganda’. The 1991 Constitution has imposed strict limits and controls on the use of such powers, although politicians still have the temptation to use these powers for reasons other than what they were intended for.

More recent political scandals – parapolíticayidispolítica, the ‘capture’ of the DAS (former intelligence agency), chuzadas (illegal wiretaps), DMG pyramid schemes or the two major scandals of 2017, Odebrecht and the ‘cartel of the toga’ (corruption in the high courts) – are further examples of this hybrid space, as well as how the hybrid informality dangerously overlaps with illegality (parapolítica).

Ironically given the history of political violence and ‘hybrid institutionality’, Colombia is a highly legalistic country. Many political disputes end up being fought out between lawyers in courts. Colombian historiography pays great attention to specific laws and decrees over history and to issues of justice in the context of armed conflict. The Colombian judiciary, despite being widely distrusted by Colombians as inefficient or corrupt, has been more politically independent and robust than in other countries in the region (Venezuela, Honduras, Ecuador etc.). Francisco de Paula Santander’s famous phrase “Colombianos, las armas os han dado la independencia, las leyes os darán la libertad (Colombians, weapons have given you independence, the laws will give you freedom) is inscribed on the Palace of Justice in Bogotá.

The Constitutional Court, created by the 1991 Constitution, has gained major political importance with its decisions and powers of judicial review, and is often considered as one of the most significant constitutional tribunals of the ‘global south’ along with South Africa’s Constitutional Court. The Colombian Constitutional Court has taken it upon itself to ensure that the constitution’s words and principles are upheld by politicians. It has been, less so today but particularly in the 1990s, an ‘activist’ tribunal which has attempted to contribute to the structural transformation of public and private life. The Court has delivered very significant decisions regarding social and economic rights, personal autonomy, religious freedom, equality, victims’ rights, separation of powers and constitutional amendments. Beyond the overarching debate on the desirability of ‘judicial activism’, the Court has faced fair criticism for its decisions – particularly its tendency to zealously protect the ‘corporate interests’ of the judiciary from reform, but on the whole it has contributed to strengthening the word of the 1991 Constitution in practice and protected the fundamental rights of disadvantaged or marginalized groups (IDPs, victims, sexual minorities, religious minorities, indigenous peoples, the poor etc.). From a political standpoint, the Court has become an all-important arena for legal/political debate.

The acción de tutela (legal recourse for the protection of fundamental constitutional rights, similar to an amparo), created by the 1991 Constitution, has become the most popular and widespread legal mechanism to demand speedy protection or remedy of one’s fundamental constitutional rights from a public institution. Between 1991 and 2011, 4 million tutelas were submitted in the country. While the tutela has made the constitution an accessible living document for people, successive governments have tried to limit or regulate the use of the tutela, claiming that it has been abused and led to ever-longer delays, backlogs and clashes between different courts (choque de trenes) – but also because tutelas are increasingly used against the government’s actions (or inaction) on matters beyond basic fundamental rights. So far, attempts to limit the use of the tutela have been unsuccessful.

While the three highest courts – the Constitutional Council, Supreme Court of Justice and the Council of State – have not been spared of corruption scandals, controversies and cuestionamientos (‘questions’), especially in recent years, all three have played positive protagonist roles in exposing and sanctioning political corruption, criminal alliances and official misconduct (notably with the parapolítica scandal). Nevertheless, local courts and prosecutors tend to be weaker and less politically independent, more liable to being ‘captured’ by political, economic or criminal interests. While it is difficult to distinguish rhetoric from reality amidst so much crying over ‘political persecution’, it is clear that the Attorney General’s Office (Fiscalía) may be politically biased or selective in its investigations and the timing of such investigations. Many Colombians distrust or dislike the judiciary as inefficient, corrupt, slow, biased or ‘too soft’ (a popular political idea for years now has been imposing mandatory life sentences for child rapists). Many common offences and crimes – like robberies or homicides – go unreported, unsolved or bogged down, while authorities have been unable or unwilling to prosecute serious crimes like forced displacement or criminal money laundering.

Civilian-military relations in Colombian history

As aforementioned, one of the peculiarities of Colombian political history is the relative absence of military rule and consistent civilian rule. In the 1960s and 1970s,  when most South American countries were ruled by authoritarian military dictatorships – Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru (an ‘odd’ military regime) – Colombia often stood alone, with Venezuela, as a civilian democracy with regular competitive elections, notwithstanding the restrictive nature of this ‘democratic’ system. The Colombian armed forces never became a prestigious institution standing above party politics guaranteeing ‘national unity’ as they did in other countries in the continent. The modus vivendi of the National Front, established by its first president, Alberto Lleras Camargo (1958-1962), was that the military would not interfere with civilian politics while the civilians would not interfere with the military on matters of public order. Military officers who strayed from this path, like General Alberto Ruiz Novoa, who argued that military operations against guerrillas should be accompanied by socioeconomic development programs in those regions, were dismissed.

On matters of public order and national security, the military has typically enjoyed broad autonomy (and, until recently, impunity for human rights abuses) and it has continuously sought guarantees of legal security and other political concessions from civilian politicians. For example, in December 2012, Congress adopted a constitutional amendment reforming the military criminal justice system, granting it purview over all crimes committed by military personnel in active service and in relation to such service – with the exception of an exhaustive list of seven particularly egregious war crimes – and guaranteeing that they would be tried under the law of war (international humanitarian law) rather than ordinary criminal law/human rights law. In addition, the military’s judicial police gained preferential power to collect evidence on the scene and decide whether the investigation should be handled by military criminal justice or the ordinary courts – since 2006, the Attorney General’s (Fiscalía) judicial police had the right to collect evidence and decide who would handle the case. The 2012 reform effectively made trial by military courts the rule rather than the exception, reversing the Constitutional Court’s jurisprudence (from 1997). This controversial reform was struck down on procedural grounds by the Constitutional Court in October 2013, and in 2015, with much less scrutiny, Congress adopted a less thorough second reform of the military criminal justice system, which guarantees that punishable conduct of military personnel during an armed conflict will be tried under international humanitarian law, with no exhaustive list of excluded crimes.

Nevertheless, civilian-military relations have not always been cordial. Large sectors of the military leadership opposed presidents Belisario Betancur (1982-1986) and Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002)’s peace processes with the guerrillas, while the military leadership – led by General Harold Bedoya (commander, 1996-1997) – repeatedly clashed with President Ernesto Samper’s embattled administration (1994-1998) over security strategy as the armed conflict escalated to unprecedented levels in the mid-1990s. It is also clear that many sectors of the military – active officers, retired personnel, battalions, local units – participated and collaborated in the creation of paramilitary groups or autodefensas beginning in the 1960s and were complicit in paramilitary violence. A 1965 decree, passed into permanent legislation in 1968, was interpreted by the military as legal authorization for the formation and training of ‘civilian’ autodefensa (paramilitary) groups and their armament with military-grade weaponry. In 1969, the armed forces’ counterinsurgency manual authorized the creation of juntas de autodefensa, groups of civilians armed and trained by the military to participate in counterinsurgency tasks. According to the prosecutor general’s infamous 1983 report on the Muerte a Secuestradores (Death to Kidnappers, MAS) – sometimes erroneously considered as the first paramilitary group, run and financed by the Medellín Cartel – out of 163 people on which there was sufficient proof for indictment, 59 were military personnel in active service.

Populism and inclusive democracy in Colombia

A distinctive peculiarity of Colombian political history is the absence or weakness of populism, at least until 2002. Populist leaders like Jorge Eliécer Gaitán (1946) or Gustavo Rojas Pinilla (1970) were defeated or – some would argue – prevented from obtaining power. Colombia has therefore lacked the emblematic populist leaders like those found in nearly every other Latin American country. Instead, Colombian presidents have often tended to be rather gray or even dull figures drawn from the ‘national political elite’, particularly the bogotano oligarchy/’aristocracy’, or political dynasties. In a 1999 article, Marco Palacios argued that “the absence of populism in Colombia led to political and social violence, while in neighbouring Venezuela populism facilitated the democracy agreed to in 1958 and the realization of a set of social reforms”. A more positive appraisal on the absence of populism in Colombia would point out that it was sparred the economic mismanagement, rash and irresponsible policy-making or chronic political instability which plagued so many other countries in the region, starting with neighbouring Ecuador. It is rather telling that, even in the current elections, some candidates who would likely be seen as ‘populists’ in other countries are presenting themselves as ‘responsible’ alternatives to a ‘populist danger’.

Undoubtedly connected to the above, Colombia’s fragmented political elites were unable or, more accurately, unwilling to integrate new social groups – the ‘popular’ and middle ‘sectors’ – into the political system, unlike in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Venezuela, Peru or even Ecuador. Whatever integration of new social groups took place in Colombia tended to be more instrumental or manipulative, often through cooptation by the traditional parties. Granted, contemporary Colombian democracy, for all its faults, is far more inclusive than it was and ‘alternative’ or ‘independent’ social and political groups have achieved some degree of electoral success, particularly in urban middle-class areas.  Yet, Colombian politics remain – perhaps more so than in other Latin American democracies – dominated by the dynamics of local clientelism, exchange of favours, unsavoury alliances of convenience, nepotism, political corruption, short-term political opportunism and the blurred boundaries of illegality.

In addition, certain social groups – settler frontier peasants (campesinos), landless peasants, the urban poor, Afro-Colombians, indigenous peoples – have historically tended to be excluded or marginalized from the political system altogether. In his work on paramilitarism and regional elites in Córdoba, Mauricio Romero argued that certain regional elites developed a ‘political identity’ opposed to social mobilization and the autonomy of subaltern groups, therefore perceiving any sort of alternative socio-political mobilization by these groups (landless peasants, squatters, enclave economy workers etc.) as an outgroup threat.

Taken together, the inefficiency and illegitimacy of the state have created conditions conducive to the development of violence. But this is a very simplistic view which fails to account for the complexities of violence in Colombia, particularly in the context of the current armed conflict, and of the economic interests and rationale behind much of the contemporary forms of violence in Colombia.

A politically apathetic society

Colombia is a politically apathetic country – a critical element which often gets left out of commentary on Colombian politics. In the last World Values Survey, only 25% of Colombians were ‘very interested’ or ‘somewhat interested’ by politics against 75% who were ‘not very interested’ or ‘not at all interested’ (49.5%) by politics. This very low level of political interests compares to 59% interest in the United States and 62% in Germany but is also low compared to other Latin American countries like Brazil (37%), Argentina (32%), Ecuador (32%) or Mexico (30%).

Voter turnout in national-level elections (presidential, congressional) in Colombia is consistently among the lowest in the Americas. Unlike many other countries in the region, Colombia doesn’t have compulsory voting, which makes turnout comparisons with neighbouring countries difficult. However, comparing the most recent presidential elections in Latin America and the Caribbean, only Chile in 2017 (46.7% turnout in first round, 49% in runoff) and Haiti in 2016 (18% turnout) had turnout as low or lower than Colombia’s 2014 presidential election (40.1% in first round, 48% in runoff). Turnout has been below 50% in every national-level election since the 1998 presidential elections. The 2016 plebiscite on the peace agreement had a turnout of just 37.4%, the lowest turnout in any election since the 2003 referendum (24% turnout). However, unlike in most countries, turnout is higher in local elections – for mayors, governors and local assemblies – reaching 59% in 2015, the highest local turnout since the first direct mayoral elections in 1988.

Turnout in Colombian congressional elections (House) 1935-2014

Turnout varies between elections and across regions, depending on the stakes but also on the differential mobilization of traditional clientelist political machines – which operate at ‘full speed’ in local elections and congressional elections, but may be less active in presidential elections. Conventional wisdom has it that turnout in congressional elections is 70-80% clientelist machines (maquinarias) and 20-30% voto de opinión (‘opinion vote’, predominantly urban voters who are not ‘controlled’ by any machine and vote based on personal evaluations of candidates, parties or policies). In presidential elections, however, the voto de opinión may be much stronger – but, until now, every Colombian president had needed the active support and electoral mobilization of the powerful clientelist machines in order to win.

In general terms, turnout declined and has remained low since the end of the National Front in the 1970s – although the trendlines are far from smooth. Turnout began falling during the National Front, falling from 68.9% in the 1958 congressional elections to 36.8% in the 1964 ‘mid-term’ congressional elections and 44.5% in the 1966 congressional elections. The very closely contested and acrimonious 1970 elections had higher turnout (52.5%), as did the 1974 presidential election, the first ‘open’ election after the formal end of the National Front amidst popular enthusiasm for Liberal candidate Alfonso López Michelsen (before the disillusion set in). Since then, however, turnout in national-level elections has only twice been over 50% (1990 congressional elections, 1998 presidential election). The decline of the two traditional parties as political subcultures or identities, the loss of any remaining significant ideological differences between the two traditional parties, successive administrations’ poor records and the transformation of parties into federations of regional ‘barons’ led to an increase in political apathy, dissatisfaction and a consequent fall in turnout levels in most elections.

Voting station accessibility difficulties (source: MOE)

There are some important structural explanations to low turnout in remote, peripheral regions, where the state’s presence has historically been weak or very limited. Ariel Ávila discussed some of these issues in a recent analysis on political participation in rural areas, including some enlightening data on the accessibility of voting stations. According to the data presented, there is, on average, one voting station every 63.2 km². In 360 municipalities with ‘medium’, ‘high’ or ‘extreme’ accessibility difficulties, there is one voting station every 786.8 km². In 114 municipalities with ‘extreme’ accessibility problems, there is one voting station every 2,148.1 km². All municipalities in the departments of Amazonas, Vaupés, Guaviare, Guainía and Vichada have ‘extreme’ voting accessibility problems – as do most municipalities in Putumayo, Caquetá, Meta, Casanare and Arauca. Voting hours are also a bit shorter in Colombia than in other countries: polls close at 4pm, and unlike in many countries, any voters who are still in line at 4pm are not allowed to vote. On election days, Colombian TV often show last-minute voters running to the polls with just minutes to spare before 4pm so that they can vote.

All Colombian voters, whether in the country or abroad, must present their valid national ID card (cédula de ciudadania) in order to vote. Voter registration is automatic upon issuance of the first cédula (at 18), but all voters who changed their place of residence must individually (re)register their cédula in person with the Registraduría during a fixed time period in advance of the election. This year, the cédula registration period began in mid-October 2017 and closed on January 11 for congressional elections and March 27 for presidential elections – two months before the election. Registering a cédula elsewhere than one’s address is illegal and these cédulas are ‘cancelled’ by the CNE. These procedures may seem rather normal to many, but they may impose significant barriers on some voters in a country with over 7 million victims of forced displacement over the past decades. It is unclear how efficient the electoral organization is at updating the voter rolls, so the number of registered voters may also be somewhat inflated. It is also unclear how many people were automatically registered to vote upon turning 18 but either never voter and/or never re-registered their cédula at a new address if they moved. International IDEA’s voter turnout database suggests that VAP turnout in Colombia in 2014 may have been a bit higher than the official turnout, although the lack of updated census data on population and age makes it difficult to determine this (until the 2018 census data is released).

Since the 1980s, the armed conflict in many regions of the country imposed further barriers on democratic participation and voter turnout. In many municipalities with presence of illegal armed groups, the state was – at best – only able to set up a single polling location in the municipal seat (cabecera). Historically, the guerrillas sought to sabotage elections, forcibly preventing candidates and voters from participating in elections and often keeping elections from being organized in areas under ‘guerrilla control’. If elections could even be organized in these municipalities, turnout was often absurdly low (1-5%). In some cases, the guerrillas did support certain candidates or form informal alliances with politicians – later giving rise to cases of Farcpolítica (and some fewer, concentrated cases of elenopolítica). On the other hand, paramilitaries – in most cases – actively interfered the electoral process, using violence and intimidation but also genuine popular support, to prevent certain candidates from running or campaigning while favouring other candidates and rigging the vote in their favour (most blatantly in Magdalena department under ‘Jorge 40’). The result of paramilitary interference in government and elections was the parapolítica (para-politics) scandal, one of the biggest political scandals in recent Colombian history.

The left (and right) in Colombia

During the Latin American ‘pink tide‘ in the early to mid-2000s, Colombia was the odd man out – one of the few countries left ‘untouched’ by the success of left-wing parties and leaders in other countries in Latin America, most notably in neighbouring Venezuela (with Hugo Chávez), Ecuador (with Rafael Correa) and Brazil (with Lula). While term ‘pink tide’ is a deceptive overgeneralization which has included a wide variety of parties and governments, the left has been far weaker in Colombia than in most other Latin American countries. Only in a few other (smaller) countries like Paraguay – where Fernando Lugo’s election in 2008 owed more to a short-lived alliance with the traditional Liberal Party than the actual strength of the left – is the left equally as weak. Prior to this year’s election, the Colombian left’s record was the 2006 presidential election, in which the left-wing Polo Democrático Alternativo‘s candidate Carlos Gaviria won 22% (2.6 million votes). The left did hold Bogotá’s mayoralty – often described as the second most important office after the presidency – for three terms between 2003 and 2015, but its success elsewhere in the country has been extremely limited and its congressional representation small (but more visible and effective than its weight would suggest).

There are several historical and structural causes for the left’s weakness in Colombia – like the political economy of coffee and certain colonization processes – but, undoubtedly, the armed conflict and the stigmatization and violent persecution (extermination) of the left are major reasons for the left’s contemporary weakness and the continued stigmatization of certain forms of left-wing politics. The Unión Patriótica (Patriotic Union, UP), a left-wing party created in 1985 during President Belisario Betancur’s peace talks, in part as the political-electoral wing of the FARC (and the Communist Party), was not very strong (its candidate, Jaime Pardo Leal, won 4.5% in the 1986 presidential election) but it showed clear potential for future growth – winning several seats in Congress and, more importantly, winning several municipalities in strategic regions (like Urabá) in the first direct mayoral elections in 1988. By the late 1990s, over a thousand UP candidates, congressmen, mayors, councillors and members had been killed as part of a systematic extermination campaign carried out by drug traffickers, landowners, paramilitary groups and sectors of the military and intelligence services with the implicit or explicit support of many politicians (see the 2003 documentary Baile rojo on the genocide of the UP). Even when they denounced and later dissociated themselves from the FARC’s predatory violence, the UP – abandoned to their fate by the FARC by the late 1980s – were stigmatized as guerrilleros de civil (civilian-clad guerrilleros), their murders ‘justified’ by the FARC’s combinación de todas las formas de lucha (combination of all forms of struggle) strategy. The ‘ghost’ of the UP continues to haunt much of the Colombian left.

Perhaps ironically given Colombia’s global reputation amidst the ‘pink tide’ on the continent, the Colombian ‘right’ – defined as an ideologically coherent conservative/right-wing movement which explicitly identifies as such – was also quite weak, until 2002. Since the National Front, Colombian politics – or at least the portion of politics played out in formal institutions and regular elections – tended to be consensual and centrist, characterized by traditional clientelistic transactions rather than ideological politics like in North America or Western Europe. A Conservative candidate like Álvaro Gómez Hurtado – hurt by the toxic legacy of his father, former President Laureano Gómez (1950-1951) and perceived as ‘extreme’, lost badly in both in the 1974 and 1986 presidential elections. After the National Front, the Conservative Party only won the presidency when the Liberal Party was divided and with ‘centrist consensual’ candidates (Betancur in 1982, Andrés Pastrana in 1998) who downplayed the party name. Prior to 2002, hard-right hawkish candidates did very poorly – General Harold Bedoya, who was polling high at first, won only 1.8% in the 1998 election. Nor did the Liberal and Conservative parties really reflect liberal and conservative politics – Conservative President Belisario Betancur (1982-1986) was to the left of his Liberal predecessor, Julio César Turbay (1978-1982). Clearly, the general ideological orientation of public policy in Colombia has tended to be ‘right-wing’ with, as explained above, a traditional aversion to the sort of ‘populist politics’ played out in countries like Argentina, Brazil, Peru or Ecuador in the 20th century. But, in formal electoral and partisan politics, public discourse was, until 2002, more centrist/consensual than right-wing. Álvaro Uribe’s election in 2002 was historic, as it marked the emergence of a strong right-wing, conservative (if not reactionary), populist (in style if not in substance) and caudillista movement – uribismo. There is little doubt that uribismo is right-wing, both on societal/moral and economic/fiscal policy matters. Yet, uribismo does not explicitly identify as right-wing, often claiming instead that the ideological labels of ‘left’ and ‘right’ are outdated and that their movement is centrist, combining traditional ‘right-wing ideas’ like security and investor confidence with more ‘left-wing ideas’ like social protection.

Costa Rica 2018 (Presidential Runoff)

The second round of the Costa Rican presidential election was held on April 1, 2018. The first round of the presidential election, along with the legislative elections, were held on February 4, 2018.

Quick recap

Costa Rica is a presidential republic. The President is directly elected to a four year term. Consecutive reelection is banned, but a former president is again re-eligible to seek the presidency after two full terms (eight years). Presidential candidates must win over 40% of valid votes in the first round to avoid a second round, which is held two months later on the first Sunday in April. Costa Rica has a unicameral Legislative Assembly(Asamblea Legislativa) with 57 deputies elected by province every four years (consecutive reelection is banned) using closed-list PR.

The country remains the ‘democratic success story’ of Latin America – it is the third ‘freest’ or most democratic country in the Americas behind Canada, Uruguay and Chile according to Freedom in the World and it has the freest press in the Americas. Famously, Costa Rica is among the few countries without a military: the 1949 constitution abolished the military and bans a standing army, although the country does have a non-military public force to maintain public order and ensure internal security.

In my post on the first round and the legislative elections in February, I discussed at length the historical background, contemporary political context and the profiles of all presidential candidates and their views. I summarize some of the main points in this post, but I invite you to refer to my more thorough and well-documented post from February if you want more details or a broader understanding of points raised here.

Between the late 1950s and early 2000s, Costa Rica had a solid, entrenched two party system with the National Liberation Party (Partido Liberación Nacional, PLN) on the centre-left (traditionally) and the Social Christian Unity Party (Partido Unidad Social Cristiana, PUSC) or its various predecessors (prior to the 1980s) on the centre-right. In the 1998 elections, and most elections before that, the two parties combined took 92% of the vote. Costa Rican politics and electoral campaigns have tended to have a more solid ideological footing and policy depth than some other Latin American countries, although the two traditional parties had syncretic ideologies combining elements of ‘global’ ideologies like social democracy or conservatism with local political traditions. The PLN is still a member of the Socialist International and has historically been associated with extensive state intervention and direction in the economy, public ownership in strategic sectors and a large welfare state – but liberacionismo was also based around the personality of its founding leader, José Figueres. The PUSC combined the different strands of the anti-liberacionista Costa Rican right, grouped around mainstream liberal-conservatism and calderonismo – a local version of European Christian democracy (socialcristianismo) founded around former President Rafael Ángel Calderón Guardia (1940-44) and his Social Guarantees, the foundations of the Costa Rican welfare state and social security system (although calderonismo has also been compared to Peronism in Argentina). Although the right was critical of the PLN’s interventionism and big spending, in power they did little to change that. In sum, both dominant political groups were moderate and pragmatic, supporting – to varying degrees – state intervention in the economy and the welfare state.

Just as they had both effectively supported state interventionism and social protection until the 1970s, both parties – despite the PLN’s rhetorical flourishes – supported economic liberalization and ‘neoliberal’ reforms beginning in the 1980s and accelerating under both PUSC and PLN administrations in the 1990s. Costa Rica, however, avoided the harsh ‘shock therapy’ and, unlike in Chile, economic liberalization was gradual and negotiated, with the country’s welfare state being maintained despite welfare reform and social spending cuts in the 1990s. However, both parties began to lose their ideological character – something which was epitomized by the ‘Figueres-Calderón pact’ of 1995 between PLN President José María Figueres Olsen (the son of PLN founder José Figueres) and PUSC opposition leader Rafael Ángel Calderón Fournier (the son of former President Rafael Ángel Calderón Guardia), in which both parties agreed to support a set of liberal economic reforms like banking liberalization and a structural adjustment plan. While a bipartisan deal on transcendental economic reforms signed by the sons of two former wartime enemies could be seen as a sign of Costa Rica’s democratic exceptionalism and political maturity, the pact came to symbolize the decadence of the two-party system – two parties, having lost their principles and values, agreeing to divide power between themselves.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, new parties – often founded by dissidents of the PLN and PUSC – emerged on both the left and right to challenge the two-party hegemony. The Citizens’ Action Party (Partido Acción Ciudadana, PAC) was founded in 2000 by dissident liberacionistas like Ottón Solís who felt that the PLN had lost its ways and social democratic principles. The Libertarian Movement (Movimiento Libertario, ML), founded in 1994, questioned the consensus on the role of the state in the economy. Both parties were critical of the corruption and cronyism of the two parties, which the ML pejoratively branded the ‘PLUSC’. In the 2002 elections, the unpopularity of PUSC President Miguel Ángel Rodríguez’s neoliberal policies and the general decadence of the two-party system led to the beginnings of a major realignment of the Costa Rica  party system. No single candidate won over 40% of the vote to win in the first round, as the PUSC and PLN’s combined vote share fell from 91% to 70% and the PLN suffered a catastrophic defeat (31%). The PAC won 26.2% of the presidential vote and 14 seats in the legislature, plus another 6 seats for the ML – meaning that the two major parties won just 36 of the 57 seats, compared to 50 in 1998.

The PUSC was nearly destroyed by major corruption scandals between 2002 and 2006 (CCSS-Fischel and Alcatel-ICE scandals), in which two of its former presidents –  Calderón Fournier (1990-1994) and Rodríguez (1998-2002) were implicated and later convicted (although the latter was acquitted on appeal in 2016). As a result, the PUSC’s support collapsed to just 3.6% in the 2006 elections. That year, former president (1986-1990) and 1987 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Óscar Arias Sánchez was narrowly elected with 41% against 40% for Ottón Solís. Otto Guevara, the ML’s candidate, finished in third ahead of the PUSC with 8.5%. Arias and his successor (Laura Chinchilla, elected in 2010), have typically been identified with the ‘right-wing’ or ‘neoliberal’ faction of the PLN, supporting economic liberalization and the controversial Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) with the United States, which was narrowly ratified in a closely-fought 2007 referendum. Costa Rica’s economy enjoyed strong growth until 2013, with the brief exception of the 2009 global economic crisis, peaking at 8.2% in 2007. Costa Rica has become one of the most attractive destinations for FDI in Central America, thanks to low levels of taxation, political and macroeconomic stability, legal security and relatively transparent regulatory climate.

Despite a relatively strong economy, Chinchilla and the PLN had become quite unpopular by the 2014 election, in which issues like income inequality (which has increased since the 1980s), poverty and the fiscal deficit were among the most important. The PLN’s candidate was Johnny Araya, the nephew of former President Luis Alberto Monge (1982-1986) and typically identified as the ‘left-wing’ or ‘socialist’ faction of the PLN (even though Monge’s administration wasn’t at all ‘left-wing’). His campaign was bland and unexciting – much like his party’s general trajectory in recent decades – and his polling advantage was very unimpressive. During the campaign, minor left-wing candidate José María Villalta of the small socialist Broad Front (Frente Amplio, FA) took everyone by surprise and, at one time, seemed to be one of the favourites. His opponents, most notably Araya and the ‘establishment’ centre-right newspaper La Nación (but also private multinationals), launched a negative campaign accusing him of ties to Hugo Chávez and Daniel Ortega or of being a communist. The negative campaign worked, insofar as Villalta’s momentum was halted and he eventually finished in third place with just over 17%, but it backfired on the PLN, which seriously underestimated its own unpopularity and the widespread demands for change. It played into the hands of an hitherto little-known candidate who had been flying under the radar, PAC candidate Luis Guillermo Solís – a former political scientist and diplomat who had only joined the PAC in 2008 – whose moderate centre-left progressive platform wasn’t very distant from that of Villalta. Solís, despite being a largely unknown quantity, benefited from a last minute surge and anti-liberacionista vote to place first with 30.6% in the February 2014 presidential election, with Araya a disastrous second (29.7%). Libertarian candidate Otto Guevara, running on a right-wing conservative platform, won 11.3%, down from about 20% four years before. Araya was due to face Solís in a second round in April, but quickly came to understood that, with Solís consolidating the anti-liberacionista, he stood little chance and after one last-ditch attempt reeking of desperation (a turn to hard-line social conservatism), Araya suspended his campaign (the constitution prohibits candidates from withdrawing from a runoff) and Solís won the runoff, a mere formality, with 78%.

Solís was the first president elected from outside the two major political traditions of the post-1948 democratic system and his party stood for clean, ethical politics and ‘change’. However, his administration’s ability to effect change was seriously hindered by his lack of a majority in the Legislative Assembly, in which the PAC held only 13 seats against 18 for the PLN, 9 for the FA, 8 for the PUSC, 4 for the ML and five for four small right-wing Christian evangelical parties (the ‘Christian bloc’). As early as 2015, the PAC ‘lost control’ of the legislature, with the formation of an ‘opposition alliance’ including the PLN, ML, Christian bloc and much of the PUSC. Partly as a result of ‘divided government’, the administration’s response to major problems was underwhelming and disappointing. Costa Rica is facing a number of important issues and problems – a struggling education system despite heavy spending, very poor infrastructure, rising violence (a homicide rate of 12.1/100,000 inhabitants in 2017, the highest in years), corruption and a fiscal crisis.

Costa Rica’s public finances have been in the red since the 1980s (except for 2007 and 2008), but the budget deficit grew to -6.2% of GDP in 2017 and is projected to reach -6.6% of GDP in 2021 if no actions are taken. In addition, the debt-to-GDP ratio has increased from 24.1% of GDP in 2008 to 53% of GDP in 2018. Public spending (21% of GDP) and government revenue (14.5% of GDP) are both relatively low by international standards, but public spending has increased sharply in recent years – primarily because of rising public sector wages. The government and international bodies (IMF, OECD) have underlined that one of the reasons for the persistently high deficit is the ‘inflexibility’ of spending – 96% of non-debt service budget expenditures are associated to fixed percentages of revenues or a fixed percentage of the GDP which increases annually. The ‘fiscal crisis’ has been on the agenda for over four years, but politicians have played ping-pong with the issue, unable to agree on solutions. The right wants to cut public spending and reduce government bureaucracy before raising taxes, while the left wants to increase taxes on the rich and have resisted attempts to reduce public spending and reform public sector pensions. The outgoing government proposed, in 2015, to convert the sales tax into a VAT and raise it to 15%, compensate low-income households with targeted transfers, create new marginal tax rates of 20% and 25%, introduce a capital gains tax and eliminate exemptions on a 15% tax on income from investments. In 2017, unable to get its original proposals through, the government settled for a less ambitious plan – while still converting the sales tax into a VAT, the tax rate would remain 13% (4% for education and healthcare) and the increase on marginal income tax rates would be limited to a new 20% rate.

The PAC built its reputation on probity, transparency and morality, but once in power ideals collided with political realities. President Solís himself admitted in an interview that his government’s biggest problem was that it hadn’t been more rigorous on ethical matters. PAC founder and moral reference Ottón Solís has been very critical of his party’s unethical behaviour, lamenting a culture of waste/squander (despilfarro) in party ranks. In 2016, a criminal court sentenced the PAC’s former treasurer to 6 years in jail for defrauding the electoral tribunal (TSE) – unduly asking the TSE a refund of 516 million colones for services which were actually provided for free in the 2010 presidential campaign. The court also ordered the PAC to pay a compensation of 350 million colones.

Corruption was one of the major issues in the first months of the campaign because of the Cementazo scandal. In mid-2017, CRHoy revealed how a construction businessman – Juan Carlos Bolaños – who imported Chinese cement received a $31.5 million loan from the Banco de Costa Rica (BCR), a state-owned commercial bank, under irregular conditions and uncovered a widespread network of influence peddling involving all three branches of government. Bolaños had a long list of contacts including President Solís, deputies from all major parties, leading politicians, senior civil servants, a Supreme Court magistrate and top directors at the BCR which he used to lobby for regulatory changes to obtain loans and facilitate his Chinese cement import business. Bolaños got a total of $45.5 million in loans from state-owned banks, but only $12.7 million were used to buy cement and that Bolaños had set up an elaborate scheme through offshore companies to buy cheap Chinese cement and sell it back at higher prices in Costa Rica. The Legislative Assembly set up a commission to investigate the cementazo, which has heard how Bolaños built close ties with politicians, deputies, Supreme Court magistrate Celso Gamboa and bank directors, treating them to perks like free trips in exchange for political support, regulatory changes, access to confidential judicial case files or turning a blind eye. The attorney general was suspended for three months before resigning for ignoring evidence. In December 2017, the legislative commission delivered its preliminary non-binding report recommended investigating and sanctioning 29 officials – including President Luis Guillermo Solís, accused by the commission of a “lack of probity” in the proper use of public resources. Solís rejected the commission’s accusations of ethical failings and denied ever having instructed any public official to break the law or intercede in an individuals’ favour; however, when the scandal broke just months before, Solís defended Bolaños, justified his seven meetings with Bolaños in the presidency and claimed that legal investigations had never found anything. The list of names also included Solís’ former intelligence chief, ex-PAC deputy Víctor Morales Zapata (a close ally of Solís described as an ‘ambassador’ for Bolaños), a former customs director, a former vice-minister of finance, several former directors of the BCR, former economy minister Wélmer Ramos, Gamboa, the suspended attorney general and legislators including perennial presidential candidate Otto Guevara (Libertarian Movement).

The first round (February 4)

With the collapse of bipartidismo (two-party system) in Costa Rica, elections are volatile and unpredictable, decided by a large pool of ‘floating voters’ who change their mind during the campaign and decide on a candidate only in the final weeks. The 2014 elections had provided a first ‘taste’ of this, resulting in the surprise victory of a candidate who had been in single digits just weeks prior to the first round.

The overconfident PLN was convinced by its victory in the 2016 local election that its historic defeat in 2014 was just a passing moment. Antonio Álvarez Desanti, a rather dull career politician who had been dreaming of becoming president since 2001, won the PLN’s 2017 primaries (called national conventions in Costa Rica) against unpopular former President José María Figueres Olsen. Álvarez Desanti was president of the Legislative Assembly in 2016-17 (and previously in 1995-96), elected with the support of an ‘opposition alliance’ against the PAC. He was supported by both Óscar Arias Sánchez and Johnny Araya (the two historical warring factions of the PLN). The PLN’s primaries drew around 430,400 voters (down from over 500,000 in 2009), and Álvarez won 46% of the vote against 37% for Figueres, who later claimed that there had been vote rigging. The PLN is a bland centrist managerialist party, leaning ever so slightly to the right or the left depending on candidates – and Álvarez leaned to the right, with a platform which offered fairly liberal solutions (‘a Costa Rica of entrepreneurs’) to the uncontroversial valence issue of ‘job creation’. Nevertheless, he did support – in theory – a fiscal reform including new tax measures in addition to spending cuts.

The other traditional party, the PUSC, was nearly annihilated in 2006 (3.6%) and 2010 (3.9%), enjoyed a slight uptick in support in 2010 with its candidate Rodolfo Piza, who won 6% and brought the PUSC’s caucus in the legislature to 8 seats (+2). Rodolfo Piza was renominated for a second run at the presidency, winning the party’s 2017 national convention with 73% support. Piza is a centre-right ‘liberal-conservative’ who would not really be out of place in mainstream centre-right conservative/Christian democratic parties in most Western European countries. He proposed to cut and limit public spending before considering new taxes, and to stimulate job creation by attracting more investments, reducing red tape and allowing for more flexible contracts.

In 2014, the PUSC, in the fallout of a bizarre episode in the 2013-14 campaign, split: the calderonista faction, led by former President Rafael Ángel Calderón Fournier, and its candidate Rodolfo Hernández had won the 2013 primaries over Piza, but Hernández suddenly dropped out of the race in October 2013, claiming that there was treason, intrigues, selfishness and backstabbing in the party. The calderonistas quit the party after the election, re-founding the calderonista party under the name Social Christian Republican Party (Partido Republicano Social Cristiano, PRSC) with the traditional calderonista colours of blue, yellow and red. The smaller PRSC, which failed to make an impact in the 2016 local elections, nominated Hernández as its candidate. He was to the right of Piza on societal issues like ‘the family’ and marriage, but with a more Christian democratic and humanist outlook on economic matters – explicitly inspired by the social doctrine of the Catholic Church, emphasizing values like social justice, solidarity, ‘humane’ market economy but also the principle of the ‘subsidiary state’.

The ruling PAC held its national convention in July 2017, with two candidates vying for the party’s nomination – two former cabinet ministers: Carlos Alvarado, Minister of Human Development and Social Inclusion (2014-2016) and Minister of Labour and Social Security (2016-2017) and Welmer Ramos, Minister of Economy, Industry and Commerce (2014-2017) later implicated in the cementazo scandal. Alvarado represented the younger, more progressive and socially liberal wing of the party, while Ramos – a Christian evangelical who opposed same-sex marriage – represented the older, traditional wing of the party closest to Ottón Solís (who remained neutral in the internal campaign). Alvarado won 57% of the vote in the convention, which drew a modest crowd of 41,000 (18,000 more than in 2013). Carlos Alvarado initially sold himself as the ‘continuity’ candidate, promoting the achievements of the government and particularly his own as a cabinet minister for three years. However, the fallout from the cementazo badly hurt the government and the incumbent president’s popularity, forcing Alvarado to distance himself from the government and criticize Solís’ defensive response to the legislative investigation into the scandal. Carlos Alvarado is a centre-left progressive, very liberal on societal issues but more moderate and pragmatic on economic issues. His campaign focused on issues like education, social inclusion, sustainable development, climate change and clean energies, public transportation, access to housing, progressive taxation, gender equality and LGBT rights. In contrast to earlier PAC campaigns, Carlos Alvarado is markedly less protectionist and more moderate on economic matters, while significantly more liberal on hot-button societal issues like gender equality and LGBT rights.

The early phenomenon of the electoral campaign in 2017 was Juan Diego Castro, an eccentric loudmouth ‘anti-establishment’ right-wing populist often compared by both the local and foreign media to Donald Trump. Castro is a ‘star lawyer’ (the sort who have TV gigs as commentators and ‘analysts’) who was public security minister from 1994 to 1996 under Figueres Olsen – who had been his client right before the 1994 election in a defamation suit. In his brief tenure as security minister, he is mostly remembered for ‘pulling a Fujimori’ and threateningly surrounding the legislature with armed police to pressure them to adopt penal code amendments. This brash behaviour was so unusual in ‘quiet’ Costa Rica that, for the first time ever, a bipartisan PLN-PUSC majority in the Legislative Assembly voted to censure him. Outside of government and resuming his law practice, Castro represented a company which was named in the Panama Papers for getting Mossack Fonseca to scam the Costa Rican tax authorities. Like Donald Trump, Castro enjoys picking fights with and insulting journalists and political opponents. During the campaign, one of his main targets was the leading newspaper La Nación, which published a series of articles and stories highly critical of Castro (even claiming that his rhetoric was anti-democratic and reminiscent of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela); in reaction, Castro vowed, in mid-January 2018, to put the newspaper out of business if elected. Castro’s campaign was extremely populist, claiming that only he had the courage to impose real solutions when other politicians are too scared, and focusing on ‘corruption’ although the ‘solutions’ he offered to this problem were often vague, meaningless, unimportant or likely ineffective (innovation in public procurement, livestreaming board of directors meetings, reducing government ad spending, limiting government travel abroad, empowering citizens etc.). Castro is firmly situated on the right of the spectrum – in his platform he supported a flat corporate and income tax, tax exemptions for companies hiring low-skilled workers and advocated for a mano dura of retributive justice against crime.

Otto Guevara, leader of the Libertarian Movement (ML), ran for the fifth consecutive time. In 2010, he had won 21% but in 2014 his support dropped to 11% and the ML’s caucus in the legislature shrank from 9 to 4, which put the party in financial difficulties and increased internal opposition to Guevara – who, for the first time, faced an internal primary in which he won ‘only’ 59.5% against young ML deputy Natalia Díaz (who then publicly endorsed Álvarez). Otto Guevara was implicated in the cementazo as an ally or lobbyist of corrupt cement importer Juan Carlos Bolaños. Guevara’s house and office were searched in November 2017, his name was among the 29 individuals recommended for investigation by the legislative commission in December 2017 and in March 2018 authorities seized 41 million colones ($72,500) during a raid of a legal practice where Guevara has an office (Guevara denies that the money is his, but also wants the money back). Corruption accusations against the ML’s perennial candidate and long-time leader were another blow to the party’s credibility and reputation, particularly as it had first made its mark by criticizing corruption, government waste and the political system. Under Guevara, the ML has moved away from its initial ‘radical’ libertarian stances – particularly on societal issues like drug use and same-sex marriage – to become a more generic right-wing conservative party. After the US election in November 2016, Guevara praided Donald Trump’s political style and said that Trump’s victory “reinvigorated” him, although he claimed that if he was American he’d have voted for Gary Johnson. He did, however, get some inspiration from Trump on immigration – saying that he’d deport illegal migrant, reserve social benefits to native Costa Rican and oppose jus soli citizenship (around 9% of the Costa Rican population – over 385,000 – are foreign-born, predominantly from neighbouring Nicaragua). Guevara was one of the most right-wing candidates – supporting cutting bureaucratic hurdles, deregulation, tax cuts (with a 15% flat tax), privatizations, free trade, free competition in regulated or closed sectors (electricity), spending cuts, shrinking and reforming government and reducing ‘welfare dependency’.

On the left, the Broad Front (FA) – which had done very well in 2014 – turned out to be far more like a clown car than a serious political alternative. Over the last four years, its 9-member caucus in the legislature disintegrated amidst internal conflicts, divisions and accusations of domestic violence, sexual harassment and even a claim that one deputy’s office was being used for ‘romantic encounters’ on Saturday nights. Its presidential candidate was Edgardo Araya – one of the few deputies not mixed up in the above drama – who is a lawyer specialized in environmental law and the former leader of a local civic movement against a Canadian open-cast gold mining project in Crucitas. The FA defines itself as “socialist, progressive, patriotic, feminist, democratic, ethical and Latin American” and its platforms blame the neoliberal policies of successive governments since the 1980s for persistent poverty, income inequality, labour informality and economic imbalances.

In early January 2018, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, answering a legal question posed by the Costa Rican government in 2016, ruled that countries which are signatories to the American Convention on Human Rights are required to allow same-sex couples to marry. Although the IAHR Court’s decision was a consultative opinion, Costa Rican jurisprudence since 1995 holds that the IAHR Court’s opinions are legally-binding on the country and the country’s constitution states that international treaties and conventions are part of the legal system and prevail over domestic laws. The IAHR Court’s landmark ruling – an ‘October surprise’ – shook up the campaign, leading to a massive (and unexpected) social conservative ‘backlash’ or ‘religious shock’. According to the CIEP-UCR’s January 2018 poll, the IAHR Court’s decision was very unpopular: two-thirds of respondents disagreed with it, very similar to the percentage who oppose abortion in cases of rape (68%) or civil recognition of same-sex couples (69%). Debates over societal issues like same-sex marriage, LGBT rights, gender and sex ed replaced corruption in the headlines.

Fabricio Alvarado of the National Restoration Party (Partido Restauración Nacional, PRN), a minor Christian evangelical right-wing party founded in 2005, benefited the most from the IAHR Court’s decision and ensuing social conservative backlash. Fabricio Alvarado, the PRN’s lone deputy in the 2014-18 legislature, is a former TV newscaster, evangelical preacher and Christian guitarist/singer. While most other major candidates (Álvarez, Piza, Guevara, Hernández) opposed same-sex marriage, they had not made the issue a central plank of their platforms and both Álvarez and Piza announced that they would respect the court’s decision. However, Fabricio Alvarado said that it was an unacceptable affront to Costa Rican sovereignty and the country’s fundamental (Christian) values. If elected, he assured, he would not obey the court’s decision and – most controversially – said that he would, if necessary, seek to withdraw Costa Rica from the Inter-American system. Besides same-sex marriage, social conservatism – or, many of his opponents claim, religious fundamentalism and intolerance – was at the heart of his appeal and discourse. He opposed IVF (legally regulated following a IAHR Court decision), abortion under any circumstances and vowed to eliminate so-called ‘gender ideology’ from public institutions and the education system. Fabricio Alvarado was accused by his opponents of lacking clear, coherent proposals on issues other than same-sex marriage or ‘gender ideology’, although he did have the most thorough and complete manifesto of the four Christian right candidates and was not a ‘single-issue’ candidate. He was equally as right-wing on fiscal and economic matters, proposing austerity measures (spending freeze or cuts), cuts to wasteful or unnecessary public spending and attracting foreign investment.

Antonio Álvarez Desanti, the candidate of the party with the largest ‘core’ electorate in volatile times, began as the favourite – although his numbers in the polls were unimpressive (below 30% with undecideds included), signalling that like in 2014, the election would be decided by undecideds and that there was a large mass of volatile ‘floating voters’ up for grabs between all candidates. In the fall of 2017, popular discontent in the wake of the cementazo scandal played to the advantage of anti-establishment populist (and Álvarez Desanti’s arch-nemesis) Juan Diego Castro. Castro and Álvarez were roughly tied in most reputable polls starting in November. In January, a month before the first round, Álvarez and Castro still appeared to be the favourites to qualify for the runoff – which, naturally, led to a lot of articles in the Costa Rican and foreign press about the “Costa Rican Trump” and what it meant. Castro became the primary target of attacks from the PLN and the media (La Nación), but much of the damage to his campaign was also self-inflicted: he made a series of outlandish and bizarre statements, among them a vulgar claim that female employees in the judiciary needed to “perform oral sex” with magistrates to get a promotion (a comment made entirely on the basis of anecdotal ‘evidence’ he overheard from a classmate from law school) or that PLN candidate Antonio Álvarez Desanti’s campaign was receiving money from the Honduran Rosenthal family (listed on the US Treasury’s foreign narcotics kingpins list).

The social conservative backlash which followed the IAHR Court’s decision led to a sudden, rapid surge for PRN candidate Fabricio Alvarado, who in the matter of just over a week was catapulted from distant fifth with just 5% to first place with 15-20%. Fabricio Alvarado’s surge was accompanied by Castro’s rapid and complete collapse and a very last minute surge for the other Alvarado, centre-left PAC candidate Carlos Alvarado (the only major candidate who celebrated the IAHR Court’s decision on same-sex marriage). Carlos Alvarado had been polling single digits just two weeks before the first round, and went from single-digits to striking distance of a spot in the runoff in the last polls. In short, the entire dynamics of the elections shifted completely in the space of just a few weeks. Two candidates who hadn’t been on anyone’s radars just a month before the election suddenly surged into contention with just a few weeks to go before the first round.

Results of the first round by canton (own map)

Turnout was 65.7% in the first round, the third lowest turnout in a first round presidential election after 1958 (64.7%) and 2006 (65.2%). Fabricio Alvarado (PRN) finished in first place with 24.99% of the vote (538,504) and Carlos Alvarado (PAC), confirming his last-minute surge, finished in second place with 21.63% of the vote (466,129). The two candidates with the most clear-cut positions on what had become the main issue of the campaign – same-sex marriage – advanced to the runoff. Fabricio Alvarado’s result was a groundbreaking success for the evangelical Christian right in Costa Rica, where evangelicals make up about 13-17% of the population, and an astounding success for the PRN, a party founded in 2005 which had won only one seat in the legislature in the past three elections and whose presidential candidate in 2014 had won only 1.3% (27,000 votes). On the basis of the unexpected salience of societal issues, he built and mobilized a coalition of evangelical Christians, non-evangelical social conservatives and other dissatisfied voters. A post-election poll by the CIEP-UCR, 54% of Fabricio Alvarado’s voters said that they supported him to ‘defend traditional values’ (across the entire electorate, 24% said they supported who they did for that reason, as opposed to 57% who voted for who they did because they liked their candidate’s ideas). That poll also reported that 70% of Fabricio’s voters were evangelicals and 20% were Catholic. The other Alvarado – Carlos Alvarado – likely benefited from Fabricio Alvarado’s surge, which probably created a social liberal/secular backlash to the social conservative/religious backlash. After the election, an embittered PLN deputy-elect said that the (unpopular) PAC government had been Fabricio’s best ‘campaign manager’ while Fabricio was the PAC’s best ‘campaign manager’. The back-and-forth for much of the campaign between Castro and Álvarez diverted attention away from the other candidates, so that when Castro collapsed and Álvarez faltered, the two Alvarados hadn’t been the targets of any sustained attacks or negative publicity and were still, effectively, blank slates. By surging so late in the campaign, Fabricio and Carlos’ opponents didn’t have the time to do oppo research on them.

Antonio Álvarez Desanti (PLN) won 18.63% (401,505), the PLN’s worst result in its history (and the first time it didn’t finish in the top two). The PLN is a shadow of its former self. Its support in wealthier urban areas is low, and its voters now tends to be concentrated in the poorer coastal provinces. It lacks a defining ideology or even a defining political project: it has become a de-ideologized, vaguely centrist or centre-right, old party which doesn’t really stand for anything anymore and has mostly been getting by on tradition, bland centrism and a declining (and likely aging) old core electorate. Álvarez Desanti’s campaign was bland, boring and unexciting. When the IAHR Court decision created the’religious shock’ which boosted Fabricio Alvarado, Álvarez dithered and was unable to respond.  In contrast, the other traditional party (PUSC) and its candidate, Rodolfo Piza, performed relatively well, winning 15.99% (344,595), relaunching the PUSC’s brand after 12 years in the political wilderness (less than 4% in 2006 and 2010, 6% in 2014). In a post-election interview, Piza said he was satisfied with his results and noted how the PUSC’s support had increased substantially from 2014 and how it had expanded its electoral base. All this in spite of the calderonista splinter (PRSC), which won only 4.94% of the vote in the presidential election (106,444).

The main loser, besides Álvarez, was his arch-nemesis, Juan Diego Castro – trumpitico – who won a poor fifth place with 9.54% (205,602). Castro’s opponents and critics’ attacks were successful, perhaps convincing potential supporters that his ‘Trumpian’ style was dangerous in a country which prides itself on its stable democracy and pragmatic politics. Moreover, the ‘religious shock’ shifted focus away from issues where Castro had some credibility (corruption and security) towards an issue where Castro simply didn’t care. After a bizarre semblance of a ‘confession speech’ in which he was probably drunk (and seemed to blame non-voters for his defeat), in a tell-all post-election interview with a tabloid he took credit for and great pleasure in Antonio Álvarez’s defeat, saying that he was very satisfied that “this man has been absolutely buried, not only with bags of Chinese cement but for his greed, his hypocrisy and for being a liar”, very pleased that he destroyed Álvarez’s childhood dream of becoming president and calling him “a loser, the only thing he has won is having a wife with money”.

The other candidates performed very poorly. Otto Guevara was crushed (1.02% or 21,890 votes) and left the ML shut out of the legislature and on the verge of death. The radical left (FA) collapsed back to its ‘usual’ level of support – 0.78% (16,862), although the FA managed to hold one single seat in the legislature (for its 2014 candidate José María Villalta). Fabricio’s success completely overwhelmed and devoured the three other parties of the ‘Christian bloc’ – whose presidential candidates Mario Redondo (ADC), Stephanie Campos (PRC) and Óscar López (PASE) won only 0.59%, 0.57% and 0.35% respectively. In the 2014-18 legislature, these three parties had held four seats (2 for the PRC, 1 each for the ADC and PASE) but they lost all their seats this year.

In the legislative elections, the PLN remained the largest party with 17 seats (-1), smallest ‘majority caucus’ ever. Fabricio Alvarado’s PRN underperformed the candidate, but will be the second-largest party in the new legislature with 14 seats, up from just one in 2014. The PAC lost three seats and is only the third-largest party, with 10 seats. These results mean that the new president will need to find support from other parties for his agenda and forge a much stronger, and long-term, working relationship with these other parties and their legislator than President Solís did. The PUSC won 9 seats, up by one from 2014 continuing its slow climb back. Somewhat surprisingly given the volatility of the election and the record fragmentation of the vote, only three minor parties won seats – the National Integration Party (Partido Integración Nacional, PIN), a tiny right-wing party which had opportunistically given its ballot line to Castro, won four seats (including one for the PIN’s owner and former perennial candidate Walter Muñoz), the new PRSC won 2 seats and the left-wing FA won one. The ML, ADC, PRC and PASE lost all their seats. The new legislature will be markedly more right-wing than the previous one: ‘the left’ (PAC and FA) will hold only 11 seats, compared to 22 in the last term, while the right-wing ‘Christian bloc’ grew from five to 14 seats – and, with the ‘traditional’ right-wing parties (PUSC, PIN, PRSC), form an absolute majority with 29 seats. La Nación has short blurbs about the 57 winners as well as their stances, when available, on fiscal reform, public sector employment reform and same-sex marriage.

The first round symbolized the final demise of the old two-party system, with the PLN suffering its worst ever defeat and finishing in third place with less than 20% of the vote. The PLN and PUSC, the two parties of the ‘old system’, finished in third and fourth sharing 34.6% of the vote between themselves, compared to 35.7% in 2014, 50.8% in 2010, 44.5% in 2006, 70% in 2002 and 92% in 1998 (and elections before that). The ‘new party system’, which remains extremely difficult to define, is an open and fragmented multi-party system characterized by rather extreme volatility, a large pool of floating voters and unstable short-term electoral coalitions. In this new system, presidential second rounds – unheard of until 2002 – are probably here to stay. The 2018 presidential election was more fragmented than ever before: the first place winner’s plurality was the lowest ever, at just 25%, compared to 30.6% and 38.6% in 2014 and 2002.

Second round campaign

After a closely-fought first round which had sealed a volatile campaign, the second round appeared similarly unpredictable with no obvious favourite.

The candidates (the fifth cousins)

The two Alvarados are both young and relative newcomers in politics. Although they were initially said to be unrelated, a study of their family trees found that they’re actually fifth cousins and the two candidates didn’t even know it! Fabricio and Carlos share the same great-great-great-great-grandmother, a woman named María Alvarado, who was born in 1797. The genealogical study also found that neither of the two ‘should be’ Alvarados: Fabricio’s grandfather inherited the maternal rather than paternal surname (because the parents were unmarried); the father of Carlos’ great-grandfather is unknown but Carlos’ great-grandfather was born out of wedlock and raised by a single mother and inherited the maternal surname. Both candidates have indigenous and African (slaves) blood and neither come from wealthy or elite families. Taking the genealogical study further, Teletica found that FA deputy Patricia Mora (the niece of famous Communist leader Manuel Mora Valverde) is Fabricio Alvarado’s fourth cousin and that Laura Chinchilla, Fabricio Alvarado, Juan Diego Castro, Ottón Solís and Luis Guillermo Solís are seventh cousins. Carlos Alvarado is also related to Ottón Solís.

Fabricio Alvarado was born in 1974 in San José. His father was a singer in a Costa Rican band called Taboga Band and his cousin is the vocalist for the Costa Rican jazz band Escats. He studied journalism at the University of Costa Rica (UCR), but did not graduate. He worked as a newscaster for Repretel, where he worked until 2009. Fabricio Alvarado was a practising Catholic before becoming a born-again Christian evangelical, and began his musical career in 2003. A guitarist and singer, he has released several albums of Christian music and, after quitting Repretel, found work as a newscaster for a Christian radio station. He was elected to the Legislative Assembly in 2014, as the PRN’s sole deputy, succeeding the party’s founder and leader Carlos Avendaño. The PRN was founded by Avendaño in 2005 following a split in the older evangelical party, Costa Rican Renovation (PRC). As deputy, Fabricio was among the five deputies of the Christian or pro-life bloc, which was most active on societal issues including IVF, regulated by a presidential decree in 2015 following a court order from the IAHR Court (Costa Rica was the only country in the world with a complete ban on IVF technology).

The PRN says that it is not an ‘evangelical party’ but is explicitly founded on Christian ethics and values, with its main objective being the restoration of the traditional family as the basic nuclear institution of society. It laments ‘pathologies’ like family disintegration, drug addiction, child prostitution, consumerist materialism, political corruption and mediocrity and hedonistic libertine individualism as some of the main problems of society.

Fabricio Alvarado’s original platform proposed a rather bizarre technocratic managerial government of “the best brains”, with standard-right right-wing proposals like cutting wasteful or unnecessary public spending, reducing operational costs, austerity measures (spending freeze or control) to reduce the debt and deficit, promoting entrepreneurship, attracting foreign investments or creating new free trade zones in the interior of the country. Nevertheless, he saw a key role for the state in reducing poverty, social assistance, healthcare and education. He proposed a ‘grand educational reform for the bicentenary’, supposedly based on the Finnish model (but without identifying many concrete ways to reaching that, besides better training for teachers and bilingualism). Fabricio Alvarado’s platform was “tough on crime”, claiming that the country is becoming a “criminal paradise” and supporting tougher sentences. The platform claimed that illegal immigration is collapsing the social security system, and proposed a one-year amnesty period before deporting illegal migrants.

The PRN says that it has always “fiercely defended the most fundamental Christian values”, citing as examples thereof the ‘defence of life’, the ‘traditional definition of marriage’ and the ‘integral safeguard of the family’. Fabricio Alvarado promised the repeal the decree regulating IVF for being ‘illegal and immoral’, oppose abortion under any circumstances, strengthen religious freedom, oppose same-sex marriage and to reform the educational curriculum to instill “the value of human life” as a central concept of students’ socialization. He attacked ‘gender ideology’ – the new favourite boogeyman of Latin American social conservatives – and vowed to eliminate it from education and public institutions for being discriminatory and contrary to “Costa Rican Judeo-Christian idiosyncrasy”. He defined ‘gender ideology’ as a doctrine which LGBT groups “promote, impose and ingrain” in education and public institutions to indoctrinate children. He explained that it is “impossible to accept that there are more than two genders; that these are divorced from sex at birth, that these can be interchanged at will, that they sustain new conceptions of marriage, that attack gestational life, that they shield themselves in sexual and reproductive health to achieve it, and, among many other causes, go from the search for respect to the promotion of [sexual] preferences, because it is contrary to the nature of the human being, with the principle of life, with the foundation of marriage understood as the ability to procreate naturally and the family seen as the institution that orders society.” In other words, ‘gender ideology’ here is an amorphous catch-all concept which covers every base from abortion to LGBT rights. Instead of ‘gender ideology’, Fabricio Alvarado said he would offer ‘comprehensive and truly inclusive proposals’ which attack discrimination for motives of sex, age, religion, ethnic and cultural reasons, sexual orientation and skin colour. Fabricio Alvarado said that he strongly supported ‘gender equity’ (the word used was, perhaps tellingly, equity rather than equality), but his vision of gender equity was markedly conservative and traditionalist: “gender equity implies a restoration of the family as the nuclear axis of society, a restored family in which the father and the mother interact in conditions of equity, […] with their children and other members of the family nucleus” (no mention of single parents, single men and women or obviously same-sex couples/families). Alvarado said in his platform that he would “fight radical and gyno-centric proposals” on gender equity because, he claimed, “radical and gyno-centric schemes see in the equity of difference a real war of the sexes.”

Carlos Alvarado was born in 1980 in San José. He graduated from the University of Costa Rica with a bachelor’s degree in collective communications and later with a master’s degree in political science. He later obtained a master’s in development studies from the University of Sussex in England. Carlos Alvarado is also a published writer and, like his opponent, a fan of music: he was a vocalist in several progressive rock bands.

Carlos Alvarado served as advisor to the PAC’s legislative caucus in the 2006-10 legislature, but also worked in the private sector (Procter & Gamble) and academia (consultant for the Institute of Development Studies in the UK, professor at the UCR and and Latin University of Costa Rica). He was communications director on Solís’ 2014 presidential campaign. Under Luis Guillermo Solís, Alvarado was Minister of Human Development and Social Inclusion (2014-2016) and Minister of Labour and Social Security (2016-2018). As human development minister, Carlos Alvarado – with the statistical institute (INEC) and other partners – improved the measurement of poverty with a new multidimensional poverty index and maps of poverty, and implemented a new centralized database of social assistance recipients. He also takes credit for the 2% drop in poverty since 2014 (22% to 20%). He became labour minister in March 2016, serving less than a year before resigning to run for president in January 2017. He was the first labour minister to successfully renegotiate collective agreements to reduce the benefits of certain parastatal employees, and he led the implementation of new laws which limited and cut the ‘luxury pensions’ of several former deputies and other senior politicians and bureaucrats.

As explained above, Carlos Alvarado emerged victorious from the PAC’s primary (national convention) in July 2017, defeating former finance minister Welmer Ramos by about 5,600 votes (57-43).

Alvarado began his campaign as the candidate of continuity. The cementazo scandal forced him to reorient his campaign away from the incumbent government. The release of the legislative commission’s report on the cementazo, which named Welmer Ramos – PAC legislative candidate in Heredia province – became a sensitive issue for Alvarado, who was challenged by Álvarez Desanti to ask for Ramos’ withdrawal. In December, Alvarado asked for Ramos’ resignation (withdrawal), but said it would only be effective if the ethics prosecutor found any wrongdoing (in the end, Ramos remained on the list and was elected to the legislature in February). Alvarado distanced himself from the president, criticizing Solís’ defensive response to the commission’s report as “lacking self-criticism and forcefulness in face of the situation”. Alvarado instead moved closer to Ottón Solís, the PAC’s popular founder and moral reference, who became a key player in his campaign for both rounds.

The PAC’s platform was left-wing, progressive and socially liberal, highlighting issues like improving education and healthcare, sustainable development and de-carbonized economy, public transportation, access to housing, mixed economy, progressive taxation, reducing inequalities, public transportation, regional development, inclusive and pluralistic society, participatory democracy, ethics, gender equality and LGBT rights. Education was one of the key priorities of his campaign, alongside typical economic concerns (jobs) and social inclusion. Another major theme of the PAC’s campaign was environmental protection, climate change and clean energy – with research and investment into biofuels, solar energy, non-conventional renewable energies and clean cars. On security and crime issues, Carlos Alvarado’s platform focused on addressing the roots and causes of criminality (social exclusion, poverty etc.) and restorative justice, although it also proposed stricter gun control policies and police professionalization.

On hot-button societal topics, Carlos Alvarado supported IVF, emergency contraception, comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services, sexual education in schools, recognition of gender identity (allowing people to change their names or genders on the civil registry) and same-sex marriage (and, in general, full equality for same-sex couples). The issue of abortion remains too sensitive and taboo to be addressed by electoral campaigns, and his platform largely eluded the issue by merely promising to fully implement the existing legislation (penal code) which allows for therapeutic abortions (threat to a mother’s life or health), abortion remains illegal under all other circumstances, including rape, incest or fetal malformations. Carlos Alvarado also supported amending the constitution to make Costa Rica a secular (religiously neutral) state (estado laico). Costa Rica is the only country in the Americas which still has an official state religion (Roman Catholicism is recognized as the state religion in article 75 of the constitution).

He proposed a fiscal reform along the lines of the government’s initial proposal, with improved tax collection and closing other tax loopholes. He also proposed the adoption of a law limiting growth in public spending (already proposed by the government). In a shift away from the PAC’s former protectionist ways, his platform advocated taking advantage of free trade agreements, pursuing further trade deals with Asia, promoting exports, attracting FDI and supporting public-private partnerships.

The campaign

In my post-first round post on February 20, I wrote that Fabricio began the runoff as the favourite given that he was the de facto opposition candidate against the candidate of an unpopular government (in a post-election poll, 65% said the country was on the wrong track and 43% had a bad/very bad opinion of the government) as well as his socially conservative values which appeared to be shared by a majority of the electorate given the unpopularity of the IAHR Court’s decision. However, I warned that Fabricio could not only rely on the continued salience of ‘culture war’ issues and that ‘defending traditional values’ was a key voting motivation only for Fabricio’s voters (and about a quarter of Álvarez’s voters).

Both candidates sought to build the widest possible coalitions to convey an image and message of ‘national unity’ – despite (or maybe because of) the rather ideologically polarized (and somewhat bitter) nature of the runoff match-up – and the best way to make that a reality was to actively seek the endorsement of other candidates, senior party officials and high-ranking politicians. Only the more minor candidates quickly issued endorsements – Edgardo Araya (FA) unsurprisingly endorsed Carlos Alvarado and called to vote against the PRN (the party said it was choice between “the Middle Ages and modernity”); Mario Redondo (ADC), Sergio Mena (PNG, 0.76%), Otto Guevara (ML), Rodolfo Hernández (PRSC) and Óscar López (PASE) all endorsed Fabricio Alvarado, although Mena’s endorsement was contested by some members of his nominally liberal party. Of these, the only significant endorsement was Mario Redondo, a respected and experienced legislator from the ‘Christian bloc’ Christian Democratic Alliance party, who would have been appointed Minister of the Presidency under a Fabricio Alvarado administration (the minister of the presidency is a senior cabinet post usually filled with loyalists and confidantes of the president).

On election night, Juan Diego Castro spoke quite early and he thought that his arch-nemesis Toño Álvarez had made it to the runoff, so he drunkenly said that “hopefully the anointed of the Lord wins… hopefully Fabricio wins… hopefully Fabricio with the guitar and with the tararalala mamushka tumushka tarushka tatatataca gets us out of the quagmire… if Fabricio doesn’t win this country will go mamushka takatushka mororusca” (yes he made those random sounds). However, in his post-election interview, Castro contradicted what he had said on election night and was suddenly very critical of Fabricio Alvarado – saying that, once the ‘gay marriage bubble’ passed, the country couldn’t trust that a “president at the tip of a guitar makes the country prosper” and that he was horrified that people believed Fabricio could get the country out of the crisis. Castro met with PAC moral reference Ottón Solís over coffee (this was later confirmed by Solís) and very clearly opened the door to endorsing the PAC because “we can not leave the country in the hands of Don Fabricio and those who are close to him”… but he later changed his mind again and posted on Facebook that he’d never vote for the PAC. He remained in the public spotlight for a bit because of a very public spat with Walter Muñoz, the owner of the party which had supported him (the irrelevant PIN), claiming that the PIN sabotaged his campaign and accusing Muñoz of financial improprieties with campaign funds and 50 million colones from Castro’s own savings. However, Castro quickly dropped out of the headlines and was posting crude anti-PAC images (depicted as communists) on his Twitter by the time of the runoff.

The PLN and PUSC as parties made no collective endorsements. Indeed, both parties were internally divided and their members and leaders split between both candidates. Carlos Alvarado, followed shortly thereafter by Fabricio Alvarado, met with former liberacionista presidents Óscar Arias Sánchez and Laura Chinchilla, but neither former president made public who they were voting for. Chinchilla said that the main obstacle to an agreement with the PAC was the party’s long-standing hostility towards the PLN and the ways in which the PAC and its administration have treated the PLN and liberacionistas. The PLN’s executive committee officially called on supporters to vote with ‘full freedom of conscience’ for whoever they thought was best for the country’s interests. Carlos Alvarado was endorsed by three former PLN cabinet ministers (among others), while Fabricio Alvarado received the endorsement of one of Álvarez’s two running-mates (Edgar Ayales, minister of finance under Chinchilla), a former agriculture minister under Arias Sánchez, a member of Álvarez’s economic team and several other PLN leaders. Many of these experienced names were announced as part of Fabricio Alvarado’s economic team, to give policy depth and experience to the candidate on a critical issue where he was criticized for lacking experience or clear proposals. In the week before the runoff, PLN deputy Ronny Monge claimed that the liberacionista bases would work for Fabricio.

On March 8, PUSC candidate Rodolfo Piza personally endorsed Carlos Alvarado (his endorsement didn’t carry that of his party) and – perhaps even more significantly – signed an agreement for a ‘national government’ setting out a lengthy agenda on ten themes: ethics/corruption, family values/equality, jobs and growth, economic stability, education and culture, healthcare and social security, infrastructure, security, environment and housing, reform of the state/foreign relations. This agreement included commitments including improving vocational training, simplifying business formalities, to train 300,000 adults in English, expand internet access, support the fiscal reform to reduce the deficit by 0.75% of GDP a year reducing it to 1% by 2022, limit spending, increase public sector employment by only 1% annually until 2020, a VAT at 13% (rather than 15%), oppose any new public sector salary benefits and rationalize existing ones (without changing civil servants’ acquired rights), reduce healthcare waiting lists by 10% each year, support and complete existing infrastructure projects (new rapid passenger train in the Central Valley, subway, use PPPs to develop public works), a more rigorous policy against violent crimes and recidivism, promote a reform of the state and discuss constitutional and legal reforms (to guarantee greater responsibility and efficiency in the legislative procedure, judiciary, public contracts, public employment etc.). On the controversial societal issues, the document signed by the two candidates recognized their disagreements on same-sex marriage but committed to respect “the resolutions issued by the competent authorities”. They agreed not to modify any law related to abortion (nationally or internationally), not expanding in any way what is already established by law (abortion is only legal if the mother’s life or health are at risk). On the very touchy and controversial subject of sex ed in schools, the candidates agreed to open a consultation process with parents on the sex ed program during which certain units would be withdrawn from the program (a unit on sexual relations in grade 10, a unit on sexual diversity including discussion of the LGBT flag in grade 7 and withdrawing the glossary of terms). The issue of sex ed and ‘gender ideology’ had remained salient immediately after the elections, with parents in the north of the country protesting the sex ed guides of the education ministry which, they claimed, indoctrinates kids with ‘gender ideology’, promote abortion, incite homosexuality and force kids to touch each other in class. These protests forced the closures of over a dozen schools preventing nearly 3,000 students from going to class. When the education minister organized a meeting with concerned parents, Fabricio Alvarado’s education adviser Marisela Rojas pretended to be a blind mother to sneak in to the meeting. It was later revealed that Marisela Rojas, who founded and managed a private school, hadn’t paid her teachers and is suspended from the teachers’ college (guild) – i.e. banned from being a teacher – since 2004.

In welcoming Piza’s support and signing a ‘national government’ policy deal, Carlos adopted or implicitly endorsed parts of Piza’s rather right-wing liberal economic platform, which may have made some older PAC stalwarts a bit queasy. As noted above, the PAC has shifted away from its early left-wing, protectionist views on economic issues and – with the tough experience of government in difficult fiscal times – has become significantly more moderate and pragmatic, dropping all mentions of ‘renegotiating free trade agreements’ and instead speaking the language of ‘macroeconomic stability’, ‘healthy public finances’ and supporting ideas like limiting growth in public spending.

On March 28, just days before the runoff, PLN candidate Antonio Álvarez Desanti gave his personal endorsement to Fabricio Alvarado. However, Álvarez’s endorsement didn’t have the same positive momentum effect as Piza’s endorsement had for Carlos: it came too late, when voters had already made up their mind or were unlikely to be swayed by the opinion of a candidate who came out as a ‘loser’ of the first round (and had been the most unpopular candidate). His endorsement, by the way he phrased it, was mostly based on his own friendship with Fabricio Alvarado and a good personal working relationship from the time that they were both deputies (with Álvarez as president of the Legislative Assembly, elected with the support of the PRN and the other Christian bloc parties). It is worth noting, mostly for fun, that the PLN is still a member of the Socialist International, which probably says a lot about SI today.

Fabricio had a pretty bad time after his first round success, needing to do a lot of damage control. In sum, what happened is that Fabricio began to get the scrutiny and media attention that the other candidates received before the first round. The PRN surged out of nowhere in the legislative elections and won 14 seats, so the media naturally started seeking out interviews with some of the PRN’s new deputies-elect and the results were… Sarah Palin-esque (at best). In an interview with a local paper, a new PRN deputy in Guanacaste was unable to answer the vast majority of specific questions about bills and laws, giving answers like “I can’t tell you in detail”, “I can’t give you a concrete answer”, “I can’t give you an answer right now”, “I need to study it better” etc. and at best “ah, this I have heard about a bit”. CRHoy interviewed a young new deputy from Limón and the result was basically like that 2008 Sarah Palin interview about the bailout. She was not quite sure what she meant by the ‘market’, said that on infrastructure ‘we need to discuss it’, saying that “on the fiscal deficit, right now I don’t handle it very well”, completely flubbed an easy question about ‘strategies to reach agreements’ by giving some weird stump speech (I am young) and saying that her first priority will be to ‘put a stop to this gender ideology’. However, she apparently knows little of what ‘gender ideology’ supposedly is besides ‘a heap of trash’, and talked about sex ed guides (which are issued by the ministry and not the legislature). When asked about what she’d do to improve local security, she just said point blank “maybe we won’t fight corruption, but at least people feel safe about visiting a park with their family and sit down to eat”… Following these PR disasters, the PRN banned its newly-elected deputies from speaking to the media… but even there, they screwed it: contacted by La Nación, a new deputy for Alajuela said that he was not authorized to answer questions from the press or give details about his background, adding that another newly-elected deputy for Heredia had asked the others to send their resumes the day before. The PRN hadn’t checked the resumes of their candidates, because even they did not expect to win so many seats: they, as in previous years, only counted on a single seat for party leader Carlos Avendaño in San José and ran evangelical pastors, paper candidates and nobodies everywhere else.

As if that wasn’t enough, a new PRN deputy for Limón denied publishing a virulently homophobic post on his Facebook which cited the Bible on sin and its consequences (death) accompanied with an image called ‘this is sexual diversity’ equating homosexuality to paedophilia, incest, zoosexuality, polygamy, sibling sex, sex with minors. Contacted by La Nación, he denied personally posting the image and then dug himself into a hole with some incomprehensible nonsense about gay people.

With inexperienced deputies saying stupid things and an education adviser pretending to be blind, Fabricio was in trouble and unconvincingly said that he “cannot control everything that our supporters say”. Controversially, his campaign tried to tightly control all media statements and interviews, asking anyone who wanted to talk to him to fill out an interview request form online. The form originally even asked journalists to list the questions they would ask of the PRN candidate.

One of Fabricio Alvarado’s most controversial proposal was to consider leaving the IAHR Court/the Inter-American System, an emotional reaction on the spur of the moment which he likely didn’t think through. As explained by Semanario Universidad, withdrawing from the IAHR Court on its own is not possible: Costa Rica would have to denounce the American Convention on Human Rights, which only two countries (Trinidad and Tobago in 1998 and Venezuela in 2012) have done. However, even denouncing the Convention would not release Costa Rica from the IAHR Court’s decision on same-sex marriage, because denunciations become effective one year after having been declared and they do not release a party from its obligations resulting from acts that have occurred before the effective date of denunciation. In any case, denouncing the American Convention would require the approval of the Legislative Assembly. In the second round campaign, Fabricio proposed to hold a referendum about it. This would delay the hot potato for quite a while, and then potentially allow a President Fabricio Alvarado to quietly wash his hands of the issue if voters rejected it.

In late February, Fabricio Alvarado was embarrassed by two videos released by La Nación – one from November 2017 and the other from June 2016 – in which the candidate, speaking at evangelical churches, said some pretty nasty things about homosexuality. In the 2017 video, from an event at a church owned by the parents of his first vice-presidential candidate (and PRN deputy-elect) Ivonne Acuña, he says “when the enemy [the devil] manages to sexually confuse a person and divert their sexual identity, what they are doing is destroying their identity in God, that is the objective”. In the 2016 video, he says “in a world that wants to impose lifestyles that are not in the Bible, God is not looking for people who point out homosexuals […] God is looking for people so anointed, so empowered, that causes those people who today are out of the way of the Lord to come, and we can hug them and we can restore them and those people can change because those people are not going to hell”. Fabricio said that he didn’t recall saying those things, but also that he believed that people who want to “get out of homosexuality” should have a space “where they are taken care of and restored” (is that why his party is named National Restoration?!). The day before, his other VP candidate said that a PRN administration wouldn’t appoint gay cabinet ministers to avoid “offending the majority” and that ministers would be chosen on the basis of their “heterosexual morality”. About 10 days before that, Fabricio said that one of his first actions as president will be to change the 2015 decree on LGBT discrimination (because of ‘gender ideology’). These comments and videos put into question Fabricio’s repeated public assurances that he is not homophobic and that his administration would still protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Fabricio Alvarado (l.) and his ‘spiritual father’, apostle Rony Chaves (c.) (source: LA NACION)

On March 18 La Nación published an article about ‘apostle Rony Chaves’, Fabricio’s pastor and ‘spiritual father’ who is a rather insane scam artist. Chaves is a self-proclaimed apostle who claims to have been divinely appointed as apostle with a direct line to God. Upon getting this divine revelation he established a theocratic government in his church against those who disobeyed him. He is also an avid proponent of the ‘prosperity gospel’, not only inciting the devout to pay up but also preaching the ‘early tithe’ which consists of paying a tenth of what you wish to obtain from God and encouraging those who do not have the money to pay to sell some of their belongings to get the money. This is how Chaves claims he got rich, and he has in any case been rich enough to travel to the Himalayas in 1997 (though failing to climb Mt. Everest) or the Greek islands. He has also written inflammatory attacks against Catholicism and Costa Rica’s Catholic traditions, even attacking the patron saint of Costa Rica – la Virgen de los Ángeles – as a “Babylonian spirit that must fall” or “jezebelitic and idolatrous power”. He also claimed that four crosses in the Central Valley are part of a Satanic plan, as is the basilica of los Ángeles in Cartago. Fabricio is very close to the apostle Rony (although he now claims he never read his 40+ books) and Rony has been a key figure in his political career since 2014 – in January 2018, Rony said that Fabricio and his wife had, since 2008, “submitted themselves” to him. Rony claimed that last year God asked him to take a 3-day trip around Costa Rica, and he attributes the creation of the legislative commission on the cementazo scandal to his own divide intercession. He also says that this January God again asked him to activate a “new project of national intercession” before the elections so that the country would be presented to the Lord free from all spirits of corruption, lies and perversion. Fabricio invited apostle Rony to his congressional office on January 1 2018 (and also in 2016) to pray for Costa Rica, intercede for the Christian church and for the blessing of the nation of Israel. They prayed using a small national flag, oil, grains, salt and a miniature Bible to “perform prophetic acts and statements”. Fabricio Alvarado’s supporters responded by attacking La Nación, much like Castro has been doing for years, but the story badly hurt Fabricio Alvarado among Catholic voters, many of whom were likely angry about the anti-Catholic comments made by his so-called ‘spiritual father’. Fabricio Alvarado was forced to repeatedly reassure Catholics that there would be no anti-Catholic discrimination under his government and that his movement was not solely evangelical.

Less than a week before the first round, Fabricio Alvarado’s campaign was hit by another damaging scandal. Fabricio and others of his campaign secretly met with evangelical pastors on March 16 to coordinate their support on April 1 (and were all secretly recorded, in a meeting where recording was banned). Mario Redondo disingenuously claimed that they don’t have much money for the runoff and asked for “blessings” for food, transportation etc. Fabricio also told them that he would put some people from evangelical churches in his cabinet. The meeting was particularly controversial because it may have been unconstitutional under article 28 of the constitution which states, in part, that “clergymen or laymen may not invoke religious motives or to make use of religious beliefs as [a] means to make political propaganda in any form”. The Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) received many formal complaints after this scandal. In one of the final debates before the runoff, Carlos Alvarado hit his opponent hard over the scandal.

Fabricio Alvarado was accused by his opponent of lacking a substantive, clear, coherent and thorough platform, particularly on economic issues. Just three days before the election – that is, before anyone had the time to read and scrutinize it – he released his ‘2.0’ platform, a longer (140 pages).

Despite these controversial stories (mostly broken by La Nación) and scandals, Fabricio Alvarado’s campaign did not collapse and he did not have any ‘Sarah Palin moments’ (for lack of a better term) in debates or on the campaign trail. Both Alvarados seemed to have had good, or passable, performances in the debates. Both candidates designed their runoff campaigns to surmount the polarization from the first round and preach a message of ‘national unity’, both insisting that their administrations would go beyond their own parties and work with all parties in the spirit of national unity and the national interest. On this point, Carlos Alvarado probably had a leg up on his opponent, beginning with the favourable momentum created by Piza’s endorsement and the agreement on ‘national government’ with him. In his campaign ads, Carlos Alvarado emphasized the idea of national unity and that the election was more than just about which party wins… but about “defending the oldest democracy on the continent”. Carlos’ campaign used the slogan Es por vos, es por Costa Rica (it’s for you, it’s for Costa Rica) – in the blue and red colours of the national flag, rather than the red and yellow/gold colours of the PAC’s flag.

Carlos Alvarado was also able to shift public attention away from the ‘culture wars’ and same-sex marriage, by focusing on Fabricio’s weaknesses (like his supposed lack of a clear economic proposal) and turning the issue of same-sex marriage into a matter of respect and tolerance, like with this ad saying that “there are no second-class citizens, there are no second-class families; the government is one, and is for all”:

The polls disagreed, but either showed a tied race or Fabricio maintaining a sizable lead. Only two pollsters released more than one poll: the CIEP-UCR (from the University of Costa Rica, the country’s largest and most prestigious) and OPol Consultores (which isn’t very well known but did very well in the first round). CIEP-UCR had three polls: the first (Feb. 6-8) right after the first round showed Fabricio leading by 3% (45-42) with 13% undecided; the second (Feb. 27-28) showed Carlos leading by 2% (41-39) with 20% undecided and the last one (Mar. 19-21) had Fabricio leading within the margin of error by 1% (43-42) with 15% undecided. Opol had seven polls, and they all had Fabricio leading by a sizable margin – 7-9% with undecideds included, by about 10% with undecideds redistributed (meaning a 55-45 spread). Two other pollsters released polls, but they received little coverage in the mainstream media: the National University of Costa Rica had Carlos leading by 23% (52-29), a major outlier from all other polls (that university hadn’t released any polls since November 2017), while CID Gallup had Fabricio ahead by 4.5% with 38% undecided/not voting (the pollster hadn’t done any polling since January 15-20).

The last poll before the first round was an Opol poll done between March 19-23, showing Fabricio leading by 7.7% (36.2-28.5). Opol was supposed to release a final poll on March 28, but they cancelled their last poll because of ‘threats’ against their employees. Shortly before that, it was reported on social media that a car registered in the name of the corporation which owns the pollster was photographed with a PRN flag. Opol fired back on Twitter claiming that it didn’t own cars, before announcing that it was cancelling its last poll, but the project manager for Opol later recognized that he was driving the car in question with the PRN flags. Opol Consultores’ legal representative is the director of El Mundo CR, an online news portal, whose legal representative is also the legal representative for ‘Opinión Política CyC’, a political consulting firm which had done work for the PRN and which owns (or is part of the same business group as) Opol Consultores.


Turnout was 66.45%, compared to 65.7% in the first round (+0.75%). Turnout was higher than in the two previous runoff elections (60.2% in 2002 and 56.6% in 2014) and, unlike in 2002 and 2014, turnout was marginally higher in the second round than in the first. The highly competitive and polarizing 2018 runoff is hardly comparable to the two other runoffs in Costa Rica’s history, particularly the 2014 one – which was a symbolic event of little actual relevance given one candidate’s de facto withdrawal. Nevertheless, the 2018 runoff controversially fell on Easter Sunday (April 1) after the Holy Week (Semana Santa)/Easter long weekend (Maundy Thursday and Good Friday), with many people likely on vacation, returning home from vacations or attending Church. Considering the special circumstances, turnout was relatively impressive (although low compared to pre-2002 turnout levels).

Carlos Alvarado (PAC) 60.59% (1,322,908 votes)
Fabricio Alvarado (PRN) 39.41% (860,388 votes)

Carlos Alvarado was elected President of Costa Rica by an unexpectedly large margin: a full 21.2% or 462,520 votes. What was expected to be a closely fought race ended up being, to everyone’s surprise, a quasi-landslide. Both the winner and the loser seemed genuinely surprised at the outcome as it was announced.

Carlos Alvarado won 60.6% of the vote and defeated Fabricio Alvarado by a margin of over 20%. He won over 1.32 million votes, setting a new record as the president elected with the largest number of votes, a record previously held by his predecessor, Luis Guillermo Solís, who won 1,314,327 votes in the 2014 second round election (equivalent to 77.8% of the vote on 56.6% turnout) – but the 2014 runoff was, of course, a symbolic walkover, making Carlos Alvarado’s record all the more impressive. With high turnout and such a large margin of victory, there’s little doubt that Carlos Alvarado has won a clear mandate – although a mandate which, as noted above, doesn’t come accompanied by a majority in the legislature, where the new president will need to govern with his party being only the third-largest group in the incoming legislature. Carlos Alvarado won 856,779 more votes in the runoff than he had two months before in the first round (21.6%, 466k votes): this gain is far bigger than the 361,457 votes won by the two defeated candidates who endorsed him, Piza (PUSC) and Araya (FA), so even assuming that every single PUSC and FA voter followed their defeated candidate’s lead and voted for Carlos, he won over 490,000 additional votes – from voters who didn’t vote in the first round or voters who had backed one of the other candidates, most likely Álvarez (PLN), Castro (PIN) or Hernández (PRSC). Carlos Alvarado was magnanimous in victory and seemed genuinely happy, while Rodolfo Piza was visibly surprised by the scale of Carlos’ victory.

