Publisher’s note: Vaclav Masek Sánchez is a Guatemalan doctoral student in sociology at the University of Southern California (USC). He received his master’s degree from the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies (CLACS) at New York University (NYU). He investigates contemporary Central America. Follow him on @_vaclavmasek.
(CNN Spanish) — The presidential elections on Sunday April 3 in Costa Rica were seen as a referendum on the future of the 70-year-old political system in the nation’s most stable and one of the most prosperous in Central America. The second round between two candidates who registered low levels of support in the first round reveals that the country faces high levels of electoral abstention and a Congress where right-wing parties grow. The victory of Rodrigo Chaves Robles, based on interim resultsmeans that the party that will lead the Executive Power will not have a majority in the Legislative Power, so it will require agreements and dialogues with five other parties.
The polarized candidacies of José María Figueres Olsen and the elected president Chaves represented two different country projects: one that promised to rescue the politics of before, while the other raised an anti-system discourse. In a context where the outgoing government ended with high rates of citizen disapproval, the campaigns focused on attacks, rather than on proposals, failed to convince Costa Ricans to go to the polls. For a large part of the general population, the “patriotic charm” that resurfaces every four years during elections and promises, but does not achieve, transformational changes seems to be fading.
Held in February, the first round of the Costa Rican presidential elections rregistered a participation of 59.71%, what abstentionism means highest since 1958. And on Sunday in the second round dropped to 56.76%, thus, roughly one in four registered voters cast their vote on Sunday for one of the two finalist candidates, fragmenting the party system that has kept Costa Rica out of the political turbulence of Central America, but that much of it of the citizens seems to have come to regard him as corrupt and out of touch with the everyday problems of the people.
José María Figueres Olsen, 67, sought to govern the country for the second time. Educated at the West Point Military Academy and with a graduate degree from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, Figueres Olsen ruled Costa Rica from 1994 to 1998, four years after the death of his father, José Figueres. Ferrer. Known colloquially as “Don Pepe”, Figueres Ferrer was a figure that defined the nation and built Costa Rica’s largest political organization, the National Liberation Party (PLN), after leading the winning faction in the country’s brief civil war in 1948.
Figueres Olsen left power at the age of 43 and before the age of 50, when he was director of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, he was involved in a corruption scandal. The former president would charged US$ 906,000 in 2004 to the French telephone company Alcatel for an alleged consultancy that seemed more like an alleged political influence peddling to win contracts with a state company created by his father half a century ago, when the “Costa Rican miracle” was taking place Figueres Olsen denied having committed improper acts and defends his consulting work, and the Prosecutor’s Office dismissed the case in 2007 due to lack of evidence. These Figuerista nostalgias are what the current candidate promised to renew during the campaign and thus return Costa Rica to its golden age.
Figueres Olsen’s political antithesis was Rodrigo Chaves, a 60-year-old economist with a Ph.D. from Ohio University, who returned to Costa Rica in 2019 after nearly three decades at the World Bank (WB). There he rose to the rank of director as the World Bank’s chief representative in Indonesia, a major developing economy. There he was sanctioned for sexual misconduct, after a complaint of sexual harassment filed against him by two female employees, and left the BM shortly after. Keys denied on several occasions the accusations and downplayed the matter, stating that the investigators never proved that any sexual harassment had taken place, but he still received an unfavorable verdict from the WB’s internal court in June 2021, which demoted him although without firing him. The Costa Rican press also singled out Chaves for the opacity of his campaign financing. These indications of illegal financing generated questions that led to the opening of investigations by the electoral and criminal authorities against him. Chaves’s party, however, holds that there was nothing illegal, although the investigation by the Prosecutor’s Office keep going.
Chaves ran with a technocratic position on liberal economic foundations. Their platform It is socially conservative. She says that she is for law and order and against the ruling political class. Before being elected to preside over the country, Chaves, representative of the Social Democratic Progress Party (PPSD), had already been the great surprise of the elections, which had 25 candidates in the first round. Chaves seemed to shake off the negative effects of having been Minister of Finance briefly in the administration of outgoing President Carlos Alvarado Quesada, whose Citizen Action Party (PAC) was so unpopular in the first round that he was left without a representative in Congress. The PAC, born in 2000 with an anti-corruption discourse, broke in 2014 the bipartisanship that governed for eight years. In the February 6 elections, he received less of 1%, thus remaining without a single legislative seat for the period 2022-2026, after having had 14 in the previous period.
Democratic apathy shows that Costa Ricans are moving away from traditional partisanship. The debate prior to the second round it was an exchange of disqualifications. For Figueres it was not enough to appeal to his family and supporter tradition; it was the anti-political and outsider discourse of Chaves that was victorious. Now, Chaves will take office under important political-economic constraints. Not only will he not have a decisive majority in Congress, but he will have to deal with the effects of various policies approved by the unpopular outgoing government. In particular, the entry from Costa Rica to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), with the various reforms to be promoted that this implies; the entry into force of the new agreement 36 months with the International Monetary Fund (IMF); and a new and very controversy public employment law that will probably affect the performance of the public sector. And although there does not seem to be much at stake in terms of the general orientation of the country’s political and economic model, Chaves will have to maneuver the current economic and health crisis, in what will surely be a more polarized and conflictive country.