Ambivalence in the Tropcs

The 2006 Elections in Costa Rica

By Fabrice Lehoucq

After weeks of sitting on the edge of their seats, election junkies learned in early March that 1987 Nobel Laureate Oscar Arias won the 2006 election by a margin of less than 1.12 percent. The election was close enough that the Supreme Tribunal of Elections spent more than 3 weeks manually recounting all of the ballots. That Arias did not trounce his opponents came as a shock. In the weeks before election day, polls indicated that the respected former president (1986-90) and leading member of the National Liberation Party (PLN) would win by a comfortable majority of 10-15 percentage points. That the upstart candidate of the Citizen Action Party (PAC), Ottón Solís, got within 18,147 votes of Arias raises questions about the volatility of the electorate as well as more profound ones of what lies in store for the country, whose political system is undergoing a serious crisis of confidence.

The 2006 elections confirmed two trends increasingly evident since the 1990s. First, elections remain highly competitive. Every election since 1990 has been won by slightly less than 3 percent of the vote. A runoff decided the 2002 presidential election, which pitted the PLN’s Rolando Araya against the Social Christian Union Party’s (PUSC) Abel Pacheco, the incumbent whose presidency ends in May 2006. With 40.92 percent of the vote in the February election, Arias barely satisfied the constitutional requirement that the victor must obtain a plurality and at least 40 percent of the valid vote to avoid a runoff.

Second, voters remain alienated from the old two-party system. Turnout was 65 percent, confirming a downward trend that started in 1998. Between 1953 and 1994, an average of 80 percent of adults (18 years or older) turned out to vote in quadrennial elections where voters cast ballots for the presidency and for all 57 members of the Legislative Assembly. The number of independents more than doubled between mid-1980s and the early 2000s, from 17 to 40 percent of the electorate. In 2006, the old two-party system, consisting of the PLN and the PUSC, got less than 45 percent of the vote, with the PLN receiving the lion’s share. The PUSC appears to be finished as a political force; it got less than 4 percent of the presidential vote, largely because of the spectacle of having two of its former presidents, Rafael Angel Calderón Fournier (1994-98) and Miguel Angel Rodríguez (1998-2002), land in jail in 2004 as a result of accusations of influence-peddling and corruption (charges for which neither one has yet been convicted). In contrast, the PLN and the PUSC obtained more than 90 percent of the valid vote between 1982 and 1998.

The Arias bid for the presidency is the old party’s system best hope for renewal. An increasingly skeptical electorate, many of whose members are too young to remember his first government, sees him as a respectable member of the establishment. He was the knight in shining armor, one whose white horse and gait are much less impressive after barely tilting in a joust he was expected to win handily. Arias is also the first president to run for reelection in decades. A 1971 constitutional amendment banned former presidents from ever standing for reelection. In 2003, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court struck down the 1971 ban on procedural grounds, a move that opened the way for Arias to act upon his longstanding interest in returning to the presidency. The Constitution continues to ban the consecutive reelection of both the president and of legislative deputies.

Aggregate results indicate that Arias lost in Alajuela, Heredia, and San José, the 3 largest and wealthiest of the country’s 7 provinces. Pre-election polls pointed out that Arias did better with less educated voters and with those residing in rural areas. In contrast, Solís, a renegade member of the PLN (and a cabinet member in Arias’s first government), appealed to more educated and urban voters, who have become increasingly disenchanted with parties and politics in Costa Rica.

What pre-election polls also suggest is that a quarter of the electorate made up its mind in the last week of the campaign. In the mid-January poll (with a sample of 2,423 citizens) conducted by Unimer for La Nación, Arias had the support of 49.6 percent of voters who had reached a decision and were likely to turn out to vote. Solís had the backing of 25.4 percent of the “decided” voters. Of those interviewed, however, 22.5 percent were only leaning toward a candidate, but still not sure for whom they would cast a ballot. At the very end of the month (with a sample of 1,200 voters and only five days before election day), Unimer-La Nación indicated that Arias had fallen to 42.6 percent and Solís had increased to 31.5 percent. Virtually the same number of those interviewed—22.3 percent—were still only leaning toward one or another candidate. It seems that last-minute doubts about the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) with the United States helped swing many voters toward Solís. The PAC candidate had been calling for a renegotiation of CAFTA over the past several years as part of a broader agenda expressing discontent with structural reforms in Costa Rica.