Fabricio Alvarado, the focus of so much attention from both local and foreign media, ended up under-performing everyone’s expectations (both his own optimistic expectations and his opponents’ pessimistic expectations). He won 39.4% of the vote, still a respectable showing from someone who was polling single-digits in early January. Going into the runoff, Fabricio appeared to be the most optimistic of the two candidates, repeatedly claiming that he would win (and get well over a million votes), while Carlos Alvarado appeared far less optimistic (or far more cautious), making no predictions as to his success. Yet, the results showed that Fabricio’s optimism was misplaced or misinformed. While surprised at the outcome, Fabricio quickly conceded victory in a very dignified manner – showing the strength and vitality of Costa Rica’s exceptional democracy – and he must have been among the happiest losers in history, all smiles and kneeling on stage with his arms raised upwards towards the sky (relieved that he didn’t win?). Fabricio’s 860,000 votes should not be ignored – they’re the sign of a strong, although not as strong as most had expected, right-wing and socially conservative/religious base in Costa Rica’s volatile politics. While his rival gained over 856,000 votes from the first round, Fabricio Alvarado gained ‘only’ 321,884 votes. This is far less than the combined total of 578,654 votes won by defeated first round candidates who personally endorsed him (PLN, PRSC, ML, PNG, ADC, PRC, PASE) – and less than the 401,505 votes won by PLN candidate Antonio Álvarez, who personally endorsed him just days before the runoff. While Rodolfo Piza’s endorsement of Carlos Alvarado was, with hindsight, a decisive moment for the PAC’s candidate and one of the major contributing factors to his eventual landslide victory, Antonio Álvarez’s endorsement came too late to have much of an impact (and it came from an unpopular candidate, whose own votes owed far more to liberacionista tribal loyalty than personal support of the candidate).

Unlike in the first round, the polls were wrong. With the exception of a poll by the National University of Costa Rica which went unnoticed (having Carlos up by 23%, an obvious outlier), all other polls either had a tied race (within the margin of error) or Fabricio in the lead (in the case of discredited pollster Opol). That discredited pollster Opol was wrong is not very surprising – they had their own favourite in the race – although it doesn’t explain why that pollster was quite close to the mark in the first round (or tell us if their polls were fake or if they were cooking the books). The highly respected and credible CIEP-UCR, whose polls had been quite good in the first round, had a final poll (Mar. 19-21) showing an election within the margin of error. This could suggest that there was a large last-minute shift among undecideds and some Fabricio ‘leaners’ in the final 10 days of the campaign – this shift may have come because of the major controversy surrounding the leaked secret recording of Fabricio’s meetings with evangelical leaders and/or Carlos’ effectiveness at bringing this controversy to the table in the final debates.

On April 25, the CIEP-UCR – to their credit – released an election post-mortem based on the final post-election interviews with their panel of 559 respondents between April 5 and 6. They concluded that voters who decided in the last week or on election day were decisive to the PAC’s victory: 20% of voters decided in the final week or on the day of, and these late-deciders voted heavily for the PAC’s candidate. Given that Fabricio and Carlos’ first round voters had their mind made up right after the runoff, the number of late-deciders was highest among sympathizers of other parties – like the PLN, PUSC, PIN, FA and PRSC.

There has been little thorough analysis of the runoff’s surprising outcome – why did Carlos win so decisively and why did Fabricio end up doing so ‘poorly’? The main explanation I would offer is that, after a successful first round, Fabricio found himself on the defensive for nearly two months, on the receiving end of negative press, scandals, controversies, gaffes and uncomfortable questions. I discussed in detail the main events of the second round campaign, and almost all of them involved Fabricio or his party: ‘Palin-esque’ PRN deputies-elect shown to be obviously unprepared and inexperienced, which reinforced concerns about Fabricio’s own inexperience and lack of qualified advisors; two videos in which the candidate makes borderline homophobic comments at religious events, which helped move the debate away from same-sex marriage towards tolerance; Fabricio’s spiritual father ‘apostle Rony Chaves’, a damning story which likely did damage to Fabricio’s support among devout Catholic voters; the leaked secret recordings, which brought the issue of religious interference in the elections (something which is unconstitutional) back to the forefront in the last days; or the questions about Fabricio’s economic plan (or lack thereof, according to Carlos) and unresolved questions about his plan to withdraw the country from the IAHR Court’s jurisdiction. According to the CIEP-UCR’s post-election panel, 66% of voters heard about Rony Chaves’ attacks la Virgen de los Ángeles as a “Babylonian spirit that must fall” or “jezebelitic and idolatrous power” (including 74% of Catholics) and 73% said that they felt ‘bad’ or ‘very bad’ upon hearing of these attacks. 84% of Catholics felt ‘bad’ or ‘very bad’ about these attacks, which struck a chord with them given that 63% of them said that she was a symbol of all Costa Ricans (of the entire sample, 48% said she was a symbol of Catholics and 46% said she was a symbol of all Costa Ricans). 34% of the panelists said that the attacks on the Virgen de los Ángeles influenced their vote ‘a lot’ – including 47% of Catholics, 42% of voters older than 55. Voters who said that the attacks on the Virgen de los Ángeles influenced their vote ‘a lot’ were, unsurprisingly, far more likely to vote for Carlos than Fabricio. The CIEP-UCR’s post-election report said that it could not conclude that the attacks on the Virgen de los Ángeles were the decisive factor in the result, but that it was among several factors which influenced the final outcome. They considered La Nación‘s story on Rony Chaves’ opinions on Catholicism and the Virgen de los Ángeles the last of the three major ‘external shocks’ which defined this election (the cementazo in 2017, the IAHR Court’s decision on same-sex marriage in January).

In short, Fabricio Alvarado got the scrutiny he would have gotten before the first round if he hadn’t surged so late in the campaign – and, perhaps unsurprisingly, this scrutiny revealed a number of skeletons and controversies which embarrassed the candidate and put him on the defensive. In contrast, Carlos Alvarado, even if his runoff campaign wasn’t perfect (and got off to a rough start), wasn’t on the receiving end of as many negative or embarrassing stories in the media and managed to go on the offensive more effectively than Fabricio, once he found his stride (two months is a very long campaign anyway). Piza’s high-profile endorsement was a major boost for him, giving him a leg-up over Fabricio in the race to present a convincing image of ‘national unity’.

The hot topic of same-sex marriage lost in salience in the two months between both rounds, allowing Carlos Alvarado to re-frame the issue into one of ‘respect and tolerance’, with the obvious implication being that his opponent was a divisive figure who would discriminate against certain groups and create second-class citizens.

Analysis of the results

Second round vote choice according to declared first round vote (source: CIEP-UCR)

The CIEP-UCR’s post-election panel study gives us several solid numbers about why voters voted the way they did. As noted above, they concluded that late-deciders determined the outcome in the PAC’s favour, with 20% of all voters decided in the last week or on April 1 (keeping in mind that 46.6% voted PRN or PAC in the first round and therefore presumably already had their mind made up). They also report that those who supported other candidates in the first round heavily supported Carlos Alvarado. 69% of PLN voters, 83% of PUSC voters, 78% of PIN voters, 84% of PRSC voters, 94% of FA voters, 94% of PAC voters and even 14% of PRN voters supported Carlos Alvarado on April 1. In addition, 60% of those who only voted in the runoff (first round non-voters) backed Carlos. In contrast, Fabricio failed to attract substantial number of voters from the other parties, besides about a third of liberacionistas and two-fifths of first round non-voters (given that turnout didn’t change much, it’s hard to say how large this group may be). As the simple comparison of raw votes showed, Fabricio only gained an extra 321,800 votes – assuming all 538,500 of his first round voters stuck with him, which may not be the case according to the CIEP-UCR’s panel. In contrast, Carlos Alvarado won an extra 856,000 votes over and above the 466,000 he got in the first round. It is obvious, therefore, that a majority of at least PLN and PUSC voters went to Carlos Alvarado on April 1, assuming there was no massive change in the partisan composition of turnout (the number of invalid votes was 4,000 less than in the first round).

The panel study asked both candidates’ voters to say how important certain factors were on a scale of o to 100 (100=very important). Among Fabricio’s voters, the top reason at 86 points/100 was ‘defence of the family’, which confirms that his runoff electorate was just as socially conservative and motivated over issues like ‘the family’ than in the first round. The fact that the candidate was a believer was the second most important reason to support the PRN’s candidate (66 pts.), followed by “he wasn’t from the PAC”, “position on the IAHR Court” and “fear of communism” (i.e. anti-PAC/anti-leftist). Among Carlos’ voters, three factors appear as very important: the candidate’s performance in the runoff campaign (86), defence of the rule of law/Estado de derecho (80) and defence of patriotic values (79). The high salience of ‘defence of the rule of law’ and ‘defence of patriotic values’ suggests the effectiveness of Carlos Alvarado’s campaign around values like respect, tolerance, democracy and national unity. The other important factors for Carlos’ voters were “fear of mixing religion and politics”, LGBT rights, “offences to the Virgen de los Ángeles” and Fabricio’s performance in the runoff campaign (probably the effect of the negative press and other controversies).

The CIEP-UCR’s post-election report identified three key variables behind the PAC’s victory: positive evaluations of Carlos Alvarado’s performance in the runoff campaign (pretty obvious…), Catholicism (probability of voting PAC was 60% among Catholics vs. 30% among non-Catholics) and family income (higher incomes greatly increased the probability of voting PAC). The post-election panel showed no major gender gap in either candidate’s electorate, minor age differences – with Carlos doing best both with young voters (18-34) and older voters (55+) and some educational differences – with Carlos doing best with university-educated voters and poorly with those who only have a primary school education. The CIEP-UCR’s pre-election polls showed much larger differences between the two candidates based on educational achievement: in their last pre-election poll, Carlos led by 38% among those with a post-secondary education, but trailed by 22% among those with only a primary school education (the candidates were tied among those with a high school education). The post-election panel did show a major religious gap, with Carlos Alvarado doing much better among Catholics and Fabricio Alvarado doing much better with non-Catholics (i.e. evangelicals, mostly). In the first round, the CIEP-UCR’s data showed that 70% of Fabricio’s voters were evangelicals (compared to 13% of Carlos’ voters) with just 20% of them being Catholic, whereas 52% of Carlos Alvarado’s voters were Catholic and 29% were non-religious. Over 75% of the PLN and PUSC’s first round voters were Catholics. Rony Chaves’ attacks against the Virgen de los Ángeles were also a key factor: those who said that the attacks influenced their vote ‘a lot’ were far more likely to vote for Carlos Alvarado than those who said that the attacks had no influence on how they voted.

The first round results had shown, as with previous election, a strong inland/coastal dynamic, with Fabricio Alvarado doing best in the coastal provinces (on both the Caribbean coast – Limón – and Pacific coast – Puntarenas and Guanacaste) while Carlos Alvarado did best in the inland provinces, except for Alajuela province (where Fabricio won). Carlos Alvarado, in contrast, finished third or fourth in the coastal provinces, and the PAC failed to elect a single deputy from any of these three provinces in the concurrent legislative ballot. In the runoff, the inland/coastal dynamic was still apparent, although Carlos Alvarado did win one coastal province (Guanacaste).

Costa Rica: PAC 60.6, PRN 39.4 (t/o 66.5)

Coastal provinces

Guanacaste: PAC 58.6, PRN 41.4 (t/o 59.2)
Puntarenas: PRN 55, PAC 45 (t/o 56.3)
Limón: PRN 63.4, PAC 36.6 (t/o 56.1)

Central Valley

San José: PAC 62.3, PRN 37.7 (t/o 69)
Alajuela: PAC 59.8, PRN 40.2 (t/o 68.7)
Heredia: PAC 67.3, PRN 32.7 (t/o 73.1)
Cartago: PAC 74.6, PRN 25.4 (t/o 73.9)

Expats: PAC 77.6, PRN 22.4 (t/o 15.1)

Fabricio Alvarado won only two provinces – Limón and Puntarenas, which had been his two best provinces in the first round with 42% and 35% respectively. He won over 40% in the two other provinces where he had finished first in February – Guanacaste (25%) and Alajuela (27%). Carlos Alvarado swept the Central Valley – the four inland provinces – winning 62% in the most populated province (San José). The inland provinces of the Central Valley are more urbanized, densely populated and economically developed. The coastal provinces are much less densely populated and ‘peripheral’ – in the sense that they are poorer and less developed. According to the INEC’s 2017 national households survey, the incidence of multidimensional poverty is 17% in the central planning region, which includes the Central Valley’s urban area, compared to 37% in the Huetar Caribe planning region (Caribbean coast) and 40% in the Huetar Norte (inland north of Alajuela and Heredia provinces bordering Nicaragua). According to the 2011 census, the percentage of the population with at least one ‘unsatisfied basic need’ was 33% in Guanacaste, 38% in Puntarenas and 41% in Limón – compared to 23% in San José, 27% in Alajuela, 23% in Cartago and 20% in Heredia. Carlos Alvarado swept the cantons with the highest ‘social progress index’, while Fabricio won most of those at the bottom of that ranking. Carlos Alvarado swept San José’s Greater Metropolitan Area (GAM) and the urbanized Central Valley, with the exception of just a few districts (third-level administrative subdivisions).

The map below shows the results by district (third-level administrative subdivisions, below provinces and cantons). Fabricio Alvarado is in yellow, Carlos Alvarado is in gold.

As the map shows, Carlos Alvarado swept the GAM/the Central Valley. Fabricio had done fairly well in several cantons of the Central Valley in the first round, including in the central canton of the capital – San José – where he got 24% to 22% for Carlos back in February, but in the runoff he failed to sufficiently expand his base of support and was soundly defeated in most cantons and districts in the country’s densely populated metropolitan area. Carlos Alvarado won 59.6% of the vote in the central canton of San José, and won all the districts in the capital – following the pattern from the first round, he did better in the capital’s wealthier districts like Zapote (66.6%), San Francisco de Dos Ríos (68.1%) and Carmen (69.9%) than in the poorest districts like Uruca (56.6%), Pavas (53.3%) and Hospital (55.6%).

Like in the first round, Carlos Alvarado did best in wealthier areas, while Fabricio’s best results – albeit almost always under 50% – came from the poorest parts of the Central Valley. Fabricio Alvarado won 48.5% in Alajuelita (San José), the poorest canton in the GAM, and 41.2% in Desamparados (San José), another poorer canton in the GAM. The six or so districts which Fabricio won in the Central Valley are generally low-income towns or neighbourhoods.

Rodolfo Piza had done particularly well in affluent suburban areas of the Central Valley in the first round, winning the cantons of Santa Ana (San José), Escazú (San José) and Belén (Heredia), which have the three highest HDI in the country. These three cantons, and other affluent cantons in the GAM, overwhelmingly supported the president-elect: 76.3% in Belén, 73% in San Isidro (Heredia), 69% in Atenas (Alajuela), 67.2% in Santa Ana, 66.6% in Moravia (San José) and 65% in Escazú. Carlos Alvarado also did very well in Montes de Oca (San José), home to the main campus of the University of Costa Rica, winning 73.6% of the vote – it had been his best canton in the first round, with about 35%. However, Carlos Alvarado’s best canton this time around was, rather oddly, the rural canton of Dota (San José), where he received 81.6% of the vote – in a fairly poor canton (40% NBI) which ranks near the bottom (68th) on the HDI. He also did well in other rural cantons in San José, Cartago and Guanacaste provinces – like 79.8% in Oreamuno (Cartago) and 76.6% in Paraíso (Cartago).

Rural areas in Costa Rica tend to be significantly poorer than urban areas: the incidence of multidimensional poverty in rural areas in 2017 was about 36% compared to 18% in urban areas according to the INEC’s 2017 national household survey. Fabricio Alvarado did much better in these more remote, poorer rural cantons while Carlos Alvarado did significantly worse – although the winning candidate did make major gains from his very weak first round results in these cantons, courtesy of PLN and PUSC (and other parties) voters. In the province of Alajuela, the only inland province where Fabricio broke 40% (but just barely), the PRN’s candidate best results came from the poorer, rural cantons in the north of the province – outside of the Central Valley – like Los Chiles, one of the poorest cantons in the country (with a large Nicaraguan immigrant population), where he won 57.7%, or San Carlos (51%), Guatuso (65.8%) and Upala (59.6%). These cantons rank near the bottom of the cantonal HDI and social progress rankings. In contrast, Fabricio lost all the cantons in the Central Valley part of the province of Alajuela – including the central canton (which he had narrowly won in the first round), getting 39.6%, and doing even worse in San Ramón (31.6%), which includes a satellite campus of the UCR. Similarly, in Heredia province, Fabricio Alvarado’s only win was the canton of Sarapiquí (separated from the Central Valley by high volcanic peaks), with 60.2%.

Results in the provinces of Guanacaste and Cartago – PLN candidate Antonio Álvarez’s two best provinces in February with 23.6% and 20.2% respectively – show that a majority of PLN voters voted for the PAC candidate in the runoff, in spite of Fabricio’s new liberacionista allies claiming that the PLN bases were with him. In Guanacaste, Carlos Alvarado was a poor fourth with just 15.1% of the vote in the first round, with Fabricio in first (but with an unimpressive 25.6%), but in the runoff he won 58.6% of the vote in the northwestern coastal province – the only coastal province where Carlos won. In Nicoya and Hojancha cantons, where Álvarez won over 25% of the vote on February 4, Carlos got 60.9% and 72.3% respectively. He also won the cantons of Santa Cruz (63.3%) and Abangares (56.8%), where the PLN candidate also finished first in February. Carlos Alvarado also won the province’s largest canton (and capital), Liberia (56.5%). Guanacaste is a major tourist province and is therefore somewhat wealthier than the two other coastal provinces, although Carlos Alvarado didn’t perform above-average in the most touristy parts like Carrillo canton. In the first round, Antonio Álvarez had finished first in 11 cantons – located in the provinces of Guanacaste, Puntarenas, Alajuela, San José and Cartago. In the second round, Carlos Alvarado won all 11 of those cantons which had placed the PLN ahead. In the rural mountainous canton of Turrubares (San José), where Álvarez won 39.6% (his top result anywhere), Carlos Alvarado won 68.7% on April 1, up from 13% in the first round (granted, Fabricio had done even worse there, with 12.7% in the first round).

Carlos Alvarado’s best province was Cartago, where he won 74.6% of the vote – and no less than 78.6% in the eponymous provincial capital. In the first round, it had also been Fabricio’s worst province, the only one where he didn’t place first or second (third with just 15%). While my knowledge of Costa Rican electoral geography is very limited, Cartago has traditionally had a reputation as a rather conservative province. The Catholic vote, favouring the PAC’s candidate, may have been particularly important here. The province includes the basilica of los Ángeles, the main centre of religious pilgrimages in the country, which was insulted by ‘apostle Rony Chaves’. Cartago also has the least evangelical churches per capita, at 1:1,807.

Fabricio Alvarado won Puntarenas and Limón provinces, with 55% and 63.4% respectively. They had also been his two best provinces in the first round, with 35% and 42% of the vote. In Puntarenas province, Carlos Alvarado won 65% in the actual city of Puntarenas (district of the central canton, which was won by Fabricio with 52.6%), and won some other cantons – like Garabito. Fabricio generally did better in the poorer, more rural cantons of the province – like Buenos Aires (61%), Corredores (64.6%), Osa (64.1%), Quepos (56%) and Golfito (59.6%), although Carlos narrowly won in Coto Brus (51.7%), one of the poorest cantons in the province. According to a 2013 report by PROLADES, Limón and Puntarenas had the most evangelical churches per capita out of the country’s seven provinces (1:571 and 1:731).

In Limón province, on the sparsely populated and still rather under-developed Caribbean coast, the size of Fabricio’s victory – 63.4% – was just as impressive as in the first round, when he won 42%. Limón is the country’s poorest province and it also has, perhaps not coincidentally, the highest number of evangelical churches per capita. Fabricio’s best canton in the country, like in the first round, was the poor (50.5% NBI and 79/81 on HDI) canton of Matina, where he got 74.4%. After the first round, Semanario Universidad published an interesting article on the Limón districts where Fabricio won over 50% in February (Pocora in Guácimo, Carrandí and Matina in Matina). The strength of local evangelical congregations in these poor districts, ‘abandoned’ by the state with public institutions having only a limited (marginal) presence in the communities, appears to be a determining factor. Yet, with one exception, the pastors interviewed denied having explicitly promoted or campaigned for Fabricio Alvarado, and added that the candidate himself never came to visit them. Nevertheless, social conservatism around ‘family values’ – notably opposition to same-sex marriage/LGBT rights or abortion – emerge as one of the most important elements to explain the vote for the PRN’s presidential candidate. In addition, Fabricio was perceived as an “incorruptible”, church-going, God-fearing Christian – that even if he probably wouldn’t fix the country or the local communities’ problems, there would be a “man of God” who’d be praying.

The backdrop of poverty is important to understand not only Fabricio’s success, but also the strength of local evangelical churches. In the absence of the state and the limited presence of public institutions, people in need seek out the support of local congregations – of which there are well over 600 in the province (the second-most behind San José) – instead. Local churches also provide the most opportunities for youth involvement, jobs/networking, community involvement and cultural activities. Poverty and the lack of opportunities has also likely contributed to dissatisfaction with successive governments and politics in general, adding to the appeal of a ‘new’, ‘clean’ and ‘God-fearing’ candidate like Fabricio Alvarado. In Limón, the historically dominant traditional parties – the PLN (which dominated for years) and the PUSC – were the ones who suffered the most from the PRN’s success in the first round. Their candidates won just 17.6% and 9.2% respectively on February 4.

Carlos Alvarado won 77.6% of the vote among expat voters, although turnout was just 15.1% and 4,819 votes were cast. Costa Rican expatriates have had the right to vote in presidential elections since 2014. They need to register to vote at their nearest consulate at least four months before the elections, and they may only vote in-person at a consulate (or other voting location) with their valid national ID. About 45% of votes were cast in the United States, where Carlos won 72.4%.

Concluding comments

Carlos Alvarado received a very strong mandate from voters on April 1, winning more votes than any Costa Rican president before him and defeating his opponent by a much larger margin than expected. However, his actual mandate may not be as strong as the numbers suggest: his party only holds 10 seats out of 57 in the legislature, even less than it did between 2014 and 2018, and he will need to govern with a legislative branch dominated by broadly right-of-centre parties, including an evangelical caucus which is larger (14) than ever before. It is unclear how many of the 1.3 million votes he won were actually votes against his opponent or what he was imagined to represent (evangelical politics, anti-Catholic, discriminatory, intolerant etc.), rather than positive votes in favour of Carlos Alvarado and the political platform he carried. It is obvious that many PLN, PUSC and other parties’ voters supported Carlos Alvarado. Nevertheless, the CIEP-UCR’s poll showed that most voters – including a lot of Fabricio’s voters – were satisfied or at least not actively dissatisfied by the outcome of the election. The polarized campaign, often quite acrimonious, does not yet indicate a polarized post-electoral political environment. The issues which defined the election for many voters (and foreign observers) – same-sex marriage and the like – may fade out of public view.

The reactions to Carlos Alvarado’s victory seem to suggest that parties have learned the lessons of the executive-legislative deadlock which characterized the last term, and appear more willing to cooperate with the new government in the interests of ‘national unity, but without surrendering their political independence to the government (keeping an option to pull out when things get tough?). Carlos Alvarado offered the other parties a ‘national unity government’, with cabinet representation for other parties – like the PLN, PUSC or FA – in exchange for some sort of agreement to cooperate with the new administration’s legislative agenda. The new government will have a packed early legislative agenda, with one of the first priorities being to finally secure passage of a fiscal reform seen as an urgent necessity to begin reducing the country’s debt and deficit problems.

On April 26, President-elect Carlos Alvarado announced his new cabinet. His new ally, Rodolfo Piza (PUSC), will be Minister of the Presidency, a senior position with the difficult tasks of managing executive-legislative relations and negotiating deals with legislators, parties and other groups. First Vice President-elect Epsy Campbell Barr, who has already made history as the first Afro-descendant woman to become vice president in the continental Americas, will also serve as foreign minister (Campbell Barr is of Jamaican ancestry). The public works and transportation ministry, an important portfolio given Costa Rica’s infrastructure woes, will be held by an experienced two-time minister – Rodolfo Méndez Mata, who already held that same portfolio under PUSC presidents (1978-80, 1998-00). Édgar Mora, the acclaimed mayor of Curridabat (San José) since 2007 from a local party, will handle the sensitive public education ministry – Fabricio Alvarado has already criticized his appointment because of his support for sex ed programs. Businessman André Garnier, close to Piza and the PUSC, will serve as minister of coordination with the private sector. Piza’s former first vice presidential candidate, Edna Camacho, a former vice-minister of finance, will serve as coordinator of the economic council. Some other members of the PUSC will also hold cabinet portfolios. Patricia Mora, one of the most acclaimed outgoing (2014-18) FA deputies, will head the National Institute of Women (INAMU) with ministerial rank. Ottón Solís (PAC), who played a major role in the president’s campaign, will be sent to represent the country at the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (BCIE).

Patricia Mora’s appointment as head of INAMU was accompanied by a revision of the Alvarado-Piza (PAC-USC) national government agreement to include the FA. The new agreement is longer and includes new commitments: prevent, eradicate and sanction all clientelistic practices in welfare programs; an entirely new chapter on women’s rights (including declaring violence against women as a top security, education and public health problem); create a comprehensive rural development policy; more preventive policies against criminality; and for Costa Rica to be a global example in complying with international treaties and in protecting human rights (women, children, indigenous, migrants, LGBT). The new agreement also eliminated several specific points from the first agreement, most notably: not changing tax rules or imposing new restrictions in free trade zones; completing the process for OECD membership; approval of a fiscal reform (including reduction of the deficit by 0.75% of GDP a year to reach to 1% by 2022); limits to public spending; limiting increase in public sector employment by only 1% annually until 2020; and not negotiating any collective bargaining agreement which increases public spending. In other words, the more ‘right-wing’ or ‘neoliberal’ concrete economic commitments were scratched in favour of a much vaguer document. On moral/societal ‘family’ issues, the previous commitment not to make any changes to current abortion law was removed, while certain sex ed units will not be withdrawn while the consultation process – now renamed ‘consultation and information process’ – with parents takes place. In addition, the deal with the FA makes new commitments to collect statistics on the social conditions of the LGBT population (rights, access to services, discrimination) and to take steps to eliminate discrimination on grounds including sexual orientation and gender identity. However, the FA will have only a single deputy in the new legislature, so their voice is unlikely to push the government to the left.

On May 1, the new legislature elected Carolina Hidalgo (PAC) as the new president for the first session (2018-19) of the term. Carolina Hidalgo, a 35-year old woman, becomes the youngest ever president and the first woman in 18 years (and the third woman in total) to be president of the Legislative Assembly. She is a first-time legislator, who was at the head of the justice ministry’s alternative conflict resolution unit under the outgoing administration. Hidalgo was elected with 35 votes – from the PAC, PLN, PUSC, FA and one from the PRSC – plus two blank and invalid votes which, under the internal rules, counted for her. Carlos Avendaño, the PRN’s founder who returns to the legislature for another term, won 15 votes (one more than his party’s 14), the PIN’s candidate won 3, the other PRSC member voted for himself as did an independent (ex-PIN) deputy. María Inés Solís (PUSC), another 30-something woman, was elected vice president with 51 votes from the PUSC, PAC, PLN and PRN. However, while the PLN agreed to support the PAC’s candidate for the presidency, it sealed a deal with the PRN to offer them the second secretariat (the administrative management of the legislature) – Ivonne Acuña, Fabricio’s former first vice presidential candidate, was elected with the support of the PUSC, PLN and PRN (but not the PAC), while the first secretariat went to the PLN, unopposed and with the support of the PAC. Ivonne Acuña’s election thanks to a deal with the PLN dashed the PAC’s plan to offer the second secretariat to the PUSC and retain control over the administrative management of the Legislative Assembly. It would appear as if the PLN is trying to play to both sides for now, making deals with both the governing party (PAC) and the opposition (PRN).

Costa Rica’s 2018 election was a memorable one. For starters, it marked the definitive end to the old two-party system (PLN/PUSC) and its replacement by a volatile, unpredictable multi-party system with unstable electoral coalitions and partisan alignments. ‘Unpredictable’ may just be the simplest way to describe this election – who could have predicted that the PAC, dragged down by a disappointing first term and an unpopular incumbent, would manage to win a second consecutive term with a little-known candidate who was struggling to get 5% just five months ago? Who could have predicted that a little-known evangelical candidate would be one of the main phenomenons of the first round, winning 25% propelled by the backlash to an international court’s decision on same-sex marriage? Who could have predicted that the PLN would suffer an historic defeat, getting less than 20% of the vote and shut out of the runoff ballot? This election was one of many ‘firsts’, ups-and-downs and unexpected turns – right to the end. Although Fabricio Alvarado was defeated in the end, his strong results – in both rounds – do show the strength of a socially conservative, predominantly evangelical electorate in Costa Rica, something which may have implications in other Latin American countries. The election also shook up Costa Rica’s historically consensual, pragmatic and centrist political culture with the injection of polarizing (and often quite bitter) debates on sensitive issues like gay rights or family values – or, before that, with the appearance of a Trump-like populist figure (who ended up going nowhere). In the end, however, it did still confirm that Costa Rica’s democracy remains healthy and still quite exceptional, despite major problems on the economy or criminality.

Stay tuned for extensive post factum analysis on Colombia’s upcoming presidential elections (May 27/June 17) and recent congressional elections (March 11). Feel free to let me know any questions or interests you may have on Colombian elections and politics, so I can answer them in my posts.

Costa Rica 2018

Presidential and congressional elections were held in Costa Rica on February 4, 2018.

Political and electoral system

Costa Rica is a presidential republic. The President of Costa Rica is directly elected to a four year term. Consecutive reelection is banned, but a former president is again re-eligible to seek the presidency after two full terms (eight years). Presidential candidates must win over 40% of valid votes in the first round to avoid a second round, which is held two months later on the first Sunday in April.

The unicameral Legislative Assembly (Asamblea Legislativa) has 57 deputies elected by province for four-year terms, with no consecutive reelection. The number of deputies by province is set by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) after each population census. In 2018, the number of deputies by province varies between 19 and 4. San José has 19, Alajuela has 11, Cartago has 7, Heredia has 6, Puntarenas and Limón have 5 each and Guanacaste has 4. Deputies are elected by closed-list proportional representation in each province, using a quota and sub-quota method. Each party as many seats as it has quotas, and the remaining seats are allocated using the highest remainder party, but parties with ‘sub-quotas’ (half of a quota) are taken into account for this step.

Costa Rica is still the democratic ‘success story’ or peculiarity of Central America. It is one of the most democratic countries in the Americas, with a score of 91 in the 2017 edition of Freedom in the World (behind only Canada, Uruguay and Chile – notably ahead of the United States). On the 2016 Democracy Index, it places 26th in the world (7.88, flawed democracy) and fourth in the Americas (behind only Canada, Uruguay and the United States). It also has the freest press in the Americas according to the 2017 Press Freedom Index. Corruption is a major political problem, but it is still one of the least corrupt countries in Latin America according to the 2016 Corruption Perceptions Index, where it ranked 41st in the world. In comparison, Panama was 87th and Nicaragua was 145th. Costa Rica is also one of the most prosperous countries in Latin America, with a high HDI (eighth in North America and the Caribbean).

History: Costa Rica’s exceptional democracy and the two-party system

Costa Rica has long been a peculiar case in Central America. In the nineteenth century, coffee became Costa Rica’s main export, along with bananas grown on plantations owned by the United Fruit Company on the eastern Caribbean coast (Limón province). Coffee was grown on small and medium-sized farms, which created a sizable agrarian middle-sector. Given the country’s small population (203,000 in 1880, 310,000 in 1900), labour was very scarce and wages tended to be higher. Unlike Guatemala or El Salvador, the growth of the coffee economy did not create a large class of landless peasants and labourers – because the indigenous population was small, communal landholdings were insignificant and there was adequate land in the central highlands until the 1890s (coffee production, however, did displace production of foodstuffs, which became very costly). Nevertheless, small producers were economically dependent on large producers and coffee merchants

Thomas Skidmore and Peter Smith’s brief section on Costa Rica in Modern Latin America summarizes its early history as follows:

Costa Rica has long been unique. Despite its name (“rich coast”), it was of minimal economic importance to Spain, and as the southernmost area in the kingdom of Guatemala it was relatively remote from the rest of Central America. Sparsely populated from the outset, it never developed a largescale black or Indian subservient class. Nor did it have a wealthy landed oligarchy.

Coffee cultivation began on modest, family-sized farms in the 1830s. The flourishing commerce gave rise to a substantial and prosperous agrarian middle sector—and to a merchant class in the cities—without creating a landless peasantry. United Fruit established banana plantations on the east coast in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and bananas soon became the country’s leading export.

For economic and demographic reasons, Costa Rica emerged as a racially and socially homogeneous society. By 1925 about 80 percent of the population was white, 4 percent was black (mostly workers on banana plantations), 14 percent was mestizo, and less than 1 percent was Indian. Middle class culture prevailed, and racial conflict was largely absent. Social consensus led to broad acceptance of constitutional politics.

Early twentieth-century governments fostered welfare programs (so Costa Rica, like Uruguay, inevitably came to be compared to Switzerland). Conservatives exchanged power with Liberals. There was not much to fight about, and democratic traditions began to take root. (Skidmore and Smith, Modern Latin America 6th Edition 2005, p. 371)

The coffee oligarchy dominated Costa Rican politics in the nineteenth century, and much of the early twentieth century. Like in other Central American countries, the nineteenth century following independence and the breakup of the Central American federation was characterized by political instability, caudillismo and conflict. Yet, there were fewer bloody civil wars, military pronunciamientos and dictators. The classical liberal state in late nineteenth century Costa Rica was “socially as well as politically, less of a grotesque farce than elsewhere in Central America” (Cardoso 1986: 221). Democratic values took hold among the ruling elite: in 1889, the liberals suffered electoral defeat and begrudgingly accepted it. There was more mass popular participation in politics (though direct male universal suffrage only came in 1913), although the urban working-class was small and poorly organized and unions were weak except in the ‘banana enclaves’. Unlike in the so-called ‘banana republics’ of this period, Costa Rica’s political system had already demonstrated some (fragile) autonomy from dominant economic groups (including foreigners) and a capacity for reform and adaptation.

At the roots: Calderón, communists and civil war

The roots of modern Costa Rica’s political system – and its peculiarity as a stable, prosperous democracy – are in the 1930s, a period of great political change and upheaval throughout Latin America because of the Great Depression. With the collapse in world coffee prices and banana exports, which hit public revenues hard, a new generation of middle-class intellectuals and budding politicians criticized the existing liberal-oligarchic order and sought out alternatives for national development. In 1940, Rafael Ángel Calderón Guardia, the candidate of the ruling National Republican Party (Partido Republicano Nacional, PRN), was elected president. The PRN was a classical liberal party, traditionally associated with laissez-faire economics and limited state intervention. Calderón, a physician who had studied in Belgium, was influenced by European Christian democracy (socialcristianismo) and the social teachings of the Catholic Church. He distanced himself from his predecessor, León Cortés, a pro-German politician accused by his opponents of anti-Semitism and fascist sympathies. Calderón joined the Allies, declaring war on the Axis powers on December 8, 1941 and controversially interning the country’s German and Italian population in camps. Shunned by the coffee oligarchy and the traditional conservative political class, Calderón formed an unusual alliance with the Communists and the Archbishop of San José. The Costa Rican communists, founded in 1931 and led by middle-class lawyer Manuel Mora Valverde, were pragmatists whose brand of communism was effectively reformist and social democratic, seeking to adapt to local circumstances (comunismo a la tica) and maintain some independence from the Comintern’s dogma.

Calderón’s ‘unholy alliance’ of government, Church and communists is remembered for the Social Guarantees (Garantías Sociales), the foundation of the Costa Rican welfare state. These social guarantees included the promulgation of a labour code (minimum pay, eight-hour workday, vacations and public holidays, Christmas bonus, overtime pay, right to strike, severance pay), the creation of the University of Costa Rica and the creation of a public social security system (Caja Costarricense de Seguridad Social, CCSS) with tripartite mandatory contributions from employers, employees and the state and coverage for illness, maternity, old age and invalidity.

This pact lasted until the 1948 elections. Government corruption, electoral fraud (in 1944), strikes, police repression of the opposition, growing anti-communism with the onset of the Cold War and regional political intrigues had created a highly charged and polarized political atmosphere. Former president Calderón was the candidate of the ruling government-communist alliance, supported by the CGTC union confederation (controlled by the communists). The opposition – which ranged from conservatives and liberals to social democrats like José Figueres Ferrer – nominated Otilio Ulate Blanco, a conservative journalist and leading figure of the opposition. According to semi-official results, Ulate defeated Calderón by around 10% (or 10,000) votes. However, the calderonistas (and communists) did not admit defeat, claiming irregularities in the count and Congress voted to annul the results of the elections.

The result was an armed uprising. The rebel forces, the ‘Army of National Liberation’, were led by José Figueres, an opposition leader who had become famous in a 1942 radio broadcast in which he denounced corruption. Forced into exile by Calderón, Figueres created the Caribbean Legion – a group of exiles and budding revolutionaries dedicated to overthrowing dictatorships in Central America and the Caribbean – and later made common cause with left-leaning Guatemalan president Juan José Arévalo to ‘liberate’ authoritarian states (Nicaragua, Dominican Republic but also Costa Rica) and ‘re-unify’ Central America and the Caribbean. The rebels quickly overwhelmed the divided and directionless government, which lacked much motivation to fight and let the communist militias do most of the fighting. The civil war lasted 44 days, but about 2,000 people died – an unusually death toll for a small country and such a short conflict.

The foundations of the Second Republic

Following a pact with Ulate, Figueres became head of a transitional junta which was given 18 months to reform the country and oversee the drafting of a new constitution by a constituent assembly elected in December 1948. The 1949 constitution, still in place and one of the oldest constitutions in Latin America, re-established a democratic presidential system with separation of powers, checks and balances, an independent electoral body (Supreme Tribunal of Elections) and an independent judiciary. Most Latin American constitutions have, however, provided for similar political systems. The difference is that, in Costa Rica, constitutional provisions and guarantees have been translated into reality. Famously, the constitution abolished the military and bans standing armies (article 12), with a ‘public force’ to maintain public order instead. The 1949 constitution enshrined many of the Social Guarantees: labour rights, working conditions and social security (among others socioeconomic rights). Article 50 commits the state to procuring “the greatest well-being to all the inhabitants of the country, organizing and stimulating production and the most adequate distribution of wealth”, and a constitutional amendment in 1994 added the “right to a healthy and ecologically balanced environment”. However, the original text of the 1949 constitution (article 98) – until 1975 – allowed the Legislative Assembly, with a two-thirds majority, to ban parties which, through their “ideological programs, means of action or international ties” tend to “destroy the foundations of the democratic organization of Costa Rica” or “that threaten the sovereignty of the country”. This article was used to ban the communist party (Popular Vanguard Party), breaking an agreement that Figueres had made with Manuel Mora at the end of the civil war to keep the communist party and CGTC legal (he kept the other half of his word, to protect the Social Guarantees).

Upon the adoption of the new constitution, Figueres transferred power to Otilio Ulate, whose victory in the 1948 election was confirmed by the constituent assembly and granted a four-year term until 1953. The victorious coalition of the war began fragmenting, along personalist and ideological lines. Figueres, a somewhat idealistic social democrat, had made clear his intentions and political program as head of the interim junta: he nationalized the banks, electricity and telecommunications (creation of the Costa Rican Electricity Institute, ICE). In 1951, Figueres founded the National Liberation Party (Partido Liberación Nacional, PLN), historically identified as social democratic party – although liberacionismo tends to be far more syncretic and often driven by personality rather than ideology. The ‘right’, which was more internally divided and took far longer to coalesce under a single party, included the remnants of the old oligarchy, large coffee growers and traders, other large agricultural and commercial groups as well as smaller and medium-sized business sectors. Yet, most of the ‘right’ including Otilio Ulate understood the importance of the changes that had taken place (those who didn’t, like the old oligarchy, quickly lost whatever political influence they had). In sum, both dominant political groups – the liberacionista centre-left and the centre-right – were moderate and pragmatic, supporting – to varying degrees – state intervention in the economy and the welfare state.

For the time being, the communists were banned and their former calderonista allies were outside the political system with their leader in exile seeking out alliances with dictators like Nicaragua’s Anastasio Somoza. Both groups’ demands, however, were minimal and did not pose an insurrectionary threat (although Calderón tried to invade with Somoza’s support in 1948 and 1955) – they sought political restoration and some degree of reparations (calderonistas) or an end to repression (communists).

José Figueres and the emergence of the two-party system

José Figueres returned to power in 1953, following a resounding electoral victory – 64.7% of the vote against the right’s Fernando Castro Cervantes, a wealthy businessman and landowner close to the United Fruit (supported by Ulate’s National Union Party, unable to run). Figueres expanded the size of the state and of its autonomous public institutions, which became important providers of goods and services, a major source of employment and a mechanism for social advancement for the middle-classes. The state assumed a leading role in fostering and directing economic growth and public investment. Rodolfo Cerdas Cruz explained the political intentions of José Figueres’ economic project:

What distinguishes Figueres’ project is that both he and his group linked the process directly to the emergence of a new sector of entrepreneurs who sought to use the State to modernize the nation and form an internal market. They tried to consolidate their political and social hegemony through a populism which, with the state as employer, would supply them with a permanent social and electoral constituency. They already had influence with the peasantry. The new measures created a rising middle sector, both private and bureaucratic, which needed the power of the state for its own development (Cerdas Cruz in The Cambridge History of Latin America Vol. VII 1990, p. 394)

Figueres’ opponents accused him of being a Soviet-like statist left-winger building a ‘monstrous super state’ or, worse, a communist – even though Figueres was virulently anti-communist and the actual communists hated him and liberacionismo.

The political system still excluded the calderonistas, who were about a third of the country. Rafael Calderón’s last attempt to seize power by force through an armed invasion of the country, supported by Anastasio Somoza and other Latin American dictators, failed in 1955 once Somoza (like in 1948) betrayed Calderón after his own objectives were met (‘warning’ the Costa Rican governments) and the United States and OAS sided with Costa Rica’s constitutional government. In the 1958 elections, Mario Echandi – Ulate’s former foreign minister and an implacable opponent of the Figueres administration – promised a general amnesty which would allow Calderón’s return from exile. Echandi’s candidacy laid the bases for the ‘new’ Costa Rican right: calderonismo (PRN) and the more traditional centre-right ulatismo (National Union Party, PUN), former enemies united by their common hatred of liberacionismo and figuerismo. Thanks to calderonismo‘s support, Echandi was elected president with 46% against 43% for the PLN’s official candidate Francisco José Orlich (a founding member of the party) and 11% for PLN dissident Jorge Rossi. The calderonista PRN won 11 seats in the Legislative Assembly against 10 for Echandi/Ulate’s PUN (and 20 for the PLN).

Despite the right’s fiery discourse against Figueres’ statism and ”monstrous super state’, it made almost no progress in shrinking the size and scope of the state. Echandi’s achievement was national reconciliation – communists excepted (although limits on their activities were relaxed) – and the reintegration of the calderonistas in the democratic political system. Calderón was allowed to return from exile, property seized after the war was returned and political prisoners released. Their political demands had been satisfied, and Calderón himself ran for president in the 1962 election. He placed second with 35% against the reunited PLN’s Francisco José Orlich (50%), ahead of former president Otilio Ulate (14%). State-directed economic growth, industrialization (ISI) and agricultural production (notably national production of bananas) continued, financed by increased public spending, foreign debt, government bonds and higher taxes.

The consolidation of the two-party system

The 1966 election was unusually ideological, confronting economic liberalism and social democracy. The opposition – calderonista PRN and ulatista PUN – united behind a compromise candidate and political newcomer, liberal economist and academic José Joaquín Trejos, who argued that the PLN’s ‘statist socialism’ was asphyxiating free enterprise and producers. He proposed instead a clearly liberal platform challenging the post-1948 model of economic growth and development (“supporting private banking and affirming the principle that the state should only intervene where private persons could not or would not do so”). The PLN’s candidate was Daniel Oduber, a brilliant political thinker and another of the party’s founding leaders. Oduber championed the principles of 1948 and the PLN’s record in government, attacking the opposition coalition (Unificación Nacional, UN) of being at the service of landowners and big capital. Trejos won the closest election in Costa Rican history with 50.5% to 49.5%, although the PLN won an absolute majority in the legislature. Trejos reduced spending and favoured the private sector (a controversial contract with Alcoa led to protests and widespread left-wing opposition, although the actual contract never took off), but failed to repeal the state’s monopoly on banking.

Two former presidents, José Figueres and Mario Echandi, faced each other in the 1970 elections. The right was divided: former president Otilio Ulate broke with Echandi and the coalition, reviving his old party (the PUN) although it won no seats in the legislature in the end; Calderón endorsed and campaigned for Echandi, but some calderonista dissidents did not follow their ailing leader – who died later that year – and ran a dissident candidacy (who petered out got crushed). The communists remained banned, but a socialist party led by a former liberacionista and allied with communist leader Manuel Mora Valverde was allowed to participate – and won two seats in the legislature, one of them for Mora. Figueres won with 54.8% against 41%. In 1974, the PLN retained the presidency – the first consecutive victory for any party since 1944 – with Daniel Oduber. Breaking the trend towards consolidation of the two-party system, the 1974 election was particularly crowded (8 candidates, 8 parties represented in the new legislature) and Oduber won a plurality victory with 43.4%. The UN’s candidate, doctor Fernando José Trejos (estranged cousin of former president Trejos), was second with 30.4%. Once again, however, the opposition was divided: former presidents Mario Echandi and José Joaquín Trejos were expelled from UN. Echandi supported Jorge González Martén (National Independent Party, PNI), a centre-right businessman who finished third with 10.9%; Trejos supported Rodrigo Carazo, a liberacionista dissident who had challenged Figueres for the PLN nomination in 1970 and later formed his own party (Democratic Renovation Party, PRD). Carazo finished fourth with 9.1%. Manuel Mora Valverde, the historic communist leader, ran as the candidate of the Socialist Action Party (PASO) and received about 2% of the vote, in fifth place.

The back-to-back PLN administrations of the 1970s continued to expand the role of the state in the economy and the welfare state. The PLN administrations created the Mixed Institute of Social Aid (Instituto Mixto de Ayuda Social, IMAS), an autonomous institution which provides social assistance programs and subsidies to poor families; introduced family allowances; expanded social security coverage from less than half to over 80% of the population; created a new national healthcare plan and created the Fund for Social Development and Family Allowances (Fondo de Desarrollo Social y Asignaciones Familiares, FODESAF) to pay for various social programs and family allowances (financed by a 5% payroll tax on employers). Figueres was dogged by corruption scandals, most notably his public association with American financier and international fugitive Robert Vesco, who financed PLN electoral campaigns and enjoyed refuge under liberacionista administrations until 1978.

Aware that it could only defeat the PLN if it was united, four opposition parties formed a common front, the Unity Coalition (Coalición Unidad). The coalition was made up of Rodrigo Carazo‘s PRD (a fairly left-wing party), former president José Joaquín Trejos’ liberal Popular Union Party (PUP), the Calderonista Republican Party (PRC) led by Rafael Ángel Calderón Fournier (Calderón’s son) and a small Christian Democratic Party. Rodrigo Carazo won the coalition’s primaries, defeating a candidate supported by Calderón Fournier and Echandi. Carazo was elected with 50.5% against 43.8% for Monge. Thanks to a 1975 constitutional amendment, the communist left could legally participate for the first time since 1948. The left-wing Pueblo Unido coalition, which included the communist Popular Vanguard Party and two smaller far-left parties, won 2.7%.

Carazo was faced with a conflagration of crises, both internally and externally. As elsewhere in Latin America during this period, the rapid expansion of the welfare state and the size of government under past administrations had been financed through expansionary fiscal and credit policies, higher taxation, international borrowing, deficit spending and government bonds. Costa Rica was hit hard by the Latin American debt crises of the 1980s, falling into deep recession in 1981 (-2.3%) and 1982 (-7.3%). Inflation rose to over 80% in 1982. Carazo later declared a moratorium on foreign debt service, cutting off ties with the IMF. Externally, the fall of the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua (1979) and the beginning of the Nicaraguan civil war destabilized the region and had a direct impact on Costa Rica. Carazo supported the insurrection against the Somoza regime. Besides struggling to respond to major crises, Carazo’s administration was also politically weak and isolated. Carazo, by his liberacionista origins, had fairly left-wing or progressive views, but he was elected by a coalition which leaned to the centre-right and composed of congressmen with different political and personal loyalties.

The unpopularity of Carazo’s administration doomed the Coalición Unidad in the 1982 elections. PLN candidate Luis Alberto Monge was elected with 58.8% of the vote against only 33.6% for the Coalition’s candidate, Rafael Ángel Calderón Fournier. Former president Mario Echandi won only 3.8% of the vote, while the far-left Pueblo Unido won 3.3%. Despite having campaigned on social democratic platform, Monge began liberalizing the economy and reducing the size and role of the state in the economy. His program of economic reforms included privatizations, a switch from ISI to an outward-oriented model promoting non-traditional exports, re-establishing ties with international financial institutions, spending cuts, eliminating various government subsidies and reducing trade barriers. Economic liberalization was prodded by the massive influx of international aid, primarily from the US: between 1983 and 1990, Costa Rica received over $1 billion in loans and grants from USAID.

A close ally of the Reagan administration and the United States, Monge officially claimed that Costa Rica was neutral in the civil war in Nicaragua but actively tolerated the presence of Contras in Costa Rican territory (though unlike Honduras, never formally permitted it). Through repeated border skirmishes and incursions, Costa Rica was unwillingly drawn into the conflict in the neighbouring country – and Monge’s poor response to the Nicaraguan crisis satisfied nobody, between those who said he wasn’t tough enough against the Sandinistas to those who claimed that Monge would lead the country into the war.

The fully consolidated two-party system

In 1986, PLN candidate Óscar Arias Sánchez, who had taken his distances from Monge and campaigned on popular platform of ‘peace for my people’, was elected with 52.3% of the vote. The anti-liberacionista had finally united under a single party in 1983, the Social Christian Unity Party (Partido Unidad Social Cristiana, PUSC). The PUSC’s candidate, Calderón Fournier, won 45.8%. The 1986 election finally consolidated the two-party system around liberacionismo (PLN) and socialcristianismo (PUSC), ironically right around the time that both political traditions began to lose their ideological character.

Arias, most certainly the most famous Costa Rican politician abroad, is remembered for his work on the Nicaraguan and Central American peace processes (the Esquipulas Agreement) which won him the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize. Domestically, Arias continued his predecessor’s economic and trade liberalization policies, allowing for private electricity generation and unsuccessfully trying to partially privatize the ICE (state-owned electricity and telecommunications monopoly). Arias’ opponents on the left, including members of his own party (like Monge), consider him to be a neoliberal and accuse him of abandoning the PLN’s traditional social democratic or left-wing principles.

However, economic liberalization in Costa Rica, unlike in Chile, was gradual and negotiated. Business groups and industrialists came to support trade liberalization to open the country’s economy to international markets, but they lobbied for slow and gradual reduction of tariffs, as opposed to a quick and sudden reduction. The government provided subsidies and incentives to help traditional industries adapt and other measures to help ensure a ‘soft landing’. As a result, greater trade openness was not associated with a concomitant reduction in social spending – unlike in Chile and other Latin American countries.

Rafael Ángel Calderón Fournier (PUSC) was elected president, on his third attempt, in 1990 with 46.2% against 41.9% for PLN candidate Carlos Manuel Castillo – a former vice president (1974-1978) from the figuerista faction of the party. Castillo had won the party’s nomination following an acrimonious 1989 convention (primary) against Rolando Araya Monge, former president Monge’s nephew.

While economic liberalization under the two PLN administrations in the 1980s had kept the welfare state relatively intact, with new public employment programs, unemployment assistance, minimum wage increases and aid programs to compensate for the effects of liberalization, Calderón Fournier introduced significant changes to welfare service delivery (including means-testing) which led to a reduction in social spending in 1992-93. As part of a structural adjustment agreement with the IMF to reduce the deficit, the government cut public spending – including social assistance – and public employment, while increasing utility rates and restricting access to credit. Accelerating trade liberalization, foreign exchange controls were lifted and the country joined the GATT and signed free trade agreements with Mexico and Panama. Subsequent administrations, both PUSC and PLN, continued these liberal trade policies.

The decadence and decline of the two-party system

The PLN’s presidential candidate in the 1994 election was José María Figueres Olsen, the son of national icon José ‘Pepe’ Figueres Ferrer. The PUSC’s candidate was Miguel Ángel Rodríguez, a liberal businessman and economist who had been president of the Legislative Assembly (1991-1992). Figueres Olsen won a narrow victory with 49.6% against 47.7% for Rodríguez.

Despite making the usual social democratic promises and branding the PUSC’ candidate as a cold and distant neoliberal economist, Figueres Olsen continued to liberalize the economy and expand commercial ties through free trade agreements. While he did devote greater resources to healthcare and education – a 1997 constitutional amendment mandated that public expenditure on education would not be lower than 6% of GDP (increased to 8% of GDP in 2011), his administration continued to limit public spending and reduce the size (and scope) of the government.

In April 1995, Figueres and Calderón (leader of the PUSC opposition) signed a political agreement – commonly known of the ‘Figueres-Calderón pact‘ – to obtain bipartisan support for a series of reforms in the Legislative Assembly. These reforms included approval of a third structural adjustment plan for World Bank loans, an unpopular reform to teachers’ pension funds (which led to major teacher protests) and banking liberalization (allowing for private banks). While a bipartisan deal on transcendental economic reforms signed by the sons of two former wartime enemies could be seen as a sign of Costa Rica’s democratic exceptionalism and political maturity, the ‘Figueres-Calderón pact’ came to symbolize the decadence of the two-party system – two parties, having lost their principles and values, agreeing to divide power between themselves (both parties together held all but 4 of the 57 seats in the 1994-98 legislature).

The fall of the two-party system

Both the PLN and PUSC’s candidates in 1998 distanced themselves from the figures of the Figueres-Calderón pact. The PUSC’ candidate, Miguel Ángel Rodríguez – elected by acclamation, was from the party’s liberal wing, opposed to calderonismo (Rodríguez had run against Calderón in the 1989 PUSC primaries). The PLN’s candidate, José Miguel Corrales – a populist lawyer and former footballer, had placed second in the 1993 PLN primaries against Figueres and now criticized the outgoing government’s record. Rodríguez was elected with 46.9% against 44.4% for Corrales. Perhaps because both the PLN and PUSC’s candidates came from different factions of their parties, third parties on the left and right remained weak, although their legislative representation increased from 4 to 7.

Rodríguez had been elected on a liberal platform which promised austerity in government finances but strong economic growth, lower inflation and a reduction in poverty. In power, he continued the privatization policies began under previous governments – extending it, controversially, to the electricity and telecommunications sectors. In 2000, the administration’s plan to reform the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) to open the telecommunications sector to private competition, supported by both the ruling PUSC and the opposition PLN, led to massive protests and demonstrations against the ‘Combo ICE‘, supported by trade unions and certain opposition politicians. The Supreme Court later ruled the bill unconstitutional. Nearing the end of his term, Rodríguez attempted to salvage his popularity (and that of the PUSC) with more ‘social’ measures.

In December 2000, dissident liberacionistas including Ottón Solís (planning minister under Arias, 1986-1988 and former one-term PLN deputy, 1994-1998), Margarita Penón Góngora (Arias’ wife, divorced in 2005) and Alberto Cañas (writer and former president of the Legislative Assembly) founded the Citizens’ Action Party (Partido Acción Ciudadana, PAC). The PAC criticized corruption and the PLN’s loss of its social democratic principles.

In the 2002 elections, the unpopularity of Rodríguez’s liberal policies and the decadence of the two-party system led to the beginnings of a major realignment of the Costa Rica  party system, a realignment whose effects continue to be felt today. For the first time, no single candidate won over 40% of the vote to win in the first round, which required a runoff vote two months later. The PUSC’s candidate was Abel Pacheco, a populist TV personality (and legislator since 1998) popular for his ‘did you know?’-type TV shows who had defeated Rodolfo Méndez Mata, supported by former president Calderón, in the 2001 PUSC primary. The PLN’s candidate was Rolando Araya Monge, former president Monge’s nephew, from the arayista faction of the party – generally considered to be the party’s traditionalist left-wing or ‘socialist’ faction.

In the first round in February 2002, Pacheco won 38.6% against 31.1% for Araya, a catastrophic result which was an all-time low for the PLN. Ottón Solís, the PAC’s candidate, won 26.2% – a record high for a ‘third party’ candidate outside the PLN or PUSC. Between 1998 and 2002, the PUSC and PLN’s combined support fell from 91.3% to 69.7%. In the Legislative Assembly, where the PUSC and PLN had won 50 of the 57 seats in 1998, the two traditional parties won just 36 of the legislature’s 57 seats. The PAC won 14 seats, while the right-wing Libertarian Movement (Movimiento Libertario, ML), founded in 1994 by PUSC dissidents and very critical of the two-party system (which they pejoratively called ‘PLUSC’ – PLN + PUSC), won 6 seats. In the April 2002 runoff ballot, Pacheco – running a populist campaign heavy on personality and low in policy content – won 58% of the vote.

Pacheco’s administration itself was rather unremarkable – besides supporting the US invasion of Iraq in spite of Costa Rica lacking an army – but the PUSC and PLN (and their former presidents) were hit by major corruption scandals, the nails in the coffin for the old two-party system. In 2004, former president Rafael Ángel Calderón was accused of having received $520,000 from the Fischel group (a pharmaceutical group and medical distributor) to favour its interests in the negotiation of a $32 million loan with the Finnish government for the acquisition of medical equipment by the CCSS. Fischel had also bought a house to the director of the CCSS, who had secured legislative approval of the loan as PUSC caucus leader in 2001. In 2009, Calderón was sentenced to five years in jail for the CCSS-Fischel scandal, a sentence reduced to three years on appeal to the Supreme Court in 2011.

In 2004, former president Miguel Ángel Rodríguez was accused of having received payments of up to $800,000 from Alcatel to help the French company obtain contracts with the ICE in 2001. Other ICE directors, employees and politicians also received bribes from Alcatel, often deposited in a bank account in the Bahamas registered to a small notarial practice. Former president José María Figueres had allegedly also taken $900,000 in bribes from Alcatel, although he was never charged. In 2011, Rodríguez was sentenced to 5 years in jail and barred from holding public office for 12 years. After years of appeals and new verdicts in different instances, Rodríguez was acquitted by the criminal chamber of the Supreme Court in 2016. In July 2015, in a settlement with Costa Rica, Alcatel-Lucent paid $10 million to the ICE. Rodríguez has also been accused of receiving bribes of over $1 million from the Taiwanese government (Costa Rica switched recognition to the PR China only in 2007) and £1.2 million from a British reinsurance firm in exchange for a contract with the state insurance monopoly. At the time that the Alcatel-ICE scandal was revealed by the newspaper La Nación in the fall of 2004, Rodríguez had just been elected secretary-general of the OAS. The scandal forced him to resign only a month after taking office at the OAS.

In April 2003, the constitutional chamber of the Supreme Court ruled in favour of non-consecutive presidential reelection, overturning a 1969 constitutional amendment which had banned presidential reelection. Former president Óscar Arias Sánchez had been pushing for presidential reelection for decades, and the court’s 2003 decision cleared the path for him to return to the presidency, two decades after he was first elected. In contrast, Arias’ old rival within the PLN – former president Monge – described the court’s ruling as a ‘judicial coup d’état’. Both traditional parties – and their dominant factions (figuerismoarayismomongismocalderonismo) had been badly hurt by corruption scandals and the general discredit of the two-party system. Arias faced no opposition within the PLN, and was the early favourite. The PUSC, in even worse shape, held no primaries and its candidate was Ricardo Toledo, a little-known former cabinet minister close to incumbent president Abel Pacheco. The PAC’s candidate was, like in 2002, Ottón Solís. The right-wing ML, a libertarian/right-wing liberal party opposed to state intervention in the economy, nominated – as in 2002 – the party’s co-founder, Otto Guevara. One of the major issues of the 2006 elections was the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) with the United States (and the Dominican Republic), negotiated and signed – but not yet ratified – by outgoing president Pacheco. Arias supported CAFTA, arguing that its ratification would create well-paying jobs, while his main opponent – Ottón Solís – said he would renegotiate the agreement, claiming that CAFTA would increase poverty, displace farmers and small domestic industries and flood the small internal market with cheap products from the US. Arias was narrowly elected with 40.9% against 39.8% for Solís, an unexpectedly narrow result. Otto Guevara finished third with 8.5%, placing ahead of the PUSC, which collapsed to just 3.6%. In the Legislative Assembly, the PLN won 25 seats against 17 for the PAC and 6 Libertarians. The PUSC won just 5 seats.

The 2006 election marked the end of the old two-party system: the PLN and PUSC combined won just 44.5% of the vote, compared to nearly 70% in 2002 (and over 90% prior to that). The PLN remained one of the major – if not dominant – parties in the new multi-party system, but the PUSC was relegated to the minor leagues. One of the causes of the two-party system’s collapse was one of the elements behind Costa Rica’s democratic exceptionalism: there was little antagonism between the PLN and PUSC, who agreed to peacefully alternate in power and to share the spoils of power, which over time led to corruption and cronyism. In the 1980s and 1990s, both parties (despite dissident factions within) converged around economic liberalism and globalization, blurring the traditional ideological differences between liberacionismo and socialcristianismo. The collapse of the two-party system allowed new political actors to emerge on both the left and right, often with moralizing discourses centred around ethical government and opposition to corruption. On the left, the PAC denounced political corruption and challenged the neoliberal policies which had been adopted by both PLN and PUSC governments in the 1990s. On the right, the ML became popular by forcefully attacking the two-party system (with its ‘PLUSC’ moniker) and it challenged the post-1948 model of economic development and state interventionism. The PAC won strong support in the urbanized and wealthier Central Valley (San José, Cartago, Heredia and Alajuela provinces), while the ML won strong support in the poorer peripheral provinces on the Caribbean and Pacific coasts (Puntarenas, Limón and Guanacaste provinces).

The issue of CAFTA was resolved in a very highly disputed October 2007 referendum. The Sí campaign in favour of the free trade agreement was supported by the PLN (and the government), ML, the majority of the PUSC’ legislative caucus and business groups. The No campaign against CAFTA was supported by the PAC, PUSC, the left, various minor parties, trade unions, student movements, teachers, liberacionista dissidents (Rolando Araya, Luis Alberto Monge) and former presidents Carazo and Calderón. CAFTA was narrowly approved with 51.2% voting in favour, and 48.1% against. Costa Rica’s economy enjoyed strong growth, with the brief exception of the 2009 global economic crisis, peaking at 8.2% in 2007. Costa Rica has become one of the most attractive destinations for FDI in Central America, thanks to low levels of taxation, political and macroeconomic stability, legal security and relatively transparent regulatory climate.

Vice president and security minister Laura Chinchilla, supported by outgoing president Arias, won the PLN’s 2009 convention (primary) against Johnny Araya, the mayor of San José and candidate of the more left-leaning arayista faction. However, Araya’s brother Rolando Araya (2009 PLN candidate) and his uncle Luis Alberto Monge endorsed Ottón Solís, the PAC’s candidate, considering Chinchilla to be a right-wing neoliberal. Chinchilla was elected with 46.8% against 25.2% for Solís and 20.8% for Otto Guevara. The PUSC, which was forced to change candidates after former president Calderón Fournier was convicted in the Fischel-CCSS scandal in 2009, won only 3.9%.

Chinchilla’s presidency was unremarkable, but also very unpopular. A region-wide poll by a Mexican polling firm once found that Chinchilla was the most unpopular of all her Latin American colleagues, with only 12% approval. The economy grew by 4-5% between 2010 and 2012, although it slowed in 2013 and 2014.

In 2010, Chinchilla faced a border dispute with Nicaragua over a small island in a lagoon region. Nicaragua justified its claim using Google Maps, but it was more serious than that: Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega sent troops to occupy the contested island and was seen as drumming up nationalist sentiment over the remote island to shore up his reelection. Chinchilla’s handling of the affair was criticized as naive by her predecessor, Arias. The crisis calmed down and was temporarily resolved in 2011-2013.

Although the Costa Rican economy was performing well, there began to be mounting concern about the debt and deficit. In September 2013, Moody’s put the country on negative outlook because of growing deficits, a rising debt burden and failure to pass fiscal reforms. The country’s budget deficit increased to 5.6% of GDP in 2014 because government revenue didn’t keep up with a rapid increase in government spending – mostly in public sector wages – since 2008. The debt-to-GDP ratio grew from 24.8% in 2008 to 36.7% in 2013. In 2012, the Supreme Court found the government’s tax plan – which included scrapping the sales tax for a higher VAT and a 15% withholding tax on new companies in the free trade zones – was unconstitutional, forcing Chinchilla to settle for a far less ambitious plan.

During her first two years in office, 13 cabinet ministers resigned for various reasons, undermining confidence in Chinchilla’s administration. The Minister of Finance resigned in 2012 after La Nación reported that he had not paid property taxes, the Minister of Transportation resigned over corruption in a road project and the President faced questions about her use of a private jet to fly to Peru.

Context: The new multi-party system

Free for all: the 2014 election and its aftermath

The campaign and results of the 2014 presidential and legislative elections illustrate the new ‘free for all’, unpredictable nature of the multi-party system which has replaced bipartidismo. It also resulted in an historic defeat for liberacionismo.

Chinchilla’s unpopularity hindered arismo‘s attempts to secure the PLN’s presidential nomination for Rodrigo Arias, Óscar Arias Sánchez’s brother. Johnny Araya, mayor of San José since 1991 (prior to 1998, the mayor was known as ‘municipal executive’), enjoyed an insurmountable advantage in the polls, which forced the other candidates – Arias, former president Figueres Olsen and Antonio Álvarez Desanti – to withdraw, from the race by January 2013.

Despite representing the PLN’s more traditionalist left-wing and social democratic faction, opposed to ‘right-wing’ liberal arismo, Araya’s campaign did not stray much from the PLN’s bland centrism, besides some negative references to neoliberalism and implicit criticisms of the last two PLN presidents. His platform focused on bread-and-butter issues like job creation, infrastructure projects, social security and education. Araya’s campaign distanced itself from Chinchilla and Arias, even briefly toying around with the idea of dropping the PLN’s emblematic green in favour of blue and red (national colours, but also the PUSC’s colours). His campaign ads focused on his own record as long-time mayor of the capital city, omitting any mentions of Chinchilla or Óscar Arias. While Figueres Olsen joined Araya’s campaign, the Arias brothers sat it out.

The PAC’s three-time presidential candidate, Ottón Solís, announced that he would not seek the presidency for a fourth time (after three successive defeats) in 2014. Luis Guillermo Solís, a relatively little-known political scientist and diplomat (chief of staff at the foreign ministry from 1986 to 1990 and ambassador for Central American affairs from 1994 to 1998) who had been secretary-general of the PLN (2002-2003) before joining the PAC in 2008, won the PAC’s national convention in June 2013 by a mere 113 votes (out of just 23,247 voters). With low name recognition, Solís was in fifth place with only 4% of voting intentions in early polls in late 2013.

His campaign’s initial priority was to have voters get to know him. Solís defines himself as a social democrat and his 2014 platform highlighted three major themes: fighting corruption, promoting economic growth through a more equitable distribution of the wealth and reducing inequalities (eliminating extreme poverty). The PAC proposed to guarantee access to information, strengthen state institutions’ effectiveness and efficiency and improve transparency in the hiring process for public servants. Solís said he would promote economic growth by creating a development bank providing differentiated loans to small businesses and certain sectors (women, youth), reducing interest rates, reducing utility rates, promoting public investment in infrastructure projects. Although Solís had opposed CAFTA in 2007, his campaign did not renegotiation of the treaty as realistic by that point, although he vowed – vaguely – to “defend the interests of national production” by “effective control of free trade treaties”. Solís is moderately socially liberal (same-sex civil unions, animal welfare, personally supporting abortion in cases of rape – in Costa Rica abortion is only legal for risks to maternal health).

For the fourth time, the ML’s candidate was the party’s boss, Otto Guevara. Under Guevara’s leadership, the ML gradually moderated (to become more broadly acceptable) moving away from extremist libertarian ideas towards more mainstream right-wing liberalism, while also abandoning social libertarianism in favour of more mainstream social conservatism (pro-life, anti-gay marriage, against marijuana legalization) and comments about the party’s commitments to Christian principles and even the social doctrines of the Church. Guevara’s 2014 platform promised to eliminate unnecessary regulations, facilitate access to financing and capital for job creators, free trade, break state monopolies, defend property rights and attract foreign investment (using the current free trade zones). He said he would reduce public spending, eliminate public sector privileges, ban strikes in essential services, adopt a 15% flat corporate tax (which would have increased taxes on small businesses) and replace the current PAYGO pension system with a capitalization system.

The PUSC’s primary in May 2013, which attracted few participants, was won by calderonista candidate Rodolfo Hernández with 77% against 23% for Rodolfo Piza, from the liberal and Christian democratic Renacer Socialcristiano faction. However, Hernández dropped out of the race in October 2013, complaining of betrayal and partisan intrigues in the PUSC. He was replaced by Piza.

The surprise of the 2014 electoral campaign was the unexpected momentum for the left-wing Frente Amplio (Broad Front, FA)’s candidate, José María Villalta (FA deputy 2010-14). The Frente Amplio is a left-wing/radical left party founded in 2004 by dissidents of Fuerza Democrática, the main left-wing party in the 1990s. It defines itself as “socialist, progressive, patriotic, feminist, democratic, ethical and Latin American”, and has supported both more moderate and radical left-wing movements in other Latin American countries, including Daniel Ortega’s FSLN in Nicaragua and Hugo Chávez’s PSUV in Venezuela. As explained above, the Marxist left was excluded from the post-1948 democratic system, and the communist party remained constitutionally proscribed until 1975 – although the lax application of that provision after the 1960s allowed them to participate through electoral alliances with socialist movements. Despite the importance of the communists in Costa Rican politics in the 1940s, the Marxist/socialist left remained very weak once it began participating in elections anew. The left, wracked (as always) by internal divisions and arcane infighting, hardly ever won more than 3-5% of the vote in national elections although it always had some minority representation in the Legislative Assembly.

Villalta’s platform blamed neoliberalism for the increase in inequality and the weakening of the welfare state. He opposed privatizations, free trade agreements and more progressive taxation. He said he’d raise the corporate tax rate on the biggest businesses to 35-40% (from 30%). At a time when many commentators and politicians were talking of a ‘fiscal crisis’ because of the high debt and deficit, Villalta said that concerns about a fiscal crisis were alarmist and blown out of proportion by neoliberal economists.

Villalta surged in the polls, becoming Johnny Araya’s main rival with up to 20-25% support in some polls (although pollsters fluctuated wildly). The PLN and La Nación launched a negative campaign against Villalta and the FA, accusing him of sympathy with Chávez and Ortega and of being a communist seeking to implement authoritarian policies. Controversially, private multinational corporations (Avon and Subway) circulated materials calling on their employees not to vote for Villalta. Villalta decried the ‘dirty war’ as means for the PLN to distract attention from its record, but Villalta was careful to erase references to his more radical past. While he had once openly declared himself a communist and praised Chávez, in the campaign he stated that his links to Chávez were limited to shared membership with the PSUV in the Foro de São Paolo and instead presented himself as the heir to Manuel Mora’s comunismo a la tica.

Araya’s campaign had been taken by surprise by Villalta’s momentum, and his intention in going on the offensive against him was to depict himself as the safe, democratic and centrist option against the dangerous ‘extremists’ of the far-left (Villalta) and far-right (Guevara). However, Araya’s dirty war against Villalta backfired on the PLN, which seriously underestimated its own unpopularity and the widespread demands for change. The negative campaigning did reverse the radical left’s momentum, but instead of favouring the PLN it played into the hands of one candidate who was perfectly placed to attract anti-PLN votes from the left: Luis Guillermo Solís and the PAC. Most of Villalta’s lost support flowed to Solís, who surged in the final moments of the campaign after having been a minor figure for most of the campaign.


Results of the 2014 presidential and legislative elections by province (source: Wikipedia)

In the first round, Luis Guillermo Solís (PAC) won 30.6% of the vote against 29.7% for Johnny Araya (PLN), a difference of 19,232 votes. Villalta (FA) finished a respectable but ultimately disappointing third with 17.3%, while Libertarian candidate Otto Guevara won 11.3%. Rodolfo Piza increased the PUSC’s support from the double catastrophes of 2006 and 2010 to 6%, although the old party was still very far from its past glories. Araya, who had been the favourite for over a year, finished a poor second with the PLN’s worst ever result. He qualified for the second round against Luis Guillermo Solís, but quickly came to understood that, with Solís consolidating the anti-liberacionista vote from other candidates, he stood little chance (moreover, the PLN had almost exhausted its public funding money). In a last-ditch attempt reeking of desperation, Araya turned to hard-line social conservatism (pro-life, anti-gay marriage) to win the Christian evangelical and social conservative right-wing vote, but with little success. Araya was doomed to a landslide defeat in the runoff, and opted to cut his losses: he suspended his campaign, even though the constitution explicitly prohibits candidates from withdrawing from a runoff. The second round took place as scheduled, even though the results were not in doubt: Solís won 77.8% and a record 1.3 million votes, increasing his support by more than 680,000 votes from the first round despite the absence of actual competition (Araya’s ghost support declined to 22.2% and lost over 235,000 votes).

In the legislative elections, however, the PAC won only 13 seats – an increase of 2 seats from 2010 – and was only the second largest party behind the PLN, which won 18 seats (-6). The FA had a very respectable performance, a record high for the left, winning 9 seats. The PUSC won 8 seats, a gain of 2, while the ML lost over half of its representation, falling to just 4 seats. Four socially conservative right-wing Christian evangelical parties – Accessibility without Exclusion Party (Partido Accesibilidad sin Exclusión, PASE), Costa Rican Renovation (Renovación Costarricense, PRC), National Restoration (Restauración Nacional, RN) and Christian Democratic Alliance (Alianza Demócrata Cristiana, ADC) – won 5 seats, forming a ‘Christian bloc’ – a right-wing, very socially conservative caucus which has often been a kingmaker in legislative arrangements.

For the first year of the legislature, the PAC managed to form a majority alliance with FA and PUSC to elect Henry Mora (PAC) to the presidency of the Legislative Assembly for the 2014-15 period.

Failing to meet expectations: Solís’ presidency (2014-2018)

Voters had high expectations for President-elect Luis Guillermo Solís in 2014. His election ended two terms (8 years) of liberacionista government which had come to be negatively evaluated by most, and he was the first president elected from outside the two major political traditions of the post-1948 democratic system (liberacionismo and anti-liberacionista right/calderonismo/liberalism). The PAC, an opposition party since its foundation in 2000, stood for clean, ethical politics and ‘change’.

Luis Guillermo Solís’ administration did bring some fairly significant changes. In June 2015, a family court decision recognized same-sex civil unions, interpreting a 2002 youth law, but the four Christian evangelical parties’ filibustering has blocked adoption of a civil unions law meant to regulate this decision. The PAC, PLN and FA all supported the civil unions law. Solís’ government has supported gay rights, issuing a presidential decree in 2015 which bans sexual discrimination in the public service. In May 2016, the government asked the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IAHR Court) if the American Convention on Human Rights obliged the country to grant recognition to same-sex couples. In January 2018, the Court ruled that countries which are signatories to the Convention are required to allow same-sex couples to marry – a transcendental legal decision which will undoubtedly have far-reaching effects in Latin America. The Costa Rican government announced that it will abide by the decision: despite being a consultative opinion, Costa Rican jurisprudence since 1995 that even the IAHR Court’s opinions are legally binding on the country. The American Convention on Human Rights was signed in San José (Costa Rica) in 1969 and Costa Rica was the first country to ratify it in 1970, and it has been party to the IA Court since its creation. The Costa Rican constitution also states that international treaties and conventions are part of the legal system and prevail over domestic laws.

In 2015, a constitutional amendment declared the country ‘multi-ethnic’ and ‘pluricultural’. The government has made serious efforts to reduce extreme poverty, which were recognized by the World Bank. For the past 20 years, Costa Rica has struggled to reduce poverty – which has remained at about 20% – and extreme poverty has even increased, from 5.8% in 2010 to 7.2% in 2015. Since 2014, however, poverty has dropped from 22% to 20%, and extreme poverty has been reduced to 5.7%. Income inequality has increased since the late 1980s, and the OECD’s reports have shown that taxes and transfers do very little to reduce inequality. Despite investing more than any other Latin American country on healthcare and education (as a % of GDP), the IMF noted that “notwithstanding the country’s high expenditure on education, only behind Denmark and Sweden among advanced economies, education outcomes are not significantly better than in other emerging markets.” Its PISA scores are at the bottom of the pack, just ahead of Colombia, Brazil and Mexico (which aren’t known for their good education systems).

Solís’ administration was undermined by its lack of a majority in the Legislative Assembly, where the PAC is only the second largest party with just over a fifth of the 57 seats. In 2014-15, through an agreement with the left-wing FA and right-wing PUSC it was able to win control of the legislature’s presidency. In 2015, however, the PAC refused to meet the PUSC’s new conditions (no new taxes, cutting spending, no bills on IVF or same-sex unions). The PUSC joined an opposition alliance with the PLN, ML and the four Christian parties, electing Rafael Ortiz (PUSC) as president of the Legislative Assembly in 2015-16 and Antonio Álvarez Desanti (PLN) for 2016-17. In May 2017, dissident PUSC deputies from Rodolfo Piza’s faction defected to support Ottón Solís (PAC). After tied votes, three PUSC deputies with five FA dissidents and a ex-ML independent finally joined the PLN-ML-Christians bloc to elect pastor Gonzalo Ramírez (PRC) to the presidency for the final year of the legislature. In fewer words, the government lost control of the Legislative Assembly in 2015 and has struggled to pass its agenda.

Costa Rica’s economy has continued to perform relatively well, with strong real GDP growth since 2015 (4-4.7%). Unemployment remains high, but has dropped in recent months to 8.5% (2017-T2) from about 9-10% in 2014 and 2015. Recent international reports, notably from the IMF and WEF, have underlined that inadequate infrastructure is hindering economic competitiveness and businesses in Costa Rica. Its roads and ports rank very poorly in the region and the world (106th in overall infrastructure in the 2016 Global Competitiveness Index, 125th in roads). The OECD stated that the “overall low quality of Costa Rica’s transportation infrastructure is likely the result of chronic underspending and deficient planning”. The Solís administration has promoted public-private partnerships to address Costa Rica’s infrastructure woes. However, his government has struggled to deliver public works projects on schedule.

In contrast to El Salvador, Honduras or even Brazil, Colombia and Mexico, Costa Rica remains one of the least violent and most peaceful countries in Latin America. Violence and murders have, however, increased in recent years and turned into a major public preoccupation. The number of homicides decreased under president Laura Chinchilla (from 527 in 2010 to 407 in 2012), but have increased every year since 2014. In 2017, there were 603 homicides, a homicide rate of 12.1/100,000 inhabitants, compared to 578 in 2016 – making 2017 “the most violent year in history” for the country. The security minister has called the rise in violence a ‘national emergency’ and admitted that the country failed to take adequate measures to prevent the spread of drug trafficking, drug trade-related violence and gang violence to Costa Rica.

Already in 2014 there was discussion of a ‘fiscal crisis‘ because of the rising public debt and budget deficit. Four years later, at the end of Solís’ administration, that discussion is still taking place – but relatively little has been done about it since 2014. According to the Ministry of Finance’s 2018 budget numbers, the budget deficit was reduced between 2014 and 2016 from -5.7% to -5.2% but projections for 2017 and 2018 indicate that the deficit grew to -6% in 2017 and is expected to reach -6.2% of GDP in 2018 (and will keep growing to -6.6% of GDP in 2021). The country’s debt-to-GDP ratio has increased from 24.1% of GDP in 2008 to 53% of GDP in 2018, with the finance ministry projecting that it will reach 61% of GDP by 2021 if no action is taken. The cause of any budget deficit is that the government is spending more than it takes in in revenue. In Costa Rica, public spending has increased from 16.8% of GDP in 2009 to 20.6% in 2018, and is projected to increase to 21% by 2021 if no action is taken. The IMF’s May 2017 country report found that “public spending is low by international standards, but has increased sharply in recent years, especially the wage bill” (nearly 40% of total expenditures in 2015). The government and international bodies (IMF, OECD) have underlined that one of the reasons for the persistently high deficit is the ‘inflexibility’ of spending – 96% of non-debt service budget expenditures are associated to fixed percentages of revenues or a fixed percentage of the GDP which grows every year. This significantly limits the government’s margin of action. A 2016 article in the Spanish newspaper El País about Solís’ presidency argued that the “state is a swamp of impediments, hyper-controlled between institutions and dominated in large part by middle managers shielded by the public employment system.” Vested interests, anti-cutbacks left-wing groups (including members of the president’s own party, the PAC, like party founder and leading deputy Ottón Solís), trade unions and public sector groups have resisted the government’s proposals to reduce public spending, reform public sector pension systems. In July 2017, for example, an unprecedented strike in the judicial system protested a reform to the judiciary’s special pension system, described as very generous and fiscally unsustainable. The strike, which paralyzed courts and judicial investigations, seriously deteriorated the judiciary’s image.

Public revenues have remained relatively stable, between 13.5% and 14.5% of GDP between 2009 and 2018, which is a low ratio of tax revenues. Most tax revenue is from sales and indirect taxes (over 60% of total tax income), although this has reduced since 2006 because of lower tariffs.

Since 2015, the government has been urging lawmakers to adopt a series of fiscal reforms which it claims are necessary to reduce the deficit. As noted above, the finance ministry projects that if these measures aren’t adopted, by 2021 the deficit will reach an alarming 6.6% of GDP. By August 2017, the government said that 8 fiscal reform laws had been adopted by the legislature: a law to fight tax fraud, an anti-contraband law, an ‘efficiency in the administration of public resources law’, taxes on big pensions, eliminating privileges in the pensions of former deputies and reforms to the special public sector pensions system. However, the most important fiscal reforms proposed by the government, first presented in 2015, remained pending on the legislative agenda. The government’s first fiscal reform proposal included converting the sales tax into a VAT and gradually raise it to 15%, reducing the exempted basic consumption basket, new targeted transfers to compensate taxpayers in the lowest four deciles, introducing new marginal tax rates of 20% and 25%, introducing a capital gains tax and eliminating exemptions on the 15% tax on income from investments. In 2017, unable to get its original proposals through, the government reduced its demands – while still converting the sales tax into a VAT, the tax rate would remain 13% (4% for education and healthcare), the increase on marginal income tax rates would be limited to a new 20% rate (and also a lower rate for investment income and capital gains). The IMF’s May 2017 country report concluded that “overall the proposed reforms would improve the progressivity of the Costa Rican tax system and reduce income inequality, beside increasing tax revenues”, assuming that the VAT increase is compensated by new transfers to low-income households. The IMF’s Executive Board consultation with Costa Rica, however, opined that approval of fiscal reform was “unlikely due to the political cycle”.

In August 2017, President Solís said that the country was facing a serious “liquidity problem”. In December, civil servants were paid a day late after the government was forced to secure $140 million in financing to cover its salaries.

The opposition and business sector have insisted that the causes of the deficit are spending and high public sector salaries, which should be reduced before any new taxes are approved. On the other hand, trade unions warn that workers’ rights and benefits cannot be violated and that the deficit is caused by tax evasion.

The inexperience and, in some cases, relative amateurism of the Solís administration led to a rather high number of cabinet resignations because of controversy, scandals or accusations of mismanagement. In April 2015, the science and technology minister resigned for having promoted, without consulting the executive, a new radio and television law which was criticized as restrictive. The proposed law, which was later scrapped, would have imposed limits on ownership concentration and adopted new punishments for minor, serious and very serious offences including circulating ‘fake news’ or using vulgar/injurious language. In May 2015, Melvin Jiménez, minister of the presidency, resigned because of the controversial radio and television bill and after having been accused by the outgoing vice-minister of science and technology of offering him an embassy in exchange for his resignation (accusations which Jiménez denied). In May 2015, the culture and youth minister was also forced to resign after problems at an international arts festival. In January 2016, the transportation minister, criticized by the opposition, businessmen and the comptroller for his ‘improvisation’ and poor performance, resigned. In March 2016, the labour and social security minister resigned for having appointed a niece to a job in the minister’s office. By March 2016, 24 members of the administration – ministers, vice-ministers, executive presidents of autonomous institutions and ambassadors – had resigned or been removed from office.

Corruption tends to hurt politicians and political parties, but perhaps even more so when the politician or the party implicated has built its reputation on probity, transparency and morality. In December 2016, a criminal court sentenced the PAC’s former treasurer to 6 years in jail for defrauding the electoral tribunal (TSE) – unduly asking the TSE a refund of 516 million colones for services which were actually provided for free in the 2010 presidential campaign. The court also ordered the PAC to pay a compensation of 350 million colones. PAC founder and deputy Ottón Solís, who has been critical of the government and denounced new unethical practices in the party he founded in 2000, lamented during the trial in July 2016 that “waste/squander [despilfarro] had come to prevail in the party” and said that, if the party was found guilty, then it should disappear (he later changed his mind). In May 2017, Solís told CRHoy that the government’s biggest problem was not being more rigorous on ethical matters – it had been better than other governments, but it still could have been more rigorous.

