Costa Rica’s 2018 elections: the two Alvarados, between deepening division and democratic dependability

Costa Rica’s 2018 elections: the two Alvarados, between deepening division and democratic dependability

The two contenders in Costa Rica’s presidential runoff on 1 April 2018, Fabricio Alvarado (PRN) and Carlos Alvarado (PAC), are diametric opposites on the issues that have dominated recent elections, and their supporters are also divided along geographic and socioeconomic lines. Thankfully, a healthy democratic context militates against the worst effects of polarisation, write Evelyn Villarreal Fernández (State of the Nation Programme) and Bruce M. Wilson (University of Central Florida).

Before Costa Rica’s elections on 4 February, it was already clear that no candidate would reach the 40% vote share required to take the presidency and avoid a runoff on 1 April.

As late as one week before the election the volatility of voter preferences and the sheer number of undecided voters made predicting even which two parties would contest the second round very difficult (see Table 1, below). For the same reason parties themselves found it hard to identify their main rivals and to strategise against them.

Table 1: Presidential preference volatility and actual vote (%) in 2018 election (Source: Surveys CIEP/UCR 2018 and TSE, 2018)

As expected, five parties split the bulk of the vote by receiving 10% or more of the vote, with no party garnering more than 25%. This set up a second-round contest between right-wing evangelical Fabricio Alvarado (PRN) and Carlos Alvarado of the centre-left PAC, though together they received less than half of all votes cast (with a turnout of 66%).

The combustible context of the first-round vote

Election season began in traditional Costa Rican fashion, with parties focused on the dominant issues of corruption, security, and development; little attention was paid to “moral issues”.

All that changed four weeks from election day when the InterAmerican Court of Human Rights (IACtHR) issued its favourable decision on Same Sex Marriage (SSM) and Transgender Identity. The campaign suddenly became a referendum on SSM, with scant attention paid to any other issue.

The right-wing evangelical singer, pastor, and former deputy Fabricio Alvarado (PRN, pictured left) jumped from nowhere in the polls (October 2017) to become the leading candidate in the final poll (January 2018).

Following a campaign focused on overturning the IACtHR decision and taking Costa Rica out of the Inter-American Human Rights System, he ultimately took almost 25% of the presidential vote, with his party also adding nine seats to become the second largest party in congress. Three smaller evangelical parties fielded presidential candidates, but Alvarado’s PRN swallowed up the evangelical vote in both races

The incumbent party’s candidate Carlos Alvarado (right), meanwhile, promised to respect the IACtHR ruling, legalise SSM, and continue the policies of the current government: this positioned the two parties as diametric opposites.

Since 1953, elections in have been run by the Supreme Electoral Court, a quasi-fourth branch of government that has successfully conducted free, open, and fair elections.

While turnout has declined from approximately 80 percent before the 1998 election, it has settled at about 65%. But national numbers obscure significant regional differences and a major geographic imbalance: half of all voters reside within 5% of the national territory, and mainly in the urban areas around the capital city, San José.

Although the PRN appears to have captured most of the country’s voting districts, it was generally weaker in the more populous areas of the Greater Metropolitan Area, and this may affect the second round. PRN support, meanwhile, is strong in poorer areas and much weaker in more affluent areas.

A renewed and gender-balanced congress

Twenty-five parties fielded candidates for congressional elections, but only seven parties captured at least one seat (see Table 2).

Table 2: Assembly preferences and votes 2014-18 (Source: Surveys CIEP/UCR 2018 and TSE)

Of these seats, almost 44% are occupied by women, which is the highest total in Costa Rican history. And because deputies are prohibited from seeking immediate re-election, all 57-members of the Legislative Assembly are elected in parallel with the presidential elections, which tends to mean a great many “freshmen” deputies. 90% of the new cohort have not previously served in congress.

Contrasting candidates and democratic dependability in the second-round runoff

The runoff vote will take place on 1 April, Easter Sunday, which is likely to affect turnout.

If the campaign moves away from its focus on SSM, voters will see very different proposals and priorities: PRNpresented a 34-page general plan that focuses on moral issues – “values and family” – but also social and inequality policies. PAC’s plan runs to 101 pages and focuses on poverty reduction, inequality, and environmental issues.

But the future President Alvarado, be that Fabricio or Carlos, will have difficulty pushing his agenda through congress: neither party enjoys a majority, and parties are in any case famously undisciplined, leading to much unpredictable voting.

On a positive note, even without immediate reelection of deputies, voters appear to be holding political parties to account. In the case of Movimiento Libertario (PML), whose candidates were directly linked to the recent Cementazo scandal, voters removed the party from its remaining four seats in congress. Likewise, Frente Amplio appears to have been punished for its proximity to the current government, losing eight of the nine seats it held in the 2014-18 congress.

Moreover, despite high levels of uncertainty, a fragmented party system, claims of electoral fraud, and the injection of religion into the heart of the elections, the electoral authorities demonstrated their strength in the first round by quickly and decisively resolving most issues, thereby creating conditions for an uncontested result that all of the candidates could accept.

This is all the more important in such an unstable situation, and it bodes well for the second-round runoff in early April.

Artículo original del blog Latin America and Caribbean Centre. The London School of Economics and Political Science disponible en:


Costa Rica’s 2018 elections: corruption, morality politics, and voter alienation make uncertainty the only certainty

Costa Rica’s 2018 elections: corruption, morality politics, and voter alienation make uncertainty the only certainty

In a context of political dealignment and a fluid multiparty system, corruption scandals and a divisive international court ruling on sexual and reproductive rights have drastically altered the electoral landscape, write Evelyn Villarreal Fernández (State of the Nation Programme) and Bruce M. Wilson (University of Central Florida).

