Sunday’s presidential election will likely go down as one of the strangest in Costa Rican history. Not only did it signal the continuing decay of the country’s once-hailed party system, it saw voters choose between two markedly diverse candidates: Carlos Alvarado, 38, from the incumbent Citizens’ Action Party (PAC), and Fabricio Alvarado (no relation to Carlos), 43, from the Party of National Restoration (RN).
Much of the campaign revolved around same-sex marriage. The topic has polarized the country since earlier this year, when, at the request of sitting president Luis Guillermo Solís (2014-2018), the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ordered Costa Rica to enact legislation legalizing same-sex marriage. Opposition groups found a voice in evangelical pastor Fabricio Alvarado, who vowed to block the reform if elected president. His opponent was Carlos Alvarado, a champion of same-sex marriage, who throughout much of the race seemed destined to lose the contest in what has historically been a culturally conservative country—made more so by a growing evangelical movement.
In the end, Carlos, who has never held elected office, won with 60.7% of votes. The scale of Carlos’ victory on Sunday surprised international and domestic observers alike, and sheds light on the challenges that lie ahead for the incoming government.
An evangelical pastor-turned-politician, Fabricio Alvarado ran an arrogant campaign after his impressive triumph in the first-round vote, where he received a plurality of 24.9% of votes. Fabricio, who is famous for singing Christian songs and uploading the videos to YouTube, refused to debate Carlos on numerous occasions (Carlos, nonetheless, showed up), leading to few formal interactions between candidates. His overconfident attitude led him to mistakenly forecast a million votes by midday on Sunday. In the end, he fell far short, receiving just over 800,000 votes.
Though Fabricio is now the most prominent member of the conservative National Restoration Party (RN), his future influence on Costa Rican politics—particularly legislative politics—will be limited. Since no elected representative wants to follow orders from an unpopular politician, the 14 elected legislators of the RN (all of them newcomers to the legislative branch) will now likely distance themselves from a candidate tied to a prominent defeat.
Some of the biggest losers from the election are the other politicians who, believing Fabricio would win, bet on his unsuccessful campaign. The list includes Otto Guevara, who lost his fifth bid for the tico presidency as the candidate of the Libertarian Movement (ML), and the disgraced Antonio Álvarez Desanti, the former candidate of the traditional National Liberation Party (PLN). Though neither campaigned for Fabricio, both endorsed his candidacy on election day. The influential right-wing politician Juan Diego Castro, who led polls for much of the lead-up to February’s first round vote, did not formally endorse Fabricio, but he regularly criticized Carlos Alvarado after receiving 9.5% of votes in the first round election running on the platform of the conservative National Integration Party (PIN).
Carlos Alvarado’s victory, however, goes beyond his unexpected landslide. Against the odds, the candidate passed on to the second-round and defied pollsters’ predictions of inevitable defeat—doing so by a landslide margin. The election result was also a win for the sitting president, Luis Guillermo Solís (2014-2018), who will be able to pass his beleaguered presidency—which has overseen economic growth but has been plagued by corruption scandals, particularly, the cementazo—to a member of his own party, and Rodolfo Piza, the two-time candidate of the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC), who actively campaigned in favor of Carlos after the first round vote.
Now that the election cycle is over, president-elect Alvarado needs to start using his political skills. The first step will be building bridges with other political parties. After all, his party only has ten seats (18 percent) in the 57-member unicameral National Assembly. To avoid a deadlock, he will need form a solid coalition of legislative votes. His promise to give half of his cabinet to parties that subscribe to a pro-government legislative agenda is a good start.
Carlos will likely empower Rodolfo Piza, of the PUSC, by giving him a strong mandate within his cabinet. The incorporation of Piza will guarantee, at least momentarily, the support of the PUSC in the National Assembly. He is also expected to do the same with members of the Social Christian Republican Party (PRSC) and Broad Front (FA).
In this setting, the president-elect might be able to assemble a coalition that will add his party’s ten seats to the nine controlled by the PUSC, as well as two seats from the PRSC and one seat from the leftist FA.
Even if President-elect Alvarado is successful in assembling this rag-tag coalition, he still faces an uphill battle in avoiding deadlock. With the National Liberation Party’s (PLN) 17 seats, combined with the RN (14 seats) and the PIN (four seats), the newly elected president is seven seats short from reaching a basic threshold for getting legislation passed.
A necessary second step for Alvarado will be to use the powerful mandate given to him by voters to appeal to more ideologically-distant parties. Interestingly, the PLN, the PAC’s traditional main rival, will play a pivotal role. The PLN’s new role does not come by choice; without a candidate of their own—a first for PLN voters in the history of Costa Rica’s democracy—thousands of the party’s sympathizers voted for Carlos Alvarado in the second-round vote. Thus, PLN legislators will not be too keen to block the initiatives from a president their own supporters voted into office—at least in the short run. The incoming government should use this once-in-a-term-moment to attract the pragmatic sectors of a party that is leaderless and soul-searching after failing to pass on to the second round vote.
In order to do so, the president-elect should pursue popular and much-needed reforms aimed at tackling crime and corruption—which remain top priorities among voters. Alvarado should strike deals with the backing of notable PLN members, including former presidents Óscar Arias (1986-1990, 2006-2010) and Laura Chinchilla (2010-2014), who have showed their willingness to sit down and talk with Carlos during the campaign. With their support, the new president has the opportunity to turn hostile voices into new allies.
Much has been said about the state of Costa Rica’s democracy. Granted, officials must step up their efforts against widespread corruption. The party system is in disarray, and the two Alvarado’s are far from the best statesmen the country has produced. Yet, Sunday’s vote showed that despite setbacks, the country’s institutions remain strong; candidates from opposing parties were able to peacefully articulate their programs, all those involved followed democratic norms, and there was over 65% turnout in both electoral rounds. That’s a lot more than what other Latin American countries can say about the state of their democracies. In a region that has seen a number of countries slipping into authoritarianism—Nicaragua, Honduras and, most severely, Venezuela—the ticos were able to live up to their rich democratic history and give Latin America another example of a prosperous election.
Lucas Perelló is a PhD student in Politics at The New School for Social Research.