Costa Rica is torn between tradition and change in elections with 25 candidates | International


Supporters of former president and candidate José María Figueres gather in front of a statue in honor of the candidate's father, this Saturday in San José.
Supporters of former president and candidate José María Figueres gather in front of a statue in honor of the candidate’s father, this Saturday in San José.Welcome Velasco (EFE)

In Costa Rica they call the ‘farmer’s fair’ the fruit and vegetable markets on weekends in each municipality. They trade, of course, but they also socialize and measure popular moods. The cost of living is felt, they joke about soccer, they distribute blessings or compliments and in the electoral campaign they don’t get away from politics either, be it in jest or seriously. It is a small laboratory that confirms the discouragement of the majority of the population with the political parties that compete for power in the elections this Sunday, or at least for entering an inevitable second round: there have never been so many candidates -25- and Never has a campaign been so diffuse and with such high levels of indecision, according to the polls.

In some way, the electoral campaign has been the National Liberation Party (PLN), the largest in the country founded just after the last war that Costa Rica experienced, in the navel of the 20th century, with former president José María Figueres (1994- 1998) to the fore, against a highly varied and confusing menu of 25 candidates. In it there are from recently made parties, persistent turncoats, niche entrepreneurs and applicants pulled out of the hat to see a wide no man’s land in front of them. This void is reflected in the enormous mass of undecided voters who were still reported five days before the elections: 32% of those determined to vote, of which a third will probably decide their vote only when they have the ballot in hand, with instinct.

For this reason, analysts insist on pointing out the great uncertainty about the results, accentuated by the scarce margins of support of the candidacies that escort Figueres and compete with him: five names that oscillate between 13 points and five points of support in the polls, small bags of electoral support that, however, can be altered by hundreds of thousands of votes that will be decided ‘in extremis’ for the most varied reasons.

The evangelical preacher Fabricio Alvarado returns

At the polls and without suspicion of fraud or violence, the norm in the resistant Costa Rican democracy, the power of the evangelical movements will be measured again with the candidate Fabricio Alvarado, (the preacher who surprised everyone in 2018) and the longing for the bipartisanship with Figueres and with Lineth Saborío (a conservative from the Christian Social Unity Party with ambiguous proposals that can be summed up as ‘uniting Costa Rica’), but also the populist criticism of the political system itself, embodied by a rare politician named Rodrigo Chaves, who has grown in recent weeks and triggers alerts.

Chaves is a 61-year-old economist who in recent polls showed an upward trend of up to 8% support, enough to present himself as one of the options for the second round. He grows up despite the fact that he was sanctioned for sexual misconduct committed when he was an official at the World Bank, just before he resigned and returned to Costa Rica for a brief stint as Minister of Finance in the current Government. All in the last two years. Her party is called Social Democratic Progress (PSD), as new as it is unknown, but it matters little because the weight of image is carried by a famous journalist named Pilar Cisneros, an acid voice against the political class, who goes from candidate to deputy and seems to have guaranteed as of May one of the 57 seats in the unicameral Legislative Assembly, an election about which there is more uncertainty than in the presidential one.

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Angie Monge is one of the fruit vendors at the fair. On weekends, she takes to the center of the country the avocados, strawberries and apples that she grows with her family in Copey de Dota, a mountainous region southwest of San José, which for decades has been a traditional PLN stronghold. She represents the groups that want changes, of course, but ‘ethical’, that is, gradual, without shakes. Her parents and grandparents were liberationists when it meant supporting social democracy, the center left or all those ideas that advocated a strong and leading State in the economy. She, on the other hand, has grown up in times of political reconfiguration and supports the Broad Front, the only left-wing party with legislative representation. “She has the freshest ideas and PLN is something old, but if I have to vote for PLN in the second round, I close my eyes and do so, so that there are no others left,” she says, shrugging her shoulders, as if resigned.

To vote for the PLN is to vote for the candidate Figueres, who seems to already have one foot in the second round scheduled for April. It is voting for the most traditional card in the game, the most questioned due to its long past, but also the least shocking for a sector of the country that is not prone to abrupt changes. It is the party most located at the center of the ideological spectrum with which the majority of the population identifies, a banner that defends the role of public institutions despite popular criticism for its inefficiency. And it is, however, one of the most rejected groups in a climate of anger over corruption and the deterioration of the living conditions of the great middle class that Costa Rica boasted of, well represented in sellers and buyers of the ‘farmer’s fairs’.