This Sunday, 4 February 2018, will mark the 17th time since the end of the 1948 civil war that Costa Ricans will go to the polls to simultaneously elect all 57 members of the Legislative Assembly, the president, and two vice presidents.

Costa Rica’s latest polls have aroused uncertainty, disinterest, and volatility amongst voters (Ingmar ZahorskyCC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Costa Rican democracy is one of the oldest, best-performing democracies in the Americas, but the upcoming election is marked by general disinterest, voter volatility, and two late-breaking events that have displaced traditional campaign issues. These two events, a corruption scandal and an international court ruling, have combined with a process of political dealignment and the consolidation of a fluid multiparty system to significantly alter the electoral landscape.

Decades of dealignment and multipartism

Historically, Costa Rican politics was dominated by two major parties that routinely garnered more than 94% of the national vote. Since 1994, however, no party has won majority control of the 57-member legislative assembly, and parties find it increasingly difficult to garner the 40% national vote share necessary to capture the presidency.

This weakness is compounded by the general instability of party support and increased split-ticket voting, whereby voters back different parties in presidential and legislative elections, for example (see Table 1). The sitting president’s party, PAC, is only the second largest party in congress and has to work alongside deputies from seven other parties.

No clear winner in sight

Thirteen candidates successfully registered with the Supreme Electoral Court for the 2018 presidential election.

December 2017 poll had Juan Diego Castro, of the emergent Partido Integración Nacional (PIN), as the most popular candidate with just 18% support. The second and third most popular candidates, Antonio Alvarez (PLN) and Rodolfo Piza (PUSC), polled just 14% and 13% respectively. Carlos Alvarado, from the incumbent president’s party, received just 5% support, which represents a major reversal of fortunes for a party that lost the 2010 election by less than 1% and won the presidency in 2014.

But a poll in late January further scrambled the voters’ preferences: evangelical candidate Fabricio Alvarado leapt into first place with 17%, up from 3% the previous month, while the second and third place candidates both lost support.

Enthusiasm for the 2018 election remains low (25%), and the fact that “undecided” voters constitute one third of the electorate has amplified the uncertainty surrounding election day. A second-round runoff is likely.

Table 1: Volatility of voter presidential preference (%) for 2018 Election (Source: Surveys CIEP/UCR 2018)

Shifting priorities in the run-up to the election

Public perceptions of the main problems facing the country have fluctuated a great deal, though unemployment, corruption, crime, the economy, and poverty and inequality all feature consistently. However, issues of corruption and “morality politics” (regarding sexual and reproductive rights) have emerged so recently as to be absent from polling, yet they have taken centre stage in the closing stages of the campaign.

Figure 1: Major Problems Facing the Country, 2015-2018 (Source: adapted from CIEP, UCR January 2018)

Corruption old and new

Corruption is a perennial issue – previous scandals have landed two former presidents in jail – and all of the political parties have strong anti-corruption programs.

The recent corruption scandal, known locally as the Cementazo, involved a state bank, money skimmed from large loans, Chinese cement imports, influence peddling, and political patronage. Fallout from the scandal damaged a number of prominent figures and parties (particularly PLN, PUSC, PAC and ML), leading to a decline in support.

But one of the frontrunners in the polls, the relative newcomer Juan Diego Castro (PIN) has avoided being implicated as neither he nor his PIN party were in office during that period. Castro has also taken a hard-line against corruption, promising to “sweep away corruption and put all the corrupt ones in jail.”

The resurgence of “morality politics”

A second major issue that has shaken up voter preferences is the question of sexual and reproductive rights, along with Costa Rica’s status as the only country in the Americas with a state religion.

The issue burst into the foreground in January 2018 when a resolution from the InterAmerican Court of Human Rights (IACtHR) required Costa Rica to legalise same-sex marriage and protect transexual rights.

Initially, many candidates said they would maintain Costa Rica’s tradition of implementing IACtHR decisions, but they quickly switched track once the unpopularity of the resolution became clear.

Álvarez Desanti (PLN), for example, initially supported the ruling but then went on to attack the government for going “behind the backs of the citizens” to legalise same-sex marriage through the IACtHR. He also reoriented his campaign fliers to position himself closer to evangelical voters.

That said, some presidential candidates have been more supportive of the ruling, and a new party for the province of San José (Vamos) includes gay and trans candidates on its party list for legislative elections.

When uncertainty is the only certainty

One clear positive of the democratic environment is that voters have a great deal of accessible, reliable information about all of the candidates and all of the parties’ platforms. All of the major TV and radio news programmes, newspapers, universities, NGOs, and the electoral council have hosted debates and created technological solutions to facilitate access to electoral and party information, to analyse and compare, and to fact-check important news stories.

Yet, with just days to go before the election, many voters remain undecided or threaten to flip from one candidate to another, creating massive uncertainty about how the vote will go on election day. Alienation from established political parties and the sudden explosion of divisive issues has pushed the campaign into uncharted political waters.

In these elections, where uncertainty is the only certainty, all we can say with confidence is that a run-off election between the top two presidential candidates is highly likely and that the chances of a majority in congress are vanishingly small.

Artículo original del blog Latin America and Caribbean Centre. The London School of Economics and Political Science disponible en:


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