Election preview: Costa Rica

Costa Rica, widely regarded as the most successful democracy in Central America, goes to the polls tonight to elect a new president and legislature, in a complex and hotly-contested race.

This is only the first round of the presidential election; a runoff between the top two candidates will be held in early April. A first-round winner can win outright by topping 40% of the vote, but there’s no prospect of anyone doing that.

There are 13 candidates, five of whom have a serious chance of being in the top two. To make it more confusing, two of them have the same surname. Even classifying them from left to right is tricky.

Traditionally, Costa Rica has had two major parties: the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC; centre-right) and the National Liberation Party (PLN; centre-left, sort of). Their respective presidential candidates are Rodolfo Piza and Antonio Álvarez. (My 2014 preview gives some of the background.)

Then there’s the Citizens’ Action Party, a newer, more populist centre-left party, to which current president Luis Guillermo Solís belongs (presidents cannot serve consecutive terms). It was established at the beginning of this century to provide a more left-wing alternative to the PLN, which had drifted to the centre. Solís, however, has become mired in a major corruption scandal, and his party’s candidate, Carlos Alvarado, has been lagging in the polls – although he has recently made up ground and is still in contention to make the second round.

Finally there are two options on the right: Juan Diego Castro, a Trumpist, and Fabricio Alvarado, an evangelical Christian who has shot to prominence for his opposition to same-sex marriage (subject of a recent decision from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights). His surge in the polls seems to have come (as one would expect) mostly at the expense of Piza and Diego Castro.

If the polls are right, Fabricio Alvarado is likely to be in the runoff against either Álvarez or Carlos Alvarado, setting up a contest not just between left and right, but between establishment politics and the thrill of the outsider.

But with support so volatile and the candidates so close together, there could easily be surprises in store. And whatever happens tonight, the long gap before the runoff gives plenty of opportunity for people to reconsider their preferences.

The 57 seats in the Legislative Assembly are elected by proportional representation, so there is no prospect of the new president enjoying a majority in their own right. The PLN currently holds the largest number of seats (18), and has been able to control proceedings in alliance with the PUSC and some smaller parties.

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