Latin America Advisor

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What Challenges Await Costa Rica’s Next President?

Rodrigo Chaves, an economist and former finance minister, was elected Costa Rica’s president on Sunday. // File Photo: Costa Rican Government. Rodrigo Chaves, an economist and former finance minister, was elected Costa Rica’s president on Sunday. // File Photo: Costa Rican Government.

Rodrigo Chaves, an economist and former finance minister, defeated former President José María Figueres in Sunday’s presidential runoff election in Costa Rica. Chaves, who ran as an anti-establishment maverick, has criticized Costa Rica’s traditional political parties and has vowed to bypass the Legislative Assembly by holding public referendums. To what can Chaves attribute his victory, and what will be the main challenges he faces after he takes office May 8? What are Chaves’ main policy objectives, and will he succeed in getting them implemented? What does the 57 percent voter turnout, low by Costa Rican standards, say about Chaves’ popularity and mandate to govern?

Carlos Denton, executive director at CID/Gallup: “During the six months that Rodrigo Chaves spent as Costa Rica’s finance minister, he discovered an entrenched and very expensive public bureaucracy that made change for the better almost impossible. The government spends 50 percent of its annual budget on salaries; this is double what any member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development allocates for this purpose, and much of this in recent years has been paid out using borrowed money. During his presidential campaign, Chaves offered to streamline government and to reduce government monopolies in the energy sector. If well-organized public-sector workers oppose his actions, he has promised to use the referendum mechanism laid out in the Constitution to achieve his goals. His political party only has 10 legislators in the 57-member Legislative Assembly, and cobbling together a working majority may be difficult on these kinds of issues. The referendum, only used once to ratify CAFTA, Costa Rica’s Free Trade Agreement with the United States and the other Central American countries, can be convened by a sitting president with only tax-related issues as allowed topics. Chaves won the presidency in an election where 43 percent of eligible voters did not go to the polls. This is the highest in history. Most observers believe that the extremely negative campaign (in which both the winner and his opponent participated) drove voters away from both sides. The hope is that wounds will heal quickly.”

Francisco Chacón-González, former Costa Rican congressman of the National Liberation Party (PLN) and former minister of communications: “With an abstention rate of 43 percent—slightly higher than in the first round, and high by Costa Rican standards—Rodrigo Chaves won comfortably against former President José María Figueres in a very contentious and polarized election. Without a consolidated party or team, with only two years of having returned to the country after 30 years of working abroad and with just 185 days of government experience, Chaves managed to convince the electorate that his anti-establishment and anti-corruption proposal was the best option to face the high unemployment and low economic growth that the country has been suffering for several years, aggravated by the pandemic. His triumph reflects the electorate’s weariness of traditional parties—including the PAC, which governed the country for the last eight years—and the rejection of Figueres, who in the past had been accused of receiving unjustified payments from a major government contractor, although formal charges were never filed. With only 10 of 57 deputies in the Legislative Assembly, Chaves will be forced to negotiate with the opposition parties a legislative agenda that will allow him to carry out his electoral proposal, while he will have to focus on forming his cabinet by resorting to figures outside his party, in order to reactivate the economy, generate employment and reduce the high cost of living. In his acceptance speech on election night, Chaves showed a conciliatory tone—far from the incendiary language of the campaign—and pledged to govern respecting dialogue, the Constitution and the laws.”

Eugenia Aguirre, researcher at the University of Costa Rica: “Chaves’ victory is a win for views that embrace social exclusion. It was also a rejection of traditional political parties. Deep down, Chaves’ rhetoric was based on anti-politics. His main challenges begin at the political level, first, rebuilding bridges with social sectors and different political groups after a highly confrontational campaign. Chaves will have to govern with a small legislative representation and with a political party that lacks officials trained for the purpose of assuming the work of government. Therefore, it will be understood that he will resort to a technocratic-meritocratic logic to appoint his teams with the limitations that this may imply in terms of political capability. The new government’s main objectives will revolve around reducing the cost of living, eradicating corruption and improving public services, all within the framework of the necessary macroeconomic balances. Most of Chaves’ promises would require legislative approval. Another urgent matter is the negotiation with the IMF to obtain the remaining disbursements that the outgoing government agreed upon with the lender. Regarding the low electoral participation, Chaves must be prudent as president as only 28.7 percent of the electorate voted for him. He did not win by a substantive margin of votes, and it will consequently be a challenge for him to win public support and sustain it throughout his term.” 