The Cementazo scandal was one of the major issues in the elections. The crux of the scandal, as revealed by CRHoy in mid-2017, is a construction businessman – Juan Carlos Bolaños – who imported Chinese cement received a $31.5 million loan from the Banco de Costa Rica (BCR), a state-owned commercial bank under irregular conditions, uncovering a widespread network of influence peddling involving all three branches of government. Until 2015, the cement industry was controlled by two companies – Holcim and Cemex – forming a sort of duopoly which set cement prices in the market, and both companies benefited from a rule which banned the importation of cement more than 45 days after having been produced. Around this time, Juan Carlos Bolaños, a construction entrepreneur, founded Sinocem to import Chinese cement, which he said was 20% cheaper and of better quality. On the basis of these claims and a study ordered by the ministry, the economy, industry and commerce ministry changed the 45-day rule in early 2015. Between 2015 and 2016, Bolaños, who had begun importing his bags of Chinese cement, complained that the old duopoly and government agencies were imposing technical and regulatory restrictions and met several times with members of the presidential staff and even President Solís in the presidential residence to lobby for the rules to be changed and obstacles to his business removed.

In September and December 2014, the BCR had rejected Bolaños’ previous loan applications for $15 million. In September 2015, however, the BCR’s board of directors changed the bank’s loan requirements to allow loans to be backed up by other, small insurance firm. Bolaños’ $31.5 million loan from the BCR – in addition to loans from other state-owned banks which increased the total to $45.5 million – was backed up by an insurance company whose capital was smaller than the BCR’s loan. In October 2015, therefore, the BCR agreed to finance the importation of Chinese cement with public money and approved loans to Sinocem for the importation of its Chinese cementCRHoy reported that, between 2011 and 2016, Bolaños created five offshore companies in Panama and Hong Kong, two of which administered the loan received from the BCR and one of these companies bought the cement and China and ‘sold’ it back to Sinocem Costa Rica at a higher price. An investigation by the superintendency of financial entities found irregularities in the management of the loan – only $12.7 million were used to buy cement Sinobuilding Materials Hong Kong Ltd. while $12.3 million were deposited in personal bank accounts in Hong Kong for six months before being returned to the bank (and another $12.7 million accounted for). Sinocem China, in July 2017, accused Bolaños of illegally using its brand name and buying cement of lower quality and increasing prices through his businesses.

The scandal began when CRHoy published an audio recording where Bolaños (supposedly) proposes that the assistant director of the BCR (supposedly) admit to violating banking secrecy so that Bolaños wouldn’t have to pay back the loan and could file a lawsuit against the bank. After the audio was revealed, the BCR suspended its general manager and forced its president to resign; both had strongly advocated for the loans, even when other members of the board of directors were beginning to raise red flags.

The Legislative Assembly formed a commission to investigate the cementazo. Several politicians, deputies, public servants and judges have been implicated in the scandal. Víctor Morales Zapata, a PAC deputy, was forced to resign from the party and sit as an independent after being connected to the cementazo. He is currently under investigation by the Supreme Court, alongside Otto Guevara (ML) and a former PUSC deputies, for influence peddling in Bolaños’ favour, evidenced by over 1,000 phone calls in 2014 and 2015 between the deputies and the businessman. In October 2018, a former pilot employed by Bolaños told the commission that deputies (Guevara, PUSC deputy Johnny Leiva), the BCR’s ex-president and former president Figueres Olsen flew on Bolaños’ private helicopter at the businessman’s request. The Supreme Court has also launched its own investigations into two senior officials: the attorney general, suspended in October for three months after it was revealed that he ignored evidence (the phone calls between Bolaños and the deputies); and Supreme Court magistrate Celso Gamboa, also suspended for three months for his ties to Bolaños. Gamboa had accompanied Bolaños to consult legal information in the officies of the judicial branch, an assistant to the magistrate called to follow up on a case against the former BCR assistant director (from the audio, who he may have leaked himself) and travelled for 37 hours to Panama with Bolaños (tickets bought on the same credit card). Bolaños was arrested in November 2017.

In December 2017, the legislative commission released its preliminary 294-page non-binding report which recommended investigating and sanctioning 29 officials – including President Luis Guillermo Solís, accused by the commission of a “lack of probity” in the proper use of public resources. Solís defended himself in a video posted to his Facebook account, in which he rejected the commission’s accusations of ethical failings and denying ever having instructed any public official to break the law or intercede in an individuals’ favour. However, when the scandal was breaking in the summer of 2017, Solís defended Bolaños, justified the seven meetings with Bolaños in the presidency and claimed that legal investigations had never found anything. PAC deputy Ottón Solís criticized the president for defending the corrupt businessman. The commission accused Solís of having appointed the BCR’s general manager (who pushed for the loan), pressuring the customs to expedite the unloading of a cement shipment, having opened the doors of his office to Bolaños on 7 separate occasions and having pressured for the rules on cement importation to be changed. Solís is also connected to the scandal through two close friends and allies: ex-PAC deputy Víctor Morales Zapata (described as an ‘ambassador’ for Bolaños’ interests) and his former intelligence chief Mariano Figueres. The list of 29 names also included Figueres, a former customs director, a former vice-minister of finance, several former directors of the BCR, former economy minister Wélmer Ramos, Gamboa, the suspended attorney general and legislators (from the PLN, PUSC, ex-PAC, ML). The legislative commission’s report was adopted by the Legislative Assembly in mid January 2018 with 42 votes in favour and 6 against. Five PAC deputies voted against, as did ex-PAC independent deputy Víctor Morales Zapata; the report was adopted with the support of PLN, PAC, PUSC, FA, ML and the Christian bloc deputies.

The cementazo badly hurt the president’s popularity – already low – and the PAC’s image. Even more damaging is how it may impact the judiciary’s image. Costa Rica’s independent judiciary, which is very highly ranked in the world, is one of the foundational elements of its ‘democratic exceptionalism’ since 1948. While it has been doing its job by investigating the cementazo, having one of their own suspended under strong suspicions that he formed part of a corrupt influence peddling network will undoubtedly have a very negative repercussions on the institution’s image (already fragilized by the unpopular judicial strikes).

Solís came into office with high, perhaps unreasonably, expectations placed in him after a record-breaking victory in the 2014 elections. He leaves office with low approval ratings and the general feeling that he hasn’t lived up to expectations and that there hasn’t been a real ‘change’ of the kind that he promised both in his 2014 campaign and inaugural address. He has been accused by opponents of indecisiveness, inexperience in governance, not meeting objectives, a certain degree of amateurism and improvisation and failing to address the country’s main problems (infrastructure, security, finances and now corruption). Even members of his own party, like the eternal maverick and PAC moral reference Ottón Solís, have publicly admitted their disappointments with the president’s record – recognizing that a lot has been done or that the government has been better than previous ones, but that more could have been done.

Issues and Candidates

The National Liberation Party (PLN) is Costa Rica’s traditional party and, despite its historic defeat in 2014, still a formidable electoral powerhouse with a strong base of supporters. The PLN, two years after its historic defeat, showed that it remained a force to be reckoned with (and perhaps still the country’s strongest party) with a large victory in the 2016 municipal elections (although turnout was 35%). The PLN elected 50 mayors, out of 81, a loss of 9 from 2010, and 186 aldermen (-10). The ruling PAC, in contrast, did poorly – it elected 7 mayors (+1) and 64 aldermen (-36), finishing third overall behind the old PUSC which remained the second force in local government. In San José, incumbent mayor Johnny Araya, suspended from the PLN for having dropped out of the 2014 runoff, was reelected with a local party.

The PLN held its primaries – national convention – on April 2, 2017. The first declared candidate was former president José María Figueres Olsen (1994-1998), the son of the party’s mythical founder José ‘Pepe’ Figueres. Figueres Olsen was president of the PLN between 2015 and 2016, resigning to seek the PLN’s presidential nomination. Despite his family name and standing as a former president, Figueres – who had been looking for a way back in to the political game for some time – is fairly unpopular, dogged by allegations of bribes in the Alcatel-ICE scandal (and now implicated in the cementazo) as well as negative perceptions of his presidency (see above). There were rumours that Figueres would face an old rival in the primaries: former president (and Nobel laureate) Óscar Arias Sánchez. However, Arias declined to run in September 2016, calling for a new generation of leadership. In November 2016, the president of the Legislative Assembly Antonio Álvarez Desanti announced his candidacy. He was endorsed by Óscar Arias, Rodrigo Arias and Johnny Araya – uniting the two old warring factions of liberacionismo, ‘right-wing neoliberal’ arismo and ‘left-wing socialist’ arayismo-mongismo.

Antonio Álvarez Desanti is a 59-year old businessman and lawyer who has been politically active since the 1980s. In 1985, President Luis Alberto Monge appointed him president of a state-owned fertilizer factory and, that same year, president of the National Production Council. He was Minister of Agriculture (1987-1988) and Minister of the Interior (Gobernación, 1988-1990) under President Arias Sánchez. Elected to the Legislative Assembly in 1994, he was president of the Legislative Assembly for a first time in 1995-1996. He unsuccessfully sought the PLN’s presidential nomination in 2001, but finished third in the national convention. In 2006, he withdrew from the PLN’s primary and founded his own party, Unión por el Cambio, to run for president in 2006 – ironically against PLN candidate Óscar Arias. In his 2006 campaign, he denounced widespread corruption in the PLN and the loss of its social democratic principles. He won only 2.4% of the vote. Just two years after having shut the door to the party, Álvarez Desanti rejoined the PLN in 2008, claiming that a new progressive and social democratic base allowed him to return. Unofficially, he returned because he had learned the hard way that he would only be president if he was inside the PLN rather than outside. He was unable to run in 2010 because party rules banned anyone with less than four years’ continuous membership from running. Just 9 months after the 2010 election, he announced his pre-candidacy for 2014. He dropped out in 2012 and endorsed the frontrunner, Johnny Araya. Álvarez Desanti was Araya’s campaign manager in 2014, and was the top candidate on the PLN’s legislative list in San José. He was elected president of the Legislative Assembly in May 2016 with the support of the aforementioned ‘opposition alliance’ (PLN-ML-PUSC-Christians) against the ruling PAC.

Álvarez won the PLN primary with 45.9% against 37.1% for Figueres, a margin of over 36,000 votes out of a total turnout of 430,400 (down from over 500,000 in 2009). The delay in reporting results led both leading candidates to make comments about potential irregularities and fraud. After initially admitting defeat, Figueres claimed that there had been vote rigging, an accusation which led Álvarez to cancel a meeting scheduled with his internal opponent. Figueres did not participate in Álvarez Desanti’s campaign.

During the primary, one of the minor candidates said that Álvarez Desanti was a neoliberal right-winger while Álvarez Desanti warned against a ‘turn to the left’. His campaign remained true to the PLN’s vague centrism, focused on the uncontroversial valence issue of ‘job creation’. On jobs, he offered fairly liberal solutions (‘a Costa Rica of entrepreneurs’). Álvarez promised to create 150,000 jobs through fostering entrepreneurship, timely financing, programs for youth and women entrepreneurship and strengthened international commercial relations. He also proposed to reform the administrative management of poverty, expand the existing Avancemos conditional cash transfer program, a large-scale housing program (50,000 housing solutions in 4 years, 20,000 houses for the middle-class and 5,000 for the working-class). He supported a fiscal reform and pensions reform, and while his platform did mention controlling spending and new tax measures (sales tax into VAT, more progressive taxation, 15% capital gains tax), it remained fairly vague as to how he would actually reduce the debt and deficit. Perhaps not coincidentally, corruption was the very last theme in his presidential platform.

Álvarez is socially conservative and was close to the evangelical ‘Christian bloc’ when he was president of the Legislative Assembly. While his platform stated fairly boiler-plate opposition to LGBT discrimination and gender-based violence and commitments to gender equality, sex ed and same-sex civil unions, Álvarez opposes abortion. He opposed same-sex marriage, but said that he would respect the IAHR Court’s binding sentence on the matter even if he personally disagrees with it. In December 2017, Álvarez was among the candidates who participated in a very large ‘march for life and the family’ which expressed opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage. Speaking the language of the Christian right, Álvarez said that he opposed ‘gender ideology’, and that he didn’t see any contradiction between opposing ‘gender ideology’ and supporting civil unions, gender equality or anti-discrimination measures.

The ruling Citizens’ Action Party (PAC) entered the presidential campaign with a very tall obstacle to overcome: the president’s unpopularity and the widespread perception that the party hasn’t brought the change that it promised in 2014 (and in every election for 14 years before that). The PAC held its national convention on July 9, 2017 with two candidates vying for the nomination of the ruling party – two former cabinet ministers. Carlos Alvarado was Minister of Human Development and Social Inclusion (2014-2016) and Minister of Labour and Social Security (2016-2017) under President Solís. He resigned from cabinet in January 2017 to run for president. His opponent was Welmer Ramos, an economist who was Minister of Economy, Industry and Commerce (2014-2017). It was his ministry which changed the rules on the importation of cement, which allowed Juan Carlos Bolaños to begin importing his cheap Chinese cement. In December 2017, after the primary, Ramos was among the 29 people listed for further investigations on the legislative commission’s report on the cementazo.

Alvarado is from the younger, more progressive and socially liberal wing of the party – strongly favouring same-sex marriage, for example – while Ramos is from a more traditionalist left-wing wing of the party close to Ottón Solís (although Ottón Solís remained neutral). There was some controversy because Ramos, who is a Christian evangelical, confirmed that he opposed same-sex marriage (and he allegedly called same-sex couples ‘unnatural’). Alvarado won the primary with 56% with a turnout of about 33,000 – 10,000 more than in 2013.

Alvarado began his campaign as the candidate of continuity – ‘continuing the change that has begun’ – and promoting the achievements of the government, particularly his own as human development and labour minister. However, the cementazo changed things, badly hurting the president and the PAC’s image. The release of the legislative commission’s report on the cementazo, which named Welmer Ramos – PAC legislative candidate in Heredia province – became a sensitive issue for the PAC’s presidential candidate, who was challenged by Álvarez Desanti to ask for Ramos’ withdrawal. In December, Alvarado asked for Ramos’ resignation (withdrawal) – but said it would only be effective if the ethics prosecutor found any wrongdoing. Alvarado distanced himself from the president, criticizing Solís’ defensive response to the commission’s report as ‘lacking self-criticism and forcefulness in face of the situation’. Instead, Alvarado began seeking out the PAC’s founder and outgoing deputy, Ottón Solís, who had initially been marginal in the PAC campaign.

The PAC’s platform was left-wing, progressive and socially liberal, highlighting issues like improving education and healthcare, sustainable development and ‘de-carbonized’ economy, public transportation, access to housing, mixed economy, progressive taxation, reducing inequalities, public transportation, regional development, inclusive and pluralistic society, participatory democracy, ethics, gender equality and LGBT rights. Education was one of the key priorities of his campaign, alongside typical economic concerns (jobs) and social inclusion. Another major theme of the PAC’s campaign was environmental protection, climate change and clean energy – with research and investment into biofuels, solar energy, non-conventional renewable energies and clean cars. On security and crime issues, Carlos Alvarado’s platform focused on addressing the roots and causes of criminality (social exclusion, poverty etc.) and restorative justice, although it also proposed stricter gun control policies and police professionalization.

On hot-button societal topics, Carlos Alvarado supported IVF, emergency contraception, comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services, sexual education in schools, recognition of gender identity (allowing people to change their names or genders on the civil registry) and same-sex marriage (and, in general, full equality for same-sex couples). The issue of abortion remains too sensitive and taboo to be addressed by electoral campaigns, and Carlos Alvarado’s platform largely eluded the issue by merely promising to fully implement the existing legislation (penal code) which allows for therapeutic abortions (threat to a mother’s life or health) – abortion remains illegal under all other circumstances, including rape, incest or foetal malformations. Carlos Alvarado also supported amending the constitution to make Costa Rica a secular (religiously neutral) state (estado laico). Costa Rica is the only country in the Americas which still has an official state religion (Roman Catholicism is recognized as the state religion in article 75 of the constitution).

Alvarado was moderate on economic issues, speaking in terms of ‘macroeconomic stability’ and ‘healthy public finances’. He proposed a fiscal reform along the lines of the government’s initial proposal, with improved tax collection and closing other tax loopholes. He also proposed the adoption of a law limiting growth in public spending (already proposed by the government). Gone were the left-wing protectionist (anti-free trade) positions of the PAC in earlier campaigns: the platform advocated taking advantage of free trade agreements, pursuing further trade deals with Asia, promoting exports, attracting FDI and supporting public-private partnerships.

The old Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC) has been seeking to return to its glory days for over a decade now, after the old centre-right liberal/Christian democratic party destroyed by scandal collapsed to just 3% of the vote in the 2006 and 2010 presidential elections. In 2014, with Rodolfo Piza, the PUSC’s support increased to 6% in the presidential election and its representation increased to 10% of the vote and 8 seats (+2). Despite the party’s small rebound in 2014, its 2013 primary had left the party divided: as explained above, it was another candidate, Rodolfo Hernández – from the calderonista faction of the party – who won the PUSC’s primary in 2013, defeating Piza by a massive margin, but Hernández ended up dropping out of the race amidst claims that he had been betrayed and weakened by party drama. In June 2014, the calderonistas led by former president Rafael Ángel Calderón Fournier (1990-1994), the son of the original calderonista caudillo Rafael Ángel Calderón Guardia (1940-1944), quit the PUSC and re-founded the calderonista party under the name Social Christian Republican Party (Partido Republicano Social Cristiano, PRSC). The PRSC adopted the old calderonista flag (blue, yellow and red). Despite the PRSC’s split, the PUSC remained the second party in local government in 2016 (and even increased its representation in councils) while the PRSC elected just one mayor.

Rodolfo Piza, the PUSC’s 2014 candidate, won the PUSC’s 2017 national convention with 73% of the vote against 27% for Rafael Ortiz, deputy and former president of the Legislative Assembly (2015-16). Piza was supported by 5 of the party’s 8 deputies; Ortiz was supported by the three other deputies (himself included) and former president Abel Pacheco (2002-2006). Piza is from the PUSC’s liberal wing, while Ortiz was closer to calderonismo and campaigned on more traditional social-Christian issues (welfare state, social justice, humanism) and social conservatism in opposition to Piza’s economic liberalism (fiscal conservatism) and more liberal/libertarian stances on societal issues. The PUSC’s primary drew a healthy turnout of over 113,000.

Rodolfo Piza Rocafort (born 1958) is a lawyer and the son of Rodolfo Piza Escalante, a former magistrate and former president of IAHR Court. Piza was president of the CCSS during the Rodríguez administration (1998-2002) and later alternate magistrate (magistrado suplente) of the Supreme Court between 2009 and 2013.

Piza is a centre-right ‘liberal-conservative’, and the general points of his platform would not really be out of place for mainstream centre-right conservative/Christian democratic in most Western European countries, except somewhat more conservative on societal issues (as can be expected in conservative Costa Rica). Piza proposed to stimulate job creating by attracting more investments, more flexible contracts and not increasing legal regulations. Fiscally conservative, Piza said he would control the budget by cutting spending (limiting spending growth to GDP growth) without new taxes (or at least not considering new taxes before reducing spending). Piza’s platform was also tough on crime (expanding jails, no mass release of inmates etc.), promised to reduce red tape and bureaucratic procedures and obstacles using new technologies and vowed to ‘control’ immigration. Conservative on hot-button societal issues, Piza is pro-life (opposed to abortion except where already legal: only when the mother’s life or health is at risk) and opposed same-sex marriage (but supported civil unions and anti-discrimination laws). Piza was among the right-wing socially conservative candidates who participated in the December 2017 ‘march for life and the family’. After the IAHR Court’s decision, Piza, however, said he would respect the court’s decision while personally disagreeing with it and reaffirming his belief that marriage is between a man and a woman.

Rodolfo Hernández was the candidate of the calderonista right-wing PRSC (see above). Hernández is a pediatrician who was director of the national children’s hospital for 13 years between 2001 and 2014. More Christian democratic, explicitly inspired by the social doctrine of the Catholic Church, Christian humanism and the local calderonista legacy (Social Guarantees, social security, social justice…), Hernández’s platform promised social justice, solidarity with the needy – without causing financial imbalances for the state. He promised decent work, fair pensions, a wholehearted defence of the CCSS (a ‘tripartite effort’ to fix the pension system’s deficit by increasing contributions), an efficient ‘humane’ market economy and an efficient and effective state (based on the principle of the ‘subsidiary state’). Very socially conservative, his platform placed significant emphasis on the ‘family’, the ‘traditional definition of marriage’ and opposition to abortion. Hernández, like Piza and others, participated in the social conservative march in December 2017. He initially said that he would respect the IAHR Court’s decision on same-sex marriage, but later changed his mind and suggested that he would not.

The Libertarian Movement (ML) is one of the few ‘libertarian parties’ (declared as such) in the world which has obtained parliamentary representation. However, to attract a broader right-wing electorate, the ML under its líder máximo, Otto Guevara, has changed its positions on a number of issues to make the party more ‘mainstream’ – or, for some libertarian critics, negotiating principles in exchange for political power. It has dropped its most extreme libertarian stances on the role of government (not only in accepting state money for his campaign – which some libertarians saw as a betrayal of values, but also accepting a role for the government in education or healthcare). On societal issues, given that societal libertarianism is not an easy sell in Costa Rica, Guevara has done a full 360 since the 1990s: from supporting same-sex marriage and drug legalization, in 2014 he said that he defended ‘Christian values’ and strongly opposed abortion or same-sex marriage. Increasingly far removed from ‘pure’ definitions of libertarianism, the ML has become a more generic or mainstream right-wing party – very liberal on economic issues (flat tax, subsidiary state, opening closed or regulated sectors like energy or telecommunications to private competition, limited government, spending cuts, critical of welfare dependency/asistencialismo), conservative on societal topics.

The ML did poorly in 2014: Guevara, on his fourth presidential candidacy, won 11.3% (rather than 21% in 2010), while the party’s legislative representation was significantly reduced from 9 to 4. With its poor results, the ML had trouble paying its debts and its executive committee said it lacked funds to pay its employees. Internal divisions and a loss of membership added to the list of problems: one of its four deputies, Carmen Quesada, left the party to sit as an independent claiming that Guevara didn’t respect women’s rights; several members quitting the party in 2016 (press reports that 150 members of the ML youth wing migrated to the PUSC); dissident members forming a new liberal party criticizing the ML for becoming conservative.

Perhaps another sign of internal divisions, the ML faced its first internal primary: party boss Otto Guevara, seeking the presidency for the fifth time in a row, was challenged for the party nomination by young deputy Natalia Díaz (33). Guevara won the nomination with ‘only’ 59.5% support in an internal primary with a turnout of just 3,000. Confirming the party’s divisions and internal drama, Natalia Díaz did not support her party’s candidate, instead publicly endorsing PLN candidate Antonio Álvarez Desanti and even considering voting for the PLN in the legislative election.

In addition to these problems, Otto Guevara was among the deputies implicated in the cementazo as an ally (lobbyist?) of corrupt cement importer Juan Carlos Bolaños, accused of serving as a ‘bridge’ helping Bolaños access other powers. In November, his house and office were searched and in December his name was among the 29 recommended for investigation by the legislature’s committee on the cementazo. The corruption accusations against the ML’s candidate were another blow to the party’s credibility and popularity: the ML was founded in the 1990s and made its first mark by virulently criticizing government corruption, waste and the two-party system (it coined the pejorative ‘PLUSC’ moniker).

Guevara ran a very right-wing campaign. After the US election in November 2016, Guevara said that Donald Trump’s victory ‘reinvigorated’ him, praising Trump’s style (‘telling it as it is’, his frankness, not being politically correct); nevertheless, he said that if he was American he would have voted for Gary Johnson. Otto Guevara also ‘copied’ Trump on immigration, saying that he would deport irregular migrants and reserve social benefits to native Costa Ricans (he also opposes jus soli citizenship). Costa Rica is one of the few Latin American countries where immigration (rather than emigration) is a significant issue, because the country’s prosperity and political stability has attracted migrants from poorer, more unstable Spanish-speaking countries in the Americas – first and foremost neighbouring Nicaragua. According to the 2011 census, there were 385,899 foreign-born residents in the country (9% of the population) and 287,766 of them were born in Nicaragua.

On other issues, Guevara proposed his typical right-wing libertarian/economically liberal platform: eliminating bureaucratic procedures and obstacles to make it possible to open a business in 48 hours; cutting taxes (eliminating some, implementing a 15% flat tax, VAT); privatizations and asset sales; free trade; promoting free competition (abolishing monopolies, opening regulated or closed sectors like electricity); repressing criminality; reducing public spending; reforming government institutions (abolishing or merging some autonomous institutions, political reforms like moving to a parliamentary system) and ‘help for self-help’ (‘welfare dependency’). Guevara participated in the December 2017 ‘march for life and family’ alongside other right-wing socially conservative candidates.

The left-wing Broad Front (FA) was the major surprise of the 2014 elections. Even though it didn’t make it to the runoff or compete for first place, as some had predicted, the FA won 17.3% in the presidential election – an historic record for the Costa Rican left, traditionally very weak. The FA also increased its legislative representation from one to 9.

However, the FA has nearly disintegrated in the legislature. Even before the elections, FA candidate José María Villalta asked FA candidate Jorge Argudelas, accused of domestic violence, to withdraw his candidacy. Argudelas obtained an injunction from the TSE and, once elected, joined the FA caucus despite the accusations. In February 2015, FA deputy and former Catholic priest Ronal Vargas resigned his seat, initially claiming health reasons but fellow FA deputy Edgardo Araya later confirmed rumours saying that the real reason was an accusation of sexual harassment. Vargas, alleging that he had been forced into resigning, later tried (unsuccessfully) to retake his seat. In March 2016, FA deputy Carlos Hernández was arrested after police received a domestic violence call. The legislature’s security department said that FA deputy Ligia Fallas’ office was used for ‘romantic encounters’ by her advisers on Saturday nights. In August 2016, Fallas and Hernández were excluded from the party’s internal communications. Some months later, party president and deputy Patricia Mora (the niece of Manuel Mora Valverde) accused Ligia Fallas of “lying with no shame” during a squabble between the two. In March 2017, Carlos Hernández finally left the party to sit as an independent. In May 2017, five FA deputies – Hernández (now independent), Fallas, Arguedas, Suray Carrillo and Gerardo Vargas Varela – disobeyed the party line and supported the election of evangelical Christian pastor Gonzalo Ramírez to the presidency of the legislature. The FA asked for Fallas and Arguedas’ resignations, criticized Vargas but forgave Suray Carrillo.

These scandals and internal conflicts badly hurt the party’s image, making it look far more like a clown car than a serious political alternative. The party was dealt another blow when its 2014 presidential candidate, José María Villalta, announced that he would not be the party’s presidential candidate for a second time – he would have been the FA’s strongest option. Instead, the FA chose deputy Edgardo Araya, a lawyer specialized in environmental law. Between 2002 and 2010, he led a local civic movement opposed to a Canadian open-cast gold mining project in Crucitas which was suspended by a court order in November 2010. In 2015, an administrative court sentenced the Canadian mining company Infinito Gold to pay $6.5 million for environmental damages.

The FA’s left-wing platform blamed the neoliberal policies of successive governments since the 1980s for persistent poverty, labour informality, inequality and economic imbalances. The main themes highlighted in the party’s platform included social inequalities and poverty, economic productivity, the internal market, decent employment, ‘fair commerce’, progressive fiscal policies, environmental sustainability, urban planning, social welfare, inclusive education, women’s rights and gender equality, deepening democracy and sovereignty. The FA is the most economically left-wing and socially liberal party in Costa Rica.

The early phenomenon of the electoral campaign was Juan Diego Castro, a loudmouth anti-establishment populist, often compared by both the local and foreign media to Donald Trump – a comparison he rejected but which does not seem to bother him. Castro was officially the candidate of the tiny National Integration Party (Partido Integración Nacional, PIN), a right-wing party which finished dead last in the last presidential election with just 0.15% (3,000 votes). The party is led/owned by Walter Muñoz, who was the party’s presidential candidate five consecutive times in every election since 1998. Only in 1998 did the PIN win enough votes to win a seat in the legislature (which went, of course, to Walter Muñoz).

Unlike Donald Trump, Juan Diego Castro is not a businessman or a political novice. Castro, who is from a wealthy coffee-growing family in Cartago province, studied law at the University of Costa Rica and was active in the far-left student movement in the 1970s. As a prominent lawyer, Juan Diego Castro represented then-PLN candidate José María Figueres Olsen in a defamation lawsuit against the authors of the book El caso Chemise, which claimed that Figueres had killed a young marijuana vendor during his father’s presidency. With Figueres as president, Castro became his Minister of Public Security.

In December 1995, armed police surrounded the Legislative Assembly and Castro forced his way in to meet with deputies and pressure them to approve amendments to the penal code. The event was very out of place in Costa Rica, although Castro later said it was not a show of force but just a way of indicating that the police was ‘at the orders’ of the legislature. After the incident, the Legislative Assembly – for the first time ever – adopted a censure motion against the minister, adopted by an overwhelming majority of 51 votes and supported by the two traditional parties at the time (the governing PLN and opposition PUSC), pushed by Antonio Álvarez Desanti, the president of the Legislative Assembly at the time. Despite the vote, Figueres decided to keep Castro in office – until he resigned in July 1996 (he later served as justice minister until 1997). As security minister, Castro was involved in a $4.6 million weapons contract with an Israeli company which the comptroller later described as being plagued with irregularities. Faced with pressure from the press and legislators to understand the details of the contract, the government controversially declared everything a ‘state secret” (the court later repealed the presidential decree, considering that only the legislature can declare something as a state secret). The contract cost half a million dollars to the state.

Outside of government since the late 1990s, Castro became a famous ‘star lawyer’ and ‘analyst’ on TV, commenting on high-profile legal stories while keeping his name ‘alive’. He provided free legal assistance in some of these high-profile cases, like a park ranger who was accused of murder. Castro’s legal clients included Borda Azul S.A., a former Costa Rican company owned by Hermes Navarro Vargas (former president of the football federation from 1999 to 2006) mentioned in the Panama Papers. In the 1990s, the company – facing two government investigations and a criminal complaint – hired the services of Mossack Fonseca to mislead Costa Rican authorities to continue receiving a tax credit for non-traditional exports and avoid paying taxes.

Like Donald Trump, Castro relishes picking fights with journalists and insulting them. At his candidacy declaration, he blocked access to journalists from the online newspaper El Mundo and apparently security staff had been given a list of pre-approved media and journalists. In 2016, Castro published his book Torturadores mediáticos (media torturers) in which he claimed to have been victim of ‘media harassment’ by certain journalists, ‘psychopaths’ who tried to ‘destroy him’. Some of the journalists and personalities mentioned by name in Castro’s 2016 books include Mauricio Herrera (minister of communications), Amelia Rueda (involved in the publication of the Panama Papers) and investigative journalists from the newspaper La Nación. When questioned by Amelia Rueda about his ties to Borda Azul, the company mentioned in the Panama Papers, Castro responded with what-aboutism: asking her unrelated questions about how she got money to buy offices, if she had contracts with the state, if she was going to sale her program and how much she reported in salaries to the CCSS.

During the presidential campaign, Castro has continued to attack journalists and make various outlandish claims. In January 2018, Castro claimed that female employees in the judiciary needed to ‘perform oral sex’ with magistrates to get a promotion – a vulgar claim made entirely on the basis of anecdotal ‘evidence’ he overheard from a classmate from law school. Around the same time, he also warned the president of the TSE “we’re watching you”, falsely accusing him of receiving a lavish monthly pension. Previously, he had also claimed that the TSE ‘permitted electoral fraud’ and claimed that PLN candidate Antonio Álvarez Desanti’s campaign was receiving money from the ‘Honduran mafia’, the Rosenthal family (see my post on last year’s Honduran elections for more details on the Rosenthal family’s criminal activities). Castro’s decades-old arch-nemesis is Antonio Álvarez. In a post-election interview, Castro explained that he has known him since they were in university in 1983, and that Álvarez immediately struck him as pretentious and stuck-up. They had several run-ins in later years, notably when Álvarez pushed the censure motion against him in 1995. He said that Álvarez was “crazy, he has a completely psychopathic personality structure, he’s a very dangerous guy”.

Like Donald Trump with the ‘fake news media’, Castro has picked his media rival: the leading national newspaper La Nación, a centre-right publication historically close to the business establishment. La Nación has published a series of articles and stories which have been highly critical of Castro, notably claiming that Castro’s rhetoric is anti-democratic and reminiscent of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela. La Nación even has a section entitled “what bothers Juan Diego Castro” (Lo que molesta a Juan Diego Castro), a compilation of their stories against the candidate – some of them valid, others more spurious (a part of his platform ‘similar’ to the FA’s 2014 platform). In reaction, in mid-January, Castro lashed out at the “psychopaths of the newspaper La Nación“, “that damned newspaper”, “media firing squad” and vowed that La Nación would stop circulating less than a year into his government (“No pasará un año de mi gobierno de que ese periódico impreso deje de circular”).

Castro’s campaign was extremely populist, promising a “government of national reconstruction” and to “really govern” – claiming that he offered solutions, not just diagnostics, to the country’s main problems and that only he had the courage to impose real solutions that other politicians are too scared to do. His campaign focused on ‘corruption’, with a Trump-like promise to clean up the waste and abuse in government. His official website’s “solutions” section lists apparent priorities: high-speed train in the Central Valley, ‘PoliCR: a single police force’, innovation in public procurement, reviewing the contract with Riteve (vehicular technical inspection), livestreaming of board of directors meetings, lowering spending on government advertising, limiting government travel abroad, empowerment of citizens in the fight against corruption, creating of a regulatory public body in public procurement, make the National Laboratory of Materials and Structural Models’ recommendations binding, creation of a ‘anti-corruption state agency’, modernization of the transportation ministry, work from home and long-term planning. It is striking how many of these ‘priorities’ are relatively minor, unimportant issues in the wider realm of things: a vehicular technical inspection contract, livestreaming board of directors meetings, government trips abroad and government advertising (both accounted for just 0.086% of government spending in 2017). Others are vague and are more generic aspirations than actual policy ideas: innovation in public procurement or empowering citizens against corruption.

Castro’s complete program – one of the shortest ones of all major candidates at 51 pages – was no more concrete than his website. He promised to control public spending by… making government 100% digital, changing the labour ministry’s name to ‘Ministry of Productivity’, making government spending more efficient, imposing new standards based on international best practices, creating his ‘anti-corruption state agency’, merging ministries and implementing a single ‘automatized, efficient and transparent’ system of public procurement. He proposed a VAT at 13% and a flat tax on corporate and individual income. Against unemployment, Castro said he’d work to create the conditions necessary for the private sector to create more and better jobs, notably with payroll tax exemptions for companies hiring and training low-skilled workers and simplifying the minimum wage system (currently set by occupational classification). Castro promised a mano dura (firm hand) against organized crime by vowing to send everyone with final judgments to jail, building new prisons and reducing impunity. While absent from his platform, Castro said that he favoured oil exploration (currently banned under a moratorium) and gold mining, accusing those who oppose it of being ‘eco-terrorists’ and ‘extremists’. Castro said he’d put order in the government by demanding the greatest transparency and accountability from civil servants.

Castro doesn’t care about hot-button societal topics and only provided vague, contradictory answers about same-sex marriage. While saying that, like many Catholic lawyers, he would defend “family values”, he stated – in legalese – that the IAHR Court’s decision is binding on the country, as long as the country is a signatory of the American Convention on Human Rights.

The four Christian evangelical parties ran their own candidates: Óscar López Arias for the peculiar disability rights-Christian right Accessibility without Exclusion Party (PASE), Mario Redondo for the Christian Democratic Alliance (ADC), Stephanie Campos for the Costa Rican Renovation (PRC) and Fabricio Alvarado for National Restoration (PRN). Most largely focused their campaigns on societal topics and Christian conservatism, vociferously opposed to abortion, drug legalization, sex ed guides, LGBT rights and so-called ‘gender ideology’. All four rejected the IAHR Court’s decision on same-sex marriage as a violation of Costa Rican sovereignty.

Fabricio Alvarado was the PRN’s lone deputy for the 2014-18 legislature. He is a former TV newscaster, evangelical preacher and Christian guitarist/singer, elected to the legislature in 2014. His YouTube channel offers a mix of his own Christian music covers, evangelical church sermons and his speeches in the legislature on topics like abortion, gender ideology and transgender people in prisons.

The PRN says that it is not an ‘evangelical party’ but is explicitly founded on Christian ethics and values, with its main objective being the ‘restoration’ of the traditional family as the basic nuclear institution of society. It laments ‘pathologies’ like family disintegration, drug addiction, child prostitution, consumerist materialism, political corruption and mediocrity and hedonistic libertine individualism as some of the main problems of society.

Fabricio Alvarado had the most thorough and complete manifesto of the four Christian right candidates. While social conservatism and hot-button societal issues were the basis of his appeal as a candidate and came to dominate his campaign, he was not a ‘single-issue’ candidate.

Fabricio Alvarado’s platform proposed a rather bizarre technocratic managerial government of ‘the best brains’, with standard-right right-wing proposals like cutting wasteful or unnecessary public spending, reducing operational costs, austerity measures (spending freeze or ‘control’) to reduce the debt and deficit, promoting entrepreneurship, attracting foreign investments or creating new free trade zones in the interior of the country. Nevertheless, he saw a key role for the state in reducing poverty, social assistance, healthcare and education. He proposed a ‘grand educational reform for the bicentenary’, supposedly based on the Finnish model (but without identifying many concrete ways to reaching that, besides better training for teachers and bilingualism). Fabricio Alvarado’s platform was ‘tough on crime’, claiming that the country is becoming a ‘criminal paradise’ and supporting tougher sentences. The PRN’s platform claimed that illegal immigration is collapsing the social security system, and proposed a one-year amnesty period before deporting illegal migrants. However, despite the above and a fairly well-documented and thorough platform document, Fabricio Alvarado was criticized for lacking clear positions on major political issues like the fiscal reform or corruption.

The PRN says that it has always “fiercely defended the most fundamental Christian values”, citing as examples thereof the ‘defence of life’, the ‘traditional definition of marriage’ and the ‘integral safeguard of the family’. Fabricio Alvarado promised the repeal the decree regulating IVF for being ‘illegal and immoral’ (it too came as a result of a IAHR Court decision), oppose abortion under any circumstances, strengthen religious freedom, oppose same-sex marriage and to reform the educational curriculum to instill “the value of human life” as a central concept of students’ socialization. He attacked ‘gender ideology’ – the new favourite boogeyman of Latin American social conservatives – and vowed to ‘eliminate’ it from education and public institutions for being discriminatory and contrary to “Costa Rican Judeo-Christian idiosyncrasy”. He defined ‘gender ideology’ as a doctrine which LGBT groups “promote, impose and ingrain” in education and public institutions to indoctrinate children. He explained that it is “impossible to accept that there are more than two genders; that these are divorced from sex at birth, that these can be interchanged at will, that they sustain new conceptions of marriage, that attack gestational life, that they shield themselves in sexual and reproductive health to achieve it, and, among many other causes, go from the search for respect to the promotion of [sexual] preferences, because it is contrary to the nature of the human being, with the principle of life, with the foundation of marriage understood as the ability to procreate naturally and the family seen as the institution that orders society.” In other words, ‘gender ideology’ here is an amorphous catch-all concept which covers every base from abortion to LGBT rights. Instead of ‘gender ideology’, Fabricio Alvarado said he would offer ‘comprehensive and truly inclusive proposals’ which attack discrimination for motives of sex, age, religion, ethnic and cultural reasons, sexual orientation and skin colour. Fabricio Alvarado said that he strongly supported ‘gender equity’ (the word used was, perhaps tellingly, equity rather than equality), but his vision of gender equity was markedly conservative and traditionalist: “gender equity implies a restoration of the family as the nuclear axis of society, a restored family in which the father and the mother interact in conditions of equity, […] with their children and other members of the family nucleus” (no mention of single parents, single men and women or obviously same-sex couples/families). Alvarado said in his platform that he would “fight radical and gyno-centric proposals” on gender equity because, he claimed, “radical and gyno-centric schemes see in the equity of difference a real war of the sexes”.

With his unambiguously social conservatism and Christian (evangelical) traditionalism, Fabricio Alvarado was ideally positioned to benefit from the unexpected religious/conservative backlash to the IAHR Court’s decision on same-sex marriage and gender identity in early January. While other candidates said that they disagreed with the court’s decision but would respect it (because it is legally binding), Fabricio Alvarado said that it was an unacceptable attack on Costa Rican sovereignty and the country’s fundamental (Christian) values. He said that, if elected, he would disobey the court’s decision and, if necessary, seek to withdraw Costa Rica from the Inter-American system (the IAHR Court, moreover, is physically headquartered in San José). As explained by Semanario Universidad, withdrawing from the IAHR Court on its own is not possible: Costa Rica would have to denounce the American Convention on Human Rights, which only two countries (Trinidad and Tobago in 1998 and Venezuela in 2012) have done. However, even denouncing the Convention would not release Costa Rica from the IAHR Court’s decision on same-sex marriage, because denunciations become effective one year after having been declared and they do not release a party from its obligations resulting from acts that have occurred before the effective date of denunciation. In any case, denouncing the American Convention would require the approval of the Legislative Assembly. Ironically, Fabricio Alvarado directly benefited from a 1985 IAHR Court opinion that held that Costa Rica needed to eliminate compulsory membership in the journalists’ association to practice journalism in the country: this allowed Fabricio Alvarado, who never completed his undergrad journalism studies, to become a journalist and TV newscaster with Repretel.

In one of his campaign ads, he said the first round (Feb. 4) would be the “definitive march which changes history” to “make our opinion binding” and “that this would be our referendums, the moment to show that Costa Rica is pro-life, pro-family and in favour of marriage between men and women”. He attacked the government for asking a ‘foreign organization’ and ignoring an entire people, “betraying our principles and values”; he added that he was sure that abortion was the next point on the government’s (hidden) agenda. Raising the stakes, no less than “our families, our children, our sovereignty, Costa Rica” were in danger.

The two other candidates were Sergio Mena of the small liberal New Generation Party (PNG) and John Vega of the far-left Trotskyist Workers’ Party (PT).


Antonio Álvarez Desanti of the PLN began as the favourite after his victory in the PLN convention in April 2017. Early polls showed him holding a significant lead over all other candidates, although his support was still relatively low in percentage terms and most voters remained undecided – the first sign that, like in 2014, the election would be decided by undecideds and that there was a large mass of volatile ‘floating voters’ up for grabs between all candidates, even those who weren’t registering strong support. Rodolfo Piza of the PUSC and the insurgent populist Juan Diego Castro fought for second place over much of the summer of 2017. Rodolfo Hernández of the PRSC appeared to be in fourth. In polls which included undecideds and declared ‘non-voters’, Antonio Álvarez often had less than 20% among the entire sample, although in polls of only decided voters, Álvarez remained over 30% until November.

CIEP-UCR tracking polls August 2017 – January 2018 (source: Semanario Universidad)

In the fall, the cementazo scandal topped local headlines, badly hurting the image and popularity of the main institutions and political parties but playing to the advantage of the unusual anti-establishment populist Juan Diego Castro. Castro and Álvarez were roughly tied in most reputable polls starting in November. According to the polls of the Political Studies and Research Centre (CIEP) at the University of Costa Rica (UCR), Castro’s support increased by 9% between their August and November polls (from 6% to 15%) while Álvarez’s support fell by 10% in the same period, from 25% to 15%. The cementazo scandal also hurt PAC candidate Carlos Alvarado, who had been polling up to 10% during the summer of 2017. His support fell to only 3% in the CIEP-UCR’s November 2017 poll, and just 4% in Opol Consultores’ December 21 poll (their numbers exclude undecideds). PRN candidate Fabricio Alvarado barely registered in the CIEP-UCR’s polls in 2017 (2-3%) and was in the 5% range in Opol Consultores’ polls.

In early January, Álvarez and Castro remained the favourites to qualify for the second round. In Opol Consultores’ Jan. 2-4 poll, Castro led by 1.4% (28.8-27.4, excluding undecideds) with Piza and Hernández in third and fourth respectively.

However, in the final month before the election, the tables turned in dramatic fashion. The PLN and the media’s unrelenting attacks on Castro and his own controversial comments and claims took their toll on Castro’s support. The IAHR Court’s decision on same-sex marriage on January 9 – this election’s real ‘October surprise’ – was followed by an immediate conservative backlash or ‘religious shock’. According to the CIEP-UCR’s January 2018 poll, the IAHR Court’s decision was very unpopular: two-thirds of respondents disagreed with it, very similar to the percentage who oppose abortion in cases of rape (68%) or civil recognition of same-sex couples (69%). Debates over societal issues like same-sex marriage, LGBT rights, gender and sex ed replaced corruption in the headlines. As previously said, Fabricio Alvarado (PRN) was ideally positioned to benefit from the conservative backlash to the IAHR Court’s decision. In a Jan 9-14 Cid-Gallup poll, Fabricio Alvarado stood at 9.6%, in fourth place behind Castro, Álvarez and Piza. The real surprise, however, came with the CIEP-UCR poll (Jan. 15-17), in which Fabricio Alvarado was in first place with 17% against 16% for Castro and 11% for Álvarez. With the ‘religious shock’, Fabricio Alvarado’s support had increased by an astounding 14% in just a month. This poll was confirmed by an Opol Consultores poll (Jan. 15-18), in which the PRN candidate was third with 18% (among decided voters), his support having increased by 10% in just a few days (Jan 9-11 to Jan 15-18). Later polling from Opol and the CIEP-UCR in the closing days of the campaign showed Fabricio Alvarado in first place and with steady support.

Among the other candidates, there were two major trends: Juan Diego Castro’s complete collapse, and Carlos Alvarado’s very late but rapid surge. In the Jan. 22-24 Opol poll, Fabricio Alvarado was first with 22.5% against 21.9% for Álvarez; Castro’s support fell to 17% while Carlos Alvarado stood at 8%. In the last CIEP-UCR poll before the election (Jan. 24-26), Fabricio Alvarado was stable at 16.9%, while Carlos Alvarado was within 2 points of second place: 12.4% for Álvarez and 10.6% for Carlos Alvarado. In the last Opol Consultores poll, Fabricio Alvarado’s support increased to 26% among decided voters, while Carlos Alvarado was within 3 points of second place, with 17.9% against 20.6% for Álvarez. Castro’s support collapsed to 8.6% in the final CIEP-UCR poll and 12.6% in the last Opol poll.

In short, the entire dynamics of the elections shifted completely in the space of just a few weeks. Fabricio Alvarado became the overnight favourite because of the conservative backlash to the IAHR Court’s decision, surging from about 5% in the polls before the ruling to over 15-20% afterwards. Juan Diego Castro, who had been depicted as one of the favourites alongside the PLN’s candidate, collapsed and by the end of the campaign was no longer even in the top 3. Perhaps even more spectacularly, Carlos Alvarado – the centre-left ‘government’s candidate’ who wasn’t on anyone’s radar because of the government’s unpopularity – suddenly surged into contention with less than two weeks to go before the first round. His support increased from around 5% to over 15% in little more than a week.


The results below are provisional results based on 94% of precincts reporting.

Turnout was 65.66%, the third lowest turnout in a first round presidential election after 1958 (64.7%) and 2006 (65.2%). Turnout was lower in the 2002 and 2014 presidential runoff elections, at 60.2% and 56.6% respectively. The decline and collapse of the old two-party system has also been accompanied by a sharp drop in average turnout rates. Turnout was around 80% in every presidential election between 1962 and 1998 (it dropped to 70% in 1998).


Fabricio Alvarado (PRN) 24.91%
Carlos Alvarado (PAC) 21.66%
Antonio Álvarez Desanti (PLN) 18.62%
Rodolfo Piza (PUSC) 16.02%
Juan Diego Castro (PIN) 9.52%
Rodolfo Hernández (PRSC) 4.95%
Otto Guevara (ML) 1.02%
Edgardo Araya (FA) 0.79%
Sergio Mena (PNG) 0.76%
Mario Redondo (ADC) 0.59%
Stephanie Campos (PRC) 0.59%
Óscar López (PASE) 0.38%
John Vega (PT) 0.20%

Legislative Assembly

PLN 17 seats (-1)
PRN 14 seats (+13)
PAC 10 seats (-3)
PUSC 9 seats (+1)
PIN 4 seats (+4)
PRSC 2 seats (+2)
FA 1 seat (-8)

ML 0 seats (-4)
PRC 0 seats (-2)
PASE 0 seats (-1)
ADC 0 seats (-1)

The election was a fitting conclusion to the most unpredictable, volatile and unexpected presidential election campaign in Costa Rica’s recent history. Christian evangelical candidate Fabricio Alvarado, the new front-runner since the IAHR Court’s January 9 decision, placed first with 25% of the vote. More unexpected, Carlos Alvarado, the candidate of the governing centre-left progressive PAC, finished in second place with 21.7% of the vote. The two Alvarados – unrelated – will meet in a nearly as unpredictable second round ballot on April 1, 2018. Antonio Álvarez Desanti of the PLN, one of the two ‘traditional parties’ which has dominated Costa Rican politics since the 1950s, finished in third place with 18.6%, the worst result in the PLN’s history and the first time that neither of the two ‘traditional parties’ place first and second. Rodolfo Piza, the candidate of that other ‘traditional party’, the PUSC, did relatively well with 16% of the vote, more than doubling his own result in 2014 (6%). Juan Diego Castro, trumpitico, after having been the subject of so many articles and op-eds in both the Costa Rican and foreign press, was undoubtedly the other major loser among the top candidates with a paltry fourth place finish just under 10% of the vote. Among the large cohort of minor also-rans, there were two other big losers: Otto Guevara and the Libertarian Movement, collapsing to just 1% of the vote in his fifth consecutive run for the presidency; and the left-wing Frente Amplio, one of the phenomenons of the 2014 elections, which collapsed back to its ‘usual’ sub-1% levels.

In the broader context of Costa Rica’s political and party system, the 2018 election appears – initially – to be very significant. It confirms, if anyone was still unconvinced, that the old ‘two-party/bloc’ system which characterized the country’s politics between the late 1950s and 2002/2006, is dead and buried. The PLN and PUSC, the two parties of the ‘old system’, finished in third and fourth sharing 34.6% of the vote between themselves, compared to 35.7% in 2014, 50.8% in 2010, 44.5% in 2006, 70% in 2002 and 92% in 1998 (and elections before that). The ‘new party system’, which remains extremely difficult to define, is an open and fragmented multi-party system characterized by rather extreme volatility, a large pool of ‘floating voters’ and unstable short-term electoral coalitions. In this new system, presidential second rounds – unheard of until 2002 – are probably here to stay. The 2018 presidential election was more fragmented than ever before: the first place winner’s plurality was the lowest ever, at just 25%, compared to 30.6% and 38.6% in 2014 and 2002 (the only two other occasions since 1951 in which no candidate won over 40% in the firsr round). Like in 2014, four candidates won over 10% of the vote. For the first time ever, the top two parties don’t include the PLN or PUSC (or its predecessors). In fact, both parties qualified for the runoff were created in the 21st century – the PAC in 2000, the PRN in 2005.

Paradoxically, and contrary to pre-electoral expectations, the new Legislative Assembly will be slightly less fragmented than the previous one. Seven parties won seats, compared to 9 in 2014 and 8 in 2006 and 2010. Still, the largest party – still the PLN – holds just 17 out of 57 seats, the smallest plurality caucus to date.

The main winner of the first round was, of course, Fabricio Alvarado. The 43-year old legislator, evangelical preacher, newscaster and Christian singer placed first with 25% of the vote in the first round. Given polling over the last few weeks, this outcome was not unexpected: Fabricio had been polling in first place consistently for about a week and half and held the critical last-mile momentum. Still, even if not completely surprising, the result is no less groundbreaking. The PRN had hitherto been a minor right-wing evangelical party, counted as part of a bigger ‘Christian bloc’ with other like-minded minor parties. The PRN was founded in 2005 from a split in what had been the main evangelical party in the country, the PRC. It won only one seat in 2006, 2010 and 2014. It won 4% of the vote in the 2014 legislative elections, although the PRN’s presidential candidate four years ago – the party’s founder and leader, Carlos Luis Avendaño, received just 1.3% of the vote (about 27,700 votes). Basically, a single event catapulted Fabricio Alvarado into the lead amidst a very fragmented field and volatile electorate. He benefited from the late campaign’s focus on hot-button wedge issues, where national opinion is markedly conservative (anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage). On the basis of the unexpected salience of societal issues – the core of his platform and campaign – he built and mobilized a coalition of evangelical Christians, non-evangelical social conservatives and other dissatisfied voters. He won over 505,000 votes – a nearly 1725% increase on the PRN’s presidential vote in 2014!

Fabricio Alvarado’s success in Costa Rica was obviously caused by a perfect storm, but is perhaps not a one-off in a broader Latin American context. Evangelical Christians are a growing political force, with clear political ambitions (and an organizational and financial muscle to back them up), in other Central American countries like Guatemala but also in Brazil (where they are already an established and sought-after political force) and Colombia (where they showed their importance with their major role in the victorious No campaign to the 2016 plebiscite). Evangelical Christians’ interaction with the political systems in Latin America vary – either within large non-evangelical parties or with their own evangelical parties – but Fabricio Alvarado’s success in Costa Rica may mark a path for future success for other evangelical Christian political entrepreneurs in the region: mobilizing a broader base of social conservatives or religious voters, beyond an evangelical Christian base. But that base needs to be ‘activated’ with wedge social issues like abortion, gender or LGBT rights.

Polling from ‘Opol Consultores’ since May 2017 (as % of decided voters)

The relative success of Fabricio Alvarado’s opponent in the runoff, Carlos Alvarado, was far more unexpected and the product of a very last minute surge. Nobody had given the candidate of the unpopular governing party much of a chance and, indeed, Carlos Alvarado was polling single digits less than two weeks before the first round. His success is perhaps an even better example of the extreme volatility and unpredictability of this election. In Opol Consultores’ poll released on Jan. 19, which had Fabricio gain 10 points in five days, Carlos Alvarado was still only polling 5.6% (of decided voters). In Opol’s next poll, released January 24, did Carlos Alvarado begin gaining support rapidly – 8.2% of decided voters, a gain of 2.6% in five days. In that same pollster’s penultimate poll, released on January 28, Carlos Alvarado gained another 2.6% and breached the 10% barrier (10.8%). In the CIEP-UCR’s last poll, which was in the field between January 24 and 26, Carlos Alvarado’s support had increased by 4.6% from its last poll on January 15-17. He was the only candidate whose support increased by more than the margin of error in that poll, in which undecideds increased from 27% to 36.5% (a very unusual and bizarre surge in undecideds so close to the election). In that poll, Carlos Alvarado was within 1.8% of second place. Opol’s last poll, released on February 1, also showed a massive last minute surge for the PAC’s candidate: his support increased by 7.1%, the most of any candidate, from their last poll (Jan. 25-27). He was at 17.9% among decided voters, within less than 3 points of second place.

The PAC in general does seem to have last-minute surges (2006, 2010, 2014). In this specific case, it quite likely that there was a social liberal/secular backlash to the social conservative/religious backlash – Carlos Alvarado was the only clearly socially liberal candidate (who stood a chance). A PLN deputy-elect noted that “the government was Fabricio’s best campaign manager, and Fabricio was the PAC’s best campaign manager” (he also went on to note, reminiscent of George Wallace in 1958, that people didn’t care about security or the economy and only wanted to hear about gay marriage).

In discussing the volatility of voters’ choices during the final month of the campaign, it is also worth considering how the volatility of the campaign as portrayed by the polls influenced the candidates and parties’ strategies and tactics. Most of the back-and-forth attacks and negative press were focused on the candidates who were seen, in early January, as the favourites: Álvarez (PLN) and Castro, distracting attention away from other candidates. Castro attacked his arch-nemesis Antonio Álvarez, while Álvarez and the leading newspaper (the ‘establishment’ La Nación) attacked Castro. Rodolfo Piza was less of an ‘offensive’ candidate, although he did get angry in the final debate, particularly with PRSC candidate Rodolfo Hernández. Given Castro’s polling collapse in January, it is obvious that these attacks were successful (the rest of the damage was likely self-inflicted, from Castro’s strange and controversial comments or outlandish claims). Álvarez’s polling didn’t collapse as dramatically, but his standing in the polls gradually weakened over the course of the campaign, as has tended to happen with PLN candidates in recent elections (like 2006 and 2014). On the other hand, the two candidates who did end up making it to the next round, the two Alvarados, weren’t the targets of any sustained attacks or negative publicity during the last stretch of the campaign (besides perhaps criticisms of Fabricio Alvarado’s social conservatism and attacks on the IAHR Court). Because nobody in early January expected that Fabricio or Carlos Alvarado would make it all the way to April, they remained blank slates without any obvious skeletons.

Results of the PLN in presidential elections since 1953 (source: La Nación)

The main loser was Antonio Álvarez Desanti of the PLN. Álvarez had entered the race in 2017 as one of the favourites, despite anemic polling numbers from the beginning, and was still seen as likely to get a spot in the runoff even after Fabricio’s surge. He was the candidate of a party with a long history in Costa Rican democracy: the PLN was in power for 36 years of the last 69 years, most recently between 2006 and 2014. Until 2002, even at its lowest ebb the PLN won over 40% of the vote. It suffered from the decline and fall of the two-party system, with a bad result in 2002 (31% and 42% in the runoff) but recovered with former president Óscar Arias Sánchez in 2006 (who remained popular enough to elect his favoured successor in 2010). In 2014, hurt by the collapse of the two-party system and the unpopularity of outgoing president Laura Chinchilla, the PLN suffered its worst ever defeat, winning 29.7% in the first round before withdrawing from the second round faced with certain defeat. Although the PLN did well in the 2016 local elections, the party is clearly a shadow of its former self. Its support in wealthier urban areas is low, and its support – like in 2014 – now tends to be concentrated in the poorer coastal areas. It lacks a defining ideology or even a defining political project: it has become a de-ideologized, vaguely centrist or centre-right, old party which doesn’t really stand for anything anymore and has mostly been getting by on tradition, bland centrism and a declining (and likely aging) old core electorate. Álvarez Desanti’s campaign was the target of many attacks, and while he responded in kind to these attacks (particularly against Castro), his campaign was bland, boring and unexciting. When the IAHR Court decision created the ‘religious shock’ which boosted Fabricio Alvarado, Álvarez dithered and was unable to respond. After having come out against same-sex marriage and marching in December 2017 ‘for the family’ and against ‘gender ideology’, he said that he would respect the IAHR Court’s decision even if he personally disagreed with it. That may have been the most reasonable standpoint, recognizing the binding nature of the IAHR Court’s decision on the country, but such legalistic arguments are unlikely to convince a fired-up electorate. Antonio Álvarez, the man who had been dreaming of becoming president for over 15 years (since at least 2001), led the PLN to its worst ever defeat. Álvarez received 18.6% of the vote or 378,000 votes compared to 610,600 votes in the 2014 first round (the previous record low). Suffering two consecutive ‘historic defeats’, these results likely portend a long-term decline of the PLN.

Álvarez Desanti was rather noble in defeat – he took full responsibility on his name for the PLN’s historic defeat. Of course, his political career is most likely over (at least for now), so he didn’t have much to lose in taking responsibility. The PLN will need to do what it clearly failed to do after its defeat in 2014: soul-searching to reinvent itself, with a ‘new generation of leaders’ (rather than old names like Óscar Arias, José María Figueres Olsen etc.) although that’s obviously much easier said than done. In a first postmortem of his defeat, Álvarez stated the obvious: they didn’t see the ‘religious shock’ and Fabricio coming.

Somewhat paradoxically given the PLN’s historic defeat, the candidate of the other ‘old traditional party’, Rodolfo Piza of the PUSC had a pretty good election. The PUSC was destroyed by corruption scandals against two of its former presidents between 2002 and 2006, and the PUSC collapsed to less than 4% of the vote in the 2006 and 2010 elections. In 2014, Piza improved the party’s results to 6% (123,600 votes) and grew the party’s caucus in the legislatures to 8 seats. This larger legislative presence and alliances with other parties has allowed the PUSC to increase its political influence in the legislature. Rodolfo Piza didn’t make it to the runoff, but unlike with Álvarez that wasn’t always a realistic option to begin with in the final month of the campaign. In a post-election interview with La Nación, Piza said he was very satisfied with the PUSC’s performance, underlining how the party’s support had increased significantly from 2014 and how it had expanded its electoral base. As the other traditional party, the PLN, seems to be in a state of long-term decline, the other traditional party, the PUSC, which had seemed to be dead after 2006, may slowly be making its way back.

The calderonista splinter, the PRSC, did not have any apparent effect on the PUSC. Rodolfo Hernández, the presidential candidate of the PRSC, faded out of the spotlight in the final weeks of the campaign and won only 5% of the vote in the end. He had placed in the top four until Fabricio’s surge in January, but fell to sixth place in the first round.

Another of the main losers of the first round was trumpitico, Juan Diego Castro. Castro had been one of the favourites in the election – for much of the campaign – and led the polls until early January, before quickly collapsing. The main reasons for his collapse have been noted above – his opponents and critics’ attacks were successful, perhaps convincing potential supporters that his ‘Trumpian’ style was dangerous in a country which prides itself on its stable democracy and pragmatic politics, while his own controversial or downright bizarre statements added to the damage. Moreover, the ‘religious shock’ after the IAHR Court’s decision reduced the salience of corruption and security, two issues which Castro’s campaign had focused on. Castro peaked too early meaning that he attracted scrutiny and criticism which Fabricio and Carlos Alvarado – who peaked ‘just in time’ – didn’t.

Castro’s reaction to his defeat was strange. His ‘concession speech’ – which came early – was long, bizarre and he appeared to be quite possibly drunk. He accepted his defeat, but seemed to blame non-voters for his defeat and imply that by not voting they were complicit in the country’s problems. He took the opportunity to attack his arch-nemesis, Antonio Álvarez, calling him ‘the most perverse of candidates’ and claiming that he was desperate and trembling in fear because he wasn’t ‘showing face’ (at the time that Castro spoke, it still appeared that Álvarez would make it to the runoff on the basis of early results from less than half of precincts, and he hadn’t made any public appearances yet). However, in a ‘tell-all’ post-election interview with the tabloid Diario Extra, Castro appeared to be quite satisfied with his overall performance. First and foremost, he took credit for and great pleasure in Antonio Álvarez’s defeat, saying that “I am very satisfied with my work that this man has been absolutely buried, not only with bags of Chinese cement but for his greed, his hypocrisy and for being a liar” and adding that he has basically destroyed Álvarez’s childhood dream of becoming president. Castro, in his typical ‘no filter’ style, said that “Toño is a loser, the only thing he has won is having a wife with money”. Castro continued by saying that “I have made a great contribution to the country, I destroyed Desanti, I must be remembered as a Facebook hero […]”. In addition to destroying Álvarez Desanti and Óscar Arias (“who wanted to put him as president”), he took credit for destroying the smaller parties: “another sub-product that my work gave to this country, I destroyed the Ariases, I destroyed Otto Guevara completely, has no chance to be a candidate again, I destroyed the Broad Front and other little ones”. He also said that he destroyed all the other small parties (PT “doesn’t have anything”, PNG “I disappeared it”/”Sergio Mena is unbearable”), but regrets destroying the ADC because Mario Redondo is an honourable man.

However, in that same interview, Castro made clear that he was very angry at the PIN, accusing the small party which had endorsed his candidacy of being the most difficult thing for his campaign – even more than Toño’s attacks – and of stealing money from his presidential campaign. He explained that the PIN didn’t do their work for him on election day – they didn’t give out food, programs, flags and they changed the t-shirts (“instead of having my photo ‘vote for Juan Diego’ they put the one for the deputies”). He warned that he would sit down with the PIN’s leadership (Walter Muñoz, the party’s owner and newly-elected deputy) and be very clear with them. Castro said that “at first many said that Juan Diego Castro had bought the PIN and that I took advantage of them, but rather the PIN took advantage of me”. After that interview, Castro continued dumping dirty laundry on the party which had endorsed him. He held a Facebook Live in which he said that the PIN sabotaged his campaign and that “the fraud we had expected from other parties was within our party”. He was accompanied by a defeated PIN legislative candidate who had filed a criminal complaint against PIN leader Walter Muñoz for signing a contract which suspiciously transferred 11 million colones ($19,300) to the account of someone suspected of being one of Muñoz’s relatives (same last name). In his Facebook Live, Castro also said that he had given 50 million colones ($88,000) of his own savings to the campaign and that Muñoz didn’t want to recognize that money. He said that he would not allow Muñoz to keep ‘my 50 millions’, “you are going to pay me and I am going to unmask you Dr. Muñoz”.

Castro took credit for the catastrophic defeats of Otto Guevara (Libertarian Movement, ML) and Edgardo Araya (FA). Otto Guevara’s fifth – and perhaps last – presidential candidacy ended in absolute disaster for his party, winning just over 1% of the vote and 20,000 votes compared to over 233,000 (11%) in 2014 and nearly 400,000 (21%) in 2010. As explained above, Guevara further destroyed his political credibility and reputation with his implication in the cementazo scandal, in which he is accused of serving as a ‘bridge’ helping his ally, corrupt Chinese cement importer Juan Carlos Bolaños access other powers and institutions. Compounding the disaster, the ML lost all its seats in the Legislative Assembly, where it had been represented since 1998. The ML’s treasurer told La Nación that the party is dead and that it should seek its de-registration from the TSE. With massive accumulated debts, no legislative representation and no chance of getting public expense reimbursement, he claims that the ML has no way forward. Otto Guevara, the party’s líder máximo, disagrees and he is not even ruling out a sixth presidential candidacy himself in 2022. On the left, the FA, which had won 17% in the 2014 presidential election, collapsed back to its ‘usual’ levels of support – that is, less than 1%. The FA has turned out to be a flash in the pan, which collapsed into internal chaos and controversy since 2014. The only silver lining for the FA, unlike with the ML, is that it saves a single seat in the legislature: the party’s 2014 presidential candidate and former deputy (2010-2014) José María Villalta was elected in San José province, where the FA list won 4.9% of the vote in the legislative election.

Fabricio Alvarado’s ‘religious shock’ completely overwhelmed and devoured the other parties of the ‘Christian bloc’. On the presidential ballot, the candidates of the other three Christian parties – Mario Redondo (ADC), Stephanie Campos (PRC) and Óscar López (PASE) – were completely marginalized, winning 0.6%, 0.6% and 0.4% of the presidential vote respectively. Granted, those parties had also done poorly on the 2014 presidential ballot (PRC 0.8%, PASE 0.5%). More to the point, Fabricio and the PRN devoured the Christian bloc in the legislature, formed by five deputies from four parties in 2014. This year, of the four parties, only the PRN won seats (14 of them no less). The ADC, PRC and PASE lost all their seats. Gonzalo Ramírez, the outgoing PRC president of the Legislative Assembly, even admitted that he didn’t even vote for the PRC’s presidential candidate Stephanie Campos and instead voted for Fabricio. Stephanie Campos quit the party just four days after the first round.

In the legislative elections, the PLN remained the largest party but with only 17 seats – the smallest ‘majority caucus’ ever and the PLN’s worst result on par with 2002 (-1 from 2014). The PRN underperformed Fabricio, but it still won the second-largest caucus: 14 seats, up from just one in 2014 (Fabricio himself). The PAC won 10 seats, a loss of 3 seats compared to 2014, a respectable performance. The PUSC increased its seat count to 9, up one and continuing its slow climb back: 5 in 2006, 6 in 2010, 8 in 2014 and now 10 in 2018 (still far from the 19 it won in 2002 or 27 in 1998). Only two smaller parties won seats: pushed by Juan Diego Castro, the PIN will make its return to the legislature with 4 seats after a 16 year absence (the PIN won only one seat in its history, in 1998). Walter Muñoz, the PIN’s owner, will return to the Legislative Assembly (he was last there from 1998 to 2002). As noted above, Juan Diego Castro, who comes out of the presidential election as a loser (with the silver lining that he has crushed his arch-enemy’s childhood dreams), is very angry about this and feels that he was ‘used’ by Muñoz. Indeed, Walter Muñoz is the one who gains the most from Castro’s presidential candidacy without having really done anything to ‘earn it’ besides giving his party’s endorsement to Castro. Rodolfo Hernández’s PRSC won two seats, one each in San José and Alajuela provinces.

What is already certain is that whoever is elected president on April 1 will lack a legislative majority and will be supported by a party which is not even the largest party in the Legislative Assembly. Fabricio Alvarado would have the support of 14 out of 57 deputies (PRN), while Carlos Alvarado would have the support of 10 out of 57 deputies (PAC). As in the last legislature, inter-party alliances will be required to control the presidency of the Legislative Assembly and form majorities to pass legislation. In ideological terms, the new 2018-2022 legislature is markedly more right-wing than the previous one: ‘the left’ (PAC and FA) will hold only 11 seats, compared to 22 in the last term. The ‘Christian bloc’ has been reduced to a single party, the PRN, but it will hold 14 seats rather than five. The ‘traditional’ and ‘Christian’ rights – PRN, PIN, PRSC and PUSC – will hold 29 seats, an absolute majority, up from, 17 in the previous legislature (Christian bloc, ML and PUSC). On societal issues like same-sex marriage, there will likely be a large socially conservative majority – while the PLN is more internally divided or diverse on some societal issues and tends to support compromise solutions like civil unions, it opposes same-sex marriage and any changes to the conservative status quo on abortion laws. Counting the PLN with a social conservative majority, as many as 46 of the legislature’s 57 deputies may hold socially conservative views on issues like abortion or LGBT rights. Prior to the election, La Nación had looked at the opinions of the main parties’ candidates (except the PRN) on three major issues – fiscal reform, public sector employment reform and same-sex marriage. On same-sex marriage, only a majority of PAC and FA candidates supported it (and a small minority of ML candidates) while it was opposed by most/all PLN, PUSC, PRSC and PIN candidates (many PIN candidates had no position). Given the greater window of possible policy responses, such consensus is more unlikely on pressing economic matters like the fiscal reform or public sector working conditions, as La Nación‘s pre-election investigations reported. On fiscal reform, Carlos Alvarado could find a majority with the PLN, PAC and FA on a ‘progressive’ solution (progressive taxation – i.e. tax increases), while Fabricio Alvarado would look to his party and the PUSC and potentially PIN and PRSC for a majority on a ‘conservative’ solution (reducing spending rather than increasing taxes).

La Nación has short blurbs about the 57 likely winners as well as their stances, when available, on fiscal reform, public sector employment reform and same-sex marriage.

The national-level voting figures for the legislative elections aren’t available yet. In any case, we can already tell that there was a significant amount of vote-splitting, even when just looking at seat counts: the PLN, finishing third in the presidential election, won the most seats, while the PRN, finishing first in the presidential election won the second-most seats. Vote splitting in Costa Rica is called the quiebre de voto (vote break/breakdown). La Nación looked at the degree of vote splitting by canton in a post-election special. The PRN underperformed Fabricio in every single canton. Vote splitting between the two ballots was highest in the coastal provinces of Limón and Puntarenas where Fabricio won 42.4% and 35.4% respectively compared to 23.2% and 25% for the PRN in the legislative elections there. In 2014, the Christian parties overperformed on the legislative ballot, winning a combined total of 13% compared to only 2.6% in the presidential election. On the other hand, although they had less vote splitting, the PLN overperformed Antonio Álvarez in many cantons, especially in the province of Alajuela. For the PAC, about 30% of Carlos Alvarado’s voters didn’t vote for the PAC on the legislative ballot, so the party underperformed its presidential candidate in 79 cantons. The PUSC also had less vote splitting, although with some sharper provincial variations. These differences are understandable. The PLN is reduced to a ‘core’ electorate which tends to be more loyal, hence less likely to split their vote between the two different ballots. The PLN’s legislative candidates were well-known – mayors, former cabinet ministers and vice-ministers – and provided the party with a more solid base in the legislative elections. For example, in Alajuela province, where the PLN’s top candidate was Roberto Thompson, the PLN mayor of Alajuela since 2011, the party won 21.8% of the vote in the legislative elections compared to 18.2% for Álvarez. The PAC’s founder and moral reference, Ottón Solís, could not run for reelection so the party lost a popular figure and its candidates were less well-known or prominent except for two former cabinet ministers (Victor Morales and Welmer Ramos). Besides Carlos Avendaño and maybe Ivonne Acuña (one of Fabricio’s vice-presidential candidates), none of the PRN’s legislative candidates were very well known. In fact, many of them were completely unknown paper candidates who weren’t supposed to win.

Analysis of the results

The CIEP-UCR’s election polls including a constant representative panel of 930, allowing us to get an idea – on the basis of a panel – of how voting intentions shifted during the campaign and where the last moment surges for the two finalists came from.

Unsurprisingly, the CIEP’s main conclusion was that voting intentions were extremely volatile throughout the entire campaign: 6 out of 10 persons who decided to vote changed candidates during the campaign. They differentiated between four types of voters: classic undecideds, who remained undecided until the end (from October 2017 to January 2018 in the panel); undecided ‘swingers’ who changed candidates during the campaign (60% of voters); ‘repentent’ undecideds who had a candidate in October but were undecided at the end (10%) and decided voters, who had one candidate from the beginning and stuck with him (30%). The graphic below shows the shifts in the panelists’ voting intentions between Oct. 2017 and Jan. 2018.

The result is a complicated and messy piece of abstract (colourful) art. Undecideds provided the base for Fabricio and Carlos Alvarado’s surges in January: both candidates drew much of their new support from panelists (voters) who had been undecided in December 2017 if not also in previous months. To a lesser extent, they also gained support from the other candidates – Fabricio gained from all the other right-wing candidates (Piza, Hernández, Castro and Álvarez) in relatively similar proportions, while Carlos gained from these same candidates too (seemingly, mostly from Piza and Castro).

Before that, in November and December 2017, Castro’s surge came predominantly from undecideds/NOTA/non-voters and to a much lesser extent from Álvarez (and not so much from the other candidates). Over the last month, about half of his supporters have defected back to being undecided or to the other candidates (led by Fabricio and Carlos Alvarado, and in smaller quantity back to Álvarez).

Even the undecideds have been undecided about being undecided! In each successive panel, it appears as if half of original undecideds made up their minds on a candidate, but this was simultaneously compensated by a whole new batch of previously-decided voters becoming undecided and dropping their candidate. For example, between October and November 2017, Álvarez lost a substantial number of supporters to the undecideds, while in December 2017 he gained or re-gained a substantial amount of support from undecided voters. This may somewhat belie the usual claim that the PLN has one of the most loyal, if reduced, core electorate although Álvarez’s support remained relatively stable throughout the campaign (with a gradual downwards track). In the last month, the undecideds who stopped being undecided seem to have decided on a candidate, whereas in previous months, a good number of undecideds just dropped out of the potential electorate (to NOTA/abstention). As aforementioned, the two Alvarados have been the top beneficiaries of undecideds deciding, although Álvarez also convinced a respectable number of them.

Reasons for voting by candidate (source: CIEP-UCR)

The CIEP-UCR’s first post-election poll, released on February 14, included some new details about vote choice and motivations in the first round. 57% of voters voted for who they did because they liked their candidate’s ideas, while 24% of voters said they voted as they did to ‘defend the traditional values of Costa Rica’. Supporting or opposing the government wasn’t a major preoccupation: only 8% overall for the former, and just 3% for the latter (would love to meet the 10% of Álvarez voters who supported him because they ‘wanted to support the government’s candidate’). Another 8% voted for their candidate because they wanted to vote for a party other than the PLN, PUSC or PAC. A majority of Carlos Alvarado, Álvarez, Piza and even Castro voters supported their candidate because they liked his ideas. However, 54% of Fabricio’s voters supported him because they wanted to defend traditional values – a clear proof of the impact of the post-IAHR Court ‘religious shock’ on Fabricio’s campaign. The 29% of Fabricio’s voters who said they supported because they liked his ideas aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive with those who supported him to defend traditional values: Fabricio’s most clearly articulated and publicized ideas were about defending these traditional values. 1 in 10 Fabricio voter backed him because they wanted to vote for a candidate from a party other than the PLN, PUSC or PAC – an indication that he also received some more generic protest votes. 25% of Juan Diego Castro’s voters supported him for that reason – just to vote for someone who wasn’t from one the ‘main parties’, a generic protest vote. Interestingly, about a quarter of Antonio Álvarez’s voters also supported him to defend traditional values.

The CIEP-UCR’s February study also revealed some details about the demographic or sociological profiles of the two Alvarados’ supporters in the first round (among panelists). Fabricio’s support had no gender gap, but Carlos Alvarado had a significant (over 5%) gender gap, performing better among women. Both candidates received their lowest support among older (55+) voters, who we can imply likely supported the candidates from the two traditional parties (PLN and PUSC) instead. However, Carlos Alvarado had a much larger age gap than Fabricio: he did notably better with younger (less than 35) voters while performing below average with middle-age (35-54) and older (55+) voters, whereas Fabricio did roughly as well with both young and middle-aged voters. In any case, one of the biggest determinants of support for both candidates was education: Carlos won over 30% of panelists who had post-secondary education (complete or incomplete) compared to only about 15% who had a high school education and 10% who had only a primary school education. The education gap was not as big with Fabricio, but no less important: he did best among voters who highest qualification was high school, while his lowest support was among university-educated voters. This education gap was also reflected in the CIEP-UCR’s previous studies about societal topics: support for the IAHR Court’s decision, same-sex marriage or abortion in cases of rape was significantly higher among the most educated voters. Fabricio had much stronger support among those who dislike the government and think the country is on the wrong track, while Carlos had much stronger support among those who like the government and think the country is on the right track. Unfortunately for him, 65% of all panelists think the country is on the wrong track and 43% have a bad/very bad opinion of the government’s job (28% regular and 28% good/very good).

Unsurprisingly, there was also a strong religious voteSemanario Universidad reported, on the basis of the CIEP-UCR’s panel, that 70% of Fabricio’s voters were evangelicals compared to 13% of Carlos’ voters. Another 20% of Fabricio’s voters were Catholic and only 8% were atheists or agnostics. 52% of Carlos Alvarado’s voters were Catholic and 29% were non-religious. 76% of the PLN’s voters and 86% of the PUSC’s voters were Catholics, only 6% and 10% of their voters respectively were evangelicals. There are no official religious statistics collected by the government in Costa Rica but polls suggest about 13-17% of Costa Ricans are evangelicals, compared to a bit less than 70% who are Catholic.

The most recent Costa Rican elections – since the end of the two-party system – have had an interesting inland/coastal dynamic. Below are the results of the presidential election by province, divided between the coastal provinces (on both the Caribbean coast – Limón – and Pacific coast – Puntarenas and Guanacaste) and the inland provinces in the urbanized Central Valley. They are based, as with other data cited in this post, on preliminary results from Feb. 4 from 94% of precincts.

Costa Rica: PRN 24.9, PAC 21.7, PLN 18.6, PUSC 16, PIN 9.5, PRSC 5 (t/o 65.7)

Coastal provinces

Guanacaste: PRN 25.4, PLN 23.5, PUSC 15.7, PAC 15.2, PIN 11.2, PRSC 5.3 (t/o 59.2)
Puntarenas: PRN 35.4, PLN 18.4, PUSC 13.7, PAC 12, PIN 11.5, PRSC 4.8 (t/o 55.5)
Limón: PRN 42.4, PLN 17.6, PAC 10.6, PIN 10.4, PUSC 9.3, PRSC 4.6 (t/o 57)

Central Valley

San José: PAC 23.5, PRN 22.8, PUSC 18.1, PLN 18, PIN 9, PRSC 4.6 (t/o 68.4)
Alajuela: PRN 26.7, PAC 21.8, PLN 18.2, PUSC 15.2, PIN 8.8, PRSC 5.5 (t/o 67.9)
Heredia: PAC 27.3, PRN 21.2, PUSC 18.1, PLN 17.8, PIN 8.1, PRSC 3.7 (t/o 71.6)
Cartago: PAC 26.4, PLN 20.2, PRN 15, PUSC 15, PIN 10.9, PRSC 6.4 (t/o 71.6)

Expats: PAC 38, PUSC 23.1, PLN 17, PRN 11.2, PIN 5.6, FA 1.8, PRSC 0.9 (t/o 13.9)

This inland/coastal divide was already very clear in the first round of the 2014 presidential election. PAC candidate Luis Guillermo Solís had placed first in the four inland provinces of the Central Valley, with over 30% of the vote in each, but finished third or fourth in the coastal provinces behind the PLN (which placed first in all three), FA and ML (third in Limón and Puntarenas) winning less than 15% in all the coastal provinces. This same pattern was repeated this year, with Fabricio Alvarado doing best in the coastal provinces – especially Limón where he won a massive 42% and Puntarenas where he won 35% – while winning in only one of the four inland provinces (Alajuela). The PAC won over 20% of the vote in all four inland provinces, over 25% in Heredia and Cartago, while remaining below 20% in the coastal provinces with a slight improvement on its 2014 result in Guanacaste (15%) but falling even lower in the two other coastal provinces (12% and 10%). As in 2014, the PLN’s support – at lower levels – remained fairly evenly distributed, performing close to its national average. Nevertheless, 2018 is the first election in which the PLN has not won a single province. It came closest in Guanacaste, where it won over 40% in 2014 (and is now down to just 23.5%), and Cartago, where it finished second with 20%.

The inland provinces of the Central Valley are more urbanized, densely populated and economically developed. The coastal provinces are much less densely populated and ‘peripheral’ – in the sense that they are less economically developed and poorer. According to the INEC’s 2017 national households survey, the incidence of multidimensional poverty is 17% in the central planning region, which includes the Central Valley’s urban area, compared to 37% in the Huetar Caribe planning region (Caribbean coast) and 40% in the Huetar Norte (inland north of Alajuela and Heredia provinces bordering Nicaragua). According to the 2011 census, the percentage of the population with at least one ‘unsatisfied basic need’ (a common way of measuring poverty in Latin America) was 33% in Guanacaste, 38% in Puntarenas and 41% in Limón – compared to 23% in San José, 27% in Alajuela, 23% in Cartago and 20% in Heredia. Politically, the coastal provinces – post-2002 – have tended to more supportive of ‘populist’ parties and candidates like the FA, ML and now PRN, while the centre-left PAC has a very Central Valley-centric outlook.

The map below shows the results by canton (second-level administrative subdivision equivalent to a municipality or county). Fabricio Alvarado is yellow, Carlos Alvarado is orange, Antonio Álvarez is green (in very light shades) and Rodolfo Piza is blue (again in light shades). In summary, Fabricio won at least one canton in every province except Cartago, the only province where he did not finish either first or second. Carlos Alvarado, one the other hand, only won cantons in the four inland provinces and was completely shut out again in the inland provinces. Álvarez won predominantly rural cantons with smaller populations in every province except Limón and Heredia. For the first time since 2002, the PUSC placed first in a canton – three of them to be precise, all bordering the central canton of San José (the capital).

Compared to 2014, when Solís basically swept the entire Greater Metropolitan Area (GAM) in the Central Valley, Fabricio made significant inroads in the economically developped and urbanized regions of the Central Valley. Fabricio placed first in the central canton of San José with 24.3% of the vote against 22.3% for Carlos Alvarado and 18% for Álvarez. A look at the results by district (the third-level administrative subdivisions within cantons), however, shows that Fabricio performed very well in the poorer urban districts of the capital like Merced (29% NBI in 2011; 26.5% PRN 18.9% PAC), Uruca (46% NBI; 28.2% PRN 20.7% PAC) and Pavas (27% NBI; 30.7% PRN 18.4% PAC). However, he did quite poorly in the wealthier urban districts of the capital like Mata Redonda (11% in fourth), San Francisco de Dos Ríos (15.8% in fourth), Zapote (17.4% in fourth) and Carmen (11% in fourth). Carlos Alvarado and Rodolfo Piza did better in the capital’s wealthier districts, finishing in first or second place. This pattern – of Fabricio doing best in poorer urban neighbourhoods and Carlos Alvarado or Piza doing better in wealthier areas – was replicated throughout the GAM. Of the 30 cantons with the highest ‘social progress index’, the PAC won 21 and the PRN won 2 (the PLN won 4 and the PUSC won 3); of the 30 cantons with the lowest social progress index, the PRN won 27 and the PLN won the other three. In 2014, the PAC had done best in cantons with the highest HDI and lowest poverty, while the PLN – although it has the most class-cutting electorate – tended to do better in the poorer cantons with a lower HDI.

By way of example, Fabricio Alvarado won 34.8% of the vote in the canton of Alajuelita (San José), the poorest canton in the GAM (ranked 68 on social progress index, 31% NBI). In the cantons of Santa Ana (San José), Escazú (San José) and Belén (Heredia), which have the three highest HDI scores in the country, Piza (PUSC) placed first with about 25-27% of the vote with Carlos in second and Fabricio far behind in a poor fourth place with less than 15% of the vote. This is a substantial shift in the PUSC’s vote: in 2014, it had not done very well in these affluent urban/suburban cantons and had instead done best in poorer cantons in the coastal provinces (more historically socialcristiano). In the affluent cantons of the GAM, Piza likely picked up voters who had supported the PAC, PLN or ML in 2014. In other affluent cantons in the GAM/Central Valley (with the highest HDI scores), Carlos Alvarado (PAC) finished first with Fabricio often a distant third or fourth – like in San Isidro (Heredia, 4th on HDI ranking: 29.3% PAC 20.2% PUSC with only 14.8% for the PRN in fourth); Heredia (5th HDI: 29.6% PAC 20% PRN) or Atenas (Alajuela, 6th HDI: 27.7% PAC 20% PUSC 19.1% PRN). Carlos Alvarado’s best canton was Montes de Oca (San José), where he won 35.4% of the vote against 21.7% for Piza (Fabricio finished first with only 12%). The canton is home to the main campus of the University of Costa Rica, the country’s largest university. More strangely, Carlos Alvarado’s second-best canton was the rural mountainous canton of Dota in San José province, where he won 32% of the vote. His third-best canton was the affluent canton of San Ramón in Alajuela province, where he received 32% against 21.2% for Fabricio Alvarado. San Ramón is home to a smaller satellite campus of the University of Costa Rica.

