Monthly Archives: May 2018

Election Preview I: Colombia 2018

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

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

Colombia’s Political and Electoral System

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

President

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Congress

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

Departments of Colombia (source: Wikimedia)

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

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

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

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

Congress of the Republic in Bogotá (own picture)

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

Electoral system for Congress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eligibility and ballot access

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

Inside courtyard of the Congress (own picture)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Electoral administration

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

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

Colombia’s democracy and political system

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

The paradoxes of Colombian politics

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

A weak and illegitimate state

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

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

Partisanship, violence and elusive legitimacy in Colombia

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hybrid institutions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Civilian-military relations in Colombian history

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

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

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

Populism and inclusive democracy in Colombia

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

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

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

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

A politically apathetic society

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

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

Turnout in Colombian congressional elections (House) 1935-2014

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

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

Voting station accessibility difficulties (source: MOE)

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

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

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

The left (and right) in Colombia

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

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

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

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Costa Rica 2018 (Presidential Runoff)

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

Quick recap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The first round (February 4)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Results of the first round by canton (own map)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Second round campaign

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

The candidates (the fifth cousins)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The campaign

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Results

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis of the results

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coastal provinces

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

Central Valley

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

Expats: PAC 77.6, PRN 22.4 (t/o 15.1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concluding comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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