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In an unprecedented political atmosphere, Costa Ricans will vote for a new president on February 4th. The country has become famous for its wonderful natural beauty – home to nearly 6 per cent of the world’s biodiversity – and receives approximately 3 million tourists every year.
So it may surprise many visitors that a candidate who promises to open the country to oil drilling and mining, could become the next president. His contender offers a similar proposal, opening up natural protected areas and reserves to exploitation. Even worse, all three leading candidates vow to fight gay marriage.
After four years of the center-leaning Solis government that broke with decades of a two-party system by promising change, this year’s contest is led by three right-wing candidates. Juan Diego Castro – a media figure who has served as minister – is favorite to win. He promises to crack down on crime and end corruption, posing as an ‘outsider’ figure that will fight the system. Antonio Alvarez, from the traditional PLN party, promises to increase employment, solve the country’s public debt and, more recently, to stop gay marriage. The third leading candidate is Fabricio Alvarado, an evangelical singer-songwriter who served the past four years as a deputy for the religious National Restoration party (PRN). He has wooed the conservative vote and enjoyed a stellar surge at the polls.
Gay marriage tops the agenda
Before and during the presidential campaign, the ‘cementazo’ corruption scandal had dominated media attention, involving the little-known but well-connected entrepreneur Juan Carlos Bolaños. The scandal broke when lawmakers discovered that Bolaños’ company, had been awarded a US$50 million credit for his cement-importing firm by a state-owned bank, with little or no security (an in-depth explanation here).
The Assembly set up a commission to investigate the case. Gradually the wide network of corruption that facilitated the loan to Bolaños – involving current and former officials, opposition deputies, judges and the head of the secret police – was made public. Similar cases involving further loans have been shadowed by the media, with the commission promising to look into them after the election.
Equally significant had been gay rights, with a large conservative backlash sparked by the announcement of the implementation of sexual education in public schools. Government programs which recognized the existence of different sexual preferences and gender identity, became the target of fundamentalist religious groups, who organised arguably the largest conservative march witnessed in Costa Rica’s modern history.
A parody made of the most infamous Facebook video posted by Juan Diego Castro. In the aftermath of a horrendous triple murder, Castro held a knife throughout his video rant, while criticizing authorities for their reaction in the case.
A new record high in homicides also took center stage during the campaign, with candidate Juan Diego Castro profiting from his strongman rhetoric. Absent from the discussion of security, however, has been the worrying wave of femicides in recent years. In addition, the ongoing unemployment rate, which has stagnated between 8 and 10 per cent since 2011, and a looming public debt crisis have been major concerns of Costa Ricans.
However, the game-changer came on 9 January, when the Inter American Court of Human Rights, after being consulted by the Costa Rican government, issued a legal opinion mandating states to guarantee same-sex marriage and gender identity. The opinion, which is binding under article 7 of the Constitution, has become the focus of conservative anger.
This helps to explain the rapid rise of Fabricio Alvarado, whose polling figures have shot up from less than 5% to 17% in a recent poll, making him a possible contender in the runoff vote in April. His only experience in politics is his 4 years as deputy, but this has not put off thousands of religious Costa Ricans who believe gay marriage is more important than any other issue.
The fact is that, in their radical approach, they [LGBT activists] are intolerant, because they don’t let anyone think differently –Fabricio Alvarado
Conservativism and anger are re-defining this election, even if they represent reactions to very particular and immediate issues.
Out of the 13 candidates standing for the presidency, none has been able to top 20 per cent in opinion polls. To win in the first round, a candidate needs 40 per cent of the votes or more. Only three of the candidates can be located on the left or center-left.
Juan Diego Castro is leading the polls. He served as minister of Justice and Security during Jose Maria Figueres Olsen’s presidency, and has become a media personality through his role as a media pundit. Castro vows to end corruption, which he says would alleviate the increasing public debt, and promises to pursue crime relentlessly. He says he will open up the country to oil drilling and mining, and promises to fight environmental activists – who he describes as ‘ecoterrorists.’
Antonio Álvarez is a multimillionaire entrepreneur whose career is full of contradictions. He left the PLN in 2006, accusing the party of being corrupt, and decided to create his own party, only to come back to the PLN in 2008. He became campaign manager for the mayor of San José, Johnny Araya, in his disastrous 2014 bid for the presidency.
Álvarez has a land ownership dispute pending with the state of Panama, where he is accused of illegally appropriating protected indigenous lands. Despite branding himself as a progressive social-democrat, and a few months ago supporting gay marriage, Álvarez has changed his tune in the lead-up to the election, with a conservative discourse becoming more prominent in his campaign strategy. Just recently, in a naked appeal to the conservative voter, he issued a leaflet promising to review sexual education programs, oppose abortion and stop gay marriage.
Despite his best efforts to portray himself as a true conservative, Álvarez is regarded by most as representative of the business elite and the traditional two-party system.
Fabricio Alvarado is perhaps the most divisive of the leading candidates. An evangelical singer-songwriter, Alvarado studied – but did not finish – journalism and worked for some of the main TV stations in the country. Alvarado has promised to take Costa Rica out of the San José pact – however contradictory that may sound –which established the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. He claims that the court’s opinion on gay marriage and gender identity violates Costa Rica’s ‘sovereignty’ and that the country’s legislative assembly should have the final word on human rights issues. His government program chillingly states that opponents of his brand of religious extremism are ‘Nazis and fascists’.
Democracy in shambles
Despite being counted as the longest-lasting democracy in Latin America, Costa Rica has experienced significant problems with its institutional framework. The 2014 elections were plagued by a fierce campaign against the left-leaning Frente Amplio party; at the time, the Electoral Tribunal (TSE) silently stood by while an alliance of businessmen directed their members to ‘inform’ their employees that candidate José María Villalta was a threat to the country. Foreign intervention, admittedly aimed at stopping FA’s momentum and sowing fear amongst the electorate, was also permitted with impunity. The TSE has allowed religious parties to sprout – in some cases directly linked with evangelist and Christian churches – even though the electoral law (art 136) and the Constitution (art 28) prohibit politicians from using religious sentiment or imagery. Most recently, the TSE said it would not be able to resolve 99 complaints against the evangelical candidate Fabricio Alvarado before the elections.
No wonder then that, despite Costa Rican’s trust in the democratic system, Juan Diego Castro has repeatedly claimed (with no evidence) that an electoral fraud is being planned against him. His accusations are directed to the PLN, and aim to further mobilize popular discontent with the political elite.
The media has played an important role, dedicating extensive air time to the sexual education programs and the subsequent backlash. Throughout the Solis administration, Costa Rica’s right-leaning press has had a poisonous relationship with the government, creating controversy over the name of a bridge, criticizing the government’s foreign policy, and magnifying every blunder.
In a highly concentrated media market such as Costa Rica’s – an issue the Solis administration didn’t address –, bad publicity has significant repercussions. It is no wonder that the official candidate, Carlos Álvarado, with his promise of continuity, enjoys a mere 5% in the opinion.
Undecided voters are still a significant force (between 20%-30% in opinion polls) and could still turn the election upside down.
Nevertheless, deeper issues, including the country’s institutional flaws, are likely to remain in the background. With a right-wing media landscape dominating the agenda, a resistance to modify the country’s position on religion in schools, the desperate need of improvements in public education and an electoral tribunal paralyzed by the weakness of its legal powers, this election is likely to mark a new chapter in Costa Rica’s political history.
Perhaps the best illustration of the current scenario is a clip of the candidates wearing Burger King cardboard crowns while playing football and eating Whoppers. And yes, that actually happened.