Rural areas in Costa Rica tend to be significantly poorer than urban areas: the incidence of multidimensional poverty in rural areas in 2017 was about 36% compared to 18% in urban areas according to the INEC’s 2017 national household survey. Fabricio Alvarado did much better in these more remote, poorer rural cantons while Carlos Alvarado did significantly worse. Antonio Álvarez (PLN), however, also did well in some (not all) poorer rural cantons, notably in Guanacaste province. In the province of Heredia, for example, Fabricio only won the canton of Sarapiquí, which is outside the Central Valley (separated by mountains) and ranks 72nd on HDI (45% NBI in 2011). He won 43.2% of the vote in that canton, against 15.8% for Álvarez and 13.3% for Carlos Alvarado. Similarly, in the province of Alajuela, Fabricio did best in the northern border cantons which are outside the Central Valley: 40.5% in Upala (11% for the PAC), 42.1% in Guatuso (6.3% for the PAC) and 33% in Los Chiles, which ranks last on HDI (12.6% for the PAC).

Fabricio Alvarado did best in the coastal provinces – especially Puntarenas and Limón, his two best provinces. The exception is the northwestern coastal province of Guanacaste, where he won by only a narrow margin over Antonio Álvarez – 25.4% to 23.5%. In 2014, the PLN had won over 40% of the vote in that province. I am unsure why Fabricio didn’t do as well in Guanacaste than in the other provinces or why it is a PLN ‘stronghold’, besides perhaps that it is a major tourist province and is therefore somewhat wealthier than the two other coastal provinces (the cantons of Hojancha and Nicoya, which voted PLN, rank 18th and 28th respectively on HDI). In Puntarenas province, Fabricio Alvarado did very well in the poorest remote cantons in the south of the province – Buenos Aires (36.1%), Osa (40.3%), Quepos (35.5%), Golfito (38.7%) and Corredores (43.6%). The only canton which he lost in the province of Puntarenas is the tourist destination of Garabito, which voted for Antonio Álvarez with 24.7%.

Fabricio’s best province was Limón, where he received a massive 42.4% and easily won in every canton. Limón province, located on the Caribbean coast, is Costa Rica’s poorest province. It also has, perhaps not coincidentally, the highest number of evangelical churches per capita. It already was the best province for evangelical parties in previous elections: in the 2014 legislative elections, the PRC, PRN and PASE won a total of 19.4%. Fabricio’s best canton in the country was Matina (Limón), where he won nearly half of the vote (49.5%). In 2014, the three Christian evangelical parties had already won 26.7% of the vote in the canton in the legislative elections. It is also one of the poorest cantons in the country, with half of the population having at least one unsatisfied basic need (NBI) in 2011 and ranking third from last on HDI. Fabricio also won over 45% in the cantons of Siquirres and Guácimo in Limón province.

Turnout is significantly lower in the poorer coastal provinces than in the inland provinces. Turnout was lowest in Puntarenas (55.5%) and Limón (57%). It was highest in the provinces of Cartago and Heredia, which both had 71.6% turnout. Turnout was over 67% in San José and Alajuela provinces, but below 60% in Guanacaste.

Costa Rican expatriates have had the right to vote in presidential elections since 2014. They need to register to vote at their nearest consulate at least four months before the elections, and they may only vote in-person at a consulate (or other voting location) with their valid national ID. Therefore, registration is low and turnout is very low: 21.9% in 2014, 13.9% in 2018. Those who did vote, both in 2014 and 2018, heavily supported the PAC which won over 40% of the expat vote in 2014 and 38% in 2018. Most votes (1,787 out of 4,409) were cast in the United States, where 25 locations were set up.

Towards the April 1 runoff

The April 1 runoff election between the two Alvarados appears to be just as unpredictable and volatile as the first round. It will be Costa Rica’s third presidential runoff election in its history after 2002 and the aborted 2014 runoff. Neither of those two previous runoffs over us any hints or indications as to how this runoff may go: this one opposes two candidates from ‘non-traditional’ parties unlike in 2002 (although the PAC might have become a traditional party after 16 years…) and dynamics should therefore be expected to be quite different. In both 2002 and 2014, the anti-liberacionista vote coalesced around the non-PLN candidate – Abel Pacheco (PUSC) in 2002 and Solís (PAC) in 2014, on the latter occasion the anti-liberacionista vote was so massive that the PLN’s candidate Johnny Araya saw the writing on the wall and ran home. This year, the PLN is not in the runoff so the issue of the anti-liberacionista vote is now moot.

On the basis of the first round and the national mood, Fabricio Alvarado begins the runoff as the favourite. He has many things going for him. He is the de facto ‘opposition candidate’ against the ‘government candidate’ and although supporting or opposing the government wasn’t a major factor in the first round, the government’s popularity remains rather low and many voters dissatisfied with President Solís may be tempted to vote against the PAC’s candidate. Carlos Alvarado, on the other hand, did significantly better with voters who are optimistic about the country’s direction and like the incumbent government – however, such voters are not a majority of the electorate. Carlos Alvarado’s challenge is to make sure that the runoff does not become about opposing the outgoing government. Fabricio Alvarado’s social conservative views on same-sex marriage, ‘gender ideology’ or abortion are shared by a majority of the electorate, and the other major defeated candidates – Álvarez, Piza, Castro, Hernández and Guevara – had socially conservative stances on these issues as well, although they did not prioritize or publicize them as much as Fabricio. Fabricio’s path to victory is to ensure that these ‘culture wars’ issues remain as salient in March as they were in January, and that they motivate the other candidates’ voters to vote for him, the social conservative candidate, against the progressive socially liberal candidate. Over 75% voted for candidates with socially conservative views on Fabricio’s core ‘culture wars’ issues. However, as we saw, ‘defending traditional values’ was a key voting motivation only for Fabricio’s voters (and about a quarter of Álvarez’s voters). Therefore, relying on ‘culture wars’ may be insufficient for Fabricio, and this is why he also needs to prove his credibility of his weaker points – fiscal and economic issues, which according to the CIEP-UCR’s last poll are still topping voters’ concerns (although the poll didn’t explicitly ask for moral issues).

Both candidates are trying to build the ‘widest possible coalitions’ before the runoff, to give the appearance of some kind of ‘national unity’ behind their candidacies. Both candidates have contacted the candidates and senior leaders of the other parties, even the minor parties (because every vote counts). Both candidates are actively seeking the endorsement of a high-profile first round candidate or a senior party leader. So far, the most important candidates and leaders are enjoying the attention being paid to them and raising the stakes. Only more minor candidates have given clear endorsements – Edgardo Araya and the left-wing FA have called to vote against the PRN (obviously); Sergio Mena of the small ostensibly centrist liberal PNG has endorsed Fabricio, although this has not gone over well with everyone in his own party (even one of his own former running mates); Mario Redondo, the fairly well respected ADC candidate, unsurprisingly endorsed Fabricio while the PRC president of the legislature Gonzalo Ramírez called on his party to support Fabricio (he already voted for him on Feb. 4 himself…).

The PLN and PUSC will not give their endorsements that easily, and wish to drag it out as long as possible (especially the PLN). After the first round, fake news, false rumours and silly speculation about what the PLN and PUSC’s leaders will do in the runoffs swirled. There were rumours, later denied, that both the PUSC and PLN were ready to announce their support for Fabricio. The PLN’s secretary-general said that Álvarez told him he’d personally support Fabricio… before Álvarez denied saying that, and the PLN secretary-general needed to backtrack and dig his way out of his hole. Carlos Alvarado has been edging a bit closer to the PLN, holding meetings with former presidents Laura Chinchilla and Óscar Arias during the third week of February. According to Chinchilla, the main obstacle to an agreement with the PAC is the party’s long-standing hostility towards the PLN – she called on Carlos to “make the gesture that many liberacionistas are waiting for” (humbly apologizing for how the PAC treated the PLN in the past. Carlos later said that President Solís’ first 100 days report back in 2014 – in which he blamed the previous PLN administration for corruption and mismanagement – was an obstacle to reconciliation with the PLN. During this time, the PAC’s candidate received the endorsement of three former PLN cabinet ministers. Antonio Álvarez, rather tellingly, finds himself marginalized in the contacts between the PAC and the PLN – instead, he appears to be ‘flirting’ with Fabricio instead, holding a cordial meeting with him, noting agreements on some of Álvarez’s campaign ideas as well as the friendly personal relation he has with the PRN candidate.

On February 20, the PLN’s executive committee officially called on its supporters to vote with ‘full freedom of conscience’ for the candidate they feel is best for the country’s interests – in other words, no endorsement.

In his post-election interview with La Nación, Piza said that he would be making some sort of endorsement soon and said that he had already been contacted by Carlos (and would also happily meet with Fabricio). He has now sent both candidates a document with 85 of his proposals to hear out their opinions of these issues, and probably to help him weigh his options and decide whether to endorse a candidate. He emphasized the need to be reasonable and find some common grounds on more controversial topics, like sex ed, to ensure continuity in public policies. It is difficult to see which way Piza is leaning – that is probably the point.

As for Juan Diego Castro, true to his style, his views on the runoff election seem to be all over the place. On election night, Juan Diego Castro spoke quite early and, by the sound of his voice, was probably drunk. Since he spoke early, he thought that his arch-nemesis Toño Álvarez had made it to the runoff… so he drunkenly said that “hopefully the anointed of the Lord wins… hopefully Fabricio wins… hopefully Fabricio with the guitar and with the tararalala mamushka tumushka tarushka tatatataca gets us out of the quagmire… if Fabricio doesn’t win this country will go mamushka takatushka mororusca” (yes he made those random sounds).

Upon finding out, to his great pleasure, that his arch-nemesis was out, Juan Diego Castro’s views on the runoff did a complete 360. In his tell-all interview with Diario Extra, he completely contradicted his drunken election night concession speech, saying that once the “gay marriage bubble passes”, “the country can not believe that a president at the tip of a guitar makes the country prosper, they have to be aware” and clarifying that “it horrifies me that our people believe that Fabricio, his deputies and his spiritual guide can get us out of the crisis”. Juan Diego met with PAC moral reference Ottón Solís over coffee (this was later confirmed by Solís) and very clearly opened the door to endorsing the PAC because “we can not leave the country in the hands of Don Fabricio and those who are close to him”. However, he later posted on his Facebook that he would never vote for the PAC. So, back to step one.

Fabricio had a pretty bad time after his first round success, needing to do a lot of damage control. In sum, what happened is that Fabricio has begun to get the scrutiny and media attention that the other candidates received before the first round. Fabricio’s party, the PRN, surged out of nowhere in the legislative elections and has won 14 seats, up from just one (don Fabricio himself) in 2014, and will be the second largest party in the new legislature. So the media naturally started seeking out interviews with some of the PRN’s new deputies-elect and the results were… Sarah Palin-esque (at best). In an interview with a local paper, a new PRN deputy in Guanacaste was unable to answer the vast majority of specific questions about bills and laws, giving answers like “I can’t tell you in detail”, “I can’t give you a concrete answer”, “I can’t give you an answer right now”, “I need to study it better” etc. and at best “ah, this I have heard about a bit”. CRHoy interviewed a young new deputy from Limón and the result was basically like that 2008 Sarah Palin interview about the bailout. She was not quite sure what she means by ‘the market’, said that on infrastructure ‘we need to discuss it’, saying that “on the fiscal deficit, right now I don’t handle it very well” (and then giving some nonsense), completely flubbed an easy question about ‘strategies to reach agreements’ by giving some weird stump speech (I am young) and saying that her first priority will be to ‘put a stop to this gender ideology’. However, she apparently has little of what ‘gender ideology’ supposedly is besides ‘a heap of trash’, and talked about sex ed guides (which are issued by the ministry and not the legislature). When asked about what she’d do to improve local security, she just said point blank “maybe we won’t fight corruption, but at least people feel safe about visiting a park with their family and sit down to eat”…

After this last interview, the PRN banned its newly-elected deputies from speaking to the press. But even here, they screwed it up: contacted by La Nación, a new deputy for Alajuela said that he was not authorized to answer questions from the press or give details about his background, and that another newly-elected deputy for Heredia had asked the others to send their resumes yesterday. So, in other words, the PRN didn’t even check the resumes of their candidates before the elections and is only doing it after the elections. Even they did not expect to win so many seats: they, as in previous years, only counted on a single seat for party leader Carlos Avendaño in San José and ran evangelical pastors, paper candidates and nobodies everywhere else.

As if that wasn’t enough, a new PRN deputy for Limón denied publishing a virulently homophobic post on his Facebook which cited the Bible on sin and its consequences (death) accompanied with an image called ‘this is sexual diversity’ equating homosexuality to paedophilia, incest, zoosexuality, polygamy, sibling sex, sex with minors. Contacted by La Nación, he denied personally posting the image and then dug himself into a hole with some incomprehensible nonsense about gay people (I am respectful of that inclination… I love them because Christ loves them… although I don’t like ‘that’ because from my principles and values it is sin).

The issue of ‘gender ideology’ and sex ed remained salient in the week following the election. In the north of the country, parents protested and forced the closures of over a dozen schools preventing nearly 3,000 students from going to school because of the sex ed guides of the education ministry which are – they claim – indoctrinating kids with ‘gender ideology’, promoting abortion (where Costa Rica has very rigid laws which still ban rape victims from getting an abortion), inciting homosexuality and forcing kids to touch each other in class (yeah, kids don’t do that regardless…). Some parents in these protests carried repulsively homophobic posters about ‘killing homosexuals’. The sex ed issue is almost literally a complete non-issue: the actual sex ed classes begin in grade 10 and are optional, because parents have the right to withdraw their kids from the class. There are no sex ed classes in primary school, where the healthy living classes just teaches uncontroversial basics about health and respect (hygiene, physical activity, respectful relationships, changes in the human body, basic human reproduction).

The education minister handled the issue remarkably well and calmly, organizing a meeting with ‘concerned parents’… but it turned into a circus. La Nación reported that Marisela Rojas, Fabricio’s education adviser, pretended to be a blind mother to sneak in to the meeting with the minister. In addition to that, it was later revealed that Marisela Rojas, who founded and managed a private school, didn’t pay her teachers and has been suspended from the teachers’ college (guild) – i.e. banned from being a teacher – since 2004. And to say that she was seen as Fabricio’s education minister in waiting… After the “my future education minister pretended to a blind mother to sneak in to a meeting” episode, Fabricio said that he “cannot control everything that our supporters say”. Controversially, his campaign wants to tightly control all media statements and interviews, so anyone who wants to talk to him must fill in an interview request form online. After protests from journalists, the form no longer asks journalists to list the questions they would ask of the PRN candidate.

To ‘moderate’ his controversial stance on leaving the IAHR Court, Fabricio now proposes to hold a referendum about it. This would delay the hot potato for quite a while, and then potentially allow a President Fabricio Alvarado to quietly wash his hands of the issue if voters reject leaving the IAHR Court/Inter-American System. It is questionable whether such a referendum would be legal (as constitutional jurisprudence holds that referendums cannot be held on limiting individuals’ constitutional rights) and, as I explained in my profile of the PRN candidate, the Convention states that a country denouncing the Convention does not exempt it from responsibilities acquired while it was still party to it.

According to Opol Consultores, Fabricio Alvarado holds an early but sizable (though not insurmountable) lead: +9% (including undecideds) in a first poll taken between Feb. 8-9 (37.6-28), down to +6.7% in a second poll (Feb. 15-16: 36.1-29.4). Among decided voters, Fabricio leads the last poll by 10 points – 55.1 to 44.9. However, the CIEP-UCR’s post-election poll (Feb. 6-8) gave a statistical tie between both candidates – Fabricio on 45%, Carlos on 42% with 13% undecided. As the story of the first round, retold above in great detail, shows, however – Costa Rica’s new politics are extremely volatile and unpredictable, and with over a month left before the runoff election on April 1, the name of the next president of Costa Rica remains very much up in the air and undefined.

Honduras 2017

Presidential, congressional and local elections were held in Honduras on November 26, 2017.

Electoral and political system

Honduras is a presidential republic, much like the other countries in Central or Latin America.

The President of Honduras is directly-elected to a four-year term by simple majority (FPTP), alongside three presidential designates (vice-presidents). Under the 1982 constitution, Honduras had an usually strict and rigid lifetime ban on presidential reelection: not only did article 239 ban anyone who had held the presidency from being president or a presidential designate, it also stated that “any person who violates this provision or advocates its amendment, as well as those that directly or indirectly support him, shall immediately cease to hold their respective offices, and shall be disqualified for ten years from holding any public office” – this ban on reelection was an ‘entrenched clause’ under article 374. In addition, article 42(5) provided for the loss of citizenship (political rights) for “inciting, promoting, or abetting the continuation in office or the reelection of the President of the Republic” and article 330 of the penal code made promoting or executing acts violating this constitutional ban a crime punishable by 6 to 10 years imprisonment.

In April 2015, the constitutional section of the Supreme Court, ruling on a challenge  from former president Rafael Callejas and 15 deputies (most from the ruling party), unanimously declared constitutional articles 239 and 42(5) to be ‘inapplicable’ and article 330 of the penal code to be ‘unconstitutional’ for “restricting, diminishing and distorting fundamental rights and guarantees established in the constitution and human rights treaties” (including political rights, freedom of expression etc.). This is therefore the first election in years in which an incumbent president is seeking reelection.

Some readers will undoubtedly remember that a previous president’s alleged attempts to have the constitution amended to allow for presidential election was what led to the controversial 2009 coup removing President Manuel Zelaya from office. Zelaya had not changed the constitution, but merely attempted to hold a non-binding poll on holding a referendum to convene a constituent assembly, which may have considered reelection. Articles 239 and 374 were used as post-hoc justification for the coup by its supporters. Many of the same people who had supported Zelaya’s removal on these grounds in 2009 now support presidential reelection.

The April 2015 decision from the five-member constitutional section of the Supreme Court was very controversial, rejected by all major opposition parties. Regardless of the validity of its legal arguments, its own legality is dubious because one of the five magistrates rescinded his own signature a day later, breaking unanimity and requiring the full court to hear the case. However, the section’s secretary ignored him and Congress rushed to have the decision published in the official journal (which is unusual).

The decision was rendered by magistrates who had been hand-picked by incumbent President Juan Orlando Hernández (JOH) in December 2012, when he was president of Congress, after Congress (under his control) dismissed four of the five members of the constitutional section for having declared a ‘police purification’ law unconstitutional. Congress had no constitutional power to remove members of the Supreme Court, until it granted itself that right in 2013.

honduras_departments_namedThe unicameral Congress (Congreso Nacional) has 128 deputies elected for four-year terms by department. The distribution of seats between the 18 departments is, in theory, roughly proportional to their population, with each department electing at least one deputy – but the seat distribution between departments has remained unchanged since 1989. Cortés department (pop. 2.1 million) elects 20 deputies while Francisco Morazán department (pop. 1.5 million) elects 23. Since 2005, deputies are elected by open-list proportional representation with panachage, with each voter having as many  votes as there are seats and allowed to split their votes between candidates of different parties. Votes for candidates from the same party are pooled, and seats are first allocated by party using the largest remainder method of proportional representation with a Hare quota. This website explains the electoral system and its history in greater detail.

Honduras also renewed its 20 seats in the Central American Parliament (Parlamento Centroamericano, Parlacen). Voters do not vote separately for them, their distribution is based on the results of the presidential vote.

There are 298 mayors (and an equal number of vice-mayors) and 2,092 aldermen (regidores) in the country’s 298 municipalities. Mayors, on a ticket with a vice-mayor, are elected by simple majority (minus one electoral quotient). Aldermen are distributed based on the mayoral vote, using the largest remainder method with a Hare quota. Each municipality has either 4, 6, 8 or 10 aldermen based on their population (i.e. all municipalities with over 80,000 people and departmental capitals elect 10).

According to Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2017, Honduras is a partly free country – with a score of 46 (best = 100), the fourth lowest in all of the America after Cuba, Venezuela and Haiti. The report writes that “institutional weakness, corruption, violence, and impunity undermine its stability” and “journalists, human rights defenders, and political activists face significant threats, including harassment, surveillance, detention, and murder”. Honduras scores very poorly on ‘functioning of government’ and ‘rule of law’, reflecting widespread corruption, a weak, politicized judiciary and police/armed forces corruption and abuses. Many constitutionally guaranteed fundamental rights, including freedoms of assembly, association and the press are not respected and systematically violated by authorities. The press is not free and ownership is concentrated in the hands of a few powerful business elites. Investigative journalists working on corruption or organized crime face threats, intimidation, violence and arbitrary legal decisions.

Honduras’ Supreme Court (Corte Suprema de Justicia) has 15 magistrates elected by Congress (with a two-thirds majority) for seven-year terms, from a list of names chosen by a nominating committee which is supposedly independent and representative (members from the court, the bar, the human rights commissionner, private enterprise, academia, civil society and workers). The judiciary, however, has long been politicized and typically seen by the two traditional parties as something to be partitioned as ‘spoils’ – the usual formula having been to split it equally between the two parties with one extra seat to the governing party (8-7). The nominating committee has been roundly criticized for lacking independence, transparency and professionalism. In January-February 2016, Congress elected a new Supreme Court, with 8 members close to the ruling National Party and 7 members close to the opposition Liberal Party, but because of the greater multi-party dispersion of Congress since 2014, it took five rounds (and, according to some allegations, bribing a few opposition lawmakers). Of the 15 new magistrates, two failed the polygraph test, three are ‘mentally retarded’ (and only 3 have above average intelligence, however they measured that) and only 5 got a score over 50 on an evaluation scale.

Honduran elections are, to a certain extent, free and somewhat fair but often marred by a number of irregularities like vote buying, harassment of international observers by immigration officials, problems with the voter roll (the national registry of persons) and potential fraud in the transmission of local tally sheets. The Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) is often accused of bias towards the ruling party and general incompetence.

Until recently, Honduras had the highest homicide rate in the world (86.5 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2011). Since 2011, the homicide rate has consistently fallen, reaching 59.1 in 2016 and projected to fall below 50 in 2017. Nevertheless, along with Venezuela and El Salvador, Honduras still has one of the highest homicide rates in the world.

Historical background: Entrenched elite corruption

Honduras was the original “banana republic” at the turn of the last century, leaving a lasting impact on elite structures and political practices.

In contrast with other Central American countries, Honduras lacked a strong land-owning oligarchy because most of its principal export industries (mining, bananas) were foreign-owned. ‘Traditional’ local landed elites were involved in cattle ranching, coffee, cacao, internal trade and – most importantly – politics. With the increase in cattle exports after World War II and growing pressure for agrarian reform, the traditional elites became more economically and politically active. They have historically controlled Honduras’ two traditional parties – the National Party (Partido Nacional) and Liberal Party (Partido Liberal) – rent-seeking clientelist organizations. Since the 1980s there have been few, if any, ideological differences between the two parties (with the potential exception of the ‘odd’ Manuel Zelaya). In the 1990s, both National and Liberal presidents implemented neoliberal economic reforms – sponsored by the IMF and the United States – including trade liberalization, privatization and reducing government expenditures. Politics have been about access to patronage and the other spoils of powers, with little regards for the formal constitutional rules (as repeatedly evidenced since 2009), and the state has always been seen as a source of legal and physical protection for the elites. With the decline in traditional exports since liberalization the 1990s, self-enrichment through public resources and contracts has become key to their power and wealth. The last three presidents have come from the ‘traditional elite’ – Manuel Zelaya (2005-2009) and Porfirio ‘Pepe’ Lobo (2010-2014) were cattle ranchers from Olancho department in eastern Honduras, while incumbent president Juan Orlando Hernández is from a coffee family in the interior western department of Lempira.

The traditional elite shares power with newer ‘transnational elites’ (term used by InsightCrime’s report on elites and organized crime in Honduras) – a small economic elite of European or Middle Eastern (Levantine) origin (locally known as los turcos or ‘the Turks’) – families like the Facussés, Rosenthals, Canahuatis, Nassers and the Kafies. They have established control over most of the modern private sector in the country (the prime beneficiaries of neoliberal economic reforms) – banking, media, telecommunications, agro-industry, retail, maquiladoras, food services and tourism. They also became active in politics. Liberal president Carlos Flores (1998-2002) was the nephew of the late business magnate Miguel Facussé. Yani Rosenthal, who recently pleaded guilty to money laundering charges in US federal court, was minister of the presidency under President Manuel Zelaya; his father, Jaime Rosenthal, was a prominent Liberal politician (vice president 1986-1989) and businessman.

Up until the mid-twentieth century, the military served as the instruments of caudillos in civil wars and coups (and, like elsewhere in Latin America, most leading political leaders were military men). During Tiburcio Carías Andino’s 16-year dictatorship (1933-1949), the military was professionalized and institutionalized – and began acting as such. A 1956 military coup was the first in a series of coups (1963, 1972, and ‘internal coups’ in 1975 and 1978) and the military ruled the country directly, with only a single interruption, between 1963 and 1982. During this period, the military became an independent elite in its own right, controlling key sectors of the state (customs, airports etc.) and building a vast business empire (airlines, telecommunications, cement, food retailing, banking etc.). In power, the military worked with the traditional political elites in the National Party (the Liberal Party, until 1980, was perceived as anti-militarist), giving rise to a new ‘hybrid elite‘ – politicians connected to the military, officers becoming business tycoons and financial partners, military children married with the children of the traditional elites. After 1980, the military oversaw a controlled transition to civilian rule, which culminated in the election of Roberto Suazo Córdova, a Liberal, to the presidency in 1982.

This democratic transition, however, coincided with the overthrow of the Somoza regime by the Sandinistas in Nicaragua (1979) and the beginning of the civil war in El Salvador. Honduras became a strategic platform for US interests in Central America in the 1980s. US military aid to Honduras increased from $3.3 million to $31.3 between 1980 and 1982 and totalled $333 million in the 1980s. Honduras became the base of operations for the Nicaraguan Contras, trained and supplied by the US military and the CIA. Even after the democratic transition, defence (and, by extension, foreign policy) remained under military control, commanded by Brigadier General Gustavo Álvarez Martínez between 1982 and his ouster by a clique of rival senior officers in March 1984. Álvarez Martínez, educated in Argentina and the School of the Americas, was a hardliner who supported US policy in Central America and declared the country to be in a “war to the death” against Nicaragua. Álvarez Martínez chaired the Asociación para el Progreso de Honduras (Aproh), a quasi-fascist organization which included prominent conservative businessmen and politicians (its vice president was Miguel Facussé). Álvarez Martínez was ousted as commander of the armed forces by rival officers in 1984, who opposed his moves to streamline the military hierarchy and his close ties to the US.

Since the days of the military regime in the 1970s, senior officers have been implicated in criminal activities (drug trafficking) and enjoyed close ties to leading criminals, most notably Juan Ramón Matta Ballesteros, a major Honduran drug trafficker arrested in 1988. Matta Ballesteros connected the Medellín cartel (Colombia) and Mexican drug cartels (Guadalajara cartels and others) and had close connections to senior officers in the Honduran army, including Colonel Leónidas Torres Arias, the former head of military intelligence (who connected him to Panama’s Manuel Noriega). During the 1980s, Matta Ballesteros’ fleet of planes carried American weapons and supplies south to the Contras and returned north with drug shipments for his Mexican partners – and the CIA and DEA turned a blind eye to Matta Ballesteros and the Honduran military’s activities as long as Honduras remained useful to US security objectives in Central America. He built a billion-dollar business empire, gained a large popular following and rubbed shoulders with the elite. His luck ran out and connections faltered in the late 1980s, accused by the US of the murder of a DEA agent, and he was abducted by Honduran and American authorities in Tegucigalpa in 1988 and sent to the US via the Dominican Republic. His arrest led to massive anti-American protests in Tegucigalpa, during which an annex of the US embassy was burned down.

The military’s overt power declined with the end of the Central American conflicts and US involvement. The military lost its businesses and state agencies, and a civilian police force was finally reestablished in the 1990s. Nevertheless, retired officers and their families have remained powerful as a bureaucratic elite and the military – reframed as Honduras’ premier crime-fighting force, has regained in power and political influence under the National Party administrations since 2010, particularly under incumbent president Juan Orlando Hernández.

Honduras is a major drug transit country between South America and Mexico/the United States. Drug shipments are handled by foreign (Mexican, Colombian) criminal groups or local ‘transporters’ – groups like the Cachiros, the Valle Valle and Handal Pérez families. Honduras is not only a major hub for drug trafficking, but also for arms trafficking and other, less lucrative, criminal activities – drug dealing, extortion, kidnapping, human smuggling. Economic changes, destruction caused by Hurricane Mitch, deportations from the US and realignments in drug trade dynamics led to a crime boom in Honduras beginning in the late 1990s, worsening in the first decade of the twenty-first century.

Criminal organizations, particularly the foreign drug cartels and local drug traffickers/transporters, do not stand on their own in a separate sphere. They have strong ties to security forces and the political and economic elites. In exchange for safe passage of their merchandise and money laundering, they fund candidates and develop close ties to politicians.

Ties between criminals and elites are perhaps most obvious at the local level, but it extends to national politics. José Miguel ‘Chepe’ Handal Pérez, arrested in 2015 and accused of coordinating drug shipments for the Sinaloa Cartel and Los Zetas, was an aspiring Liberal politician and his brother, Esteban Handal, was defeated in the 2000 and 2010 Liberal presidential primaries. Even more explosively, former president Pepe Lobo’s son Fabio was arrested in 2015 and recently sentenced to 24 years in US prison for conspiring to import cocaine into the US. Lobo used his father’s position to connect drug traffickers to corrupt police and government officials. During Fabio Lobo’s trial, Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga – one of the leaders of the Cachiros – claimed that he had given up to $300,000 to Pepe Lobo’s 2009 presidential campaign in exchange for ‘protection’, public contracts and non-extradition. He also said that he had bribed Tony Hernández, the president’s brother, in return for settling debts owed to a Cachiros-owned company which had done roadwork for the government.

Recent background: Honduras since 2005

Manuel Zelaya and the 2009 coup

oustedhonduranpresidentzelayaholdsnewsc4kvyxbt0xslLiberal candidate Manuel Zelaya, a cattle rancher from Olancho department, narrowly defeated Pepe Lobo Sosa in the 2005 presidential elections. At the time, there appeared to be few ideological between the two candidates. However, Zelaya, in spite of his elite background, turned out to be ‘rogue element’. In a departure from the hardline anti-crime approach of his Nationalist predecessor, Zelaya supported the rehabilitation of violent offenders – although during his presidency, the homicide rate increased from 37 (2005) to 66.8 (2009). A populist who ‘shifted left’ and grew increasingly close to Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, Zelaya increased the minimum wage by over 60%, expanded social programs (aid to the poor, free schooling), opened investigations into land disputes between farmers and palm oil producers (including Miguel Facussé’s Dinant corporation) in the Bajo Aguán valley and overhauled fuel sourcing and distribution (seeking cheaper fuel from Venezuela). In 2008, Honduras joined ALBA, the alliance of leftist countries spearheaded by Venezuela and its allies (Nicaragua, Bolivia, Ecuador).

In a leaked US diplomatic cable from then-US ambassador Charles A. Ford, Zelaya is described as a “rebellious teenager, anxious to show his lack of respect for authority figures” whose “principal goal in office is to enrich himself and his family while leaving a public legacy as a martyr who tried to do good but was thwarted at every turn by powerful, unnamed interests”. His behaviour is described as ‘erratic’, deliberately stirring “street action in protest against his own government policy – only to resolve the issue at the last moment”. It is also claimed that Zelaya has “no real friends outside of his family, as he ridicules publicly those closest to him”. The cable also details corruption in Zelaya’s government, the most prominent case being his nephew Marcelo Chimirri, appointed head of Hondutel (the state-owned telecom company, plagued by corruption, debt and mismanagement). The cable reported that Chimirri is “widely believed to be a murderer, rapist and thief”; he was recently sentenced to 9 years in jail for illicit enrichment. The cable, without much substantiation, states that “Zelaya’s inability to name a Vice Minister for Security lends credibility to those who suggest that narco traffickers have pressured him to name one of their own to this position” and notes “his close association with persons believed to be involved with international organized crime”. Far more seriously, ambassador Ford said that he was “unable to brief Zelaya on sensitive law enforcement and counter-narcotics actions due my concern that this would put the lives of U.S. officials in jeopardy”.

Zelaya repeatedly clashed with the traditional media – which, in Honduras, is controlled by the ‘transnational elites’ (La Tribuna by former president Carlos Flores, Tiempo by Jaime Rosenthal, La Prensa and El Heraldo by the Canahuatis) – which he accused of bias, and responded chavista-style by imposing mandatory two-hour government broadcasts. He also clashed with his own party in Congress (and the president of Congress, Roberto Micheletti) and his first vice president, Elvin Santos, distanced himself from him before going on to win the Liberal Party’s 2008 presidential primary.

In March 2009, Zelaya announced his intention to hold a plebiscite on June 28 on whether to organize a referendum convening a constituent assembly alongside the November 2009 general elections – the so-called fourth urn (cuarta urna). This idea was opposed by Micheletti, and challenged in court by the attorney general. In late May, an administrative court ruled that Zelaya’s plebiscite was illegal, a decision upheld on appeal. Despite the ruling, Zelaya pressed forward, although at the last minute he reformulated his plebiscite as a non-binding ‘opinion poll’. The constitution does not provide for any way to call a constituent assembly (although that’s never stopped anyone), and it may only be amended with a two-thirds majority in two consecutive congressional sessions. The constitution does allow for the president to call referendums and plebiscites, subject to congressional approval (article 5).

In the final days before the scheduled June 28 poll, tensions between Zelaya and his opponents escalated amid growing anti-Zelaya protests in the streets. On June 24, Zelaya fired General Romeo Vásquez Velásquez, the commander of the armed forces, for refusing to provide logistical support for the poll. The defence minister and the chiefs of all three branches of the military resigned in solidarity. The next day, as ballots printed in Venezuela landed in Tegucigalpa (collected by Zelaya’s men before the attorney general could seize them), the Supreme Court ordered general Vásquez’s immediate reinstatement and the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) declared the poll illegal. Unable to reach any compromise with the presidency, Congress turned firmly against Zelaya, setting up a commission to look into illegal actions committed by the president (but failing to provide proof for its allegations). On June 26, the Supreme Court issued a sealed arrest warrant against Zelaya, accusing him – among others – of treason and abuse of power.

On the early morning of June 28, soldiers stormed the presidential palace, arrested Zelaya and jetted him off to Costa Rica (in violation of several constitutional rights). Congress ‘obtained’ a forged/fake resignation letter, removed Zelaya from office and declared Roberto Micheletti as president for the remainder of Zelaya’s term (which ended in January 2010). The Supreme Court supported Zelaya’s ouster, and two days later the Public Ministry formally filed 18 criminal charges against Zelaya, vowing to arrest him if he returned to Honduras (as he was conspiring to do from Costa Rica). Zelaya’s opponents claimed that his removal from office was justified because the June 28 poll would have automatically convened a constituent assembly (false) and/or Zelaya would have used an hypothetical constituent assembly to allow reelection (a supposition, although Zelaya on June 25 had publicly declared that “re-election is a topic of the next National Constitutional Assembly”). The famous article 239 (see above) was, however, used a justification for the coup only after the fact. Others claimed that Zelaya automatically ceased to be president as soon as he issued the illegal decrees, although nowhere does the constitution provide for that. In any case, even if a constituent assembly had been convened in a November 2009 vote, Zelaya would have been ineligible for immediate reelection because his term ended in January 2010. To claim that he would have done away with this and extended his term in office unconstitutionally is an assumption which can hardly be proven.

In a July 24, 2009 cable, the US ambassador (Hugo Llorens) summarized the events: “the military, Supreme Court and National Congress conspired on June 28 in what constituted an illegal and unconstitutional coup against the Executive Branch, while accepting that there may be a prima facie case that Zelaya may have committed illegalities and may have even violated the constitution”, considering Micheletti’s accession to the presidency to be illegitimate. The cable concluded that neither the military or Congress had the right to remove the president, something which at the time could only be done by the Supreme Court after indictment, trial and conviction. It also argued that the article 239 arguments against Zelaya were flawed on multiple grounds. Beyond the legality of the events, however, there was clearly near-unanimity among institutions and the elites for Zelaya’s ouster: the Congress, Supreme Court, TSE, attorney general, the Catholic cardinal, lower courts and both major political parties.

There were several pro and anti-Zelaya protests in Honduras after the coup. The new government imposed a curfew, temporarily suspended civil liberties, censored and restricted media coverage, arbitrarily arrested protesters and – according to several reports – harassed journalists (including foreign correspondents from Venezuela) and  arbitrarily detained three foreign ambassadors (Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela). An Amnesty International report from August 2009 reported excessive use of force (police brutality), gender-based violence and attacks against human rights defenders and journalists.

The Honduran coup was quickly condemned by nearly the entire regional and international community, including the US which also considered it a coup. Honduras was suspended from the OAS and most Latin American countries and EU member-states recalled their ambassadors. Micheletti’s unrecognized regime became stubbornly isolationist, effectively telling the international community to mind their own business. The United States supported Zelaya’s reinstatement and suspended aid to Honduras in July, but Secretary of State Hillary Clinton soon became more interested in settling the crisis by supporting the scheduled November elections rather than pressing for Zelaya’s reinstatement (as most Latin American states did). Clinton’s murky role in the Honduran crisis came back to haunt her during the 2016 Democratic primaries. In a 2016 interview, she claimed that the Congress and judiciary had actually followed the law in removing Zelaya (which is false) and defended her decision not to call the coup a military coup (because it would have suspended aid).

In July, talks between Zelaya and Micheletti mediated by Costa Rican president Óscar Arias failed in large part because the two sides held mutually exclusive views on the key question: Zelaya wanted to be reinstated, Micheletti refused to go and let Zelaya return. In October, both sides, in principle, agreed on a US-brokered agreement which was to let Congress decide whether or not to reinstate Zelaya – Congress, unsurprisingly, voted against and Zelaya had already demurred from the deal. Elections were held, on schedule, in late November 2009. National Party candidate Porfirio ‘Pepe’ Lobo, a former president of Congress (2002-2006) and 2005 presidential candidate, was elected with 56% of the vote against 38% for Liberal candidate Elvin Santos (Zelaya’s former first vice president, who had distanced himself from the deposed president). Elvin Santos was badly hurt by the coup, trying to claim a seemingly non-existent middle ground with a non-committal stance. Boycotted by Zelaya, turnout was 50%, about 6% less than in 2005.

The elections did, in fact, ‘end’ the crisis (as far as the rest of the world was concerned) and Lobo’s inauguration in January 2010 made the Zelaya case moot. The US, despite earlier statements, quickly recognized the elections and resumed close relations with Tegucigalpa. Most Latin American countries, led by Costa Rica and right-wing Panama and Colombia, also began recognizing the results of the election. Brazil, which had strongly supported Zelaya and given him refuge at their embassy in Tegucigalpa after September 2009, told him to move out by January 2010 and recognized the new government. Zelaya, following an agreement with Lobo, was allowed to go to the Dominican Republic. Only the ALBA states (plus Paraguay and Uruguay) did not recognize the election. In 2011, an agreement between Zelaya and Lobo allowed Zelaya to return home.

National Party in power since 2010

Juan Orlando Hernández (JOH), a shrewd political operator and Nationalist congressman from Lempira department, became president of Congress under Lobo’s presidency. The presidency of the Honduran Congress is the most powerful legislative position (controlling debates, special commissions etc.) and is a stepping stone to the presidency of the Republic. As president of Congress, JOH was behind the adoption of several important laws and controversial decisions – one of which, the illegal December 2012 purge of the constitutional section of the Supreme Court, was discussed above. Several of the laws passed while JOH was president of Congress have favoured the activities of the country’s political and business elites.

JOH manoeuvred his way to the Nationalist nomination in 2012 against Tegucigalpa mayor Ricardo Álvarez (who became his first vice president). He campaigned on a demagogic, populist and hardline anti-crime platform – promising a ‘soldier on every street’ and a slew of populist promises (CCTs, 800,000 jobs, some gimmicky home renovation program marketed like Extreme Makeover Home Edition, and even a discount card with the party’s logo). He was elected president in November 2013, winning 36.9% of the vote against 28.8% for Xiomara Castro, the wife of former president Manuel Zelaya and the candidate of Zelaya’s new left-wing party, Libertad y Refundación (Libre). Mauricio Villeda, the right-wing candidate of the Liberal Party (from Carlos Flores’ faction), won 20.3%. A fourth candidate, melodramatic former TV presenter and sports commentator Salvador Nasralla of the new right-wing populist Anti-Corruption Party (PAC), won 13.4% of the vote – performing very well in San Pedro Sula, the country’s economic capital. The elections marked the collapse of the old two-party system and the new Congress reflected the new multi-party system: 48 Nationalists, 37 Libre, 27 Liberals, 13 PAC and 3 from the three old minor parties (left-wing UD, centre-right Christian Democrats, centre-left PINU).

Pepe Lobo and JOH’s administrations have their differences, particularly in terms of outcomes, but it makes sense to discuss them together. Much of the information below is drawn from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s excellent report, When Corruption is the Operating System. One passage stood out for me:

“‘I have to have someone to manage the state,’” a Latin American official working in Tegucigalpa represented the elite’s viewpoint. “‘You do it in my service. You’re there to guarantee our businesses. In return, you can steal as much as you want.’” Or, in the words of another highly placed interviewee, “The politicians are at the service of the economic elite. When the president tries to be a real president and doesn’t obey the ten families, you get a coup d’état.”

‘Open for business’ – or open for crony capitalism?

A public-private partnership law (2010) allows businessmen to carry out public contracts under flexible (non-transparent) arrangements, potentially allowing for embezzlement or diversion of public funds. Pepe Lobo and his foreign minister, Mario Canahuati (from a Levantine elite family and former president of COHEP, the private business council), advertised that Honduras was “open for business” and aggressively sought to attract foreign investment.

Coalianza, a commission to promote public-private partnerships, was created in 2010. It choose projects, coordinates any public bidding process (which are non-transparent) and enters into contracts. Coalianza projects are under a cloud of secrecy: they have not been audited and it is unclear if they fit under the national budget. It certainly doesn’t help that Honduras’ independent audit bodies, like the Superior Tribunal of Accounts or the banking regulatory commission, have been weakened or lost in their independence vis-a-vis the executive.

An even more famous and controversial piece of Pepe Lobo and JOH’s “open for business” agenda are the “model cities” (or charter cities), officially known as ZEDE. Trying to emulate Singapore or Hong Kong, these model cities go even further than traditional free trade zones – allowed to establish their own laws (under Honduran sovereignty and partial application of certain constitutional rights), tax systems and judiciaries. The original model cities law (RED), brainchild of American economist Paul Romer, was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in October 2012 amidst concerns of creating ‘states within the states’ and the loss of national sovereignty.

However, Congress reworked the law a bit and a new law creating the ’employment and economic development zones’ (ZEDE) in 2013. The new law makes clear that the ZEDE are part of Honduras and subject to the state for ‘sovereignty, application of justice, territory, national defence, foreign relations, elections and issuance of identity documents and passports’, although only 6 articles of the constitution’s 379 fully apply to the ZEDE. The ZEDE have, according to the official website, autonomy with their own political, administrative, economic and judicial system. They are overseen by a 21-member ‘committee for the application of best practices’, which appoints individual ZEDE on-site administrators and proposes names for the ZEDE’s judiciaries (appointed by the Honduran judicial system). The rest of the law is intentionally vague, only providing a framework for the creation of low-tax, free market zones where those in charge will have ample leeway to create their own political, economic, fiscal, judicial, security and even educational systems. ZEDEs may be as small or as big as their promoters want them to be; they need to be approved by Congress, although only ZEDE in high-density areas require popular consent through a referendum. There are significant concerns about the imposition of ZEDEs in low-density regions, especially areas with large indigenous or Garifuna populations.

An August 2017 article in The Economist discusses these model cities, which have excited North American libertarians and conservatives. They are still slow to get off the ground, but enjoy political support in Honduras (and foreign libertarians and private businesses are still interested). The ‘committee for the application of best practices’ originally included the likes of Grover Norquist, Mark Klugmann (former speechwriter for Reagan and Bush 41), Richard Rahn (then at the Cato Institute) and Michael Reagan. The Economist said it met just once in 2015, and that it has been reduced down to 12 members (including Rahn and Austrian economist Barbara Kolm, a former FPÖ politician).

State-owned enterprises like Hondutel and the National Electrical Energy Enterprise (ENEE) have been wracked by corruption, mismanagement and debts. ENEE’s financial situation has improved since 2014, although largely due to PPPs, falling oil prices and layoffs. Since the 1990s, ENEE has given sweetheart contracts to private sector electricity generators – including, since 2007, renewable energy generators (given locked-in tax breaks and exemptions, a 10% premium over market rates, annual increases on these higher prices; the state is mandated by law to buy all renewable energy they produce etc.). The beneficiaries of these fossil fuel and renewable energy contracts have been the ‘transnational elite’ families – Facussés, Kafies, Nassers. Following IMF recommendations, Honduras is trying to slowly privatize ENEE.

The Honduran government, with international funding, has pushed forward on highly controversial hydroelectric dams which threaten local environments and their communities. One of these is Patuca III (in Olancho department), already well underway since 2015 in association with Sinohydro (a Chinese state-owned company) and financed with a loan from the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China. The government has pressed forward with this project, riding roughshod over local and foreign opposition, in spite of an Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) letter very critical of Honduras’ weak environmental assessment and the lack of proper consultation with local communities. The dam will have a significant impact on ecosystems and communities downstream, where residents fear that the river will get lower, affecting navigation and their livelihoods. Beyond the effect on the river’s ecosystems and endangered species, work on the dam has already caused deforestation. Any ‘consent’ was obtained by deceit. ENEE advertises Patuca III as a ‘clean energy’ project, hoping to get carbon credit and generate income by exporting power through the integrated Central American electricity market (SIEPAC).

The most infamous of these hydroelectric projects is the now-halted Agua Zarca dam on the Gualcarque river in Intibucá department. The project was launched by DESA, an Honduran company created solely for the Agua Zarca in 2008 and with ties to both public and private sector elites. The project has been strongly opposed by local Lenca communities, organized by the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH). DESA’s local consultations were superficial at best and obtained approval from the local mayor by bribing him. With an engineering contract with Sinohydro and financing from Finnfund (Finland’s development finance company) and FMO (the Netherlands), work began in 2011. Agua Zarca faced massive organized local resistance in 2013. In July 2013, the military – protecting the site – opened fire on unarmed peaceful protesters, killing one indigenous leaders and wounding several others. Mounting local opposition prompted Sinohydro to terminate its involvement, but other outside investors stayed put and DESA moved construction to the opposite side of the river without informing anyone.

Berta Cáceres, a Lenca community leader and environmental activist in Intibucá who co-founded COPINH in the 1990s, was one of the most prominent opponents of Agua Zarca and an internationally-recognized community leaders (awarded several prizes for her work). Cáceres and other opponents of the projects had faced intimidation, physical violence, criminal charges and death threats from the beginning. In March 2016, Cáceres was assassinated at her home. Cáceres’ murder drew international attention and immediate condemnation/indignation from abroad. Yet, the initial official response to her death was shockingly poor: the first arrest made in relation to the case was of a COPINH member, while the sole witness (a Mexican friend of Cáceres) was kept for interminable questioning. Authorities, it seemed, didn’t care about investigating the repeated death threats she had faced. Finally, in May 2016, the government arrested four men including DESA’s manager for social and environmental affairs, two military men and a former security employee. The military is deeply implicated in Cáceres’ murder: in 2016, a former soldier later admitted that Cáceres’ name was on a military hit-list; three of the eight suspects in custody are military or ex-military, two of them were trained at Fort Benning, GA (former School of the Americas) and one was also a trainer for the Honduran military police PMOP. Despite these arrests, the Honduran government has been criticized for being very slow to actually prosecute those responsible (including the intellectual authors). Given widespread international condemnation, Finnfund and FMO formalized their withdrawal from the project in 2017.

As detailed in the Carnegie Endowment’s report, hydroelectric dams are not the only economic development projects sparking local protests and resistance. Since the 1990s, there have been violent conflicts between cooperatives/campesinos and palm oil agro-industrialists (predominantly Miguel Facussé’s Dinant Corp.) in the Bajo Aguán valley (Colón department, in the northern Caribbean region). A 1992 agricultural modernization law allowed for previously inalienable land cooperatives (formed during an early agrarian reform in the 1960s) to be parcelled out into small plots which could be sold to private landowners – a law which has, in practice, greatly favoured the interests of powerful landowners, particularly the ‘transnational elites’ in the lucrative palm oil industry. As in Colombia, the expansion of African palm oil has been accompanied with major human rights violations and a certain proximity between agro-industrialists and organized crime.

Unsurprisingly in this context, the environment ministry has been deliberately debilitated, obediently rubber-stamping the government’s proposed development projects – often without conducting a thorough environmental impact assessment.

The government has vaunted its economic and fiscal achievements. With improved tax collection, reforms in the parastatals (ENEE, Hondutel), a 2013 tax reform and austerity measures, Honduras’ deficit fell from 7.9% of GDP in 2013 to 2.6% of GDP in 2016. In December 2014, Honduras obtained a $189 million loan over three years from the IMF, in exchange for ‘fiscal consolidation’ and ‘structural reforms’. As the government likes to boast, Honduras has gotten positive reviews from credit rating agencies – Moody’s upgraded the country’s rating from B1 to B2 (and before that from B2 to B3) while Standard and Poor’s has maintained it at B+ with a positive outlook. FDI inflows reached $1.4 billion in 2014, although it fell to $1 billion in 2016.

The government claims to have created 594,000 ‘jobs and opportunities’ in three years (2014-2016). Honduras has enjoyed strong economic growth in recent years: 4% in 2017, compared to 3.1% in 2014 and 2.8% in 2013. The government’s glossy 2014-2016 ‘achievements’ brochure boasts of its achievements in attracting FDI, restoring Honduras’ credibility on global markets, fiscal responsibility, security and job creation (among other areas) and ambitiously claims that Honduras will become the “logistical centre of the Americas” by 2020, with a new international airport, six development and tourism ‘corridors, three ports, ‘attractive tax regimes’ and free trade zones/ZEDEs.

Noticeably absent from the government’s self-congratulations is any mention of poverty. Honduras is one of the most unequal countries in Latin America (Gini coefficient 50.1) and has a persistently high poverty rate. In 2016, 65.7% of the population lived in poor households (42.5% in extreme poverty and 23.2% in relative poverty), nearly unchanged from 2010 (66.2%). Poverty increased between 2010 and 2012 (reaching 71%) and has fallen since 2015 (68% to 66%). Vida Mejor is the government’s flagship anti-poverty social development project – including a broad array of programs like the Bono Vida Mejor (cash transfers to poor families with children enrolled in school) and various social housing and education projects. According to the presidency’s data, over 515,000 people have benefited from the Bono Vida Mejor and thousands have benefited from other programs under the Vida Mejor label. Critics claim that the Bono Vida Mejor, de facto managed directly by the presidency (and marketed as a presidential project), is a clientelist scheme distributed to party supporters or that its funds are being used for partisan purposes. The program and the Secretariat of Development and Social Inclusion are relatively underfunded and have yet to make a significant (lasting) dent in the poverty rate.

Militarization and crime

To face the crime wave, Pepe Lobo and JOH’s administrations have militarized the police and deployed the armed forces to fight crime. The armed forces, in decline in the 1990s, have regained some of their previous strength under JOH. One rationale for the deployment of the military is that the National Police is deeply corrupt, with police at every level infiltrated by organized crime (including street gangs) and implicated in extra-judicial assassinations. In 2009, top drug czar Julián Arístides González Irías was killed, with police, politicians and drug traffickers implicated. The police, serving the interests of political and economic elites, has been repeatedly accused of harassing people opposed to government policies – including its economic agenda. At a more basic level, police demand bribes and, through involvement with gangs like MS-13, are said to be involved in extortion in the barrios. In response to police corruption, Pepe Lobo’s government passed a police depuration law – which was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 2012 for violating officers’ rights to due process. JOH created a police reform commission in 2016, which has been controversial and the subject of some criticism, but may also have helped reduce homicide rates. Since 2016, it has dismissed over 4,400 officers – although most for restructuring, death, mandatory or voluntary retirement.

The military has seen its role and powers expand greatly since 2010, going far beyond ‘national defence’ to encompass maintenance of public order, fighting crime, patrolling indigenous communities, protection of land or development projects and suppressing protests against government economic development policies. Setting the clock back to the 1980s, a military police force (PMOP) was created in 2013 and charged with maintaining public order against organized crime and drug traffickers. According to critics, PMOP is at the personal service of the president and arbitrarily imposes its will through fear. In addition to PMOP, JOH as president of Congress oversaw the creation of other crime-fighting elite unites – TIGRES, ostensibly under the security rather than defence ministry, and FUSINA – an inter-agency task force mixing military, PMOP and TIGRES.

JOH has centralized national security decision-making into a single National Defence and Security Council, which mixes all three branches of government (president, president of Congress, president of the Supreme Court, defence and security ministers) and the attorney general. It has broad powers over security, defence and intelligence matters, and its activities are shielded from public scrutiny by a broadly-worded 2014 secrecy law. Hernández has also surrounded himself with top ‘securocrats’, including his brother, retired colonel Amílcar Hernández (now head of the national anti-extortion force). Retired General Julián Pacheco, the former head of military intelligence, was appointed security minister (police) in January 2015 while still in active service (he resigned his commission to take his cabinet post). Óscar Álvarez, a former US-trained special forces office, served as security minister in 2002 and 2010 and is now a prominent Nationalist congressman.

Despite all the criticism which the militarization of public safety and the state has elicited, even JOH’s critics admit that he has reduced drug trafficking and violence. As noted in the introduction, the homicide rate in Honduras has dropped from 79 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2013 (85.5 in 2012 and 86.5 in 2011) to 59.1 in 2016, projected to fall below 50 in 2017 – perhaps its lowest level since 2006 (46.2). InSight Crime offered seven explanations for the decline in murders: a new anti crime policy focus (anti-gang, extortions), dismantling large criminal structures (Cachiros, Valle Valle), the police reform and purge, prison reform and modernization (2 new max security prisons, and closing San Pedro Sula’s infamously criminally-run prison), increased spending on security and justice, better training and recent penal code amendments, and lastly joint work between the state and civil society. Others, however, claim that JOH has been pressured into going after organized crime and drug trafficking by the United States. Shortly after JOH took office, the Honduran government began extraditing top drug lords to the United States: Carlos ‘El Negro’ Lobo in May 2014, Juving Alexander Suazo Peralta in October 2014 and two of the Valle Valle brothers in December 2014. In 2012, the Congress had adopted a constitutional amendment allowing extradition for cases of drug trafficking, terrorism and organized crime.

The government’s glossy achievements brochure reports that, between 2014 and 2016, over 4,000 new police officers were recruited and 18 criminals extradited. FUSINA arrested over 35,600 people, destroyed 10 drug laboratories and 138 landing strips and decommissioned over 8,000 firearms. In 2016 alone, the government reports, the police and armed forces arrested 20,400 delinquents.

The Carnegie Endowment’s report offered a far more sinister and cynical explanation for JOH’s tough hand against the drug cartels:

Geography may play a role in the more intensive counternarcotics enforcement under Hernández for the simple reason that he grew up in the mountainous southwestern part of the country, which is not the most convenient transshipment zone. Conversely, many of the human rights violations that are sparking social conflicts under Hernández are taking place precisely in his native region.

Zelaya and Lobo, by contrast, hailed from contiguous departments in the east, Olancho primarily, as well as Colón, which anchor the eastern end of narcotics trafficking routes through Honduras. And both apparently became entwined with local cartels, seeming to affiliate primarily with the Sarmientos and Cachiros respectively.

It may be that Hernández’s willingness to crack down on this lucrative trade—despite his close political collaboration with Lobo over the years—derives in part from his lack of opportunity to become engaged in it himself. It was taking place too far from his home base. (p. 80-1)

The US has been the key external player in Honduran defence and security policies for decades. Its involvement has increased under Hernández, who is strongly pro-US and has closely supported all US policies related to Honduras. US funding for the Honduran military and police – mostly counter-narcotics – reached $22 million in 2015 and $17 million in 2017. Overall, according to USAID’s website, US foreign aid to Honduras in 2016 from all US government agencies totalled $127.5 million in 2016 (estimated to fall to $90 million in 2017), most of it (86%) classified as ‘economic’ aid and from the US Agency for International Development.


As you can guess from the above, corruption is an entrenched part of politics and economics in Honduras. The country scores just 30 on Transparency International’s 2016 Corruption Perceptions Index, ranking 123rd in the world out of 176 (tied with Mexico) – although neighbouring Guatemala and Nicaragua rank even lower.

The most outrageous corruption scandal of JOH’s term involved the Honduran Social Security Institute (IHSS), the public healthcare provider and pensions administration. 7 billion lempiras ($296.8 million) in public money were embezzled – and part of that money (at least 3 million lempiras), by the president’s own admission, found its way to the Nationalist presidential campaign in 2013. To make matters worse, 3,000 people may have died from ingesting fake medicine or due to shortages. The first revelations of the IHSS scandal were publicized by the National Anti-Corruption Council and Public Ministry in 2014. Perhaps up to 60-70% of the IHSS’ operating budget was embezzled through shell companies using various stratagems (procurement fraud, fake contracts with no goods or services delivered, inflated and unjustified purchases, buying placebos). Several politicians and senior public officials including IHSS’ director general, chief of purchases and treasurer were implicated. A drug company founded by the vice president of Congress Lena Gutiérrez (National), her father and two of her brothers sold fake medicine and charged inflated prices for other supplies; she was arrested in 2015. Some members of the ‘transnational elite’ have also been embroiled, like Shukri Kafie.

According to the Carnegie Endowment’s report:

This case illustrates the rough division of labor or territory that characterizes the Honduran kleptocratic network, with most of the outright looting of government coffers perpetrated by public-sector members, often via private companies in the hands of relatives or immediate proxies. In general, companies that win public procurement contracts from government agencies like the IHSS tend not to belong to members of the self-contained, Levantine-descended business elite (p. 49)

The eruption of the IHSS scandal in 2015 led to major protests in Honduras (and among the Honduran emigrant population in the US) demanding JOH’s resignation and the creation of an Honduran version of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), whose remarkable work against corruption in Guatemala led to the resignation of the country’s president and vice president in 2015. Relenting, the government of Honduras allowed for the creation of a ‘support mission against corruption and impunity in Honduras’ (MACCIH) which, unlike CICIG, cannot bring corruption cases forward itself but may support Honduran authorities and help design institutional reforms.

The main thesis of the Carnegie Endowment’s report is that corruption in Honduras isn’t a series of isolated, unrelated stand-alone cases but rather part of an “integrated kleptocratic network”, “the operating system of sophisticated networks that link together public and private sectors and out-and-out criminals and whose main objective is maximizing returns for network members”.

Since 2013, the United States has been a key player behind several high-profile corruption and organized crime cases. In October 2015, Yankel Rosenthal, the nephew of wealthy business magnate and former Liberal vice president Jaime Rosenthal, was arrested by American authorities in Miami. Shortly after his arrest, the US District Court for the Southern District of New York unsealed an indictment against Yankel Rosenthal, Jaime Rosenthal, Jaime’s son Yani Rosenthal and a company laywer. The US Treasury added the Rosenthals and their businesses to the ‘Kingpins list’ (Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act) at the same time. Jaime Rosenthal, the patriarch of one of the most powerful elite families, owned Grupo Continental, a large business conglomerate with a diverse portfolio including a major bank (Banco Continental), media (Tiempo newspaper, TV channels), finance, insurance, real estate, meatpacking, cement and agro-industry. The Rosenthals, who are of Bessarabian Jewish ancestry, were also a major Liberal faction: Jaime was first vice president (1986-1989), congressman (2002-2006) and unsuccessful presidential candidate in the 2005 primaries; his son Yani Rosenthal was minister of the presidency under Mel Zelaya (2006-2007), a congressman (2010-2014) and runner-up in the 2012 Liberal primaries (with hopes for another presidential run in 2017); Yankel Rosenthal was JOH’s investment minister until June 2015. The Rosenthal family is accused of money laundering for the Cachiros drug cartel. The Cachiros (Rivera Maradiaga family), who owned one of the main cattle ranching businesses in the north, sold cattle to the Rosenthal’s meatpacking plant and opened accounts with Banco Continental. In 2006, the Rosenthal started lending money to the Rivera Maradiaga’s cattle and milk businesses – and later their African palm plantations. Banco Continental became a major investor in the Cachiros’ successful zoo and eco-park. Yankel and Yani Rosenthal have both pleaded guilty in the US, but Jaime Rosenthal remains a fugitive in Honduras despite an extradition order.

Candidates and Campaigns

There were 9 presidential candidates, three of them ‘important’.

presidentebioIncumbent president Juan Orlando Hernández ran for reelection, a first in recent Honduran politics made possible by the Supreme Court’s controversial 2015 decision to allow presidential reelection. JOH was born in Gracias (Lempira) to a coffee-growing family. He attended a military academy and graduated with a bachelor’s from the Autonomous University of Honduras (UNAH) and a master’s from SUNY-Albany. He is married to Ana García Carías, a direct descendant of former dictator Tiburcio Carías Andino (1933-1946).

He got his first job in politics as assistant to his brother, Marco Augusto, who was first secretary of Congress and connections to the National Party’s top echelons. JOH was elected to Congress as deputy from Lempira in 1997, and went on to serve four terms in the legislature. Rising through the ranks of the Nationalist leadership, he was leader of the Nationalist caucus (2005-2009) and later president of Congress (2010-2013). JOH became a key Nationalist power-broker, who supported Pepe Lobo’s 2005 and 2009 presidential campaigns and spearheaded the administration’s legislative agenda in Congress. Some of the laws adopted under JOH’s tenure as president of Congress were mentioned above – ‘security tax’, tax reform, ‘model cities’, military police (PMOP), first attempt at police depuration, national security and defence council, wiretap law and public-private partnerships. As president of Congress, JOH also stage-managed the controversial and almost certainly illegal ‘purge’ of four of the five members of the constitutional section of the Supreme Court in 2012. Having consolidated control of party structures and formed lucrative connections to other elite sectors, JOH manoeuvred his way to the presidential nomination in the 2012 primaries. His main rival was Tegucigalpa mayor Ricardo Álvarez. who was later brought under control as JOH’s first vice president – although JOH has still tried to screw him over, most notably by sneakily implying that he should take the blame for the IHSS scandal. JOH was elected president in 2013.

His record in government is thoroughly detailed in the previous section and hardly needs greater explanation. According to his critics, JOH is an autocrat who has concentrated most state powers – including those ostensibly held by independent institutions and control agencies – in the executive branch. As explained above, JOH has expanded the military’s power and influence, surrounding himself with powerful ‘securocrats’ of military extraction like his brother Amílcar and retired general Julían Pacheco (security minister). Like in the 1970s and 1980s, retired military personnel have also been appointed to head civilian agencies like civil aviation, ZEDEs, the housing authority, the port authority and the agricultural marketing institute. The judiciary, already weak and politicized, was further weakened and politicized by JOH. This weakened and politically favourable judiciary led to the 2015 decision declaring inapplicable the constitutional ban on reelection. The new Supreme Court elected by Congress in early 2016 (not without drama) is just as politicized (and of questionable competence) as previous courts.

JOH is well connected to the country’s elites – both traditional political elites, transnational economic elites and, to a certain degree, new illegal elites. According to InSight Crime’s report on elites and organized crime in Honduras, JOH “reportedly owns coffee farms, amongst other agricultural holdings, as well as hotels, and radio and television stations” and “has been linked to a mysterious lobbying group called Colibrí, which has reportedly engineered lucrative government contracts and kickback schemes for its members and supporters” (p. 47). Unlike his predecessor, JOH isn’t directly connected to local drug lords, although there are questions about some of his ‘securocrats’. He has also politically associated with and supported Nationalist politicians directly connected to organized crime. Hugo Ardón, who ran his 2013 campaign in western Honduras and then ran the highway authority until 2015, is the brother of Alexander Ardón, former mayor of El Paraíso (Copán), suspected of being part of the mysterious ‘AA Brothers’ drug trafficking network. As noted in the historical background section, Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga (Cachiros cartel) claimed in US federal court that he had bribed Tony Hernández, the president’s brother, in return for settling debts owed to a Cachiros-owned company which had done roadwork for the government. In 2016, a former national police chief who detailed how drug traffickers financed politicians, had said that Tony Hernández (“the brother of The Man”) was the National Party’s go-to man for drug money and connected to Alex Ardón’s drug trafficking network.

As achievements, JOH can claim the reduction in homicide rates, the general improvement in security (even if the means to achieve those ends are controversial) and a relatively strong economy with sounder financial indicators. For people on the right of the political spectrum, they will likely appreciate the government’s pro-business policies – although, as explained above, the façade of ‘open for business’ likely hides a system of corrupt crony capitalism beneficial to a small circle of connected elites. The United States sees in JOH a key regional ally – on drug trafficking, the ‘war on drugs’, business, trade regional political stability and balance and even on immigration. The government’s official communications presents a long list of achievements, successes, programs, international praise and ambitious future goals.

Cleared to run for an historic second consecutive term by the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision, JOH announced his reelection bid in November 2016. Supported by two Nationalist factions (Unidos and Juntos), JOH won his party’s primaries in March 2017 with 92.6% of the vote against the candidate of the Monarca faction of former president Rafael Callejas (1990-1994). Callejas was one of the petitioners in the legal challenge to the ban on reelection, and fully intended to run for president once the verdict dropped. However, Callejas, who was president of the Honduran football federation from 2011 to 2015, was extradited to the US in December 2015 facing bribery charges in the FIFA scandal. He pleaded guilty in US federal court to racketeering and corruption charges in March 2016.

JOH’s presidential campaign – in public – largely focused on continuing down the current path, ‘for more changes’. As is usual in Latin American presidential campaigns, JOH set out ambitious objectives for the next four years (pie in the sky?) like promising that, in 2022, Honduras will be admired and an example for both the region and the world. The seven pillars of his platform were vague aspirations and goals: productive innovation (i.e. attracting businesses), access to credit, Honduras as the ‘logistical centre’ of the region (see above), education (better schools! internet! bilingual system! massive bursaries!) and healthcare (universal access to healthcare and pensions), security (continuation of current policies, new prisons), economic stability (pro-business and investor confidence) and transparency.

nasralla_pacThe main opposition candidate was Salvador Nasralla, the candidate of the Opposition Alliance against the Dictatorship (Alianza de Oposición contra la Dictadura) or ‘Alianza’, an electoral coalition between former president Manuel Zelaya’s left-wing Libre party (Libertad y Refundación) and the old minor centre-left Innovation and Unity Party (Partido Innovación y Unidad, PINU). Nasralla is a former businessman, sports journalist, TV presenter and master of ceremonies who became a politician in 2013, running for president and placing a surprisingly strong fourth with 13.4%. Fitting with his past career, he has a loud, direct, exuberant and boisterous personality. His critics have described him as selfish, egocentric and narcissistic.

15 years older than JOH, Nasralla was born in Tegucigalpa to Lebanese parents (although his mother was born in Chile). He began working dabbling in radio journalism as a teenager. Between 1970 and 1976, he studied industrial civil engineering at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile – a period overlapping with the 1973 Chilean coup and the first years of Pinochet’s regime. Thanks to his friendship with the dictator’s son, Marco Antonio Pinochet, he scored an interview with Augusto Pinochet some years later in 1984 on the occasion of the Viña del Mar festival. In a recent interview with the Chilean newspaper La Tercera, Nasralla said that he does not admire Pinochet but that he saw how Chile went from an impoverished country with queues for everything to a ‘Latin American power’ because of Pinochet and the Chicago Boys’ economic policies.

Back in Honduras, Nasralla was general manager of Pepsi-Cola Honduras for six years and an engineering and administration professor at UNAH for eight years, before quitting the university complaining about the low academic level of the students. Nasralla became famous as a sports commentator on TV in the 1980s, serving as press officer for the national football team during the 1982 FIFA World Cup. He was disliked by radio commentators and became know for heated arguments with referees, managers, owners, colleagues and even politicians (and fanatic commentating). In 1990, he started hosting a very popular game show program. Throughout his TV career, Nasralla also hosted various special events or programs, from the Viña del Mar festival in Chile to beauty pageants like Miss Honduras.

Nasralla was a bachelor until very recently, which fed rumours that he was gay. Nasralla rejected such rumours by assuring everyone that he is a macho and that many women can vouch for his sexuality. In a very creepy and disturbing 2016 interview, he said that he has had sex with ‘more than 700 women’, that he has never used viagra and that every woman who has had sex with him was satisfied (he also gives his ‘tactics’ to ‘conquer women’). Nasralla claimed that his busy life always prevented him from getting into serious relationships with women. In March 2016, he married former Miss Honduras 2015 Iroshka Elvir, who is 38 years younger than Nasralla (he is 64, she is 26). There are many pictures of their honeymoon on Google Images, and they are rather creepy. Their first child was born a few weeks after the election. In an interview which caused a bit of a stir in Israel, Iroshka Elvir said that Adolf Hitler was a great leader and that her personal political icons included John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Eva Perón, Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel. She later apologized for her ‘misquoted’ Hitler comment; according to The Times of Israel, in her apology she “attached a photo where she is portrayed holding an Israeli flag and closed the message with ‘Shalom’.” Iroshka Elvir was a PINU congressional candidate in Francisco Morazán department (Tegucigalpa).

With his fame as one of the country’s most famous TV personalities and his loud, direct and flamboyant personality (am I the only one seeing the parallels with Donald Trump?), Nasralla created his own political party – the Anti-Corruption Party (PAC) – and ran for president in 2013. As his party’s name suggests, Nasralla’s campaign focused on corruption – consisting mostly of endless rants against corrupt politicians, mostly targeting the National Party. Nasralla placed fourth with 13.43%, doing particularly well in San Pedro Sula (Cortés department). However, confident that he would win in a landslide, Nasralla refused to admit defeat and still claims that he is certain that he won the election and that over 636,000 votes were stolen from him.

In a rather absurd chain of events, Nasralla lost control of his own party (the PAC) earlier this year to rebellious factions led by PAC deputy Marlene Alvarenga. In April 2017, Nasralla’s faction organized internal elections (with a single candidate) which were not recognized by the TSE for violating electoral law. In May 2017, the rival Alvarenga-led factions of the PAC organized their own internal elections, which were recognized by the TSE and therefore left Nasralla’s party in the hands of dissidents. In parallel to that, however, Nasralla was proclaimed as the opposition alliance’s presidential candidate – an alliance formed by former president Manuel ‘Mel’ Zelaya’s left-wing Libre party, the old minor centre-left PINU and some minor dissident groups from both the Liberal and National parties. In 2013, Mel Zelaya’s wife, Xiomara Castro, placed second behind JOH (she too claims she won) with 28.9% and Libre became the main opposition party with 37 seats – an historic showing which broke the old duopoly. Given the Supreme Court’s decision on reelection, Manuel Zelaya also became eligible to run for president in 2017, and he publicly considered it before ruling it out – because he now opposes reelection (which the alliance says is illegal) and, officially, ‘sacrificing personal interests for national interests’.

Nasralla and his followers (6 congressmen) was ‘welcomed’ by the PINU after losing control of the PAC. Many of Nasralla’s allies – including his wife, Iroshka Elvir – appeared on PINU’s congressional lists (Libre and PINU ran separately in congressional and municipal elections). Mel Zelaya was the ‘coordinator’ of the Alliance. Nasralla’s three running mates were Xiomara Castro (Zelaya’s wife and Libre candidate in 2013), PINU leader Guillermo Valle (whose sister, Beatriz Valle, ambassador to Canada under Mel Zelaya, is a Libre congresswoman) and Belinda Martínez (Libre). The anti-Zelaya newspaper El Heraldo argued that Salvador Nasralla was ‘absorbed’ by Libre’s ideology, policy and leadership. Nasralla’s opponents (and the right, in Honduras and abroad) painted him as a ‘pawn’ of Mel Zelaya and Libre. Nasralla rejected claims that he was a left-winger, declaring himself to be a centrist.

Nasralla’s campaign focused primarily on attacking JOH and the Nationalists (mostly for being corrupt and authoritarian), in his trademark melodramatic and hyperbolic rhetorical style. Nasralla and the opposition alliance’s platform, however, did show the strong influence of Libre and Mel Zelaya’s ‘left-wing’ views – not only in the actual policy proposals, but also the language, replete with references to the 2009 coup. Structured around 14 axes, the first of which was the ‘refoundation’ of the country and fighting corruption – proposing a plebiscite to decide on the ‘mechanism’ to write a new constitution (very similar to Mel Zelaya’s cuarta urna in 2009) and asking the UN to create a Guatemalan-like international commission against impunity and corruption (‘CICIH’, a local equivalent of Guatemala’s CICIG). Mel Zelaya said that, if the opposition won, there would be a constituent assembly (which the hostile press quickly tied to Nicolás Maduro’s constituent assembly in Venezuela). He also said that Nasralla’s presidency would be a ‘transition government’, never bothering to explain what was meant by that. Given the recent antecedents of constituent processes in Honduras (and Maduro’s constituent assembly), this idea was particularly controversial and seized upon by the Nationalists to attack Nasralla as a ‘puppet’ of Mel Zelaya (and raise the ‘leftist threat’).

The Alliance proposed a rather left-wing ‘alternative economic model’ – eradicating poverty, reverting privatizations, regulation of tax exemptions for corporations, progressive taxation, reducing consumption taxes, auditing the public debt, reviewing commercial treaties, promoting different types of property (mixed, private, shared etc.), provision of liquidity through the public bank to reduce interest rates and finance employment-generating activities and provision of credit and technical assistance to ‘productive sectors’. Nasralla also promised to repeal ‘harmful’ economic laws like the ZEDEs, Coalianza and a ‘fiscal responsibility law’ (limiting deficits). The platform further promised an ambitious laundry list of infrastructure projects, all while striking a very ‘green’/environmentalist tone on environmental issues (green economy, fourth generation rights, revision of 300+ mining concessions). The Alliance’s platform also promised universal public education, guaranteed universal access to healthcare, a public healthcare system and social housing (500,000 new houses in 4 years).

On security matters, Nasralla attacked JOH’s ‘militarization of society’ and claimed that violence is increasing considerably despite Nationalist denials. He said that he would continue with extraditions, but limit the armed forces to their constitutional role with the national police in charge of public security. The platform detailed a security strategy built around ‘prevention, dissuasion and control’. Some were worried by Nasralla’s announcement that he would review police depuration and the cases of police officials removed by the depuration commission, claiming that they were removed without due process and some may have been removed for investigation political corruption or criminal ties.

The Alliance’s platform was very critical of the weakness of JOH’s foreign policy, particularly his ‘subordination’ to US government priorities. On paper, the Alliance promised a stronger foreign policy – ‘strengthen, increase and reorient bilateral relations’, ‘expand and innovate regional relations’, strengthened role in international organizations, deepening Central American integration – and greater support and protection for migrants. According to the US Census Bureau, there are 948,500 Hondurans (by ethnicity) in the US – the third largest Central American immigrant group. Juan Orlando Hernández and the Nationalists repeatedly connected Nasralla to Venezuela, raising the ‘threat’ of castrochavismo (to use a Colombian term), the new favourite boogey of the Latin American right. In a May 2017 interview, Mel Zelaya said that Venezuela would be a “paradise of peace and harmony” if “the gringos, American and Europeans multinationals oppressing the people were kicked out”. Salvador Nasralla said that the international media has ‘exaggerated’ the situation in Venezuela, implying that there is no real crisis in the country. Unprompted, he also claimed that the media exaggerates about North Korea – saying that “there is no unemployment in North Korea”. Ten days before the election, immigration authorities denied entrance to a left-wing Venezuelan musical group. Later, the government imposed new visa requirements on Venezuelans seeking to enter Honduras. Based on reports that 150 Venezuelans sent by President Nicolás Maduro and the ruling party (PSUV) to interfere with the elections, JOH and much of the Honduran media claimed that Venezuela was trying to interfere with the elections.

c2p4v7cwqaerysjIn the March 2017 primaries, the Liberal Party nominated the little-known political novice Luis Zelaya (unrelated to Mel). Zelaya, born in 1967 in Tegucigalpa, studied industrial engineering in Mexico and obtained a MBA. He was rector of the Central American Technological University, a private university, between 2005 and 2016. Although he joined the Liberal Party’s youth branch over 20 years ago and his brother was a Liberal congressman, this was Luis Zelaya’s first electoral candidacy. In the primaries, Luis Zelaya defeated an old-timer, Gabriela Núñez – a former congresswoman, finance minister to presidents Carlos Flores and Roberto Micheletti, president of the central bank (2006-2007) and vice president of Banco Atlántida. Núñez was said to be the candidate of former president Carlos Flores (widely seen as the real power in the party for years), while Luis Zelaya was supported by Mauricio Villeda (2013 presidential candidate) and Roberto Micheletti. Zelaya won 56.9% against 33% for Gabriela Núñez. Nevertheless, Luis Zelaya’s campaign was weakened by internal divisions in the party – with public confrontations with Gabriela Núñez and Elvin Santos (he denied a congressional candidacy to Núñez), only belatedly (and without much enthusiasm) reuniting the party in October.

The Liberal Party was greatly weakened by the 2009 coup – which was, essentially, a Liberal factional dispute turned very nasty – and the subsequent creation of Mel Zelaya’s Libre, which overtook the Liberal Party in votes in the 2013 election. The weakened, smaller Liberal Party – which is now obviously dominated by its ‘right-wing’ (anti-Mel Zelaya) factions – has struggled to find a place in the post-2009 political landscape, often failing to distinguish itself from its rivals. It has continued to be wracked by internal factional conflicts. Carlos Flores’ faction has collaborated with JOH and the Nationalists in Congress several times since 2012, notably in the December 2012 Supreme Court ‘purge’. Given the party’s support for the Nationalists in Congress on repeated occasions, they lack credibility as an opposition party.

After he won the primary, there was some speculation (and meetings) about Luis Zelaya joining the opposition Alliance, but talks quickly broke down and Luis Zelaya later said that there had never been a realistic chance of allying with the Alliance. The Liberals were, in theory, ready to join the Alliance – but on the condition, unacceptable to either Libre or Nasralla, that Luis Zelaya be the candidate. Luis Zelaya later explained that Nasralla told him that there had already been a deal between him and Mel Zelaya on the Alliance’s presidential candidacy – and that while Luis Zelaya could join, rule number one was accepting that Nasralla was the candidate.

Luis Zelaya clearly defined himself as an opposition candidate, but sought to offer a ‘sensible centrist option’ between left-wing and right-wing polarization. His plan esperanza (plan hope) included a mix of vague goals and ideas and more concrete ideas, under the catchphrase ‘opportunities for all, without privileges for anyone’. A major theme of his campaign was ‘strengthening institutions’ – restoring a system of checks and balances, increasing the independence of key public institutions and respecting the constitution. Obviously, in seeking to strengthen and reform current institutions, he differed significantly from Nasralla and Mel Zelaya (who wanted to adopt a new constitution entirely) – it was perhaps the main political difference between the Liberal candidate and the Alliance’s candidate.

There were six other candidates besides the three major ones. None of them stood a chance.

Retired general Romeo Vásquez Velásquez, former head of the Joints Chiefs of the armed forces (2005-2010), was the candidate of the right-wing/far-right Honduran Patriotic Alliance (Alianza Patriótica Hondureña), as in 2013. During the 2009 crisis, General Romeo Vásquez was dismissed by President Zelaya for refusing to provide logistical support for the poll, but the Supreme Court quickly ruled – 14 hours later – that his dismissal was illegal, restoring him to office. On June 28, three days after his abortive dismissal, General Romeo Vásquez led the coup which removed Mel Zelaya from office. After his retirement from the military in early 2010, he was appointed director general of Hondutel (the state-owned telecoms company) by Pepe Lobo. When he resigned from Hondutel to run for president in 2013, it was on the verge of bankruptcy as Vásquez had substantially increased the company’s payroll and salaries. Vásquez’s Patriotic Alliance party, more a military lobby than actual party, supports tough law-and-order and militarization policies. Despite claiming the support of 1 million voters, Vásquez won 0.2% (about 6,100 votes) in 2013.

Marlene Alvarenga was the ‘official’ candidate of the PAC, Salvador Nasralla’s old party. From a Christian evangelical family, Alvarenga said she entered politics in 2013 after receiving a ‘call from God’ and listening to Nasralla’s speeches. She was elected to Congress in 2013, becoming Nasralla’s leading opponent within ‘his party’. Alvarenga was one of the ‘rogue’ PAC deputies who voted with the National and Liberal parties to elect the new Supreme Court in early 2016; Nasralla disowned these members, claiming that they had been bribed by the government. As described above, anti-Nasralla factions organized and led by Alvarenga gained control of the PAC and she was officially recognized as the party’s leader and candidate by the TSE. Alvarenga has said that Salvador Nasralla is misogynistic and ‘crazy’; she also called him ‘Mrs.’ (insinuating his rumoured homosexuality). In turn, Nasralla has claimed that her husband is a member of the Cachiros drug cartel. Alvarenga proposed to make Honduras a Christian state with mention of the Bible in the constitution.

Lucas Aguilera, a former peasant leader and preacher, was the candidate of the small centre-right Christian Democratic Party (Partido Demócrata Cristiano de Honduras, PDCH). The Christian Democrats, founded in 1968, have participated in all elections since 1981 but without much success besides the election of a few members of Congress (1 in 2013, 5 in 2009). It has usually aligned as a minor partner of both traditional ruling parties, trading its support for bureaucratic or ministerial appointments. Arturo Corrales, one of the main leaders of the party, was a ‘super minister’ for security under Pepe Lobo and foreign minister under JOH between 2015 and 2016. Lucas Aguilera, who claimed to be the only candidate to ‘come from below’ and truly understand poverty, is a former member of the TSE and a deputy in the Central American Parliament (and, previously, alternate deputy in the national Congress). The PDCH’s presidential candidate in 2013 won 0.2%.

Alfonso Díaz Narváez was the candidate of the left-wing Democratic Unification Party (Unificación Democrática, UD). The UD was founded in 1992 from the merger of four clandestine or semi-clandestine communist and far-left parties including remnants of the main Communist Party of Honduras. The UD, like the PDCH, has participated in every election but has never achieved significant electoral success besides electing a few members of Congress. In 2009, UD supported Mel Zelaya’s cuarta urna plebiscite, opposed the coup and later supporting his reinstatement in power, but UD nevertheless participated in the 2009 elections (boycotted by Zelaya’s supporters). The party’s 2009 candidate joined Pepe Lobo’s ‘reconciliation government’ as head of the National Agrarian Institute (INA). By the looks of Díaz Narváez’s economic ‘platform’, it may be a stretch to consider UD to be left-wing: he wanted foreign and domestic private investment, an alliance with ‘economic blocs’, ‘friendly governments’ and the People’s Republic of China.

Isaías Fonseca was the candidate of the left-wing Frente Amplio (Broad Front), the youngest candidate in these elections (at age 30). The leftist Broad Front is the renamed Frente Amplio Político Electoral en Resistencia (Broad Political Electoral Front in Resistance, FAPER), founded in 2012. The party said that it changed its name because ‘FAPER’ was too long and difficult for people to remember. In 2013, the FAPER ran in coalition with UD with Andrés Pavón, a leftist activist (with ‘revolutionary political training’ from Cuba and Nicaragua) and former head of the human rights commission. However, Pavón was suspiciously friendly towards JOH (and very critical with Nasralla and Xiomara Castro), which led Nasralla to claim that he was a Nationalist plant. The Broad Front’s leaders supported Mel Zelaya and opposed the 2009 coup, but later broke with Zelaya – officially because he isn’t a revolutionary and too much of a caudillo. Fonseca accused the Opposition Alliance of ‘abandoning its ideals’. Fonseca’s main campaign proposal was to disarm all civilians, authorizing only the government to bear arms (yes, “taking away your guns”).

Eliseo Vallecillo was the candidate of Va Movimiento Solidario (Vamos), a splinter party from the PDCH formed in 2016. It was founded by Augustin Cruz, a vice president of Congress, after he lost the PDCH’s leadership following a dispute with Arturo Corrales. Augustin Cruz was accused by Mel Zelaya of being one of the congressmen ‘bribed’ to vote with the government to elect the new Supreme Court in January 2016.

