A Vote for Change: Costa Rica Votes in a New President

Young boy stands outside of at polling station in San Salvador, Costa Rica, Sunday rallying last minute support for incoming president Luis Guillermo Solís. (Photo: Courtesy of Sarah Blaskey)Young boy stands outside of at polling station in San Salvador, Costa Rica, Sunday rallying last minute support for incoming president Luis Guillermo Solís. (Photo: Courtesy of Sarah Blaskey)With very little pomp and circumstance from the international community, Costa Ricans voted in their next president in runoff elections Sunday, April 6. Luis Guillermo Solís of the Citizen’s Action Party (PAC) won an historic victory, garnering an impressive 77.8 percent of votes cast and disrupting the 44-year streak of power-sharing between the two traditional parties, the National Liberation Party (PLN) and the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC).

Ultimately, the election is unlikely to change much for the average Costa Rican and the event was otherwise unremarkable. But even this apparently commonplace election can give us a bit of insight into what could be a developing shift in Costa Rican popular politics.

The important question is: Exactly what causes more than a million relatively traditional and reputedly passive people to stray from tradition and elect a party that has never held the presidential seat?

Change Is About More Than Just the Roads

In rural Costa Rica, it seems like elections always have been about the roads. That’s the trigger issue. When asked what changes they want, the people say they want better roads.

Now when people say they want change, it means more than just better roads. Now change is also equated with a stance against political corruption and an underlying feeling of under-expressed dissatisfaction with the status quo that has driven Costa Ricans to break with the traditional parties in 2014 and vote for something new.

“This time, I voted for change,” explained Luceidi, a young woman who stood outside a polling center in rural Costa Rica Sunday, sporting a red t-shirt with the gold words “Luis Guillermo Presedente.”

“They say all the time that Costa Rica is a democracy and yet all the time, it’s the same party, PLN, in power” Luceidi continued. “So I want to change. Maybe the candidate of PAC is not that good, but since it is a different party, it is going to change. It is going to force democracy again.”

To be sure, electing Solís was not a very radical statement. Though he never before held an elected position in government, Solís worked in several PLN administrations and was ambassador to Panama from 1994 to 1998. He broke from the PLN in 2005, and in 2009 affiliated himself with PAC. PAC itself is considered a centrist party. But while voting for Solís and PAC is not a progressive step per se, it is a symbolic step away from the status quo.

In the first round of elections in February, three parties split the majority of votes, none obtaining sufficient votes to prevent a runoff. In a surprise result not predicted by the polls leading up to the election, Solís came in first place with 30.7 percent of the votes, with PLN’s Johnny Araya trailing just behind with 29.7 percent. The Broad Front Party candidate, José María Villalta, came in third, with 17.3 percent of the votes – an impressive number for the left-oriented party’s first presidential bid, though polls had indicated he would be in the top two.

The Broad Front Party made a splash over the past year as its ratings in the polls skyrocketed, surpassing even those of PAC. Its platform was progressive and supported environmental justice, the rights of public workers, women and other oppressed groups, as well as the opening of participatory democracy in general. Villalta himself even openly supported gay marriage.

The massive turnout for a party with this platform demonstrates a section of society looking for something more than just “different.” Much of the Broad Front voter base consisted of disenchanted youth looking for progressive reforms.

“[Villalta] had many good proposals for the people with respect to human and civic rights. He also had many environmental proposals,” said Gretel Quiros Rojas, a university student who voted for Villalta in the first round. “Mainly the young people supported him. Even though his is a relatively new party, he had a lot of support.”

The established elite in Costa Rica reacted to the Broad Front’s popularity with smear campaigns, calling the Broad Front presidential candidate a communist and a Chavez-loving socialist.

Maria Florez-Estrada, legislative adviser to the Broad Front, told The Americas Program that she thinks the fear campaign and other pressures from the Catholic Church in particular had a lot to do with why the party didn’t make it to the runoffs, despite higher poll ratings than PAC. Florez-Estrada further explained:

“There were transnationals like Avon, Subway and other companies that pressured their employees to vote against the Front – the Supreme Electoral Tribunal even ruled on the matter, saying it was crime because election laws prohibit threatening or coercing workers to vote or not vote in a particular way.”

