On 2 February 2014, Costa Ricans will cast their votes in elections for the President of the Republic, two vice-presidents, and 57 deputies to the Legislative Assembly (LA).
These elections take place against a backdrop of major citizen dissatisfaction: data from the Latinobarómetro (2013) shows that in Costa Rica, support for democracy has decreased the most and support for government is the lowest of all of Latin American countries. The current level of citizen dissatisfaction in Costa Rica is a marked departure from the social and political stability which has characterized the country in the past.
Costa Rica’s presidential system tends to restrict debate at the Executive level, and marginalizes the legislature. The electoral results could potentially exacerbate the relationship between the two branches of government if it turns out the President is not supported by a majority of the Assembly.
Costa Rican politics is overly dominated by personality politics which has prevented the establishment of coalitions, and political parties suffer from internal divisions which are all too often on public display. Party fragmentation is evident in the number of political parties. Thirteen are registered for the presidential election, all with male candidates (which suggests that the progress made previously by having Laura Chinchilla as President has taken a step backwards). Meanwhile, there are 20 parties available to choose from in the LA elections.
The lack of funds (particularly for the small and newer parties) has seen a campaign with 1) less mass advertising, 2) an increase in community visits by candidates, 3) the major role of social networks, and 4) free advertising in mass media.
Throughout the campaign, policy debates have remained superficial and descended into more personal attacks rather than in-depth discussion of the problems the nation faces. Towards the end of the campaign, all political parties participated in a debate, where the discussion was limited. Notably, the candidates have attempted not offend the sensibilities of Costa Rican voters, but so much so that many of the specific demands from the human right movement (women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people) have been diluted by religious parties, as candidates positioned themselves in the middle ground.
According to the most recent survey by the Research and Political Studies Center, some 25% of voters remain undecided, and that is why we are currently witnessing an increase in the spending on political advertising in the media. In addition, some 7% of the voters surveyed say that they will abstain from voting.
Voter turnout for presidential and legislative elections comparing Costa Rica and El Salvador, as both countries are up for elections.
Johnny Araya –Liberacion Nacional (PLN) which has had two consecutive terms— former long serving Mayor of San Jose, leads the presidential race. The best chance for change is represented by Jose Maria Villalta from the left wing Frente Amplio (FA). In spite of the criticism brought onto the lawyer and former congressman because of his youth and of the more radical stands of his party, the rise of the FA may be due to the need for a new political option. In the two preceding elections the social democratic Partido Accion Ciudadana (PAC) performed well, but this time its candidate Luis Guillermo Solis has not found enough support and is placed fourth by the opinion polls.
Internal party divisions
The campaign has brought to light the many internal tensions the political parties are experiencing; the lack of cohesion within the congressional candidate lists, and the ideological incongruity among the political elites. Scrutiny by mass media and in social networks provides information ‘on the inside’ of political parties, revealing to voters that for example the candidates do not actually run the political parties.
The PLN is the most institutionalized party in Costa Rica and retains widespread support throughout the country and has been able to remain in power despite corruption charges and the criticism of citizens. However many of the PLN’s tensions and internal struggles have now surfaced in the campaign, thus damaging its support, and other parties (including small parties) have not been exempt from a similar discourse. Both the PAC and the FA have experienced problems with their LA candidates. In the eyes of the public, these internal quarrels reflect on the weakness of party leaders, which then undermines support.
First time voters
According to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, this year’s election will include over 250,000 new voters. Gaining votes from young people has influenced the current campaigns, for example through the increased use of social media.
Such a change in the electoral roll implies an erosion in traditional party loyalties in Costa Rica. Close to 50% of the current electoral roll is made up of people under 35, and parties now have to develop new type of strategies to gain their support.
Social tensions in Costa Rica are increasing due to the high cost of living, growing social inequality, unsustainable road infrastructure, inefficient health services, the patronage system, and the corruption of political elites. The level of dissatisfaction has produced protests, but these have been dispersed and ephemeral, instead of sustained and systematic.
Priority issues presented to voters
Generally speaking, each party’s platform for government corresponds with its ideology. But there is some common ground: particularly on how to fix the problem of road infrastructure and how to strengthen existing health services.
Meanwhile the education policies differ vastly between each of the parties, as do their respective approaches to employment generation and managing the economy. The data from the Latinobarómetro (2013) confirms that citizen dissatisfaction is also due to high levels of corruption, which is one of Costa Rica’s major problems. Each of the presidential candidates sees this as a priority issue, though each has a slightly different approach to how to resolve it.