On Sunday February 4th, Costa Ricans will head to the polls to vote in the country’s general elections to choose their new president and renew the 57-member unicameral legislature. Though Costa Rica is largely seen as an example of democracy in Latin America, the run-up to the 2018 election has shed light on the high levels of popular discontent that have grown in recent years. That anger has increased in the wake of a series of corruption scandals—particularly the cementazo—that have revealed influence-peddling networks from politicians across the ideological spectrum. The aftermath of these scandals will likely affect Sunday’s vote, where— according to recent polls—a large number of voters will likely abstain and Fabricio Alvarado, an extremist Evangelical, anti-establishment candidate, may reach the second-round vote.
The uneasy state of Costa Rica’s democracy
Costa Rica is a rare case of early democratic success in Latin America. After a gradual expansion of democracy during the first half of the 20th century and a brief civil war in 1948 (known as la Guerra del 48), ticos have celebrated 16 free, fair and periodical national elections since 1953, all of which have resulted in peaceful transitions of power.
The country gradually developed a stable two-party system, in which the social-democratic National Liberation Party (Partido de Liberación Nacional, or PLN) competed against the Party of Social Christian Unity (Partido Unidad Social Cristiana, or PUSC). Costa Rica’s two-party system peaked from 1986 to 2002, when the combined vote share of the bipartidismo averaged 91% and 79% of valid votes in presidential and legislative elections, respectively.
In 2002, declining popular support for the two parties became noticeable. The unpopularity of economic reforms during the early 1990s, growing corruption and the lack of programmatic differentiation between traditional parties led to the rise of third-party alternatives—particularly from disgruntled ex-PLN members. The Party of Citizens’ Action (Partido de Acción Ciudadana, or PAC), a center-leftist party that was founded in 2000, began attracting a large share of voters. In the 2002, the PAC received 26.2% of votes in the country’s presidential election, forcing the first runoff since Costa Rica’s transition to democracy. The formal end of bipartidismo came in 2014, when Luis Guillermo Solís (2014 to present)—a university professor and former Secretary General of the PLN who switched to the PAC in 2008—passed to the second-round vote and defeated PLN member Johnny Araya by a landslide with 77.8% of votes.
Though Solís’ presidency has overseen high levels of economic growth—since 2014 the country has grown 4.2% average, well above the 0.02% Latin American and Caribbean average during the same period—his tenure has been tainted by party infighting, as well as growing insecurity, unemployment and corruption scandals. In 2016, Costa Rica experienced its highest homicide rates in recent years, while the unemployment rate has hovered around 10% throughout his term. Meanwhile, the cementazo, a corruption scandal involving shady regulations and loans surrounding the import of Chinese cement, broke in mid-2017 and unveiled influence-peddling schemes involving politicians from across the ideological spectrum. Unsurprisingly, voters mention unemployment (26%), security (20%) and corruption (13%) as their top priorities.
Establishment and anti-establishment candidates
The transformation of Costa Rica’s party system stems from a rising tide of voter discontent. Though voting is mandatory in Costa Rica, the rule isn’t enforced. Since 2002 approximately a third of ticos have chosen to stay at home on election day. A similar abstention rate, if not greater, is expected on Sunday’s election. In addition to the projected high rates of abstention, pollsters predict that almost half of those who will vote have yet to make up their minds on a candidate.
No fewer than 13 presidential candidates will be on Sunday’s ballot. Polls show that three have a shot at passing to the second-round vote, scheduled for early April 2018 (according to Costa Rica’s constitution, if no candidate receives more than 40% of valid votes in the first round, then a second round vote will take place between the two candidates with the largest share of the vote). All other candidates, including Carlos Alvarado, from the incumbent PAC, are expected to receive less than 10% of votes.
