Costa Rica: The First Months of an Atypical President

By Ilka Treminio*

President Rodrigo Chaves Robles speaking before the Costa Rican Legislative Assembly / Julieth Méndez, Office of the President of Costa Rica / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons license

Costa Rica’s new President, in office for less than 90 days, is struggling to establish his credibility and launch his agenda. A political neophyte, Rodrigo Chaves Robles presented himself as the candidate of the recently created Progreso Social Democrático (PSD) party. He had no political career beyond serving as Minister of Finance for six months. He studied economics and was a professional on the staff of the World Bank, where he held senior positions for 27 years.

  • The Costa Rican elections were characterized by several key factors, including the lowest voter participation (56.76 percent) since the country’s return to democracy in 1948; the highest number of political parties (25); and a campaign aggressively focused on allegations of abuse by candidates. Chaves was accused of sexual harassment during his time at the World Bank. His main opponent, José María Figueres of the Partido Liberación Nacional (PLN), was alleged to have participated in various acts of corruption as President in the 1990s. Chaves’s PSD is accused of creating a parallel campaign finance tool that the Tribunal Supremo de Elecciones (TSE) is now investigating.  

Chaves assumed office in May with several immediate challenges. As happened in the 2014 and 2018 elections, the President — who won only 10 of the 57 seats — took office with a parliamentary minority. The strongest party, with 19 congressmen, remains the PLN, and another four parties have members of the Legislative Assembly as well. Of all of them, only the Frente Amplio (FA) is left-of-center; the others are in the center and on the right, which augurs a significant shift of the social and economic models of the country.

  • The Legislative Assembly in May held an historic vote to name Rodrigo Arias as its legislative director — a PLN operator who’d served twice as Minister of the Presidency to his brother, popular ex-President Óscar Arias Sánchez (1986-90 and 2006-10). At the top of the new legislative director’s priorities is a state reform law drafted by a special commission headed by Eliécer Feingzaig, widely known for his anti-state agenda. The commission is expected to draft legislation that will reduce or close public institutions and advocate other policies to diminish government.

Chaves’s style suggests that he wants to even out the competing powers between the Executive and Legislative, although at the risk of showing a propensity for emitting decrees.  

  • His most important measures so far have dealt with economic matters, such as one that made the so-called regla fiscal— a complex budget rule that limits government spending to GDP growth and controls on national debt — more flexible, so that he can pursue programs he ran on. He has been criticized because such flexibility was why he resigned as Finance Minister in the past. Another measure was to double senior government officials’ salaries at a time of austerity and reduced spending.
  • Chaves hasn’t been very effective with the Judiciary either.  In an exchange with the President of the Supreme Court of Justice about a ruling on citizens’ rights to speak out against him, his words prompted the court to admonish him for failing to respect the separation of powers.

President Chaves in his first months has been different from his predecessors. His speeches and actions seem guided more by impulse than the deployment of government strategies, which is odd for a technical expert from the World Bank. That approach might appear attractive to certain sectors of the population, but it entails risks for the country’s institutions by appearing personalistic and critical of established institutional procedures. The leadership of Rodrigo Arias in the legislature can be key for the country’s more conservative and traditional sectors — and undermine Chaves’s agenda.

  • Chaves himself is a conservative, but he is more prone to talk with non-traditional sectors and to listen to them. His unusual Presidential style is provoking expectations that he will perform. He seems to be seen by many Costa Ricans as caring about institutional actors, human rights defenders, and some communications media. Over time, however, he will have to watch out that he does not get blamed by disgruntled sectors of society as the man responsible for their unhappiness. Even if his political opponents push the policies that undermine people’s livelihoods — slow government institutions, economic decline, ineffective pacts between political forces, slow progress for the rights of women, LGBTQI+, immigrants, and others — he is the one who would pay the biggest price.

July 6, 2022

Ilka Treminio Sánchez is the director of La Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO) in Costa Rica, and a lecturer and researcher at the University of Costa Rica, specializing in electoral processes, political behavior, presidential reelection, and Latin American comparative politics.

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