Bruce Wilson, professor of political science at the University of Central Florida: “Sunday’s runoff election revealed both the best and worst of contemporary Costa Rican democracy. On the best side, the Tribunal Supremo de Elecciones gave a master class in how to organize and run the fairest, freest elections in the hemisphere. After the polls closed and the results became clear, there were no street protests, no accusations of ‘stolen’ elections, no lawsuits contesting the result, and the losing candidate conceded quickly, accepting the legitimacy of the process. On the bad side, the quality of the two candidates contesting the runoff required Costa Ricans to choose between two very flawed candidates. The eventual winner, Chaves, is a political neophyte who was previously investigated and demoted from his job at the World Bank amid sexual harassment accusations and is currently being investigated in connection with illegal election funding schemes. The other candidate, José María Figueres was implicated, but not prosecuted, in a major corruption scandal after he finished his first term in office. Chaves ran as an anti-establishment outsider and promised to bypass the Legislative Assembly, where his party holds few seats, and instead use referendums to change laws. This is an unrealistic, laughably ill-informed, unworkable governance strategy. Referendums in Costa Rica are limited by law to one per year, and they generally take years to organize and execute. Additionally, successful referendums still require the Legislative Assembly to act to change the law, and the law clearly prohibits such votes on many policy issues that Chaves seeks to change, such as state pensions. Also, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court has set limits on what issues can appear in a referendum.” 

Tatiana Benavides-Santos, Atlanta-based international consultant: “Rodrigo Chaves’ victory is, among other issues, the result of citizens’ discontent with the traditional political class and political institutions’ performance, along with the perception that governments govern for powerful groups and for their own benefit. They found in Chaves’ discourse the opportunity for a change in the way of doing politics and look to him to be the game changer in the fight against inequality. But those aspects also made abstentionism the other winner of the competition. Demographic changes have made it difficult for parties to read the new scope of citizens’ interests. Nine out of 10 Costa Ricans do not currently feel identified with any party. The disconnect between the urban and high-tech part of the country, which benefits from centralized government policies and global market hyper-connectivity, and the periphery where there are higher levels of poverty and inequality and where state institutions deliver less, has made citizens lose confidence in voting as a mechanism to improve their lives. Chaves has proposed a reduction in the size of government, and he has pledged to reactivate economic growth and reduce unemployment, as well as to fight ‘corrupted elites’ and shake the structures of privilege. However, his government will have limited power in the Legislative Assembly, having only 10 legislative representatives. He and his recently created party, the PPSD, were incapable of making any electoral alliances on the way to the runoff. Opposition parties avoided risking their political capital with an unknown candidate. Besides, Chaves’ support might not last. A major reason for his victory was rejection of Figueres rather than strong backing for Chaves as a candidate, and that support could evaporate quickly.” 

Pablo Duncan-Linch, founding partner and country director for Costa Rica at CLC Global: “Chaves’ victory is the result of a rebellion against the elites. The difficult economic situation in recent years, together with structural needs, has generated a situation of malaise and anger toward the traditional political class, mainly in the rural and coastal provinces of Costa Rica, which have the country’s highest levels of poverty and social exclusion. Although Costa Rica has high social indexes, it still faces challenges in terms of inequality. In addition to the groups who perceive themselves as excluded from the benefits of the development model, some people have been distraught with corruption, especially in public works, that is attributed to the establishment. Another group has been upset with the inability of various administrations to resolve urgent structural problems, such as reforms of some public institutions. Chaves’ rhetoric has focused on the country’s economic crisis, with increasing poverty, inflation and foreign debt. During his campaign, Chaves declared that he intended to implement some of his economic proposals by decree in order to reduce the cost of living. Among his main challenges as president will be structuring his government, working on the formation of alliances in the face of an unfavorable legislative balance, uniting the country after a complex election campaign, dealing with confrontations with some of the main media organizations and to build trust, considering the low turnout in the elections.” 


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