The Economist – A “SLICE of Iowa misplaced on the Central American isthmus”, is how an American political scientist once characterised Costa Rica. He meant it as a compliment. Costa Rica is orderly, relatively rich, and has been a democracy since 1949.

Fabricio Alvarado

But Ticos, as Costa Ricans call themselves, are feeling disgruntled. Their sour mood is shaping elections to be held on February 4th. None of the five leading presidential candidates has the support of more than 20% of the electorate, according to the (unreliable) polls. Two are anti-establishment. For the first time in Costa Rica’s democratic history, such flame-throwers could win.

A ruling on January 9th by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights seems to oblige Costa Rica to let same-sex couples marry. That angered its conservative electorate (see article). But it is not the only cause of discontent. The unemployment rate is 9.4% and income inequality is rising. The murder rate—12.1 per 100,000 people last year—is low by regional standards but higher than it used to be. A scandal involving the import of Chinese cement by a businessman with ties to the president, Luis Guillermo Solís, has contributed to voters’ anger.

Ticos now look enviously upon the two countries that bracket Costa Rica: Panama, which is richer, and Nicaragua, which is safer. Life was better 30 years ago in some ways, admits Rodolfo Piza, the candidate of the Social Christian Unity Party, one of two parties that held the presidency until 2014 (he is in fifth place). “You could walk the streets without fear. There was more equality. There was less unemployment.”

Politics is not providing answers. The 57-seat legislature has nine parties, many of them dedicated to one issue. Its rules, written for a two-party system, allow one deputy to filibuster a law. It takes nearly three years on average for Costa Rica to pass one. That is slower than in any member of the OECD, a rich-country club that Costa Rica has applied to join.

Gridlock has weakened support for democracy. It dropped from 80% of the population in 1996 to 62% last year, according to Latinobarómetro, a pollster (though that is a slight recovery from its low in 2013).

For now, dissatisfaction is showing up as support for unconventional candidates. Fabricio Alvarado, a deputy who was a journalist and an Evangelical Christian crooner, jumped from 3% to around 20% in the polls after he made opposition to the gay-marriage opinion his main campaign issue. That makes him the front-runner. His supporters “want to give the finger to the system”, as well as to gay marriage, says a bewildered veteran politician. In fourth place is Juan Diego Castro, a Trumpian candidate who claims that “traditional” parties are buying addicts’ votes with drugs and cash. Mr Castro has zeroed in on real problems, such as expensive electricity, burdensome bureaucracy and corruption. But his answers are facile. His “very easy” solution to overcrowding in prisons is to force inmates to build more of them.

The strongest hope for avoiding a lurch towards looniness lies with Antonio Álvarez, the nominee of the Party of National Liberation, the other establishment party. He portrays himself as the heir of Óscar Arias, a president of the 1980s and early 2000s who won a Nobel peace prize for helping to end civil wars in other Central American countries. But voters are less impressed with such pedigrees than they would once have been. Mr Álvarez is running second in the polls, with the support of 10-15% of the electorate. Carlos Alvarado (no relation to Fabricio), a confidant of the current president, is just behind him.

The mainstream candidates have more to say than the outsiders about the most pressing problem, the budget deficit, which was 6% of GDP last year. Spending on government salaries, pushed up by pay rises and more hiring, consumes 48% of revenues, more than in any OECD country. The next president will have to cut back. Mr Álvarez promises to reform public salaries and to introduce a value-added tax.

If one of the establishment candidates makes it to the second round, he will probably beat either the pulpit-thumping Fabricio Alvarado or the Trumpesque Mr Castro. That is the best chance to keep Costa Rica Iowa-like.

This article appeared in the The Americas section of the print edition under the headline “Like Iowa, with lots of beefs”
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