The Costa Rican election showdown
Since the beginning of the pandemic, punishing election results for incumbent parties has been the norm in Latin America. Across many Latin American countries like Chile, Guatemala, Honduras and Ecuador, citizens harboured anti-incumbent sentiments due to the poor handling of the pandemic. This sentiment translated into radical electoral results with most of the ruling parties losing their seats.
More recently, this was the case for the region’s ‘happiest country’ – Costa Rica.
In February, Costa Rica held its presidential and congressional elections. Among the record 25 candidates, not a single candidate was able to secure the required majority vote of 40 percent.
Despite having 25 contenders, the country witnessed the lowest voting turnout in 60 years due to a surge in Covid-19 cases.
What is noteworthy is that these election results were a clear reflection of the citizens’ desires to challenge the status quo, with the ruling party – Citizens’ Action Party (PAC) – receiving less than one percent of the total votes.
This certainly paves way for the realignment of politics within one of the most stable democracies of Latin America. The incumbent administration that was led by Carlos Alvarado Quesada is unpopular among Costa Ricans because of corruption scandals, unfavourable fiscal reforms and poor handling of Covid-19 restrictions.
In this election, PAC’s presidential candidate Welmer Ramos remained unsuccessful in redeeming the party which had, until this point, held office for 8 years.
The dissatisfaction towards PAC has also been attributed to Alvarado’s involvement in bribery scandals. Furthermore, the administration’s poor economic performance has perpetuated the feeling of discontentment among Costa Ricans. The outgoing president has also received backlash after his administration was accused of collecting personal data on citizens to modify public policy.
Because of unclear results, on April 3, a runoff election round was held between the top two contenders vying for presidency – former president Jose Maria Figueres and former finance minister Rodrigo Chaves.
Front-runners of April’s election: Figueres and Chaves
Costa Rica’s traditional political behemoth, the centrist National Liberation Party (PLN) had stepped back into the limelight. Former president Jose Maria Figueres led the vote count in the first round of the elections after bagging 27.3 percent of the total votes.
The newly formed centrist Social Democratic Progress Party (PSD) led by Rodrigo Chaves, a former World Bank official, won 16.7 percent of the total votes in the first round.
During the runoff election, both the heavyweights aimed to attract support from citizens, and especially from absentees.
Figueres aimed to fix Costa Rica’s economic challenges including high unemployment rates, rising inflation and growing debts. As an ex-president, his previous political experience had made him an attractive candidate. He had also pushed for the social inclusion of minorities, and women, and given great importance to sustainable development.
On the other hand, the country’s poor economic infrastructure had boosted the chances of economist and technocrat Rodrigo Chaves to become the next leader. The 60-year-old had promised to tackle corruption-related issues of the Latin American country. Chaves had also placed great emphasis on green energy investments and fiscal reforms.
Interestingly, both candidates faced equal threats to their reputation because of prior involvement in dishonourable activities. For Figueres, his involvement in past scandals presented a hurdle, particularly because of Costa Ricans’ experience with Alvarado who was voted out because he remained enmeshed in corruption scandals.
On the other hand, Chaves had sexual harassment allegations against him which marred his otherwise strong profile. According to initial polling, due to these allegations, he remained unpopular particularly among women.
Despite these accusations, on April 3, the economist Chaves emerged as the winner of the presidential elections after securing nearly 53 percent of total votes. While Figueres led the first round of election in February, he did not manage to secure majority votes in the runoff election.
Costa Rica faces a very serious economic crisis. These results reflect the citizens’ desperation to revive the country’s economy. By electing a former World Bank official as their President, Costa Ricans have emphasised the need for robust economic leadership in the country.
The political contest in Costa Rica was not one of ideological extremes. The primary agenda for both parties was to address the country’s failing economic system.
While both contenders had considerable political experience to support their campaigns, they also faced unique challenges which made the elections more unpredictable.
February’s inconclusive election results had undoubtedly reflected underlying issues such as growing inequalities in Costa Rica. The country also continues to wrestle with poverty and high unemployment rates.
Moreover, handling the pandemic efficiently has never been more important. These issues will need to be given due importance by the government in the forthcoming months.
The regional situation in Latin America has become more complicated with political instabilities in most countries. Due to this, the need for a strong democratic system has become greater than ever. Costa Rica has for long been a model for stability in the region. For the incoming government the task of restoring the country’s political and economic stability will be paramount.
Sameera Pillai is a Bachelor of Journalism and Communications graduate from the University of New South Wales. Her interests include human rights, geopolitics, climate change and sustainability, and gender issues. She is currently working as a Communications Coordinator at a law firm.