Despite the fearmongering, the Broad Front won eight new seats in the assembly and maintained the one seat previously held by Villalta himself. The majority of assembly seats still belong to the PLN, with PAC controlling the second most.

In the runoff on Sunday, most Villalta supporters apparently turned out to vote PAC. With their support, Solís went home with just under 1.3 million votes, the most votes cast for a presidential candidate ever in Costa Rica.

Many have speculated that it is because of corruption in the PLN and current President and PLN member Laura Chinchilla’s failed policies that the Costa Rican people want a new political party in power. Indeed, she is the least liked president throughout the hemisphere, based on her popularity polls. She has been accused of blatant corruption – notably, accepting a private jet to travel to a wedding in Peru. And in fairness, it seems that being the first woman president in a still socially conservative country has not helped her popularity either.

Ultimately, however, it is more than individual corruption or even misogyny that bred the discontent expressed in the 2014 elections. In this case, a vote for a third party symbolized a poorly articulated, but still apparent, call for change in the fundamental direction the country is headed – a direction currently guided by development banks and free-trade agreements, overseen by an outdated, conservative ruling class.

Crisis Breeds Struggle

The 2008 financial crash had a heavy and lasting effect on all of the countries of Central America and underwrites their recent history of social unrest. Costa Rica is no exception.

In a classic “shock doctrine” maneuver, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) stepped in after the financial crash of 2008 and helped to create “financial stability” in the face of the crisis in Costa Rica. In 2014, even after significant economic recovery, the IMF and World Bank continue to closely monitor the goings on in Costa Rica and pressure the government into neoliberal reforms.

Due to recent IMF economic “adjustment” suggestions for Costa Rica, the government recently opened the once public insurance, electricity and telecommunications sectors to private investment, according to a 2013 IMF report. The value of the Costa Rican Colon has been rocketing up and down for the past six months, though its general trajectory is toward devaluation compared with the US dollar. Wages and public services are being squeezed as public expenditures are “controlled.” And in general, the Costa Rican population is paying the price as the government throws open its doors to multinational corporations at the suggestion of the IMF and World Bank.

Under the supervision of the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) continues to play an ever-increasing role in the privatization of the Costa Rican economy. At publication of the 2013 IMF report, more than a billion US dollars were set to go to infrastructure projects across Costa Rica. All of these sound benign on paper, but in practice these loans have helped pave the way for unpopular projects such as environmentally destructive hydroelectric dams meant to produce energy to export.

All of these adjustments and loans come hand in hand with the Central American Free Trade Agreement, signed into law in 2007 and put into effect in Costa Rica in 2009. CAFTA has subtly opened the door for large investors to further exploit Costa Rican land and resources. And CAFTA is just the beginning. Costa Rica has recently shown interest in joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the largest free-trade deal to date.

But as the number of neoliberal policies increase, so does the resistance to them. In Costa Rica, 2013 saw an increase in social unrest as measured by a rise in the number of public demonstrations over previous years, according to the State of the Nation report. Though these protests covered a wide variety of issues, many are a direct result of the pressure these new policies have put on the Costa Rican public.

According to the Tico Times, during a protests sponsored by public sector unions on March 20, 2014, Luis Chavarría, secretary general of the Caja workers’ union, said strikers oppose “the neoliberal model implemented by Chinchilla’s administration, the granting of public works concessions to international companies, the privatization of public services, low wage increases and recent hikes in public services rates.”

There have been some victories along the way. Just last week, Costa Rica passed a law calling clean drinking water a human right. And sustained action at a local level across the country means that currently more than 75 percent of Costa Rica has banned GMO crops. It’s unlikely that Costa Ricans will stop there.

A Litmus Test of Public Opinion

While few Costa Ricans use the terms “neoliberalism” or “free-market policies” in describing what they don’t like and want to change, ultimately that’s what they mean. Many campesinos (rural farmers) may not know much about the IMF or World Bank or other international lenders, but they have heard about the mines, dams and privatization policies aimed at health care and other basic services. They know they are against those policies.

The 2014 elections in Costa Rica were essentially a litmus test for public opinion on these neoliberal policies. And public opinion overwhelmingly spoke out against them and in favor of a change.

Jesse Chapman contributed to this piece.