The Implications of Costa Rica’s Elections

Haakon Kay / CC-BY-SA-3.0

The success of the Citizens’ Action Party (PAC) candidate, Luis Guillermo Solis, in Costa Rica’s first round president elections took analysts by surprise. Despite having ranked third or fourth in every poll taken during the campaign cycle, Solis captured 30.8 percent of votes on February 2. His one percent margin of victory over the candidate of the ruling National Liberation Party (PLN), Johnny Arraya, has raised important questions about the potential outcome of the country’s upcoming second round, set for April 6.

To assess the implications of Costa Rica’s first round elections, the Dialogue and the Center for Inter-American Policy and Research at Tulane University hosted an event featuring two prominent Costa Rican analysts: Constantino Urcuyo, academic director of Centro de Investigación y Adiestramiento Político Administrativo, and Kevin Casas-Zamora, secretary for political affairs of the Organization of American States and a former vice president of Costa Rica. Dialogue senior fellow Manuel Orozco moderated the conversation.

According to Orozco, the election’s surprising result signaled Costa Ricans’ demand for change. Development experts across Central America have widely lauded Costa Rica’s economic model. Nonetheless, as Casas-Zamora noted, inequality remains high and relatively few Costa Ricans have benefited from the country’s modest levels of growth.
On the political front, Costa Ricans have grown increasingly apathetic towards the state’s democratic institutions. Political disaffection, which has remained constant for the last thirty years, increased throughout the four-year term of current president Laura Chinchilla, whose severely unpopular administration has been plagued by accusations of rampant corruption. Her party’s narrow defeat further signals Costa Ricans “distrust of continuity,” stated Casas-Zamora.

According to both Casas-Zamora and Urcuyo, Solis is well positioned to claim victory on April 6. His election would certainly mark a departure from the country’s current “neo-liberal” model, but questions remain as to how Solis might structure his administration and how his administration might work with a fragmented National Assembly.

No single political party gained more than one quarter of seats in Congress as Costa Ricans tended to cast divided votes in the presidential and congressional races. Although José María Villalta, the candidate polls predicted would face off against Arraya in a run-off, secured only 17 percent of votes, his party, the Broad Front Party (FA), won nine seats in Congress, eight more seats than it held under the Chinchilla government. As Urcuyo explains, FA legislators could use the party’s political capital to bargain with the executive and, thereby, weaken its power.

According to both Casas-Zamora and Urcuyo, this election cycle marks an end to Costa Rica’s “classic” electoral politics and displays the extreme weakness of political parties. Most notably, the engagement of the country’s youth in debates and on social media proved more important in driving results than massive media campaigns and popular jingles. In addition, citing the disarray of parties and increasing sense of malaise, both experts agreed that Costa Rica’s political system is in need of deep political reform.

The Dialogue is deeply grateful to the Center for Inter-American Policy and Research at Tulane University for its support of this event.

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