Sunday’s surprise vote in Costa Rica showed the continued decline of the country’s once-hailed party system. Fabricio Alvarado, an outsider Evangelical candidate running on the platform of the conservative National Restoration Party (Partido de Restauración Nacional or PRN), received the most votes of any candidate, with 24.9% of support. He was followed by Carlos Alvarado (no relation to Fabricio), a center-left candidate running on the platform of the incumbent Citizens’ Action Party (Partido de Acción Ciudadana, or PAC), who was backed with 21.6% of votes. Since the wining candidate did not receive more than 40% of votes, a runoff between the two Alvarados is scheduled to take place on April 1st.
Though polls initially reported that Antonio Álvarez, from the social-democratic Party for National Liberation (Partido de Liberación Nacional, or PLN) and Juan Diego Castro, a former PLN member who switched to the conservative Party for National Integration (Partido de Integración Nacional, or PIN), were ahead, the unexpected rise of Fabricio Alvarado was sparked by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights’ (CIDH) order that Costa Rica to change its legislation to allow same-sex marriage. The country’s conservatives rallied around his candidacy, which vowed to protect “family values.”
Sunday’s election was a significant blow to Álvarez and his PLN, who was barely backed with 18.6% of votes. The PLN, alongside the Party for Christian Unity (Partido de Unidad Social Cristiana, or PUSC), once comprised the two-party system that dominated tico politics from 1986 to 2002. Though the PLN has experienced its share of electoral defeats, never before had it failed to pass on to the second-round vote—marking the party’s worst electoral performance since Costa Rica transitioned to democracy in the early 1950s.
The recent election showed how Costa Ricans are disgruntled with traditional politics, as well as with the state of the country’s democracy. On Sunday, as the norm now seems to be, more than a third of ticos (34.4%) decided to stay home instead of casting their votes. As a result, the country faces an unprecedented situation: as voters turned their backs on traditional parties, they now have to choose between two political newcomers.
Prior to becoming the leading candidate in this year’s election, Fabricio Alvarado, 43, was an Evangelical preacher who became popular for his singing of Christian songs. In 2014, he was elected as a deputy for the Province of San José, home to Costa Rica’s capital and the country’s most populated region. If elected, he has vowed to oversee conservative pro-family policies, which include vetoing same-sex marriage and upholding the country’s already extremely harsh anti-abortion laws.
Fabricio’s wife, Laura Moscoa, is also a fervent Evangelical preacher, who in the past has claimed to heal the sick through prayer and to speak in biblical dialects. (Mrs. Moscoa is not shy from showing her abilities, as seen in a recent video where halfway through her preaching she shifts from Spanish to an undecipherable—seemingly scriptural—language. The video was deleted shortly after being posted on social media).
The passage of a religious extremist to the second-round vote has raised the stakes in this year’s election. Costa Rica’s future now rests on an unlikely champion. Though polls predicted a poor performance, Carlos Alvarado, 38, finished in second place after competing on the platform of the incumbent center-left PAC. A journalist by training who has never held elected office, Alvarado rose through the ranks of the party working as staff member to its legislative caucus from 2006 to 2010. Shortly thereafter, he was named director of communications for the eventually triumphant candidacy of president Luis Guillermo Solís (2014-2018), whose landslide victory in 2014 officially marked the end of Costa Rica’s two-party system.
Alvarado took on an active role during Solís’ presidency, first as Minister of Human Development and Social Inclusion (2014-2016) and then as Minister of Work and Social Inclusion (2016-2017). His rapid rise and growing popularity came in handy when he defeated fellow cabinet member Welmer Ramos, Costa Rica’s Minister of Economy, Industry and Commerce (2014-2017), in the PAC’s internal primaries with 57% of votes.
Now, the two Alvarados, each representing a differing vision of Costa Rica, will face each other in the second-round vote. Though the wining candidate will likely benefit from stable growth (the International Monetary Fund forecasts 3.8% growth during the next 4-years), whoever becomes the next president will face significant difficulties in getting legislation passed through the National Assembly. Since no party won an absolute majority of votes, whichever Alvarado wins will have to successfully navigate the hurdles of legislative politics. The challenge does not seem easy: the PLN remains the first majority with 17 seats, followed by Fabricio Alvarado’s PRN (14 seats), Carlos Alvarado’s PAC (10 seats) and the PUSC (9 seats). Meanwhile, smaller parties, including the PIN that supported Juan Diego Castro, control the remaining 7 seats.
There will be much soul-searching during the following weeks among the losing parties. It remains unclear whether the PLN and the PUSC will support Carlos Alvarado. What is certain is that the path is full of obstacles. The immediate ones are the growing rivalry between the PLN and the PAC—as the former has led the opposition to sitting president Luis Guillermo Solís—and, on the other, specific campaign issues, such as same-sex marriage, which is in Carlos Alvarado’s program but is rejected by the PUSC. Meanwhile, the polemical Juan Diego Castro, who even on election day managed to enter a verbal confrontation with an international observer, has signaled that he may back the candidacy of Fabricio.
Needless to say, the weakened state of Costa Rica’s traditional parties does not guarantee that voters will follow the instructions of party elites. If they do choose to rally in mass behind the candidacy of Carlos Alvarado, it’s simply because they fear a possible presidency of Fabricio Alvarado and his PRN. Perhaps the biggest challenge will be a high abstention rate, which in the 2014 runoff reached 43.3%. If a similar figure were to repeat itself, it would likely benefit the disciplined voters of Fabricio Alvarado.
Costa Rica’s second-round vote will take place on April 1st, which coincidentally falls on Easter Sunday. This will likely be read as a sign for Fabricio Alvarado and his followers. It remains to be seen wheter the day that celebrates the resurrection of Jesus will result in the election of a religious fanatic or the redemption of the ticos.
Lucas Perelló is a PhD student in Politics at The New School for Social Research.