QCOSTARICA – With presidential elections around the corner, on Sunday, February 6, 2022, when Costa Ricans head decided on a new president and legislators, we take a look on the process.
For this election cycle that occurs every 4 years, there are a historic record number of candidates, 25, from a variety of different political groups or parties, with differing and similar ideas and visions on how to tackle pressing concerns on the country’s debt and unemployment.
To be elected president, a presidential candidate in Costa Rica needs to obtain at least 40% of votes. If no one candidate reaches the threshold, a run-off election will be held between the candidates with the most votes.
Both the 2014 and 2018 elections went to a runoff. And given the large playing field this election, most likely no one of the candidates (none currently polling about 20%) a presidential runoff on April 3 is expected. This will be the eighteenth election of this type to be held in the country since the current Constitution was put in force.
With the help of the Americas Society Council of the Americas (AS/COA) here is our summary of what to expect.
In the past two races, Costa Rica’s presidential election was prone to last-minute vicissitudes, with high levels of undecideds and turnout in the upper 60% range, meaning many voters make up their minds shortly before the election.
Voting in Costa Rica is technically obligatory, however, not enforced or penalized.
The waning influence of Costa Rica’s establishment center-left Partido Liberacion Nacional (PLN) and center-right Partido Unidad Social Cristiana (PUSC) parties has also opened up the door to outsiders the last two cycles. All this makes polling tricky. The University of Costa Rica’s Center for Research and Policy Studies (CIEP) – considered rigorous and transparent- undercounted support by 19 points for winners Luís Guillermo Solís of the Partido Accion Cuidadana (PAC) in the 2014 first round and for his successor and Carlos Alvarado, als of the PAC, in the 2018 runoff.
In Costa Rica, the president cannot seek consecutive reelection, he or she has to sit out one election cycle to be able to seek reelection, though it would be unlikely that the current president, Carlos Alvarado, could win again, given that his approval is below 15%. Moreover, the PAC stands to lose most or all of the nine seats it currently holds in the legislature, and its presidential nominee, Welmer Ramos, is among the candidates polling under 1%.
Leading the pack for the presidency in in 2022 is former president José María Figueres (1994–1998), of the PLN, seeking a second term in office, and former Vice President Lineth Saborío (2002–2006) of the PUSC, both of whom have steadily topped CIEP’s polls through mid-January.
Next is Fabricio Alvarado, the conservative evangelical singer and former legislator who surprised all to win the 2018 presidential first round (but did not get the 40%). He’s followed by legislator José María Villalta of the progressive Frente Amplio (FA) and Rodrigo Chaves of the Partido Progreso Social Democrático (PPSD), who worked at the World Bank for a decade before leaving amid multiple sexual harassment allegations. Despite not breaking 2% in any poll, yet, economist and businessman Eli Feinzaig of the Partido Liberal Progresista (PLP) still was able to snag the sixth spot in a January 19 debate, the same route by which Solís and Carlos Alvarado were able to raise their profiles late in their races.
Costa Ricans will also vote for all 57 representatives in the unicameral Legislative Assembly in the general elections. Voters register even higher rates of indecision for the congressional candidates, who are elected via a party list proportional representation system.
Party control of the assembly will likely be shared by at least a half dozen parties, as is the case in the current session. In the 2018 elections, the PLN won the greatest number of seats with 17. It takes Costa Rica’s legislature, on average, three years to pass legislation, the slowest of any OECD country, thanks to a rule that allows any one deputy to filibuster a bill.
Legislators can’t seek consecutive reelection.
While the pandemic has strained budgets worldwide, in Costa Rica, it’s bringing a debt crisis building since the 1980s to a head. With a 52.9% public debt to GDP ratio, Costa Rica’s is the third highest after Argentina and Brazil in Latin America, already the developing world’s most indebted region.
Legislative stagnation has exacerbated the problem.
Solís introduced one reform bill in January 2017 when he was president that remains held up by a half dozen constitutional challenges, though Alvarado has said he’s committed to working to see the reform through before he leaves office in May. In a July 2021 report published as part of Costa Rica’s ascension process, the OECD highlighted the assembly’s inability to pass the reform aimed at implementing modest fiscal constraints, as well as decentralizing and making spending more flexible.
One of the few things the assembly did approve was a US$1.8 billion loan from the IMF also that July. As talks with the IMF begin this month, the government now has to walk a fine line between making spending cuts that risk rekindling popular revolts led by public workers in October 2020 versus not going far enough and exasperating investors whose patience has worn thin.
Economic issues are front and center for voters. The pandemic has also worsened unemployment in the country, and it’s the top concern for Costa Ricans ages 18 to 35, who make up 38% of the electorate.
Unemployment has steadily climbed from 8.1% in 2017 to 14.4% in November 2021, the most recent month for which data is available. CIEP also found that Ticas (Costa Rican women) under 35 without a university education are the most likely to be undecided on the presidential candidates.
Rising prices are also a concern for voters; inflation in Costa Rica stood at 3.3% for 2021, below the Latin American average of 7.2%.
A flurry of corruption issues dominated headlines at various points in 2021, including one that saw six prominent mayors arrested in the case called “Caso Diamante” including San José Mayor and 2014 presidential candidate Johnny Araya.
Many voters told CIEP in November those events caused them to view local officials more negatively than the office of the president.
Read more from the AS/COA on 2022 Latin American elections.