Will Costa Rica Seize the Opportunity?

By Fulton Armstrong

Costa Rican voters have given President-elect Luis Guillermo Solís a mandate for change, but they have also given him a Legislature and culture of political inertia that will make revitalizing the country’s democracy very difficult.  The withdrawal of opponent Johnny Araya from the presidential runoff on Sunday threatened to trigger such low voter turnout that Solís feared his legitimacy would be questioned from the start, but he received 78 percent (1.3 million) of the total votes – more than any other recent presidential victor.  Although he was deeply involved in the National Liberation Party (PLN) until nine years ago, he established himself and the Citizen Action Party (PAC) as viable alternatives to the PLN and Costa Rica’s other discredited traditional party, the PUSC.  His public persona – as a university history professor, former diplomat, a non-corrupt political neophyte, and an unglamorous campaigner – has engendered sympathy even if, as the head of a party with no record, people don’t really know what they’re getting in terms of policy.  Various business groups have signaled they can work with him and presented their wish lists – all touching on energy availability and prices – but that agenda also remains vague.

The composition of the Legislature, elected in February, poses a formidable obstacle to any agenda that Solís develops.  (Click here to see AULABLOG’s first read on this.)  His PAC won two more seats in Parliament – up to 13 out of a total of 57 – but the PLN won 18, the Broad Front (FA) won nine, and the PUSC won eight.  Outgoing President Chinchilla, of the PLN, had a broader base – 24 seats – but obstructionism from across the political spectrum made Executive-Legislative relations rough throughout her term.  The country’s premier economic newspaper, El Financiero, last week gave a generally positive review of President Chinchilla’s performance in ten crucial economic policies – poverty, unemployment, exports, fiscal deficit, and more – and even if that assessment is too generous, the Costa Rican political machines have treated her like an unmitigated failure.  With both traditional parties out of the Executive, maneuvering in the parliament is likely to intensify and be more damaging.

Statements by Costa Rican academics and opinion makers since the lackluster, non-substantive campaigning in the recent elections, suggest a concern that the country is in a funk over the quality of its democracy and democratic institutions.  The political elites are held in low regard for putting their own (often pecuniary) interests before all others.  When Solís takes office on May 8, Costa Ricans will have an opportunity to shake themselves out of that mentality, taking advantage of the new president’s outsider image and his lack of a political machine eager to attach itself as a parasite on the government and economy.  Johnny Araya’s cowardice and his failure to even pretend to have a political program worth fighting for in the second-round campaign, however, bodes poorly for whether the traditional parties are interested in revitalizing Costa Rican politics.  Being the best democracy in Central America has been important to Costa Ricans for decades; being the best it can be is the new challenge.

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