Costa Rica: Unclear Outlook

Leftist academic Luis Guillermo Solís will likely win the second round of elections in April, experts say. (Photo:

Former San Jose mayor Johnny Araya has experience but is seen as staid and status-quo, experts say. (Photo:

Costa Rica’s political fragmentation may make economic reforms impossible, experts warn. 


Inter-American Dialogue 


Outsider Luis Guillermo Solís, who is running on an anti-corruption platform, and ruling party candidate Johnny Araya will face off in an April 6 runoff for Costa Rica's presidency after finishing as the top vote-getters in Sunday's first round. José María Villalta of the leftist Broad Front Party conceded after finishing third. Will Villalta's voters switch their allegiance to Solís in the runoff? What would Araya have to do to best his rival in April? What are the biggest challenges facing Costa Rica's next president?


Kevin Casas-Zamora, secretary for political affairs at the Organization of American States and former vice president of Costa Rica: The results of Costa Rica's first-round election amount to a political earthquake. By unexpectedly topping the first round with 31 percent of the vote, center-left candidate Luis Guillermo Solís, from the PAC, has become the favorite ahead of the runoff. In contrast, the result marks a debacle for the ruling PLN and its candidate Johnny Araya, who got 29 percent after enjoying commanding leads in polls for much of the campaign. The 17 percent of the vote reaped by leftist candidate José María Villalta of the Broad Front is certain to support Solís, who will also collect a share of the anti-status quo vote that went to other parties. They include the right-wing Libertarian Movement, which came in fourth with 11 percent. Hence, by the look of it, Araya faces a nearly insurmountable task in the runoff. His result can only be read as a striking rejection of his leadership as well as of the PLN administration led by President Laura Chinchilla. All the same, Araya will insist on the importance of well-tested leadership to tackle the country's mounting structural problems. This is something that Solís, a virtual unknown at the start of the campaign, will be hard pressed to offer. In a country that appears eager for change, this argument is unlikely to get much traction. The allocation of seats yielded by the congressional election may, however, provide Araya with a more promising campaign theme. Amid a severe increase in legislative fragmentation, the PLN will remain the largest party in Congress (18 seats out of 57). The PAC will control a paltry 13 seats, thus suggesting that in the event of a Solís victory in the runoff, he will face very severe challenges to govern. Such fragmentation and the serious weakening of the PLN, long the pillar of the party system, will make for a testy four years, during which profound political, social and economic reforms will be almost impossible to adopt. The country is in dire need of reforms to amend the dysfunctional workings of its political system, an issue that was, unfortunately, absent from campaign debates.


Mitchell Seligson, professor and director of the Latin American Public Opinion Project at Vanderbilt University: First, the Costa Rican political party system, so long a stable two-party competitive system, is in complete disarray. The old PLN/PUSC division is gone, with the PUSC fading into the single digits and the PLN being confronted by an ever-wider range of opposition parties. Second, the expectations that the populist left, so prominent in such countries as Venezuela, Nicaragua, Ecuador and Bolivia, would catch on in Costa Rica have not been realized. The Frente Amplio (Broad Front) candidate, José M. Villalta, who had earlier surged in the polls, fell well below the 20 percent mark in the election. He was branded as a 'Communist' and 'radical' during the campaign, charges that may have diminished his otherwise considerable appeal. Third, voter discontent with the status quo is one clear message from this election. President Laura Chinchilla of the PLN is the least popular chief executive in memory, according to the polls, not surprising given repeated corruption scandals and indications of incompetence that have been the hallmark of her administration. Many voters want a change and would not be happy seeing a third consecutive PLN government when the current one is so unpopular. Fourth, Otto Guevara's Libertarian (read neoliberal) party voters will likely throw most of their shrinking voting strength behind Araya, seeing Solís as too far to the left. Even with that conservative support, Araya is not likely to have enough votes to overcome the combined supporters of Solís' party (the PAC), plus those of Villalta's Frente Amplio and others who are strongly committed to rotation in office. The outcome of the runoff is far from a done deal, but at this point it looks probable that the anti-PLN voters will coalesce around Solís. Finally, fears that abstention would increase were unfounded, as they hover around 32 percent of registered voters, a number far higher than the traditional one-fifth in decades past, but below the 35 percent level in 2002, and nearly identical to the last election.


Bruce M. Wilson, professor of political science at the University of Central Florida: This is only the second time since the 1948 civil war that a runoff election between the top two candidates has been necessary to determine the next president of Costa Rica. In the two months between now and the second-round election, Araya and the PLN may struggle to attract other parties' voters to his cause: Araya is the representative of an unpopular incumbent party headed by the least popular president in Latin America. Also, preliminary election returns show Araya failed to win the vote in San José, where he was mayor for more than two decades and where he was believed to have significant support. Solís and his center-left PAC, on the other hand, may have an easier task attracting some of the 17 percent of the electorate that voted for the leftist FA whose sympathizers likely lean more toward the programmatic goals of the PAC than those of the PLN. In 2002, the second-round election saw turnout fall by almost 200,000 voters, but it is unclear who might benefit from a lower voter turnout in the April runoff. While there are some serious economic and social issues (such as debt, unemployment and corruption) that require the immediate attention of the next president, no matter who wins control of the presidency, his ability to govern effectively will be hampered by not having the necessary 29 deputies to form a majority and the presence of deputies from eight different parties. Preliminary results show the largest party in the 57-member Legislative Assembly will be the PLN with about 19 deputies, PAC will have just 14, while FA and PUSC will have 10 and eight deputies respectively. Compounding this governance problem is that the Costa Rican president is one of the weakest in the Americas and party discipline is famously ineffective.


José Antonio Muñoz, partner at Arias & Muñoz in San José: Who will the democratic free-enterprise right support in the April 6 runoff? This is a far more important question than who the left will support. Solís, who is on his first presidential run but is no newcomer to politics, is sure to get the support of the left without even asking for it, but his future success if elected requires the economic growth and vibrancy for which Costa Rica's private sector has become known in the past three decades. At the same time, Mr. Araya's PLN is no longer able to rely on its proximity with what used to be a protected productive sector. Voters have made it overwhelmingly clear that they fault the incumbent PLN for the inefficiencies, lack of bureaucratic accountability and corruption cases that have plagued the past eight years of PLN government. At the same time, the right's electoral efforts in Sunday's elections yielded no tangible results. The democratic business right is thus faced with the choice of either supporting the stricken PLN and Mr. Araya, the embodiment of statism, inefficient big government and lax controls; or of elevating the country's hopes by engaging with Mr. Solís' left-of-center and new-to-power party, which predicates good government and good governance and which would desperately require the productive sector to continue driving Costa Rica's dynamic growth. I trust that the business right will lick its wounds quickly and choose to support a candidate that is perceived as forward-looking and supporting democratic checks and balances over one who is perceived as staid and status-quo.

Republished with permission from the Inter-American Dialogue's daily Latin America Advisor


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