30 January 2018 - 11:18 PM
Q&A: Costa Rica's February 4 Presidential Elections Deciphered
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What are the main issues of concern ahead of the February 4 election?

The main issues for Costa Ricans ahead of the February 4 elections are corruption, employment, security and – sadly – gay rights.

The main issues for Costa Ricans are corruption, employment, security and – sadly – gay rights. Unemployment rose to a historical record in 2011, reaching 10.3 percent, and it hasn't decreased significantly since (with oscillations between eight and 10 percent). The country reached a new record in homicides in 2017, and Costa Ricans feel the justice system is largely responsible for it. Moreover, the current Justice Ministry has made significant efforts to reduce the number of inmates in the overcrowded prison system, a policy criticized and exploited by the media to attack the government.

Gay rights became an issue when the government announced, early in 2017, that it would introduce sexual education to the public education system. The sex-ed programs included recognition of diverse sexual preferences and gender identification. The move resulted in Evangelical, Christian and Catholic groups joining forces and staging one of the largest conservative marches in modern history. 

The issue re-emerged when the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR) issued its legal opinion the first week of January 2018, recognizing states' obligations to facilitate same-sex marriage and gender identity (legally binding for Costa Rica and 20 other countries in the region). Although the court's decision is supra-constitutional for Costa Rica, based on article seven of the constitution, candidates such as the Evangelical Fabricio Alvarado have promised to withdraw Costa Rica from the IACHR. Others have voiced their opposition, which will likely translate into bureaucratic and legal maneuvers to delay the implementation of the court's ruling.

What You Need to Know About Costa Rica's Elections

Solis is not running for re-election. What is the overall evaluation of his government?

Immediate re-election is not possible in Costa Rica. The Solis government got to power by promising change; however, little change has been made. The center-leaning government has dedicated a lot of energy to human rights issues and has done little to fight tax evasion, causing a looming public debt crisis to worsen. The press has been relentless, criticizing any policy change which could be considered progressive. A perfect illustration of this was the backlash the government faced after Costa Rica's representatives joined the ALBA bloc countries in exiting the U.N. General Assembly session when Brazil's unelected President Michel Temer gave his speech. Media condemnation forced the government to come short of apologizing for the decision.

Perhaps the most important issue hurting the governing Citizens Party (PAC) is the 'cementazo' corruption scandal, involving a US$50 million credit awarded by a state-owned bank to a young politically connected entrepreneur. The scandal has shadowed the presidential campaign, and it involved the president's closest allies. After a parliamentary commission investigated the case for months, the president tried to de-legitimise the final report and many people have interpreted this as proof of his direct involvement (although there is no factual evidence of him being involved). 

What happened to the Frente Amplio, which had a great showing in the last election?

Frente Amplio was the target of media attacks throughout the last election and for most of 2014-15. Gradually, their lawmakers split. Of the nine seats they obtained in parliament, two lawmakers have declared themselves independent, breaking up with the party, and two of them act independently, even against party agreements. Another lawmaker had to quit his seat shortly after the first year, due to sexual harassment accusations against him. 

Furthermore, Frente Amplio has been a key ally to the governing PAC party, backing an ambitious fiscal reform aimed at transforming Costa Rica's regressive tax system to a progressive one (a bill which didn't go through in parliament). The apparent proximity to the government has caused many to believe that Frente Amplio will be no better. They are projected to obtain somewhere between one and five seats in parliament.

The PLN are ahead in the polls, but things look to be headed to a second round. What is the PLN campaigning on?

Their candidate, Antonio Alvarez, represents the elite. His campaign began by focusing on employment, but as the far-right has gained prominence, Alvarez has shifted his rhetoric to cater to the religious right (he supported gay marriage, for example, and suddenly now he opposes it). His numbers have stagnated and he has made a bet towards conservative groups to push beyond the 20 percent PLN hard-vote (last elections, during the run-off vote, the PLN candidate retired from the race and the party still managed to obtain 20 percent of the vote).

PLN is the party that governed before the Solis administration. It has been embroiled in numerous corruption scandals, which is why many people would rather vote for the far-right candidate Juan Diego Castro. The PLN has pushed neoliberal reforms together with the PUSC party (most notably in the mid 00s with the Arias administration), both parties ruling the country since the '60s. The main newspapers, La Nacion and La Republica, view PLN's business-friendly program with sympathy.

Do you anticipate any major changes in domestic or foreign policy?

Faced with victory by Juan Diego Castro, there will be important changes in foreign policy; he plans to open up Costa Rica to oil drilling and mining, and has vowed to crackdown on 'ecoterrorists,' his denomination for environmentalist groups. His strongman rhetoric and the parallels with Trump in the United States, plus the blessing of the AMCHAM (which has invited him to speak at their events), mean he is likely to deepen Costa Rica's economic dependency on the United States.

At a domestic level, Castro has promised to oppose gay marriage, to be relentless against criminals (falling short of denying inmates' human rights) and to toughen immigration laws – a popular idea due to widespread xenophobic attitudes against Nicaraguan migrants. 
If Alvarez wins, he will continue PLN's neoliberal program; he has Oscar Arias' blessing and is backed by the economic elite.

Although Castro is an authoritarian figure, and this is being exploited by Alvarez's campaign, he has said numerous times that if he wins he would invite Edgar Ayales – Alvarez's running mate – to be his vice-president, which shows Castro is willing to make concessions to the economic elite.

Gustavo Fuchs is a Costa Rican journalist whose work has been published in Costa Rican newspapers Prensa Libre, Diario Extra and Semanario Universidad, along with international outlets, such as Le Monde Diplomatique.

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