Costa Rica at the polls: voting or gambling?
The Costa Rican presidential elections, won by outsider candidate Rodrigo Chaves, were characterised by an apathy that not even a close run-off contest could overcome. Deeply disenchanted with the performance of successive governments, voters have turned away from their traditional political identities. Their preferences have become increasingly volatile, making election results unpredictable. As elections increasingly resemble a game of chance, Chaves’ victory is far from the worst possible outcome for Costa Rican democracy. Anti-rights forces continue to wait in the wings, and further disappointments with the performance of election winners could help catapult them to power.
Costa Rica’s 3 April presidential run-off election pitted the top two candidates against each other. But the pair that emerged from the February first-round vote – José María Figueres Olsen of the long-established National Liberation Party (PLN) and surprise challenger Rodrigo Chaves Robles of the upstart Social Democratic Progress Party – hardly went into the run-off with enthusiastic public backing. In February, just over 40 per cent of registered voters – the threshold a candidate must surpass to be elected in the first round – didn’t bother to vote. Had it been up to them, Costa Rica’s highest political office would have remained vacant.
Abstention and political fragmentation reached record levels in 2022. Votes cast in the presidential race were distributed among numerous candidates, including a whopping 19 contenders who each got less than one per cent. They included the candidate of the ruling Citizen Action Party, who came a distant 10th, with 0.7 per cent; its legislative list received 2.2 per cent, earning no seats in the Legislative Assembly.
Scoring only 16.8 per cent in the first round, the man who would be president – a newcomer economist with a far from pristine record who campaigned for the renewal of politics and promised to ‘put the house in order’ – barely scraped into the run-off.
The end of a ‘model democracy’?
Unlike most Latin American countries, Costa Rica did not experience dictatorships, military coups or civil wars between the 1960s and 1980s; unlike a few others with a similar history, notably Venezuela, it also didn’t see later processes of democratic erosion and become an autocracy. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index has long classed Costa Rica as a full democracy, albeit at the lower end of the scale.
In December 2020 the CIVICUS Monitor downgraded Costa Rica’s civic space from open to narrowed, largely as a result of the worsening conditions for Indigenous human rights defenders and the government’s efforts to limit the right to strike and criminalise protest. But Costa Rica continues to have a healthier civic space than most Latin American countries.
Alongside Uruguay, Costa Rica continues to be viewed as a ‘democratic exception’ in the region. But many warn that the idyllic image of a democratic, prosperous and egalitarian Costa Rica is largely now a myth, and one that can be a curse that downplays very real problems.
Although often classed together as two small countries in many ways exceptional for the region, the similarities between Costa Rica and Uruguay do not run deep. According to the most recent Latinobarómetro report, a much lower proportion of Costa Ricans than Uruguayans are satisfied with the functioning of their democracy: 24 vs. 68 per cent. Unlike in Uruguay, trust in the government, congress and political parties is very low.
Costa Rica stands out as one of the countries in the region where very few people believe the government is ruling for the benefit of the majority: a meagre nine per cent think so, compared to a regional average of 22 per cent. It is second only to Paraguay as the country where the most people, 89 per cent, believe the powerful rule for their own benefit. And it’s among those where the highest proportions of respondents believe corruption has greatly increased.
For several decades, Costa Rica was a viewed as a ‘model democracy’ with consolidated political parties and stable political identities, characterised by predictable two-party competition in which centre-left and centre-right parties alternated in power. But that is no longer the case.
Over the past decade, discontent has risen. For growing sections of the public, politics has lost its old meaning: what is at stake is no longer a choice between models of society or ideological projects, but rather candidates’ personal ambitions. Successive governments of various colours have come and gone, but problems have remained. Fewer and fewer people turn to politics in search of a solution to their problems. Many don’t believe that politicians – viewed as ‘all the same’, which means equally bad – can solve them. Most people don’t know and likely don’t care about parties’ policy platforms, because they have lost any trust that, once in power, officeholders will abide by them.
The consequence is electoral volatility and political fragmentation. Solid political identities and party loyalties are increasingly giving way to fleeting identifications, resulting in pronounced political shifts as voters withdraw support as rapidly as they give it.
In 2022 fragmentation reached a new high. Both the presidential and legislative races saw the largest number of competing parties ever, and resulted in the most fragmented Legislative Assembly in recent history. The new president’s party will have only 10 representatives in the 57-member body.
Two months before the first round, polls gave the lead to Figueres, at 17 per cent, followed by former vice-president Lineth Saborío, of the Social Christian Unity Party, with 15 per cent. Theirs are the longest-standing parties in Costa Rica, the pillars of the two-party system that dominated until 2014. Now they weren’t even sure they would make it to the run-off.
