Latin America Advisor

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Who Has the Edge Ahead of Costa Rica’s Runoff Vote?

Former Costa Rican President José María Figueres, pictured voting on Sunday, was the top vote-getter in the first round of the country’s presidential election on Sunday. He faces former Finance Minister Rodrigo Chaves in the runoff. // Photo: Figueres Campaign. Former Costa Rican President José María Figueres, pictured voting on Sunday, was the top vote-getter in the first round of the country’s presidential election on Sunday. He faces former Finance Minister Rodrigo Chaves in the runoff. // Photo: Figueres Campaign.

Former Costa Rican President José María Figueres took an early lead in the first round of the country’s presidential election on Sunday. With three-quarters of polling stations reporting, Figueres had 27 percent of the vote, while former Finance Minister Rodrigo Chaves was in second place with just under 17 percent. Which candidate has the edge ahead of the April 3 runoff, and what endorsements and other factors will decide the race? What is driving support for Figueres and Chaves, and what are the biggest differences between the two? What do the National Assembly results in Sunday’s election indicate about governability and Costa Rica’s political outlook?

Francisco Chacón-González, attorney at Zurcher Odio & Raven and former National Liberation Party (PLN) member of Costa Rica’s Legislative Assembly: “A low turnout, with abstentionism of 40 percent, gave the preliminary advantage to José María Figueres of the PLN, whose party support base is solid and remained practically unaltered during the entire campaign. On the other side, Rodrigo Chaves of the PSD, a candidate with an unknown party, had a sustained growth in the last two weeks and managed to pick up an important part of the mass of voters adverse to Figueres, the political figure with the highest rejection rate among the electorate. Chaves’ rise was due mostly to the disenchantment provoked by the poor performance of the centrist Lineth Saborío of the PUSC in the debates. Until recently, she was the candidate with the best chance to face Figueres in the runoff. To win on April 3, Chaves will have to convince supporters of the religious conservatism of Fabricio Alvarado, the center-right Eliécer Feinzaig, and Saborío, that his anti-establishment proposal is a better option than the experience and teamwork that Figueres offers. Both candidates are pro-business, and the ideological differences in the economic field are few, although Figueres is an advocate of a more interventionist and dirigiste state, which Chaves accuses of crony capitalism and corruption. Preliminary results show a Legislative Assembly with 19 of 57 seats for the PLN, followed by the PUSC, with 10 and the PSD with nine. This will force whoever wins to look for alliances that will allow for agreements that favor the governability of the country.”

Bruce M. Wilson, professor of political science at the University of Central Florida: “While it is difficult to say which candidate has the edge in the April 3 runoff election, Figueres may have a slight advantage because he was the largest vote winner in the first round, has one of the most famous last names in Costa Rica and is widely known as a former president. But Costa Rican elections can pivot very quickly as was just shown when outsider Rodrigo Chaves jumped from 8 percent support in the final poll before the election to 16 percent and then to second place on election day. According to polls, voters’ top three concerns are unemployment, corruption and inflation. Both candidates present themselves as strong on economic growth with similar center-right ideas about governance. So, for voters the biggest differences between the two candidates might be the scandals that follow both of them. Figueres, for his part, resigned as leader of the World Economic Forum in 2004 due to a corruption scandal, the second most important issue for voters. Chaves was demoted at the World Bank after a sexual harassment investigation. In the second-round, voters will only have to focus on the remaining two candidates rather than 25 candidates in the first round. No matter who wins the runoff, Sunday’s Legislative Assembly results suggest the next president will have a very difficult job governing the country. Figueres’ party, the PLN, won 19 of the 57 seats in the assembly, while Chaves’ party, PPSD, secured just nine seats. To pass most bills, 29 votes are required.”

James Bosworth, author of the Latin America Risk Report: “Figueres wants moderate economic reforms while Chaves has pointed toward a greater preference for austerity. In addition, Figueres is more likely to have a working majority coalition among the very divided Legislative Assembly because his party is the largest and will be building that coalition from the center of the assembly instead of the right side of the political spectrum. However, the second round will be about character rather than policy. Figueres is beginning his runoff campaign by focusing on respect for women, a clear attack against reports that Chaves mistreated female subordinates while at the World Bank. There are also serious questions about Chaves’ campaign finance mechanisms, which could lead to additional corruption allegations. While Chaves will attempt to respond by attacking some older corruption allegations against Figueres, there is a clear imbalance in terms of which side is worse. Figueres has several additional advantages going into the second round. The first-round results demonstrate a strong base of support, while Chaves’ late surge with a brand new party may find a hard time consolidating his gains. Figueres is likely to gain the endorsement of a number of his first-round rivals, both due to ideological preferences and the fact that many of them simply don’t like Chaves as a person.” 

Pablo Duncan-Linch, senior partner at CLC-LLYC: “Costa Rican elections once again proved unpredictable, as most of the polls initially suggested a runoff election between former President José María Figueres of the PLN and former Vice President Lineth Saborío of the PUSC. In the end, former World Bank official and Finance Minister Rodrigo Chaves took second place. The results also include the excellent performance in the Central Valley by the libertarian leaning Partido Liberal Progresista and the leftist Frente Amplio, which add up to 20 percent of the Legislative Assembly. Voters wanted a change due to the erosion of the current ruling party, but they wanted a ‘safe change,’ that is, leaders with experience and knowledge of government issues. This second part of the campaign could focus more on policy and economic issues, as both candidates have impeded issues regarding scandals, upsetting some voters. Figueres initially has more support. However, the key for the candidates is to attract voters who cast ballots for other options, especially Alvarado, Saborío, and Feinzaig, some of whom could be more sympathetic to Chaves. Both Figueres and Chaves have extensive credentials and will seek to distance themselves from the current government and personify a ‘safe change.’ The challenge is that Chaves was a cabinet member in the current administration, and Figueres supported the current president in the last election. The Legislative Assembly will continue to be complex, but it seems that it will have more homogeneity. The leadership of deputies such as Rodrigo Arias, Eliécer Feinzaig and Fabricio Alvarado can generate scenarios of greater governability.”

Carlos Denton, executive director of CID/Gallup: “Voters in Costa Rica made their selection in Sunday’s election based on the urgent need to resolve the country’s unemployment rate (expected to reach 17.5 percent this year), the declining value of the currency (with a concomitant rise in the cost of living) and the need for growth in foreign investment. They picked as candidates for the runoff former President José María Figueres, who was directly responsible for creating a ‘San José South’ during his four-year term, from 1994 to 1998. He personally convinced companies such as Intel and Hewlett-Packard to install operations in free zones, and these led to many others including many in the medical area. Rodrigo Chaves, who has a PhD in economics from The Ohio State University, had been country director for the World Bank in several developing nations that with his help managed to turn around. Both Figueres and Chaves were able to stand out among the 25 candidates with specific, understandable and attractive plans to cure their country’s ills. Figueres has a more traditional campaign structure and strategy, while Chaves, representing a new political party, has a much more aggressive group. Many were expecting a severely fragmented legislature, with 38 parties vying for a seat, but the voters selected only six parties to serve. It will be possible to construct alliances that can develop, along with the president, solutions to the problems facing the country.” 

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