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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.

In November 2017, polls revealed that a whopping four out of 10 Costa Rican voters were undecided about which presidential candidate they preferred. The Investigation and Political Studies Center at the University of Costa Rica, UCR, undertaken between Dec. 4-13, then showed that 34 percent of voters had not picked a presidential candidate. A Jan. 9-11 2018 study conducted by OPol for the internet news site revealed that the number of undecided voters continued at 28.2. percent.

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.

A January 2018 University of Costa Rica survey, with a margin of 3.1 points given to error, garnered the most surprise. It showed Fabricio Alvarado, a representative of the Evangelical National Restoration party, making significant headway. In just a month, he ascended in the polls from a mere three percent to 17, emerging in first place. His public appeal is being attributed to his conservative and homophobic views. Researchers dub it a “religious shock” in a predominantly Roman Catholic country.

Trailing at a close second was former Security and Justice Minister Juan Diego Castro, a member of the National Integration Party, PIN. He's renowned for his promise to stamp out corruption and crime in the Central American country. Former legislator and Cabinet minister, Antonio Alvarez Desanti, came in third place at 11 percent.

The leading candidate, according to a Jan. 31 El Mundo CR-OPol poll, is the conservative Fabricio Alvarado from the Evangelical National Restoration party. As polls open for the February 4 Costa Rica elections, five main candidates are vying for the presidency. Alvarado, with 26 percent, began to inch ahead of his competitors when “religious shock” spread among the public following the Inter-American Human Rights Court's insistence that gay marriage be legalized.

Born in the United States, the 43-year-old is running on a fundamentalist religious platform: he wanted to "defend life and family" and "improve sex education in schools… to prevent teenage pregnancy." He's also campaigned on four other agenda items: zero coalitions or political liabilities to other factions; an end to government corruption; economic austerity, and teleworking to promote efficiency.

In second place, with just over 20 percent, is a candidate from the once-powerful center-right National Liberation Party (PLN). Antonio Alvarez Desanti's platform includes generating 150,000 jobs and deploying a "heavy hand" against crime, including putting more p olice on the streets. He says he'll create a modern public transportation system, an "efficient" public sector, and improve the national economy. He's promising more financial credit to farmers if he's elected.

Branded an "opportunist" by his own party, Desanti hopes to unite the PLN, which has splintered as members scramble to regain the power they enjoyed in the past. Desanti has also vowed to eliminate corruption, rampant within his own party: in the 'cementazo' scandal, a loan of US$30 million allegedly given to a politically connected cement entrepreneur is currently unaccounted for. The candidate himself has been accused of corruption, namely buying Indigenous territory in Panama. And he's been formally accused of trying to interfere in an investigation into his own company for violating labor laws.

Carlos Alvarado, of the ruling Citizens' Action Party climbed to 18 percent, up from 6 percent just a few weeks earlier. Having never served as an elected official, he's hoping that coming from the ruling Citizens' Action Party will earn him credibility among voters. Like Castro and Desanti, Alvarado has both corporate and government experience: he served as minister for the Department of Development and Social Inclusion and the Department of Labor under the current government. With crime soaring in Costa Rica, Alvarado promised to control delinquency and the sale and use of guns. He's also pushing for government transparency.

Setting Alvarado apart was his commitment to the environment: something the current administration promoted, but hasn't been able to pull off. He wants to pass a new water law to ensure that everyone has equal access. He also wants Costa Rica to start using one of its main assets – the sun – to generate energy. Another stand-out position was that Alvarado wanted to make governing more inclusive: he supports gay marriage and Costa Ricans' right to officially change gender.

Juan Diego Castro, from the National Integration Party, was leading the polls earlier in January, but since slipped to fourth. Projections suggest he'll take about 13 percent of the ballots. Castro, a conservative lawyer and former minister of public safety in the 1990s, was running on a mainly anti-corruption platform. Also on his agenda is streamlining government projects and agencies, including the police, and limiting functionaries' international travel.

The 62-year-old, who wants to bolster small and medium-sized businesses, regularly sounds off on social media, earning him comparisons to U.S. President Donald Trump. Responding to criticism in La Nacion, Castro posted: "They are crazy... The psychopaths of the newspaper La Nacion... You are reaching unimaginable extremes of madness. Do they think that this country relies on that newspaper? They are begging people to buy that printed lampoon. They will soon disappear."

Rodolfo Piza, from the Social Christian Unity Party, had about 12 percent of votes. His main talking points include combating corruption, improving public transport, boosting the economy and creating 300,000 jobs to tackle the 9 percent unemployment rate. The self-described academic, lawyer and public leader also supported gay marriage. If elected, Piza said he'll propose a civil union law "that guarantees against discrimination of same-sex couples."

Fabricio Alvarado of the right-wing National Restoration Party received 25 percent of the vote, according to a tally of more than two-thirds of the ballots published by the country's Supreme Electoral Tribunal. That placed him in the lead of a field of 13, the top two of which went to a runoff election on April 1. Alvarado's nearest rival was Carlos Alvarado (no relation), a former labor minister who is the candidate of the ruling left-leaning Citizens' Action Party (PAC), with 21 percent.

While past surveys suggest as many as two-thirds of the country's citizens harbor conservative views on that and other issues, around a third are just committed to progressive changes. The strong attachment to Christianity by most citizens was evident.

Fabricio Alvarado, the former TV newscaster, a gospel singer and a member of the arch-conservative Protestant Pentacostal movement, was endorsed in late March 2018 by the candidate who came third with 18 percent in the preliminary round, Antonio Alvarez. Rodolfo Piza Rocafort, of the Social Christian Unity Party, pledged his support for Carlos Alvarado Quesada in an agreement in early March.

Fabricio Alvarado Munoz, evangelical preacher and candidate from the National Restoration Party (PRN), and Carlos Alvarado Quesada, former journalist and political scientist from the ruling center-left Citizen Action Party (PAC), faced off in a tight presidential race dominated by the debate on gender diversity. The most recent poll by the University of Costa Rica showed the candidates are in a virtual tie with Alvarado Munoz and Alvarado Quesada having captured 43 and 42 percent of the support of likely voters respectively. The one-point lead is within the poll’s margin of error and electoral polls have a patchy record in Costa Rica with most having misread the 2014 election.

Costa Rica has 3.3 million eligible voters. Polls close at 6 p.m. local time on Sunday (Monday 0100 UTC). The results should be known late Sunday or early Monday. The new president will be in power for a four-year term.

Carlos Alvarado Quesada from the ruling center-left Citizen Action Party (PAC) was elected with more than 60 percent of the vote. The turnout figures reported about 62 percent of eligible voters. The electoral authorities expected to record a higher abstention rate than the 35 percent registered in the first round, based on past election trends paired with the Easter holiday. Leading up to Sunday's run-off, pre-election polls had routinely reported a technical tie between Alvarado Munoz and Alvarado Quesada, with about 20 percent of eligible voters still undecided.

In a history-making election, Epsy Campbell Barr became the first Afro-Latina vice president in Costa Rica, as well as the first black female vice president in Latin America. Campbell Barr, who is an economist and published author, holds masters in International Cooperation for Development and Advanced Management Techniques and Political Decision. Campbell Barr joined an select handful of women who have held positions of leadership in Costa Rica. The women include Thelma Curling, the first Afro-Costa Rican legislator (1982-1986), Victoria Garron, the first vice-president (1986-1990) and Laura Chinchilla (2010-2014) the first president.

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