The preliminary report of the EU’s observation mission (Nov. 28) discussed several of the problems with the campaign and election administration. It noted “significant disparities in the amount of coverage given to different candidates”, favouring the incumbent president. Hernández dominated paid advertising (64%), while Luis Zelaya (17%) and Nasralla (15%) were far less visible. The incumbent also received 44% of news coverage compared to 21% for Nasralla and 10% for Luis Zelaya, the remaining 25% split between the minor candidates. The EU observer mission said that the national television “did not give equal or equitable treatment to the different parties in its news programmes or interview formats, and it openly discriminated against the Opposition Alliance and its member parties, who received 6% of all coverage, as compared to the PNH’s 36% and the PLH’s 22%.” The EU’s media monitoring also showed a “sharp asymmetry between the majority of traditional media outlets, largely favourable to Juan Orlando Hernández, […] and a smaller number of media which openly favour the Opposition Alliance.” Its media monitoring also noted the “almost complete absence of investigative journalism”, because of a tradition of self-censorship and the high incidence of threats and intimidation against journalists who investigate political corruption or links to organized crime. As the EU mission’s report touched on, private media – especially print newspapers – presented dull generic information about candidates and the campaign, albeit often with a marked bias (most newspapers being implicitly pro-government). JOH also benefited from greater news coverage of his institutional activities as president and had certain built-in advantages as the incumbent, although as the EU observer mission pointed out, Nasralla also had extra TV coverage because of his continued presence as a sports and entertainment commentator on TV during the campaign.

The EU mission’s preliminary report had a generally positive evaluation of the legal framework and electoral administration with some improvements compared to 2013. It expressed concerns about trafficking in party observer accreditation at polling stations, the inclusion of deceased people and emigrants on voter rolls (although strict voter IDs with photos reduce the potential of fraud), the staffing of polling stations with party representatives and potential bias of the electoral management body (TSE) towards the ruling party.

Opposition parties, especially the Alliance, have argued for a long time that the TSE is effectively controlled by the National Party and biased in that party’s favour. The TSE’s magistrates were elected by the outgoing 2010-2014 Congress in early 2014, shortly before the new 2014-2018 Congress took office, which means that new parties which emerged in the 2014-2018 Congress (Libre and PAC) are not represented in the TSE, which includes members from the two traditional parties and from the two ‘old’ minor parties (PDCH and UD). The president of the TSE, David Matamoros Batson, is a former two-term Nationalist congressman and former secretary general of the National Party. Despite the opposition’s worries, the EU mission’s preliminary report said that the TSE “actively fostered consultation and consensus with political parties” and “guaranteed access to the pre-electoral preparations for all political parties.”

Results and Crisis

The election took place on November 26. The results presented below are the official results proclaimed by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) on December 18. These results are not recognized by the opposition or the Organization of American States (OAS).

Turnout was 57%.


Juan Orlando Hernández (National) 42.95%
Salvador Nasralla (Opposition Alliance/Libre-PINU) 41.42%
Luis Zelaya (Liberal) 14.74%
Romeo Vásquez Velásquez (APH) 0.20%
Marlene Alvarenga (PAC) 0.18%
Lucas Aguilera (PDCH) 0.18%
José Alfonso Díaz (UD) 0.14%
Isaías Fonseca (FA) 0.1%
Eliseo Vallecillo (Vamos) 0.09%

Honduras 2017


National Party 61 seats (+13)
Libre 30 seats (-7)
Liberal Party 26 seats (-1)
PINU 4 seats (+3)
APH 4 seats (+4)
PDCH 1 seat (nc)
UD 1 seat (nc)
PAC 1 seat (-12)


National Party 173 mayors
Liberal Party 89 mayors
Libre 31 mayors
Local parties 2 mayors
APH 1 mayor
Vamos 1 mayor
PDCH 1 mayor

There were few major incidents on election day on November 26. The OAS’ preliminary report (Dec. 4) reported delays in opening polling stations in addition to more ‘typical’ voting irregularities like low-level intimidation, vote buying, partisan campaigning near polling stations. In general terms, both the OAS and EU missions described the actual voting process as peaceful, smooth, well-organized and without systematic incidents or irregularities.

On November 25, a day before the election, The Economist obtained a recording that “suggests the ruling party has plans to distort results in the upcoming elections“. The recording, apparently at a training session for National Party members supervising polling stations, mentions a ‘plan B’, which “appears to be a scheme for fraudulently boosting the vote of the National Party at the expense of its rivals”. The Economist enumerated several vote rigging strategies on the basis of the recordings:

  1. Obtaining poll workers’ credentials from smaller parties.
  2. Letting Nationalists vote more than once, by not marking their fingers and inking their pinkies.
  3. Altering votes: spoiling ballots by adding extra marks, filling in leftover ballots, damaging the bar code on tally sheets (to be electronically transmitted) favouring the opposition
  4. Delay the inclusion of pro-opposition tally sheets in the preliminary vote count (by damaging them), but tally sheets won by the National Party should be signed, sealed and delivered quickly.
  5. Urging trainees to remain alert and take advantage of the inattention or weaknesses of representatives of rival parties.

The Economist published transcripts of some of the recordings as well as the audio files on November 29. The Nationalists were quick to dismiss the story, while the Alliance seized on it as evidence of the Nationalists’ intentions to rig the election. Salvador Nasralla, before polls even opened, had implied that he would not recognize any outcome which did not have him winning.

Shortly after polls closed, President Juan Orlando Hernández proclaimed victory on the basis of two ‘exit polls’. The OAS was preoccupied by the allusions to ‘exit polls’ beginning in the morning, despite electoral law banning their publication until polls close. Honduran pollsters, particularly this year, are unreliable and have obvious partisan biases or political agendas – often owned by former politicians. They are quite often not transparent about their methodologies. At least one of the ‘exit polls’ which the president cited on Twitter to claim victory was done by a polling firm owned by his former security and foreign minister Arturo Corrales (of the small PDCH). It gave JOH a 10-point lead over Nasralla (44-34), with results reported to two decimal points. JOH also claimed that he had received congratulatory phone calls from Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales and Ecuadorean President Lenín Moreno. Salvador Nasralla also proclaimed victory.

On the night on November 26, the TSE did not publicly release any results. Unlike nearly every other country with democratic elections (including basically every Latin American country, except Venezuela), the TSE did not therefore provide live updates of the vote count online. It claimed, much like Venezuela’s CNE usually does, that it was waiting to get a ‘representative’ or ‘regionally balanced’ sample of polling stations before releasing any. This long delay was the first incident which hurt the TSE’s credibility and raised the spectre of fraud. The TSE had set up an online system for the transmission, processing and publication of results including uploaded scanned copies of individual actas (tally sheets) from polling stations. There were concerns, underlined in the OAS’ second report, that the TSE changed the provider for this transmission system at the last minute.

Only in the early morning hours of Monday November 27 did the TSE, pressured by the OAS, finally release the first public results. At 57.2% of precincts reported, the TSE’s results had Nasralla with a 4.96% lead over JOH, 45.2% to 40.2% (or a lead of 93,975 votes). After this first update, the TSE’s website stopped updating for much of Monday and only fired up again later on Tuesday. The TSE promised to have conclusive results by November 30, although it was showing that its track record for keeping such promises was very poor.

The TSE explained that it was receiving physical actas which were not electronically transmitted on election night, receiving and processing (scanning) them at a logistical centre (INFOP). The OAS’ preliminary report (Dec. 4) said that there were no pre-established protocols for the reception and unloading of actas and found that, in some cases, trucks reached the INFOP without custodians and TSE personnel needed to break the locks on the material received because of the absence of military personnel. The OAS also reported that the order in which these actas were processed was altered without explanation and observers found that some boxes arrived from polling stations already opened or with missing materials (actas, etc.). In the midst of confusion, TSE alternate magistrate Marco Ramiro Lobo (who has no vote in proceedings), presented as the body’s only ‘opposition’ or ‘critical’ member, said that the presidential trend was ‘irreversible’ with the remaining 43% of precincts.

By late on November 28, Nasralla’s lead was reduced to about 48,300 (about 2%) and began shrinking rapidly – to about 35,600 by the early morning hours of November 29, and 24,200 on the morning of November 29. By the evening of November 29, JOH took the lead (when about 83% of precincts had reported). On November 29, at one point, Nasralla’s vanishing lead went from +16,600 to +3,800 with just an extra 2% of polling stations.

Both candidates continued to claim victory. JOH was confident that the remaining ‘rural votes’ would give him the triumph he claimed. Liberal candidate Luis Zelaya recognized Salvador Nasralla as the winner (who was also ‘recognized’ by Bolivian President Evo Morales).

On November 29, the media reported that both candidates had committed themselves, in writing, before the OAS to respect the final results and to call on their supporters to peacefully await the end of the vote count. Yet, within hours, Nasralla, flanked by Mel Zelaya, held a bombastic and melodramatic press conference in which he proclaimed himself as president-elect, retracted his signature from the OAS’ document and presented his own results while claiming fraud. Nasralla claimed that, with 91% of actas in their possession, he had a lead of over 18,500 votes (with fraud included in JOH’s vote count!). As concrete proof of irregularities, the Alliance claimed that there were unsigned actasactas from precincts they’ve won but which the TSE excluded from the count, and actas which the TSE had fraudulently passed over to ‘special scrutiny’. He also called on his supporters to take the streets, in typical Latin American style, a decision which both the EU and OAS regretted as irresponsible. As a result of Nasralla’s ‘call to the streets‘, there were opposition protests outside the INFOP which were dispersed. The OAS mission needed to evacuate observers which were there.

After the TSE’s website placed JOH in the lead, the system broke down – a literal repeat of the infamous se cayó el sistema from Mexico’s rigged 1988 election – because of technical problems on a server which reached maximum capacity. The TSE apologized for the error and the systems were back up by midnight on November 30, but the caída del sistema only further fuelled rising tensions,

The TSE’s website continued updating at snail’s pace, with JOH’s lead consistently growing. In a communiqué to the TSE released on December 1, the Alliance conditioned its acceptance of final results to a full list of actas under special scrutiny (about 1,000 of them for inconsistencies), a full list of the 5,100+ actas processed from the INFOP, a complete archive of the database, information about the internal control interfaces, and access to the software. The Alliance asked that one Alliance member be accredited as an observer for each precinct under special scrutiny, and that each table in special scrutiny be observed by the three major parties (Nats, Liberals, Alliance) and international observers.

The defeated Liberal candidate reiterated, on December 6 and 10, that according to the Liberal Party’s own parallel vote count (up to 82% counted), Nasralla was the winner. Luis Zelaya’s consistent support for the Alliance and Nasralla divided the Liberal Party, with certain factions of the party recognizing the TSE’s results. Mauricio Villeda, the party’s 2013 candidate, supported Luis Zelaya but Elvin Santos, the party’s 2009 candidate, was critical of Luis Zelaya.

Protests escalated and got increasingly heated, with incidents of violence and looting and repression of demonstrators by the military, military police (PMOP) and police. The OAS and EU, somewhat futilely, appealed for calm, repeating that everybody should wait until 100% of all actas have been processed and recounted where necessary. On the evening of December 1, however, the government imposed a curfew – effective from 11pm on December 1 – for at least ten days between 6am and 6pm. The government decree suspended the constitutional guarantee of freedom of movement; allowed the military to ‘assist’ the police to “execute the necessary plans to maintain the order and security of the Republic”; ordered the detention of all individuals violating the curfew or “that is in some way suspected of causing damage to people or their property, those who are associated with the purpose of committing criminal acts or are endangering their own lives” and the immediate eviction of all public and private facilities occupied by demonstrators or housing people committing illegal acts. TSE members, party representatives, international observers and communicators accredited by the TSE – but not the media – were excepted from this curfew (as well as freight trucks, emergency vehicles, diplomats etc.). On December 4, a new curfew was issued for 6 days, banning the free movement of people between 8pm and 5am. The decree from December 1 was repealed.

Despite the curfew, protests continued in many Honduran cities, with massive demonstrations called by the opposition. The opposition called for massive cacerolazos, beginning on November 3. These protests turned bloody. By December 3, there were already seven fatalities. As of December 17, 18 people had been killed in protests. However, on December 5, the foreign press reported that sectors of the national police were refusing to suppress protests violating the curfew. Nasralla called on the military to follow suit and disobey orders. As explained in my ‘recent background’ section, JOH has clearly favoured the military while the national police has been the target of a depuration campaign which has dismissed over 4,400 officers (although most for restructuring, death, mandatory or voluntary retirement rather than criminal ties).

TSE alternate magistrate Marco Ramiro Lobo, ‘the internal critic’ of the TSE, said in an interview on December 3 that the caídas del sistema on Wednesday November 29 ‘generated many doubts’ in people’s minds about fraud. He said the trends ‘shifted’ (in JOH’s favour) after the system came back on and questioned whether the caída del sistema was really an accident or technical problem. He said that it would be very difficult for people to believe the TSE if when they declared JOH as the winner.

On December 3, the TSE began the ‘special scrutiny’ of 1,001 actas with inconsistencies. The Alliance refused to participate in this process, despite its earlier demands that they be accredited observers. At the petition of the OAS, the TSE allowed for the count to be observed by domestic civil society observers. The OAS mission’s preliminary report found that there was no protocol or detailed instructions for this process, using different criteria to validate votes and not fully revising all materials from polling stations (list of incidents, voter roll etc.). The OAS’ mission’s second report (Dec. 17) did not express additional concerns, praising the TSE’s decision to scrutinize these actas. Most of these problematic actas were scanned and transmitted electronically from polling stations on the night of November 26. Most concerns, and the potential for fraud and tampering, are about the actas which were not scanned or electronically transmitted from polling stations on November 26.

The OAS and EU recommended that the TSE verify the 5,174 actas which were not transmitted the night of the election (recounting the votes of the actas presenting inconsistencies). Marco Ramiro Lobo, the ‘critical member’ of the TSE, also endorsed these requests. The TSE acceded to this special request, verifying 4,753 actas. The OAS had recommended that the TSE’s actas be compared to those of the Alliance, but the Alliance did not provide its own copies. The opposition, which had initially (on Dec. 1) asked for such a revision, now asked for a full revision of all 18,100 actas – or, if not, a  ‘second round’ (even if they don’t legally exist in Honduras) between JOH and Nasralla under international observation. This exceptional revision process began on December 8, with the constant presence of domestic and international observers. The OAS’ second report (Dec. 17) reported a certain number of irregularities in the revision/recount process and ‘disparate procedures’ in the recounting of votes. Marco Ramiro Lobo regretted that the revision was not accompanied by a revision of the polling stations’ record (cuadernos de votación) – which indicated the number of people who voted in each precinct – and comparing them to the number of ballots. In an interview with BBC Mundo, the alternate magistrate supported the Alliance’s demand to recount all 18,000+ actas – but recognized that the TSE would not and could not take this decision. Without such a recount, he claimed that the results would be ‘surely dubious’.

The revision process of the 4,753 actas officially ended on December 10. In this revision process, the National Party lost 1,178 votes and the Alliance gained 829 votes – in other words, very few changes compared to the initially reported results, and certainly not enough to overturn the result of the election as reported by the TSE.

Going through the legal process (under pressure for international observers), the Alliance formally challenged the result of the presidential election, but without expecting much to come from it (given that it has no faith in the country’s judicial system or the TSE). The Liberals also legally challenged the presidential but also congressional and municipal elections. At the same time, Nasralla asked that the election be cancelled entirely. He provided a ‘short scientific explanation’ of the ‘fraud’. On December 12, the Alliance provided the OAS and EU missions with the necessary evidence supporting its claims of fraud.

Was there fraud?

On December 17, the TSE officially proclaimed the results of all three elections, declaring Juan Orlando Hernández as the winner of the presidential election. The TSE had until December 26 to officially declare the results. The OAS and EU both released statements on December 17. The EU’s statement made no official comments on the validity of the results declared, but its statement was generally read as an endorsement of the TSE’s position. It said that the recount of the 5,000 actas was “undertaken in conditions of full transparency and in the presence of national and international observers” and noted that “despite numerous invitations from the TSE, neither of the two parties which had denounced irregularities attended the recounts and verifications, nor did they come to compare their copies of results forms with the TSE originals”. The EU mission also noted that the Liberals’ and Alliance’s appeals were not “accompanied by a significant number of results forms, which would have served to demonstrate to the Honduran public what the alleged divergences were between the forms in the parties’ possession, and those published on the TSE website”. With regards to the evidence submitted by the Alliance to the EU on December 12 – a digital file containing their copies of 14,363 actas out of 18,129 precincts – the EU mission’s cross-check between a large random sample of the Alliance’s results to the originals published online by the TSE “concluded that there was virtually no difference between the two sets of results forms”. By way of conclusion, the EU said that it will “continue to analyse any appeal which may be submitted in response to the publication of results”.

The OAS’ second report, released on December 17, is far more critical of the TSE than the EU’s statement. Some of its comments have been noted above. It also conducted a partial audit of the TSE’s system, and while I can’t effectively summarize its technical findings, my uneducated impression of them is that there were significant problems and irregularities in the configuration of this system. The TSE’s treatment of the November 29 system failure did not respect international best practices and the actions to reestablish the IT infrastructure were not appropriate (did not preserve evidence or restrict access to another affected server). The OAS stated that the sequential processing of the results – from the scan at the precinct to its final divulgation – was altered in a significant number of cases (actas transported, stored and later transmitted). It could not, however, conclude that the system had been maliciously tampered with.

The OAS reiterated its concerns from its preliminary Dec. 4 report, which included several criticisms and concerns about irregularities, errors and problems before, during and after the election – partisan bias of the TSE, trafficking in credentials, illegal use of exit polls, confusions about polling hours, delay in transmission of initial results, the system failures after the election, management of actas in the INFOP without protocols and so forth. This preliminary report had concluded that the OAS had no certainty about the results, and made six recommendations including the revision of the 5,000 actas. In the TSE’s official proclamation of results, the body considered that they had followed all six recommendations. The OAS’ second report made positive comments about the TSE’s decision to allow the revision of the 5,000 actas, and, like the EU, observed no major differences between the 3 parties’ actas and the official ones ‘in the quasi-totality of cases’ – but it also said that there are certain cases with ‘inexplicable discrepancies’ between the parties’ actas and the official ones. The ‘bombshell’ comes in the penultimate paragraph of the OAS’ 13-page report: “the mission considers that it has observed an electoral process of low quality and therefore cannot affirm that the doubts about it are clarified”.

This well-informed blog post on the processing of an acta provides some suggestions about how the actas could have been adulterated, trafficked, tampered with or otherwsie modified. Actas scanned at the polling stations are scanned a second time in Tegucigalpa when the physical boxes arrive. There were pictures of a truck backing up at an hotel in the capital appearing to show some of these boxes, raising concerns about actas being scanned outside the INFOP. The second round of scans at the INFOP “are clearly done using different procedures with a different way of getting in to the system”. It is certainly possible that the second scans of certain actas done at the INFOP differed from the originals. The opposition on Twitter posted several images of actas showing differences between theirs and the ones posted on the TSE website.

JOH has claimed that the ‘swing’ between the initially reported results on Monday morning (at 57% reporting) showing Nasralla ahead by 5% and the final results was because pro-Alliance urban areas reported first, while Nationalist rural areas reported later, reversing Nasralla’s lead.


Nationalist and Alliance vote share by precincts vs. cumulative votes counted, showing 68% ‘turning point’ (source: I. Nooruddin analysis for the OAS)

Dr. Irfan Nooruddin of Georgetown University conducted an analysis of the results reported by the TSE for the OAS. He found that while the “dramatic vote swing experienced is possibly the result of Alianza favoring areas reporting results earlier and being counted sooner”, this assumes that there is no difference in the accuracy of early-reporting and late-reporting precincts. However, his analysis suggested that “there is something unusual in the pattern of the late reporting polling stations” – in every single department, the Alliance’s advantage increased and then collapsed. For this to be true, this would mean that, in every single department, Nationalist precincts reported later and reversed Nasralla’s lead. Of even greater concern, Dr. Nooruddin’s analysis found that “there is a marked break point with roughly 68% of votes counted in polling level station turnout rates and concomitant vote shares for the Partido Nacional and the opposition Alliance“. The final 32% of precincts which reported had substantially higher support for JOH, substantially lower support for Nasralla and higher turnout. He wrote: “for this to be plausible, we’d have to believe not only that late-reporting polling stations favored the incumbent but that that they did so by overwhelming margins unlike the polling stations that reported even a few minutes earlier in the evening.” In addition, turnout in the first 68% of precincts was 56%, but turnout jumped to 63% in the final 32%. He conducted a final analysis only of precincts in La Paz department, which voted for JOH. In La Paz, the 68% mark is key as well: turnout jumped from 68% to 73%, Nationalist votes increased from 44% to 56% and Alliance votes collapsed from 32% to 16%. Dr. Nooruddin found that this 68% mark also holds in other departments, like Cortés, which voted for Nasralla. Dr. Nooruddin’s ‘bombshell’ is in the final line: on the basis of his analysis, he rejects “the proposition that the National Party won the election legitimately.”



Vote ‘swings’ between Nov. 28 and Dec. 6 counts by municipality (source: Economist)

The Economist also did its own analysis, looking at municipal results. It found that, in basically every single municipality, JOH’s vote share increased and Nasralla’s decreased between Nov. 28 and Dec. 6 in the count. This challenges JOH’s argument that rural areas reported later and gave him his big win. The Economist‘s analysed 2013 census data (% of houses with dirt floor, correlated with rural households) and “found no relationship between how rural a municipality was and how sharply its vote shifted towards Mr Hernández.”

On the basis of the OAS mission’s second report, the OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro said that the OAS cannot give assurance regarding the outcome of the elections, reiterating that “the electoral process was characterized by irregularities and deficiencies, with very low technical quality and lacking integrity”. While calling for political dialogue and rejecting all forms of violence, Almagro said that “the only possible way for the victor to be the people of Honduras is a new call for general elections, within the framework of the strictest respect for the rule of law, with the guarantees of a TSE that enjoys the technical capacity and confidence of both the citizens and political parties”. He appointed former Bolivian President Jorge Quiroga and former Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom as OAS special representatives to carry out the necessary work to organize a new electoral process.

Other results

Because of the post-election crisis, the results of the two other elections have been overlooked. It is unclear whether they too are potentially fraudulent – the Liberals seem to think so as they have challenged them, but the Alliance hasn’t said much if anything about them. I think it should also be pointed out (and it hasn’t) that, between Nov. 27 and the final results, congressional and municipal results – unlike presidential results – did not ‘swing’ much. Although the TSE reported these two elections in terms of seats won (congressmen and mayors), the same trends did not change from the beginning – about 58-61 seats for the National Party, and over half of mayors for the National Party. I am unsure about whether this may ‘prove’ (or not) potential irregularities in the presidential results. It should be pointed out, however, that the congressional and municipal counts were initially much slower – on November 27, only 20% or so of congressional and municipal actas had been counted, against 57% of presidential ones.

On the final results, the National Party has won 61 seats in Congress – a 13 seat gain compared to the 2013 election – bringing it to 47.8% of seats, only four seats short of an absolute majority. The support of the minor parties like PDCH (1), APH (4) and PAC (1) will undoubtedly give the Nationalists a comfortable working majority in the new Congress. Notably, this new Congress will elect the members of the TSE in 2019.

For those wondering, Nasralla’s young wife Iroshka Elvir – a PINU candidate in Francisco Morazán – lost badly, getting only 61,637 marcas (‘marks’, or preferential votes).

The Nationalists also won over half of municipalities in the country, electing 173 (58%) mayors against 89 for the Liberals and only 31 for Libre. The National Party held the two largest cities in the country, Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula. In Distrito Central (Tegucigalpa and Comayagüela), incumbent Nationalist mayor Nasry Asfura – a construction businessman of Palestinian origin – was reelected to a second term in a landslide, winning 77% of the vote against 11.9% for Libre. First elected in 2014, Asfura is known as papi a la orden for enriching his own construction company with public infrastructure contracts. He is, shockingly enough, a very big fan of infrastructure projects. In San Pedro Sula, Nationalist mayor Armando Calidonio was reelected to a second term with 33.3% against 23.7% for Libre and 20.7% for the Liberals. Calidonio is the son of former colonel Armando Calidonio, a member of the National Investigative Unit in the 1970s who was named in a list of military officers accused of collaborating with drug trafficker Juan Ramón Matta Ballesteros in the kidnapping and murder of the Ferrari siblings, Matta Ballesteros’ first criminal allies and business partners. Armando Calidonio junior was undersecretary for security (2002-2005) and security secretary (2005-2006), and again as undersecretary for security (2010-2011); he was also elected to Congress in 2010.

In Yoro (departmental capital of Yoro dept.), Diana Urbina Soto (National) was elected mayor with 58.5% (17.3% for Libre and 17.2% for the Liberals). Diana Urbina Soto, a congresswoman, is the sister of former mayor Arnaldo Urbina Soto, first elected in 2009 and reelected in 2013, before being arrested in 2014 and recently sentenced to 36 years in jail for money laundering. The Urbina Soto family, the subject of a recent InsightCrime investigation, is a political-criminal clan involved in drug trafficking (allied with the Cachiros), illegal logging and land appropriation among other things. Diana’s brother Carlos Fernando Urbina Soto is considered the criminal ‘leader’ of the clan and is still at large, and two of other brothers – Miguel Ángel and Mario – were arrested in the same police raid in 2014, but later found not guilty and released.

Given the strong chance that the official results of the presidential election are at least in part fraudulent, a serious analysis of the electoral geography and voting patterns loses much of its value. According to the TSE’s official results, Nasralla won six departments against 12 for JOH. Geographically, Nasralla won the northern and Caribbean departments (except for remote and predominantly indigenous Gracias a Dios) while JOH won the inland (and Pacific) south. Nasralla’s best department was Cortés, which includes the city of San Pedro Sula. He won 55% in the department and 55.6% in the city. JOH won Francisco Morazán department, which includes Distrito Central (Tegucigalpa): he won 44.4% against 37.4% for Nasralla in the department and narrowly carried the capital with 43.8% against 40.5% for the opposition Alliance’s candidate. JOH’s best department was his native department of Lempira, where he won 59.3% of the vote against 30.9% for Nasralla. The Alliance challenged the validity of the turnout statistics for Lempira, La Paz and Intibucá departments – three Nationalist strongholds (with large indigenous populations) reporting 76.5%, 70.1% and 68.9% turnout respectively. The OAS’ second report found that these high turnouts were consistent with high turnouts in these same three departments in prior elections, although Dr. Nooruddin’s analysis (see above) found that turnout in La Paz department increased ‘suddenly’ after the 68% reporting ‘turning point’ from 68% to 73%.

According to the US Library of Congress’ 1995 Honduras: A Country Study, southern departments were historically National strongholds while the Liberals were strong in the more developed northern and Caribbean departments (as well as the unique insular department of Islas de la Bahía – Roatán) although the Liberals had their rural strongholds too.

Traditionally, the PNH has had a stronger constituency in rural areas and in the less developed and southern agricultural departments, whereas the PLH has been traditionally stronger in the urban areas and in the more developed northern departments, although the party has had some rural strongholds. In a study of five Honduran elections from 1957 to 1981, James Morris observes that the PLH had a strong base of support in the five departments that made up the so-called central zone of the country–Atlántida, Cortés, Francisco Morazán, El Paraíso, and Yoro. The PNH had strong support in the more rural and isolated departments of Copán, Lempira, Intibucá, and Gracias a Dios, and the southern agricultural departments of Valle and Choluteca.

Francisco Morazán and El Paraíso departments, described as Liberal regions in the text above, voted for JOH. The other departments mentioned in the above blurb voted ‘the same way’ in 2017 – treating the Alliance as a partial successor to the Liberal Party.

What next?

Unsurprisingly, Nasralla and the Alliance have furiously retweeted Almagro’s statement and endorsed his calls for new elections. Equally as unsurprising, JOH has rejected the OAS’ calls, with one of his aides accusing the OAS of trying to steal the election for Nasralla. At the same time, JOH has tried to appear magnanimous in victory and issued calls for broad political dialogue. Trying to appear ‘above the fray’ – as the responsible adult versus the rioting teenagers on the streets – has been JOH’s strategy from the beginning, although that image took a hit with his declaration of the state of emergency on December 1. Nasralla, who returned from a 72 hour trip to Washington D.C. on December 19, has said that he is more than willing to participate in JOH’s grand political dialogue. It is questionable whether JOH’s calls for dialogues are sincere or merely political posturing. While making these calls, he also explicitly branded all demonstrations – without any exception – to be violent. It is also questionable whether these political dialogues, if they do take place, will be just as futile as the talks which took place between Mel Zelaya and the de facto government after the 2009 coup – breaking down, almost inevitably, because of a fundamental disagreement on the key question – which in this case may be ‘new elections’. These talks, if they do take place, may also be part of a strategy by JOH to divide the Alliance and break its unity. Although all dismissed by the interested parties, there have already been claims and signs of disagreements within the Alliance – primarily between the candidate (Nasralla) and the coordinator (Mel Zelaya), with the latter appearing more intransigent.

The political-electoral crisis in Honduras has brought major international attention to Honduras, on a scale comparable to the 2009 coup. This new Honduran crisis has, like in 2009, been of significant interest to certain US lawmakers and politically-engaged North Americans. Commentators have noted the difference in the US’ official responses to recent political events and elections in Venezuela and Honduras. The US, like much of the international community (and most ‘non-left-wing’ Latin American governments, like Mexico and Colombia), does not recognize the Venezuelan national constituent assembly ‘elected’ in a controversial electoral process over the summer, which was boycotted by the opposition. Of course, the US government has imposed new sanctions on top Venezuelan officials, including the country’s new vice president. The results of the Venezuelan regional elections in October, in which Nicolás Maduro’s ruling party claimed victory – unexpectedly – in the vast majority of states, have also been disputed. The Venezuelan opposition largely boycotted municipal elections in December, a boycott which led President Maduro to announce that the parties which boycotted may be banned from running in the 2018 presidential elections in Venezuela. In contrast to its response to events in Venezuela, the United States has hardly been critical of the Honduran government and the elections there. The US chargé d’affaires, Heide Fulton, tweeted after the elections that the process seemed to be orderly and calm. On November 29, a spokesperson at the US State Department urged calm and patience and that the US “looks forward to working with the democratically elected leaders of Honduras”. Afterwards, the US embassy largely endorsed the EU and OAS’ preliminary recommendations. It later said that it was pleased with the TSE’s special scrutiny and supported the international observers’ work. The State Department, in a statement on December 18, took notice of the TSE’s proclamation of results but made little substantive comments beyond that (except no violence etc. etc.). Unsurprisingly, President Donald Trump has – to my knowledge – made no comment about these elections. Members of Congress, mostly Democrats (but also Florida Republican congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen), have been more vocal – criticizing the TSE for its delay in providing results. Representative Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) called the Honduran election an ‘illegal election’, while Representative Norma Torres (D-CA) called on the State Department to withhold aid until the crisis is resolved. Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs Committee have endorsed the OAS’ calls for a new election, as have Democrats in the Senate including Pat Leahy (D-VT) and Tim Kaine (D-VA).

Given the direction of the Trump administration’s foreign policy, particularly on Latin America – with a renewed focus on the militarized war on drugs (where JOH has proven to be a key US ally in Central America), it is a near-certainty that the Trump administration will recognize – tacitly or openly – JOH’s reelection, and provide diplomatic support to his weakened position. Lo and behold, Honduras was one of 8 countries besides the US which voted against the UN motion on December 21 condemning Trump’s decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem (even if Honduras recognized Palestine in 2011). Besides the US, JOH is likely to continue to count on the support of the military – in fact, given the police’s ‘dubious loyalty’ in the post-election crisis, a weakened (and illegitimate?) JOH may further shore up the military’s role and status in his government, increasing its power and influence over key sectors of the state in return for political support – a return to the setup of the first years of ‘constitutional democracy’ after 1982.

For quite some time now, it appears as if the Alliance is unsure of what its own end game is. During the vote counting and election certification process, it changed its demands several times. Its demands for a new election, even if endorsed by the OAS, still seem unrealistic as long as JOH retains control of the situation and public order in the country. As speculated above, JOH’s calls for a grand political dialogue may be a political trick by his administration to seek and divide the Alliance, or at least to drag the issue on for several months until it eventually loses steam (and loses the interest of potential allies outside the country). Nasralla may become Honduras’ version of 2006 Mexican presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador – claiming he won the election (with a more substantive claim than AMLO) and proclaiming himself as the legitimate president… but the official winner of the election being sworn in regardless and serving out a full term (and the rival’s claims to being the legitimate president gradually losing clout).

Beyond the disputed outcome of the election and what may come next, Honduras’ 2017 election shows another example of the consolidation of ‘competitive authoritarianism’ in Latin America, greatly damaging the legitimacy and credibility of elections as a mechanism for democratic political action and change. It also offers a textbook example of why presidential reelection remains such a controversial issue everywhere in Latin America – with recent moves to remove/modify term limits (Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, a failed attempt in Paraguay) and moves to restore term limits (Colombia, Ecuador). Presidential reelection in Latin America, particularly in ‘hybrid regimes’ like Honduras, carries the real risk of an entrenched autocratic incumbent seeking to prolong his hold on power through whatever means, including electoral fraud – in addition to weakening traditional checks and balances.

Morocco 2016

Parliamentary elections were held in Morocco on October 7, 2016. All 395 seats in the House of Representatives (Chambre des représentants, ﻣﺠﻠﺲ ﺍﻟﻨﻮﺍﺏ, ⴰⴳⵔⴰⵡ ⵏ ⵉⵎⴰⵔⴰⵢⴻⵏ), the lower house of the Moroccan Parliament, were up for re-election.

Multi-member constituencies (source: medias24)

Multi-member constituencies (source: medias24)

Morocco’s legislature is bicameral. The lower house is the House of Representatives, directly elected for a five year term, although the King has the power to dissolve it, pretty much at will. It has a total of 395 members, 305 of which are elected in 92 multi-member constituencies (electing between 2 and 6 members) using closed party list proportional representation (no panachage or preferential voting), largest remainder method. There is a 3% (previously 6%) threshold at the constituency level, although given the low district magnitude, I’m not sure if this actually means anything. The constituencies are set by ministerial decree, with each province or préfecture (the second-level administrative divisions, prefectures are in urban areas) forming a constituency but with most of the large prefectures divided into several constituencies (Casablanca has 8, Rabat has 2, Salé has 3 etc.). Because each constituency is guaranteed at least two seats, the less populated (rural) provinces tend to be over-represented, often at the expense of the urban, densely populated prefectures. By way of example, the remote provinces of Tarfaya (2014 pop: 13,082) and Aousserd (pop: 16,190) have one representative for 6,500 and 8,000 inhabitants respectively. In the prefecture of Tanger-Assilah (pop: 1 million), which elects just five members, one member represents over 210,000 people. Casablanca elects 26 representatives in 8 constituencies, with each representing about 130,000 people. The remaining 90 seats are reserved for women (60) and ‘young’ men (and, now, women) under 40 (30), elected on a national list with a 3% threshold.

The upper house is the House of Councillors, which has 120 indirectly elected members serving six year terms. Three fifths represent local governments, a third among them from the regional councils and the rest of them from all other levels (provinces, prefectures and communes). Two fifths are basically corporatist representatives, elected by professional chambers, employers’ organizations and employees’ representatives. Unsurprisingly, the upper house (and, before 1996, the indirectly selected members of the unicameral house) has always been dominated by various pro-monarchy parties or independents. Its powers have gradually decreased with each successive constitution.


Morocco is, on paper, a constitutional monarchy albeit one in which the monarch retains a great deal of political, economic and religious power either through the word of the constitution or the actual workings of government. Morocco has been moving, ever so slowly, towards a more democratic political system, most notably with the adoption of a new constitution in 2011 which imposed a few limitations on monarchical power, strengthened the powers of Parliament (but reduced those of the unelected upper house), lengthened the list of fundamental rights, created a whole bunch of new ‘independent’ institutions to protect human rights and the like, decentralized power with the creation of directly-elected regional councils and made Tamazight (Berber) an official language.

Nevertheless, the King, also Commander of the Faithful (Amir Al Mouminine), has a whole load of titles (Supreme Representative, Symbol of the unity of the Nation, Guarantor of the permanence and of the continuity of the State and Supreme Arbiter between the institutions, Guarantor of the country’s Independence), presides the council of ministers, the superior council of the Ulema, the superior security council and the superior council of the judiciary. He is also commander in chief of the armed forces, signs and ratifies treaties (although more and more of them must now be approved by law), may rule by decree, may dissolve one or both houses of Parliament (but after consulting the prime minister, presidents of both houses and the Constitutional Council), promulgates laws and may force a new reading of a law by Parliament.

One of the main changes of the 2011 constitution is that the king must now appoint the prime minister from the political party which placed first in the parliamentary (lower house) elections, which significantly reduces the king’s ability to play as power broker in government formations, or to appoint his own favourites as prime minister rather than party politicians. The king appoints cabinet ministers, on the ‘proposal of the prime minister’, although the new constitution also formally gave the prime minister the possibility to request that the king dismiss one or more ministers. The new government must obtain the confidence of the lower house upon presenting its agenda. It may seek a confidence vote. A fifth (reduced from a fourth) of members of the lower house may table a motion of no-confidence, which is adopted by an absolute majority of members. The 2011 constitution removed the upper house’s ability to remove the government through a non-confidence vote (which required a two-thirds majority).

In the actual practice, the king sets much of the important public policy or at least provides a general macroeconomic direction or broad outline, leaving the governments to translate that into legislation and allowing them to handle lesser issues. There are certain policy domains which remain very clearly the preserve of the king: the monarchy, Islam, Western Sahara, constitutional reform, the military and, to a lesser extent, elections. Unsurprisingly, the king is intent on leaving his mark on the country by launching or sponsoring large programs or projects of various kind. Early in his reign, King Mohammed VI launched a ‘National Initiative for Human Development’, a strategy to reduce poverty and created an Equity and Reconciliation Commission (IER) to study the ‘years of lead’ period of repression (under King Hassan II). More recently, Mohammed VI has promoted foreign investment in Morocco through large, lavish infrastructure projects (Tanger Med cargo port, Casablanca Finance City, high speed rail) and launched an ambitious tourism strategy (Plan Azur).

Within the cabinet, there are several portfolios called ‘sovereign ministries’ in academic literature, largely those dealing with issues falling within Crown prerogative. Typically, the ministries of the interior, habous and religious affairs and defence (or at least the deputy minister slot) are held by non-partisan technocrats. The General Secretariat of Government, which coordinates the preparation of bills and decrees and provides legal advice, is also traditionally held by a royal appointee.

Despite the flowery language of the 2011 constitution, Morocco’s poor record on human rights and civil liberties means that it is not a democracy. A few relevant excerpts from the 2016 Freedom in the World report:

  • Although the independent press enjoys a significant degree of freedom when reporting on economic and social policies, the authorities use an array of financial and legal mechanisms to punish critical journalists, particularly those who focus on the king, his family, the status of Western Sahara, or Islam.
  • Freedom of assembly is not always respected, though frequent demonstrations by unemployed graduates and unions are generally tolerated. Although such protests often occur without incident, activists say they are harassed outside of public events.
  • In 2015, authorities increased pressure on civil society organizations critical of the government, banning a number of their activities, demonstrations, and other projects.
  • The judiciary is not independent of the palace, and the courts are regularly used to punish government opponents.
  • Arbitrary arrest and torture still occur. Investigations by rights advocates in 2015 revealed that torture remains widespread among Moroccan security forces.
  • The Moroccan LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community faces harsh discrimination.
  • Freedoms of movement, employment, and education are guaranteed by law in Morocco, but poor economic conditions and corruption limit these freedoms in practice.

The status of Western Sahara is disputed, stuck in a stalemate since 1991. Two-thirds of the territory, including the quasi-entirety of the coastline and all major cities (Laayoune and Dakhla), is controlled by Morocco, which considers the entire region to be an integral part of the kingdom and has, on paper, the same political rights as any other part of Morocco. The remaining third of the territory, inhospitable arid desert bordering Algeria and Mauritania, is controlled by the self-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) ruled by the separatist Polisario Front. The de facto capital of the SADR is Tindouf (Algeria), a massive Sahrawi refugee camp. The SADR’s main foreign backer is Algeria, whose border with Morocco remains closed and unlikely to reopen anytime soon. Morocco’s main foreign backer is France. The basis of the continued crisis is the organization of a self-determination referendum, promised in the 1991 cease-fire between Morocco and the Polisario and on the table ever since Spain withdrew from its Saharan colony in 1975. Morocco refuses the possibility of Sahrawi independence, while the Polisario insists that independence be an option in any referendum (in which it would like the franchise to be limited). Freedom of the press, assembly and association are all even more severely restricted in Western Sahara than in Morocco, with any expression of sympathy or support for independence strictly forbidden. There have also been plenty of reports of abuses by the Polisario in SADR territory.

In the 1970s, King Hassan II’s repression of opponents had failed in its objectives while his attempts to woo the traditional opposition parties had been rebuffed, placing the king and the country in a political impasse. In 1975, the king found an escape valve in the Western Sahara, where Spanish colonial rule was coming apart. Morocco had claimed the territory as an historic and integral part of the nation since independence, and large demonstrations demanded the ‘return of the Sahara’ in 1974. A UN mission concluded that Sahrawis favoured independence, and in October 1975, the ICJ ruled that while there existed historical ties with Morocco, Western Sahara had a right to self-determination. The Polisario Front, founded in 1973, had been fighting against Spain and was found by the UN mission to command ‘overwhelming’ support among the local population. Hassan II, determined not to lose a potentially advantageous situation, defied the ICJ’s ruling by sending troops across the border and, in November 1975, calling on a massive popular ‘Green March’ to pressure Spain into relinquishing its colony to Morocco (rather than pressuring for a referendum). Between 350,000 and 520,000 participated in the Green March, which pushed Spain (already facing severe domestic turmoil) to abandon ship and divide sovereignty between Morocco and Mauritania. Western Sahara quickly turned into something of a nightmare for Morocco. In 1976, the Polisario declared the independence of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) and began a guerrilla war against Morocco and Mauritania, which pushed the latter to withdraw from the territory in 1979. The armed conflict with Morocco ended in a cease-fire under UN monitoring in 1991, with undefined promises for a referendum on self-determination.

Parties and Issues

Since the 1950s and more particularly since the 1980s, the Moroccan monarchy has deliberately pursued a “divide and conquer” strategy with regards to political parties, seeking to keep the party system weak and fragmented so as to prevent any one party from overshadowing the monarchy or gaining sufficient political-electoral strength and legitimacy to directly challenge the monarchy. This has involved playing parties off against one another, facilitating the fragmentation of the party system (by ‘encouraging’ splits in parties), directly intervening by creating various “King’s friends” parties or co-opting parties reputed to be in opposition. This strategy has been remarkably successful.

The Arabic term makhzen, which means ‘warehouse’ in Maghrebi Arabic, nebulously refers to the monarchy and its apparel of notables, political bosses, military personnel, intelligence services, landowners, bureaucrats and other well-connected establishment figures. The makhzen does not really exist as an institution, or at least doesn’t exist in the way that, say, a government or public institution does, but it is very widely used to refer to the monarchy and its political activities.

The Moroccan party system is increasingly based around personalities rather than parties, and, outside of a few parties, ideology is rather unimportant.

Parti de la justice et du développement (Justice and Development Party, PJD): The main (moderate) Islamist party and Morocco’s senior governing party, since 2011. The Islamist movement in controlled politics emerged in the late 1990s. In the 1970s, the main Islamist group in the country was the violent, extremist and clandestine Chabiba Islamiya, which had engaged in terrorism during the 1970s. A moderate ‘legalist’ faction (including current PM Abdelillah Benkirane) emerged from this group, which split from it to establish a number of Islamic movements seeking to act within legal boundaries and ensuring the palace of their attachment to the monarchy. Benkirane’s al-Islah wal-Tajdid were permitted to integrate the ranks of a minor, dormant party, the Mouvement populaire démocratique et constitutionnel (MPDC), founded by old-timer Abdelkrim El Khatib in the 1960s as a splinter faction of another party. El Khatib, in charge of organizing the Moroccan Islamic fighters who went to support the mujahideen in Afghanistan, had been the Islamists’ contact with the regime.

The MPDC won 9 seats in 1997, and soon thereafter, the new Islamist entrants gained control of the party and renamed it PJD. In parallel, other moderate Islamist groups acting in legality joined with Benkirane’s movement to create the Mouvement Unité et Réforme (MUR), initially tied to the PJD and supposed to act as a collective of various Islamic charities and social organizations, meant to rival Al Adl Wal Ihsane, a more radical (without being extremist and rejecting violence) Islamist group led by Abdessalam Yassine (until his death in 2012) and operating in the limbo between legality and repression.

In 2002, the PJD and the makhzen struck a deal, in which the PJD agreed to step aside in a number of constituency in exchange for the right to participate in the elections. The PJD was therefore allowed to participate in the political system, while the palace ‘prevented another Algeria’. Basically, since the Gulf War, King Hassan II and later Mohammed VI needed to shore up their religious legitimacy, and they found in the PJD an Islamist party (which they judged, even if they didn’t like it, to be a necessary player) which wasn’t anti-system with which they could bargain and which was willing to play along with them. In 2002, even with its size limited, the PJD won 42 seats, becoming the third largest party (the extreme fragmentation of the party system that year makes it rather likely that the PJD would have won if they had run everywhere). After the 2003 Casablanca terrorist bombings, the PJD, which had been accused by secular critics of laying the ideological groundwork for the attacks (some even called for its banning), moved away from the controversial Islamist moralizing, dropped most references to sharia law, ‘differentiated’ itself from the MUR (which, from ‘civil society’, took over the more explicitly religious and moralizing discourses) and discovered new catchphrases with which to appeal to a broader base (democratization, corruption, unemployment, poverty, illiteracy etc.). The religious stuff was restated in more covert terminology, for example talk about the ‘Islamic identity’ of Morocco or ‘values’, and redefining the PJD as a party with an “Islamic frame of reference”.

In 2007, the PJD won 46 seats (second place), a very modest and underwhelming increase on the previous election, when most observers had been expecting the PJD to win fairly convincingly. The PJD thus remained out of government, although still enough of a ‘threat’ for the makhzen to try to undercut its support, which it attempted to do through the creation of the Authenticity and Modernity Party (PAM), selective application of anti-corruption legislation (targeting PJD local officials) and modification of electoral laws prior to the 2009 local elections. The PJD is at a disadvantage in local elections because of the sheer (over-represented) weight of rural municipalities, controlled as they are by pro-monarchy notables and political bosses affiliated with the other ‘traditional’ parties. In the 2009 local elections, the PJD won only 5.5% of local government seats, in fifth place, with the PAM in first place. The PJD had strong performances in urban areas, its traditional base of support, like in Casablanca, Rabat, Salé and Tangiers, but winners in Moroccan local elections are determined by narrative more than statistics, and the narrative was that the PJD had lost. The PAM, and others, used a mix of dirty tricks and traditional politicking to botch the PJD’s coalition-building efforts, notably in Casablanca and Tangiers.

The PJD played its cards well during the Arab Spring-inspired February 20, 2011 protests for democratic change in Morocco, without participating in them. It backed the protesters’ basic demands for ‘change’, but stressed that would only be realistic by working within the regime, and so it gave support to King Mohammed VI’s constitutional change, which was endorsed by voters in July 2011 (which saw very high turnout of 75.5% and 98% approval, at least that’s what we’re told to believe). The PJD, on a platform which sidestepped Islamism in favour of economic development, jobs and fighting corruption, won the 2011 elections – held ahead of schedule – with 27% of the votes and 107 seats. Benkirane became Prime Minister, the first Islamist head of government in Morocco. Initially, his government included the PJD, the conservative Istiqlal, the MP and small ‘left-wing’ PPS with outside support from most of the 1/2 seat parties. In July 2013, the Istiqlal party withdrew from government after a cabinet crisis which had been brewing for two months. Reduced to a minority, Benkirane formed a new government, replacing the Istiqlal with the RNI.

The government’s record has been mixed, at best. Morocco’s macroeconomic outlook is positive, although less so in 2016 than in previous years. In 2015, GDP growth was 4.5%, pushed by strong growth in its agricultural sector. However, in 2016, because of a drought in fall 2015, agricultural exports are expected to shrink by 9.5% and overall GDP growth will decelerate to 1.5%. The good performance of newly developed industries (automobile, aeronautics  and electronics) and the expansion  of Moroccan companies in Western  Africa hold potential for Morocco to boost its position in international markets. King Mohammed VI, who is also the country’s main businessman and landowner, has capitalized on Morocco’s political stability to attract European auto and aeronautics manufacturers (Renault). Morocco has also been investing millions in new infrastructure projects, from a fancy business city (Casablanca Finance City), a high-speed rail line from Tangiers to Kénitra (initially, later, perhaps, to Casablanca) to the largest solar plant in the world. Steady income growth has reduced the poverty rate, which stands between 9 and 15% today depending on metrics. Morocco ranks 126th on the Human Development Index (HDI), the lowest in North Africa (and, notably, lower than Iraq).

The government eliminated costly and controversial subsidies on gasoline and diesel (most subsidies, it was said, were actually benefiting the wealthiest), aiming to replace them with targeted direct cash grants to vulnerable sectors (so far, widows). With the subsidies reform and other fiscal consolidation efforts, the budget deficit has been reduced from 5.2% of GDP (2013) to a forecast 3.5% (2016), projected to shrink further to 2.8% in 2018. Low oil prices have greatly reduced the current account deficit, from 9.3% of GDP in 2012 to just 1.2% this year. The unemployment rate, however, has hovered between 9 and 10% in recent years, currently standing at 10%. The employment rate is low (47%), youth unemployment is high (39%) and women’s participation in the labour force remains very low (27%).

The PJD made corruption one of its main priorities in 2011, but, in power, its record on corruption is underwhelming. In no small part because the makhzen and King Mohammed VI’s entourage, said to be incredibly corrupt, resisted even timid moves to reduce corruption. In 2011, the new government had published a list of corrupt public figures who had benefited from unexplained transportation licenses. In 2012, the PJD in Parliament claimed that the finance minister in the previous government had embezzled nearly $50,000 over and above his monthly salary, but King Mohammed VI himself stepped in and asked the PJD not to provoke useless polemics. In 2015, cabinet defeated a parliamentary proposal to strengthen the powers of the main anti-corruption body, the Central Authority for the Prevention of Corruption (ICPC). However, the ICPC later adopted a comprehensive anti-corruption strategy. Beyond the government, few questions are allowed to be asked about the necessity for a high speed rail line (critics say the billions spent on that would be much more useful in fighting poverty, in a country where poverty remains fairly high) or what’s happening with royal projects like the Plan Azur, a plan designed to boost tourism which doesn’t seem to be reporting much success. Patronage, nepotism and wasta (who you know) remain deeply ingrained at all levels of public administration; bureaucracy is inefficient; the judiciary is not independent and perceived as being corrupt. Morocco ranks 88 out of 167 on the Corruption Perceptions Index, on par with Algeria and Egypt.

Constitutional and governmental promises to expand press freedom have amounted to little. The 2015 Freedom of the Press report rated Morocco’s press as ‘not free’. In general terms, three topics are off-limits for the media: the monarchy, Islam and Western Sahara. Criticism of the first two are banned by law, and critical coverage of the royal family and Western Sahara is effectively banned. Journalists, including some foreign journalists, who do not play by the rules are harassed. I n 2013, Ali Anouzla, editor of a news website, was arresting for sharing a link to a YouTube video allegedly from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb which was directly critical of King Mohammed VI. His supporters and human rights groups claimed that his arrest was revenge for having broken a politically damaging story about King Mohammed VI’s accidental pardon of a Spanish paedophile earlier in 2013. In 2014, Anouzla received a fine and one month suspended sentence. In 2015, Hicham Mansouri, a project manager for an investigative journalism NGO, was arrested and charged with committing adultery, and later received a prison sentence of 10 months and a hefty fine of $4,100. In June 2015, a private news website was fined more than $50,000 for publishing a story accusing the king’s private secretary of corruption; another journalist was given a four-month suspended prison sentence and a $10,000 fine on criminal defamation charges for reporting on a story about the death of an activist in police custody amidst claims of custodial torture.

Morocco has an increasingly vibrant protest culture, in both urban and rural areas, where discontent is expressed through sit-ins, demonstrations or even violent clashes with law enforcement. Grievances include high unemployment, workers’ rights, recognition for private universities’ degrees, wages, corruption and demands for further democratization. These protests generally occur without incidents. The government intermittently goes after civil society organizations.

The PJD-led government’s stances on women’s rights is vague, often woefully unimpressive. Prime Minister Benkirane publicly lamented the loss of traditional values in Morocco, and their replacement by Western/European culture. He also holds conservative, traditionalist views on women’s role in society – he faulted women for working and not spending time with their children and family, and said that the ‘sacred role’ of the housewife must be recognized. Women’s groups, supported by the opposition parties, demonstrated against Benkirane’s views on women and the government’s failure to abide by constitutional provisions on gender equality in 2014 and 2015. In July 2015, an increase in sexual violence and attacks on women sparked some protests.

The PJD’s platform focused on continuing the reforms the party had begun since 2011, all in keeping with the party’s “Islamic referential”, which has been how the party has described itself for a number of years. The PJD continued to claim that it represents a moderate, open and tolerant version of political Islam, but those claims were belied by the party’s nomination of Hammad El Kabbaj, a Salafist preacher, as its lead candidate in the constituency of Marrakech-Guéliz Nakhil. Although described as anti-violence, anti-ISIS and a “Moroccan Salafist” rather than a “Wahhabi Salafist”, El Kabbaj was nonetheless known for his anti-Semitic views (for posting on Facebook a hadith about ‘killing’ Jews) and having issued a fatwa permitting marriage with nine year old girls. In mid-September, the wali of Marrakech (the royally-appointed representative of the central government in regions) invalidated El Kabbaj’s candidacy on the grounds that he had “expressed positions against the basic principles of democracy”. El Kabbaj’s abortive candidacy came as a surprise to most, and many felt that it was a move by the PJD to shore up its grassroots pious Islamist support after a string of embarrassing scandals hit the party: sexual harassment, a member arrested with three tonnes of cannabis and, in August, two vice-presidents of the MUR were caught by the police in an “intimate position” and arrested on suspicions of an extramarital affair (which is illegal in Morocco).

During the campaign, the PJD popularized the word tahakoum, an Arabic word which has been roughly translated (figuratively) to mean ‘domination’, ‘hegemony’ or ‘stranglehold’. The PJD, perhaps to deflect attention from its own failings, claimed that corrupt and nefarious ‘dark forces’ within the political institutions were undermining democracy; a very thinly veiled jab at the PJD’s main rival, the Authenticity and Modernity Party (PAM), widely seen as a creation of the makhzen. The PJD’s opponents claimed that the idea of tahakoum is nothing more than a marketing gimmick by the party to discredit its opponents. More radical leftist opponents of the regime, like Nabila Mounib, claimed that the entire monarchical institution is the real power behind tahakoum.

Parti authenticité et modernité (Authenticity and Modernity Party, PAM): The awkwardly named party is the latest in a series of parties created by the makhzen to challenge opposition forces. The PAM was founded in 2008 by Fouad Ali El Himma, widely described as one of King Mohammed VI’s closest friends and confidantes. Between 2002 and 2007, he was the senior bureaucrat in the Ministry of the Interior, an important cabinet portfolio (notably controlling elections and security forces) which the palace has always kept for itself. Meant to provide a counterweight to the growing PJD, the PAM was created through the merger of five small parties and grew through floor-crossing, despite the practice being banned.

Matters appeared to be going well judging by the results of the 2009 local elections, in which the PAM polled the most votes and won the most seats (22%). The party was (and still is) most successful in rural areas, historically the strongholds of pro-monarchy notables and political bosses, although its success in 2009 extended to more urbanized regions and it was able to use its clout and connections to manipulate its way into local coalitions excluding the PJD.

However, the PAM and Fouad Ali El Himma, perceived as the regime’s anointed party and symbols of the corrupt establishment, were the primary target of the February 20 protesters’ ire, certainly more so than the king (in most cases). The PAM took time to understand what was going on, but eventually El Himma withdrew himself from active politics and did not seek reelection to Parliament before resigning from the party leadership altogether. Not longer after the election, El Himma became a royal adviser to Mohammed VI, retaining his political influence without participation in party politics. Ahead of the fall 2011 elections, the PAM allied with other, older palace-created parties (UC, RNI), pro-makhzen parties (MP) and miscellaneous outcasts (smaller ‘socialist’ or Islamist parties) in an ‘Alliance for Democracy’, to challenge the PJD and the traditional opposition forces (Istiqlal and socialist USFP). The PAM was one of the most unambiguously anti-Islamist (anti-PJD) voices in the campaign, but the Arab Spring had changed matters. The party ended up with 12% and 47 seats, placing fourth.

Despite its unimpressive result in 2011, the PAM, perhaps pushed along by the palace, made its mark as the most coherent and vocal opponent of the PJD’s government. In 2015, the PAM placed first in the municipal elections with 21%, because of its weight in small rural municipalities, although the PJD swept – sometimes with absolute majorities – the municipal councils of Morocco’s largest cities. It was second to the PJD in regional elections, with 19% and 132 of the 678 seats. Through alliances with other parties, the PAM won the regional presidencies of five regions, including Tanger-Tétouan-Al Hoceïma with Ilyas El Omari and Casablanca-Settat with party secretary-general Mustapha Bakkoury. The PJD won just two regional presidencies.

In 2016, Ilyas El Omari, the regional president of Tanger-Tétouan-Al Hoceïma, officially became PAM leader. El Omari is also the new owner of a media group which owns 6 newspapers and a printing press, acquired in 2015. In the 1980s, El Omari was a student dissident during a period of repression under King Hassan II, living for a few years as a fugitive before receiving a royal pardon in 1989. Fast forward to the early 2000s, and El Omari gained political importance through his friendship with El Himma, “the king’s friend”, and was one of the PAM’s founding members in 2008. El Omari says that he hasn’t spoken to El Himma in a few years, but respects him tremendously. El Omari is now Benkirane’s main rival, often the target of Benkirane’s attacks. In 2011, Benkirane called El Omari a ‘bandit’; more recently, he called him the “Moroccan Ben Ali”.

The PAM was the PJD’s primary rival in the 2016 campaign, and the two parties traded barbs over the course of the campaign, with the PAM calling the PJD government “catastrophic” and the PJD equating the PAM to a natural disaster like a tsunami or volcanic eruption (with less hyperbole, the PJD considers the PAM an incoherent hodgepodge of opportunists and misfits). The PAM protested against the “Islamization” of the country, organizing a demonstration against Islamization in Casablanca in September 2016 (critics said that the marchers, brought down by the PAM, didn’t know what they were protesting against). The PAM platform, beyond the grandiloquent valence issues (economic growth, prosperity etc.), proposed to reform the family code (Mudawana) to increase women’s rights and gender equality.

Parti de l’Istiqlal (Istiqlal Party or Independence Party, PI): The conservative and nationalist Istiqlal Party is Morocco’s oldest party, founded in 1943 (although it traces its roots to 1934). The Istiqlal Party, led by Allal El Fassi and Ahmed Balafrej, supported Morocco’s independence from French and Spanish ‘protection’, and most of the party, at the outset, supported the idea of ‘Greater Morocco’, an irredentist dream laying claim to Western Sahara (then a Spanish colony), all of Mauritania, the western half of the Algerian Sahara and northwestern Mali (Timbuktu).

Moroccan independence in 1956 yielded two victors – King Mohammed V and the Istiqlal Party. Both fought for the upper hand in the new system, although the King, imbued with religious legitimacy as Commander of the Faithful (and widespread popularity for his role in resisting late French rule), arrived with a built-in advantage. The Istiqlal Party, the dominant political force in the early governments, was primarily concerned with maintaining its power and was willing to do whatever it took – repression included – to do so. The king, somewhat ironically, supported greater political competition and a multi-party systemto weaken the PI’s power. The PI was gradually debilitated by internal dissidence. In 1957, a largely rural sector of the predominantly urban upper-class party split from the PI to create the rural-oriented Popular Movement (MP), which was only granted legal recognition in 1959. In 1958, the party’s left-wing led by Mehdi Ben Barka and the Union marocaine du travail (UMT) trade union split from the party, with Mohammed V’s blessing – he installed Abdallah Ibrahim, from the Istiqlal’s left, as prime minister in 1958, successfully dividing the PI (thereafter, El Fassi and Balafrej retired from the public spotlight) and keeping the radical Ben Barka from power. The PI left created the National Union of Popular Forces (UNFP) in 1959.

By 1958, King Mohammed V had full control of the political system (in 1960, he made himself prime minister), and the PI (and UNFP) pushed into opposition to the makhzenA convoluted period of turmoil followed, as King Hassan II (1961-1999) tried his hand at various options – direct rule (1961-1963, 1965-1967), repression (the ‘years of lead’, which continued through the 1990s), constitutional provisions for (controlled) multi-party democracy and elections (never free and fair, and won by the makhzen‘s candidates) – all in a context of economic crisis and mounting social unrest, as well as two coup attempts. The PI lost the first election (in 1962), to the FDIC, the first in a string of “King’s friend” monarchical parties, but did obtain 28% of the seats (another 20% of seats for the UNFP embarrassingly held the regime’s party to under 50%). The PI and an increasingly radicalized UNFP opposed the 1970 and 1972 constitutions, a setback from the 1962 constitution in democratic terms, and formed a coalition, the Kutla al-Wataniya, which boycotted the 1970 elections.

The PI participated in the 1977 elections, despite the system being rigged and the odds stacked against them, and won 25% of the direct seats (176 of the 264 seats were directly elected, the rest were indirectly appointed much like the upper house is today, and the PI was at a severe disadvantage there). Pro-monarchy independents won an absolute majority. Hassan II invited the PI and the Popular Union of Socialist Forces (USFP) to join the government, an offer which the PI accepted. The PI, still subject to official harassment, placed fifth in terms of direct seats in the fraudulent 1984 elections, taking just 12% of the directly-elected seats. Shortly thereafter, the PI again withdrew from the government, and attempts were made to revive the Kutla with the USFP and the Party for Progress and Socialism (PPS), although disagreements between and within the parties as to the position to adopt vis-à-vis the regime and institutional reform delayed the Kutla‘s recreation until 1989. Once again, however, constitutional reform in 1992 came ‘imposed’ from above, and despite certain improvements, the new constitution promulgated by referendum in 1992 still fell far short of basic democratic principles. On those grounds, the PI and USFP boycotted the 1992 constitutional referendum, and claimed the result (99.9% in favour, 97% turnout) had been manipulated by the regime. With the two main opposition parties questioning its legitimacy, the 1992 constitution was weakened from the get-go, and Hassan II was stuck with a recalcitrant opposition. Ultimately, Hassan II decided to continued the controlled liberalization of the regime, albeit always with the end goal of retaining regal powers intact.

In the 1993 elections, the PI won 12% of the vote and 43 of the 222 direct seats, coming second behind its coalition partner, the USFP, which placed first overall – a sign that the elections were cleaner than previous ones, despite the opposition’s claims of fraud and manipulation. As in 1984, however, the Kutla performed poorly in the election for indirect seats, although overall they still emerged as the singe largest bloc in Parliament with 32% of the seats. The Kutla, particularly the USFP, was divided over the path it should follow in the aftermath of the 1993 election, but both parties ultimately refused Hassan II’s offer to enter government. The liberalization of the regime continued under the independent governor of Prime Minister Abdellatif Filali (1994-1998).

In 1996, another constitution was adopted by referendum which, this time, the PI and USFP supported despite some disappointments over the contents of the new document. The 1996 constitution notably re-created the upper house, abolished in 1970, which meant that governments would now be formed on the basis of strength in the lower house. However, the constitution still limited the government’s effective power to govern. In the 1997 election, won by the USFP, the PI placed fifth in terms of seats, with 32 of the House’s 325 seats, and 13.2% of the vote. In February 1998, King Hassan II appointed the USFP’s leader Abderrahmane Youssoufi as prime minister, with a coalition including the PI, PPS and RNI, forming a landmark gouvernement d’alternance. With the king having successfully convinced the USFP to form government, the PI had no choice but to follow suit, something which undoubtedly was also part of Hassan II’s calculations – by working together, the two allies would have a falling out, and/or, by cooperating with the regime, the PI (and USFP) would lose much of their credibility. In good part, both of those things were achieved.

In the 2002 elections, the first held under a list PR system (in the multi-member constituencies) rather than FPTP and the first with the ‘national lists’ for women, the PI performed well, winning a total of 48 seats, placing second with only two seats fewer than the USFP. To the surprise of observers and disappointment of party politicians, Mohammed VI appointed a technocrat, Driss Jettou, as the new prime minister (with a government similar to the Youssoufi government – with the Kutla, RNI and MP). Jettou’s appointment was seen, at the time, as a setback in the democratization process.

The Istiqlal won the 2007 election, to most people’s surprise (the PJD, as noted above, had been judged to be the favourite). After 2002, Mohammed VI could no longer afford to appoint an ‘independent technocrat’ over a party politician as prime minister, and was expected to follow the (then) unwritten rule of choosing among the first placed party. However, that the PI rather than the PJD placed first made things much less complicated and risky for the king, so by appointing the PI’s Abbas El Fassi as prime minister, Mohammed VI had a win-win: he conformed to ‘democratic expectations’ and still avoided having to appoint an Islamist prime minister. With the exception of the MP (which joined the coalition in 2009 anyway), the ‘new’ government was made up of the same parties as the outgoing one (PI, USFP, PPS and RNI). El Fassi’s government was unremarkable and unmemorable (as most previous governments had been), being rather irrelevant during the February 20 protests and very clearly absent from the 2011 constitutional reform, guided by the monarch rather than by the government (as had been the case, of course, for all previous constitutional reforms).

The PI won 60 seats in the 2011 election, a gain of 8 seats from the previous election, but it now placed second behind the victorious Islamist PJD. For the time being, however, Abbas El Fassi’s party remained in the governing coalition, along with the PPS and MP. It was the second largest party behind the PJD with six ministers, including the ministry of the economy and finance. In September 2012, Abdelhamid Chabat, the mayor of Fès (since 2003) and secretary-general of the General Union of Moroccan Workers (UGTM) trade union, was elected leader of the Istiqlal, defeating Abdelouahed El Fassi, the son of iconic former party leader and nationalist hero Allal El Fassi. Some suspect that the palace intervened in the PI’s congress to favour Chabat, who criticized the government’s performance. In May 2013, the PI’s national council voted to withdraw from the coalition. Mohammed VI, who was in France at the time, obtained a ‘postponement’ of this decision from the party, but in July, five of the PI’s six ministers officially handed their resignations (the rebel was education minister Mohamed Louafa). Left without a parliamentary majority, Benkirane formed a new government, in October 2013, with the RNI replacing the PI.

Chabat is an odd and eccentric man, who appears to have no filters. In 2014, he accused Benkirane to have ties with ISIS but also have to have secretly cooperated with Israeli intelligence services. In 2011, Chabat explained how ‘colonialism’ now drew its supremacy with “ideas, Facebook and scientific progress” and, for some reason, cited the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as a really good example of that. As mayor of Fès, he tried to ban the sale of alcohol, but also threw up a replica of the Eiffel tower, which looked more like scraps of metal forming a shitty electrical pylon, and promised to build a beach (in an inland city). In July 2016, Chabat attended the RNC for Donald Trump’s acceptance speech (and gushed about Melania Trump’s speech!).

The PI finished third in the 2015 regional elections (and second in the municipal elections), but they were perceived as one of the main losers of the election. Most significantly, Chabat was defeated in a landslide in his own personal stronghold of Fès by the PJD, which won an absolute majority on the city council. The PI won 119 regional councillors, third behind the PJD (174) and PAM (132), but won only two (minor) regional presidencies – the Sahrawi ‘southern provinces’ of Laâyoune-Sakia El Hamra and Dakhla-Oued Ed Dahab (the PI is very strong in Western Sahara, perhaps because of their nationalist stances and a large presence of Moroccan war veterans). After the elections, Chabat significantly dialed down his criticisms of the PJD government. During the 2016 campaign, the Istiqlal incoherently alternated between attacks on the government’s record (on economic and social affairs, the PI and PJD are rather close on religious matters) and conciliatory messages indicating a desire to be included in the government after the elections. The Istiqlal ran two Salafists on their lists: Hicham Temsamani, who had been suspected of participating in the 2003 Casablanca and 2004 Madrid bombings, ran in Tangiers while Abdelouahab Rifki, convicted for his involvement in the 2003 Casablanca bombings, was second on Chabat’s own list in Fès. Both men defected from the small Salafist Renaissance and Virtue Party (PRV) and are said to have changed their views.

Union socialiste des forces populaires (Socialist Union of Popular Forces, USFP): The USFP is Morocco’s largest left-wing, social democratic party. The USFP was founded in 1975 as a breakaway from the leftist National Union of Popular Forces (UNFP). The UNFP had been created in 1959, primarily from the ‘radical’ and left-wing factions of the Istiqlal, veterans of the Moroccan National Liberation Army (ALN) and the Union marocaine du travail (UMT) trade union, spearheaded by Mehdi Ben Barka. Initially, the dissidents counted on King Mohammed V’s blessing, who had installed Istiqlal ‘leftist’ Abdallah Ibrahim as prime minister in 1958 and was keen on dividing the Istiqlal as to keep it from becoming too powerful. However, the UNFP lost all royal favours and became the prime target for Hassan II’s repression as soon as it started to be inconvenient for the regime. Mehdi Ben Barka was kidnapped and disappeared in October 1965 in Paris, and although the exact circumstances have not been established, most suspect that Moroccan general Mohamed Oufkir, who at the time was King Hassan II’s right-hand man for dirty business and later interior minister.

In 1970, the UNFP allied with the Istiqlal, the other major opposition party at the time, to form the Kutla and oppose the authoritarian 1970 constitution and boycott the 1970 elections. The Kutla also opposed the 1972 constitution, a minimal improvement on the previous document.

The UNFP split in 1975, with the majority of the party forming the USFP and a small minority continuing with the UNFP name, radicalized and removing themselves from the political system by boycotting all elections after 1972. In short, the USFP focused on democratization and building rule of law through participation in the legal political system (while still being in opposition), while the rump UNFP chose a radical, quasi-revolutionary path which questioned the very monarchical foundations of the Moroccan system. The USFP won 15% of the vote and 9% of the directly-elected seats in the 1977 election. King Hassan II, now favouring reconciliation, offered the USFP to participate in government, but it refused. However, when the USFP opposed the king’s 1980 constitutional amendments and withdrew from parliament shortly thereafter, Hassan II explicitly warned the socialists that he could not allow an opposition which disrespected the monarchy and excluded itself from the Muslim community. Nothing, however, came of the king’s threats. In 1984, the USFP won 12% of the vote and 34 of the direct seats (17%). Both the Istiqlal and USFP refused to be part of the government.

The USFP supported attempts to recreate the Kutla, although inter- and intra-party disagreements delayed its recreation until 1989. The USFP was divided between a moderate wing, largely its parliamentarians, who supported cooperating with the regime, and a radical wing which opposed working with the regime. Some of the opposition’s goals were achieved in the 1992 constitution, but the opposition was left highly dissatisfied with the outcome. The USFP was divided between its moderates, who wanted to call on its supporters to support the constitutional referendum, and the radicals who pushed for a boycott. This time around, the radicals won. In the 1993 election, the USFP finished in second, with 13% of the vote and 48 (out of 222) directly-elected seats. Following the election, the reconstituted Kutla, and the USFP in particular, was divided over whether it should accept King Hassan II’s offer to lead formation of a new government. Once again, ‘radicals’ opposed government participation, on the basis that the Kutla had not won an absolute majority and had been outperformed by the pro-regime parties in the indirect elections, so that no government formed on these results could be democratic. On the other hand, moderates felt that it right for Kutla to form government and that they should participate in the democratization process. The former option won, and the USFP (and Istiqlal) refused cabinet participation. This decision increased pressure on King Hassan II to further liberalize the regime, culminating in the 1996 constitution, which was supported by the USFP and Istiqlal.

The USFP ‘won’ the 1997 elections – with a resounding 13.9% of the vote and 57 of the 325 seats in the lower house. The Kutla, with the Istiqlal and PPS, emerged as the single largest bloc in the new lower house, with 102 seats, compared to 100 for the rival Wifaq (MP, UC and allies) and 97 for the Centre (RNI and allies). In February 1998, King Hassan II appointed USFP leader Abderrahman Youssoufi as prime minister, with a coalition made up of the Kutla and RNI. Youssoufi, a founding member of the UNFP and USFP, had been arrested in 1959 and 1963 and spent 15 years in exile in France during the harshest days of King Hassan II’s authoritarian reign. Youssoufi now formed Morocco’s first so-called gouvernement d’alternance, a landmark moment in the country’s democratization/liberalization. Critics claim that Youssoufi becoming prime minister proved that the USFP had been co-opted by the regime or had ‘sold out’. It’s not a baseless claim, since the institutional framework and political circumstances in 1998 were not very different than they had been in 1993, when the USFP had rejected government participation on the basis that there were still insufficient democratic guarantees. Furthermore, Hassan II’s objectives in appointing Youssoufi in 1998 certainly included co-opting, in some form, the USFP by bringing it ‘into the regime’ and out of opposition, to have the socialists take their share of responsibility in governing the country and to divide the Kutla against itself. He was fairly successful in the long-run, particularly on the first two points – the USFP remained in governments until 2011, even when it was no longer leading them, and has lost a great deal of credibility and legitimacy by becoming identified as another worthless power-hungry political party. Youssoufi’s government continued for its full term, until 2002, and most evaluations rate it very poorly. Despite (overly) good intentions and some achievements, it proved fairly incompetent – although the blame should be shared, since (shockingly enough) its more ambitious reformist goals were frustrated by Hassan II and Mohammed VI. Unfortunately for Morocco’s democratization, the very poor performance of the alternance government hurt the case for parliamentary democracy, weakened and further fragmented the party system and discredited the political parties further. Although maybe that was Hassan II and Mohammed VI’s Machiavellian goal all along?

Despite the unpopularity of Youssoufi’s government, the USFP remained the largest party in 2002, with 50 seats (2 more than the PI and 8 more than the PJD) and about 11.9% of the vote (an historic level of partisan fragmentation, with historically low turnout too). The USFP had expected King Mohammed VI to follow the ‘tradition’ set in 1998 in appointing the leader of the largest party as prime minister, but instead Mohammed VI appointed independent technocrat Driss Jettou, on the official pretense that Morocco required a ‘strong government’ to tackle the major economic and social problems. In reality, the election had been rather inconclusive, the parties (including, allegedly, the Istiqlal) were not overly keen on keeping Youssoufi and King Mohammed VI wanted a government close to him. The new Jettou government, in its makeup, was very similar to Youssoufi’s government, with the Kutla (and hence the USFP), RNI and now MP. In 2007, the USFP performed poorly at the polls, winning 38 seats – a loss of 12 – and 9% of the vote, collapsing to fifth place. Despite the party’s poor result, it remained in government, now as a junior partner in Istiqlal Prime Minister Abbas El Fassi’s government. The USFP’s continued participation in government deeply divided the party.

In 2011, the USFP won 39 seats and 8.6% of the vote, remaining in fifth place and stagnating at its 2007 levels. Benkirane invited the USFP to take part in his new government. The Islamist PJD had been seeking out an alliance with the USFP since the 2009 local elections (for the PJD, on the basis of shared interests in democratization and fighting corruption), but the national leadership of the USFP had rejected such an alliance – although local coalitions between the socialists and Islamists were formed in Rabat and Agadir. In 2011, the USFP’s national council voted unanimously against cabinet participation in December 2011. Since 2012, the USFP is led by Driss Lachgar.

Rassemblement national des indépendants (National Rally of Independents, RNI) and Union constitutionnelle (Constitutional Union, UC): The RNI (founded 1978) and the UC (founded 1983) are two parties originally founded by “King’s friends” and the makhzen, and although they no longer are truly “King’s friends” parties, they are often identified as such and remain fairly reliable ‘loyalists’.

The RNI was founded in 1978 by Prime Minister Ahmed Osman (1972-1979), King Hassan II’s brother-in-law, with the support of Hassan II’s (in)famous interior minister Driss Basri. In the 1977 elections, the makhzen‘s candidates had mostly run as independents, and they had won an absolute majority in Parliament (through the help of the 88 indirectly elected seats). The RNI was created by these pro-monarchy independents, as an “administration party”. The UC was founded in 1983 by Prime Minister Maati Bouabid (1979-1983). Ahead of the 1984 elections, King Hassan II banned candidates from running as independents, a move designed to favour the UC and RNI. The UC won the most seats in 1984 (82, including 55 direct) and the RNI the second most (60, including 38 direct). In 1993, the UC won the most seats (54), although it only placed third in the direct seats (27), while the RNI finished fifth with 41 seats (28 direct).

In 1997, the RNI and UC each led their own coalitions to rival the Istiqlal/USFP/PPS – the Wifaq with the UC (and MP) and the Centre with the RNI. Individually, the UC won 50 seats in the lower house (10.2% of the vote) and the RNI won 46 (11.1%), placing second and third respectively behind the victorious USFP. The Wifaq won 102 seats, just two less than the Kutla, and the Centre got 97. Since 1998, the RNI and UC have followed divergent paths in government participation – the RNI has been in every government since 1998, with the exception of Benkirane’s first government (2012-2013), while the UC has been in opposition since 1998. In the 2002 election, the RNI won 41 seats, while the UC suffered sharp loses – taking just 16 seats, down 34 from the 1997 election. In 2007, the RNI fell to 39 seats while the UC rose to 27 seats. In 2011, the RNI won 52 seats and the UC won 23. Both the RNI and UC had run as part of the PAM’s ‘Alliance for Democracy’ in 2011, but the coalition’s poor results and the MP’s decision to join cabinet (not appreciated by its erstwhile partners) led to the coalition’s very quick demise.

The UC had offered to participate in government, but that was frowned upon by the PPS. In 2013, when the Istiqlal left Benkirane’s coalition, the PJD had two options to save its parliamentary majority – including the RNI, or including the PAM, both of which were difficult because both parties were profiled as staunch opponents of the Islamists. The PJD’s remaining partners, the PPS and MP, were welcoming of the RNI, but some people in the PJD preferred to let the government fall, dissolve the House and hold snap elections. Neither the palace nor the Benkirane government liked the (expensive) idea of snap elections. It has been speculated that the Crown intervened to persuade the RNI to join the coalition, although the RNI claims that it joined because its key demands (a re-orientation of government policy and an agenda structured around key themes) were met. At any rate, the RNI, now the second largest party in the coalition, got 8 cabinet portfolios – the party’s leader, Salaheddine Mezouar, became foreign minister (displacing the PJD) and the party also got economy and finance (from the PI).

The RNI went under the radar after entering cabinet, forcing the party to put extra effort into a political communication strategy ahead of this year’s election. The party’s message was muddled – claiming credit for the government’s reforms, but criticizing the PJD more than some opposition parties, all under a very vague and ambiguous claim to be a “party of the middle”. The UC, which was one of the more moderate and consensual opposition parties, and played on an idea of “change without risk” with the slogan ‘serenity in action’ for the UC’s new leader, the former mayor of Casablanca Mohammed Sajid.

Ideologically, both the RNI and UC are commonly considered to be ‘liberal’ parties, on the centre or centre-right of the political spectrum (and both parties are in the Liberal International, although the RNI only as an observer, if that’s worthy anything). In some accounts, the UC is sometimes placed further to the right than the RNI, although I’m really unsure to what extent the notions of left/right are still relevant to Moroccan politics, especially when dealing with the likes of the RNI and UC.

Mouvement populaire (Popular Movement, MP): The MP was founded in 1957 by dissident ‘rural’ factions of the then-dominant Istiqlal Party, led by two figures of the nationalist movement – Berber tribal chief Mahjoubi Aherdane and Abdelkrim El Khatib. The party’s foundation was encouraged by the makhzen, as a means to weaken the Istiqlal Party, which at the time was a serious rival to the monarchy. The Istiqlal tried to prevent the MP’s legal registration as a party, which it obtained only two years later (in 1959), again after some hand twisting by the palace. The MP has since remained a loyalist party, its main difference with the RNI and UC being that it was not directly created by the makhzen.

The MP was founded by ‘rural factions’ in the Istiqlal, which at the time was a predominantly urban upper-class party. The MP was said to have been dominated by Tamazight (Berber) speakers, in the rural mountainous regions of the Atlas, but it never developed a distinct regionalist or Berber agenda (perhaps because that would, probably, be unconstitutional).

The MP was part of the pro-monarchy FDIC in the 1963 elections. In the 1970 elections, boycotted by the opposition, the MP finished second with a quarter of the seats. In 1977, the MP won 12% of the vote and 44 seats. In 1984, the MP won 15.5% of the vote and 47 seats (31 of them direct), finishing in third behind the fellow loyalist UC and RNI. In 1993, the MP won 12% of the vote and 51 seats (33 of them direct), finishing fourth. The MP, allied with the UC in the Wifaq coalition in 1997, won 10.4% of the vote and 40 seats in the lower house, holding on to its fourth place. In 2002, the MP fell to just 6.6% of the vote and 27 seats. The MP participated in the Jettou government (2002-2007), and joined Abbas El Fassi’s government two years into its term (2009). The MP improved to 41 seats (9% of the vote), a solid third, in the 2007 election. In 2011, the MP lost 9 seats, falling to 32 seats on 8% of the vote. The MP had participated in the PAM’s Alliance for Democracy or G8 alliance in 2011, but its decision to join the PJD Benkirane government took its erstwhile partners aback and hastened the collapse of that ephemeral pet project. The MP got four cabinet seats in the first Benkirane government, and six in his second cabinet.

Fairly remarkably, the MP has been led by the same person, Mohand Laenser, since 1986. Laenser’s leadership of the party was at the root of several splits, notably the creation of the Mouvement national populaire (MNP) by Mahjoubi Aherdane in 1991. The MNP won a sizable bench in 1993 (25 seats), 1997 (19) and 2002 (18) before rejoining the mother party in 2006. The MNP itself had gone through splits, notably the Mouvement démocratique et social (MDS) led by Mahmoud Archane in 1996, which won 32 seats in 1997. The MDS is still kicking, recently taken over by Abdelkrim Chadli, a former Salafist preacher who was arrested after the 2003 Casablanca bombings but pardoned by the king in 2011.

Laenser has held a whole bunch of cabinet positions since the 1980s, including nearly 11 years as posts and telecommunications minister (1981-1992). In the Benkirane I cabinet, he was interior minister (2012-2013). Between 2013 and 2015, Laenser was minister of urban and national spatial planning. He left the government in September 2015 upon his election as regional president of Fès-Meknès (he was elected with the votes of the PJD, RNI, USFP and PPS).

The MP is also, with the RNI and UC, a member of the Liberal International and its website tells us that while it is firmly attached to Morocco’s “authenticity and core values” (Islam, territorial integrity, monarchy) it is also liberal, without bothering to define what they mean by that. This election, the MP openly said that it had no platform to speak of but rather offered ‘visions’.

Parti du progrès et du socialisme (Party of Progress and Socialism, PPS): The PPS is an ostensibly left-wing socialist party founded in 1974 as a reconstitution of the Moroccan Communist Party (PCM, banned in the 1950s) and the Party of Liberation and Socialism (PLS, legal reincarnation of the PCM between 1968 and 1969). Like the Brazilian party with the same abbreviation (and even historical background!), the PPS suffers from an acute case of sinistrisme.

Ali Yata, the secretary general of the PCM since 1945, was the PPS’ leader between 1974 and his death in 1997. The Moroccan Communists were moderate and pragmatic, working within the “national peculiarities of the country” and advocating a “united popular front with an anti-imperialist and anti-bourgeois character”. In actual practice, this meant working with the USFP and later the conservative Istiqlal – in fact, the PPS was the most enthusiastic advocate for the reconstitution of the Kutla, as early as 1987. The PPS continued moving in a moderate direction, finding a niche within the comfortable trappings of controlled politics. Among other things, the PPS supported Morocco’s claims on Western Sahara (and obviously no longer opposed the monarchy).

The PPS won two seats in 1977 and 1984. The PPS supported a ‘no’ vote to the 1980 constitutional amendments, which obviously didn’t go down too well with Hassan II, so they were subject to regal harassment. In 1992, proof of its ‘evolution’, the PPS broke with its Kutla allies by supporting a ‘yes’ vote to the 1992 constitution, which both the USFP and PI opposed. In the 1993 election, the PPS grew to 10 seats, 6 of them direct. In 1997, the PPS won 4.3% of the vote and 9 seats. With the Kutla victorious, the PPS entered government. It has remained in cabinet ever since, as a small junior partner (between 1 and 3 ministers between 1998 and 2011). The PPS, in the eyes of many, has become – like the RNI, MP and arguably the USFP – a party focused on the acquisition of power.

The PPS won 11 seats in 2002, 17 seats in 2007 and a record 18 seats in 2011. By the looks of it, dropping ideology and focusing on political power has paid off well for them. The PPS remained in government under Benkirane – and got 4, then 5, cabinet ministers, the most significant portfolio being health although the PPS’ leader Mohamed Nabil Benabdallah has been housing minister since 2011. The PPS has been the PJD’s most loyal and steadfast ally, a fairly unlikely alliance considering the two parties’ roots (communism and Islamism) or that, as recently as 2007, the PPS was calling the PJD a conservative and retrograde force which was a danger to democracy. The PPS has ‘differences’ with the PJD on religious and moral matters, but it claims that the PJD has ‘evolved’ a lot, that they share a common vision on democratization (i.e. opposition to the royalist PAM) and social/economic policy and that, besides, social liberalism (as tentatively proposed by the PAM) is an unrealistic wet dream in Morocco. In September 2016, during the heat of the campaign, Nabil Benabdallah in a newspaper interview implicitly alluded to (royal adviser) Fouad Ali El Himma as the “person behind the PAM and symbolizing tahakoum“. Benabdallah’s controversial statement won him an unusually severe communiqué from the royal palace – Benabdallah’s words were irresponsible, in contradiction with the constitution and dangerous.

