Will Costa Rica Seize the Opportunity?

By Fulton Armstrong

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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.

Costa Rica: Losing Faith in Democratic Institutions?

By Fulton Armstrong

Supreme Elections Tribunal President Luis Antonio Sobrado / Photo credit: izahorsky / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Supreme Elections Tribunal President Luis Antonio Sobrado / Photo credit: izahorsky / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Costa Rica is approaching February’s presidential and legislative elections with a distinct lack of enthusiasm, if not with dread.  Most international surveys present Costa Rica as the “world’s happiest country” (the Happy Planet Index), or in the elite club of the world’s “full democracies” (ahead of Japan and Belgium in The Economist’s list), or as the 48th least-corrupt country (out of 174 reviewed by Transparency International).  The economy is expected to grow about 3 percent this year, and the country’s access to foreign direct investment is blunting the impact of the government’s fiscal deficit of about 5 percent of GDP.  Crime is on the rise, but Ticos know that their pain is small compared to that wreaked by the narcos and maras in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

Reputable polls show, however, that Costa Ricans are gloomy about the state of their political institutions and specifically about their upcoming elections.  According to polls, about 32 percent of the country’s 3 million eligible voters say they plan to abstain, citing corruption, a lack of leadership, insensitivity to the average citizen, and unemployment as reasons to reject not just the candidates but also the political elite in general.  The President of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), Luis Antonio Sobrado, acknowledged last month that the election was taking place in the context of “citizen uneasiness … and a lot of anger with politics and politicians.”  Abstentionism was high in 2006 (35 percent) and 2010 (32 percent), but commentators sense a much deeper and darker alienation this time around.  A columnist lamented that the “multiparty” system has been replaced by “atomization,” and another said the political parties have “disconnected themselves from the national reality.”

Further reflecting the malaise, President Chinchilla’s support has nosedived – a July poll showed only 9 percent of voters said she was “good” and none said “very good” – and pundits cite her ineffectiveness as the cause of collapsed highways, dengue outbreaks, and other calamities.  The nominee of her Partido de Liberación Nacional (PLN), Johnny Araya, is widely thought to have an edge in February, but his 12 years as mayor of San José have coincided with a deterioration in the city’s infrastructure and security, and his personal lifestyle (including five marriages) may be a factor in popular skepticism.  The government’s recent announcement that it will contract the services of 4,125 new employees in 2014, mostly in the education sector, drew immediate criticism as yet another example of political patronage to influence the race.

The self-doubt seems at this point indicative of concerns about Chinchilla and the crop of candidates, rather than a rejection of democracy.  Costa Ricans comparing themselves with the rest of Central America still feel good about themselves, and the green image that eco-tourists reinforce is comforting.  But crumbling infrastructure – including collapsing bridges and the exorbitant cost of repeated repairs – and shocking crimes, such as the recent assassination of an environmentalist protecting turtles on a Caribbean beach, fuel the sort of doubts that only effective political and economic leadership can quell.