Arias’s narrow victory augurs neither well for his presidency nor for the country as a whole. His party won 43.8 percent of legislative slots (25), 4 shy of the absolute majority needed to select the presiding officers of the Assembly. The PAC won 31.5 percent of congressional seats (18). Despite calls for compromise, it is doubtful that the PAC, as the insurgent party, will readily cut a deal with the PLN, the party now representing, for better or for worse, the establishment. The tax-cutting Libertarian Movement (ML) got 10 percent of congressional seats (6). As Arias has declared his support for CAFTA, it is not unlikely that he will move further to the right to accommodate the ML. The right-of-center PUSC only obtained 7 percent of legislative seats (4). Four small parties each got one seat in the Assembly. A fragmented and ideologically diverse Assembly therefore presents Arias with a novel strategic situation, since in his first government the PLN held an absolute majority of seats in the legislature.

The closeness of the election deprives Arias of a mandate. His administration will have to work hard in a multiparty Assembly to build consensus in favor of further structural reforms and of reforming a badly scarred body politic. Legislative productivity has fallen to historic lows during the minority government of Abel Pacheco (2002-06), even accounting for the fact that non-consecutive reelection leads to the decay of presidential powers by the third year of the political cycle. Politicians have been unable to find a way to open up the telecommunications and electricity monopoly to private sector investment, despite public interest in improving the performance of these sectors. They have failed to agree on how to raise tax revenues to fund a chronically under-funded state, an admittedly hard sell in any political system. The central state spends in excess of 15 percent of GDP while only collecting 12-13 percent of GDP in the form of taxes. This has led to a largely internal public debt whose interest rate payments consume almost a third of central government revenues. And, as the recent election results demonstrate, elected officials have yet to approve CAFTA or to come up with an alternative to increase the country’s access to foreign markets.

The slowdown in legislation is reflective of broader problems in the body politic. Bureaucratic agencies are not performing very well. Social policy has been unable to reduce the share of Costa Ricans living in poverty, which has stayed at around 20 percent of the population since the mid-1980s. While the public health system managed to lower infant mortality rates to first-world levels by the 1970s, it has been much less successful at providing more advanced health care on a timely basis. Citizens also believe that their public officials are corrupt: surveys conducted in 2004 under the auspices of the Latin American Public Opinion Project at Vanderbilt University indicate that 75 percent of Costa Ricans believe that corruption is somewhat or very widespread among public officials (the highest rate among five Central American countries, plus Colombia, Mexico, and Panama), even though 15 percent of respondents report experiencing one act of corruption per year (tying with Colombia for the lowest rate among the these countries).

As a result of these defects, the measures of the overall effectiveness of the political system are declining. Though Costa Rica’s development performance remains superior by third-world standards, its ability to maintain and to build upon past successes is in doubt. The World Economic Forum ranks Costa Rica in 2005 as having the 64th most competitive economy in the world, a fall of 14 places since 2004. The 2006 Bertelsmann Management Index, a composite measure of the ability of a political system to forge political consensus, also shows that Costa Rica has slipped from 8th to 19th place since 2003.

The Arias administration therefore has its work cut out for itself. Not only must his administration negotiate a series of economic and financial reforms through a divided Assembly, but Arias must oversee the overhaul of the ship of state. Since the early 1990s, citizens have been demanding the reform of electoral laws and of internal party structures to allow voters a greater role in selecting legislative candidates. At present, Costa Rica’s closed-list system of proportional representation makes deputies primarily concerned with placating party leaders and secondarily with representing voters. The ban on consecutive reelection also makes legislators uninterested in developing the policy expertise to oversee a large and complex bureaucracy. That the Assembly avoids holding roll-call votes also makes it hard for citizens to hold their deputies accountable. It will be no small task to tackle these problems while also making the economy more competitive.

Fabrice Lehoucq is a member of the Division of Political Studies, Centro de Investigación y Docencias Económicas (CIDE) in Mexico City. He is the author of four books and numerous articles in the fields of institutional analysis, electoral politics, and political economy. He is currently at work on a project entitled "Political Institutions, Instability, and Democratic Performance in Latin America."