It no longer matters to remove the unpopular Citizen Action Party (PAC, progressive) from power; is already liquidated in the polls. Now criteria such as the search for a new change prevail, after the disappointing arrival of the PAC in 2014, at the end of decades-long bipartisanship. Some want a party that defends the strong State and others want candidates that radically clean it up, intervene in it or directly cut it down to its minimum, especially a modern right-wing group that considers it a nuisance. This has been the debate in the subsoil of the campaign, hardly expressed when talking about taxes, exemptions or not to attract investment, the mandatory nature of the vaccine against COVID-19 or where the engines should be that generate jobs to lower 14% unemployment.

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“Costa Rica is a country that has known how to carry the weight of the public with the private sector, but if the conflict prevails it will be difficult to find a way out. The solution involves a new paradigm of benefit in both directions, a synergy adapted to the new conditions,” Daniel Zovatto, director of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), based in Latin America, tells EL PAÍS. in Sweden. He refers to the low intensity discussion between public interest and private power, although the electoral conversation has been a cloud of smoke between 25 candidates that have only confused the electorate more.

solution at the polls

The circumstances are not unique to Costa Rica either. “We have recently seen in Latin America a trend of second rounds, ruptures of the party system and the value of the vote-punishment, in addition to a difficult context that the pandemic has further complicated. There is frustration and problems at home, but also in the Central American neighborhood, although at the same time Costa Ricans have solid support for democracy in their DNA, one of the three best in Latin America”, he comments from Panama. “The result will be crucial for governance and to prevent the accumulated problems from leading to turbulence that we have seen in other countries,” she adds.

This dilemma is palpable at the fruit and vegetable fair, although everyone believes that their candidate is the one who can avoid the crisis. Sonia F., a teacher on the brink of retirement, thinks a change of direction is in order. “I’m going to vote for her,” she says as she picks the oranges, but “she” means “she and he.” She refers to the journalist Cisneros who repudiates the political class and who accompanies the economist Chaves. The rude populist attributes to local “powerful economic groups” the disclosure of the complaints against him for sexual harassment, also published in The Wall Street Journal on October 18. Sonia says that she is tired of the usual politicians, that she trusted the PAC eight years ago and that now she wants to support Cisneros to see if this experiment turns out better. “Do not tell me that there is a coronavirus (Costa Rica registered the largest number of new cases during the pandemic this week); we have to go vote to prevent Figueres from winning. I am a teacher and I remember his Government well, ”she justifies.

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What Sonia does not forget is a great teachers’ strike in 1995, one of the episodes of a politically turbulent government of which Figueres is nevertheless proud when she recalls three relevant milestones for today’s Costa Rica. He never tires of repeating that he brought in the microprocessor giant Intel, which paved the way for the technology industry in the country, which created a network of more than a thousand basic clinics that have been vital in dealing with the pandemic, and which devised a state payment program farmers who conserve the forest, one of the policies applauded by the environmental world and well used by the tourism industry.

Some recognize this, but Figueres is accompanied by the shadow of corruption due to cases that have never reached the courts, such as the million-dollar consultancies he gave to the French company Alcatel, denounced by the press in 2004 as acts of influence so that the State will grant you contracts for telephone lines. The son of the 20th-century statesman who abolished the Army in 1948, Pepe Figueres, was already a former president and director of the World Economic Forum, a position he resigned due to questions in Costa Rica, although it took him eight more years to return to the country to try what now seems feasible: re-election despite his past, his worn-out party and the new political puzzle. It has not even been possible to guarantee the support of his sister Christiana de el, a noted international leader against climate change, with whom he became involved in a public dispute over the family inheritance.

José María Figueres scheduled to start his election day by voting in the little town called ‘La Lucha’, in the historic hacienda where his father is buried, 26 kilometers from Angie’s family’s farm. The 2,100 voting centers in the national territory open at 6 in the morning and tradition indicates that the elderly vote in the morning and the young in the afternoon, but things have changed and analysts even foresee that abstentionism exceeds 34, 3% of the first round of 2018. Some 50 tables are also opened in consulates outside the country to serve voters abroad, a tiny amount compared to other Latin American countries. Costa Rica continues to be above all a destination country (migration, tourists, investments), with social indicators above the regional averages, but with worrying trends. That is why the avocado seller and the orange buyer coincide in recovering something that Costa Rica had. But one resignedly prefers the usual path and the other prefers to continue trying new paths, and she will see where.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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