Other parties: In 2011, besides the eight major parties presented above, ten other parties won seats, all through the local constituencies, with one winning four, four winning two and the rest just a single seat. Many of these parties, with meaningless names, are obscure shells, most likely built around a personality or two with a sufficiently strong local base to win a parliamentary seat.

The most relevant of the minor parties is the Fédération de la gauche démocratique or Federation of the Democratic Left (FGD), an alliance of three left-wing opposition parties founded in 2007. The FGD is made up of the Party of the Democratic Socialist Vanguard (PADS), a 1983 splinter from the UNFP, the Ittihadi National Congress (CNI), a 2001 splinter from the USFP and the largest party, the Unified Socialist Party (PSU), the continuation of the Organization of the Popular Democratic Action (OADP). The OADP was created in 1983 by members of the clandestine, far-left and Marxist-Leninist Mouvement du 23 mars group led by Mohamed Bensaïd Aït Idder, a veteran of the Moroccan National Liberation Army (ALN). The OADP obtained its legal recognition thanks to its strong support for King Hassan II’s Western Sahara policy. The OADP won one seat in 1984 and became a member of the reconstituted Kutla with the PI, USFP and PPS in the early 1990s, although it was the most radical and anti-regime party in the coalition – for example, it was the only Kutla party to oppose the 1996 constitution and call for a ‘no’ vote in the referendum. As a result of its misbehaviour, interior minister Driss Basri orchestrated a split in the party. The OADP won 2 seats in 1993 and 4 in 1997.

In 2002, the OADP merged with three tiny groups to form the Unified Socialist Left, which became the PSU in 2005. The new group won 3 seats in 2002. In coalition with the PADS and CNI in 2007, they won 6 seats. The FGD boycotted the 2011 constitutional referendum, arguing that the new constitutions keeps most of the king’s powers intact, and also boycotted the November 2011 legislative elections. Since 2012, the PSU has been led by Nabila Mounib, a university professor and researcher.

The FGD advocates for a parliamentary, constitutional monarchy based on popular sovereignty, separation of powers and full guarantees for all fundamental rights. Its fairly detailed and concrete platform also opposes the “culturally conservative, economically neoliberal and socially unequal” government, wishes to see the government’s role in the economy strengthened and a whole host of other social and economic reforms. Omar Balafrej, the founder of the Clarté-Ambition-Courage movement, teamed up with the FGD for the 2015 local elections in Rabat and ran atop the FGD’s list in Rabat-Océan in this election.


% of valid votes to registered voters in 2011 (source: D. Goeury,

% of valid votes to registered voters in 2011 (source: D. Goeury, “Le pouvoir est-il enfin dans les mains des villes ?” in EspacesTemps.net)

Turnout was about 43% according to unofficial estimates reported on election day, which would be about 2% less than in 2011. Voter turnout in Moroccan elections has fallen from 85% in 1970 (although given the amount of fraud, manipulation and coercion in those elections, I wouldn’t put too much value in those numbers), with the trend becoming particularly glaring since 1997/2002. Turnout in 1997 was 58%, falling to just over 50% in 2002 (to be exact: 51.6%). Turnout collapsed to 37% in 2007. In 2011, turnout rose to 45%, which may indicate a greater interest or faith in politics in the aftermath of the new constitution (the constitutional referendum a few months earlier had seen massive 75% turnout) and/or the PJD’s rise to power.

However, those statistics are to be nuanced with two other elements: the very high number of spoiled ballots, and the even lower VAP turnout. In 2007, about 19% of votes were invalid. In 2011, 22.4% of the votes cast – or nearly 1.4 million – were invalid, leaving 4.745 million valid votes for the parties, not a very large increase from the 4.619 million valid votes for parties in 2007. Voter registration is not compulsory or automatic in Morocco, and about a third of eligible voters (or over 7 million Moroccans) are not registered to vote (in addition, voting rights for Moroccan citizens abroad is very convoluted and difficult, effectively excluding them – estimated at 3 million – from elections). The Autonomous University of Madrid’s Observatorio Político y Electoral del Mundo Árabe y Musulmán (OPEMAM) report on the elections estimated the VAP at 22,874,625 against an official electoral census of 15,702,592 registered voters. Most of those unregistered eligible voters are the youth – aged 18 to 24 – who make up 16% of the potential electorate but just 9% of registered voters. In contrast, all other age groups are over-represented on the electoral rolls. The OPEMAM estimated VAP turnout to be just 29.5% in 2016. IDEA’s voter turnout database estimates VAP turnout to have been 28.7% in 2011, 27.8% in 2007 and 40% in 2002.

There are also major regional differences in turnout. Unsurprisingly, urban areas have the lowest turnout, while the sparsely populated rural provinces have high turnout. In 2011, in the 13 prefectures (urban areas), turnout was 41% – and the percentage of valid votes to registered voters was even lower, at 31%. In 2011, the highest percentage of valid votes to registered voters (over 60%) came from four Sahrawi provinces – Aousserd, Boujdour, Tarfaya and Assa-Zag – which are incidentally the four provinces with the smallest populations. The lowest percentage of valid votes to registered voters (below 30%) included the urban areas of Agadir, Casablanca, Inezgane, Tétouan and Oujda. Rural provinces tend to be dominated by political bosses and clientelistic networks, and candidates may be better known to voters than in urban areas and therefore have an easier time mobilizing voters. Besides, in sparsely populated provinces, vote buying is easier. Urban voters, particularly the youth, are dissatisfied with the political system, dislike most/all of the parties/politicians and clientelism is less of a factor.

Frustratingly, the Moroccan government, a true paragon of transparency, has failed to release the full results of the elections, either at the constituency or national level, and we’re left without any data on valid votes for parties or invalid votes at any level. The official elections website’s results tab says “This page will be opened after the end of the screening process”. In 2015 local and regional election results were released only eight months later. What we can work with is the final seat count, as well as a PDF list of the parliamentarians elected, by constituency, with their names and parties (but no data on their votes).

PJD 125 (+18) – 98 local, 27 national
PAM 102 (+55) – 81 local, 21 national
Istiqlal 46 (-14) – 35 local, 11 national
RNI 37 (-15) – 28 local, 9 national
MP 27 (-5) – 20 local, 7 national
USFP 20 (-19) – 14 local, 6 national
UC 19 (-4) – 15 local, 4 national
PPS 12 (-6) – 7 local, 5 national
MDS 3 (+1) – 3 local
FGD 2 (+2) – 2 local
PGV 1 (nc) – 1 local
PUD 1 (nc) – 1 local

The governing PJD was ‘re-elected’, although perhaps the most notable aspect of these elections was the polarization around two parties – the governing PJD and the predominant opposition (in voice, if not in seats) PAM. Together, the two rivals won 58% of the seats in Parliament. In 2011, the PJD+PAM had won just 39% of the seats together, and the two largest parties then (the PJD and PI) had won 42% of the seats. In 2007 and 2002, the top two parties had won just 30% of the seats and in 1997, the two largest parties accounted for barely over a quarter of the seats. Therefore, the 2016 election saw an historic level of polarization around two major parties. Such a degree of polarization around the senior governing party and a single opposition party is a novelty in Moroccan electoral politics. It may be due to the fact that Benkirane’s government, and the party which leads it, arouses more passions (among those who do vote) than past governments, all fairly innocuous (at best), had.

Whether this indicates a consolidation of the Moroccan party system around two ‘poles’ – one Islamist, one ‘secular’/’monarchist’ – remains to be seen. In any case, the polarization between the PJD and PAM was no surprise. It was the natural and expected outcome of the electoral campaign, in which the PJD and PAM monopolized media coverage and were the only two parties seen as having a chance at first place (which, constitutionally, ‘guarantees’ the prime ministership). Both campaigns also presented the election as a horse race, and focused the brunt of their attacks on the other.

The PJD’s victory in spite of the unpopularity of several of the government’s policies surprised a few. However, its victory is confirmation that the party has, by far, the strongest, most extensive, most devoted and widespread grassroots base and local organization of any party in Morocco. The party has a whole host of cultural, charitable and political associations in urban areas which have a very strong mobilizing capacity. It is also the largest Moroccan party on the internet, although that’s probably more reflective of the PJD’s urban and middle-class electorate in contrast to the other parties’ more rural (and poorer) base.

Perhaps more surprising, in a way, is the PAM’s result – unlike the PJD, the PAM does not have a long history (it did not exist, basically, before the 2009 local elections) or a particularly renowned mobilizing capacity. However, the PAM, since 2015, has a very strong base in local and regional governments – it has the most local councillors, but more importantly, it holds five of Morocco’s twelve (new) regional presidencies. With the devolution of some powers (and financial resources) to these new regional governments, the regional level will become an important base for clientelism and patronage. Moroccan political scientist David Goeury noted in a post-election interview the importance, particularly in rural areas, of regional governments on the results (seat count). I will return to this particular point in a bit.

With the PJD and PAM monopolizing attention and seats, the other parties were all squeezed. The PI, RNI, MP, UC, USFP and PPS all lost seats. Only four small parties won seats (all through local lists), compared to ten in 2011. Besides the polarization around the PJD and PAM, the other parties suffered. mainly, from either their (a) lack of credibility or (b) their incoherent messaging. However, it’s worth noting that, in the absence of popular vote data, the analysis is incomplete. For example, the PI apparently increased its raw vote intake from 2011, but lost 14 seats (we can also see that with the PPS and USFP, who won less list seats than the UC despite winning more national seats). David Goeury noted that the largest remainder method can lead to a “collapse in the number of seats won while the party retains a large part of its electorate, but in a dispersed manner without electoral strongholds.”

The Istiqlal now holds just 46 seats. Many in the party will be eager to blame the party’s oddball leader, Hamid Chabat, whose quirks and oddities were presented above. Furthermore, the PI’s campaign under Chabat was unclear and somewhat incoherent – criticizing the PJD, at times pretty harshly, but also openly stating just hours before the election that the PI would be part of the next government regardless of the results. The RNI’s campaign was similarly incoherent, trying to have the cake and eat it: while being part of the outgoing government, seeking to take credit for the ‘good reforms’ but being critical of the PJD, sometimes moreso than an opposition party like the PI. The UC, a bit less incoherent in its placing, nevertheless provided only a very tame, measured and incomplete opposition to the PJD-led government – because the UC, despite having been outside governments for a long time now, has never really been an opposition party in the way Europeans and North Americans are used to. The USFP perhaps suffered the most out of all the larger parties – it lost 19 seats and ends up with just 20. The USFP’s collapse is the culmination (?) of a long term trend, which began while it was still in government. It goes back to its loss of credibility, particularly since its participation in the Driss Jettou government (2002-2007), which was not well understood by its voters. The socialists have completely lost their urban base, and are left with a rump increasingly made up of rural provinces – which kind of reminds me of how the parties in the pentapartito coalitions in Italy saw their vote shift from north to south during the demise of the First Republic. The PPS also lost support, falling to 12 seats, some blaming the party’s “counter-natural” close alliance with the PJD.

The ‘radical’ leftist FGD won two seats – in Rabat-Océan and Casablanca-Anfa – but the result was a disappointment for the alliance. Nabila Mounib, the FGD/PSU’s leader, lost in Casablanca-Anfa and failed to get in through the national women’s list. I don’t know anything about the small MDS, Unity and Democracy Party (PUD) and Moroccan Green Left Party (PGV).

Electoral geography

In the absence of actual data, the best analysis that we can do is with the list of parliamentarians elected.

The PJD, as in 2011, clearly dominated all urban areas. In Casablanca, the PJD won 15 of the city’s 26 seats, against 7 for the PAM, two for the RNI and one for the UC. In Rabat and Salé, the PJD won four of both cities’ seven seats, with two for the PAM in each city and the last seat going to the FGD (Rabat) or RNI (Salé). In the Casa/Rabat urban conurbation, the PJD also dominated in Temara (2/4 seats) and Kénitra (3/7 seats). In Tangiers, the PJD won three out of five seats, leaving just one for the PAM (for former mayor Fouad El Omari, party leader Ilyas El Omari’s brother) and UC. In Fès, the PJD won four of the eight seats, against just two for the PI (one for Hamid Chabat in Fès-Nord) and one each for the PAM and RNI. In Meknès, the PJD won two seats out of six, with the remaining split between the UC, MP, RNI and PI. In Marrakech, the PJD swept five of the city’s nine seats, leaving three for the PAM and one for the MP. The PJD won two of Agadir and Oujda’s four seats. The PJD also appears to have expanded its reach to smaller towns across the country, even in the far south (Western Sahara), where the PJD won one of the two seats in Dakhla and one of the three seats in Laayoune. Only in a handful of rural provinces was the PJD shut out entirely. In Casablanca, Marrakech and Rabat/Salé, the PAM emerged as the main rival to the PJD and squeezed the other parties, particularly in Casablanca and Marrakech.

As aforementioned, the USFP and PPS used to have their electoral bases in urban areas, but the left’s support in urban Morocco has evaporated with their loss of credibility through continued government participation. Neither the USFP or PPS won any seats in the cities of Casablanca, Rabat, Salé, Tangiers, Fès, Meknès, Marrakech, Agadir or Kénitra. In the region of Casablanca-Settat, the USFP won just 2 seats and the PPS one, out of 57. In Rabat-Salé-Kénitra, the USFP and PPS won one and two seats, out of 39. On the other hand, the USFP won three out of eight seats in the southern Moroccan region of Guelmim-Oued Noun, a region of just 430,000 people (the USFP is the strongest party on its regional council, but lost the regional presidency by one vote to the RNI in 2015).

Leading part by province/prefecture in 2011 (source: D. Gouery,

Leading party by province/prefecture in 2011 (source: D. Gouery, “Le pouvoir est-il enfin dans les mains des villes ?” in EspacesTemps.net)

In 2011, as explained in this article, the PJD’s vote had a very strong positive correlation with urbanization (and, also, a correlation with low turnout). The PJD’s urban electorate is fairly well educated and middle-class.

The observation to be made is the importance, in more rural regions, of regional presidencies. The PAM, which holds five of them, benefited from this new factor. In the northern region of Tanger-Tétouan-Al Hoceïma, presided by the PAM’s leader Ilyas El Omari, the PAM won 8 out of 29 seats, one more than the PJD, despite the Islamists’ strength in the urban centre of Tangiers. In L’Oriental, also headed by the PAM, the party won 8 out of 23 seats against 5 for the PJD and PI. In Fès-Meknès, led by MP boss Mohand Laenser, the MP won five (out of 37 seats), certainly not enough to overpower the PJD’s stronghold in Fès (where, apparently, it won over 50% of the vote) and growing support in the provinces, but the single most important region for the MP in terms of seats. The PAM and PI won six seats apiece in the region. In Béni Mellal-Khénifra, which also has a PAM president, the party took 6 out of 25 seats against 5 for the PJD. In Marrakech-Safi, the PAM and PJD fought to a draw with 13 seats each – the PJD’s big support in Marrakech itself was counterbalanced by the PAM’s support in the smaller provinces, like Rehamna (2/3 seats for the PAM), Fouad Ali El Himma’s old political base. For the RNI, which governs two regions (Souss-Massa and Guelmim-Oued Noun), the trend is less obvious, although it has the second largest bench in Souss-Massa with 5 seats vs. 9 for the PJD and 4 for the PAM. Likewise, in the small (by population!) Sahrawi regions of Laâyoune-Sakia El Hamra and Dakhla-Oued Ed Dahab, both held by the Istiqlal, there is no apparent PI dominance – it won three out of nine seats in Laâyoune-Sakia El Hamra but was entirely shut out from Dakhla-Oued Ed Dahab’s four seats (split equally between the PJD, PAM, MP and USFP).

In urban areas, as alluded to, the ‘regional president effect’ was weaker than the PJD’s urban dominance. In Casablanca-Settat, which has a PAM regional presidency (if only because the PAM outbid the PJD in coalition building in 2015), the PAM was unable to challenge the PJD’s dominance (22 seats to 15). Nevertheless, we may presume that the PAM’s control of the regional government benefited the party in establishing itself, rather firmly, as the region’s leading non-PJD party. At the same time, the PAM also established itself as the largest non-PJD party in the region of Rabat-Salé-Kénitra, in spite of not controlling regional government there (it’s held by the PJD).

Coalition politics

Benkirane was re-appointed prime minister by King Mohammed VI following the election. He must now form a coalition with a parliamentary majority, or at least one capable of obtaining the house’s confidence. An absolute majority, as constitutionally required in the confidence vote, is 198. The PJD has said that it is open to working with all parties except the PAM (the PAM also does not want to govern with the PJD in any case). The PJD’s closest – and only sure – ally is the PPS, with just 12 seats, bringing them to just 137 of the required 198 seats. Chabat’s Istiqlal is in talks with the PJD, and it will be recalled that Chabat had announced even before anybody had voted that the PI would be in the next government regardless of how things went. After the election, the Istiqlal’s national council unanimously voted to enter government, officially in the service of the homeland’s supreme interest, unofficially because most of the PI’s cadres didn’t like being in opposition since 2013 and were angling to return to cabinet. Chabat was likely pressured by the bigwigs in the Istiqlal, already displeased with his leadership. It is also rumoured that Chabat would like to have the presidency of the House for himself. The PJD/PI/PPS are still 15 short of an absolute majority.

The PI and the USFP have been on good terms as of late, and talks between the two parties continued after the election, particularly as the RNI and UC decided to unite forces and sit as a single bloc in the new House, which would hold 56 seats to the PI’s 46. The USFP, rattled by its major losses, is reticent, as in 2011 (another major defeat), to participate in cabinet but is apparently being pushed more and more in that direction by the Istiqlal, again perhaps as a way to rival the RNI-UC. With the USFP, the PJD/PI/PPS would have an absolute majority of 203 seats.

The RNI and MP, the two other parties of the outgoing government, have had a tumultuous relationship with the PJD and have been evasive about whether they will participate in government again. Salaheddine Mezouar, the leader of the RNI, resigned two days after the election, and the RNI – like the MP – has pushed back a decision on government participation until their national councils vote on the matter. The RNI’s post-electoral parliamentary alliance with the UC, meanwhile, is interpreted as a means for the two party to strengthen their common bargaining position against the PJD (and PI) in future government formation talks. The UC has said that it would be open to participating in government.

The Moroccan media has, at times, evoked the ‘worst case scenario’ where Benkirane is unable to form a government, which would open a constitutional crisis and likely force King Mohammed VI to intervene directly in government formation. If no government obtains the confidence of the House, the only option left would be an early dissolution by the king for snap elections. But that scenario is highly unlikely. The parties, besides the PAM, are all interested, to a certain extent, by government participation. It is hard to see a scenario where, somehow, Benkirane is unable to cobble together a parliamentary majority. As it stands, the PJD/PI/USFP/PPS coalition appears to be the likeliest option. If that coalition is put together, it would be up to Benkirane whether, like in 2013, he is satisfied with just an absolute majority or if, like in 2011, he prefers to pad his margins a bit and put together an ‘oversized’ government with the inclusion of another party (RNI, UC, MP).

Philippines 2016

Presidential, congressional, provincial and local elections were held in the Philippines on May 9, 2016. All executive and legislative offices at the national, provincial and local levels of government were elected, with the exception of the lowest-level village (barangay) officials. The most important election was for the President and Vice President, followed by elections for half the seats in the Senate and all the seats in the House of Representatives.

Electoral and political system

The Philippines are a presidential republic, and its political and electoral system bears many similarities to that of the United States, but there remain some key differences.

The President of the Philippines (Pangulo ng Pilipinas) is the head of state and government of the Philippines, directly elected by voters to serve a six-year term by FPTP. The letter of the Constitution states that “the President shall not be eligible for any reelection”, which clearly bans immediate reelection for an incumbent elected to the office. The next sentence reads “No person who has succeeded as President and has served as such for more than four years shall be qualified for election to the same office at any time.” This allows someone (such as the Vice President) who has acceded to the presidency and served less than four years of the term to seek reelection, as President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo did in 2004. It remains unclear whether non-consecutive reelection for a former president is also banned, given that one former president (Joseph Estrada, 1998-2001) ran for president in 2010. Estrada’s case was brought to the Supreme Court, but the issue was heard after the election (which he lost), so it was dismissed.

The President’s powers are comparable to those of other presidents in most presidential system – appointment, commander-in-chief of the military, control of the executive branch and imposition of martial law.

The Vice President of the Philippines (Pangalawang Pangulo ng Pilipinas) is the first in the constitutional line of succession, and assumes the presidency in case of the death, permanent disability, removal from office, or resignation of the President. The VP is elected in the same manner, but separately from, the President – a fairly rare working, which sets the Philippines apart from other presidential system. The VP cannot serve for more than two consecutive terms. It is possible and in fact not uncommon for candidates from different parties to be elected as President and VP (as happened in the last election, in 2010). The Constitution does not establish any mandatory official duties for the VP besides presidential succession – the VP is not, for example, President of the Senate – but does allow for the VP to be appointed as a member of cabinet.

Only natural-born citizens over the age of 40 who have resided in the country for the ten years immediately preceding the election are eligible to be elected President or Vice President. The President, VP and some other senior officials (such as Supreme Court members) may be impeached for “culpable violation of the Constitution, treason, bribery, graft and corruption, other high crimes, or betrayal of public trust.” The House of Representatives initiates impeachment cases, although a main difference from US impeachment proceedings is that only a third of the House is required to approve articles of impeachment for them to be transmitted to the Senate for trial. In the Senate, presidential impeachment trials are presided by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (non-voting member), and like the US, a two-thirds majority is required for conviction.

The Congress of the Philippines (Kongreso ng Pilipinas) is the country’s bicameral national legislature, consisting of the Senate (Senado) as the upper house and the House of Representatives (Kapulungan ng mga Kinatawan). Congress’ powers are similar to those of the US Congress – general legislative powers, confirmation of appointments (by a joint commission), veto override (with a two-thirds majority in both houses), control and supervision of the executive, senatorial approval of treaties, declaration of war by joint session and impeachment.

The Senate has 24 members elected at-large for six-year terms through plurality at-large voting (block vote), with half of the seats up every three years. Senators may not serve more than two consecutive terms. In senatorial elections, parties or coalitions run a ‘ticket’ or slate (which are sometimes incomplete), which they sometimes complete with so-called ‘guest candidates’, or candidates who are members of another party.

The House of Representatives, after the election, will have 297 representatives serving three-year terms. Representatives cannot serve for more than three consecutive terms. 80% of all representatives (in 2013, 234, in 2016, 238) are elected in single-member legislative or congressional districts by FPTP. Seats are apportioned among the provinces and cities on the basis of their population, but Congress has shirked from its constitutional responsibility to reapportion legislative districts following every census, with the result being that there has been no national reapportionment since the Constitution was adopted in 1987 and the only changes to district boundaries have come as a result of the creation of new provinces or cities or piecemeal redistricting. The population of the districts currently runs the gamut from 16,600 to over 1 million.

The remaining 20% of the seats (in 2013, 58, in 2016, 59) are called party-list seats, which are for purportedly under-represented sectors (labour, poor, women, women, youth etc.). The country’s political parties do not run for the party-list seats, which are disputed between hundreds of small parties (or glorified lobbies/interest groups) which nobody really seems to care or know very much about. The distribution of the party-list seats follows an odd and arcane method – essentially the Hare quota, with several important modifications. Firstly, there is a 2% threshold, but it doesn’t amount to much: parties which pass the threshold automatically win at least one seat, but in successive rounds of allocation, any unfilled seats once all parties over 2% have received their seats are distributed to the parties until all seats have been filled. In addition, no party may win more than three seats. Wikipedia attempts an explanation, although it tough to get your head around it. Over 40 parties won party-list seats in 2013 – one won three seats, another 14 won two seats. The biggest party won just 4.6% of the vote, the smallest party to win seats won 0.86%. Over 31% of the votes cast in the party-list election in 2013 were invalid or blank votes.

Only natural-born citizens can serve in Congress, but there are different age qualifications – 35 for the Senate, 25 for the House – and residency requirements – no less than two years in the country for the Senate, no less than one year in the district for district representatives.

Provinces of the Philippines

The local government units in the Philippines are the provinces, independent cities, component cities/municipalities and barangays. There is one autonomous region, the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), which stands above the provinces and cities. Local governments enjoy local autonomy under presidential supervision. There are 81 provinces and 38 independent cities (cities which are independent from provinces and do not vote, with some exceptions, for provincial offices) – but, to make matters confusing, official maps do not generally distinguish provinces and independent cities, and some independent cities are still grouped with their former provinces in congressional districts (while some component cities, not separate from provinces, form their own congressional districts). Provinces and cities are grouped into regions, but with the exception of the ARMM, these are purely administrative divisions without any form of regional/local government. All elected local officials (except barangay level) serve three-year terms and are limited to three consecutive terms.

Provinces have directly-elected governors, vice-governors and provincial boards (Sangguniang Panlalawigan). Provincial boards have elected members and three ex oficio members, and elected members are elected from single or multi-member districts which correspond to congressional districts except in lone-district provinces which have two districts for provincial board elections. Cities have directly-elected mayors, vice-mayors and city councils (Sangguniang Panlungsod) ranging in size from 10 to 36 seats, elected either at-large or in multi-member districts. Municipalities, which are part of provinces, have directly-elected mayors, vice-mayors and municipal councils (Sangguniang Bayan). In 2013, 143 city mayors/vice-mayors and 1,491 municipal mayors/vice-mayors were elected; 766 provincial board members, nearly 1,600 city councillors and nearly 12,000 municipal councillors were elected. The ARMM has a directly-elected governor, vice-governor and legislative assembly.

Political history and background

The Republic of the Philippines gained its independence from the United States in 1946. Its history of relative political instability, endemic corruption and weak economy compared to other Asian countries earned it the moniker “the sick man of Asia”. The Filipino economy has improved in recent years and, since the late 1980s, it has re-consolidated itself as a democratic country though it naturally continues to face major problems. Corruption remains deeply ingrained in the political system, and patronage remains central to Filipino politics (and has a local term: the Padrino system). The Philippines ranked 95th out of 168 in the 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index, lower than China, India, Indonesia and Malaysia. Elections, in many ways, continue to be the arena where the country’s elite families – political dynasties – compete for power, the wealthiest of them at the national and provincial levels (this despite the 1987 Constitution calling on a law to prohibit political dynasties).

The 2015 edition of the Freedom in the World report noted that “while open and competitive, elections in the Philippines are typically marred by fraud, intimidation, and political violence, though conditions have improved in recent years.” The report said that political parties have weak ideological identities, that legislative coalitions are “exceptionally fluid” and that the distribution of power is still strongly affected by kinship networks (political dynasties). The report lamented widespread corruption and cronyism, and an associated culture of impunity. Other major problems cited by the report include arbitrary detention, disappearances, kidnappings, abuse of suspects, police and military abuses (corruption, torture, extrajudicial killings) and grave dangers to journalists (the Philippines is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists). Nevertheless, the Philippines have a vibrant and outspoken private media, robust civic activism, many active human rights groups and the country has made progress on gender equality despite a very socially conservative culture and a politically active Catholic Church.

Roots of modern Filipino politics (1907-1946)

Under American rule, first as a territory (1907-1935) and later as a protectorate (the Commonwealth, 1935-1946, except for the Japanese occupation), the Philippines had a one-party dominant system monopolized by the Nacionalista Party, a conservative pro-independence party established in 1901 under a program of “immediate independence”. The Nacionalistas won the first elections to the lower house in 1907, and won every election thereafter until 1946 (with the exception of the 1943 elections under Japanese occupation), although the party was split on two occasions (1922 and 1934). The party represented the interests of the landed elites, and was led for the entire era by Sergio Osmeña and Manuel Quezon (whose social background was somewhat unusual, as he rose to prominence because of his academic merit), allies at times and rivals at other times. Osmeña and Quezon were pragmatists who used the appeal of independence to win votes but who otherwise pursued highly accommodating policies towards the Americans, adopting a conciliatory and evolutionary approach towards independence.

The nature of party politics in this period laid the foundations of the modern Filipino party system. Political scientist Carl Landé described Filipino parties as organized “upwards” rather than “downwards” – that is, national coalitions were put together by party leaders who worked in conjunction with local elites (in many cases, the descendants of leading families during Spanish rule) who controlled constituencies in patron-client relationships. At the local level, notables garnered support by exchanging support for votes. Reciprocal ties between inferior and superior usually involved repayment of debts and kinship ties, and they were the basis of support for local-level factions which decided political affiliation. Unsurprisingly under such a party system, local issues were of greater importance than national ones and patronage was vital to the retention of a following. Despite the expansion of suffrage in 1916 and 1938, the elite was largely successful in monopolizing the support of the newly enfranchised and checking the rise of populist alternatives.

Under Nacionalista hegemony, a conservative consensus precluded discussion of even moderate social and economic reforms. The status quo in landlord and tenant relationships was maintained and disparities in the distribution of wealth grew, but patterns of social control changed as the elite left the countryside to become absentee landlords.

Nevertheless, Quezon and Osmeña’s commitment to independence was sincere. Under a Democratic administration in the United States, the Philippines gained increased autonomy with the Jones Act (1916), which contained the first formal and official declaration of the US’ intent to grant independence as soon as a ‘stable government’ could be established. The law also provided for both houses of the legislature, including the upper house (Senate), to be directly elected although executive power remained in American hands with the governor-general.

Under another Democratic administration in 1934, the Tydings-McDuffie Act was passed, setting a ten-year transition period for independence in 1946 and establishing the Commonwealth of the Philippines, with the first directly-elected President of the Philippines. The Commonwealth was self-governing in all matters except foreign policy, immigration, currency and foreign trade, but the relationship between the Philippines and the United States remained an highly unequal one. Under the act, the 1935 Constitution of the Philippines was written. The original document created a unicameral legislature and limited the president to a single non-renewable six-year term but it was amended in 1940 to allow the executive to serve two consecutive four-year terms and reestablish a bicameral legislature with a Senate.

The debates preceding the passage of the Tydings-McDuffie Act had divided the Nacionalista Party between Manuel Quezon, opposed to the Hare-Hawes-Cutting Act of 1933, and Sergio Osmeña, who supported the bill. Quezon successfully managed to kill the Hare-Hawes-Cutting Act in the Senate, and renegotiated the Tydings-McDuffie Act with the US Congress, resulting in a bill slightly more favourable to Filipino interests. Following the passage of the Tydings-McDuffie Act and the 1935 Constitution, Quezon and Osmeña reconciled, ran on a Nacionalista ticket and were elected president and vice president, respectively. In 1941, both were reelected by landslide margins. During this period, the Nacionalista Party lacked any serious opposition. Quezon’s administration launched a ‘social justice’ program and passed a rice share tenancy law in 1933 to improve the lot of tenant farmers, but in the end both achieved meagre results due to insufficient funds and local-level sabotage by landlords. In fact, in 1940, thousands of cultivators were evicted by landlords as they insisted for enforcement of the 1933 law, and rural conflict became only more acute.

During World War II following the Japanese invasion and occupation of the islands, Quezon and Osmeña led the Filipino government-in-exile but several Nacionalista personalities, chief among them José P. Laurel (an associate justice of the Supreme Court), collaborated with the Japanese occupiers and provided the Filipino political personnel for the Second Philippine Republic, the Japanese-sponsored regime (which nevertheless sometimes faced down the Japanese). The issue of collaboration with the wartime occupier became a major point of political debate in the post-war Philippines.

During the war, hundreds of thousands of Filipinos – many of them tenant farmers and peasants who had already been opposing landlord practices – joined guerrilla units which prevented the Japanese from fully occupying the territory. The largest of these guerrilla forces were the Hukbalahap, a communist-inspired resistance movement formed in central Luzon. The Huks had fought alongside the Americans during the liberation of the Philippines, but there was much mutual distrust between the two, and after the war, many Huk guerrillas were forcibly disarmed, arrested or massacred by the US military or Filipino forces. After the war, the Huks, who resumed their guerrilla campaign in 1948, were painted as communists by the government and the US, but the Communist Party (PKP) gave its support to the Huk rebellion only in 1950 and historians have agreed that the Huks were a peasant movement driven largely by landlord-tenant conflicts in which Marxist-Leninist doctrine had little place.

In exile, Osmeña had succeeded Quezon as president following the latter’s death in August 1944, and presided over the reestablishment of the Commonwealth following the liberation of the islands in 1945, but also the difficult immediate post-war period of rampant inflation, food shortages and the problem of wartime collaborators. The Americans insisted on severe punishments, but were inconsistent in following their own policy, as General MacArthur granted clemency and liberated his friends. Quoting Kathleen Nadeau, “this meant that those who had collaborated with the Japanese were those who were charged with the task of dealing with the problem of collaborators, which, effectively, ensured the survival of the prewar landed elites.”

The two-party system of the Third Republic (1946-1965)

General elections were called for April 1946, to prepare for the transition to independence scheduled for July 1946. Incumbent President Sergio Osmeña sought reelection, but largely left the task of campaigning to his underlings. The main challenge to Nacionalista hegemony, as it turned out, came from a split within Nacionalista ranks. Manuel Roxas, an ambitious Nacionalista Speaker of the House (1922-1933) and President of the Senate (1945-1946), aroused much controversy for having served as minister without portfolio in Laurel’s cabinet (where he maintained contact with Allied forces, which exonerated him in the eyes of his prewar associate, Douglas MacArthur). When Osmeña won the Nacionalista nomination, Roxas split off from the party to form what became the Liberal Party so he could run for president. Osmeña received support from the Democratic Alliance, a makeshift left-wing alliance which included the Communist Party (PKP) and the Huks of northern and central Luzon, but he was greatly outspent and outspoken by Roxas. Roxas won the election 53.9% to 45.7% and the Liberals also won control of both houses of Congress.

In the campaign, Roxas had claimed that those who had collaborated with the Japanese had also resisted, and in 1948 he declared an amnesty for arrested collaborators. Economic relations were, however, the most salient issue. One of the first items passed by the new Congress, two days prior to independence, was the Bell Trade Act of 1946, a US trade act which stipulated that free trade be continued until 1954, thereafter tariffs would increase gradually by 5% annually until full amounts were reached in 1974. While there were quotas for Filipino products, there were no restrictions on the entry of US goods nor any import duties. The most controversial provision of the law was the ‘parity clause’, which granted US citizens equal economic rights with Filipinos in the exploitation of natural resources. Acceptance of this clause was the condition for the payment of US$620 million in war damages. Congressional approval of the parity clause (which required a three-quarters majority in both houses and a plebiscite) required Roxas to legislative engineering – denying congressional seats to six members of the Democratic Alliance and three Nacionalistas on grounds of electoral violence – to obtain its passage. In March 1947, a plebiscite on the amendment was held, and passed with over 78% of the vote although turnout was only 40%. The Liberals swept the 1947 midterm senatorial elections, winning seven of the eight seats up for grabs and giving them a wide 15-8 majority. Close ties to the United States in the military field were formalized by the 1947 Military Bases Agreement, which gave the US a 99-year lease on 23 military installations including Subic Bay. In addition, a 1947 military assistance agreement established a US military mission to train the Philippines armed forces and the transfer of millions of dollars worth of military aid.

US military assistance was used to fight the ‘communist threat’ in the countryside. The exclusion of the Democratic Alliance from Congress provoked unrest in the regions where they had been elected, while continued landlord-instigated violence against peasant groups convinced the Huks to resume their armed struggle. Although Roxas’ government passed a law giving peasants 70% of the harvest, his government followed mostly repressive tactics against the Huks.

Roxas died in office in April 1948 and was succeeded by Vice President Elpidio Quirino, who stepped up the military campaign against the Huks after unfruitful talks with their leader. The Huks’ momentum faded after 1951. In 1949, Elpidio Quirino was reelected (in an election marred by accusations of rigging and fraud) with 50.9% of the vote, against 37.2% for José P. Laurel, the former wartime collaborationist president standing for the Nacionalistas, and 11.9% for dissident Liberal José Avelino, former party leader and Senate President (ousted on charges of selling war surpluses). The Liberals won increased majorities in both houses of Congress. Nevertheless, two years later, discontent over Quirino’s inability to manage lawlessness in the countryside and widespread corruption led to the first midterm election defeat for a Filipino President. The Nacionalistas won all seats up for grabs in the Senate (although overall the Liberals retained a majority), with José P. Laurel as the top vote-getter.

Laurel declined the Nacionalista presidential nomination in 1953, and instead recommended defence secretary Ramon Magsaysay, whose counter-insurgency tactics against the Huks had been very successful and won him widespread recognition and support. Magsaysay was very close to, and owed some of his political success to the United States and a joint Philippines-US military mission which had devised the successful counter-insurgency strategy and a peasant resettlement plan (which led more than a million people to voluntarily resettle to Mindanao). With Laurel’s backing, Magsaysay won the Nacionalista nomination and ran a populist campaign in which he styled himself a man of the people. Incumbent President Quirino, hobbled by charges of corruption and ill health, was no match for Magsaysay and was routed, 68.9% to 31.1%.

Magsaysay’s personal style, his administration’s economic policies, robust economic performance and agricultural tenancy legislation made him very popular. He was the first postwar leader to bring the masses into contact with the government, although his personalization of state institutions also reduced their effectiveness. In March 1957, Magsaysay died in a plane crash and was succeeded by Vice President Carlos P. Garcia. Garcia completed Magsaysay’s term and won a full term in his own right in November 1957, an unprecedented multi-sided contest. Garcia, as the Nacionalista candidate, was opposed by former Speaker Jose Yulo for the Liberals, former Magsaysay supporters behind Manuel Manahan in the Progressive Party, and nationalist political thinker/rebel Nacionalista senator Carlos M. Recto for the Nationalist Citizens’ Party (NCP). Garcia was reelected with 41.3% against 27.6% for Yulo, 20.9% for Manahan and 8.6% for Recto, but he was unable to carry his running-mate, Jose B. Laurel Jr., over the line and the vice presidency was won by Liberal congressman Diosdado Macapagal. Garcia’s most significant legacy is his Filipino First policy, a protectionist and nationalist policy designed to reduce the dominance of foreign (read: US) interests in the national economy and promote industrialization with special incentives to Filipino investors. Under Garcia, the policy was successful at creating new jobs in production of consumer goods and secondary industries, although most benefits flowed to the rich. In 1957, the richest 20% received 55% of the national income against 4.5% for the poorest 20%. Festering corruption and the unpopularity of the Filipino First policy with some groups made Garcia’s administration quite unpopular by the time of the 1961 election, in which he sought reelection.

The opposition – the Liberals, the Progressive Party and Nacionalista dissidents – nominated Vice President Diosdado Macapagal for the presidency and Nacionalista senator Emmanuel Pelaez for the vice presidency. The Nacionalistas were further divided by the independent vice presidential candidacy of Sergio Osmeña Jr. and the very public falling out between President Garcia and NP Senate President Eulogio Rodriguez. Macapagal was elected president with 55% against 45% for Garcia, and Pelaez narrowly won the vice presidency with 37.6% against 34.4% for Osmeña Jr.

Diosdado Macapagal strongly advocated for ‘free enterprise’, pledging to reduce government intervention in the economy and opening the country to foreign investment. His administration removed exchange controls, floated the peso and recruited American-trained technocrats to staff a new economic development agency which replaced an old, corrupt economic council. In 1963, Congress passed Macapagal’s land reform code, which replaced tenancy with a leasehold system, but not until landlords in Congress had drained the law of all its substance and funding. The land reform had good intentions, but under such conditions, it was a major failure. An unfriendly Congress frustrated other of his ideas and prevented the full implementation of his programs. Macapagal launched an anti-corruption drive cracked down on tax evaders, a campaign which remained fairly one-sided as corruption remained endemic in Macapagal’s government. These campaigns won him enemies in powerful places, who used their power to malign the president’s character in the press and expose government corruption and waste.

Macapagal’s administration was wracked by defections in the run-up to the 1965 elections, the most prominent being that of Liberal Senate President Ferdinand Marcos, who joined the Nacionalista Party. Vice President Emmanuel Pelaez also fell out with the Liberals and returned to his first home, the Nacionalistas, to unsuccessfully battled Marcos for the party’s nomination. The Progressives, who had supported Macapagal’s candidacy in 1961, re-created their party (as the Party for Philippine Progress) and ran a separate ticket. Marcos campaigned hard against government corruption, targeted dissatisfaction with economic conditions (jobs, overcrowded cities etc.) and had a pledge to “make this nation great again” which is very familiar in 2016 (ahem). Marcos won a decisive victory with 51.9% against 42.9% for President Macapagal. In the vice presidential race, Marcos’ running-mate was Fernando Lopez, member of a powerful family (owners of one of the country’s largest business conglomerates) which had been targeted by Macapagal’s crackdown on ‘big fish’ tax evaders. Lopez defeated Liberal senator Gerardo Roxas, son of former President Manuel Roxas, in a very close race (48.5% to 48.1%). The Nacionalistas regained the Senate, but the Liberals retained control of the House until 1967.

Ferdinand Marcos (1965-1986)

Ferdinand Marcos was born in 1917 in Ilocos Norte, a province in northwestern Luzon, in a family which was part of the provincial elite class. His father, Mariano, served two terms in the House of Representatives between 1925 and 1931 and later collaborated with the Japanese before his death in 1945. In 1938, Ferdinand Marcos was one of several members of his family accused of the murder of a political rival from Ilocos Norte, but was acquitted on appeal to the Supreme Court in 1940, reversing a lower court’s guilty verdict – likely due to the machinations of a wealthy Chinese man (with whom Marcos’ mother may have had an affair before her marriage to Mariano). Marcos’ war record remains shrouded in mystery, but Marcos promoted his political career on the basis of an entirely fabricated ‘heroic’ war record; he claimed to be the country’s most decorated war hero, receiving almost every single Filipino and American medal, something which later turned out to be a lie. Similarly, Marcos’ claims to have commanded an 8,000-strong guerrilla force seems to be a fraud. Marcos served ten years in the House as a Liberal representative from Ilocos Norte before being elected to the Senate, under the Liberal ticket, in 1959 (with over 2.6 million votes). He served as President of the Senate between 1963 and 1965. In 1954, Marcos married Imelda Marcos, a former beauty queen, perhaps best known today for her insane shoe collection. But Imelda also came with political connections to the Romualdez political dynasty of Leyte in the Visayas.

In his first term (1965-1969), Marcos initiated ambitious public works projects (roads, bridges, schools, irrigation, health centres) which improved the quality of life but which provided generous pork barrel opportunities for his friends and allies. Marcos liked public works spending as politically beneficial, since they won him loyal allies and were appreciated both by local elites and ordinary people. In contrast, land reform was a high-cost and risky idea which risked alienating allies, and Marcos never forcefully implemented any land reform ideas. Marcos’ popularity led to a Nacionalista sweep in the 1967 midterm senatorial polls – seven of the eight seats went to the governing party, with only a single Liberal winning – Benigno Aquino Jr., who soon emerged as the regime’s most forceful opponent.

In one of the most fraudulent elections in the country’s history, Marcos and Lopez were reelected in a landslide in 1969 against their Liberal opponents, senator Sergio Osmeña Jr. and senator Genaro Magsaysay (incidentally, two former Nacionalistas). Marcos won 61.5% of the vote against 38.5% for Osmeña in the presidential race. Marcos spent at least US$50 million on his campaign, and blatantly abused public funds to bribe political bosses into bringing in votes from their regions for him. Marcos’ Nacionalistas won a massive majority in the House and increased their majority in the Senate.

The optimism and tranquility that had characterized his first term dissipated, as economic growth slowed and political dissent increased. The late 1960s and early 1970s were, of course, a turbulent period in Southeast Asia with the Vietnam War. The Philippines sent about 2,000 troops, but, more importantly, the US military bases at Subic Bay and Clark Air Base became the largest US overseas military facilities as important staging grounds for the Vietnam conflict. The Vietnam war, the Philippines’ close alignment with US foreign policy, the Chinese Cultural Revolution and other anti-imperialist movements around the world in the late 1960s radicalized middle and upper-class Filipino students and rejuvenated the communist movement. The Huk rebellion had ended in the 1950s and the old PKP seemed dormant by 1970, but a new generation ‘reestablished’ the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) along Maoist lines in 1968. The CPP’s armed faction, the New People’s Army (NPA), launched a People’s War (following Maoist theory) in 1969. In southern Mindanao and Sulu, violence between Muslims and Christians was on the rise and resulted in the creation of the Muslim separatist Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in 1969. In January 1970, student demonstrators marching to the presidential palace clashed with riot police in Manila, resulting in many injuries.

There was wide agreement on the need to adopt a new constitution to replace the old 1935 document and serve as the basis for a thorough reform of the political system. In 1970, an election was held to elect delegates to a constitutional convention. Under the 1935 constitution, Marcos was barred from seeking a third term in the 1973 election, and opposition delegates at the convention adopted a provision in September 1971 which banned Marcos or members of his family from holding the position of head of state regardless of whatever arrangement was adopted. But Marcos, through bribery and coercion, managed to have the ban nullified.

In August 1971, grenades thrown during a Liberal Party campaign rally in Plaza Miranda (Manila) killed 9 and injured another 95, including most leading Liberal senatorial candidates. It has never been conclusively established who was responsible, but Marcos blamed the CPP while others (like the Liberals) pointed to government involvement. Other bombings at the time were attributed to communists, but were likely set by government agents provocateurs. Marcos used the Plaza Miranda as a pretext to suspend the writ of habeas corpus and arrested a score of Maoists.

President Marcos had grown highly unpopular by the time of the 1971 midterm polls, and the opposition Liberal Party captured 6 of the 8 seats. On such numbers, it looked unlikely that Marcos or a stand-in candidate would win the 1973 election against the opposition frontrunner, senator Benigno Aquino. In September 1972, following a (staged) assassination attempt on defence secretary Juan Ponce Enrile and the mounting communist insurgency, Marcos declared martial law across the country. Marcos ruled by decree until 1981, using his extraordinary powers to arrest opposition leaders (including Benigno Aquino Jr.), close Congress, shut down several media outlets and tightly curtail press freedom and civil liberties. Marcos’ measures were initially well-received at home, and his anti-communist justifications found a ready audience in the United States, which hardly protested the demise of Filipino democracy. In 1981, US Vice President George H.W. Bush infamously praised Marcos for his “adherence to democratic principles and to the democratic processes.” The US provided billions of dollars in bilateral military and economic aid.

Marcos claimed that martial law was the prelude to the creation of a ‘New Society’, based on new political and social values and an overarching spirit of self-sacrifice for the national welfare. That was, of course, mostly completely vacuous nonsense since Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos’ regime was notoriously kleptocratic, focused on enriching themselves and a small circle of cronies by looting the treasury and corruption on an ‘awe-inspiring scale’. In his nepotistic system, Imelda Marcos was appointed governor of Metro Manila, an office she held from 1975 to 1986 and also served in the legislature and as ‘minister of human settlements’ (a fancy title for embezzlement, money laundering and racketeering). Marcos used martial law to confiscate and appropriate many private and public businesses, and hand them over to friends and family. He also used his power to settle scores with rivals, a practice which alienated parts of the old social and economic elites of the country.

The martial law years were a violent period, with the NPA’s communist/Maoist insurgency and the Moro (Muslim) insurgency in the south, conflicts which killed thousands of people. In 1976, a cease-fire agreement was signed under Libyan mediation between the government and the MNLF, in which the government undertook to create an autonomous region for Muslims in Mindanao (the ARMM, however, was only created in 1989). An Islamist separatist faction of the MNLF unhappy with the cease-fire split and created the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), whose goal was the creation of an Islamist state in the south of the country.

The economy performed well during the first years of martial law, benefiting from increased stability and business confidence bolstered by Marcos’ appointment of talented technocrats. The economy weathered the 1973 oil shock and the ensuing inflation by reducing dependence on imported oil. Yet, most benefits flowed to Marcos’ family, cronies A land reform was proclaimed in 1975, resulting in the formal transfer of land to over 180,000 families, but the program was filled with loopholes and had little impact either on the landowning elites or landless peasants. More importantly, the government launched the Green Revolution, a model emphasizing increased crop production which was heavily funded by the IMF and the World Bank. The Green Revolution did increase crop production, but at the cost of expensive and environmentally damaging pesticides and fertilizers. And overall, it mostly benefited wealthy farmers, large landowners and agri-business rather than poor farmers. Marcos borrowed heavily to finance his economic development and infrastructure projects, in the process saddling the country with a huge external debt ($28.3 billion) by the time he left office in 1986 and creating several balance of payments crises in the 1980s which required IMF assistance.

In 1973, the constitutional convention finished its work and produced a new constitution, supposed to shift towards a parliamentary system of government with a unicameral National Assembly, a Prime Minister who would be head of government and commander-in-chief and a ceremonial president elected by the National Assembly with no term limits. The constitution was ratified by a show of hands, rather than secret ballot, in January 1973 with 90.7% approving. In July, the same majority supported continuation of martial law. In 1975, over 88% of voters approved of the manner in which Marcos had been carrying out his duties. In 1976, the 1973 constitution was amended to substitute the interim National Assembly (which never met) for an interim Batasang Pambansa and to allow the President to serve as Prime Minister and exercise legislative powers until martial law was lifted. In April 1978, elections to 165 seats in the interim Batasang Pambansa were held, contested by Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos’ Kilusang Bagong Lipunan (New Society Movement, KBL) and – in Metro Manila – by jailed opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr.’s Lakas ng Bayan (People’s Power, LABAN – literally ‘fight’). However, most of the opposition boycotted the polls, and with the odds stacked in their favour, the KBL swept the country with 137 seats. LABAN won no seats, but other provincial opposition leaders won seats in Region VII (Cebu/Central Visayas) and Region X (Northern Mindanao). Aquino later went into exile in the United States.

Martial law was lifted in 1981 (but decrees issued during that time remained in force, so it was a cosmetic change), while constitutional amendments that year replaced the false parliamentary system with a semi-presidential system where the President was directly elected and regained executive powers. In June 1981, a presidential election was held. The opposition umbrella group, UNIDO, did not have its preconditions for participation met and boycotted the election, clearing the field for Ferdinand Marcos to win a landslide reelection against only token opposition. Marcos won 88% of the vote, with his strongest opponent being Alejo Santos of the moribund Nacionalista Party (Santos’ campaign was basically run by the government), who won 8.3%.

In 1983, economic woes and Marcos’ own worsening health (he had lupus erythemotosus and was on dialysis) persuaded Aquino to return home, despite the dangers that awaited him, to persuade the president to relinquish power (which was very unlikely) or build a responsible opposition to prevent extremists (or Imelda Marcos) from taking over. Aquino managed to find a tortuous way to fly back to the Philippines despite the government’s opposition, but was assassinated as he was escorted off the airplane at Manila airport. The government immediately claimed that he was killed by a lone communist gunman (who was conveniently killed in a shoot-out by soldiers after the alleged act), but a fact-finding commission appointed by Marcos concluded in October 1984 that the assassination was a military conspiracy including General Fabian Ver, the then-commander of the armed forces. However, in 1985, a special court acquitted Ver and 24 other military officers. Aquino’s funeral drew millions and he became a martyr to the opposition.

Marcos held a parliamentary election in 1984. The opposition was divided between those, like former senators Jose Diokno and Jovito Salongo, who opted to boycott the polls and those who participated in the election with the UNIDO coalition (led by former senator Salvador ‘Doy’ Laurel) or the PDP-Laban (Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan) led by Cagayan de Oro mayor Aquilino Pimentel Jr. Marcos’ KBL retained a large majority, winning 62% of the seats, but the opposition won 61 seats – about a third of the seats – a marked improvement from 1978.

Marcos faced mounting unrest and international pressure, and, in November 1985, he decided to call a snap presidential election for February 1986. Marcos ran for reelection as the KBL’s candidate, with Arturo Tolentino (a member of the legislature and former senator) as his running-mate. Media tycoon Chino Roces convinced Benigno Aquino’s widow, Corazon ‘Cory’ Aquino, to run for president. Salvador ‘Doy’ Laurel, the other opposition candidate, reluctantly stepped aside to become Cory’s running-mate, only after intervention by Jaime Cardinal Sin, the influential Catholic Archbishop of Manila (the ‘spiritual leader’ to millions of devoutly Catholic Filipinos). Both ran together for UNIDO, and the opposition was supported by a broad coalition including the Church, unhappy sectors of the business elite and old politicians.

The election was marred by violence, rampant fraud and cheating, and the official Commission on Elections (COMELEC) declared Marcos and Tolentino the winners, with Marcos winning about 53% of the vote. However, the accredited election observer National Movement for Free Elections (NAMFREL), with a parallel tally from 70% of precincts, reported Aquino and Laurel as the winners with 52.6% for Cory Aquino (47.4% for Marcos). The election was condemned by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference and the US Senate, while even Marcos’ friend and steadfast ally President Ronald Reagan called the fraud reports ‘disturbing’. Yet, despite the controversy and growing protests, the government-controlled Batasang Pambansa officially proclaimed Marcos as the winner.

A group of disgruntled junior officers, supported by defence secretary Juan Ponce Enrile, in the armed forces had organized the Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAM), and they set into motion a coup attempt after the disputed elections. The plot was uncovered, but Enrile et al. rallied Lt. General Fidel Ramos, vice chief of staff of the armed forces, and hunkered down in two military camps in Manila. Cardinal Sin, the Archbishop of Manila, appealed to Filipinos in the capital to go out and provide support to the rebel leaders. Despite the danger, hundreds of thousands descended onto the streets of Manila. Marcos quickly lost control of the military, and was advised by the Reagan White House (through Senator Paul Laxalt) to flee. Marcos fled the country to Hawaii on February 25, three days after the protests began. Corazon Aquino became President, with the success of what has become known as the People Power Revolution or EDSA I (after EDSA, the nickname for a major circumferential highway in Manila where protests took place).

Cory Aquino (1986-1992)

Corazon Aquino was unwillingly thrust into politics after the assassination of her husband, but she herself came from a powerful and well-connected family, the Cojuangco of Tarlac province (of distant Chinese ancestry).

Aquino led a turbulent transition to democracy. Immediately upon taking office, Aquino suspended the 1973 constitution and promulgated an interim constitution, while she appointed a constitutional commission which drafted the 1987 constitution (currently in force). The 1987 constitution protects civil and political rights, promotes education and includes a bill of rights similar to that of the United States. In institutional terms, it largely restored features of the 1935 constitution – the presidential system, the bicameral Congress and an independent judiciary with the Supreme Court. Her government also reorganized the executive branch and devolved power to local governments.

Congressional elections for the new House of Representatives and Senate were held in May 1987. Pro-Aquino parties formed the LABAN coalition, facing off against the Grand Alliance for Democracy (GAD) opposition coalition of the KBL and Nacionalista Party. The LABAN coalition swept 22 of the Senate’s 24 seats, with the opposition winning only two seats – for Joseph Estrada and Juan Ponce Enrile. In the House, the LABAN coalition also secured a large majority with the GAD winning very few seats. Despite the appearance of broad support for her administration, the coalition which brought her to power soon came undone. Enrile and Laurel were unhappy to learn that Aquino intended to serve out of her six-year term, and both set out to undermine her. Enrile was fired from cabinet as early as the fall of 1986; Laurel was relieved of his duties as foreign secretary in September 1987 but remained in cabinet as VP. Laurel was publicly opposed to her administration, to the point of announcing his willingness to lead the country if she was ousted by a coup. Besides her fractious political coalition, Aquino had trouble dealing with the military. In 1986 and 1987, there were several coup attempts from factions of the armed forces – the RAM, Marcos loyalists, Enrile. In December 1989, Aquino faced a serious coup attempt/revolt by Marcos loyalists and RAM elements, and she survived only by requesting support from the US military. The coup seriously weakened her politically (Laurel openly backed it) and hurt the fragile economy. Ramos’ support was crucial to Aquino retaining her grip on power through all coup attempts.

Aquino had inherited a massive foreign debt and poor economy, courtesy of Marcos’ mismanagement. Advised by some to repudiate the debt, Aquino instead took the unpopular decision of honouring all the debts previously incurred in an effort to regain investors’ confidence. Under her presidency, the foreign debt as a percentage of GDP shrank (from 88% to 68%). Aquino began a process of market liberalization by privatization, deregulating industries and seeking to dismantle the monopolies and oligopolies of the Marcos years. The economy performed well in 1988 and 1989, but the 1989 coup attempt badly hurt the fragile economic recovery, and the economy was just climbing out of recession when Aquino left office in 1992.

The 1987 constitution notably includes a provision for agrarian reform, although the article makes land reform “subject to such priorities and reasonable retention limits as the Congress may prescribe” and forces the state to “respect the right of small landowners” in determining land retention limits. Shortly after the adoption of the new constitution by referendum, farmers and agrarian workers demonstrated near the presidential palace to demand genuine land reform, but were met by Marines who fired into the crowd and killed 12. Aquino was not directly to blame for the massacre, but it was held against her. In 1988, Congress passed an agrarian reform law paving the way for land redistribution to tenant farmers, but the law allowed for landowners to opt for stock distribution instead of actual redistribution. This scheme was controversially used on an estate in Tarlac province which belonged to the Cojuangco family.

Her presidency was further complicated by major natural disasters – the 1990 Luzon earthquake, which killed 1,600, and the 1991 volcanic eruption of Mt. Pinatubo, which killed 800 and caused huge problems for the country’s economy and agriculture. The volcanic eruption covered the US naval station at Subic Bay and destroyed the Clark Air Base. After the Senate’s rejection of an earlier treaty and the breakdown of further talks, the US withdrew its forces from Subic Bay.

Fidel Ramos (1992-1998)

The 1992 presidential election was the first election under the new multi-party system. Retired General and former defence secretary Fidel Ramos lost the nomination of the then-dominant Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino (LDP) party to House Speaker Ramon Mitra Jr., but bolted from the LDP to create his own party, Lakas ng Tao, which allied with the National Union of Christian Democrats (NUCD) of former senator and foreign secretary Raul Mangaplus (previously one of the main players of the Progressive Party in the ’60s). The field also included Miriam Defensor-Santiago, a former judge and Aquino’s former agrarian reform secretary, for the populist People’s Reform Party (PRP); Eduardo ‘Danding’ Cojuangco Jr., business tycoon (owner of San Miguel Corporation, one of the biggest food and beverage corporation in SE Asia), Corazon Aquino’s estranged cousin and Marcos inner circle crony (suspected of having had a role in Ninoy Aquino’s assassination), for the Nationalist People’s Coalition (NPC, a split-off from the Nacionalista Party); former First Lady and corruption icon Imelda Marcos for her late husband’s KBL; Senate President Jovito Salonga (a noted opposition leader under Marcos) for the Liberal Party and VP Salvador Laurel of the Nacionalista Party. Aquino initially was behind Ramon Mitra, but switched her support to Fidel Ramos. Ramos ended up winning the election with the smallest plurality in Philippines history – 23.6% to 19.7% for Santiago, 18.2% for Danding Cojuangco, 14.6% to Mitra, 10.3% to Imelda Marcos, 10.2% to Salonga and only 3.4% to Salvador Laurel. In contrast, the vice presidential contest was won with a larger plurality (33%) by senator Joseph Estrada (NPC), Danding Cojuangco’s running-mate and a former movie star. In the congressional races, the LDP ended up with the most seats, although that’s a rather meaningless factoid since many later defected to support the incoming administration.

Fidel Ramos also came from a political family (and Marcos’ second cousin by his mom) – his dad was a member of the House and later foreign secretary under Marcos – but made his career in the military, in active duty in Korea and Vietnam before becoming chief of the Philippine Constabulary (a militarized gendarmerie/Guardia Civil force formed by the Americans in 1901, abolished in 1991) in 1972 and serving as one of Marcos’ trusted advisers for 20 years (notably enforcing martial law). His defection to the People Power Revolution in 1986 was key in tipping the balance against Marcos, and his loyalty to President Aquino allowed her to retain office despite military revolts.

Ramos entered office with an ambitious plan to make the Philippines a new economic ‘tiger’ in Asia by 2000, which meant liberalizing the economy to make it more attractive to outside investors and increase export-oriented industrialization. Ramos’ government continued the privatization of state-owned corporations (telecommunications, banking, shipping, oil, Philippine Airlines), reformed the tax system by raising the VAT to 10% on IMF-World Bank recommendations and reduced the external debt to 55% of GDP by 1996. Foreign investors regained confidence in an apparently re-stabilized country, and international investments in export zones and other industrial area created thousands of new jobs and strengthened the economy (especially in Metro Manila, Cebu and northern Luzon). The Filipino economy performed well between 1994 and 1997, with growth rates between 4% and 6% annually, declining inflation and unemployment.

Under Ramos, the government restarted negotiations with the MNLF, leading to a ‘peace agreement’ with the MNLF in 1996 which allowed the MNLF’s leader, Nur Misuari, to be elected governor of the ARMM. The government also held negotiations with the MILF and the CPP/NPA, and legalized the Communist Party of the Philippines. His administration faced several allegations of corruption and mismanagement, and his economic record has been criticized – particularly by the left – for ‘artificial’ economic growth and the damaging effects of privatization.

The Philippine economy, like that of its East Asian neighbours, was hit by the 1997 Asian financial crisis. The country’s GDP fell by 0.6% in 1998, a much milder recession than the ones which Indonesia, Thailand and Malaysia suffered that year. Nevertheless, unemployment rose to 10% and the peso lost 37% of its value.

Fidel Ramos attempted to have the constitution amended by a constitutional convention to adopt a unicameral parliamentary system and remove term limits, but his controversial move failed to receive popular support. Although initially popular, a combination of the 1997 financial crisis, corruption scandals, mismanagement, rising criminality and his attempt to prolong his term in office led many to lose confidence in him.

Joseph Estrada (1998-2001)

Like the 1992 election, the 1998 election was a multi-faceted affair – confirming the volatility and instability of the new multi-party system. However, unlike the 1992 election, there was a clear winner in the 1998 race. The winner, with 39.9% of the vote, was Vice President Joseph Estrada, a former movie star, mayor and senator. The government’s candidate (from Lakas-NUCD-UMDP), House Speaker Jose de Venecia, followed in a very distant second with 15.9%. However, Jose de Venecia’s running-mate, senator Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (the daughter of former President Diosdado Macapagal), won the vice presidency in a landslide obtaining nearly 50% of the vote. The other presidential candidates included senator Raul Roco (13.8%); former Cebu governor Emilio Osmeña (grandson of former President Sergio Osmeña, and a recent Lakas dissident, 12.4%); Manila Mayor Alfredo Lim (8.7%); defence secretary Renato de Villa (another Lakas dissident, 4.9%); Miriam Defensor-Santiago (3%) and Juan Ponce Enrile (1.3%). Imelda Marcos, elected to Congress in 1995, withdrew her candidacy to support Estrada instead.

In the Senate, Estrada’s slate – the Laban ng Makabayang Masang Pilipino (LAMMP), a coalition of his Pwersa ng Masang Pilipino (PMP), his running mate Eduardo Angara’s LDP, ‘Danding’ Cojuangco’s NCP and Aquilino Pimentel Jr.’s PDP-Laban – won 7 to 5 against Lakas. In the House, Lakas won an absolute majority of the district seats, but there were enough defections that the LAMMP’s Manny Villar (himself an earlier defector) was elected Speaker.

Estrada was swept into power on a populist, nationalist and anti-corruption message. He had strong support from the poor, based on a ‘buddy of the masses’ image and his acting career, where he was usually a John Wayne-type hero who defended the weak and poor against the establishment. Most of that, of course, turned out to be rubbish.

The economy recovered quickly from the 1997 Asian financial crisis, working its way out of a recession in 1998 with 3% and 4% growth in 1999 and 2000 respectively. Unemployment, however, increased to 11%, its highest level since EDSA I, and government debt increased to 59% of GDP by 2000. Despite nationalist rhetoric, the government continued to liberalize the economy, supporting laws which removed restrictions on foreign investments, created tax incentives for multinationals to establish their headquarters in the country, liberalized retail trade and banking.

In March 2000, President Estrada declared an ‘all-out war’ against the MILF in Mindanao. Despite the agreement with the MNLF in 1996, violence had continued in the Muslim (Moro) regions of Mindanao. In 1991, Abdurajik Abubakar Janjalani, who returned home after studying Islamic theology in the Arab world and fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, created the Islamic terrorist organization Abu Sayyaf, which would become a more prominent actor in the conflict in the late 1990s and 2000s. The military offensive successfully weakened the MILF, causing its leader to flee the country and hundreds of its militants to surrender, but in December 2000 several Islamist groups retaliated by bombing several key locations in the National Capital Region (NCR), killing 22.

Estrada’s administration quickly gained a nasty reputation for cronyism, incompetence and corruption. Estrada surrounded himself with business and drinking partners and gambling buddies, who all had easy access to his office. Corruption under Estrada involved extracting commissions from contracts, embezzlement, ownership of companies through nominees, stock manipulation and the use of government funds for corporate mergers and takeovers.

Estrada’s downfall began in October 2000 when one of his shady partners, Ilocos Sur governor Luis Singson, reported that he had given him over 400 million pesos (about US$8 million) in bribes from illegal gambling profits. There were also allegations of malfeasance in the use of lottery funds, misuse of tobacco tax money and the use of illegal earnings to purchase mansions and expensive cars for Estrada’s mistresses and children. In November 2000, the House filed an impeachment case against Estrada, fast-tracked by House Speaker Manny Villar. In December, the Senate began impeachment proceedings against Estrada.

However, on January 17, 2001, the Senate voted 11-10 against opening an envelope (a bank account suspected to belong to Estrada) said to contain incriminating evidence – Estrada’s allies in the Senate had successfully blocked the impeachment process from going further, and the ten opposition senators and prosecutors walked out. Protesters gathered on EDSA in Metro Manila. The movement for Estrada’s ouster was supported by Vice President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (who had resigned her cabinet position), former Presidents Cory Aquino and Fidel Ramos, Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin, the Manila business community, left-wing organizations . Some of Estrada’s supporters included Senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Miriam Defensor-Santiago and Gringo Honasan (retired colonel and professional plotter, leader of many of the 1987/1989 coup attempts). On January 19, the chief of the Armed Forces ‘withdrew’ his support from Estrada and transferred it to Macapagal Arroyo. Estrada defiantly refused to resign, and needed to be pushed out – by a Supreme Court decision on January 20 declaring the presidency to be ‘vacant’. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was sworn in as President, and while Estrada said that he had strong doubts about the legality of her proclamation as president, he agreed to leave office.

The legacy of EDSA II remains far more contested than that of EDSA I (People Power). Estrada continues to claim that he never resigned the presidency, and he and his supporters claim that he was the victim of an illegitimate coup and conspiracy of the political and business elites. The incoming government added to the controversy by creating a special court, charging him with plunder and arresting him in April 2001. His supporters responded with large protests in Manila (called ‘EDSA III’), which saw a violent attempt by the crowds to storm the presidential palace and forced Arroyo to declare a ‘state of rebellion’ in the NCR. The crowds were later dispersed. Supporters of EDSA III, whose crowds were mostly made up of the urban poor and followers of the Iglesia ni Cristo, say that it was a more representative movement than the predominantly middle and upper-class EDSA II; critics of EDSA III brush it off as unlike the first two EDSA protests and may see it as a mob movement.

In May 2001, a pro-ouster coalition (People Power Coalition) won the Senate elections against the pro-Estrada Puwersa ng Masa coalition (LDP, independents and PRP) 8 seats to 4. Two of the victorious pro-Estrada candidates were his wife, Loi Ejercito, and his police chief Panfilo Lacson.

Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (2001-2010)

Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, born in 1947, is the daughter of former President Diosdado Macapagal (1961-1965). Arroyo worked in Philippine academia until 1987, when she was called by President Cory Aquino to serve as undersecretary of trade and industry. She was elected to the Senate in 1992 and reelected in 1995, winning her second term with over 15.7 million votes (61%). As noted above, she was elected Vice President in 1998 with a very large margin, even if the name at the top of her ticket lost the presidency to Estrada by a wide margin.

Besides dealing with Estrada and his supporters, Macapagal Arroyo faced several major challenges: restoring investor confidence in the economy, continuing the process economic liberalization, improving disastrous social indicators (health, education), reducing poverty and the ongoing conflict with Muslim separatists and Islamist terrorists in the south.

Gloria Macapagal Arroyo had, in December 2002, announced that she would not seek a second term in office, but she reversed her decision in October 2003 and sought a full six-year term in the 2004 election. Because she had served less than four years as president after acceding to the office in 2001, she was constitutionally eligible to run for reelection. Arroyo’s coalition in the 2004 election, the Koalisyon ng Katapatan at Karanasan sa Kinabukasan or K4 for short, was made up of Lakas-CMD, Arroyo’s own KAMPI party, the Liberal Party, the Nacionalista Party, the NCP and the PRP. Estrada and his allies (PMP, PDP-Laban, LDP) formed the Koalisyon ng Nagkakaisang Pilipino (KNP) coalition and fielded popular action actor Fernando Poe Jr., a friend of deposed President Estrada. The LDP, the largest opposition party, split between Eduardo Angara, who backed Poe’s candidacy, and a rival wing which backed retired police chief and senator Panfilo Lacson. The two other candidates were former education secretary Raul Roco (who had already stood in 1998, now assembled a coalition of dissidents from the original 2001 People Power Coalition) and Eddie Villanueva, the founder/president of the large Evangelical Jesus is Lord Church. Arroyo’s running mate was independent senator Noli de Castro, while Poe’s running mate was senator Loren Legarda, a recent dissident from Lakas-CMD. In the closest presidential election in the country’s history, Arroyo was reelected with a 3.48% majority – 39.99% against 36.51% for Poe; Lacson was a distant third with 10.9%, while Roco and Villanueva won 6.5% and 6.2% respectively. Noli de Castro defeated Loren Legarda by an even smaller margin (2.9%), 49.8% to 46.9%.

Although the election was generally regarded as free and fair, Fernando Poe refused to concede the race and his supporters alleged electoral fraud in the incumbent’s favour. His appeal to the Supreme Court to block Congress’ official canvass of the presidential and vice presidential race failed, and the congressional canvass certified Arroyo as the winner of the election.

In the Senate race, President Arroyo’s K-4 won 7 to 5 against the KNP. The K-4’s parties – Lakas-CMD, NPC, Liberal and others – won a very large majority in the House.

The 2004 election made headlines a year later, with the release of recordings of a conversation between Arroyo and a COMELEC official which allegedly ‘prove’ that Arroyo rigged the 2004 election. The president herself was forced to confirm the authenticity of the recordings and apologize. The Supreme Court ultimately withheld judgement on the matter, but at the time it created a major political crisis (several cabinet members defected), caused Arroyo’s popularity to take a big hit and started opposition attempts to impeach Arroyo. The government moved to protect itself with gag orders, punitive prosecutions and an executive order banning ministers and military officers from testifying before Congress without prior clearance from the presidency. That executive order was only removed in March 2008, when the government was trying to increase its legitimacy following a new wave of scandals. The scandal also severely damaged the reputation of COMELEC, the country’s powerful electoral commission.

The Philippines achieved stable and significant economic growth throughout her presidency, growing at an average annual rate of 4.5% during Arroyo’s time in office, a higher rate than during her three predecessors. The country’s GDP grew by 6.7% in 2004 and 6.6% in 2007. In a regional context, the Philippines’ economy grew at a similar pace than that of Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia but at a slower rate than Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Unemployment remained over 11% until 2005, but it had dropped to 7% by the time Arroyo left office in 2010. The country’s gross debt, which had increased to 68% of GDP by 2003, also dropped in relative terms under her presidency to 43.5% in 2010. The Philippine economy was helped by the rapid growth of outsourcing and growing remittances from overseas Filipino workers. In 2015, the Philippines received $29.7 billion in remittances – equivalent to 10% of the GDP – making it the third largest recipient country of remittances.

The strength of outsourcing and continued growth of remittance payments helped the Philippines escape recession during the 2008-9 financial crisis. Growth slowed to 1.1% in 2009, but did not fall into recession unlike Thailand and Malaysia.

Very little progress, however, was made in reducing poverty during Arroyo’s nine years in office. World Bank statistics suggest that the percentage of people living in poverty actually increased during her time in office, from 24.9% in 2003 to 26.3% in 2012. The degree of hunger, as reported by Social Weather Stations (a major pollster), increased from 11% to 19% between 2001 and 2010.

One of Arroyo’s landmark economic measures was a VAT reform, which raised the VAT to 12%. The tax reform boosted investor confidence and helped to further strengthen the peso (the USD-PHP rate changed from about $1=PHP 56 to $1=PHP 40 between 2005 and 2008). Arroyo’s record on poverty alleviation and social services was more criticized.

In the Mindanao conflict, Arroyo moved to curb fighting between the Muslim separatist rebel groups and the armed forces soon after taking office. The government reached a cease-fire agreement with the MILF and resumed peace talks, but the MILF continued attacks on government troops in Maguindanao in 2005 and 2006. In 2008, talks between the government and the MILF following a Supreme Court decision blocking expansion of the ARMM. At the same time, the kidnappings and other crimes committed by the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group continued to increase, and controversies about ransom payments and especially armed forces corruption embarrassed the government. Following 9/11, Arroyo’s government and the armed forces began receiving US military support in pursuit of Abu Sayyaf. In 2007, Congress passed an anti-terrorism Human Security Act, giving authorities the power to detain suspects without warrant or charges for 3 days and penalties of up to 40 years imprisonment for broadly-defined terrorism.

In 2006, Amnesty International had raised concerns about vigilante and extrajudicial killings of left-wing activists and organizations by state-condoned death squads. Later, an independent commission concluded that the killings were instigated by the military but found no proof of a ‘national policy’ targeting left-wing groups. The UN special rapporteur said the killings were part of “deliberate targeting by the military as part of counterinsurgency operations against the communist rebels.” Arroyo made several announcements concerning extrajudicial killings, but her measures were widely seen as inadequate. Among other things, she increased the police’s responsibility in investigating the murders – when the police was widely seen as complicit in them. Nevertheless, extrajudicial killings dropped in 2007 and the Supreme Court’s writ of amparo (protection) to prevent the military from delaying case was hailed by human rights groups as a success. Killings of journalists spiked under Arroyo’s terms in office, making the Philippines one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. In late 2009, 57 people including 29 journalists were massacred in the southern province of Maguindanao as they made their way to register a candidate opposed to the province’s dominant political clan. Arroyo responded by declaring martial law in the province.

During her second term, Arroyo dealt with several coup attempts and disturbances. In February 2006, the government declared a state of emergency after the arrest of junior officers said to be plotting a coup (a supposed left-right alliance between right-wing military factions and the NPA). Security forces raided press offices, arrested left-wing party-list members of the House without warrants and brutally dispersed opposition protests in Manila. The government’s actions during the 2006 crisis were heavily criticized by the opposition, included by former President Cory Aquino, and led to a second unsuccessful impeachment motion against Arroyo in the summer of 2006.

Arroyo continued the debate on constitutional reform in 2006, campaigning to replace the bicameral Congress with a unicameral parliamentary system by 2010. The proposals were quite controversial, as one government proposal even involved calling off the 2007 midterm elections. The Supreme Court blocked attempts to bring the proposals to a referendum, effectively killing Arroyo’s efforts at constitutional reform. Further congressional attempts at constitutional change in 2009 also failed.

The 2007 midterm elections was marred by high levels of violence and reports of cheating and intimidation. Following the election, Freedom House’s 2008 report on the Philippines said that the country was no longer an electoral democracy. The unpopular administration tried to cobble together a coalition, called TEAM Unity, with Lakas-CMD, KAMPI, the LDP and factions of the NPC, but many of the coalition’s candidate were more political mavericks and opposition dissidents than Arroyo loyalists. The opposition formed a strong if catch-all coalition, the Genuine Opposition (GO), led by Makati City mayor Jejomar Binay and made up of the Liberals, Nacionalistas, NPC, PDP-Laban and the PMP. The GO campaigned on a simple compelling slogan – a vote against the incumbent. The GO handed Arroyo the first midterm defeat for a Philippine president since Marcos in 1971, and won 8 seats against 2 to TEAM Unity and 2 independents. In the House, TEAM Unity retained a narrow majority, enough to block future impeachment attempts against Arroyo.

The government was rocked by further disturbances in November 2007, when mutineers on trial for a 2003 mutiny marched out of their trial into the streets of Makati City and barricaded themselves into a conference room of a hotel. The mutineers were led by a brigadier general and retired navy officer Antonio Trillanes, elected to the Senate for the GO in the midterms despite being imprisoned for the 2003 mutiny. The military laid siege to the hotel and finally launched a successful assault later that same day.

Arroyo was implicated in several corruption scandals, particularly in her second term. In the fertilizer fund scam, her agriculture undersecretary was accused of diverting 278 million pesos for her 2004 campaign. In 2007, the Senate began investigating a $329 million contract signed between the communications department and a Chinese communications firm for a national broadband network. The COMELEC chairman, Arroyo and her husband were implicated in the scandal, and involved the bribery of several congressmen and provincial governors. In September 2007, the Supreme Court issued a restraining order on the contract and Arroyo suspended the contract a month later. While she was herself embroiled in the broadband scandal, Arroyo pardoned former President Joseph Estrada, who had been convicted of plunder by the special Sandiganbayan court and sentenced to life imprisonment in September 2007. Estrada’s pardon was seen as a major blow to anti-corruption efforts (after the first sentencing of a former president for corruption) and a move by Arroyo to set favourable precedent for her own post-presidency treatment. The broadband scandal also had political repercussions, with Arroyo’s sons (both members of the House) leading a successful push to remove Jose de Venecia from the speakership after he had failed to denounce his son, a bidder in the broadband scandal who had accused Arroyo’s husband of bribery.

Large protests, annual impeachment attempts, new corruption accusations, continued impunity and an explosion of violence in the Muslim south characterized the last years of Arroyo’s government.

The frontrunner in the 2010 presidential election campaign was Liberal senator Benigno ‘Nonoy’ Aquino III, the son of former President Cory Aquino – whose death in August 2009 was widely mourned – and Benigno Aquino Jr.. Aquino served in the House of Representatives between 1998 and 2007, representing the family’s stronghold of Tarlac province, and was elected to the Senate for the GO coalition in the 2007 midterm elections. He ranked six among all candidates for Senate that year, winning 14.3 million votes or 48.5%. Like in 2007, Aquino’s popularity in the run-up to the 2010 election owed mostly to his family name and the national wave of sympathy after his mother’s passing in 2009, since his record in the Senate was not particularly impressive. He ran on a vague reformist and anti-corruption platform, opposed to the outgoing government. His running mate was Liberal senator Manuel ‘Mar’ Roxas, the grandson of former President Manuel Roxas (1946-1948) and the son of former senator Gerardo Roxas. Roxas served in the House for the family stronghold of Capiz province in the Visayas region (1993-2000) and worked as trade and industry secretary under both Estrada and Arroyo’s administrations (2000-2003) before successfully seeking election to the Senate in 2004 for the pro-administration K-4 coalition but broke with Arroyo by 2006.

Former President Joseph Estrada, pardoned by Arroyo in 2007 following his conviction for plunder that same year, ran for president. The constitutionality of his candidacy was questioned by several lawyers, given the constitution’s ban on “any reelection”, but the case only made its way to the Supreme Court after the election (which Estrada lost) and was dismissed. Estrada’s running mate was three-time Makati City mayor Jejomar Binay (1986-1987, 1988-1998, 2001-2010), who was technically a ‘guest candidate’ since he was not from Estrada’s PMP but rather from PDP-Laban. Binay faced multiple corruption allegations from his time as mayor and revelations of an extramarital affair; he dismissed the corruption scandals as political harassment by Arroyo and the affair as part of a black propaganda campaign against him.

The third opposition candidate was senator, and former Senate President (2006-2008), Manny Villar, the candidate of the Nacionalista Party. Villar, a billionaire, is a former real estate tycoon (although he grew up in poverty) who entered politics in 1992 as a member of the House and became House Speaker (for then-President Estrada’s coalition) in 1998. However, in 2000, he broke with Estrada during the impeachment process (and was soon ousted from the speakership by Estrada allies) and was elected to the Senate in 2001 for the anti-Estrada People Power Coalition and reelected in 2007 for GO, ranking fourth of all candidates with 15.3 million votes. Villar picked a ‘guest candidate’ as running mate, namely NPC senator Loren Legarda (the runner-up in the previous vice presidential election), who had been the ‘top-notcher’ (top vote winning candidate) in the 2007 Senate election. Villar sought and received the support of the Marcos clan.

The government’s candidate (for Lakas Kampi CMD) was former defence secretary (2007-2009) and former Tarlac representative (1998-2007) Gilbert Teodoro, who had quit his old party (the NPC) just a few months prior. His running mate for USAF veteran, former showbiz/game show host and former Makati vice-mayor Edu Manzano.

The televangelist/Evangelical church boss Eddie Villanueva ran again, who received an interesting endorsement – MNLF leader and former ARMM governor Nur Misuari (whose political activities since 2000 or so have been very odd).

Benigno Aquino III maintained his early lead throughout the campaign, and won a clear victory in May 2010. He won 42.1% against 26.3% for Estrada, 15.4% for Manny Villar, 11.3% for Teodoro and 3.1% for Villanueva. In the vice presidential race, however, Mar Roxas lost his early lead to a late surge by Jejomar Binay, who won by a very narrow 2.07% margin – 41.65% to 39.58% (Legarda won only 12.2%). There had been an organized (but unofficial) Aquino-Binay campaign (NoyBi) led by senator Francis Escudero (ex-NPC).

Unlike in previous elections, there were no party coalitions in the 2010 elections and the Senate election were split between 12 victorious candidates under 7 different affiliations. Some of the noteworthy winners were actor/politician Bong Revilla from Lakas (the top-notcher), Miriam Defensor-Santiago, Estrada’s son and incumbent senator Jinggoy Estrada, Juan Ponce Enrile and Ferdinand Marcos’ son Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr.. In the House, Lakas won the most seats on election day (despite major loses), but there was a large Liberal-led pro-Noynoy majority when the House actually convened due to the usual post-election defection to the winning side. Outgoing President Arroyo was perhaps the most notable victorious candidate, winning a seat in her family stronghold of Pampanga province.

The 2010 elections were judged to be a notable improvement over past elections. A gun ban reduced violence while the introduction of electronic voting machines and computerized tabulation was successful.

Contemporary politics

Benigno Aquino III took office on June 30, 2010. A wave of optimism and high expectations welcomed him, but more critical voices already found that ‘Noynoy’ had offered little actual solutions to the problems he would confront in office.

In many of his first actions as president, he sought to mark a clear difference with his unpopular predecessor. In his first executive order, he established a truth commission chaired by a former chief justice to investigate corruption and electoral fraud allegations against Arroyo, although the new commission was soon bogged down in a court challenge. He also revoked midnight appointments made by Arroyo in her final days, saying that it violated the constitution.

Aquino was dealt his first major crisis in August 2010, when a disgruntled police officer fired from his job took 25 people hostage on a tour bus carrying Hong Kong tourists. Although some hostages were freed during the standoff with police, negotiations went nowhere and the hostage taker began executing the remaining hostages on the bus while the Manila police struggled to break into the bus. When the police finally got on, 8 hostages had been killed with only 6 survivors. The police response to the hostage crisis was widely panned as bungled and disastrous. The crisis further worsened the already poor reputation of the National Police, complicated Manila’s relations with China and Hong Kong (HK’s government being openly critical of how the Filipinos had managed the crisis) and was the first major headache for the new president. However, after an investigation in September called for several charges against a number of officials for their handling of the incident, Aquino limited the most serious charges to a few police officers while shielding his interior secretary and undersecretary.

Aquino was accused of doing little once in office, besides going after Arroyo and some of her appointees. In November 2011, Arroyo was arrested while in hospital for electoral fraud. She was released on bail from hospital arrest in July 2012, but rearrested on new charges (stealing money from the national lottery) in October 2012. In 2012, political attention focused on the Senate impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato Corona, one of Arroyo’s controversial last-minute judicial appointments (two days before the 2010 election). Although the Supreme Court had ruled that Arroyo had the right as the incumbent president to appoint the chief justice, but Aquino as a presidential candidate had been very critical of the appointment. In December 2011, the House adopted articles of impeachment against Corona, who they accused of consistently ruling with partiality to Arroyo in cases involving her administration and for failing to properly disclose his assets. In May 2012, the Senate voted 20-3 to convict Corona, for failing to disclose his assets. Corona claimed that he was the victim of political persecution by President Aquino, and opposition members in Congress claimed that the impeachment was being driven by the presidential palace, claims which the congressional majority denied.

