The reality of Costa Rican politics is always more complex than can be summed up in a few simple sentences. Such is the case when analyzing the results of this February’s election in Costa Rica.
On the surface, the win by Laura Chinchilla, representing the social democratic National Liberation Party (PLN), can be seen as the maintenance of the status quo and the social liberal agenda of the social democratic parties, which finished first and second in the election. But this hides important realities.
The vote represented a repudiation of rightist forces that identified with last year’s right wing in Honduras, which ousted President Zelaya. The election took place in the larger context of the capitalist crisis and its effects on Costa Rica; the rise in social polarization throughout Central America and its political consequences; and the influence of the Bolivarian movement in nearby Venezuela.
What the election doesn’t reflect is the growing social polarization in Costa Rica. Chinchilla represents the continuity of social liberalism of outgoing President Oscar Arias. In fact, barely two weeks after the election was held, Arias announced he was signing the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). The treaty was put to a national referendum a little over one year ago, and approved by a margin of less than one per cent of those voting. The campaign around the No vote against CAFTA was a better indication of how Ticos (Costa Ricans) view the world.
Chinchilla is Costa Rica’s first female president and as such represents an advance in the political consciousness of the people. Costa Rica has a unicameral National Assembly with 57 seats, a president and two vice-presidents, with an appointed cabinet serving as an executive. While there have been several female vice-presidents in the past, Chinchilla’s convincing margin of victory lays to rest the “women can’t win” argument used by the conservative wings of the major political parties, and validates Tico women’s growing participation in the political process.
Her major opponent, Otton Solis who in 2006 came within 18,000 votes of defeating current president Oscar Arias and the PLN, was this time soundly trounced, gaining only 25 per cent of the vote to Chinchilla’s 46 per cent. Solis served as finance minister in Arias’ first presidential term, during the period of the Regan years. His Citizens’ Action Party (PAC), formed by Solis after leaving the PLN, represents a more populist brand of social democracy, repudiating some of the more obsequious social liberal policies pursued by Arias.
The defeat of the PAC was a result of several factors. Throughout the lead up to the election, Solis and the PAC trailed not only Chinchilla and the PLN, but also the hard right of the Movimiento Libertario (Libertarian Movement), America- influenced right wingers who want a wide open market, reduced government and privatization. The Libertarian Movement’s leader, Otto Guevara, is a product of the US Ivy League school system. Except for the last week, when a poll showed Solis in second place, the strength of the Libertarian Movement played into the PLN’s hands. The PLN kept repeating that nobody in Costa Rica wanted a Libertarian Movement government, and if the situation were reversed they would vote for Solis to stop Guevara. This message was taken to heart by a portion of the PAC base and it lost 13 per cent of its former vote, half of it to the PLN.
On the other side of the spectrum, the Libertarian Movement has supplanted the former grand party of the Costa Rican right, the conservative Social Christian Unity party (UP). But between them, the right was able to garner only 25 per cent of the vote.
The social democratic and socialist parties took about 70 per cent of the vote. Their vote reflects the repudiation of any attempt to turn Costa Rica further to the right. The groups to the left of the PLN-PAC, the Frente Amplio (Broad Front) and Partido Renevador National (PRN), were each able to hold on to enough of their urban base in San Jose to maintain their parliamentary representation of one deputy each.
Chinchilla’s victory was made inevitable by the lack of a clear alternative to the social liberal policies of the PLN and the lack of a campaign targeting growing frustration with official corruption, the CAFTA and its effects on the Costa Rican economy, and urban crimes involving the police. The pent up frustrations with the social liberal policies felt by many Ticos were not mobilized.
On the other hand, the clear repudiation of Guevara’s support for the Honduran military-civilian coup and his friendship with the newly elected right-wing president of Panama provided an outlet in a much distorted way to express the indignation of the Costa Rican people.
As Chinchilla begins to implement the social liberal agenda using the crisis as an excuse to cut social services and workers’ benefits and to privatize key parts of the Costa Rican economy, the honeymoon will end very quickly. In addition, the growth of the social movements in Nicaragua and Honduras and the escalating social conflicts there will force Ticos to make choices about whether to join the mass movement or to stand aside and let the PLN and the imperialists attack the hard fought gains of the Costa Rican people.
Ticos obtained these impressive gains through a civil war and a form of social democratic revolutionary program that included abolishing the standing army in 1948 and maintaining diplomatic political neutrality (as in Switzerland). They are proud of these gains and, faced with the choices the social democrats will soon hand them, they will begin to mobilize to defend their standard of living, despite the election results.