Monthly Archives: February 2018
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 (figuerismo, arayismo–mongismo, calderonismo) 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.
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 cement. CRHoy 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.
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%
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.
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.
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.
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 vote. Semanario 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)
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)
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.