Two weeks ahead of the first round, another poll showed that over 40 per cent of voters still didn’t know who to vote for. Candidates tried to appeal to undecided voters, and particularly younger voters who they assumed were the most volatile, by turning to social media. Older candidates who had never used social media shared TikTok videos in which they danced, played football or rode a motorbike. They shared non-political content to appeal to those uninterested in politics and tried to look like they spoke their language.
An unlikely combination of contenders cleared the first hurdle. Placed first with 27.3 per cent of the vote was Figueres, a long-time politician, former president – between 1994 and 1998 – and the son of the founder of Costa Rica’s Second Republic and the PLN, three-time president José María Figueres Ferrer. Originally a social-democratic party, the PLN is more recently associated with neoliberalism and structural adjustment policies, something that has seen its support erode.
Figueres’ challenger, Rodrigo Chaves, has a very different history. He’s an economist with a long international career but was little known in Costa Rica, and a political outsider whose only brush with public office had been a brief stint as finance minister under outgoing President Carlos Alvarado. Polls hadn’t even listed him among the candidates with any chance to get into the run-off. But having been expected to win around five per cent of the vote, Chaves got 16.8 per cent. Emerging second out of 25 contenders, he went on to compete for the presidency – and win it.
Right behind, with 14.9 per cent, was Fabricio Alvarado, the right-wing anti-rights politician who gave Costa Rican democracy a scare in 2018, when he mobilised an anti-gender, anti-women’s rights and anti-LGBTQI+ agenda and came first in the first round, before being soundly defeated in the run-off. His performance shows there’s still a significant current of anti-rights sentiment in Costa Rica.
Change without substance
In the run-up to the second round, initial polls gave Chaves a clear advantage, but his lead subsequently narrowed to a mere three per cent, becoming a technical tie as the election approached.
Contrary to what might be expected in a two-contender race, apathy did not subside. Abstention in fact increased, now exceeding 43 per cent. But among those who did vote, the majority backed Chaves. The underdog had triumphed.
Since his adversary represented the quintessential political class, Chaves played up his newcomer status and linked this to a promise of radical change. He decried excessive bureaucracy and waste, insisting that Costa Rica is a rich but poorly managed country, held back by corruption, a problem he said he would urgently address. He characterised the public as exploited by those meant to serve them, urging them not to vote again for those who had already repeatedly failed them. He insisted that ‘the party is over’ for those taking advantage of the people and living off the state.
However, the kind of change on offer was unclear. Chaves co-opted populist language – identifying himself as on the side of ‘the people’ against a corrupt political class – but when it came to policies rather than politics, many people struggled to identify any significant difference between the two candidates. Whenever anything remotely connected to policy emerged during the campaign, the candidates appeared similarly positioned as economically liberal and socially conservative. Both promised to address unemployment and rising poverty, but neither made clear how they would tackle the job. Unable to offer ideological competition, candidates focused instead on attacking each other personally.
Chaves’ messaging on corruption may have played a role in his win. Although Costa Rica lacks the grand corruption schemes that have plagued several of its Central American neighbours, Figueres had been involved in past corruption investigations, notably over the accusation that he charged close to a million dollars for a consultancy job with a telephone company when he was executive director of the World Economic Forum. Following that scandal, he had not returned to Costa Rica for about a decade. His adversaries accused him of staying away to dodge criminal procedures until the statute of limitations expired.
Neither was Chaves’ record free of allegations, although these were of a different nature. Before he eventually resigned, his work with the World Bank was overshadowed by allegations of sexual advances and inappropriate behaviour made by two female employees. To this day he continues to either minimise or deny the allegations and describe them as gossip, misunderstandings and lies. This is behaviour characteristic of powerful men accused by women, and he doubled down by making sexist remarks on the campaign trail. He became the target of feminist groups that protested against his candidacy when they marched on International Women’s Day on 8 March. Once in office, Chaves should expect to face pressure from feminist movements.
Ultimately, the Costa Rican election seems in line with a broader pattern in Latin America: rather than being about an ideological shift in one direction or another, it was above all the expression of an anti-incumbent reaction by voters repeatedly disappointed with the poor performance of those they elect.
Still, in a context in which elections increasingly resemble a game of chance, Chaves’ victory is not the worst thing that could have happened to Costa Rican democracy. Extremist and anti-rights forces continue to wait in the wings; if voters keep being disappointed, and if Chaves becomes the latest winner not to deliver on promises of change, they could easily become the next alternative people decide to try.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The new president must respect civic space, including the right to protest, and enable civil society to help channel public demands into policy making.
Costa Rican civil society should play its watchdog role, holding the new president accountable for his anti-corruption promises as well as his human rights obligations.
Costa Rican civil society should work together to resist the anti-rights backlash and mobilise public support for human rights, including women’s and LGBTQI+ rights.
Cover photo by Arnoldo Robert/Getty Images