An alarming runoff in Costa Rica

Apologies for the recent lack of blogging; I’ve been busy with other projects. Normal service will resume after Easter, but there’s time now for a quick preview of the second round of Costa Rica’s presidential election, to be held on Sunday.

The first round, held at the beginning of February (see my preview here) saw four candidates quite evenly matched, but the two who went through to the runoff were Carlos Alvarado, from the incumbent Citizens’ Action Party, with 21.6%, and his namesake Fabricio Alvarado, from the small National Restoration Party, who led with 25.0%.

Costa Rica is the biggest success story of Central America; it consistently outranks its neighbors on most measures of welfare, democracy and human rights. The obvious explanation is that in 1949, following a brief civil war over a disputed election, it abolished its military. The fact that other countries have not followed suit tells you a good deal about their governments’ priorities.

One aspect of Costa Rica’s well-being was a stable two-party system, with power alternating between the Social Christian Unity Party and the National Liberation Party. The advent of a third, the more left-populist Citizens’ Action Party, at the beginning of the century did not fundamentally disturb the system.

But now things have fractured more seriously. For the first time in their history, the two traditional parties both failed to make the runoff. A Trumpist candidate, who for a time had led in the polls, picked up 9.5% of the vote, and Fabricio Alvarado, a Christian fundamentalist who came from nowhere on a platform of opposition to same-sex marriage, surged in the last fortnight to lead the first round.

So two non-traditional candidates face off on Sunday, but the dynamics of the contest are nonetheless familiar. Carlos Alvarado carries the hopes of urban voters, the young and the educated, while Fabricio Alvarado appeals more to older voters and the rural peasantry. Fabricio is also strong among the evangelical Protestant community.

Although the divide between the Alvarados is cultural and philosophical, economic issues are also critical to the election, with a pronounced recent downturn traced to concern about government debt. Opinion polls (collected by Wikipedia) are predicting a close race, but the majority show Fabricio Alvarado with the advantage.

Since other countries have chosen not to imitate the admirable features of Costa Rica, it’s to be hoped they wouldn’t imitate the election of a fundamentalist president either. But in our dangerous times, it would still not be a good example to set.

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