In a country better known for eco-tourism and peaceful stability in a turbulent region, Costa Rica’s presidential campaign has been an unusually negative one.
Neither Rodrigo Chaves or rival José María Figueres has been widely embraced by the electorate ahead of the presidential run-off due to take place on Sunday. In the first round in February, they garnered less than half of the vote between them. Turnout was low by the country’s standards.
Chaves, a former World Bank official who was accused by multiple former colleagues of sexual harassment, has a slight edge over Figueres, a former president, who stepped down as executive director of the World Economic Forum in 2004 amid scrutiny over payments he received from telecoms firm Alcatel-Lucent. Both denied wrongdoing.
“[Voters] have to choose between candidates who both have more negatives than positives, ”said Jorge Vargas Cullell, director of Costa Rica-based research center Programa Estado de la Nación. “It’s not a campaign that generated a lot of enthusiasm.”
A recent poll showed Chaves with 41 per cent of the vote and Figueres at 38 per cent, with the gap tightening and within the margin of error, according to the University of Costa Rica’s center for political science research (CIEP). The high number of undecided voters, particularly women and young people, could also swing the vote in either direction.
During the second round of campaigning, “negativity and the lack of policies has been very marked, we’ve seen very grotesque adverts,” said Jesús Guzmán Castillo, researcher at the CIEP. “It means that a lot of people are demotivated to go out and vote.”
One advert that appeared on social media compared voting for Chaves to people throwing themselves off a building, causing outrage over its portrayal of suicide. Figueres’ campaign said it did not make or endorse the ad.
Whoever wins will have to manage cutting the deficit under a deal with the IMF and tackle high unemployment and inflation while navigating a divided congress and voters disenchanted with traditional parties.
Chaves worked at the World Bank for more than 25 years, eventually running its Indonesia office. While at the bank, multiple female colleagues said he made unwelcome sexual comments, inquiries about personal relationships and attempted to kiss them, according to an administrative tribunal decision at the institution.
The bank later apologized to the women for mishandling the sexual harassment claims. Shortly before Chaves left the institution he was demoted and his access to the premises was later restricted, the tribunal decision showed.
Figueres, who was president from 1994 to 1998, has scored poorly with voters on the issue of corruption. He was investigated by prosecutors over payments worth more than $ 900,000 from Alcatel-Lucent for consulting work after he left office. At the time of the investigation he lived outside the country and did not return until after prosecutors dropped it. No charges were ever brought.
Both candidates, who declined interview requests, have previously denied wrongdoing.
Figueres and Chaves have both vowed to renegotiate a deal struck last January with the IMF for a $ 1.8bn credit line. The country’s deficit was more than 5 per cent of GDP in 2021, with the debt burden growing.
If elected they will face the difficult task of trying to bring down the budget deficit amid growing fatigue with those measures, said economist and former central bank chief Ronulfo Jiménez.
“Whoever wins, regardless of what they think. . . reality will bite, Costa Rica needs to follow the agreement with the fund, ”he said. “Politically it’s getting increasingly difficult to comply with the fiscal rules.”
On paper the two broadly centrist candidates, both of whom studied in the US, appear economically orthodox. Figueres has highlighted his experience while Chaves, who lived outside the country for much of his career, has cast himself as the change candidate.
Neither candidate is seen as particularly close to the private sector, though some economists and business leaders have expressed worries about Chaves as a lesser-known entity. He served briefly as finance minister in the current administration, but it is not clear who he would choose for his own economic team if elected.
“One of the challenges is how to generate more private investment. . . to generate more jobs and really shrink the high unemployment rate, ”said economist Fernando Naranjo, who served in Figueres’ previous administration and is on the boards of companies in the tourism and agriculture sectors.
One of Central America’s most peaceful democracies, Costa Rica is a haven for those fleeing authoritarianism in Nicaragua, and its GDP per capita is more than three times that of El Salvador or Honduras.
Despite the relative stability, inequality has grown and affiliation with traditional parties has dropped. Carlos Alvarado, the outgoing president, will end his term as one of the least popular leaders in Latin America, according to CID Gallup polling. The pandemic economic recovery has been better than expected, but unemployment is high at 13 per cent.
For Costa Rica to pass urgently needed reforms such as in pensions and the health system, the winner of Sunday’s run-off has to be ready to accept this new reality and work with other parties, Vargas Cullell said.
Neither of the two candidates’ parties will have a majority in Congress. Figueres ‘National Liberation party won 19 of 57 seats in the recent vote, compared to 10 for Chaves’ Social Democratic Progress party.
“They are both weak candidates, who have [congressional] minorities, and are not loved by the electorate, ”Vargas Cullell said. “The risk is neither understood that today governing in Costa Rica means pure coalition politics.”