Costa Rica’s Politics of Change

After nearly two weeks of hand-counting over a million and a half ballots from the February 5 national elections, the Costa Rican Supreme Electoral Tribunal finally announced the results of the presidential vote. Former President Oscar Arias, of the National Liberation Party (PLN), won the presidency by a surprisingly low 40.9% of the votes, compared with Ottón Solís, of the Citizen’s Action Party (PAC), who ran an equally surprisingly close race with 38.9%. The margin of victory was slightly over 18,000 votes, the lowest in many years. Five other candidates earned the remaining votes, 8% to the Libertarian Movement Party (PML) and 1% to the Homeland First Party. Following the last decade’s trend, the abstention rate was over 30%, similar to the 2002 regular elections’ rate of 31%.

As for the 57-member Legislative Assembly, PLN won 25 seats, PAC won 18, PML won 6, the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC) won 4, and four small parties won the remaining 4 seats, making this assembly the most divided in the country’s history. Like the president, deputies are prohibited from running for immediate re-election, so there was a complete turnover of elected officials.

Elections History
Although democracy is considered to have been launched in Costa Rica with the 1899 elections, the contemporary political system was established after the 1948 uprising led by Don José “Pepe” Figueres aimed at protesting a disputed presidential election. While the 44-day civil war, in which 2,000 people were killed, was the bloodiest event in 20th century Costa Rican history, it led to the establishment of a more representative government based on a constitution drafted in 1949.

In the modern period, Costa Rica has evolved into being the most peaceful and progressive state among the original five Central American republics. It also possesses the area’s highest standard of living and has the healthiest and most literate population. So its politics must be considered within a context of affluence and stability that is lacking in much of the hemisphere.

PLN and Arias
Until 1986, elections were characterized by contests between Figueres’ PLN and various anti-PLN groups. In 1983, PLN’s opponents coalesced into the PUSC, and after 1986, PLN and PUSC dominated the country’s politics, typically receiving the combined votes of more than 90% of registered voters. In 2002, however, the populist PAC emerged, and won 14 seats in the assembly, preventing either major party from holding a legislative majority. PAC also forced a run-off election for the presidency for the first time in Costa Rica’s modern political history.

Of the two original political parties, PLN traditionally has presented a left-of-center, social democratic agenda, which has contributed to producing a welfare state with a national public health system and an outstanding public education system. It also became famous for abolishing the country’s army in 1949. One of its outstanding later leaders has been Oscar Arias who received the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to end the wars in Central America. But in recent years the PLN has become essentially middle-of-the-road and pragmatic. In fact, the 2006 candidate, Arias, has supported the Central American Free Trade Agreement – Dominican Republic (CAFTA-DR) which has yet to be ratified by the legislature. The party also has been disgraced by the scandalous financial activities of its 1994-1998 President José María Figueres, son of the country’s revolutionary leader, who is but one of three recent presidents to allegedly accept bribes from foreign cell phone providers.

PUSC’s leader for many years, was Rafael Calderón Fournier, son of pre-revolutionary leader Rafael Angel Calderón Guardia, who was also accused of accepting such bribes while he was president from 1990-1994. Although PUSC has been moderately rightwing, and has tended to represent conservative members of the business and professional elites, Calderon’s problems with alleged bribes from foreign cell phone providers, and the recent similar activities of PUSC president Miguel Angel Rodríguez, who followed Figueres in office, undercut Calderon’s influence in PUSC and severely damaged the party’s political future.

The Electoral Process
Because the political agendas of the PUSC and the PLN have drifted relatively close to each other, they have opened themselves to be challenged by more populist elements in the country, a growing trend of the 21st Century. In 2001, PAC was formed by Ottón Solís, an ex-PLN deputy and former minister of planning during Arias’ first term, in order to challenge the “ideological centrism” of the two parties with a “third force.” Backed by a number of former PLN and PUSC leaders, he presented a plan emphasizing popular participation in government, public ethics and transparency, opposition to neo-liberal economic reforms, and governmental guarantees to ensure social mobility and poverty reduction. However, Solís was a candidate ahead of his time, and he was soundly defeated in the 2002 elections. Nevertheless, his new party won 14 seats in the assembly, thereby undermining PUSC President Abel Pacheco’s efforts to enact legislation. Then, in 2006, national politics were drastically changed when PAC became the country’s second most popular party, while PUSC poorly ranked fourth.

Political issues were more clearly presented this year than in previous campaigns. The commonly heard term “voto útil,” meaning “useful vote,” was said to symbolize the voter’s faith in their role in the electoral process to stimulate change. In other words, instead of simply adhering to one’s old biases or supporting family traditions, many voters now voted “with their heads.” The leading issue appears to have been CAFTA-DR, backed by PLN and its candidate, in contrast to the PAC and its candidate calling for a re-negotiation of the agreement. Another related issue was the role of the United States in its efforts to impose the so-called “Washington consensus,” with its structural adjustment policies, free trade, and emphasis on exports. Solís called for changes in these policies, which, according to many critics have done little to reduce the 20% poverty rate that is now at its highest level since 1994. Furthermore the issue of corruption associated with the three past presidents tainted both leading parties.

Electoral Issues
Candidate Solís conducted an intense campaign in which he held a series of face to face discussion meetings with voters (23 in January alone). Holding a doctorate in economics, Solís was quite at ease with discussions of economic issues. Many of his ideas were summed up in his statement that ”the middle class is bordering on poverty and the poor are at the point of misery….Something bad is happening in Costa Rica: much wealth is produced, but few benefit.”

Candidate Arias ran a more haughty campaign, and refused to debate his chief opponent in the month before the elections. His campaign platform was based on a “si se puede” (yes we can) approach filled with positive proposals. But he also advocated increasing both taxes and social spending, while promising macroeconomic discipline. He strongly supported CAFTA-DR and maintained that by accepting the agreement, Costa Rica can become the first “developed” country in Latin America. He denied that he was a neoliberal, but said he wanted to “balance” the populism of the old PLN with some of the economic philosophy of the right.

According to a poll conducted in April, 2005, the greatest national problem in Costa Rica was considered to be the high cost of living, coupled with inadequate income to cover basic necessities. Other problems included inflation, public corruption, CAFTA-DR, and the growing lack of public security. Political analysts also pointed to a publicly perceived lack of direction and decision-making in the government. These issues and attitudes were reflected in the political changes of 2006, and they will emerge again in the upcoming years of policy-making with the new Arias administration, as well as in future elections.