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Costa Rica election

A Quick Summery of Sunday’s Costa Rica Election: What Happened?

Two days after Ticos went to the polls in the 18th free and fair Costa Rica election in a row (a miracle for this part of the world), we provide an idiot’s guide to what happened.

One of the best things about Costa Rica is its history of uneventful elections. Actually, that’s the best thing about Costa Rica, especially when you look at the part of the world where it’s located.

Uneventful elections are not, historically, the mainstay of Central American (or Latin American) politics. Costa Ricans, to their great credit, prefer uneventful to the chaotic alternatives they see not a million miles away elsewhere.

And uneventful needn’t mean boring.

There’s color and noise everywhere during elections, as people get out and about with the flags, honking their horns, and celebrating their democracy. It’s a beautiful thing to see, and as journalist Tim Rogers, a renowned Nicaragua observer, noted over the weekend, democracy in action in Costa Rica only highlights the differences with its northern neighbor.

For many Nicaraguans, it’s painful to see the civic celebration today in Costa Rica,” Rogers tweeted. “[Costa Rica is] a sister country, a neighbor, with a shared border, a shared history, many shared families… and a country on another path, towards freedom and democracy. Two countries so close and so far.

Rogers’ words should be cherished by Costa Ricans – many of whom bitch and complain, or don’t bother to vote. Things could be worse for them. They could be living in a dictatorship.

That’s not to say there aren’t real issues to tackle in Costa Rica. I know that in every election, in every country, they say this, particular election is the most important one ever. They all say that, every time, everywhere.

But in Costa Rica, this one really was the most important one, if not ever, than for many years.

Costa Rica is not in a good place right now.

One can argue that the pandemic wasn’t the fault of the outgoing Alvarado administration, and that nobody else would have done better.

I have some sympathy towards that argument, although it’s true the Alvarado administration botched the pandemic.

Unemployment soared to unprecedented levels and people are poorer now than they have been in years. The current administration oversaw a country where poverty rose to over 26% in 2020 (down to 23% now), the highest levels in decades. In the meantime, the cost of living has risen. Costa Rica is also broke, with a national debt amounting to some 70% of GDP.

In short, the current administration is leaving the country in a far worse position than it found it in 2018. But that said, I have a hard time believing anyone else would have done better.

Anyone unlucky enough to have won the 2018 election would have botched its pandemic response.

If Fabricio Alvarado (Carlos Alvarado’s 2018 opponent) had won, he would be leaving office in utter ignominy with his party wiped out too. Of that I have little doubt.

It’s no wonder why, despite, the colors and the fanfares and the civic pride of elections in Costa Rica, voter participation is at an all-time low.

Some 40% of eligible voters didn’t bother going to the polls on Sunday, the lowest turnout in decades. Decades of incompetence, corruption scandals, and a general feeling that their politicians don’t care about them have led to Ticos not caring about their politicians either. The mismanagement of the pandemic heightened this apathy and contempt.

So, a couple of days later to let people catch their breath a little, and to get a handle on the final numbers, how was this general election, the 18th under the current constitution? What were the surprises?

The biggest surprise was not a surprise at all. The ruling PAC party of President Carlos Alvarado was obliterated. Not only did PAC not manage to gain any foothold in the presidential election, with their candidate Welmer Ramos only – at time of writing – winning 0.66% of the vote, they were also wiped out in the legislature, losing all their remaining seats. Eight years of executive power will do that, especially when the executive is as unpopular as it has been – and Carlos Alvarado is definitely among the least popular presidents in Latin America.

Even if Alvarado’s administration had done a better job, the chances of PAC winning a third consecutive term in office would be wafer thin, anyway. Costa Ricans will give a party two terms in a row (call it the benefit of the doubt), but they’ve never given a party three, at least not this side of the 1948 Civil War. They’re sick of them after two terms, and certainly wouldn’t break that tradition voting in another PAC administration.

So yeah, they were toast. Even if they hadn’t all but wrecked the country. Adios.

A real surprise to me was the failure of PUSC to make more of an impact.

Ever since their own wipeout in 2006, where eight years of power fell to the PLN’s Oscar Arias (again, Ticos will never give a party three consecutive terms), and their presence in the legislature cratered (although not as much as PAC’s has right now), they’ve been on a bit of a comeback since then, gradually gaining legislative seats every four years.

The smart money was saying this would be PUSC’s year, with their presidential candidate making it through to the run-offs, and collecting more seats in the legislature. They collected some real talent in 2022, but things didn’t pay off. Lineth Saborio led a lackluster campaign, with one Costa Rican friend of mine saying she’s like “a pizza box without the pizza inside“. What could have been a comeback story turned into a damp squib.

Everyone knew that Figueres (who was president in the 1990s) of the PLN would make it through to the next round, so that was no surprise at all.

At time of writing, he holds some 27% of the vote. That’s well shy of the 40% he needs to win outright in the first round, but more than enough to catapult him into pole position in the April run off. He’s well ahead of the 16.7% held by Rodrigo Chaves, who’ll be joining him in the run off.

Put it this way, in 2018, Fabricio Alvarado won the first round with 25% of the vote. Carlos Alvarado came second with 21.63%. That was a far closer election in the first round. Worth point out though, that election had 13 candidates competing rather than 25 this year.

As mentioned, Rodrigo Chaves will be competing against Figueres in April, which is the biggest surprise of the election.

Most observers expected a Figueres-Saborio run off or a Figueres-Alvarado (Fabricio). No-one saw this coming, especially given Chaves’ ties with the current administration (he was the Finance Minister for a few months before quitting early in the pandemic) and the allegations of sexual harassment swirling over his head from his time working at the World Bank.

Figueres himself also has a cloud over him in the form of corruption allegations regarding the French telecommunications company Alcatel, that led him to resign from his post at the World Economic Forum in 2004.

So we have, in the words of one commenter on Twitter, a run off between “the corrupt guy and the sexual harasser“. This will do little to bring more voters to the party in April, when they run off against each other to see who becomes president. Expect voter apathy to remain high.

Figueres and Chaves are both center-left, although both – seemingly – more pro-business than Alvarado and PAC.

Figueres, in his first time around as president from 1994 to 1998, attracted fierce criticism for trying to decrease the size of the bloated public sector, something every president since has also failed to do. An irony is, of course, that it was his father who created the massive public sector in the first place. Much of the criticism against him back then was that he was dismantling his father’s legacy.

This time around, Figueres talks a lot about creating a more business-friendly Costa Rica. The problem is, he wants to use public funds to do that, and Costa Rica is broke.

Chaves appears more realistic about Costa Rica’s financial situation.

He’s pledged to reform the pension system and abolish “luxury pensions”, among other reforms. Problem is, we’ve heard it all before. This is something many have tried (or talked about trying), but all have failed to do. Decreasing the size of Costa Rica’s bloated public sector is the most important thing the country needs. Can this guy do that? Or will he end up kicking it down the road to the next president like everyone else does?

The next two months now will be all about Figueres and Chaves. Will the Figueres mighty family name recognition win out? Or will the relatively unknown Chaves pull off a shock win? How much will the scandals behind each candidate affect voter turn out? Roll on April 3.

James Dyde is the editor of He lives in Escazu, Costa Rica.

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