On February 7, the Inter-American Dialogue hosted a conversation with Kevin Casas-Zamora (Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue and former Vice President of Costa Rica) and Juan Carlos Hidalgo (Policy Analyst for Latin America at the Cato Institute) to interpret the results of the first round in the Costa Rican elections. On Sunday, February 4, Costa Ricans went to the polls to elect a new president, two vice presidents, and all 57 members of the Legislative Assembly. The first round had significant implications for the political and institutional future of the country. In particular, the campaign is focused on a bitter debate over same-sex marriage—spurred by a decision earlier this month by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights mandating recognition—and concerns over corruption and rising crime rates. This resulted in a victory for Fabrizio Alvarado, with 25%, followed by Carlos Alvarado Quesada, with 22%. Polls find that voter discontent is high, party affiliation has collapsed, and abstention is likely to be widespread.
Shifter started the discussion by recognizing that the current electoral environment is uncertain and volatile with outspread frustration after power has alternated between two parties up until 2014. The main guiding questions included the significance of this first-round victory for the evangelical party in terms of this election, the country’s political structure, and the political sentiment in Latin America. Looking towards the future, Shifter also proposed a discussion on the possible main topics of the next round, and how these topics could benefit one candidate or the other.
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Former Vice President Casas-Zamora started by pointing out some of the contextual factors that he found most important to understand the current elections. This included a seemingly good economic situation with low inflation, but growing violence and insecurity, accounting for the highest homicide rate in Costa Rica’s history. All this, he believes, has led to the current political disaffection felt by Costa Ricans. He finds that there has been a shift to a more authoritarian attitude, as a decreasing number of people believe in democracy. Casas-Zamora admitted, however, that the political parties and the system itself are currently weak, leading to weak institutions, and divisions between parties, explaining the volatility that was mentioned by Shifter. Casas-Zamora predicts that this will worsen in the near future.
Hidalgo added by recalling some political experiences that Costa Rica had gone through in the past and the current situation with same-sex marriage. One of the points that stems from this is the fact that people have no actual knowledge on Fabrizio Alvarado’s proposals on other topics, leaving the country very vulnerable to any type of crisis, while both panelists foresee could lead to possible economic struggles in the future. He also stressed the negligence under which people are currently taking their decisions. As previously mentioned, the country has a fake sense of economic stability, through growth and tourism, but growth is not even competitive when comparing it to other countries in the region. This is all occurring, while the country deals with the highest youth unemployment rate in Costa Rican history, in addition to a financial deficit that Hidalgo predicts will increase to 8% next year.
Regardless of who wins the elections, both panelists agreed that Costa Rica could see some economic and political bumps in the near future. The elected president will have to deal with these, and that their young age and inexperience may end up being detrimental to the country’s development.