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Costa Rica - Election 2018

The general election, scheduled to take place on Feb. 4, will not be the typical “fiesta electoral” Costa Ricans are accustomed to. Formerly, Costa Rican elections were called a “fiesta electoral,” a celebration of democracy where many Costa Ricans were fiercely and visibly proud of their political parties and their candidates. Party flags filled the windows of homes and cars, and Election Day brought honking, music and colors to the streets.

Pressing issues like the “cementazo” corruption case related to Chinese cement imports that implicated members of all three branches of government in 2017. This case, which implicated President Luis Guillermo Solis, has made voters of this small, army-less country, more critical, if not disillusioned, with the person entrusted with leading their country. Creating more jobs, improving public health, reducing crime and boosting the economy are some of the challenges awaiting the Central American country's next president.

Political parties have lost popular support. Only a third of the population expresses alignment with one of them. This affects not only the National Liberation Party (PLN) and Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC), the two leaders of the bygone bipartisan era, but also younger parties such as the Libertarian Movement, Citizen Action (PAC) and Broad Front (FA), the only left-wing force that currently has legislators in the Assembly.

Polls in November 2017 showed that Costa Rican voters, four out of 10, were undecided about which presidential candidate they prefer. For those who had made their choice, businessman and former legislator, Antonio Alvarez Desanti, of the National Liberation Party, PLN, and lawyer and former Cabinet minister, Juan Diego Castro, member of the National Integration Party, PIN, are currently in the lead.

While a second round may be needed to determine which of the two wins the majority vote, the percentage of undecided voters may very well alter the panorama, as it did in 2014, days before the election takes place. Two vice-presidents and 57 new Legislative Assembly members would also be determined during the general election.

In Costa Rica, voting is mandatory by law for all those inscribed in the Electoral Rolls (3.2 million), which takes place automatically for all those over 18. However, those who do not vote face no direct consequences. Absenteeism was consistently around 20 percent until the 1990s, when it jumped to nearly 30 percent.

Though recognized by Western countries as a democracy, Costa Rican law forbids its president from using her or his position to influence elections, requiring the head of state to renounce the party that secured their seat in the government. Hence, an electoral blackout is imposed on the executive branch, as well as all public institutions to prevent the party in power from self-promotion. Only urgent, public service news transmissions are allowed. Legislators, on the other hand, are permitted to rally behind their preferred candidates, bearing that public funds are not used to do so.

Campaigns may not pay for advertising during the last four days before the election, nor may the media publish poll results during that time. In theory, this allows voters to reflect on their decision without new information coming in (although no one can guarantee that this works).

The campaign financing system is mixed, with both state support and private donations. Private businesses may not donate, but they disguise this support through intermediaries or the purchase of “campaign bonds” that are never cashed. Parties issue these bonds with the expectation that depending on how many votes they receive, the State will cover their expenses or exchange the bonds for money.

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