Aquino resuscitated peace negotiations with the MILF, with both sides finally returning to the negotiation table in 2011 two years after talks broke off. The talks were brokered by Malaysia and were considerably more transparent and cautious than previous talks, which had ended ingloriously when the Supreme Court struck down the deal in 2008 accusing the government of acting furtively in the talks. The government and the MILF agreed to replace the ARMM with a new autonomous entity, Bangsamoro. Nevertheless, rogue MILF forces continued sporadic attacks against military detachments, including one in 2011 which killed 19 soldiers. In October 2012, the government and the MILF reached a framework agreement, in which the MILF gave up claims for independence and agreed to surrender its weapons in return for considerable autonomy in the new Bangsamoro region. There was high optimism for this particular agreement, given that it appeared far more robust than previous ones – a gradual buildup of trust between parties and the involvement international actors (Malaysia). In March 2014, a final agreement was signed between the MILF and the government in Manila, and the government hoped that Congress would pass the Bangsamoro Basic Law to setup the new region before the 2016 elections.

Implementation of the actual deal, though, has been difficult and it is now on the rocks. In the first place, Nur Misuari’s rival MNLF felt left out of the negotiations and decided to seek attention by declaring the independence of a ‘Bangsamoro Republik’ in August 2013. A month later, MNLF fighters attacked Zamboanga City in the south of the country, leading to a three-week standoff and a humanitarian crisis. In January 2015, finally, 44 police officers from the special action force were killed in a clash in Mamasapano (Manguindanao) as they intervened to capture two Jeemah Islamiyah-affiliated IED experts. The MILF, and an anti-agreement MILF splinter (BIFF), were involved in the clash (murky details). The Mamasapano attack led to a major backlash against the Bangsamoro Basic Law in public opinion, and the Senate halted passage of the law. Today, it looks like Mamasapano may have killed the Bangsamoro Basic Law and with it the peace agreement with the MILF. Meanwhile, Abu Sayyaf – now associated with ISIS – has continued its kidnappings, working mainly from its base in Sulu.

Aquino gained something of a reputation as an idle do-nothing president, stemming from his inaction during two typhoons in 2011. Aquino himself made no secret that he did not greatly enjoy the job and some of its demands – like travelling abroad – and more than a few said that he was counting down the days to his leaving office. In 2011-2, clever critics coined the term ‘Noynoying’ (a play on ‘planking’ and Aquino’s nickname Noynoy), which also became a protest tactic on the left (posing in a lazy manner, sitting idly) in 2012 during student demonstrations against rising oil prices and tuition fee increases. The presidency and its allies disliked the moniker, many considering its disrespectful and baseless; just to make sure, however, a few pictures of Aquino working in his office were released.

Aquino’s supporters, in dismissing claims that he was idling, pointed to the country’s strong economic growth. The GDP grew by 7.6% in 2010, 6.7% in 2012, 7.1% in 2013 and by roughly 6% annually since then. Growth has come largely from business process outsourcing, although agriculture, manufacturing, industry, services and tourism also grew. To a certain extent, growth was also distributed throughout the country, including in Mindanao (but not the still troubled ARMM) with its export-oriented, plantation agriculture. Unemployment fell from 7% to 6% during his term and the gross debt decreased from 43.5% of GDP to 35.7%. Under Aquino’s presidency, FDI tripled, a large infrastructure budget was unblocked, the Philippines received its first investment-grade credit rating (BBB from S&P in 2014) and further economic reforms increased revenue intake. The rapid economic growth, increased investment and general confidence and optimism about the Philippine economy suggest that the country is shaking off its old reputation as the ‘sick man of Asia’ after decades of disappointing economic and social performance because of poor governance, instability and corruption.

Yet, poverty has remained a major trouble. Although recent government statistics show that poverty incidence has decreased from 29% to 26% between 2009 and 2015, it has been a slow and uneven decrease (poverty rose in 2014) and the country is not going to meet its 2015 Millennium Development Goal of halving its 1991 poverty rate by 2016 (33.1% to 16.6%). In addition, economic growth has certainly not erased major regional differences in wealth and poverty. The National Capital Region/Metro Manila (despite the huge slums in Manila), most of mainland Luzon, the southern Tagalog region (Calabarzon) and Cebu are the richest regions; the ARMM especially, but also much of the rest of Mindanao, the Negros Islands and Samar are poor. Poverty incidence varies greatly from just 6.5% in the NCR to over 59% in the ARMM.

One of the government’s most daring legislative initiatives was the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act (RH law), passed by Congress in December 2012. The bill was the latest and most ambitious attempt at family planning and population management in the Philippines, which has one of the highest birth rates, fertility rates and population growth rates in the region (although all three are gradually falling). As in other countries, fertility rates are highest among the poor, and there is a correlation between larger families and a higher poverty rate. Previous administrations had tended to adopt wishy-washy policies, for fear of raising conflict with the powerful Catholic Church over contraceptives (which were were openly sold prior to this law, regardless of legal obstacles). The RH bill – among other things – mandated the government and the private sector to fund and widely distribute contraceptives, and the provision of age-appropriate sex education. These two controversial provisions sparked the most heated debate, with the Philippine Medical Association and the Catholic Church in strong opposition to the RH bill (but several academics from the Catholic Ateneo de Manila University supported the bill, citing Catholic social teachings). Yet, despite the Catholic Church’s widespread influence in the Philippines (which is about 80% Catholic and has a reputation as a deeply religious country), polls showed a large majority in favour of the RH bill.

Congress passed the bill and Aquino signed it into law in December 2012, but opponents were successful in getting the Supreme Court to halt its implementation while it considered objections. In April 2014, the law lost eight provisions but survived the court challenge.

A strong economy (with popular optimism going along with it), the appearance of real effort against corruption, Aquino’s amiable demeanour and the stark contrast with the Arroyo administration (which Aquino spent a lot of – most? – energy reinforcing) meant that he has enjoyed handsome approval ratings. He leaves office with a +27 satisfaction rating according to Social Weather Stations, the highest for a post-Marcos executive (Arroyo left with a -17 rating after hitting rock bottom at -53 in March 2010); in 2011, 2012 and 2013 his net satisfaction ratings were in the +55 range.

Banking on Aquino’s popularity, his congressional allies, led by his own Liberal Party, put together a strong slate of candidates for the 2013 midterm Senate elections, the ‘Team PNoy’ (a play on Aquino’s nickname Ninoy and Pinoy, the national nickname). Team PNoy included the Liberal Party, the Nacionalista Party, the LDP, the left-wing party-list Akbayan, the new National Unity Party (NUP, a Lakas splinter) and factions of the NPC and PDP-Laban. Team PNoy welcomed prominent independent ‘guest candidates’ on their ticket – Grace Poe, the adopted daughter of the late 2004 presidential candidate Fernando Poe Jr., incumbent senator Francisco ‘Chiz’ Escudero (ex-NPC) and incumbent NPC senator Loren Legarda (the top vote-winner in both the 1998 and 2007 Senate elections). All three were originally expected to be common candidates of both the administration and the opposition, but were dumped from the opposition ticket in February 2013.

The opposition coalition was the United Nationalist Alliance (UNA), led by Vice President Jejomar Binay with the participation of Joseph Estrada’s PMP (Estrada ran for mayor of Manila against the Liberal incumbent Alfredo Lim, while another of his sons, JV Ejercito Estrada, ran for Senate), the majority of the PDP-Laban and a faction of the NPC (with Jack Enrile, the son of Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile).

Team PNoy won a 9-3 victory over the UNA, but their victory owed a lot to their three independent ‘guest candidates’. Grace Poe unexpectedly topped the poll, with over 20.3 million votes, while Loren Legarda, widely expected to top the poll for a third time, placed second with 18.6 million votes (she had been embroiled in controversy over undeclared assets late in the campaign). Chiz Escudero finished fourth. The three victorious UNA candidates were Nancy Binay (the Vice President’s daughter, 5th), JV Ejercito Estrada (11th) and Gringo Honasan (12th). Liberal senator Franklin Drilon was elected Senate President in a 17-6 vote against incumbent Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile (UNA). In the House, the Liberals won the most seats (110) followed by the NPC (38), NUP (27), Nacionalistas (21) and Lakas (14).

Noynoy’s anti-corruption commitment was tested by the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) scam in the summer of 2013. The PDAF is a lump-sum discretionary fund granted to each member of Congress to fund the government’s ‘priority development projects’ at the local level, which is really just a fancy way to say ‘pork barrel’. In 2013, over US$218 million were allotted to congressmen’s infrastructure projects. The scandal began after a newspaper report, confirmed by a later government audit, uncovered a scam in which a businesswoman, her companies, lawmakers, bureaucrats and some local politicians had together defrauded the government of over 10 billion pesos (US$213.8 million) over 10 years by using PDAF funds for ghost projects. The initial report named five senators and 23 representatives, with the five senators being Bong Revilla, Juan Ponce Enrile, Jinggoy Estrada, Gringo Honasan and Ferdinand Marcos Jr. In August 2013, the government audit implicated more congressmen in the scam – 12 senators and 180 representatives, accused of irregular and improper use of over 6.1 billion pesos in PDAF funds between 2007 and 2009. Later, some close allies of the Aquino administration were also implicated. In June and July 2014, three senators – Jinggoy Estrada, Bong Revilla and Juan Ponce Enrile – were arrested after being charged with plunder. These arrests were part of the government’s anti-corruption drive, which the opposition UNA called ‘political persecution’ (shockingly).

Aquino had a chance to advance his anti-corruption campaign, since most of the money was disbursed under Arroyo’s government, but his first reaction was to defend the PDAF – not an altogether surprising reaction since, as president, he is at the top of the Philippines’ pyramid of patronage. Only after mass protests in August 2013 did Aquino turn against the PDAF, which was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in November 2013, but it was replaced with a similar program (‘Disbursement Acceleration Program’ or DAP) which the Court also ruled unconstitutional. In his July 2014 State of the Nation speech, Aquino attacked the Supreme Court’s decision on the DAP. The DAP had previously become a matter of controversy when it was said to be the source of 50 million pesos allegedly given to Jinggoy Estrada and other senators to vote for Chief Justice Renato Corona’s impeachment (widely denounced as bribery by opposition/anti-impeachment senators); it led to an unsuccessful impeachment motion against Aquino in the House. Aquino’s popularity in 2014 suffered from the corruption scandals as well as a slow roll-out of a rehabilitation plan for regions affected by Typhoon Haiyan in 2013.

The Campaign and Candidates

As is usual in Filipino presidential elections since 1986, the makeshift party coalitions of the 2013 midterm elections dissolved shortly thereafter as the politicians each had their own end game.

Vice President Jejomar Binay was the first candidate out the gates, confirming his presidential plans as early as September 2011 (to no one’s surprise). Binay, as the highest-ranking opposition figure, had organized the United Nationalist Alliance (UNA) opposition slate for the 2013 midterm elections and his daughter Nancy Binay had been the most popular opposition Senate candidate placing fifth with 16.8 million votes (despite a reputation as an unaccomplished lightweight who was roundly mocked online). In 2014, as the pre-campaign got underway, Binay was the favourite with a significant advantage in the polls.

Jejomar ‘Jojo’ Binay, who is 73 years old, does not come from a political dynasty but he has become the patriarch of one during his time in politics. Before being elected vice president in 2010, Binay served about 21 years as mayor of Makati City on three different occasions (1986-1987, 1988-1998, 2001-2010). Makati City, located in the NCR (Metro Manila), is the Philippines’ financial capital and seventeenth largest city (with a population a bit below 530,000). His wife Elenita Binay replaced him as mayor between 1998 and 2001, and his son Jejomar Binay Jr. was elected mayor in 2010 when his father ran for the vice president.

Binay has been dogged by corruption cases from his time as mayor of Makati. These corruption allegations began while he was still mayor, but he successfully brushed them off as ‘black propaganda’ and political harassment from then-President Gloria Arroyo’s government. He had a teflon-like ability to survive negative news stories in the 2010 vice-presidential campaign, closing the gap with Noynoy Aquino’s running-mate Mar Roxas and winning by 727,084 votes out of some 38.15 million votes cast. Part of his success was because of an appealing rags-to-riches story, and Binay likes to portray himself as the man of the poor (despite being a millionnaire after 21 years as mayor of the richest city in the country) and attack his rivals as elitists who hate the poor. Despite having run on another ticket (that of Joseph Estrada), President Aquino appointed him chairman of the Housing Urban Development Coordinating Council and head of a task force on overseas Filipino workers’ concerns.

Nonetheless, Binay’s stint in the vice presidency was mostly characterized by wrangling over the corruption cases weighing against him. In July 2014, a defeated mayoral candidate in the 2013 Makati mayoral election (which was won by Binay’s son) filed plunder charges against Binay and his son to the Ombudsman. The next month, a subcommittee of the Senate’s ‘Blue Ribbon Committee’ (its anti-corruption committee) composed of three members began hearings on Binay’s corruption – including an overpriced annex to the city hall building (on which his clan is accused of having received kickbacks), overpriced projects, unexplained wealth, controversies over various properties he owns (some by ‘dummies’) and alleged anomalous contracts while mayor. Binay never attended the Senate hearings, calling it a ‘kangaroo court’ and considering it a plot by his political opponents to derail his presidential candidacy (Binay’s allies also played the race card – Binay has darker skin, and his opponents sometimes call him nognog, a derogatory term for black people). Nevertheless, the Senate investigation continued and Binay’s clan was dealt several blows in 2015 – in May 2015, the Court of Appeals ordered over 200 bank accounts belong to Binay to be frozen for six months, and the subcommittee report recommended the filing of plunder charges. In June 2015, Binay resigned his cabinet posts, saying that he felt as the odd man out in the Liberal Party-dominated cabinet. In January 2015, Binay’s son ‘Junjun’ was arrested on contempt charges and received two suspension orders within six months, ultimately forcing him to resign as mayor in July 2015. All in all, Binay has never been tried (because the VP has immunity), but every government institution charged with accountability (the commission on audit, the Senate committee, the ombudsman, the anti-money laundering council) have found probable cause against him. It obviously isn’t only ‘persecution’.

Undeterred, Binay relaunched the UNA as a political party, this time without senator Aquilino Pimentel III’s PDP-Laban (which had previously been Binay’s party) and Estrada’s clan (which appeared divided in the early months of the campaign). Binay attacked Aquino and presidential rival senator Grace Poe. Binay’s search for a running-mate was complicated by the arrest of his first pick, senator Jinggoy Estrada, and his offers to JV Ejercito, Manny Villar, Vilma Santos and others were declined. In October 2015, Binay settled on senator Gregorio ‘Gringo’ Honasan as his running-mate. Gringo Honasan, a senator between 1995 and 2004 and again since 2007, is a retired army colonel and professional coup plotter. Honasan was part of the army rebels, backed by Juan Ponce Enrile, who turned against President Ferdinand Marcos during People Power in 1986. Afterwards, Honasan was the mastermind of several coup attempts against President Cory Aquino, most notably in August 1987 and in December 1989 (the most serious one, which came very close to succeeding until the US intervened). Amnestied by President Fidel Ramos in 1992, Honasan turned to elective politics and was elected to the Senate in 1995 (as an independent in the NPC opposition coalition), defeated in 2001 (but remained in the Senate as the thirteenth-placed candidate to fill a vacancy until 2004) and reelected in 2007 and 2013 (for the UNA).

In June 2015, the first poll not showing Binay in the lead came out, and his polling advantage slipped in the fall of 2016 although Binay remained in contention until March 2016, which his polling numbers took a big hit and effectively took him out of the top tier of candidates. Indeed, in late 2015/early 2016, Binay regained the lead with his ‘strategy of silence‘ (a focused campaigned message – poverty, not corruption talk; evading reporters) Honasan never ranked in the top tier of veep candidates, never consistently polling over 5%.

Binay ran on a populist promise of a better life, with vague pledges to improve the lot of poorer Filipinos by removing them from income tax, providing free school supplies to students and expanding a cash transfer program. He continued to dismiss the corruption charges against him, disingenuously claiming that he hasn’t been convicted and that they are only accusations and refusing to ‘waste his time’ by commenting further. The news website Rappler described him as “the physical embodiment of the working class Filipino” and “everyone’s godfather” (in the sense of the ‘adoptive uncle’ who gives out gifts and cash to the family), explaining how he identifies with the ‘victimized masses’. His campaign ads (available on YouTube) played heavily on this image of the ‘Cinderella man’, champion of the poor and victims of the elites’ conspiracies, and even on the word nognog (basically ‘we are all nognog‘). They also said he was the candidate who best embodied the traditional politician, “the elected official whose strength lies in relationships of dependency and reciprocity.” Tragicomically, Rappler compared Binay’s unrealistic promises of a golden future to a “sideshow clown hawking naked mermaids and dancing elephants” (not an unfair comparison since Binay literally promised free manicures and pedicures to the poor).

Jojo Binay’s supporters included ‘Danding’ Cojuangco Jr.’s son Mark Cojuangco (although the NPC did not endorse Binay), representative and internationally famous retired boxer Manny Pacquiao (who ran for Senate) and senator Juan Ponce Enrile. Binay, who has been on good terms with former President Arroyo, was said to have her support but she never officially endorsed him and, late in the campaign, was rumoured to be supporting another candidate (Rodrigo Duterte).

Manuel ‘Mar’ Roxas II was the candidate of the ruling Liberal Party, the candidate of the Aquino administration. Mar Roxas is the third generation of a leading Filipino political dynasty, which began with his grandfather, Manuel Roxas, the first President of the independent Philippines (1946-1948) and the founder of the Liberal Party. Mar Roxas is the son of Gerardo Roxas, a former representative (1957-1963) and senator (1963-1972), who lost a vice presidential race in 1965 and was a figure of the anti-Marcos opposition until his death in 1982. Politics, however, was not Mar Roxas’ predestined future: he was an investment banker in New York, and his brother Gerardo ‘Dinggoy’ Roxas was the heir to the dynasty (and served as a representative in Congress). However, when Dinggoy died of cancer at 32 in 1993, Mar Roxas left his first career to enter the family business and he won his brother’s seat (in the family stronghold of Capiz in the Visayas) in a special election. He served in the House until January 2000, when he was appointed Secretary of Trade and Industry in Joseph Estrada’s cabinet, a job he kept after EDSA II in Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s cabinet. He stepped down in late 2003 to concentrate on his 2004 Senate candidacy, for the Liberal Party on the administration’s K4 ticket. Roxas quickly broke with the unpopular Arroyo administration.

After his election to the Senate, Mar Roxas was immediately seen as a leading Liberal candidate for the presidency in 2010. However, in September 2009, Roxas stepped aside in Aquino’s favour and was rewarded with the vice-presidential candidacy as Aquino’s running mate. But as Aquino sailed to victory, Roxas stumbled, lost his lead and was finally upset in a close contest by Jejomar Binay (a result which Roxas challenged in court, and which remains unresolved judicially). After the legal one-year waiting period for losing candidates, Roxas joined the Aquino cabinet in June 2011 as Secretary of Transportation and Communications. In August 2012, he was made Secretary of Interior and Local Government after the interior secretary, Jesse Robredo, died in a plane crash. Roxas is recognized as being a smart man, with an impressive academic and professional background, but his stint in cabinet was plagued with difficulties which further dragged down his 2016 presidential campaign. He was blamed for the government’s poor handling of post-typhoon disaster relief in 2013, his period as interior secretary saw the January 2015 Mamasapano attack in which 44 policemen died (derailing the administration’s landmark Bangsamoro law).

He left cabinet to focus on his presidential run in August 2015. A few days before, President Aquino had officially endorsed Mar Roxas as the Liberal Party and his outgoing administration’s candidate – the one to continue the government’s so-called Daang Matuwid (straight path) agenda. Roxas had support from Liberal bigwigs from 2013 or so, but his poor performance in polls throughout 2015 seemingly led Aquino to hesitate for a while and seek the stronger candidacy of senator Grace Poe instead.

Roxas chose representative Leni Robredo has his running-mate. Robredo, a lawyer from Camarines Sur (Bicol region), is the widow of former Naga mayor and interior secretary Jesse Robredo, who tragically died in a plane crash in August 2012. Robredo only entered politics after her husband’s death, running and winning a seat in the House of Representatives from Camarines Sur in the 2013 elections (defeating the candidate of an established provincial political dynasty, the Villafuertes). Robredo gained nationwide popularity for her simple lifestyle as a congresswoman. She is a close family friend to Mar Roxas, through her late husband.

Roxas struggled to break through, and when his campaign did manage to make gains in the polls in late 2015, it only brought him up to the low 20s – in the upper tier of candidates, but not enough to make him the frontrunner. One of the main reasons is that Roxas has never been popular (except in 2004, as a novelty object), and his work in the last five years have, if anything, made him less, not more, popular. Although his supporters described him as a passionate, selfless and dedicated bureaucrat, he has always faced the perception that he is a rich dynasty politician disconnected from the people’s concerns. In 2008, Roxas himself admitted to the US ambassador that “his Wharton MBA and ten years on Wall Street as an investment banker did not ‘exactly call to the common man.'” His campaign struggled to make up a convincing public narrative and image for him, going through several awkward and cringe-worthy attempts to build a more relatable image, and finally settling by presenting himself as a ‘no drama’ candidate to contrast himself with his fairly dramatic opponents.

Senator Grace Poe ran for President as an independent candidate. Poe, 47-years old, is the adopted daughter of actress Susan Roces and the late actor and 2004 presidential candidate Fernando Poe Jr. (who died in December 2004, only a few months after the disputed and controversial 2004 election, which Poe’s supporters continue to claim was stolen by Arroyo). Grace Poe was abandoned by her birth parents as a baby and, according to the official story, found in front of a church. There is a urban legend which claims that she is Ferdinand Marcos’ illegitimate daughter through an affair with Susan Roces’ sister, which would make her Fernando Poe Jr’s sister-in-law.

Grace Poe finished her post-secondary education in the United States, married a Filipino-American and lived 13 years in the US, before permanently returning to the Philippines in 2005. Poe was a US citizen between 2001 and 2010 (renouncing her Philippine citizenship), and all three of her children have dual US-Filipino citizenship. In October 2010, Poe was appointed chairwoman of the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board (in charge of movie and TV program classifications) by President Aquino. She resigned her post in October 2012 to run for Senate, as an independent candidate. As previously noted, she was expected to be supported by both the administration and the opposition’s coalitions as a common guest candidate, but she was dropped from the opposition ticket along with two other independent guest candidates and ran only for the administration’s Team PNoy. Grace Poe unexpectedly finished first, with 20,337,327 votes or 50.7% of all votes casts. Her popularity and victory owed a lot, of course, to her surname and fond memories of her father. Fernando Poe Jr. was one of the most popular and beloved action stars in the country – becoming something of the archetypal hero in the national imagination through his roles as epic heroes battling evil. His 2004 campaign similar rhetoric – the hero fighting the villain Arroyo and evil poverty and corruption – and in 2013 Grace Poe combined these themes with her own appealing life story (an abandoned orphan, rescued by the grace of God, adopted by the best of parents etc.),

Grace Poe’s first place finish in the 2013 Senate race led to intense speculation about a presidential run in 2016. She became the media darling, gave a compassionate side to an administration accused of being heartless and she was courted by the ruling Liberal Party. She became a frontrunner, fighting Jojo Binay for first place in the polls. Aquino met with Poe, in the hopes of having her as the Liberal candidate or the veep candidate, but her determination to run as an independent compelled the Liberals and Aquino to settle on Mar Roxas instead (see above). Her candidacy, announced in September 2015, was perhaps even inevitable. However, she soon faced formidable obstacles to even get her name on the presidential ballot.

The UNA challenged her candidacy on the grounds that she did not meet the constitution’s 10 year residency requirement, citing her 2013 certificate of candidacy which declared six years and six months of residency, which would make her ineligible to run in 2016. Poe claimed that her house in the US was sold in 2006 but that she had returned to the Philippines in early 2005. In November 2015, the Senate Electoral Tribunal voted against disqualifying her candidacy on the grounds that, as an abandoned baby, she could not prove that she is a natural-born citizen. In December 2015, the COMELEC’s second division disqualified and cancelled her candidacy for failing to meet citizenship and residency requirements. In late December, the COMELEC en banc reaffirmed the decision disqualifying her candidacy, but five days later the Supreme Court issued two restraining orders against the COMELEC’s decision. On March 8, 2016, the Supreme Court in a 9-6 decision voted to affirm Poe’s natural-born status and 10 year residency.

Her political opponents reproach her decision to renounce her Philippine citizenship in 2001 to become a US citizen, and they gave her the nickname ‘the American President’. Poe tried to link her story to that of the thousand of overseas Filipino workers, but that claim is a bit shaky because Poe expatriated herself by choice rather than by necessity (she escaped her millionnaire parents in pursuit of love) and her lifestyle in the US was a far cry from that of Filipino maids working in the Middle East. Others were annoyed by her lack of accomplishments, public service and inexperience; she does her job in the Senate, but no more, and her three years in the Senate don’t indicate a great talent for lawmaking. Her 20 promises were basically valence issues which every candidate promises, and she was vague about other issues in her campaign. Her claims that she was different from other candidates because she was a woman and a mother (even if she wasn’t the only mother or woman in the race) also rang very hollow. Rappler said that “by standing for everything, she stands for nothing.” However, the absence of a track record was part of what made her a strong candidate in a country which has a habit of electing chief executives with limited or unimpressive records.

Grace Poe’s running mate was senator Francis ‘Chiz’ Escudero (ex-NPC). Escudero was elected to the House in 1998 and stayed there until 2007, when he was elected to the Senate for the NPC with the second highest vote tally. In 2004, Escudero was Fernando Poe Jr’s campaign spokesperson (becoming a family friend) and in 2010 he gave his support to Noynoy Aquino after failing to get his own presidential bid off the ground. Escudero was reelected as an independent, backed by Team PNoy, just like Grace Poe, in the 2013 Senate election. He was fourth with 17.5 million votes. Poe picked Escudero because of her family’s friendship with him since her dad’s 2004 campaign, but some of her supporters in the political leadership (political mentor senator Sergio Osmeña III) expressed reservations over Chiz over his alleged ties to a corrupt businessman through his dad (a Marcos-era cabinet minister). Escudero was the favourite in the vice presidential race in late 2015 and early 2016.

Poe was endorsed by former President Joseph Estrada (her godfather), JV Ejercito, NPC senator Tito Sotto and several nationally-famous actors and actresses. Controversy surrounded Poe’s relation with ‘Danding’ Cojuangco, one of the country’s wealthiest men and a former Marcos crony. Comments which were interpreted as defending ‘Danding’ Cojuangco in a decades-old corruption case her campaign’s use of planes paid for by ‘Danding’ Cojuangco’s San Miguel Corporation convinced many that she was his puppet. She denied such claims, and it appears that ‘Danding’ Cojuangco supported both Binay and Poe although he may have officially endorsed Binay like his son did. The NPC, the party founded by ‘Danding’ Cojuangco, endorsed Poe and Escudero although many party members backed other candidates.

Poe’s candidacy was supported by another vice presidential candidate, senator Antonio Trillanes IV, who ran independently in the vice presidential race. Trillanes is a retired Navy officer famous for leading a 2003 mutiny and then the 2007 Makati City hotel siege (see above), both times in opposition to Arroyo’s government to protest government corruption. Trillanes was elected to the Senate from his prison cell in 2007, and was only able to perform his senatorial duties after he was amnestied by President Aquino in 2010. He was reelected for the Nacionalista Party in the Team PNoy coalition in 2013, finishing ninth.

Grace Poe formed the Partido Galing at Puso (Wisdom and Empathy Party) as an umbrella coalition for Poe’s supporters, endorsing 12 Senate candidates (only four of which were not endorsed by other coalitions).

Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago, 70 years-old, mounted her third bid for the presidency (her two previous attempts were in 1992 and 1998). Santiago is a former judge who has been in Philippine politics forever, first as a cabinet secretary to Cory Aquino (1989-1990) and later as a senator (1995-2001, since 2004).

She is an unconventional politician, famous for being brash, cocky and witty. Santiago has a distinguished academic background – class valedictorian at all levels, editor-in-chief of college newspapers, Bachelor of Arts (political science), Bachelor of Laws, Master of Laws, doctorate in juridical science and postdoctoral degrees in law and theology from prominent universities in the Philippines and around the world. Santiago likes to remind people of her academic prowess, considering herself one of the most intellectually brilliant leaders in the country’s history while dismissing many of her political opponents and critics as stupid idiots. Santiago worked in all three branches of government in the Philippines, as well as for the UN. She was a judge at a Quezon City court in the 1980s, appointed by President Marcos, but gaining national prominence for standing up to martial law and the Marcos regime. She was appointed by President Cory Aquino to head the infamously corrupt immigration and deportation department, and further boosted her profile by cleaning up the department despite death threats and ordering deportation raids against foreign criminals (paedophilia, prostitution, smuggling, arms and drug trafficking, organized crime). Miriam Santiago later served six months as Secretary of Agrarian Reform in 1989 under President Cory Aquino, her ambitious view for agrarian reform clashing with Aquino’s more conservative goals.

Miriam Defensor Santiago became popular, especially among the youth, and ran for the presidency in 1992. She won 4,468,173 votes (19.7%) and placed second, losing to Fidel Ramos by a relatively narrow margin of 874,348 votes in the final canvass. Because she led in the early stages of counting, she continues to claim that she was cheated and that she is the rightful winner of the 1992 election. Her official biography, on her website, explains how she was a victim of electoral fraud and thereafter faced relentless harassment and persecution from the government. Santiago was elected to the Senate in 1995, as the candidate of her political party – the People’s Reform Party (PRP), with nearly 9.5 million votes (in sixth place). Santiago makes no mention of her second attempt at the presidency in 1998, probably because she got creamed, with just 3% of the vote.

In her first term in the Senate, she emerged as a loyal supporter of beleaguered President Joseph Estrada, opposing his impeachment primarily because of her view that the ‘rule of law’ should be upheld against the threat of mob rule. In the Senate election which followed Estrada’s ouster, Santiago was defeated, placing fifteenth. She was successful three years later, in 2004, ending in seventh place as a candidate of the pro-Arroyo K4 coalition. She was reelected in 2010, this time on a ticket with the Nacionalista Party, placing third with 17.3 million votes. In 2012, she was the first Filipina to be elected a judge of the ICC, but later resigned the post because of chronic fatigue syndrome which was actually lung cancer.

Occasionally unencumbered by populist sentiment and less interested than most of her Senate colleagues in being on the administration’s good side, Santiago has brought vibrant debate to the Senate. She was in the minority in Renato Corona’s impeachment, and was an early supporter of the RH bill.

She is famous for not mincing words when it comes to her political opponents and other critics, although more often than not she just insults them – because she considers her witty insults to be an art form part of her great intellect. Her website has compiled a dictionary of her various quotes and assorted ad hominem attacks: which include “low IQ”, “surrounded by idiots”, “fungus face”, “discombobulated moral retardates”, “intelligence of political cockroaches”, “mental AIDS” (and “needs a frontal lobotomy”), “intellectual pygmies”, “miserable little intellectual amoeba” and “Prince of Darkness” (Juan Ponce Enrile). She once said that there was no intelligent life down in Congress (full line: “There’s no intelligent life down here. Beam me up, Scotty.”), told somebody to go stick his finger in a wall socket and said that she felt like Indiana Jones in the Temple of Doom when entering Congress for her first confirmation hearing.

As can be gleaned from the above selection of her best insults, Santiago has a very cocky and arrogant personality, with a Donald Trump-like boastful pride in her own career and abilities. She claims to be a globally famous personality with a rock star following, relishes at the number of awards she has been awarded for public service and – above all – openly says that she is the smartest politician in the entire country. Challenged about her intellectual arrogance, she pridefully accepted the accusation and added that intellectuals are entitled to be arrogant as it is the only way they can educate others. Her political opponents, the courts and voters in general are uneducated idiots. Her political speeches are often hyperbolic rants, and one particular tirade against a chief justice led to the Supreme Court saying that her speech had crossed the limits of decency and good professional conduct. While she adds colour to already colourful politics, her politics are profoundly elitist to the point that she has floated the idea of increasing the voting privileges of people with ‘superior qualities’ (“If a person is a borderline moron, why should his vote equal the vote of a college graduate?”), an obviously problematic stance as it dismisses the rights of the impoverished masses. Her fan club is limited to an exclusive club of students and university graduates, and she mostly campaigns on college campuses where she praises the students’ and her own intellectual superiority.

In July 2014, Santiago was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. Yet, barely two months later, she announced that she had beaten the disease – a claim which is hard to believe given that the American Cancer Society states that stage 4 lung cancer has a five-year survival rate of just 1%. She announced her presidential candidacy in October 2015 on a broad anti-corruption platform, claiming third time’s the charm and waving off concerns about her health and ability to campaign.

Miriam registered at 10% in the polls in 2014 but quickly feel to 2-4% once things got serious in 2015 and 2016. As aforementioned, she mostly campaigned on college campuses by praising students’ great intellect (Rappler said that she “has the fire of a wild-haired Bernie Sanders ripping across the American Democratic primaries, with the viral popularity of Taylor Swift – and, she may just argue, also the legs”). Although she basically called all her opponents idiots in one way or another, she was ignored by the rest of the field and the only questions she face revolved around her health. Given her obvious difficulties during speeches and interviews, her health was a legitimate concern but she refused to release her medical records (a human rights violation, she said). Many voters likely paused at the thought that she could very well die in office if elected.

A prospect made all the more preoccupying given her choice as running-mate, the far more popular senator Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr., the only son of former President Ferdinand Marcos and incumbent representative Imelda Marcos. During his father’s nepotistic reign, he was appointed vice governor of Ilocos Norte (the Marcos clan’s province) in 1980 when he was just 23 and then served as provincial governor between 1983 and 1986. One of the first of his family to return home from their brief Hawaiian exile, Bongbong Marcos was elected to the House of Representatives from Ilocos Norte in 1992, but lost a Senate bid in 1995. He went on to serve three terms as governor of Ilocos Norte between 1998 and 2007, and returned to the House for one more term in 2007 (succeeding his sister Imee, who was elected governor of Ilocos Norte in 2010). Bongbong Marcos was elected to the Senate in 2010 for the Nacionalista Party, winning some 13.1 million votes overall and ranking seventh (his House seat passed to his mother, Imelda Marcos). Bongbong Marcos steadfastly refuses to apologize for his father’s crimes, instead claiming that he is benefiting from his father’s ‘good work’, which is part of his family’s fairly successful revisionist attempt to paint the Marcos era as a golden age. Nevertheless, Marcos rarely mentioned his father during the campaign although he did imitate his campaigning style.

Bongbong Marcos had been planning a run for higher office in 2016, and was offered a spot on Jojo Binay’s ticket. He declined to be on Binay’s ticket, likely because of Binay’s close ties to Corazon Aquino earlier in his career (he owes his first appointment as mayor of Makati City to Cory Aquino). Bongbong Marcos was endorsed by former Presidents Estrada and Arroyo (as well as Lakas-CMD) and senator Juan Ponce Enrile. He also got the support of the Iglesia ni Cristo, whose members have tended to vote as one for the church’s candidate. The Iglesia ni Cristo’s bloc voting usually delivers at least 1.37 million votes.

Mayor Rodrigo Duterte governed Davao City, a city of 1.449 million people (the fourth largest in the country) in southern Mindanao, for 22 years. Duterte, aged 71, was born in Leyte in 1945 and moved permanently to Davao with his family in the 1950s. His father Vicente was a Cebuano lawyer who served as governor of Davao province between 1959 and 1965.

Duterte was first elected mayor of Davao City in 1988 and served three terms until he was term-limited in 1998, when he ran and won for a seat in the House of Representatives from Davao City’s 1st district. He stayed only a single term in the House and returned as mayor in 2001, serving another full three terms until 2010 when he was switched places with his daughter Sara, who served one term as mayor while he was vice mayor. In 2013, Duterte was once again elected mayor.

His extraordinary popularity in Davao City owes to his transformation of the country’s fourth largest city from one of its most violent and dangerous cities to a city often ranking as one of the safest and most livable in the Philippines. It is driving an economic boom in southern Mindanao and sometimes held up as a national example of good governance – its government does seem to deliver public and emergency services efficiently and competently. However, the stats which proclaim it to be the ‘ninth safest city in the world’ seem extremely dubious (and contradicted even by Philippines National Police numbers). In the late 1980s, Davao City was ravaged by gang and guerrilla violence, and one of the first challenges to the mayor-elect was a hostage taking in a local prison which took the lives of 21 people including five hostages. Duterte’s trademark is his tough law-and-order approach to crime – tough in this case is a massive understatement, since Duterte’s crime policy is literally ‘kill them all’. It is also a bit inaccurate to consider his crime policy as ‘law-and-order’ since Duterte has very little regard for the rule of law, his view being that if you’re a criminal or doing something illegal, then you should be killed. He has never minced his words when it comes to criminality – follow the law, or I’ll kill you; don’t fuck with me. Nicknamed ‘The Punisher’ since a 2002 Time magazine article, he even enforces the law personally at times. He confirmed that he once forced a tourist violating the city’s public smoking ban to swallow a cigarette butt.

Davao City may have reduced criminality, but it has also become a noted hotbed for extrajudicial killings, vigilante killings and death squads. The Davao Death Squad, or DDS, is a vigilante group made of former criminals or guerrillas (and led by retired or even active police officers) and is estimated to have killed some 800-1,000 people between 1998 and 2008, with an upwards trend in the mid-2000s. Most victims were pretty criminals and drug dealers, street children and drug addicts but mistaken identity victims, bystanders or family/friends of intended targets. Davao and Mindanao’s death squads were cited in the UN’s 2008 report on extrajudicial assassinations in the Philippines, repeatedly cited in US diplomatic cables since the early 2000s and were the subject of a 2009 Human Rights Watch report. The HRW report stated that “death squad killings of alleged drug dealers, petty criminals, and street children in Davao City started sometime in the mid-1990s, during Duterte’s second term as mayor.”

Duterte for a long period publicly denied support or ties to the DDS, and the official response from the municipal government and authorities (police, prosecutor) generally denied the very existence of death squads. Very few people took these denials seriously, and Wikileaks cable note how Duterte privately admitted to knowledge of and support for Davao City’s vigilante killings. The 2009 HRW report found that many victims or their families received prior warning from the police or village officials, and at times (in 2001-2002), mayor Duterte himself publicly read out the names of criminals who were later found dead. It is believed that local police precinct commanders distribute the money to DDS handlers for hit jobs and ‘operations’. Unsurprisingly, very few of the cases are even investigated by the police, leaving the victims’ families to fend for themselves and providing impunity to the killers. Duterte shows no remorse for the victims – considering them the scum of society, or warning criminals that they’re legitimate assassination targets as long as he’s mayor. In May 2015, Duterte publicly admitted to links to DDS, saying “Am I the death squad? True. That is true” during his weekly TV talk show.

Widespread knowledge of Duterte’s unofficial support for vigilante groups in Davao City did not hurt his popularity, quite to the contrary. As a 2008 US diplomatic cable explained, “most Davao businesspeople and residents are aware of allegations that their mayor oversteps the law in his pursuit of justice and peace and order. They nevertheless credit his leadership as a major factor in lowering crime rates and providing the sense of safety and security that businesses need to thrive.” Duterte’s popular hardline anti-crime policies, which include not very subtle support for extrajudicial killings, were aped by mayors in other cities in Mindanao and Cebu (the Philippines’ second largest metro area). Almost no national politicians have criticized Duterte – in fact, the past four presidents (Ramos, Estrada, Arroyo and Aquino III) all offered the position of interior secretary to Duterte.

Rody Duterte has a very unusual style for a politician – he’s forthright and plain-spoken, cursing profusely during his speeches. He’s an avid fan of big bikes (and biker black leather jackets that seem to go with them), and has been known for ‘inspecting’ his city on one of his motorcycles. Duterte is also a murderer himself, nonchalantly admitting to having killed people, but having trouble remembering how many people he’s killed. It ranges from 3 (or perhaps 3 ‘in the past months’) to 16; perhaps as high as 1,700 (one of several ‘what the fuck’ moments of his 2016 campaign being his eagerness to correct a report blaming him for the deaths of 700 people when it should have said 1,700 – it was perhaps a joke, but Duterte’s sense of humour is obviously very odd so you can’t be sure), although he says that he may have dreamed some of them. He told Mar Roxas that you can’t be president if you don’t know how to kill people or are afraid of being killed.

Duterte is a womanizer, who enjoys kissing his female supporters at rallies. He once joked off claims of lasciviousness by saying that a woman was extremely beautiful and that you would die if you didn’t touch her. At public marriages in Davao, he ‘offers himself’ (ie his body) to female brides and adds that his offer is only good for women since he’s ‘not a queer’.

Duterte was pressured by his fans to announce a run for the presidency in 2016, but Duterte remained coy about his intentions and spent most of 2015 either denying plans to run for national office in 2016 (unless it was to save the nation from war), teasing voters about what he’d like to do as President (warning them, verbatim, that “it’s going to be bloody” and “if you put me there, don’t fuck with me”, or “if I have to kill you, I’ll kill you”) and engaging in a “will he/won’t he” dance that kept everybody on the edge of their seats. He also turned down offers to be Jejomar Binay and Miriam Defensor Santiago’s running mates. In September 2015, Duterte seemed to have officially ruled out a run, but less than a month later, he asked his supporters for for time to do some soul-searching after a massive rally of fans pressured him to run. In October 2015, on the filing deadline, Duterte filed to run for reelection as mayor of Davao City, while another candidate (Martin Diño) filed to run as the PDP-Laban’s candidate for president. Yet, not long after, Duterte said that he could change his mind and Martin Diño announced that he would withdraw from the race allowing Duterte to replace him as their party’s candidate, but Duterte again took his sweet time to officially confirm that he would accept the substitution. In late November, Duterte finally confirmed that he would run for president as the PDP-Laban’s candidate. He cited the Senate Electoral Tribunal’s clearance for Grace Poe’s candidacy as a factor in his decision, attacking her as the ‘American President’.

Duterte is a man of many contradictions. As noted above, Duterte claims to protect the rule of law by weeding out criminality, but he disregards the law when it comes to human rights. He has vowed to protect and pardon cops and soldiers who kill criminals, and in 2015 he advised police in another city on the ‘finer points on how to kill criminals’ (his words, again) – hacking their bodies and throw them into the sea to avoid exhumation. His anti-crime agenda may lead Western observers to consider him right-wing, but Duterte considers himself a man of the left and has even called himself a socialist. While he thinks that criminals should all be killed and fed to the sharks, he respects the communist guerrillas while disagreeing with their armed struggle. Duterte has visited NPA camps on several occasions, and exiled Communist Party leader Jose Maria Sison had nice things to say about Duterte (and mentioned hopes for a ceasefire and return home under a Duterte presidency). During the campaign, Mar Roxas attacked Duterte for ‘coddling and supporting’ the NPA guerrillas. Duterte explained that the difference between common criminals and the NPA rebels (widely considered by Filipinos to be murderous criminals) is that “one is for the pocket, and the other one is ideology.” All while claiming to be a socialist, Duterte has said that Ferdinand Marcos (who didn’t like communists much) was probably the Philippines’ best president and said that he was proud that his father (a former governor and Marcos cabinet secretary) was a Marcos loyalist.

Duterte also has a surprisingly progressive record on other matters, especially for the Philippines: he was the first mayor to give formal governmental representation to the indigenous Lumad and Moro Muslim minorities in Davao, he championed an anti-discrimination ordinance, he built a 24-hour drug rehabilitation and treatment centre (even if he openly supports killing drug addicts and dealers), he was an early supporter of the RH law, he supports LGBT rights (despite admitting he’s a male chauvinist) and might not be completely closed to same-sex marriage, and is a recognized supporter of women’s rights (he also ordered his police not to go after prostitutes).

His campaign was largely incoherent (and consisting largely of hyperbole and bluster), although with an appealing central message: he is the country’s last card, and the only one who can rid the country of crime, corruption and poverty. He has promised to practically eliminate crime and corruption in ‘3 to 6 months’, with only vague mechanisms. On the matter of crime, he says that he will kill 50,000-100,000 criminals as president (he said that in 2015, when he said he didn’t want to be president because he didn’t feel like killing people) or perhaps 5 criminals a week. He would dump the bodies in Manila Bay to fatten the fish. His anti-corruption plan was even more incoherent, consisting mostly of expletive-filled rants about trapos (Tagalog for ‘old rag’ and also short form for ‘traditional politicians’) and pledges to continue his simple lifestyle if president.

Duterte’s critics worried that he would be a dictator. His attitude towards dictatorship is unclear. Sometimes, he claims that he isn’t a dictator and has no aspiration to become one. Sometimes, he says he is ‘like a dictator’ and would rule ‘like a dictator’ or even plainly stating that “it’s going to be a dictatorship”. He has said that if Congress threatens him with impeachment, he would close Congress and impose ‘revolutionary government’. If ‘circumstances’ require it, he would impose martial law.

Rody Duterte supports federalism, which he views as a solution to regional inequalities and the Muslim separatist problem. As always with him, he is short on the details of what federalism would specifically entail and how he would transform the Philippines into a federal country.

In April 2016, Duterte’s campaign and the election gained international attention following his disgusting comments about the rape and murder of 36-year old Australian missionary Jaqueline Hamill during the 1989 Davao City prison riot and hostage-taking. He said that while he was mad that she was raped, he lamented that he (as mayor) was not the first in line to rape her. Most of the crowd found it hilarious. The Australian and US embassies protested, but Duterte told them to shut up. Duterte did later apologize for the incident and said it was a bad remark, but did not apologize for what he said and said that it was not a joke. His polling numbers were not visibly affected by his remarks, and prompted him to double-down on his rhetoric. When his own daughter, Sara, admitted online that he was a rape victim, Rodrigo Duterte referred to her as a drama queen. He threatened Australia and the US to cut ties if they were so upset. He proceeded to tell the Commission on Human Rights to go to hell, admitted shooting a student in a school hallway, said that his dick made him cheat on his wife and said that he would pardon himself for mass murder.

The Punisher emerged as a strong top-tier candidate in the polls as soon as he entered the race, and took the lead from Grace Poe in late March/early April. His supporters became extremely loyal to their candidate over the campaign; Rappler wrote “Duterte’s every pronouncement, no matter how farfetched, is now met with roaring approval” and “He promises the impossible, and the more he curses, the more he is celebrated.” With blind support from his support base, he was able to resist all scandals – the rape remarks, earlier comments calling Pope Francis a ‘son of a bitch’ for causing a traffic jam in Manila during his January 2015 visit and Antonio Trillanes’ claim in late April that Duterte had an undeclared bank account with $4.5 million. His supporters, as explained by Rappler, have a worrying intolerance for any criticism of their candidate. They respond to critics by calling for their rape and murder.

Rappler said of Duterte supporters:

They are ordinary people, good people, kind people, and they are howling for blood. They are the new normal, and they believe in the gospel of Rodrigo Duterte. All comment is heresy. All media is biased. Wait until you’re raped, they say. Wait until your girlfriend is killed. See the forums, watch the comment sections, understand how women who speak out are called ugly bitches and know-it-all whores.

The rest of Duterte’s critics have been reduced to hypocrites and armchair activists. How dare you, asks one supporter, condemn imaginary rapes instead of real oppression? Did you rise up in anger when domestic helpers were raped in the Middle East? Did you demand justice and apologies? What have you done?

The message is clear. You have no right to speak. Forget how condemning one egregious assault still allows for condemning all. Forget that one armchair activist is calling out another. The discourse has been reduced to binaries – “Better a bad joke than a bad government.” To criticize Duterte’s extremism suddenly means to stand for criminality. The same people who condemn xenophobia and intolerance and murder now fail to see the terrifying new morality that has taken hold of the country. They are not bullies, they say. They are the bullied fighting back.

Rodrigo Duterte picked senator Alan Peter Cayetano as his running mate. Cayetano is the son of a former senator (1998-2003) and his sister Pia was elected to the Senate in 2004 and reelected in 2010. Alan Peter Cayetano was elected to the Senate for the Nacionalista Party in 2007, after having represented the family’s stronghold of Taguig-Pateros (Metro Manila) in the House between 1998 and 2007. He was reelected in 2013, improving on his 2007 results and ending up in third place with 17.58 million votes. Other members of his family, including his brother and wife, are also politically active. Cayetano announced his candidacy in September 2015, before Duterte, and had been hoping for ‘Dirty Harry’ to jump in so he could be his running mate. Duterte didn’t really seem to care much about his running mate, since in February 2016 he said that if he failed to fix crime and corruption within 3 to 6 months he would resign so that Bongbong Marcos, another veep candidate, could be president.

Duterte’s appeal is also being anti-establishment. While he comes from a political dynasty, it is a minor and local one, outside the national political elite. He was particularly harsh on Mar Roxas, the ruling party’s candidate, considering him an incompetent idiot. Duterte had relatively little support from the political establishment, but he was supported by some prominent political figures. His endorsers included former senator Eduardo Angara (of the LDP party), former senator Aquilino Pimentel Jr. (the old patriarch of Duterte’s PDP-Laban party), incumbent senator Aquilino Pimentel III and former senator and 2010 presidential candidate Manny Villar. There was speculation that former President Arroyo supported Duterte, who said that he would release her from jail if elected. Arroyo’s Lakas made no endorsement but many members were supportive of Duterte. The Nacionalista Party, which had three of its senators running for vice president (as independents), made no endorsements but Duterte was one of the top candidates for Nacionalista lawmakers. The Iglesia ni Cristo, which backed Bongbong Marcos for VP, endorsed Duterte for President. MNLF founder Nur Misuari also endorsed Duterte.

Rodrigo Duterte led by 10 points in most polls on the eve of the vote. Al Jazeera had an interesting pre-electoral special report about Duterte, Davao City and death squads in Mindanao.


Results are based on the official congressional canvass of votes.


Rodrigo Duterte (PDP-Laban) 39.01%
Mar Roxas (Liberal Party) 23.45%
Grace Poe (Independent) 21.39%
Jejomar Binay (UNA) 12.73%
Miriam Defensor Santiago (PRP) 3.42%

Turnout was 80.7%. 0.06% of the votes were cast for a candidate who withdrew and died before election day, and were counted as spoiled votes. 5.39% of votes were invalid. Turnout in 2010 was 74.4% and 76.4% in 2004.

Vice President

Leni Robredo (Liberal Party) 35.11%
Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr. (Independent) 34.47%
Alan Peter Cayetano (Independent) 14.38%
Francis Escudero (Independent) 12.01%
Antonio Trillanes (Independent) 2.11%
Gregorio ‘Gringo’ Honasan (UNA) 1.92%

8.7% of votes were invalid.


Only the 12 winning candidates are listed.

Franklin Drilon (Liberal Party) 41.52%
Joel Villanueva (Liberal Party) 41.39%
Tito Sotto (NPC) 38.51%
Panfilo Lacson (Independent) 37.82%
Richard J. Gordon (Independent) 37.28%
Juan Miguel Zubiri (Independent) 35.87%
Manny Pacquiao (UNA) 35.67%
Francis Pangilinan (Liberal Party) 35.56%
Risa Hontiveros (Akbayan) 35.53%
Sherwin Gatchalian (NPC) 33.58%
Ralph Recto (Liberal Party) 31.79%
Leila de Lima (Liberal Party) 31.55%

Rodrigo Duterte was elected President of the Philippines by a large margin on May 9. He won 16,601,997 votes or 39% of the valid votes, while his nearest rival, Mar Roxas of the ruling Liberal Party won 9,978,175 votes or 23.45% of the vote: a decisive 15.56% or 6,623,822 vote margin. In terms of raw votes, the 6.6 million vote margin is the biggest in Philippine presidential election history (excluding Marcos’ 1981 reelection in special circumstances), beating the previous record, set by Estrada’s 6.4 million majority in 1998. In terms of percentage majority, however, Duterte’s majority is only the third biggest of Fifth Republic (post 1986) – smaller than Estrada 1998 (24%) and Aquino 2010 (15.8%).

In his quasi-landslide, Duterte soundly defeated four prominent politicians. Mar Roxas was the candidate of the government and supported by President Aquino, who has fairly strong approval ratings as he leaves office. Grace Poe was the ‘top notcher’ in the 2013 Senate election, the daughter of a popular actor and a candidate with an appealing story. Jejomar Binay was the sitting Vice President, the top figure of the opposition and an experienced politician. Miriam Santiago stood little chance to begin with, but she served in all three branches of government and was a high-ranking senator.

Duterte’s victory is a major blow to outgoing President Benigno Aquino III, whose preferred candidate, his former interior secretary Mar Roxas. Roxas won just 23.5% of the vote. The candidate himself was a major weakness. As noted above, the third generation scion of a prominent political dynasty, he has been unable to connect with voters and was seen as bumbling and aloof. His attempts to connect with voters were awkward, cringe-worthy and widely mocked on social media. Totally lacking the ‘charm’, demagogic appeal and ‘straight-talk’ of Rody Duterte. To make matters worse, as interior secretary he became associated with incompetence and made the perfect whipping boy for all pent-up frustrations with the administration – unresponsiveness, arrogance, the mishandled post-Typhoon Haiyan relief effort, corruption, the Zamboanga siege or perennial traffic disasters in Metro Manila. Roxas lacked any defining achievements which could weigh up against the ‘glorious mythology’ of Davao City (Duterte) or even Makati (Binay), nor did his dynastic background make for the basis of a heartwarming family story (Poe). Quoting Rappler:

He can’t take a joke. He can’t slug it out in the press. He is a safe target for every bully with a spitball and a baseball bat. His varying attempts at defending himself has the distinct flavor of a whining thirteen-year-old who just got trounced in the playground. Listen to him on television, complaining about unfairness, droning on about rules, rambling about his successes, unable to stand up to candidates whose attacks on his incompetence remind the public just how royally he fails in a crisis.

Roxas was assailed by all his rivals. Jejomar Binay described Roxas’ style as “analysis by paralysis” while Grace Poe claimed that he had lost all trust even that of Aquino. Rodrigo Duterte’s target of choice during the campaign was Roxas, calling him incredibly incompetent, a pretentious fraud and a massive failure – attacks reminiscent, in my mind, of Donald Trump’s attacks on “low-energy” Jeb Bush during the US Republican primaries.

The Liberal Party, led by Roxas, insisted that their daang matuwid or straight path was the only choice, the only civilized option against barbarianism and immorality. The ‘straight path’ has produced solid economic growth making the Philippines one of the fastest growing economies in the region, healthy public finances, increased infrastructure spending, attracted more foreign investment and came close to producing a peace agreement with the Muslim separatist rebels. Yet, not everyone has benefited equally, and this unequal distribution of the results is often cited in the media as one of the main reasons for Duterte’s victory. Poverty remains the biggest problem, with little real progress being made over the past decades despite new conditional cash transfer programs. Rural areas, particularly those outside of central Luzon, remain very poor and urban poverty is rising. Infrastructure spending and economic opportunities remain concentrated in the Metro Manila region and Luzon, fuelling continued anger in Mindanao, Visayas and remote parts of Luzon. Aquino took office on a platform focused at rooting out corruption, yet six years later corruption remains endemic and the government’s record on addressing corruption is mediocre at best. Improvements, to be sure, have been made but they were mostly baby steps which haven’t produced tangible benefits to regular Filipinos still dealing with corrupt local officials, politicians and cops.

However, the Liberals were seemingly unable to understand the real frustrations that many voters may have with aspects of their record. The Liberals displayed a certain intolerance towards criticisms of the daang matuwid, being very quick to dismiss them as complaints of opponents with axes to grind, and therefore having nothing to offer to those with grievances against the state of the country. To make matters worse, Roxas, more of a bureaucrat or legislator than a powerful orator or skilled campaigner, offered meandering speeches or convoluted and gradual solutions to the pressing issues. This is his typical style, reflective perhaps of his roots as a dynastic politician from the country’s old political elite. During the response to Typhoon Haiyan, he spent a lot of his time blaming the local government, engaging in grubby political squabbles with the mayor of Tacloban, who happened to be from the Romualdez family of Leyte (Imelda Marcos’ family) or lecturing CNN on local government natural disaster response. Again, Rappler put it best:

A vote for Mar Roxas acknowledges the slow character of nation building – a project that requires patience instead of quick-fix solutions. Inclusive growth takes time. Eliminating corruption takes time. The impact of hard work may not be immediately apparent, but the statistics of crime and economic growth indicate we are headed in the right direction. Roxas promises more of the same.

Except that the world we live in is one where we cannot afford to wait. Ours is a country where the sky falls with clockwork regularity. Disaster is the new normal. Every day is a crisis. He may excel in the minutiae of the law, but the next president of the Philippines does not have the luxury of endless meetings and a selection of excuses.

In contrast, Duterte offered simple “I will” politics – I will eliminate crime, corruption and drugs.

Grace Poe was at one point in the not so distant past the frontrunner in the polls, and she had several assets – the name, charisma, a fresh and clean image – but on May 9, she finished third with only 21.39% of the vote. A major obstacle was the lack of machinery and experienced political handlers. She had no major party backing and lacked access to a nationwide machinery, unlike the Liberal Party – but, at the same time, Duterte’s party backing was very weak as well (PDP-Laban is only a minor party now). Unlike Poe, though, Duterte benefited from a groundswell of popular support and built (as noted above) a terrifyingly loyal base of supporters while Poe’s hollow and wishy-washy campaign only had soft support.

Another major problem was that Grace Poe’s campaign, after she was allowed to run by the Supreme Court, lacked a message and thus became very hollow. She had expended so much energy on her right to run for office, fighting the legal challenges, that when it was granted her campaign struggled to find a convincing platform besides vague ‘honest and clean government’. Poe has acknowledged that, in retrospect, she spent too much time fighting about her right to won and not enough explaining why she was running.

It was also unclear whether Poe stood for continuity or change; initially she sounded supportive of daang matuwid (saying that no one had the monopoly of daang matuwid), but facing the Duterte wave she changed her mind and said that Filipinos were fed up with daang matuwid and wanted change. But, who would a voter eager for change, especially ‘radical change’, trust? The senator elected with Team PNoy in 2013 whose political career was begun by Aquino in 2010, or the tough-talking mayor from Davao who has convinced everybody that Davao is basically Singapore? Her attempt to differentiate her version of change from Duterte – ‘humane’ and empathetic transformation – failed to capture the public’s imagination. Besides, her attempts to tweak her campaign’s message as Duterte surged in the polls came too late and were futile, as voters had already made up their minds.

Poe took pride on running a ‘clean’ campaign, although she was notably feistier by the end as her opponents were unearthing more dirt on her husband (who served in the US Air Force) and she was losing the election to Duterte. Although clean campaigns make for a higher, more respectable kind of politics, it’s no secret that dirty and negative campaigns are brutally effective and that many candidates who took pride on their ‘clean campaigns’ lost. Some of Poe’s campaign staff have said, with hindsight, that Poe should have gone after Duterte harder for his crass rape joke and hit Roxas harder on the administration’s weakest files (PDAF/DAP, Typhoon Haiyan).

Duterte, like Poe, lacked a party machinery and had limited support from the ‘political elite’ or the bigger political parties. However, his main asset was an army of emotionally-attached followers, from all classes and regions, many of whom volunteered their time and money to support his campaign. His supporters saw him as a saviour, swaying voters with a promise of care and power – all wrapped up in an ‘authentic’ image. His crass jokes, poor language, cussing and incessant flirting with woman added to his charm and authenticity, giving the impression that he is from and for the people (unlike Mar Roxas, who is certainly not from the people and many would argue not even for the people). Duterte’s supporters on social media promoted his image by sharing stories or images of Duterte on the front-line during crises or natural disasters in Davao, contrasting with the perception of President Aquino as ‘cold and distant’ and often missing in action in some of the biggest crises of the past 6 years.

The other big loser was Vice President Jejomar Binay, who ran the longest campaign and expected his rags-to-riches populist appeal to bring him to the presidency just as it had propelled him to the vice presidency (against Roxas) in 2010. He had the political experience, the attractive story and a strong political machinery behind him. His numbers took a hit with the Senate investigation into corruption allegations and unexplained wealth, but he recovered through a ‘strategy of silence’ and shot back up to close second or tied for first (with Poe). His support, however, collapsed when the official campaign began and Duterte surged in the polls.

Binay was critical of President Aquino, but his message of a ‘better life’ lacked teeth and fell short compared to the strength and persuasiveness of Duterte’s campaign. Binay might also have erred in trying to appear as a healing and unifying figure, which led him to somewhat soften his criticisms of the outgoing administration and therefore lessen their effectiveness and punch. He also lost support by failing to address his corruption allegations head-on, stubbornly dismissing them as lies and claiming that the real ‘moral’ problem was poverty, not corruption. When he decided, late in the game, to present documents which he said would discredit the accusations, he was barred from doing so because of the venue (a debate) and the whole thing looked silly and belated. Failing to tackle the corruption issues and facing the Duterte surge, Binay lost support from his strongest backers (the poor) and saw the clout of his UNA weaken as local organizations defected or candidates failed to register as UNA candidates.

Miriam Defensor Santiago did poorly, but her low result had been expected for a long time. Her campaign never had a chance of taking off.

The vice presidential contest was much closer than the presidential race. Leni Robredo, the Liberal standard bearer and Mar Roxas’ running-mate, ultimately won by just 263,473 votes or 0.61% – the closest margin in a vice presidential race under the Fifth Republic (the close 2004 and 2010 VP races were won by 2.9% and 2.1% respectively) and the second closest in the country’s history after 1965 when Ferdinand Marcos’ running mate defeated Gerardo Roxas by 0.37% (26.7k votes). Robredo won 35.11% or 14,418,817 votes against 34.47% or 14,155,344 votes for her main rival, senator Bongbong Marcos. The other candidates trailed far behind. Senator Francis Escudero, Grace Poe’s running mate who led VP polls in early 2016, won just 12% of the vote in fourth place. Alan Peter Cayetano won third place with 14.4% of the vote, a result in line with or slightly lower than what he had polled in the campaign. The two other vice presidential candidates, Antonio Trillanes (2.1%) and Gringo Honasan (1.9%) barely registered.

Marcos took an early lead when polls closed, because his strongest regions reported first. Robredo took the lead and held it throughout the preliminary count, despite the Marcos campaign’s protests. The congressional canvass in late May confirmed Robredo as the winner, and the Marcos campaign finally begrudgingly conceded defeat.

Robredo, a one-term congresswoman from Camarines Sur in the Bicol region, started out very low in the polls but quickly surged until the last polls had her in statistical tie with Bongbong Marcos. The backing of the Liberal machinery, and President Aquino, played an important role in her successful campaign and eventual victory, but the same elements were also behind Roxas who lost by a wide margin. Robredo, unlike Roxas, ran a strong and ‘authentic’ campaign which largely sidestepped daang matuwid to focus instead on the ‘Naga-Robredo model of governance’. Her late husband, Jesse Robredo, who died in a 2012 plane crash, was a popular and effective mayor of Naga (1988-1998, 2001-2010) with a down-to-earth grassroots kind of leadership which championed ‘participatory leadership’ and close relationships with constituents. Therefore, unlike Roxas who couldn’t attach his name to any defining achievements or a successful stint in local government, Robredo had both sympathy for her popular late husband and her family name on defining achievements. She also positioned herself as an antithesis to Duterte (she claimed that they had achieved similar success to Davao City in Naga without violence and human rights violations) without being overly anti-Duterte. She may also have consolidated the anti-Marcos vote, as there were widespread concerns about the possibility of a Vice President Marcos (especially alongside President Duterte).

There appears to be a notion, particularly common in foreign coverage of the election, that Duterte’s victory was the work of the ‘poor and uneducated masses’ who failed to benefit from recent economic growth and yearn for security. Duterte certainly had strong support with the poor across the country, but his coalition cut across class and region and received very strong support from the middle-class and the rich. Exit polls in the Philippines are a bit iffy, but the SWS exit poll is interesting. ‘Class ABC’ voters, from the top three social classes, voted 46% for Duterte against only 18.9% for Roxas, 16.4% for Poe and 11.8% for Binay (Santiago won 6.2%). Class D voters still voted solidly for Duterte, with 39.6%, against 22.7% for Roxas, 20.6% for Poe, 13.9% for Binay and 2.5% for Santiago. Voters in class E, the lowest, voted for Duterte as well but with a significantly narrower margin – 35.3% to 28.6% for Roxas, with 19% for Poe, 15% for Binay and 1.3% for Santiago. The divide in terms of education was even starker. Those with some high school education backed Duterte by 8 points over Roxas – 33.8% to 25.7%, with 22.1% for Poe and 16.1% for Binay. College graduates voted for Duterte by 29 points – 49.2% to 19.8%, with 13.4% for Poe, 10% for Binay and 6.7% for Santiago. Duterte also performed slightly better with men than women (43% to 37%) and did much better in urban areas than rural regions (45% to 31.9%).

These exit poll numbers, if accurate (and the actual geography of the vote suggests that they are) would mean that Duterte performed best with the wealthiest and most educated voters (while still having very substantial support with the poor and less educated). Class ABC urban voters want discipline and public order in the city, and strong leader who will prevent crime. These voters have benefited from economic growth, but want more orderly cities, better infrastructure and disciplined citizens. Corruption persists in urban areas (with cops or in the public administration), crime is prevalent and horrendous traffic (due to inadequate infrastructure) remains a huge frustration for Metro Manila voters. Surprisingly, however, surveys in Metro Manila showed that jobs and education – where Duterte was not seen as the best candidate – ranked ahead of corruption and crime in order of importance.

Crime and corruption are concerns which cut across class and region. Rappler‘s pre-election profile of Duterte included this observation, which seems like a good quick summary of Duterte’s appeal post-election:


He says screw the bleeding hearts, and to hell with the bureaucracy. He voices the helplessness and rage of Filipinos forced to make do in a country where corruption is casual and crime is ordinary. Duterte has their backs, and he says the struggle ends here, today. He goes beyond anger, even beyond solutions. Digong Duterte offers retribution.

Congressional races

In the Senate races, seven of the victorious 12 were endorsed by the administration’s Koalisyon ng Daang Matuwid, five of these seven were supported only by the daang matuwid. The top notcher was incumbent Liberal senator Franklin Drilon, the outgoing President of the Senate and a veteran politician. Drilon served in the Senate between 1995 and 2007 and again since 2010, and had already been Senate President twice prior to 2013 (July-November 2000 and 2001-2006). He is an opportunistic politician who has served all the Presidents of the Fifth Republic – as labour and later justice secretary under Cory Aquino, as justice secretary and pro-administration senator under Fidel Ramos, as a pro-administration senator (until the impeachment) under Estrada, as a pro-administration senator and Senate President under both Gloria Arroyo and Benigno Aquino. Drilon won 18,607,391 votes, more than what he won in 2010 (15,871,117) but equivalent to a similar share of the vote (41.5%). He was strongest in his native Iloilo, where he won over 820,000 votes.

Joel Villanueva, also a Liberal, was elected in second place with 18,459,222 votes (41.4%). Villanueva is the son of Eddie Villanueva, religious leader and president of the Evangelical Jesus is Lord Church, two-time presidential candidate (in 2004 and 2010) and 2013 senatorial candidate (finishing in 18th place as an unaffiliated candidate for his Bangon Pilipinas party). Joel Villanueva served three terms as a party-list representative in the House for the “Citizens’ Battle Against Corruption” (CIBAC) party-list and served as head of the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TEDSA), a government agency, from 2010 to 2015. He campaigned on his record as head of TEDSA and with the support of his father’s religious group. Villanueva was charged by the Ombudsman in connection with the PDAF scam.

Incumbent senator Tito Sotto III (NPC) came in third with about 17,200,000 votes and 38.5%, a marked improvement on his 2010 result (31.2%). Like Drilon, Sotto – who was endorsed by the opposition UNA and Grace Poe’s Partido Galing at Puso – is a veteran politician who will begin his fourth term in the Senate (1992-2004 and since 2010). Sotto was a songwriter, actor and showbiz star prior to his election as vice mayor of Quezon City in 1988 and his election to the Senate in 1992. He was reelected in 1998, failed to reenter the Senate in 2007 but successfully did so in 2010. Like Drilon, Sotto has passed through several different parties since the ’90s and has supported every administration at one point or another – he went from a die-hard Estrada loyalist in 2001 to a supporter of the Arroyo administration (his 2007 Senate run was for the beleaguered administration’s TEAM Unity coalition). Sotto was a strong supporter of the Poe-Escudero ticket and was one of the forces which pushed the divided NPC to officially back her candidacy.

Former senator Panfilo Lacson (independent) returned to the Senate, placing fourth with about 16,926,000 votes (37.8%). Panfilo Lacson is a retired police officer who was director of the National Police between 1999 and 2001. As police chief, he reduced the extortionist culture among police personnel and increased the police’s popularity, but was implicated in a 2000 murder case. Lacson fled the country in 2010 before charges against him for the murder case were filed in court, and returned in 2011 after the case and arrest warrant were dropped. Lacson was an Estrada loyalist in 2001, and was elected to the Senate in 2001 as a candidate on the deposed president’s ticket (for the LDP) and reelection for the anti-Arroyo opposition (GO) in 2007. Lacson ran for President in 2004, winning 10.9% and placing third. In 2013, President Aquino appointed him Presidential Assistant for Rehabilitation and Recovery, to lead the management and rehabilitation efforts in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan. Lacson endorsed Mar Roxas after unsuccessful talks to be Poe’s running-mate (he was also removed from Poe’s Senate lineup). He was also supported by the UNA.

Former senator Richard J. Gordon (independent) also returned to the Senate, with a fifth place showing from 16,719,322 votes (or 37.3%). Gordon, the son of a local politician of American descent, has been in politics since the 1970s when he served as a young delegate to the 1971 constitutional convention which drafted Marcos’ constitution. He went on to become mayor of Olongapo (where his father was mayor) from 1980 to 1986 and again from 1988 to 1993 and chairman of the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority from 1992 to his forcible removal by President-elect Estrada in 1998. Gordon was an Arroyo ally who served in her cabinet as tourism secretary (2001-2004) and was elected to the Senate in 2004 with Arroyo’s K4 coalition. He fell out with the administration and formed his own political party, Bagumbayan-VNP (‘Yelstinism’ is hilariously listed as one of the party’s ‘ideologies’ on Wikipedia!), to run for President himself in 2010. Gordon won only 1.4% of the vote in the 2010 election. To continue his political career and return to the Senate, he joined up with VP Jojo Binay’s opposition UNA, but was narrowly defeated as the thirteenth placed candidate with 709,433 less votes than the twelfth placed candidate. This year, Gordon was supported by the UNA and Poe’s Partido Galing at Puso.

Former senator Juan Miguel Zubiri (independent) returned to the Senate as well, finishing sixth this year with 16,119,165 votes (35.9%). Zubiri comes from the ruling family in the Mindanao province of Bukidnon (his father was reelected governor in a landslide, his brother was reelected to the House from the province’s third district) and was in the House for three terms between 1998 and 2007. In 2007, he was a Senate candidate for Arroyo’s TEAM Unity coalition. In the final tally, Zubiri defeated opposition candidate Aquilino Pimentel III (PDP-Laban) by just 18,500 votes for the twelfth and last seat. Pimentel alleged that there was widespread fraud in Zubiri’s favour in Maguindanao province, but the Supreme Court rejected his petition to invalidate the province’s votes and allowed the COMELEC to certify Zubiri as the winner. Pimentel launched a long, drawn-out and bitter electoral protest in the Senate Electoral Tribunal for over 2,600 precincts in the ARMM (Zubiri countered with a protest on over 73,000 precincts). Pimentel’s case languished until 2011 when a suspended ARMM governor and election supervisor confirmed that there had been widespread fraud in Maguindanao in 2007. While continuing to claim that he did not cheat, Zubiri decided to resign from the Senate in August 2011 and became the first senator to resign for a reason other than accepting another political or elected office. With Zubiri withdrawing his counter-protest, the Senate Electoral Tribunal could finally rule on the election protest and proclaimed Pimentel as the winner by 258,166 votes. Since the protest, however, Zubiri and Pimentel have remained sworn enemies. In 2013, both Pimentel and Zubiri ran for Senate and both were initially candidates on the same slate (UNA), but Pimentel ditched the UNA to run for reelection with Team PNoy because of Zubiri’s inclusion on the UNA ticket. Pimentel was reelected to the Senate in 2013, but Zubiri was defeated placing fourteenth. Zubiri was candidate for the UNA and Poe’s coalition, but Zubiri switched his presidential endorsement from Poe to the lone Mindanao presidential candidate, Duterte. The Pimentel/Zubiri feud was the main reason why Duterte’s campaign cancelled its initial lineup of 12 Senate hopeful, which would have included Zubiri, much to the displeasure of the PDP-Laban’s president, Pimentel.

Sarangani Representative Manny Pacquiao (UNA), the former world champion professional boxer, successfully ran for Senate and was elected with a seventh place finish (16,050,546 votes or 35.7%). Parallel to his boxing career, Pacquiao has been active in Philippine politics since 2007, when he first ran for the House of Representatives in South Cotabato’s 1st district (as a supporter of the Arroyo administration). He lost to the incumbent NPC member by 29 points, but Pacquiao announced another run for Congress – this time from his wife’s province of Sarangani (in Central Mindanao/Soccsksargen region) – in the 2010 elections. Pacquiao founded his own party, the People’s Champ Movement (PCM), but ran in coalition with Manny Villar’s Nacionalista Party in 2010. He defeated the candidate of an entrenched political clan by a landslide, winning two-thirds of the vote. He transferred to the President-elect’s Liberal Party, but ran for reelection (unopposed) with the opposition UNA in 2013. Pacquiao retired from boxing earlier this year, perhaps to focus more actively on his political ambitions (which include the presidency). Pacquiao attracted (international) controversy during the campaign when he said that people in same-sex marriages were behaving worse than animals. Duterte, who had endorsed Pacquiao for Senate, criticized Pacquiao for his comments. Pacquiao’s candidacy was backed only by the UNA.

Former senator Francis ‘Kiko’ Pangilinan (Liberal) was the fourth former senator to return to the upper house. Pangilinan placed eighth with 15,955,949 votes (35.56%). He is a former lawyer, academic and TV personality who was elected to the Senate for the first time in 2001 as part of the pro-Arroyo People Power Coalition and reelected as an independent Liberal in 2007. He served as Presidential Assistant for Food Security and Agricultural Modernization in 2014 and 2015.

Former party-list representative Risa Hontiveros was elected to the Senate on her third attempt. This year, she won ninth place with 15,915,213 votes (35.5%). Hontiveros is a left-wing socialist activist who was elected to the House of Representatives in 2004 and 2007 as a party-list representative for Akbayan, a socialist party which runs in party-list elections to the House (it has usually been one of the most successful of the various party-lists, winning over 1 million votes in 2010 and over 800,000 votes in 2013). Hontiveros has advocated for women’s rights, agrarian reform, anti-corruption efforts and universal healthcare. This was her third run for Senate, after two unsuccessful bids in 2010 and 2013, both times also supported by the Liberal Party. In 2010, Hontiveros placed thirteenth, falling short by over 1.1 million votes. In 2013, Hontiveros finished seventeenth. Walden Bello, another former Akbayan party-list representative and prominent socialist activist, was far less successful in his independent candidacy for Senate this year – he finished 36th with only 2.4%.

Former mayor and representative Sherwin Gatchalian (NPC) ranked tenth with 14,953,768 (33.6%). Gatchalian was elected to the House from the Metro Manila NCR district of Valenzuela in 2001, and became mayor of Valenzuela in 2004 (reelected in 2007 and 2010). At the end of his mayoral term, he chose to return to the House, after polling showed that it was too early for a successful Senate run. Gatchalian’s two brothers are also politically active – one is the current mayor of Valenzuela, just reelected to a second term in a landslide despite corruption allegations, and the other is replacing Sherwin in the House. Gatchalian and some relatives were indicted in 2015 by the Ombudsman on graft and malversation charges. Gatchalian is from the NPC and was supported only by Poe’s coalition.

Incumbent Liberal senator Ralph Recto was reelected with an eleventh place finish, earning 14,271,868 votes or 31.8%. Ralph Recto is the grandson of nationalist leader and former senator Claro M. Recto, and served three terms in the House (1992-2001) before being elected to the Senate with President Arroyo’s Lakas party in 2001. Recto lost reelection, again standing for Arroyo’s Lakas, in 2007 but returned to the Senate as a Liberal candidate in 2010 after an eighth place finish. Recto is married to Vilma Santos, an actress turned politician, who was elected to the House of Representatives this year after three terms as governor of Batangas (2007-2016). Recto was also supported by Grace Poe’s Partido Galing at Puso.

The last seat went to Leila de Lima (Liberal), the former chairwoman of the Commission on Human Rights (2008-2010) and President Aquino’s justice secretary from 2010 to October 2015. Leila de Lima made several enemies because of her bluntness and activism both as head of the human rights commission and as justice secretary; in the latter role, she led the administration’s prosecution of the three senators in the PDAF scam (who were later arrested). The concerned senators and their allies claimed that they were singled out for prosecution because they were from the opposition, pointing out that de Lima sat on the cases of Liberal or administration allies also involved in the PDAF scam. Leila de Lima has also been one of the few politicians publicly critical of Duterte, especially his human rights record and his alleged involvement in the Davao death squad killings. The two have gotten in war of words before, with Duterte warning her not to fuck with him since she’d lose.

The thirteenth candidate was Francis Tolentino (independent), former chairman of the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority, who earned 12,811,098 votes (28.6%), placing him quite some distance behind the twelfth candidate (by over 1.3 million votes). Tolentino was dropped from the Liberal Party’s ticket after a lewd performance from scantily-clad women dancers at a campaign event. Tolentino supported Rodrigo Duterte’s presidential campaign.

Incumbent senator Sergio Osmeña III (independent) lost his bid for reelection, placing fourteenth with 12,670,615 votes or 28.2%. Osmeña is the third generation of Cebu’s Osmeña political dynasty, the grandson of former President Sergio Osmeña and the son of former senator Sergio ‘Serging’ Osmeña Jr. Sergio Osmeña III was first elected to the Senate in 1995 (with then-President Ramos’ Lakas-Laban coalition), reelected in 2001 (with the pro-Arroyo People Power Coalition) and returning in 2010 (as an independent). Sergio Osmeña III is seen as Grace Poe’s political mentor and advised her presidential campaign on occasion, but differences were reported between the two and Osmeña III wasn’t endorsed by Poe’s coalition. Sergio Osmeña III is also close to Rodrigo Duterte.

Martin Romualdez (Lakas-CMD), representative for Leyte’s first district (2007-2016), placed fifteenth with 12,325,824 votes (27.6%). From Leyte’s old Romualdez dynasty, he is the nephew of Imelda Marcos and Bongbong Marcos’ cousin. Romualdez’s candidacy was supported by the UNA and Duterte.

Manila vice mayor, Estrada ally and former actor Isko Moreno (PMP) was sixteenth overall with 25%. Incumbent senator and former Bukidnon representative TG Guingona (Liberal), the son of Arroyo’s first VP (Teofisto Guingona Jr.), lost his reelection bid very badly, finishing in a distant seventeenth with just 22.9% – in 2010, he was elected to the last seat with 26.9%.

Although these stats are entirely meaningless, the Liberal Party increased its Senate representation from 4 to 6 seats. The other seats are held by 5 independents, the UNA (4), the NPC (3), the Nacionalista Party (3), Akbayan (1), PDP-Laban (1) and the LDP (1).

Even more meaningless are national party numbers for the House of Representatives. The Liberals won 115 seats against 42 for the NPC, 23 for the NUP, 24 for the Nacionalistas, 11 for the UNA, 4 for Lakas-CMD and 3 from PDP-Laban. However, before the 17th Congress even opens on July 25, 80 Liberal representatives have defected to President-elect Duterte’s PDP-Laban, which has also signed coalition or support agreements with the NPC, Nacionalista Party, NUP and Lakas-CMD. The bulk of party-list representatives should also support Duterte. With an overwhelming majority in the House for the incoming administration, Davao del Norte representative Pantaleon Alvarez, from PDP-Laban, is expected to be elected Speaker. The Senate appears to be a slightly tougher bet, but at least nine senators (the 3 from the NPC, 2 of the 3 Nacionalistas, LDP senator Sonny Angara, Aquilino Pimentel III and independent senators Gordon and Zubiri) should support the government and some of the Liberal and UNA senators may also get behind the new government.

Former First Lady Imelda Marcos was reelected to her third term as representative for Ilocos Norte’s 2nd district, with 98.5% of the vote. In Pampanga’s 2nd district, former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was reelected unopposed to her third and final term. In Sarangani, Manny Pacquiao’s old House seat will go to his brother Rogelio, who won the province’s lone district with 86%. Rogelio, known as ‘Roel’, had been defeated in a previous bid for the House in South Cotabato back in 2010. In Taguig City, term-limited senator Pia Cayetano (the sister of defeated VP candidate Alan Peter Cayetano), was elected to the House with 69% of the vote. In the party-list vote, Ako Bicol, a regional party from the Bicol region, won the most support – 1,664,975 votes (5.1%) and 3 seats. GABRIELA, a feminist party, won 1,367,795 votes (4.2%) and 2 seats, the same representation than in 2013. Third place went to a new outfit, 1Pacman, which seems to consist of people connected to Manny Pacquiao, known as the ‘Pacman’. Party-list elections are an insane thing and too much for this already lengthy blog post to cover further, but Rappler had a good pre-election summary of the lists and nominees. Basically, since a 2013 Supreme Court decision which said that party-lists don’t actually need represent any marginalized or underrepresented groups or organize along sectoral lines, the party-lists are increasingly a sneaky way for political dynasties, former congressmen and bureaucrats to get into Congress or work around term limits.

In Congress, therefore, the incoming Duterte administration should have a comfortable majority at the outset, through defections to Duterte’s PDP-Laban (expect the party to grow significantly) or support from other venal parties. The Liberal Party, what remains of it after mass defections, may provide the opposition to Duterte’s government, although VP-elect Robredo has pledged her full cooperation with President-elect Duterte.

Local races

In Manila, incumbent mayor Joseph Estrada was reelected to a second term, winning a rematch against former mayor Alfred Lim (Liberal), whom Estrada had defeated in 2013. Estrada won 38.5% against 38.2% for Lim, winning by just 2,685 votes. The bulk of the remaining votes (22%) went to Amado Bagatsing, a representative and son of a former mayor. The Estrada clan also held San Juan City, where Estrada himself was once mayor. Incumbent mayor Guia Gomez, one of Estrada’s mistresses and the mother of one of his sons (senator JV Ejercito), was reelected with 51% against 48.9% for Francisco Zamora, the son of the city’s congressman (who won reelection against JV Ejercito and Jinggoy Estrada’s cousin). The daughter of imprisoned senator Jinggoy Estrada was elected vice-mayor.

In Makati City, Jojo Binay’s daughter Abby Binay defeated incumbent mayor Romula ‘Kid’ Peña Jr. in a close race, 52.7% to 46.7%. Dynastic politicians also held Valenzuela (Rex Gatchalian, brother of senator-elect Win Gatchalian), Taguig (Lani Cayetano, wife of Alan Peter Cayetano).

In Cebu City, former mayor Tomas Osmeña (1987-1995, 2001-2010; brother of defeated senator Sergio Osmeña III) defeated incumbent mayor Mike Rama. Osmeña has been cited by human rights organizations as one of the mayors who imitated Duterte’s crime policies and is suspected of ties to vigilante killings and death squads in Cebu. Osmeña won 53.4% of the vote. In Cebu province’s gubernatorial race, incumbent governor Hilario Davide III (Liberal) – the son of a former Supreme Court chief justice – narrowly defeated challenger Winston Garcia, member of one of the province’s main political families.

In Davao City, Rodrigo Duterte’s daughter Sara Duterte was elected mayor with 99.55% of the vote! Duterte’s son Pulong Duterte was reelected unopposed as the city’s vice mayor.

Ilocos Norte governor Imee Marcos, Bongbong Marcos’ sister, was reelected unopposed to her third and final term.

Electoral Geography

Results of the presidential election by province (own map)

Results of the presidential election by province (own map)

Rodrigo Duterte’s big victory in the presidential election came from three regions – Mindanao, particularly his Davao stronghold; Cebu and Central Visayas (a region of 6 million people altogether); and Metro Manila/the NCR (a region of 12.8 million, and 14.4 million more in Calabarzon region, south of Manila).

Duterte swept Mindanao by huge margins. In Davao City, Duterte’s stronghold, Duterte won no less than 96.6% of the vote. He won 91.6% in Davao del Sur, 92.5% in Davao del Norte, 86.2% in Davao Occidental, 82.9% in Davao Oriental and 76.1% in Compostela Valley. Duterte also performed extremely well in almost all other regions of Mindanao, and swept the island’s other major cities. He won Cagayan de Oro, the stronghold of the Pimentel family, with two-thirds of the vote; General Santos City (in South Cotabato) with 67.9% and Iligan City with 71.3%. He also did very well in the ARMM (the Muslim autonomous region) – 80.1% in Lanao del Sur, 55.5% in Maguindanao and 76.7% in Sulu. Duterte is the first President of the Philippines from Mindanao, and he played heavily on his regional roots while campaigning in the region. Since 1986, all presidents and vice presidents have come from Luzon, and the last president who was not from Luzon was Carlos Garcia (1957-1961).

The second key to Duterte’s victory was Central Visayas, a region which includes Cebu province and city (the country’s fifth largest municipality). Rodrigo Duterte won 50.7% in Cebu province, against only 30.5% for Mar Roxas, who had swept the province in his 2010 vice presidential race. In Cebu City, Duterte won 58.8%. Grace Poe, just like her father in 2004, did very poorly in Cebu with just 12% of the vote in the province (despite support from the Durano clan, one of the island’s political families and relatives of Duterte). Duterte was helped by his Cebuano roots – although born on Leyte, his father was Cebuano and was mayor of Danao (a town in Cebu province) and he lived in that city until he was 5. Like most people in Davao region, Duterte speaks the Cebuano variation of Bisayas, and he used his Cebuano (and local humour and jokes) to better connect with locals. At one campaign stop, Duterte told voters that it was time for a ‘new Visayan hero’ and played on anti-Manila resentments. In addition, Duterte’s crime policies and Davao myth were easy sells in Cebu, just as concerned by criminality and corruption.

