It’s official: Outsider Rodrigo Chaves took home 53 percent of votes in the Costa Rican presidential election on Sunday and will take office on May 8 after defeating José María Figueres, one of the highest-profile politicians in the country who served as president from 1994 to 1998. OAS monitors noted that election-day voting was orderly and carried out without incident.
The election was a referendum on decades of politics defined, by Central American standards, by relative stability and pluralism, but also marked by transcendent regional issues like economic inequality, bitter polarization about women’s and LGBTQ rights, and disenchantment with political parties.
“An anti-system message of change was more powerful than the doctrinal clarity of a party with decades of governing experience,” Argentinian political scientist Dolores Gandulfo said in a post-election Twitter Space on Sunday.
The Costa Rican electorate skews discontent. A startling and unprecedented 43 percent of all registered voters stayed home Sunday, and while three-quarters of citizens say they prefer democracy as a political system, just one quarter say they are satisfied with it. Disapproval of the outgoing administration peaked at 62 percent in March, per University of Costa Rica pollsters. Of the 3.5 million registered voters, half are between 18 and 35 years old.
Chaves is a 60-year-old formerly obscure ex-World Bank official and treasury minister who got his PhD in economics from Ohio State. He campaigned on lowering the cost of household goods by executive decree, removing tax exemptions for the wealthy, deregulating commerce, mandatory bilingual education, and the creation of a national cryptocurrency.
He hasn’t shied away from lobbing insults at the press, and his campaign website promises to “make Costa Rica prosperous again.”
Chaves, whose conservative party, Social Democratic Progress, was founded in 2018, borrowed talking points from Nayib Bukele in billing himself as a break from the political establishment — even referring to his opponents as “those who have always been in power (los mismos de siempre),” the Salvadoran president’s signature phrase.
Figueres campaigned on protecting the environment and rights of women and minority groups, a national literacy campaign, overhauling state healthcare administration, campaign finance reform, and acquiring better technology and new international alliances to counteract drug trafficking.
While Figueres, a 67-year-old engineering graduate of West Point and Harvard whose father served three terms as president, came in first place in the first round of the election contested by 25 parties in February, in the second round the insurgent Chaves pulled ahead by between 11 and 4 percentage points in March polling.
Figueres’ National Liberation Party, rocked by corruption scandals, has won nine presidential elections since 1953, but has not ruled since 2014. Costa Rican political scientist Tatiana Benavides says that a key challenge for Figueres was presenting his family’s party in a new light. “His party has been ravaged by the weakening of bipartisanism,” she argues.
Up to Six Years in Prison
With the country’s fragile pandemic economy and high unemployment top-of-mind in the campaign, Figueres and Chaves staked out positions attuned to financial markets, saying they would work closely with the IMF —with whom the country signed a $1.8 billion debt relief agreement last year— and promising to reduce the government deficit and increase foreign investment and tourism. Both promised to increase penalties for corruption.
Perhaps given that overlap, the campaign took on a decidedly personal tone. “Both have had a hostile and aggressive electoral campaign,” said Ilka Triminio, director of the Latin American Social Science Faculty. “There are important accusations of ethical problems against the candidates, and that has weighed greatly on the spirits of the electorate.”
On one hand, she’s referring to the sexual harassment accusations made against Chaves by two of his female World Bank colleagues between 2008 and 2013 that led to his demotion. Chaves drew the ire of women’s rights advocates during the campaign as he varyingly denied and minimized the allegations.
“What will be the international image of Costa Rica when it negotiates with financial institutions,” asked Benavides in the Twitter Space, “when we know that there is a stain on the president’s behavior?”
Chaves is also facing a Supreme Electoral Tribunal investigation into illicit campaign finance for paying for personnel, ads, and his campaign HQ from a parallel fund not passing through his party, a crime punishable by up to six years in prison. He had also refused to disclose donors and campaign spending to the public, as required by law.
Also present over the weekend was an undercurrent of intimidation. A businessman and Chaves supporter claims to have paid for a Saturday night messaging campaign targeting the 74,000 party representatives at polling stations. “The electoral code punishes electoral crimes with four to six years in prison,” reads the message. “Your school had better not be in the list of reported incidents.” Chaves denied having any knowledge of the affair.
His opponent Figueres faced attacks and criticism of his own making for having broken World Economic Forum regulations in accepting $900 thousand in consulting fees from a French telecoms firm when serving as WEF president. Figueres resigned from the WEF in 2004 in the wake of the scandal, and Costa Rican prosecutors did not press charges.
Despite campaign trail hostilities, Figueres quickly conceded Sunday. “It’s time to close ranks as a Costa Rican family,” he said after the results were announced. “Let’s leave behind the antagonism and hate.” In his acceptance speech Chaves asked for Figueres’ help in “making possible the Costa Rican miracle.”
“Costa Rica has chosen and that decision will be respected,” tweeted Laura Chinchilla, the country’s only female president who served from 2010 to 2014 with Figueres’ party. “The triumphant should act wisely and humbly; incendiary speech should shift to respectful dialogue. The losers should broker agreements and zealously watch over democratic and institutional checks and balances.”
The bitter divisiveness may fuel tensions in the legislature after Chaves takes office in May. His party, which took just 10 of 56 seats in Congress, will depend on alliances to carry out its agenda. “The aggressive tone of the campaign will weigh heavily on their ability to build ties with the six blocs in the Legislative Assembly,” noted Triminio.
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