The leading candidates are Antonio Álvarez, from the center-left PLN, and Juan Diego Castro, from the center-right Party of National Integration (Partido de Integración Nacional or PIN). The PIN, which formed in the 1990s, has performed poorly in elections for the last 30 years. Without any seats in the National Assembly, it has only been able to elect local officials. Due to the lack of widely known and popular politicians from their own ranks, the party’s leadership bet on Castro as a pragmatic way for reaching the presidency and growing their national profile.
Juan Diego Castro, 62, is a lawyer by training. Castro was a former member of the PLN who quit the party and joined the PIN in 2017. He served as Minister of Public Security (1994-1996) and Minister of Justice (1997-1998) in the cabinet of José María Figueres of the PLN. Castro, who is commonly labeled as a populist for his fiery rhetoric, has been dogged by a number of controversies. In 1995, he became the first cabinet member to be censored after he ordered security forces to surround the premises of the National Legislature in a polemical effort to pressure legislators into voting for a bill. Early last year he accused women working in the country’s judiciary of getting raises due to sexual favors; the comment provoked uproar, and Castro was forced to offer a public apology. If this wasn’t enough, he is now linked to the cementazo.
Antonio Álvarez, 59, is a seasoned politician representing the country’s political establishment. A lawyer by training who holds a graduate degree from Harvard University, Álvarez served in different cabinet posts during the first government of Nobel Peace Prize winner, Óscar Árias (1986-1990). Later on, he was elected as a deputy for the PLN, representing the Province of San José, home to Costa Rica’s capital and the most populous province in the country.
After failed attempts at becoming the PLN’s presidential candidate, Álvarez quit his party and founded the Party Unity for Change (Unión para el Cambio, or UPC). The party’s poor electoral performance led to its quick demise and Álvarez rejoined the ranks of the PLN in 2007—backing the candidacy of Laura Chinchilla, Costa Rica’s first woman president (2010-2014). In 2014 he won re-election as deputy for San José. Last year he finally secured the PLN’s presidential nomination after defeating former president José María Figueres (1994-1998) in primaries with 46% of the vote. Álvarez, who has a record of public fights with Castro (he was the president of the National Assembly when Castro was censored), recently accused him of being a threat to Costa Rica.
But this election has had another element of surprise: recently, Fabricio Alvarado, from the conservative Christian National Restoration Party (Partido de Restauración Nacional, or RN), has risen in the polls and many predict him to win Sunday’s vote. His party, RN, is the offshoot of various Christian parties that have emerged lately in Costa Rica. Though Alvarado is currently ahead in the polls, his party has attracted few voters; it holds a single seat in the National Assembly and has only won a handful of local elections.
Álvarez and Castro had led polls throughout much of the presidential race. Until recently most pollsters predicted a run-off election between the two candidates. But that has changed with the surprising rise of Fabricio Alvarado. Alvarado, 43, is running on the platform of the conservative RN. A journalist by training and a deputy for the Province of San José since 2014, Alvarado has gained popularity through his singing of Evangelical songs (his YouTube page has over 60,000 followers). His support in the polls grew after the Inter-American Court of Human Rights recommended earlier this month that Costa Rica change its legislation to guarantee same-sex marriage. Alvarado, an opponent of same-sex marriage, vowed to oppose changes in the legislation and to protect “Costa Rica’s principles and values,” which in his view include prohibiting abortion and rejecting same-sex marriage. His message has resonated among the country’s conservatives. Polls currently have him leading vote intention for Sunday’s election.
If the polls are correct, we are witnessing the most uncertain presidential election in recent Costa Rican history. The country, once hailed for its stable two-party democracy, has seen the rise of citizens’ disenchantment with electoral politics. The surge of insecurity, relatively high levels of unemployment and recent corruption scandals—involving politicians across the ideological spectrum—have led many voters to turn their backs on traditional parties. While an Alvarado triumph in a run-off election seems unlikely—most political parties would rally against him—recent elections elsewhere in the world have taught us to never write off anti-establishment candidates, and this one certainly shows that Costa Rica’s traditional party system may well be on the brink of a crisis.
Lucas Perelló is a PhD student in Politics at The New School for Social Research.