Mar Roxas is also from the Visayas islands – the province of Capiz in Western Visayas – but that region speaks a different variety of Bisayas. Roxas won 76.9% in his native Capiz province, and also took 62.8% in Iloilo and 40.9% in Antique. Duterte narrowly won Leyte province with 37.3% against 24.9% for Roxas and 21.4% for Jojo Binay, but did very well in Tacloban City, taking 43% of the vote against 28.6% for Binay. Mar Roxas, whose management of the disaster relief efforts in Tacloban after Typhoon Haiyan in 2013 was criticized, got just 5% in the city. Duterte won 45.6% in Southern Leyte, which is where he was born. Mar Roxas won Samar’s three provinces by narrow margins over Grace Poe, with Duterte winning only 15-19% of the vote.

Grace Poe won in Bicol region, with the exception of Camarines Sur, Masbate and Albay provinces which narrowly backed Roxas. Poe boasted the support of five of the region’s six governors (Albay, Camarines Norte, Camarines Sur, Sorsogon and Catanduanes) as well as her running-mate, Chiz Escudero, who is from Sorsogon (the province’s first district in the House has always been held by the Escudero family under the Fifth Republic). Poe got 41.6% in Sorsogon, 41.3% in Catanduanes. Roxas trailed far behind his running mate, favourite daughter Leni Robredo, who won every provinces besides Sorsogon by large margins and won 85.6% in her native Camarines Sur (compared to just 38.6% for Roxas) and 88.8% in Naga City (Roxas won 56%).

The last key to Duterte’s victory was Metro Manila/the NCR. Duterte won all municipalities in the NCR besides Makati City, which went for its former mayor Jejomar Binay. Duterte won 46.3% in Quezon City, 43.4% in Manila, 46.1% in Caloocan, 42.8% in Pasig, 44.1% in Parañaque, 47.3% in Las Piñas, 45.3% in San Juan and 43.3% in Valenzuela. His biggest result in the NCR came in Taguig, his running mate Alan Peter Cayetano’s hometown, with 60.5% of the vote. Only Makati City escaped the Duterte wave in Metro Manila, giving 43% to its former mayor against 29% for Duterte. Navotas City, the hometown of UNA president and Binay spokesperson Tobias Tiangco, was the only other close result, with Duterte winning 35.8% to 34.4% for Binay. Grace Poe generally placed second, quite some way behind Duterte, in most of Metro Manila – 18.8% in Quezon City, 24% in Manila, 23% in Caloocan, 24% in Pasig, 19% in Parañaque, 24% in Las Piñas and 20% in San Juan. In Valenzuela, where she was supported by the ruling Gatchalian family, Poe won 31% but was still over 10% behind Duterte. Liberal candidate Mar Roxas did horribly throughout Metro Manila, his best result being a paltry 20% in Marikina. In San Juan City, despite the support of local mayor Guia Gomez, Roxas got only 16% of the vote. Miriam Santiago did well throughout Metro Manila (6-8%), unsurprisingly because of the region’s affluence,

Metro Manila has voted for the opposition (or an opposition candidate) in every presidential election since 1946, except 1969 and 1981. In 2010, Liberal candidate Noynoy Aquino was an opposition candidate to the outgoing Arroyo administration, and he won all but two municipalities in the NCR (but Mar Roxas lost in the NCR to local favourite son Jojo Binay). This year, Liberal candidate Mar Roxas was the government candidate, and he got trounced in Metro Manila.

The Calabarzon region to the south of Manila is the most populous region in the country (even ahead of the NCR), and, along with the NCR and neighbouring provinces in Central Luzon region, it has been a bellwether region in almost every presidential election with the notable exception of 2004. Duterte won every province in Calabarzon save for Quezon province (which went to Poe) – 41.2% in Cavite, 40.9% in Rizal, 36% in Laguna and 27.5% in Batangas. All four of these provinces are highly urbanized areas part of the Mega Manila conurbation. Duterte also won in Bulacan province in Central Luzon, another highly urbanized province in Mega Manila (north of the NCR).

The Duterte vote in Manila (both the NCR and suburban Calabarzon and Central Luzon) confirms the markedly urban nature of his electorate, as well as his strong support with more affluent voters. A brief glance at barangay results in some Metro Manila cities do confirm that Duterte did very well with high-income voters, even in places like Makati City which he lost. As I previously explained, Duterte’s Manila support is likely a vote against crime and corruption, a clamour for public order. In good part I’d wager a lot of his support in Metro Manila was likely a protest vote.

Therefore, Duterte was able to combine the favourite son vote in Davao region and Mindanao, the Cebuano/federalist appeal to Central Visayas and the anti-crime/corruption urban middle-class in Greater Manila.

Duterte won Bulacan, Pampanga and Bataan provinces in Central Luzon, but the remaining provinces split between Poe and Roxas. Mar Roxas narrowly won Tarlac province, the Aquino’s province, with 32% to Poe’s 31%. Grace Poe won 37% in Zambales and 41% in Pangasinan (which is in Ilocos region), and she also won Nueva Ecija, Aurora, Benguet, La Union, Ilocos Sur, Ifugao and Mountain Province. Grace Poe’s father FPJ was from Pangasinan province, and she declared her affective and familial ties to that province, which is where she ended her campaign with a teary-eyed appeal to elect a Pangasinense president. Jejomar Binay did best in the Cagayan Valley region, with 52% in Isabela province (his mother’s province) and 45.6% in Cagayan province (the stronghold of his supporter Juan Ponce Enrile). Duterte, interestingly, won the Marcos bailiwick of Ilocos Norte by a wide margin – 33.5% against 21% for Binay and Santiago (Bongbong Marcos’ running mate), but he did poorly with the Ilocano vote in the rest of Ilocos, Cordillera and Cagayan Valley regions. Duterte also won Baguio City, with 33% against 23.5% for Santiago. Baguio is one of the wealthiest cities in the country, with a low poverty incidence of only 9.5% in the Benguet province. As can be extrapolated from the strong Santiago vote, it is also a major college town.

Results of the vice presidential election by province (own map)

Results of the vice presidential election by province (own map)

In general, outside of Mindanao, Duterte’s vote was a predominantly urban one. He did poorly in the country’s poorest provinces (outside of Mindanao, of course), most of which tend to be fairly remote rural areas. For example, in Northern Samar province, one of the country’s poorest with over 61% living in poverty, Duterte placed fourth with 14.7% of the vote. He also did poorly in the other two provinces on Samar, where over 50% live in poverty. In the Cordillera Administrative Region in northern Luzon, a poor landlocked region and one of Luzon’s most remote and underdeveloped areas, Duterte did very poorly: 12.6% in Mountain Province, 13.2% in Ifugao, 14.4% in Apayao and 18.6% in Abra. In Catanduanes, a poor island province in Bicol region, Duterte was also fourth with 14.4%. In Negros Oriental, the poorest province of the Negros islands with a 46.6% poverty incidence rate, Duterte was second with 30.7%, although that is likely due to the province’s Cebuano culture. Nevertheless, most of the poorest provinces are in Mindanao, especially in the ARMM, and Duterte swept the region, including the bulk of the poorest provinces there. Duterte’s urban vote may reflect greater urban concern for crime and corruption, although I hypothesize that it could be because the urban vote does not tend to be controlled by the political clans and elites which remain omnipotent in the rural provinces. The political elites tend to have a stronger hold on rural provinces, which they can still ‘deliver’ effectively to the candidates of their choosing.

The vice presidential results also show a very strong regional tropism for the two main candidates, Leni Robredo and Bongbong Marcos. As noted above, Leni Robredo’s biggest wins came from her native Bicol region. In the region, she won every province except for Sorsogon (which went for its own favourite son, Chiz Escudero, who got 60% there) by large margins – with 85.6% in her native Camarines Sur (compared to just 38.6% for Roxas) and 88.8% in Naga City (Roxas won 56%). She won nearly 65% in Albay, over 56% in Camarines Norte and Masbate and 53% in Catanduanes. Robredo’s strong regional support did not carry over to the man at the top of the Liberal ticket, who – as previously mentioned – only managed unimpressive wins in Camarines Sur, Albay and Masbate. Roxas’ support in Western Visayas, though, did carry over to his running mate, who won 73.5% in Roxas’ bailiwick of Capiz (amusingly, Roxas did a bit better there), 68% in Iloilo, 55.5% in Aklan, 50.5% in Antique. She did far better than Roxas in Central Visayas, with a ten point victory in Cebu province over Duterte’s running mate Cayetano (41.4% to 31.4%), although Cayetano won in Cebu City.

Ethnolinguistic map of the Philippines – Ilocano in dark green, Cebuano in dark blue (source: Wikipedia)

Bongbong Marcos, on the other hand, swept the so-called ‘Solid North’ – the Ilocano provinces of northern Luzon, centred around the family’s province of Ilocos Norte. In Ilocos Norte, Marcos won 96.8% of the vote. He won over 90% in Ilocos Sur, over 85% in La Union, Apayao and Abra provinces, and over 75% in Isabela and Cagayan. Marcos’ strongest support in northern Luzon correlates almost perfectly with the Ilocano ethnolinguistic group – notice how Marcos’ support drops off quite markedly in some landlocked provinces in the mountainous Cordillera region (Ifugao, Mountain Province), inhabited by indigenous Igorot peoples. Marcos’ support extended into Central Luzon, with the exception of the Aquino province of Tarlac (which Robredo by 5%).

Marcos Jr. also swept Metro Manila, where the Duterte-Marcos vote was highest, with the exception of Taguig which went to native son Alan Peter Cayetano (with nearly 50%). Marcos won 46% in Quezon City, 48% in Makati, 53% in Manila, 49% in Caloocan, 44.5% in Las Piñas, 46.6% in San Juan, 45% in Valenzuela. Robredo was far behind, but her support in the NCR was higher than Roxas’ support – she managed 33% in Quezon City, nearly 30% in Makati, 26% in Caloocan, about 25% in Manila, and was even within five points of first place in two cities (Marikina and Parañaque).

Marcos won his mother’s native province of Leyte, with 49.4% to 29.4% for Robredo. In Tacloban City, the fiefdom of his mother’s Romualdez clan, he won 80.4%!

In the vice presidential race, Mindanao – which had no favourite son in this race – was split between Robredo, Marcos and Cayetano. Duterte’s massive support in Davao region transferred over in good part to his running mate Cayetano, who got 72% in Davao City, 53.8% in Davao del Sur, 51.8% in Davao del Norte, 42% in Davao Occidental, 49% in Davao Oriental and 42% in Compostela Valley. But outside of Davao region, Duterte’s voters split their tickets. Marcos did well in Soccsksargen region, with wins in South Cotabato, Sarangani and Sultan Kudarat. Robredo won the ARMM (with over 50% in Maguindanao and Lanao del Sur) except for Sulu, which went to Marcos. She also won the Zamboanga peninsula, except for Zamboanga del Sur. In the remaining provinces, the vote was often split pretty tightly between Robredo, Marcos and Cayetano.

Duterte and Marcos won the overseas absentee vote, in Duterte’s case by a very wide margin. Duterte won 50.7% in the United States, 69% in Canada, 57.7% in Australia, 76.6% in Saudi Arabia, 83.9% in the UAE, 75.1% in Bahrain, 66.8% in China, 77.1% in Singapore, 76.4% in Japan, 80% in Kuwait and 79.9% in Qatar. Turnout, however, was very low as is the case with expats votes: it was decent in Asian countries, but very low in the Middle East/Gulf states (20-ish%) and barely higher in Canada and the US (27-28%). Overall, the OAV provided Duterte with 318,528 votes against just 51,300 for Roxas. Marcos won 188,959 OAV against 137,699 for Cayetano and 92,639 for Robredo.


What next for the Philippines? Rodrigo Duterte promises to be an unconventional president, with his irreverent style and coarse language. His election worries many people, both in the Philippines and abroad. The pessimists fear that Duterte will be the second coming of Ferdinand Marcos – a democratically-elected president who proceeds to subvert democratic institutions, impose martial law and install himself as an authoritarian ruler for a period far longer than the six-year presidential term. Given that Duterte has openly praised Marcos and martial law, and that he has threatened to close Congress if they ‘fuck with him’, this seems like a very real danger. The optimists note that the 1987 Constitution makes it far more difficult for a President to trample over democratic institutions and impose martial law, and point out that the Philippines have a robust tradition of sacking presidents who abuse their powers – Marcos in EDSA I (1986), Estrada in EDSA II (2001). Perhaps Duterte will be run out of office in EDSA IV if he abuses his power? His opponents will be reassured that, with Marcos’ defeated in the VP race, Robredo and not Marcos Jr will become President if Duterte is impeached or removed from office.

Regardless, given Duterte’s record as mayor and his pronouncements during the campaign on matters such as crime but also foreign policy (the dispute with China in the South China Sea over the Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoal), there is good reason to be concerned. Even if a lot of Duterte’s various declarations were probably crowd-pleasing bluster and hyperbole, his actions as mayor of Davao (particularly his likely involvement or at the very least toleration of death squad killings) mean that Duterte isn’t bluffing and that is quite horrifying to many. He could moderate in office, but he could also do a lot of damage even if he doesn’t end up as Marcos 2.0. Many of his supporters could, however, be disappointed when it turns out that Duterte can’t actually eliminate crime and corruption in ‘3 to 6 months’, and will be livid if it evidence turns up (as Antonio Trillanes claimed during the campaign) showing that Duterte is not squeaky clean himself.

Duterte made little mention of the economy and shows little interest (or knowledge) of the topic, though he inherits an economy in solid shape with a positive outlook (6% growth in 2016 and 2017). Duterte wants to continue infrastructure spending, try to revive the steel industry, boost tourism and is lukewarm about the TPP. He has promised to hire the ‘economic minds of the country’ and have them make policy. On foreign policy, Duterte has been contradictory – favouring negotiations with China, but at the same time also ‘ready to die’ for the Philippines’ claim or vowing to jet ski to a disputed island to plant the flag.

Duterte’s landmark promise is federalism, but that may prove quick tough to implement. The 1987 Constitution has never been amended, despite decades of attempts at constitutional reform.

The next six years in the Philippines, at the very least, do promise to be rather eventful and unpredictable.

Prince Edward Island and Alberta (Canada) 2015

Provincial elections were held in the Canadian provinces of Prince Edward Island (PEI) and Alberta on May 4 and 5, 2015 respectively.

Prince Edward Island

All 27 members of the Legislative Assembly of Prince Edward Island, the unicameral provincial legislature of the province, were up for reelection. The smallest province by population, PEI also has the smallest provincial legislature in Canada. As in every other province, members – styled MLAs – are elected by FPTP in single-member constituencies (which are called districts in PEI). However, PEI was the last Canadian jurisdiction to transition to only single-member constituencies – until the 1996 election, PEI’s MLAs were elected in two-member districts, with each of the island’s three counties electing 10 members in 5 two-member districts (until 1966, when 5th Queens was divided to create a 6th Queens district covering part of Charlottetown, the provincial capital). Since PEI did not abolish its old upper house but instead merged it with its lower house in 1893, the two-member districts returned one assemblyman and one councillor. Until 1963, while all voters could vote for assemblymen, only property owners could elect the councillor. Although the property qualification was dropped in 1963, the nominal titles continued to be used until the creation of the single-member districts.

The two-member districts map, which had remained unchanged save for one exception for a hundred years, and contained very large differences in population across districts, was struck down in Mackinnon v. Prince Edward Island in 1993. The successor map was challenged on the grounds that it over-represented rural areas and did not follow municipal boundaries, but it was upheld by the Prince Edward Island Supreme Court in 1996.


Prince Edward Island, located in the Gulf of the St. Lawrence and connected to mainland Canada (New Brunswick) by the Confederation Bridge, is Canada’s smallest constituent unit (province or territory) in land area and smallest province by population (the three territories have a smaller population than PEI). According to the 2011 Census, PEI’s population was only 140,204 – basically a medium-sized regional town (the Sherbrooke urban area in Quebec has a similar population), which also means that PEI’s electoral districts, with an average population of only 5,000 in each, are very small units comparable to municipal wards in most countries. The provincial capital, Charlottetown, has a population of only 34,562 (although the census agglomeration has 64,487 people. Summerside, the Island’s second-largest city, has a population of 14,751 and is the only other community on the Island with a population of over 10,000.

PEI is a fairly linguistically homogeneous province: 92% of residents in 2011 reported English as their mother tongue, with only 3.7% (or 5,190 people) saying French was their mother tongue and 3.5% with a non-official language as their mother tongue. 87% of Islanders are unilingual Anglophone and 95% speak English most often at home. The Francophone (Acadian) minority in PEI is largely concentrated in Prince County (the western third of the island), in the provincial district of Évangéline-Miscouche (where they may make up a majority of the population) and more specifically in three census subdivisions (Lot 15, Abrams Village and Wellington). In racial terms, PEI is also – unsurprisingly – quasi-homogeneously white, with visible minorities making up only 3.1% (4,260) of the population, with Chinese being the single largest minority group (with 1,830 people), and an additional 1.6% (2,230) claiming Aboriginal identity. The Mi’kmaq are, like in the other Maritime provinces, the main Aboriginal group in PEI, which has two First Nations reserves (both Mi’kmaq).

Islanders are largely of British Isles ancestries – Scottish, English or Irish. According to the 2011 NHS, 66.8% of residents claimed British Isles ancestry – more specifically, 39.3% claimed Scottish ancestry, 31.1% claimed English ancestry and 30.4% claimed Irish ancestry. PEI has the highest percentage of persons claiming Scottish or Irish ancestries of any province in Canada. Additionally, 36.8% claimed ‘Canadian’ ancestry and 21.1% claimed French ancestry. One of the more salient divides on the island has traditionally been religion (like in the other Atlantic provinces): PEI was 84% Christian as of 2011, with only 14.4% non-religious. Christians are fairly evenly divided between Catholics (42.9%) and the various Protestant denominations (41.1%, including 9.6% of ‘Other Christians’), and the United Church of Canada is the single largest Protestant denomination. Catholics and Protestants are fairly evenly spread throughout the island, although the eastern and western ends of the island (Kings and Prince counties) tend to be more Catholic while central Queen’s County is slightly more Protestant or non-religious (in Charlottetown, which is 20.8% non-religious).

PEI has the smallest economy of any province, contributing only 0.3% of GDP. The island, like most of the Atlantic provinces, has a weak economy which has been struggling for decades (in fact, the Maritimes’ best economic days, in general terms, were probably before Confederation). PEI has the lowest GDP per capita of any province ($39,780), and its median household income in 2011 ($55,311) was significantly lower than the national median HH income ($61,072). 59% of Islanders, in 2011, fell in the bottom half of the Canadian population (by income decile) and 15.8% were classified as low income (after-tax), compared to 14.9% of all Canadians. Only 82.2% of income came from ‘market income’, the second lowest in Canada (after Newfoundland), while 17.8% of Islanders’ income came from government transfer payments – including a full 5.8% from Employment Insurance (EI), compared to 1.8% across Canada. In April 2015, finally, PEI’s unemployment rate – 10.5% – was the third highest in Canada (after Newfoundland and Nunavut) and significantly higher than the national average (6.8%).

After Confederation, federal economic policies such as the National Policy primarily benefited the industrial powerhouses of central Canada and hurt the Maritimes, as did changing patterns of trade. Furthermore, PEI, an agricultural province lacking in natural resources and transportation links essential to industrial development, was unprepared for industrialization. The province, like the other Atlantic provinces of Canada, have benefited from post-1945 federal economic policies, social programs and transfer payments. In recent years, the provincial government has tried to break the province’s dependence on federal transfers by developing industries such as tourism. However, like the other Maritime provinces of Canada, PEI’s traditional dependence on federal funding and programs has meant that its provincial government has typically not been assertive or one to rock the boat in federal-provincial relations.

PEI was historically a predominantly agricultural province, thanks to its rich soil, ample supply of arable land and temperate climate. PEI is widely known across Canada for its potato production: in 2012, potatoes were the single most profitable crop, earning $246 million out of a total farm cash receipts of $467 million. The province is the nation’s largest supplier of potatoes. Fishing is also a major activity for the coastal communities. However, since the 1950s, the number of farms on the island has declined considerably and existing farms are large enterprises. In 2014, 8.4% of the labour force was directly employed in agriculture or fishing, which made it the fourth largest industry behind public administration (9.5%), retail trade (13.5%) and health care/social assistance (14.2%). Comparatively, across the country, only 3.8% of the labour force was employed in agriculture, forestry or fishing in 2014. Additionally, fisherman was the second most common specific occupation in 2011 (3.2% of the employed labour force), whereas across Canada it was ranked 219th and employed only 0.1%. Nowadays, public sector employment – public administration, education, healthcare and federal services – has replaced agriculture as the major employer on the island, alongside tourism (Anne of Green Gables, PEI’s red cliffs, beaches and unspoiled landscape), construction and light manufacturing (often primary resource-related).

The most common occupations (NOC) in 2011 were sales and services (22.4%), trades transport and equipment operators (15.3%), business finance and administrative occupations (14.9%) and occupations in education, law and social, community and government services (11.3%).

Political history

Prince Edward Island hosted the Charlottetown Conference in 1864, the first in a series of interprovincial conferences which would culminate in Canadian Confederation in 1867. However, the island declined to join Confederation immediately. By 1873, however, construction debts from the provincial railway threatened to bankrupt the colony, and the Liberal government of Premier Robert Haythorne sent a delegation to Ottawa to seek terms for admission to Confederation in return for the federal government assuming the colony’s extensive railway debts.

The other major issue in 19th century PEI was the land question. In 1767, Britain had divided the island into 67 lots owned by ‘proprietors’ (mostly absentee landlords in England) who collected rent from tenant farmers. The issue had been a hot button issue since the 1790s, but London blocked several attempts at land reform by colonial leaders prior to the advent of responsible government (1851). Afterwards, despite significant activism from tenant farmers, the cash-strapped and rather weak colonial government struggled to find a solution to the land question – which dragged on for over two decades after the introduction of responsible government. In 1873, one of the terms of joining Confederation was that the federal government would provide $800,000 towards the purchase of absentee landholdings on the island. In 1875, the province passed the Land Purchase Act, which made compulsory the sale of estates on PEI larger than 500 acres. To this day, non-residents are not permitted to purchase land on the island in excess of 2 hectares without approval from the cabinet.

The issue of separate schools – establishing a parallel system of separate Catholic schools – continued to divide the Liberals and Conservatives in island politics for a few years following Confederation, until 1876, when a coalition of Protestant Liberals and Conservative won power and created a non-sectarian, secular public school system.

With the three major political debates of the 19th century being settled within a few years, PEI politics moved towards the traditional political culture of the other Maritime provinces, characterized by parochialism, tradition, conservatism, pragmatism and a dose of cynicism and caution. Ideology has played a relatively minor role in PEI politics, and most observers have pointed out that few if any meaningful issues or ideologies divide the Liberals and the Conservatives. The parties reached their positions more on grounds of political expediency rather than principles, and they have always operated as patronage machines alternating in power rather than ideological parties. If the two parties were to be ideologically classified, both would end up in the centre, with the Liberals usually a bit more to the left and the Conservatives a bit more to the right.

Like in Nova Scotia, no great ethnic, religious, class or ideological antagonisms have had a strong, lasting influence on Island election. Religion has sometimes been identified as the main cleavage between Liberals and Conservatives, with the former being favoured by Catholics and the latter by Protestants, but PEI politics have never been sectarian and the parties have always had voters, members and leaders from both religious groups. Regionally, the Conservatives have usually been stronger in eastern Kings County and the Liberals in western Prince County, but this has hardly been a set rule: for example, in the 2008 federal election, the federal Conservatives (Gail Shea, a former provincial politician) was elected to the House for the western riding of Egmont while the Liberals retained the three other seats.

PEI is the Canadian province which has remained the most loyal to the old two-party (Liberals and Conservatives) system from Confederation. With the exception of independents elected in the first two provincial elections, no third party won a seat in the provincial legislature until the New Democrats (NDP) won a single seat in 1996, which they lost in 2000. No third party ever won over 10% of the popular vote, with the provincial NDP peaking at about 8% in the 1996 and 2000 elections.

Despite the little ideological differences between the traditional parties and the low stakes of most provincial elections, partisan identification and voter turnout have remained unusually high (turnout has almost always been over 80%, only falling to an historic low of 76.5% in 2011).

Since Confederation, Island politics have been dull to outside observers. The Liberals and Conservatives have alternated in power, and, with the exception of a series of one-term governments in the 1920s and early 1930s, all governments have been reelected at least once. However, neither party has managed to build a monopoly on power – no government has won more than three terms in office since 1978, when Premier Alex Campbell’s Liberals won a fourth (but final) term in office. After three terms in office, voter fatigue tends to set in and the governing party loses to the opposition, which campaigns on the vague promise of ‘change’ and open-ended criticism of some unpopular government decisions. The last change of government on the Island happened in 2007, when Premier Pat Binns’ Progressive Conservatives (PC) sought a fourth term but were soundly defeated by Robert Ghiz’s Liberals, who won 23 seats to the PCs’ 4 and won the popular vote 53% to 41%.

The relative social and political homogeneity of the Island has meant that elections, in terms of seat count, tend to be very lopsided, even if the popular vote has always remained quite close. Governing parties win huge majorities with the opposition being kept to a tiny caucus. The last time the seat count was close was in 1978 (the election split 17-15 between the Liberals and PCs).

Most PEI premiers since Confederation have been unremarkable, with few making a lasting mark by staying in power for a very long period of time or by attaching their names to landmark policies (which have been few in Island politics). Historically, many PEI premiers used the office as a stepping stone in their careers, leaving the job for a judicial appointment or an upgrade to federal politics. In the recent past, the most important PEI premiers have been Liberals Alex Campbell (1966-1978) and Joe Ghiz (1986-1993) and Tory Pat Binns (1996-2007). Alex Campbell supported government intervention in the economy to help diversify PEI’s mainly agricultural economy, and modernized some aspects of Island politics and institutions. Joe Ghiz gained some national notoriety by opposing free trade and supporting the two failed attempts at constitutional reform (Meech and Charlottetown). Pat Binns presided during fairly good economic times.

The provincial Liberals, led by Robert Ghiz – the son of former Premier Joe Ghiz – defeated the PCs in 2007. Remaining fairly popular throughout their first terms, the Liberals were widely expected to win a landslide in the 2011 election. However, the Liberals unexpectedly hit a bump, with a scandal involving the Provincial Nominee Program (PNP). The program allows provinces to nominate foreign nationals for entry to Canada, where they can fill local labour market needs. The PEI PNP program was set up in 2001 but shut down by Ottawa in 2008, after the federal government cracked down on years of irregularities in the province’s administration of the PNP. However, just as the program was about to be shut down, the province rushed through a large number of applications in order to maximize benefit from the embattled program. Immigrants invested their money into PEI businesses in return for immigrant status (for critics, ‘buying their way’ into Canada), but the program spun out of hand and a lot of the investment was pocketed by intermediaries and businesses who had no real relations with the immigrant-investors, while few immigrants actually moved to PEI. Relatives of the Premier, along with cabinet ministers, deputy ministers and several MLAs, benefited financially from the PNP. During the election campaign, the federal government called the RCMP and CBSA to investigate allegations of fraud and bribery in the PEI immigration program. Citizenship and Immigration Canada had received information from three former provincial public servants who claimed that would-be immigrant investors gave senior PEI bureaucrats cash-stuffed envelopes during a meeting in Hong Kong in 2008. Ghiz’s Liberals called the allegations politically motivated, but the opposition PCs went on the offensive in the hopes of shaking the government’s support. The RCMP investigation continued for three years but closed in January 2015 without any charges laid.

The PCs gained 5 points in polls in a month with the scandal, and probably spoiled Ghiz’s hopes of a clean-sweep of all 27 seats. In the end, the Liberals, however, were reelected with a barely reduced majority – 22 seats and 51.4% against 5 seats and 40.2% for the PCs. Once again, the provincial New Democrats or Greens failed to make any breakthroughs, winning 3.2% and 4.4% of the vote respectively.

In its second term, the Liberals have also been mixed up in another major scandal; a complicated e-gaming scheme. A number of islanders, including Ghiz’s close confidantes and the PEI conflict of interest commissioner, invested about $700,000 in a US-based tech firm which wanted to set up global banking platform on the island. The province had been trying to get into the online gambling business for some years, in the hopes of generating millions a year, but faced several thorny legal questions. Although the provincial government axed the e-gaming side of the deal due to legal and technical problems, it remained interested in turning the Island into a financial services hub. In 2012, it signed a MOU with a company which ended up embroiled in a securities investigation some months later. Questions have been raised about the conduct of current and former elected officials and staff.

The Liberals have also been criticized for the government’s poor record on the deficit. Since 2011, the Liberals have announced three successive deficit elimination plans, none of which have seen a successful conclusion. Before the 2011 election, the government announced that it would eliminate the deficit by 2013-14, but after they were reelected, the Liberals announced that the deficit was bigger than expected. In 2012, the government came out with another plan, aiming for a small deficit in 2014-15, instead of balance in 2013-14. The finance minister said increased costs of public pension were having a big impact on the budget. The Liberals’ 2012 plan announced 0% increases in all departmental budgets, with the exception of health (which would get a 3% annual increase), until the budget was balanced. In 2012, the Liberals broke a 2011 campaign promise by introducing the Harmonized Sales Tax (HST) to PEI, an introduction which would not be revenue neutral. Despite the introduction of the HST, the government’s budget presentation in 2013 announced a much larger budget deficit (missing the target by $25 million). The Liberals now aimed for balance in 2015-16. To raise revenues, the Liberals increased taxes on gas (by 9 cents) and adult clothing, previously exempt from the provincial sales tax. The limits on government spending also meant important cuts in post-secondary education.

2015 election: Campaign and issues

Premier Robert Ghiz somewhat unexpectedly announced his pending resignation as Premier in November 2014, the day after his government opened a new session of the legislature with a Speech from the Throne. In February 2015, the PEI Liberals acclaimed Wade MacLauchlan, the 60/61-year old former president of the University of Prince Edward Island (1996-2011), who is also openly gay (somewhat notable, perhaps, for a traditionalist and conservative province like PEI). None of the senior cabinet ministers in Ghiz’s cabinet stepped up, but instead they all lined up behind MacLauchlan, who ended up as the sole candidate in the race. MacLauchlan was a successful president at UPEI, but is a political rookie. Upon his selection as Premier, MacLauchlan introduced new conflict of interest regulations for politicians and signalled that he’d like the Auditor General to look into the e-gaming scandal. As an outs

PEI last voted in October 2011, and PEI’s fixed election dates law mandates that the next election should have been held on the first Monday of October. However, the newly-elected Premier was eager to seek a mandate from Islanders – and take on the opposition parties, especially the PCs, before they were quite ready – so he dropped the writ for an election on May 4.

Indeed, the PEI PCs went through a deeply chaotic period in 2013. Olive Crane, the PCs’ leader in the 2011 election, stayed on after the election defeat, but her party performed poorly in polls, which showed very high levels of support for the PEI NDP, up to 22% in December 2012 (just 6 points behind the PCs). In December 2012, she survived a leadership review but got a very poor result, which led to her resignation as Leader of the Opposition and PC leader in January 2013. The 5-member PC caucus elected Hal Perry, the MLA for Tignish-Palmer Road, as Leader of the Opposition. However, the PC party – the caucus and the executive – decided to elect Steven Myers, MLA for Georgetown-St. Peters as interim PC leader. Perry initially announced that he would stay on as opposition leader, but the situation became chaotic and ridiculous: the 5-member PC caucus had one MLA as party leader and another MLA as opposition leader. The Liberal Speaker recognized Perry as opposition leader, which added to the ridiculousness of the situation – the Liberals picking the PC leader for them. However, Perry was soon forced to resign his untenable position and Myers got both jobs, although with limited caucus support. The March 2013 CRA opinion poll showed the PCs, after their leadership troubles, down to disastrous third place with only 16% support against 51% for the Liberals and 26% for the NDP (which won, you’ll recall, all of 3.2% in 2011). The PCs climbed back up to second place with 22% in May 2013, but by August 2013, they had fallen back to third again with 23% against the NDP’s historic 32% and the Liberals’ 42%.

In October, the chaos in PC ranks started anew when the PCs lost two-fifths of their caucus within 48 hours. On October 3, Hal Perry crossed the floor to join the Liberals, officially citing the PCs’ reluctance to criticize the federal Conservatives’ changes to Employment Insurance. On October 4, Myers expelled Olive Crane from the PC caucus for rather long-winded reasons: basically, Crane spoke to the media about Perry’s departure when she wasn’t supposed to according to official PC directives. Crane continued to sit as an independent. The PCs, therefore, were down to 3 MLAs. In November 2013 and February 2014, the CRA polls again showed the PCs languishing in a horrible third with only 17% support while the NDP continued riding high at 26% and 22% support respectively.

The PCs brought forward their leadership convention after the Liberals elected their new leader (on February 21), holding theirs on February 28. In a contested race, the PCs elected outsider Rob Lantz, a Charlottetown city councillor, who defeated James Aylward, the MLA for Stratford-Kinlock who had the backing of interim PC leader Steven Myers and the other sitting PC MLA (Colin LaVie). Polls in 2014 had shown the PCs struggling with poor polling numbers, but pushing their way back into second as the NDP’s remarkable (but unrealistic) momentum wore off. In February of this year, CRA showed the Liberals enjoying very strong support (58%) after MacLauchlan’s coronation with the PCs a poor second (26%) and the NDP in a strong but weaker third (12%).

As usual, the Liberals and the PCs did not differ much on the major issues – healthcare, jobs, economy, education and the like – and mostly had the same positions phrased differently. The PCs mostly focused on change, running on the slogan ‘A New Direction’, and sometimes hitting the Liberals quite hard on ethics issues and promising “major governance reforms to increase accountability, transparency and open government.” The PCs also promise to rebate the 9% provincial portion of the HST on residential electricity and a 20% reduction in copay for seniors’ drugs. Both parties steered clear of the abortion debate – PEI is the only province in Canada where a woman still cannot get a surgical abortion (as there are no abortion providers on the island), instead she must go to Halifax (Nova Scotia). Neither the Liberals or the PCs are interested in opening up abortion services on the Island (although the NDP and the Greens are). Even federal Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, who has famously demanded that his MPs and candidate be prepared to cast pro-choice votes, sidestepped the issue of on-Island abortions when campaigning with MacLauchlan.

The PEI NDP and Greens both made a much stronger run than in any other election in the past. The PEI NDP, the weakest of all provincial New Democrats in the country, peaked at 8.4% of the vote in the 2000 election and won a seat in the Legislative Assembly only once – in 1996 – when then-NDP leader Herb Dickieson was elected in West Point-Bloomfield, a victory owed mostly to local issues at the time. In 2011, the NDP ran only 14 candidates and won 3.2% of the vote; as in 2007, it placed fourth, behind the Greens, who ran 22 candidates and obtained 4.4% of the vote. Both parties went into this election led by new, ambitious leaders. The NDP was led by Michael Redmond, who ran in Montague-Kilmuir against a Liberal incumbent. The Greens were led by Scottish-born dentist and perennial Green candidate Peter Bevan-Baker. The NDP put up a full slate of 27 candidates, while the Greens had 24 candidates. Unlike the NDP, the Greens followed the new federal and provincial Green parties strategy of putting the most resources in the leader’s riding (in this case, Kellys Cross-Cumberland), a strategy which notably saw the New Brunswick Greens elect their leader in a Fredericton riding in last year’s provincial election.

Results and Analysis

Turnout was 85.9%, up 10.5% from the last election, when turnout hit an Island low of 76.2%. Compared to 2011, this election was closer, more disputed, more open-ended (with the NDP and the Greens both making a much stronger run than in any other election).

Liberal 40.83% (-10.55%) winning 18 seats (-4)
PC 37.39% (-2.77%) winning 8 seats (+3)
Green 10.81% (+6.45%) winning 1 seat (+1)
NDP 10.97% (+7.81%) winning 0 seats (nc)

PEI 2015

In one of the most exciting provincial elections in recent PEI political history, the Liberals were – as expected – reelected to a third term majority government, but they suffered significant loses and won a narrow majority with 18 seats out of 27 seats, a loss of 4 seats compared to the 2011 election. While in terms of seats the main beneficiaries of the Liberals’ loses were the opposition Tories, who gained 3 seats and now form a much stronger official opposition caucus of 8 (up from 5 in 2011 and 3 at dissolution), in terms of vote share the PCs did rather poorly as well, losing about 3% of their vote from the 2011 election. That being said, given how terrible the PCs did in opposition and how they managed to climb out of chaos only a few short months ago and elect a permanent leader only two months before the election (after 2 years with an interim leader), they should be pleased with their performance. In fact, the main winners of this election were the third parties – the NDP and the Greens. The Liberals’ 40.8% was the lowest vote share for a winning party in Island history, the Tory vote is the lowest it’s ever been since 1989 and above all the combined Liberal and Tory vote share – 78.22% – is the lowest in Island history.

The NDP and the Greens, together, won an amazing 21.78% of the vote, a remarkable feat in PEI. Naturally, both the NDP and the Greens won their best popular vote results in their (short, especially for the Greens) history, both winning nearly 11% of the vote. The NDP and the Greens’ results show that Islanders were displeased with both Liberals and Tories – one an unpopular governing party with a few ethics problems, the other an uninspiring and bland opposition party – and that some of them, for the first time, looked for an alternative to the two traditional parties in the NDP or the Greens.

However, of the two third parties, the Greens had the better election – even if they placed fourth in vote share, they won a seat, with an astonishing landslide for Green leader Peter Bevan-Baker in his riding of Kellys Cross-Cumberland (23% of all Green votes on the Island were cast for Bevan-Baker!). On the other hand, the NDP won more votes than the Greens and were generally stronger than the Greens in ridings where both parties competed against each other, but the NDP once again fell short of actually winning a seat. NDP leader Michael Redmond had a decent result in Montague-Kilmuir (23%), but he still ended up in third place in that rural Kings County seat which isn’t natural Dipper country; the NDP came within 109 votes in Charlottetown-Lewis Point.

This is very reminiscent of what happened last year in New Brunswick: the NDP stronger than the Greens in terms of votes, but the Greens coming out as the stronger of the two because they managed to elect their leader to the legislature while the NDP remained shut-out. The Greens, as in the federal election (2011), BC (2013) and NB (2014), used the successfully tried-and-tested strategy of dumping their scarce resources on the leader’s seat (or, if not, a limited number of seats, as in BC 2013) and going all-out there. In Canada’s FPTP system which really hurts a party like the Greens, this strategy has proven to be very successful for the Greens. The NDP, in provinces like PEI and NB where it is very weak and has the same FPTP issues as the Greens there, hasn’t really gone for the same strategy as the Greens and they’ve paid the price.

The PCs did best in Kings County/eastern PEI, holding the four seats they were defending there (including retiring ex-PC MLA Olive Crane’s riding) and gaining the marginal riding of Belfast-Murray River from the Liberals. Belfast-Murray River was former PC Premier Pat Binns’ seat, which the Liberals gained in a 2007 by-election (after Binns stepped down after his defeat) during their long honeymoon and held by only 8 votes in the 2011 election. This year’s race, a rematch of the 2011 contest between Liberal MLA Charlie McGeoghegan and PC challenger Darlene Compton, went in the Tories’ favour, who won the seat with a more comfortable margin of 108 votes. The Liberals held Vernon River-Stratford by a tiny margin of only 2 votes for Liberal incumbent Alan McIsaac on election night. After a recount, the result there actually ended up as a perfect tie, and the Liberals only won the seat by coin toss. The Liberals had an easier time in Montague-Kilmuir, winning 41.8% against 31% for the PCs and 23.1% for NDP leader Michael Redmond. Compared to the NDP’s results in surrounding districts (7-9%), this was a strong performance for the NDP, but they still fell short by a good distance.

The PCs also had good results in rural central PEI (Queen’s County), a key swing region where elections are won. The Tories gained Borden-Kinkora, Kensington-Malpeque and Rustico-Emerald from the Liberals (incumbents standing down) – with fairly consequential margins in all three. Liberal leader and Premier Wade MacLauchlan was elected in his riding of York-Oyster Bed, with a 600 vote victory over the Tories (47.7% to 32.9%) while the Liberals also held the Charlottetown suburban districts of Cornwall-Meadowbank (46.3% to 33.8%) and Tracadie-Hillsborough Park (45.7% to 27.8%). However, the Liberals held the other suburban district, West Royalty-Springvale, by only 59 votes against the PCs. In Kellys Cross-Cumberland, a predominantly rural/small town riding on the south-central coast of PEI, Green leader Peter Bevan-Baker saw his hard work pay off, winning in a shocking landslide – a margin of 1,031 votes, taking 54.8% of the vote against only 27.6% for the Liberal incumbent. In fact, Bevan-Baker’s margin of victory (in terms of votes, not percentages), was the largest of any winning candidate on the island!

Of decisive importance to the Liberal victory was Charlottetown – where they won every seat, despite tough challenges in a number of them and loses in most. In Charlottetown-Brighton, one of the key races of the election, Liberal candidate Jordan Brown defeated PC leader Rob Lantz by a 24-vote margin (39% to 38.1%). In Charlottetown-Lewis Point (many students from UPEI live in this district), the Liberals held on despite a tough challenge from the NDP – the NDP lead for a good part of the night, but the advance polls won it for the Liberals, by a thin 109 vote margin (34.3% to 30.7% for the NDP, with 27% for the PCs). The Liberals didn’t sweat as much in Charlottetown-Victoria Park, Charlottetown-Parkdale and Charlottetown-Sherwood. However, the Greens did win some very good results in Charlottetown-Victoria Park (18.8%) and Charlottetown-Parkdale (19.2%), winning a number of polls in both (in the downtown core areas and surrounding areas, with a young population, and gentrified low-income areas)

The Liberals swept western PEI, and won tight but decisive victories in the two districts of Summerside, PEI’s second-largest city. In Summerside-St. Eleanors, the Liberals won by 148 votes against the PCs, while in neighbouring Summerside-Wilmot, Liberal MLA Janice Sherry was reelected with a lead of only 30 votes against the Tories. The Liberals had an easier time in Tyne Valley-Linklater (337 vote victory) and O’Leary-Inverness (247 vote victory), while their incumbents won by big margins in Évangéline-Miscouche (62.6% for Liberal MLA Sonny Gallant in PEI’s Acadian riding), Alberton-Roseville and Tignish-Palmer Road. In the latter, floor crosser incumbent Hal Perry – elected as a Conservative in 2011 but running for reelection as a Liberal this year – was handily reelected, with a 668 vote lead and some 58.2% of the vote.

The Liberals won four districts by less than 100 votes (including one by only 2 votes) – if the PCs had won them, they would have held 12 seats to the Liberals’ 14, a wafer-thin majority for the Liberals. If the Liberals also lost the two other ridings which they won by less than 200 votes, we’d be looking at a Tory minority government and a Legislative Assembly with 13 Tories, 12 Liberals, 1 Dipper and 1 Green.

PEI political history dictates that the Liberals will be defeated as they try to win a fourth term in 2019. In the meantime, however, the PCs – who, in spite of everything, remain the only alternative governing party on the Island – will need to manage their time in opposition far better than they have since 2011. Rob Lantz turned out to be a strong and competent leader on the campaign trail, who managed the PCs well after the chaos of 2013, but unfortunately for them he was narrowly defeated in his own bid to enter the Legislative Assembly, although he will remain (for now) as the PC leader from the outside. The PCs will also need to deal with this potentially tricky situation. As for the third parties, the NDP comes out with a strong showing but also a frustrating and disappointing end result, while the Greens come out with a foothold in the legislature for their amiable and popular leader, and will thus have a stronger voice than the NDP. However, neither the NDP or the Greens can be seen as realistic alternative governing parties for the Island (although this is Canada we’re talking about, and considering I’m about to talk about Alberta’s election…).


All 87 members of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta, the unicameral provincial legislature of the province, were up for reelection. Members – styled MLAs – are elected by FPTP in single-member constituencies (or ridings).


Alberta, located in Western Canada and bordered by British Columbia (to the west, across the Rocky Mountains), Saskatchewan (to the east), the United States (to the south) and the territories (to the north), is Canada’s fourth-most populous province – after Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia. According to the 2011 Census, Alberta had a population of 3,645,257 while the latest population estimates for the first quarter of 2015 pegged Alberta’s population at 4,160,044 – or 11.7% of the total Canadian population. Between 2006 and 2011 and again between 2011 and 2014, Alberta had the second highest population growth rate of any jurisdiction in Canada – +10.8% from 2006 to 2011 (only Yukon had higher growth) and +13.7% from 2011 to 2014 (only Nunavut had higher growth). In the past 100 and 50 years, mainly because of its burgeoning economy, Alberta’s population has grown dramatically – in 1911, Alberta’s population was a mere 374,295 and in 1966, Alberta’s population was 1,463,203.

The Albertan population is one of the most mobile in the country: in 2011, 44.9% of Albertans lived at a different address than they did 5 years ago, compared to 38.6% of Canadians. 6.5% of Albertans in 2011 were interprovincial migrants (lived in a different province 5 years before), compared to only 2.8% of the Canadian population in 2011. Alberta’s strong economy and employment opportunities have famously attracted Canadians from other provinces, most notably the Atlantic provinces. Only 53.6% of the population in 2011 was actually born in Alberta, compared to two-thirds of Canadians who were born in the same province that they resided in.

Alberta has two major cities, Calgary and Edmonton. In 2011, the Calgary CMA had a population of 1,214,839 while the Edmonton CMA had a population of 1,159,869 – taken together, 65% of Alberta’s population in 2011 lived in these two metropolitan areas, which have also seen rapid population growth throughout the 20th century and particularly in the last 10-15 years. The relatively equal weight of the two cities has produced a lasting political, economic and sports rivalry between them, with began when Edmonton was selected as the provincial capital over Calgary in 1905. Other large cities in Alberta include Red Deer (90,564) in the Calgary-Edmonton corridor, Lethbridge (83,517) in southern Alberta, St. Albert (61,466) in the Edmonton CMA, the oil boom town of Fort McMurray (61,374) in northeastern Alberta, Medicine Hat (60,005) in southeastern Alberta and Grande Prairie (55,032) in northwestern Alberta.

Compared to the rest of the country, while Alberta is aging it has of the youngest populations in Canada – in 2011, the lowest median age (36.5) and the lowest percentage of the population aged 65+ (11.1%).

Alberta is Canada’s third largest economy, contributing 17.9% of the national GDP. The province’s economy is famously driven by oil – Canada is now the world’s fifth largest producer of oil, and Alberta is the largest producer of conventional crude oil, synthetic crude and natural gas in the country. More importantly, Alberta has the largest reserves of unconventional oil in the world – in the form of the oil sands (or tar sands), found mostly in the Athabasca region in northeastern Alberta. Oil sands now account for the vast majority of Canada’s rapidly increasing oil production: of the 173 billion barrels of oil that can be recovered with today’s technology, 168 billion of those are found in the oil sands (giving Canada the third largest proven crude oil reserves in the world). Conventional oil production in Alberta began in earnest in 1947, a date which marks the beginning of the oil era in Alberta’s economy. Because of the high cost of developing the oil sands and the difficulty of extraction (today, most oil sands extraction in Canada require advanced in situ technologies in most cases), commercial production has only become viable when the price of oil is high. Commercial production of oil from the Athabasca oil sands only began in 1967, but only took off with rising oil prices since the late 1990s and early 2000s. Since the 1960s, Alberta’s economy has followed the oil cycle, doing well when oil prices have been high but struggling when oil prices fall. Therefore, Alberta’s economy was doing very well between the late 1990s until 2008.

Alberta has the highest GDP per capita of any province ($84,390) – only the Northwest Territories, with a far smaller population and due to its booming diamond mining industry, has a higher GDP per capita in Canada. Moreover, its median household income in 2011 ($78,632) was the highest of any province, significantly higher than the national median HH income ($61,072). Calgary and Edmonton are two of the most affluent metro areas in the country, along with Ottawa-Gatineau.

60% of Albertans, in 2011, fell in the higher half of the Canadian population (by income decile), with 17% in the highest decile. 10.7% were classified as low income (after-tax), compared to 14.9% of all Canadians. 92.7% of incomes in 2010 came from market income, the highest of any jurisdiction in Canada, and only 7.3% came from government transfer payments. In April 2015, Alberta’s unemployment rate – 5.5% – was below the national average (6.8%), tied with Manitoba for the second lowest unemployment rate behind Saskatchewan. Although low compared to other provinces, Alberta’s unemployment rate has been increasing in the last few months and is quite a bit higher than what it used to be during pre-recession boom days – in 2006, for example, unemployment was as low as 3% in the province. In March 2015, 38,750 people received regular Employment Insurance (EI) benefits in Alberta, up 24.7% on the previous year (by comparison, the number of beneficiaries rose by 0.5% in Canada over the same period).

Alberta has always been an export-oriented economy, but the economy has changed substantially as different export commodities have risen or fallen in importance. Over the province’s history, the most important products have been fur, wheat and beef and oil and gas. With the expansion of the railway to Western Canada in the late 19th century, commercial farming – mostly wheat farming – became viable and replaced fur trading as Alberta’s main industry. Agriculture dominated the Albertan economy from around the time it joined Confederation in 1905 until the expansion of the oil and gas industry in the 1950s. Naturally, the changing nature of the Albertan economy has had major impacts on Albertan society, culture and politics. Various authors, for example, have explained Alberta’s unique political culture partly in terms of believed shared interest in a single dominant commodity (Gurston Duck’s ‘Alberta consensus’ theory) or supposed class homogeneity (C.B. Macpherson’s Democracy in Alberta).

In 2014, mining, quarrying and oil and gas extraction contributed the largest share – 27.4% – of Alberta’s GDP, followed at some distance by construction (10.7%) and real estate (9.5%). The top industries in terms of employment in 2011 were elementary and secondary schools (4.1%), hospitals (3.5%) – like across Canada – but 3.3% were directly employed in oil and gas extraction and another 2.9% in support activities for oil and gas extraction, making them the third and fourth most important industries in Alberta, whereas they only rank 55th and 49th nationally. An above average percentage, compared to Canada as a whole, were also employed in architectural, engineering and related services (2.8%) and farms (2.7%). Using NAICS industries, the largest general industries in 2014 were construction (11.3%), health care and social assistance (10.6% of the labour force), retail trade (10.3% of the labour force) and professional, scientific and technical services (8.1%). Compared to Canada as a whole, a large percentage, unsurprisingly, were employed in mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction (7.7%; 1.7% in Canada); vice versa, manufacturing and public administration were less significant employers than in the wider country.

In 2011, the most common occupations (NOC) were sales and services (20.7%), trades transport and equipment operators (17.4%), business finance and administrative occupations (16.4%) and management occupations (11.7%).

As with all of Western Canada outside of Manitoba, in terms of official languages, Alberta is overwhelmingly Anglophone: in 2011. 77% reported English as their sole mother tongue and only 1.9% reported French as their sole mother tongue; 92% spoke only English and 85.7% spoke English most often at home. The town of St. Paul, first settled by French missionary activity, has the largest French-speaking population Alberta, making up 15% of that town’s population. While Alberta’s Francophone population is very small, it has a growing immigrant population who speak a non-official language as their mother tongue (19.4%) and at home (10.5%).

18.4% of the population in 2011 were visible minorities, only slightly less than the national average; the largest visible minority groups in Alberta were South Asians (4.4%; mostly Punjabi), Chinese (3.7%), blacks (2.1%) and Filipinos (3% – significantly above the Canadian average). Nearly 11% of all immigrants in Alberta were born in the Philippines and Tagalog had become the third biggest non-English mother tongue in the province after German and French, a sharp increase on 2001 and 2006. Visible minorities make up 22% of the population in Edmonton and 28% in Calgary.

Alberta’s white population is also very diverse in terms of ancestry. The most common ethnic origin in 2011 was English (24.9%), a percentage significantly higher than the Canadian average, followed by ‘Canadian’ (21.8% – over 10% below national average), German (19.2% – nearly 10% above the Canadian average), Scottish (18.8% – also above average), Irish (15.8%), French (11.1%), Ukrainian (9.7%) and Dutch (5.1%). Alberta, like other Western provinces, sticks out by its large proportion of Ukrainians (who make up only 3.8% of the Canadian population), Dutch and Scandinavians. The federal Liberal government under the direction of Minister of the Interior Clifford Sifton (1896-1905) allowed for non-British white European immigration to settle Western Canada, the ‘Last Best West’ in the 1890s following the closing of the American frontier. Ukrainians and others mostly settled in ‘ethnic block settlements’, many of them in northern Alberta.

The closing of the American frontier also led to significant American immigration from the United States – English-stock Americans, Canadians who had moved to the US but returned north, European-stock immigrants to the US. In 1916, Americans accounted for 36% of all foreign-born residents of Alberta (and 30% of those in Saskatchewan, but only 8% of those in Manitoba – far more influenced by English Ontarian settlement). Americans mostly settled in rural southern Alberta, while the cities – Calgary and Edmonton – were mostly settled by British immigrants; American immigrants tended to be farmers looking for land in Canada, while British immigrants tended to be workers and/or urban-dwellers. Nelson Wiseman (2011) showed how American immigrants to Alberta have had a significant impact on the province’s political culture, especially in its infancy years.

Alberta is contradictory in religious terms. Evangelical Christianity is important and has played a significant role in its politics, but Alberta is the second-most non-religious province in Canada after BC, with 31.6% of Albertans in 2011 not reporting a religious affiliation compared to 24% of Canadians. 60.3% are Christians, divided between 24% of Catholics, 7.5% of UCC adherents, 3.9% of Anglicans, 3.3% of Lutherans and a large percentage identified as ‘other Christian’ (15.2%). Alberta has Canada’s only significant Mormon population, around Cardston in southern Alberta, who are mostly descended from pioneers who emigrated from Utah. There are also significant numbers of Mennonites, Hutterites, Seventh-day Adventists and evangelical Protestant denominations. The ‘other Christian’ grouping likely includes non-negligible numbers of Eastern Rite Churches – Ukrainian Catholics, Ukrainian Orthodox etc.

There is also a significant Aboriginal population in Alberta – in 2011, 6.2% of residents claimed Aboriginal ancestry, which is higher than the national average (4.3%); most of them being First Nation (3.3%, Cree being the most important tribal group) and Métis (2.7%).

Political history

Alberta has a unique and distinctive political culture and history which sets it apart from the rest of Canada and has generated loads of academic debate. The province is most notable for its dynastic politics – up until this election, four parties have ruled Alberta, each for fairly long period of times: the Liberal Party (1905-1921), the United Farmers (1921-1935), Social Credit (1935-1971) and the Progressive Conservatives (since 1971). There have been no one-term governments (in fact, no government has served less than 3 terms) or minority governments in Alberta. No party which has lost power has ever regained power – in fact, of the three former governing parties, two of them (the UFA and SoCred) basically died out only a few years after their defeat. It can be said that Alberta has had a dominant-party system since entering Confederation in 1905.

C.B. Macpherson (1953)’s Democracy in Alberta described Alberta as having a unique ‘quasi-party system’ – incorporating elements of an ordinary party system, a nonparty system and a one-party system while having significant differences with all of them. In his Marxist analysis, Alberta’s party system was the result of its purported ‘relatively homogeneous class composition’ as an agrarian petit bourgeois society and its quasi-colonial relationship with central Canada. However, Alberta’s party system has never been so unique: large legislative majorities for governing parties are the products of FPTP, there has never been political unanimity in Alberta, political longevity in Canadian politics is by no means limited to Alberta and the dramatic rise of the UFA and SoCred is not particularly unusual in Canada’s political system prone to large swings. Furthermore, Alberta could never have been described as a ‘relatively homogeneous’ agrarian petit bourgeois society – not even in the 1930s, and certainly not by the 1950s. The argument about the West’s ‘quasi-colonial’ relationship with central Canada is more valid, and ‘Western alienation’ has been a major theme in Alberta politics – past, present and future. However, while Albertan governments since 1921 have made use of Western alienation, it was never SoCreds or the PCs’ raison d’être.

More recently, Nelson Wiseman (2011) described Alberta as having a distinctive ‘liberal-individualist populist’ ideological orientation, which he argues is the result of American immigration to Alberta. While Alberta has undeniably been influenced by the general political culture of English Canada, and in general Albertans do not differ as much in their political views as is often imagined, some characteristics of America’s classical liberal ideology – rugged individualism, free market capitalism, egalitarianism and hostility towards centralized federalism – have been important in Alberta’s political culture. At the same time, Alberta has been less influenced by the central Canadian/British traditions of Toryism and later socialism, especially in comparison to Manitoba – a province built firstly by Ontarian settlers, unlike Alberta, a province built by the quasi-simultaneous immigration of a large array of ethnic groups. Nelson Wiseman argues that American immigrants to Alberta (who were mostly of English, rather than European, descent, and thus of higher social status) at the turn of the last century shaped early Alberta’s political culture – particularly its liberal, individualist and populist streak. The American influence was particularly strong in the 1920s agrarian movement in Alberta, the UFA. Henry Wise Wood, the president of the UFA from 1916 to 1931 (and the éminence grise behind the UFA in government), was born in Missouri and active in the US Populist movement in the late 19th century before moving to Canada at age 45. The Non-Partisan League from North Dakota expanded into Canada, but was only somewhat successful in Alberta, and was absorbed by the UFA in 1919. The UFA’s ideas were influenced by the American populist and progressive movements – direct democracy, proportional representation, monetary reform –  which were anathema to central Canadian (and Manitoban) Tories and Grits alike. The difference could be seen within the Canadian progressive movement – Thomas Crerar’s Manitoba Progressives were former Liberals who wanted to ‘moralize’ the federal Liberals and supported the Westminster parliamentary system, the Albertans were more radical populists who rejected the party system and the parliamentary system. Geographically, the UFA and later SoCred performed best in rural southern Alberta, the region most heavily settled by Americans, while Edmonton and especially Calgary – mostly settled by the British – resisted these two movements, preferring the traditional parties and later the socialist movement (mostly built by Scottish and English immigrants in the British Fabian tradition).

The SoCred movement was also heavily influenced by evangelical Christianity (and not the Canadian social gospel of the CCF/NDP), and Mormons were important in the party – Solon Low, the SoCred federal leader from 1944 to 1961, was a Mormon. Although both the UFA and SoCred were populist movements hostile to big business and finance, and the UFA had collectivist ideas, both were – on the whole – liberal and individualist movements. Certainly SoCred, under Ernest Manning, became a socially conservative party hostile to big government and socialism. In more recent years, Wiseman pointed to the Reform Party/Canadian Alliance as influenced by modern American conservatism and the Republican Party. In the 1990s, the so-called ‘Calgary School’ group of conservative academics – including American-born Tom Flanagan and Ted Morton, among others (including Stephen Harper, active in the late 1990s in conservative academia) – expressed a low-tax, small government, anti-centralized government, free-market libertarian/conservative ideology quite similar to American conservatism.

Certainly, Alberta’s ‘liberal-individualist populism’ – if you accept that label to be an accurate descriptor of Alberta’s political culture – sets it apart from eastern and central English Canada, but also neighbouring Saskatchewan – the cradle of agrarian socialism, the first socialist government in North America in 1944 and what Wiseman described as a more collectivist populism.

Liberal era (1905-1921)

Alberta was created as a province, alongside Saskatchewan, out of the Northwest Territories in 1905. Under the terms of the Act which brought Alberta into Confederation, the federal government would retain ownership over natural resources and imposed requirements for separate schools, two terms which were already highly controversial in 1905 and became even more contentious in later years. The federal Liberal government of Wilfrid Laurier, as expected, selected a Liberal as Alberta’s first lieutenant-governor, who in turn appointed a Liberal as the first Premier of the province – Alexander Rutherford. The dominant figure of Northwest Territories politics and leading lobbyist for provincial status (although one instead of two provinces), Frederick W.A.G. Haultain, was ‘snubbed’ because he was a Conservative. Although elected from Alberta, Haultain opted to lead the opposition to the Liberals in Saskatchewan rather than Alberta. Therefore, in Alberta, Rutherford’s Liberals, with the benefits of incumbency (patronage) and attacking R.B. Bennett’s Conservatives for their ties to the widely disliked Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), were returned in a landslide with 22 seats to the Conservatives’ 3.

Rutherford set up the main provincial institutions and, despite the Liberals’ usual aversion to government interventionism, made some large-scale forays into telecommunications by investing in a public telephone system and offering loan guarantees to several companies in exchange for commitments to build railway lines. Although disinterested by labour issues, the government intervened to moderate a major labour dispute in the coal mines in 1907, by setting up a commission and legislating a eight-hour day and workers’ compensation. Early in the government, Rutherford alienated Calgary by selecting Edmonton as the provincial capital and added to injury by later ensuring that the new University of Alberta would be in Edmonton (Strathcona). The popularity of the Liberals’ public telephone system carried them to an increased majority in 1909.

However, Rutherford began facing inconvenient questioning from a Liberal backbencher over very generous loan guarantees given to a railway company it knew little about and which had fulfilled virtually none of its promises regarding construction of the railway. The Conservative opposition accused the government of culpable negligence in failing to properly oversee the company’s activities. Bennett claimed that due to the discrepancy in the sale price of the bonds and what the government had received for them meant that the company had made a profit of $200,000-300,000 at the government’s expense. The scandal divided the government – the public works minister resigned as the scandal broke because of his disagreements with Rutherford – and the Liberal caucus. A number of Liberal MLAs voted in favour of a motion of no-confidence. Rutherford failed to quell the controversy with the appointment of a royal commission; the federal Liberal government and the lieutenant-governor intervene to force Rutherford to resign, which he reluctantly did in May 1910. He was replaced by Arthur Sifton, the former provincial chief justice, who had a veneer of impartiality and probity. Sifton repudiated Rutherford’s railway policy, in part, by passing legislation to confiscate the proceeds of the sale of government-guaranteed bonds sold to finance the controversial railway’s construction.

Sifton tried to restore party unity, but Rutherford stayed on as a backbencher critical of his successor. In the 1913 election, although renominated as a Liberal in his Edmonton riding, Rutherford effectively rejected the party label at his nomination meeting and even offered to campaign for the Conservatives (who rejected his offer, ran a candidate against him who ultimately defeated him). Sifton’s Liberals were reelected in 1913 but with a significantly reduced majority, while the Conservatives formed a strong opposition force with 17 MLAs against 38 for the Liberals.

Sifton’s tenure as Premier corresponded to the rise of the United Farmers of Alberta (UFA), which was still a farmers’ lobby group, although one with a very large membership and thus a force to be reckoned with. Sifton’s policies were increasingly driven by the UFA. Responding to UFA demands, he built agricultural colleges, allowed municipalities to levy property taxes (and required that rural municipalities tax only land), scrapped plans to privatize hail insurance and incorporated the Alberta Farmers’ Co-operative Elevator Company – a farmer-owned grain elevator company. The UFA also supported political reform – direct democracy, recall, women’s suffrage, so they influenced the Liberal government to pass a ‘direct democracy act’ (1913) which allowed for voters to call a referendum directly by submitting a petition including the names of eligible voters representing 10% of votes cast in the previous general election (and at least 8% in each of the provincial ridings), so a very high number of signatures. The law did not allow for recalls, as the UFA supported. One of the issues which did gather enough signatures for a citizen-initiated referendum was prohibition, which was voted on in 1915 and passed by a wide margin (61% yes) leading to the introduction of prohibition legislation in 1916. Sifton dragged his feet on women’s suffrage and made ridiculously sexist comments on the topic, but feeling pressure from women’s groups and the UFA, he committed to a debate on the issue and women gained the right to vote in 1916.

The Liberals were reelected in 1917, in the midst of World War I and the conscription debate in Canada. The election was fairly low-key – under an amendment to the election law, incumbent members who had signed up for war service were automatically reelected by acclamation (7 Liberals and 5 Tories were reelected this year). Overall, the Liberals won a reduced majority, with 34 seats against 19 for the Conservatives. The election saw competition from the Non-Partisan League (NPL), which originated in North Dakota and called for a ‘business administration’ and the election of a ‘truly people’s party’ rather than a traditional ‘party administration’ – a characteristically non/anti-partisan, grassroots populist discourse later adopted by the Canadian/Albertan agrarian progressive movement. Two NPL candidates were elected, while a Labor candidate was also elected from Calgary. The Albertan labour movement was led by Scottish-born William Irvine, a follower of the social gospel and later an advocate of UFA political participation. Sifton, however, resigned shortly after his reelection to serve as a cabinet minister in Prime Minister Robert Borden’s wartime pro-conscription Unionist government.

The conscription crisis divided Canada and the Alberta Liberals. While most Alberta Liberals backed Borden’s Tories in his pro-conscription coalition government, a significant number of them remained loyal to Laurier’s anti-conscription Liberals. Sifton was replaced as Premier by Charles Stewart, who also supported conscription.

Stewart continued to deal with the UFA, on issues like irrigation and a stillborn committee to look into proportional representation, but relations soured as the UFA had less success in driving the Liberal agenda during World War I.

United Farmers era (1921-1935)

Across Canada, farmers movements like the UFA hotly debated whether or not they should participate in politics and contest elections themselves. Western farmers had several reasons to be unhappy with the Canadian political system and the two major political parties. The National Policy, which imposed high tariffs on the import of manufacturing goods to protect central Canadian industries, was forcing Western farmers to sell their agricultural products at lower prices, and buy farm equipment and manufactures from central Canada at higher prices. At the federal level, low tariffs or free trade were the farmers’ main demand. Other complaints included the CPR high rates and the behaviour of private grain traders. Farmers grew to resent both the Liberals and Conservatives as corrupt central Canadian parties, which did not represent them or their interests – something which became especially true when the Liberals lost their enthusiasm for free trade after the defeat of reciprocity in 1911. In Alberta, UFA leader Henry Wise Wood believed that the UFA should exist only as a farmers’ interests organization om the principle of ‘group government’ – where government would function through the representation of major groups in society with direct democracy. The UFA distrusted traditional parties in part because they aggregate interests, dominated by elite powers who had no interest in extending democracy. The pressure from the NPL in the 1917 election and after the NPL merged with the UFA in 1919, led the UFA to reluctantly allow candidates to run in elections although ultimately leaving that decision in the hands of local branches. The UFA had a vast network of branches throughout the province, a sort of proto-constituency associations. In 1919, the UFA won a by-election in Cochrane from the Liberals, an event which marked the end of the fuzzy UFA-Liberal détente and the beginning of the UFA’s rapid ascent to power. The former leader of the Conservative Party, hitherto the main opposition to the Liberals, crossed the floor to join the UFA in 1920 and created a major split in Tory ranks which would cripple them for years to come. Ironically, Stewart was a member of the UFA and broadly sympathized with the UFA’s aims (and Stewart was fairly well regarded by the UFA leadership), but he opposed the UFA’s political vision and its political participation.

Provincial elections were held in July 1921. Just before the election, the Liberals were hit by a scandal, in which it was learned that the government spent money to have telephone poles crated and shipped in big stacks to remote communities in which they had no intention of installing phone lines in an effort to win support. The 1921 campaign was rather peculiar by any standards. The UFA ran candidates in only 45 of the 61 ridings – most notably, they ran no candidates in Calgary (which now elected five members using block voting) and only one candidate in Edmonton (which now elected five members using block voting), they had no leader (Henry Wise Wood did not run in the election, and neither did the man who would eventually become Premier) and had little in the way of a proper platform (besides opposing ‘partyism’, caucus secrecy and cabinet domination favouring instead direct democracy). Nevertheless, the United Farmers swept the province, winning 38 seats to the Liberals’ 15. The Tories were crushed, holding on to just one seat, while 3 independent and 4 Dominion Labor candidates were returned. In the popular vote, the Liberals won more votes than the UFA, 34.1% to 28.9%, but because the three main cities (Calgary, Edmonton, Medicine Hat) elected members by block voting in multi-member ridings, voters there had up to 5 votes (in Calgary and Edmonton) while rural voters had only one vote in FPTP single-member districts. The UFA also ran less candidates than the Liberals – overall, all but 7 of the 45 UFA candidates won, while 46 of the Liberals’ 61 candidates lost. A few months later, the Progressives/UFA won 10 of the 12 federal seats in Alberta in the 1921 federal election. Both the Tories and the Grits were shut out.

Henry Wise Wood, the president of the UFA, declined becoming Premier, preferring to operate the UFA machinery and the movement. The UFA settled on Herbert Greenfield, the UFA vice-president and an English-born farmer who reluctantly agreed to take the job. Greenfield was not a politician and had troubles controlling his caucus, which included a large number of radical backbenchers who opposed the parliamentary system. In early caucus meetings, Greenfield was challenged to include several Liberals in his cabinet, lest the UFA was to become like other political parties and in a naive hope of encourage sufficient cooperation to kill off notions of an ‘official opposition’. In handling the restless UFA backbenchers, Greenfield turned to his Attorney General, John E. Brownlee, an Ontarian-born lawyer and the UFA’s former solicitor. Brownlee would quickly rise to prominence because of his legal acumen and become the de facto leader of the government. Brownlee provided Greenfield with invaluable support and counsel, and the government relied on him in the legislature, where the Liberals formed a strong opposition. Brownlee led the UFA’s conservative faction – that is to say, the more traditionalist moderates who urged the UFA to reconcile with parliamentary government and tempered the more radical ideas of the backbenchers (like passing a motion which declared that only motions explicitly declaring a lack of confidence in the government should be treated as confidence votes, or the creation of a provincial bank). Brownlee also pushed for fiscal conservatism, advocating for deep spending cuts to reduce the large budget deficit.

Brownlee played a leading role in most of the first UFA government’s main initiatives. On agricultural issues, Brownlee pushed passage of legislation which created a drought relief commission to help indebted and drought-stricken southern Alberta farmers manage their debts with lenders. He played a central role in the creation of the Alberta Wheat Pool in 1923. For years, Western farmers had protested the private grain trade, as they suspected grain traders of being middle men who profited by leeching off the efforts of farmers and believed that they were artificially holding down prices. Wheat pools, farmer-owned cooperatives, purchased the grain and then sold the grain, and all farmers received the same price. Brownlee was also Alberta’s chief negotiator in talks with Ottawa to win control of natural resources from the federal government; for most of the decade, these talks with the federal Liberal government of William Lyon Mackenzie King drew out with no resolution, perhaps due to the pressure from the provincial Liberals, who didn’t want to let the UFA walk away with such a major political victory. As Attorney General, Brownlee was also in charge of enforcing prohibition, which became increasingly unpopular in 1922/1923 after the murder of three policemen by bootleggers. Although the UFA supported prohibition, it was forced to admit that it was unenforceable due to rising public opposition, and a plebiscite was held on the issue in 1923. Voters rejected prohibition in favour of the government sale of all liquors.

By 1925, Greenfield was widely seen as weak and indecisive, while UFA MLAs found his reliance on Brownlee to be embarrassing. Many assumed that, led by Greenfield, the UFA would lose the next election; the provincial Liberals had confidently predicted that they would win back power in the next election. In 1924, Brownlee had rejected an offer from rebel MLAs to replace Greenfield as premier, but in November 1925, Brownlee was persuaded by Henry Wise Wood to accept the office if Greenfield was to relinquish it voluntarily. Greenfield had never wanted to be premier, so he gladly stepped aside for Brownlee. An election was held in June 1926, and the UFA was reelected with an increased majority over a poor Liberal and Tory opposition. Of the UFA’s 46 candidates in the province, only three did not win their seats, giving 43 out of 60 seats to the UFA against 7 for the Liberals, 6 for labour candidates and 4 Tories. The UFA won a seat in Edmonton. The election was the first Albertan election fought using a different electoral system – STV in multi-member Calgary and Edmonton, and IRV (optional counting) in the rest of the province.

Brownlee’s first term government was largely successful. The government had tried to divest itself of money-losing railways under Greenfield’s premiership, but attempts to sell them to the Canadian Pacific (CPR) and Canadian National (CN) failed at the time and the railways continued draining the provincial budget. In 1928, after they began showing a profit, Alberta was able to sell the remaining lines to the CPR. The budget situation was also solid: Alberta recorded a surplus in 1925 and 1926. Brownlee’s rigid fiscal conservatism irked radicals in the party, and he was not keen on increased spending on new social programs or on social programs altogether. His ‘scrooge’ reputation would come to hurt his popularity later on.

However, his government also passed the Sexual Sterilization Act of Alberta in 1928, which created the Alberta Eugenics Board, whose role was to review and mandate the sterilization of any mentally disabled psychiatric patient (if there was unanimity among board members and permission of the patient/nearest relative). The law remained in place under Social Credit (which even facilitated its application), and was only repealed by the Conservatives in 1972. Between 1929 and 1972, 4,785 cases were presented to the Alberta Eugenics Board, and 99% of these cases were approved, resulting in the sterilization of 2,832 children and adults in the province. At the time, however, eugenics were supported by progressive moral reformers like early feminist Nellie McClung, socialist leader J.S. Woodsworth and the UFA’s women’s league.

Negotiations with Ottawa over provincial control of natural resources continued; the two sides came close to an agreement in 1926, but Alberta disagreed with Ottawa’s inclusion of an amendment which required the province to continue supporting separate schools, and the issue remained a point of contention which blocked any final agreement until 1929. That year, both King and Brownlee came to an agreement in December 1929. Alberta would receive an annual subsidy in perpetuity, the amount of which would increase as the province’s population grew. The federal-provincial agreement was a major victory for Brownlee, who had succeeded where all his predecessors had failed, and he was hailed as hero in Alberta.

In 1930, despite the onset of the Great Depression, the government was still surfing on the popularity of the resource transfer agreement and the UFA was easily reelected to another majority government – although with a slightly reduced majority, with 39 seats out of 63 (and 47 candidates) against 11 for the Liberals, 6 for the Conservatives and 4 for Dominion Labor.

Brownlee’s second term was characterized by the collapse of the government, the UFA and the rise of a new populist political movement which would replace the UFA as Alberta’s next political dynasty in 1935.

The Great Depression saw wheat prices tumble from $1.78 per bushel in 1929 to $0.45 per bushel by the end of 1930, causing severe economic hardships for most farmers. Banks denied credit to farmers, while Brownlee was unwilling to provide loan guarantees, concerned that such guarantees would encourage lenders to offer loans at high interest rates knowing that the province would repay them if the farmers did not. The government’s cautious measures had some minor successes, but the lack of decisive legislation alienated many farmers. The collapse in prices also bankrupted the Alberta Wheat Pool, which in 1930 was selling wheat at a price well below the $1 per bushel it guaranteed to its farmers. The Alberta Wheat Pool became reliant on provincial support. In the cities, unemployment reached record levels, a situation only exacerbated by farmers’ sons moving to the cities in desperate need of work. Provincial finances deteriorated, and Brownlee adopted severe austerity measures to cut spending – closing all but two of the agricultural colleges, disbanding the provincial police force, shrinking the civil service, cutting government spending and pay cuts for most government employees. The government also increased taxes, and was reluctant to provide relief to unemployed men.

Labour militancy and political radicalism increased during the Depression years, which worried the conservative Brownlee. The socialist Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), the forerunner to the modern NDP, was founded in Calgary in 1932. Many UFA members joined the CCF, but Brownlee saw the CCF as dangerously socialist. The UFA base drifted further away from the government: in 1931, Brownlee’s key ally Henry Wise Wood was replaced as UFA president by MP Robert Gardiner, who moved the UFA sharply to the left and was critical of Brownlee. Gardiner advocated for nationalizations, the cancellation of interest payments and concluded that the monetary system had failed.

As if it was not enough, Brownlee was brought down by a sex scandal in 1934. Brownlee was accused of seducing Vivian MacMillan, a family friend and a secretary for Brownlee’s attorney general in 1930 (when the girl was 18) and continuing the affair for 3 years. MacMillan claimed that Brownlee had seduced her and told her that she must have sex with him for his sake and that of his invalid wife, and that she had relented after physical and emotional pressure. Brownlee denied the charges and claimed that he was the victim of a conspiracy by MacMillan, her new would-be fiancé and the provincial Liberals. MacMillan and her father sued the Premier for seduction. In July 1934, despite discrepancies in MacMillan’s story, the jury found that Brownlee had seduced her in 1930 and that both she and her father had suffered damages in the amounts claimed. The presiding judge, however, disagreed and overturned the jury’s verdict. In February 1935, the Alberta Supreme Court appeals division upheld the court’s ruling. However, on appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada, the provincial court’s decision was overturned in March 1937 and the SCC ordered Brownlee to pay $10,000 in damages to MacMillan, plus trial costs. Although Brownlee settled with MacMillan, he sought to clear his name and obtained leave from the federal government to appeal to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, at the time Canada’s highest court of appeal. In March 1940, the committee denied Brownlee’s appeal and endorsed the SCC’s decision.

However, as soon as the jury found that Brownlee had seduced Vivian MacMillan, he recognized that his political career was over and resigned as Premier. He was succeeded on July 10, 1934 by Richard Gavin Reid, the conservative provincial treasurer. Although Reid did take some policy initiatives, the government was very weak. It found itself at odds with the UFA’s membership, and was forced to deal with a serious and dangerous threat: social credit.

Social Credit era (1935-1971)

William “Bible Bill” Aberhart was born in Ontario in 1878 and moved to Calgary in 1910, where he worked as a school principal, a job he held until 1935. He was an able, competent, intelligent and generally respected principal, although he was inflexible and fairly authoritarian. Aberhart was intensely religious, an evangelical Christian who believed in the literal meaning of the Bible. In Calgary, he began preaching at a Baptist church but by 1918 he had established an inter-denominational Bible study group which grew in size. In 1924, Aberhart agreed to do weekly religious radio broadcasts, which carried his voice across the Canadian Prairies and even into the United States. He was a charismatic man, a great story-teller who captivated his listeners. He took little interests in politics until 1932, when he stumbled across the writings of Major C.H. Douglas, a British engineer who had written on the theory of social credit.

Douglas saw that the sums paid out in salaries, wages and dividends were almost always less than the total costs of goods and services produced, and therefore wanted to bring purchasing power in line with production. He therefore proposed to create a national dividend, providing debt-free credit to all citizens over and above their earnings to help bridge the gap between purchasing power and prices; and a price adjustment mechanism, which would forestall inflation and reduce prices by a percentage that reflected the physical efficiency of the production system. The social credit theory’s view of history also included a very heavy dose of crude anti-Semitism: it viewed history in terms of a long-existing Jewish plot to dominate the world. Unlike the UFA, social credit had no time for direct democracy: Douglas’s political theories were extremely authoritarian, calling for representatives to limit their role to consideration of objectives while technocrats would handle the rest. It is unlikely that Aberhart ever fully understood Douglas’ economies theories, and the two men did not like each other much. Aberhart mixed Douglas’ monetary theories with a heavy dose of Christian fundamentalism and meaningless slogans about ‘individual enterprise’ and freedom.

Aberhart’s social credit was centred around the issuance of a monthly $25 ‘basic dividend’ to all Albertans to cover basic necessities – clothing, food, housing – distributed in the form of credit rather than cash. A commission of experts would meet to determine a ‘fair and just price’ for all goods and services in the province, ensuring a fair commission on turnover while not exploiting the consumer’s purchasing power. In the rather utopian social credit theory, individuals would be freed of their debts, taxes would gradually decrease with the introduction of social credit, employment would immediately increase and ‘fair salaries’ would be established (with minimum and maximum wages). The Social Credit Manual from the 1935 election, available here, explains the original Aberhart social credit theory. Aberhart’s social credit offered an attractive, novel and non-socialist populist response to the poverty, deprivation and socioeconomic challenges of the Depression years.

Originally, Aberhart claimed that his intention was not to enter politics but only to persuade existing parties to adopt social credit policies in their platforms. Social credit became quite popular in Alberta, forcing most politicians, even those from traditional parties, to at least pay lip service to the theory. For example, in the 1935 campaign, the Liberals pledged to set up a full investigation into the proposed scheme and submit a social credit plan to the legislature for its consideration. In January 1935, Aberhart was invited to address the UFA convention, which was set to vote on a resolution which would include Aberhart’s social credit theories as a plank in the UFA platform. However, the resolution was rejected by a wide margin, in a significant victory for Reid and other traditionalists in the movement.

The UFA convention’s repudiation convinced Aberhart that his Social Credit League must run candidates in the next election. He transformed his religious study groups into local social credit study groups, which became a key grassroots base for the movement and crucial to the SoCred victory in the 1935 election. To tackle the social credit threat, Reid began overtly attacking Aberhart’s policies, claiming that the $25 ‘basic dividends’ would require major tax increases, and further argued that other parts Aberhart’s ideas – like provincial entry into the banking business – were ultra vires of the province under the British North America Act (the raising of money by taxation, the borrowing of money, banking, incorporation of banks, issue of paper money and saving banks are all exclusive federal powers under s. 91, with provinces having powers only over direct taxation within the province to raise revenue and borrowing of money on the sole credit of the province under s. 92). The other element of Reid’s approach was to invite C.H. Douglas to Alberta, in the hope that he would expose inconsistencies in Aberhart’s theory and discredit him. The strategy proved to be a massive failure: Douglas, a dry technocrat, did not attack Aberhart as forcefully and consistently as Reid hoped he would (in fact, he penned a statement saying that there were no essential differences between Aberhart and himself), and Douglas’ final report concerned itself primarily with political and legal technicalities (rather than economics) and was of little use to the government.

In the 1935 campaign, most voters, living in poverty, were not interested by the UFA’s economic and legal arguments against social credit and felt that it had nothing to lose with Aberhart’s attractive scheme. Besides Aberhart, the charismatic radio evangelical, being a good salesman for social credit, the ideology’s original anti-capitalist (but not socialist) tone, its attacks on bankers and rich, heartless industrialists, and its promise of dividends were unsurprisingly popular in the middle of the depression. Like the UFA before it, the early Social Credit political movement claimed that it was not a political party, but rather an outsider nonpartisan movement which would run government for the benefit of all citizens (and not the ‘privileged classes’) and it sought out ‘honest men’ to run for the movement. The UFA attacked Aberhart for being so vague and evasive about how he would apply social credit in Alberta, but it was to no avail. Given that the UFA offered no alternative to social credit and the Liberals and Conservatives still so weak (and, in the case of the Liberals, running a terrible campaign), the 1935 election resulted in a massive landslide victory for Social Credit and one of the worst defeats for a sitting government. SoCred won 54.3% of the vote and won 56 of the 63 seats in the legislature, leaving the Liberals with 5 and the Tories with 2 seats. The UFA won only 11% of the vote, and all incumbents were defeated, including Reid and Brownlee. SoCred kicked out UFA incumbents in rural Alberta, but was also successful in the cities – winning 4 of Calgary’s 6 block seats and 2 of Edmonton’s 6 block seats. In urban areas, SoCred obliterated the Labour party, which had been rather strong in both cities up until that point. However, the Labour party’s image as a conservative clique of union bosses and the party’s disastrous alliance with the UFA, and its urban working-class based voted heavily for SoCred in 1935 (while wealthier residents stuck with the Grits or Tories). Like with the UFA in 1921, Aberhart himself didn’t run in the election, and he needed some prodding from his enthusiastic rookie caucus to become Premier, but by September 1935, he was Premier of Alberta. In October 1935, Social Credit won 47% of the vote in the 1935 federal election in Alberta and won 15 seats (all but two of the province’s seats) in the province and 17 seats in the country (the other two came from neighbouring Saskatchewan).

SoCred came to power invested with high expectations, but found an empty treasury. In the 1935 election, Aberhart had told voters that he would implement social credit within 18 months of winning government. However, enthusiastic voters and his backbench rookies were initially willing to grant him a long honeymoon and accept the early ‘delays’ in implementation of social credit. In 1936, the government made few concrete steps towards social credit, besides an Act which provided for the registration of citizens (signing covenants in which individuals agreed to “cooperate most heartily” with the government), invited manufacturers and farmers to produce as much as possible and sell 50% of their products in the provincial market. These measures anticipated the creation of ‘Alberta credit’ distinct from Canadian currency, the establishment of price controls (‘just price’) and distribution of the dividend. In April 1936, the government defaulted on a bond payment, further exciting those social crediters eager for the government to stand up to the ‘money power’. That summer, the government also introduced ‘prosperity certificates‘, which many people mistakenly saw as the first step towards their monthly $25. The government also introduced another controversial legislation, including a bill forcing licensing of all trades and businesses as the government wished, a bill authorizing the minister to fix prices for all commodities and products sold in Alberta and a bill providing for the creation of a provincial trading board. All three bills were controversial, eliciting a storm of protest from opposition parties and SoCred backbenchers, so the government allowed them to die.

By late 1936, SoCred backbenchers became increasingly frustrated with the government as Aberhart’s 18 months were running out. In December 1936, some SoCred MLAs welcomed John Hargrave, the leader of the British SoCreds, who gave some unsolicited and unwanted advice, which likely annoyed Aberhart. In late 1936, two ministers resigned from cabinet, officially for reasons unrelated to those of the dissident MLAs but still a troubling sign for the government. In the February 1937 speech from