Costa Rica, a Central American country that began the 2022 electoral calendar, will decide who will be its president in a ballot on Sunday, April 3, two months after the first-round elections. Those who lead the electoral results are José María Figueres Olsen (National Liberation Party-PLN) and Rodrigo Chaves Robles (Social Democratic Progress-PPSD), according to the latest cut of data from the Supreme Electoral Tribunal. It is the third time in a row that the definition of who will reach the Presidential House is decided in a ballot.
The election day that took place this Sunday, February 6, can be described as a “festival of colors”, alluding to the various flags and colors that were observed in the various voting precincts. However, it also showed a wide electoral offer (25 presidential candidates) and a decision challenge for a confused electorate, reflected in 32% undecided (according to the latest survey by the Center for Research and Political Studies, CIEP UCR), days before the vote.
Figueres Olsen, who led the voting intention in the pre-election polls, leads the count with 27.29% (419,359 votes). He is followed by Chaves Chavarría with 16.64% (255,730 votes). In third place is Fabricio Alvarado (New Republic) with 15.06%. This last candidate was the one who contested the presidency in the second round in the last elections, under the banner of National Restoration.
The electoral elections that took place this Sunday, February 6, were atypical in several ways, mainly because they took place in the midst of a pandemic, and with a woman leading the electoral body for the first time and the wide electoral offer.
In addition to the above, the race for the presidential seat was not between two, nor three candidates, but between six who led the voting intention in the polls, and a mix between emerging political parties, others that had previously competed, and finally with protagonists also the two traditional forces, the National Liberation Party and the Christian Social Unity Party (which together with the New Republic candidate were in a technical tie for first place).
Finally, the citizens opted for Figueres Olsen, who was already president of the country (1994-1998) and is the candidate of the longest-running political party and the one that has led the most people to the presidency, including the first and only woman. On the other sidewalk is a former Minister of Finance of the current Government of Carlos Alvarado (Citizen Action Party). Chaves Robles previously worked at the World Bank, left the post facing accusations of harassment and sexual harassment and was sanctioned for “inappropriate behavior.”
Another atypical data of the elections is the historical percentage of abstentionism —40%— (the average was around 32%). This number should sound the alarm that we are facing a stable electoral democracy, but with a dissatisfied, disillusioned citizenry and in general in a context of democratic deficit. Unless the percentage of participation increases, the new president will arrive with a low electoral legitimacy, which recalling Pierre Rosanvallon, this invisible institution is key in democracy, since governments must be able to face the challenge of making their decisions permanent. This seems to be one of the main challenges that the new president of the country will face.
What happened to the Citizen Action Party? Costa Rica does not escape presenting regional trends, such as the punishment of the ruling party. The party in power suffered the greatest decline since its foundation in 2000, obtaining 0.66% of the vote in these elections. Several conjectures can explain this result. The main one is that after eight years and two terms of government, it has worn out and the promises of change, both in the way of doing politics and in a political project to improve the lives of Costa Ricans, were not enough for the citizenship. This was expressed in a punitive vote, which even seems to lead him to lose all of the 10 seats he had obtained in Congress in 2018.
Are we in the presence of an anti-system vote? In the case of former Minister Rodrigo Chaves Robles, in his speech, in the interviews and in the debates, he presents elements of a challenge to the status quo, both against the ruling and political elites, the press and the media, and in general about the functioning of the political system. However, there are not enough data to conclude this characteristic.
In general, the programmatic offer of both candidates does not differ so much on environmental issues (both oppose the exploration and exploitation of oil). In economic matters, both are opposed to new taxes and both consider that it should be renegotiated with the International Monetary Fund. They also show conservative positions on the issue of decriminalizing abortion or legal termination of pregnancy and legalizing euthanasia.
Is there a return to bipartisanship? The answer is no. This punishment vote against the ruling party did not necessarily provoke a process of realignment of the traditional forces (PLN and PUSC). Because this citizen disaffection and punishment vote strengthened an emerging political force, the PPSD, which had never participated in elections and whose presidential candidate used media figures. What the electoral data shows, preliminary, is that there is an unfinished process of party political alienation and realignment, since the traditional political parties (the PLN) are strengthened, but other political organizations also burst onto the scene, every four years. This situation is also reflected in Congress, according to preliminary data from the TSE, there are three political parties that had never had parliamentary representation obtained seats, which confirms the trend towards multipartyism.
What challenges will the next president face?
As previously mentioned, multipartyism is already a characteristic of the Costa Rican party system, and whoever becomes president is going to have to govern with a fragmented congress. From the preliminary data, with 79.7% of the tables counted, six will be the political groups represented in parliament and none have a majority (29 votes).
The next president will have to form coalitions to govern, in a convulsive scenario, since the current government negotiated a loan with the IMF, which among the agreements include legal reforms to public employment, taxes and other measures that are unpopular. However, none of them has a majority, which is why they will be forced to negotiate and give in their public policy proposals.
The scenario of uncertainty was reduced to two options, which due to the very characteristics of the ballot, will have to focus their positions and form coalitions, however, not only with a view to winning the elections but also to be able to govern.
Carolina Ovares, sociologist and lawyer from the University of Costa Rica. Public Agenda Collaborator.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.