Costa Rica Election: Too Much Democracy?

Voters in Costa Rica — one of Latin America’s most stable democracies — head to the polls this Sunday, February 4th to elect their president and 57-member legislature. All indicators suggest that the quadrennial process will once again proceed peacefully.

Yet, there is an undercurrent of dissatisfaction in this year’s election. A poll conducted three weeks before the election put the dissatisfaction in stark statistical terms: Nearly half of Costa Ricans don’t want any of the parties or candidates. Among those who do favor a party or a candidate, the preferences are wildly diverse. No party or candidate is consistently polling above 15 percent.

The signs on the streets mirror the poll numbers. Political banners, posters, and bumper stickers are scarce; no cars with loudspeakers are cruising through the neighborhoods blaring political messages; and no teenagers wearing party T-shirts are handing out campaign literature.

The electoral ennui can’t be attributed to a lack of political choice. Over two dozen political parties are running candidates for the legislature, and more than a dozen are also running candidates for president. The presidential candidates range from Jhon Vega, a communist, to Otto Guevara Guth, a free-market libertarian, and include all shades in between. There is even a disability rights candidate, Óscar López, as well a couple candidates promising to restore Christian values. Candidates for the legislature offer even more choices. Anyone in the capitol who supports cab drivers against Uber or prioritizes LGBTI rights can choose a candidate dedicated to their preferred cause.

Still, the bulk of the electorate remains unenthusiastic — and a focus on the issues isn’t winning many over. According to the polls, the economy in one form or another tops the list of issues that concern Costa Ricans. However, the second most mentioned concern is usually corruption. As a result, while most of the candidates propose plans to improve the economy, few of the voters believe them. The voters suspect that the only economy the candidates want to improve is their own.

Voter cynicism — and perhaps voter selfishness — may be part of the problem. For years now every responsible international entity from the World Bank to the OECD has urged Costa Rica to get its fiscal deficit under control via a combination of better tax collections, reductions in the compensations of public employees, and increased taxes. But nobody wants increased taxes — and not many trust the government to spend new revenues responsibly. Indeed, although both the current president, Luis Guillermo Solís Rivera, and the previous president, Laura Chinchilla Miranda, pressured the legislature to pass fiscal reform bills that included raising taxes, the legislature said no to both. The public appears to agree with the legislature. President Solís is poised to leave office with an approval rating in the 20-some percent range; President Chinchilla left with a lower approval rating.

Some Costa Ricans believe structural reforms to the government are required, and a new constitution is the way to make these reforms. Among those with this opinion is former Costa Rican president and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Óscar Arias Sánchez. After leaving office at the conclusion of his second term in 2010, he was known to mutter that the country is simply ungovernable under the current institutional arrangement. However, it’s hard to believe that a constitutional convention could reach a consensus that eludes the electoral process — and it may be a risk to convoke one.

Others just say that the country has too much democracy. Polls suggest that this sentiment isn’t uncommon. Only slightly over half the population now supports democracy, a decline from two-thirds a few years ago. This is among the lowest polled support for democracy in the Americas. Yes, one of the most stable democracies in the hemisphere is one of the least enamored with democracy.

Perhaps as a result, a 15 percent presidential frontrunner in this year’s election, Juan Diego Castro Fernández, is a populist with no real party or platform at all. The leadership of his National Integration Party could comfortably meet in the back of a restaurant by moving two tables together, and his platform could be scribbled on a couple napkins. His promise is simply to govern with a hard hand, and both his supporters and his opponents liken his appeal to President Donald Trump’s in the United States and President Rodrigo Duterte’s in the Philippines.

The latest poll, however, shows Castro now trailing Gerardo Fabricio Alvarado Muñoz of the National Restoration Party, who climbed to 17 percent support in the aftermath of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights’ January 9th ruling that Costa Rica must legalize same-sex marriage. Alvarado, an evangelical minister, is calling for Costa Rica to withdraw from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and defy the ruling.

Alvarado’s surge coupled with Castro’s steady support sparked a sharp decline in the value of Costa Rica’s debt on the international bond market. Analysts say that neither Castro nor Alvarado is presenting a coherent economic program, and that worries investors.

But the candidates who are proposing reasonably responsible economic policies are lagging in the polls. These candidates include Antonio Álvarez Desanti and Rodolfo Piza Rocafort of the two traditional parties, the National Liberation Party and the Social Christian Unity Party respectively, as well as Carlos Alvarado Quesada of the party that currently holds the presidency, the Citizens Action Party. When combined, the polled support for all three of these establishment candidates isn’t exceeding a third of the electorate.

Can a country have too much democracy? Plato thought so, but Costa Ricans will find out for themselves. Since it’s unlikely that any presidential candidate will reach the 40 percent vote threshold the constitution requires to win without a runoff, it’s almost certain that there will be a second election pitting the two top vote-getters in Sunday’s election against each other. Then it is certain that Costa Rica’s next president will be the choice of a disillusioned minority, while the legislature, elected in the first round, will be an uncoordinated cacophony of ideological opponents and special interests.

Ken is a former professor and writer in Costa Rica. His most recent books are “On American Freedom” and “Unfinished Revolution.”

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