Costa Rica elections: Political storm brewing in paradise | Americas| North and South American news impacting on Europe | DW | 03.02.2018
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Costa Rica elections: Political storm brewing in paradise

Uncertainty reigns in Costa Rica's presidential elections, where 13 candidates hope to charm a disenchanted electorate. Known as a bastion of stability, the "Switzerland of Latin America" could be headed for crisis.

A televised debate for the Costa Rican presidential election of 2018

Candidates clash in a televised debate for the Costa Rican presidential election of 2018

One candidate has a rhetoric comparable to that of Donald Trump and another is vying for votes by opposing equal rights for the LGBTQ community. The campaign trail towards Sunday's Costa Rican presidential election is strewn with populism.

It has become a global phenomena in recent years, but it is striking to see it in a country like Costa Rica. The small Central American nation has long been considered a model of stability for its neighbors and the region.

Yet, it appears that even the "Switzerland of Latin America" is not immune to crisis.

Read more: Top UN court orders Nicaragua to compensate Costa Rica for environmental damage

Josette Altmann, from the social science institute Secretaria General de la Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO) described to DW what she considers an "atypical" election. "A process such as this has not been seen for at least 50 years. This indicates that Costa Rica, which once was merely an observer of Latin American trends, is now a part of them. But the schism is not so much political, as it is social."

A recent poll by the University of Costa Rica's Center for Political Research and Study (Ciep) indicates that evangelical activist and parliamentarian Fabricio Alvarado leads the crowded field with a projected 16.9 percent of the vote. He is followed by the social democrat Antonio Alvarez Desanti, with 12.4 percent. In third place is the government-backed candidate, Carlos Alvarado, with 10.6 percent and right behind him is the lawyer Juan Diego Castro, known to many as the "Costa Rican Trump," with 8.6 percent.

Costa Rican candidate Rodolfo Piza Rocafort

Costa Rican candidate Rodolfo Piza Rocafort asks voters to "Vote for something" in a campaign ad

The threat of political and economic crises

David Henneberger of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, a liberal German political foundation, believes a climate of "extreme insecurity and worry" currently exists in Costa Rica. "Many people are simply sad to be in a situation where they cannot fully back any of the candidates and that instead, they must choose the lesser evil." he told DW.

This electoral uncertainty has prevailed since the collapse of the traditional bipartisan system four years ago following the election victory of current President Luis Gullermo Solis.

Hajo Lanz, from Germany's social democratic Friedrich Ebert Foundation, explains that this ocurred because "the traditional parties, the social democratic PLN and christian democratic PUS have lost credibility in the eyes of the electorate due to multiple corruption scandals in the recent years." To make matters worse, the current president's party has not been able to achieve its own goals either.

Aside from the dangers of a possible political crisis, as the political party structure decays, Lanz also worries about a possible economic downturn. "This country is not able to finance more than 50 percent of its budget through fiscal means. The other 50% comes from financial markets". He warns that if this does not change "the country runs the risk of going bankrupt."

Read moreEcotourism in Costa Rica

Luis Guillermo Solis President of Costa Rica

Costa Rican President Guillermo Solis has lacked the parliamentary majority needed to govern and achieve his administration's goals

The conservative challenge

Yet, it was neither of these challenging issues that mobilized public opinion the most when it came to the vote. Instead, it was a resolution by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruling it obligatory that all member states guarantee the rights of their LGBTQ communities, without discrimination.

This was "like a godsend" for evangelical candidate Fabricio Alvarado, Lanz asserts. He points out that the lawmaker had been a mere outsider up until then, but "two days after the court decision he reached 17 percent in the polls" with his defense of conservative values.

Sebastian Huhn, political scientist at the University of Osnabrück, confirms that people in Costa Rica are very conservative and that homophobia is "widespread."

A woman at a prostest in San Jose holds a pro LGBT plackard

A woman at a prostest in San Jose holds a pro LGBTQ plackard that reads "Secular state = same status for all creeds"

A warning sign

While Huhn does not believe that this issue will distract from the central problem of corruption, every scandal increases the political mistrust. Although he does not think Costa Rica's political stability is threatened just yet, candidates like Juan Diego Castro with his hard stance against corruption and "the establishment" are certainly dangerous. For now, he believes, the current climate is only a warning sign of things to come.

FLACSO's Josette Altmann points out that the number of "undecided" voters has increased by 10 percent in the last month, a number that is supposed to decrease as the election nears. In her view, the question remains whether these voters don't turn out to vote or if they represent a "hidden vote" and perhaps even a "punishment vote". 

What is most clear in these Costa Rican elections is that nothing is certain.

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