Although Costa Rican voters rejected an ultraconservative Evangelical preacher and his fundamentalist populism at the ballot box in 2018, deteriorating economic conditions, the highest fiscal deficit of the last three decades, unpopular tax reform, and corruption allegations regarding the previous PAC president have put the incumbent Alvarado government in a box. It’s fair to anticipate future populist candidates, perhaps as soon as the 2022 election.
Located in Central America, Costa Rica, officially the Republic of Costa Rica, is a home to a long-standing and stable democracy and around five million inhabitants. Throughout much of the second half of the 20th century, the country was dominated by a centre-left political party, the National Liberation Party (Partido Liberación Nacional, PLN) (Perelló, Navia, 2020). From the early 1950s through 2014, Costa Ricans had elected nine presidents from the PLN’s ranks and three presidents from the centre-right Social Christian Unity Party (Partido Unidad Social Cristiana, PUSC).
The dominance of these two establishment parties, however, came to an end when a left-leaning candidate running on an anti-corruption platform won a landslide victory in the 2014 presidential election. Luis Guillermo Solís ran under the banner of The Citizens’ Action Party (Partido Acción Ciudadana; PAC). Throughout his election campaign, Solís embraced a populist and anti-establishment tone, to emphasizing his intention to bring change to the Costa Rican people. He pledged to reform the health care and the social security systems and to revise the free trade agreements signed by the previous PLN governments (The Tico Times, 2013). Perhaps unsurprisingly, Solís’s campaign made an overwhelming impression on the country’s working-class and trade unions, bringing him more votes than any presidential candidate in history (The Tico Times, 2014).
Solís also successfully portrayed himself as a populist outsider who would fight to correct the wrongdoings of the establishment in favor of the “true” people of the country: “I haven’t been a professional politician, but I have been in and out of politics for the last 25 years. […] I’m very committed to the idea of doing politics from the citizenry, from the public.” One of his most debated pledges was his announcement of freezing payments to high ranking government officials once in office: “The president and the ministers are earning enough. Some will say that’s populism. They’re not there to make money; they’re there to serve the country,” he said (The Tico Times, 2013).
Although the PAC is not a pure populist party based on an ultra-conservative concept, it has strong populist features. It was founded in 2000 as an anti-corruption party by a group of politicians who split from the PLN and the PUSC. Fighting corruption has been the dominant goal of the party, especially following revelations of corruption by three former PLN and PUSC presidents in late 2004 (The Economist, 2004). During Solís’s four-year presidency, the PAC’s leaders moved towards more hard-left-wing values, advocating for the adoption of vigorous public policies to reduce social inequality.
The 2018 election saw a record number of candidates in the running for the presidency, several of whom bore strong anti-establishment and populist features. For instance, the National Integration Party’s (PIN) Juan Diego Castro, known to many as the “Costa Rican Trump” (Murillo, 2017), campaigned on an anti-corruption platform and often criticized the past mistakes of “the establishment,” despite the fact that he served as Minister of Public Safety (1994-1997) and later Minister of Justice (1996-1997) under the PLN (The Tiko Times, 2018).
Similarly, the New Republic Party’s Fabricio Alvarado Muñoz ran a campaign that heavily relied on his opposition to the legalization of same-sex marriage. A right-wing evangelical preacher, Muñoz believes that family is “the fundamental basis of society” and thus needs to be protected (Damani, 2018). During his campaign, he promised to quit the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR), which called on Costa Rican authorities to extend all existing legal mechanisms—including marriage—to same-sex couples (Contesse, 2018). In reaction to the IACHR rulings, Muñoz vowed to “defend [Costa Rica’s] sovereignty” and declared it was lawmakers’ job to decide human rights, not the human rights courts (Fuchs, 2018). Muñoz managed to win the first round of the vote but was defeated in the second round of voting.
Although Muñoz lost to the PAC’s Carlos Alvarado (no relation), his campaign meant the election was dominated by the issue of LGBTQ+ rights, despite the urgency of other issues such as corruption and rising crime, and income inequality. A novelist and a former journalist, the 38-year-old Carlos Alvarado ran on a progressive platform and welcomed the IACHR ruling on same-sex marriage, challenging his opponent’s “homophobic” statements. After winning the presidency, he delivered an inclusive speech in which he said his government will be for everybody, “in equality and liberty for a more prosperous future” (ABC News, 2018).
Carlos Alvarado’s presidency has so far been an inclusive and non-populist one. First, he took certain steps to decarbonize Costa Rica’s economy. A long-term strategy for low-emission development (LTS) was submitted to the UNFCCC Secretariat in 2019. The plan foresees that Costa Rica will be a modern, green economy with net-zero emissions by 2050. Additionally, same-sex marriage has been legalized as of May 2020, making Costa Rica the first country in Central America to recognize same-sex marriages. On the economic front, a reform was introduced at the end of 2018 to increase taxes to address Costa Rica’s record-breaking fiscal deficit. And early in 2020, a set of anti-bribery laws were introduced; however, there are still significant loopholes in the definition of “foreign bribery” and its enforcement (OECD, 2020).
Although fundamentalist populism espoused by an ultraconservative evangelical preacher was rejected in 2018, the deteriorating economic conditions, enormous fiscal deficit, unpopular tax reform, and corruption allegations regarding the previous PAC president, have put the incumbent Alvarado government in a box. It’s fair to anticipate future populist candidates, perhaps as soon as the 2022 election.
December 15, 2020.
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