Costa Rica’s 2018 elections: corruption, morality politics, and voter alienation make uncertainty the only certainty
In a context of political dealignment and a fluid multiparty system, corruption scandals and a divisive international court ruling on sexual and reproductive rights have drastically altered the electoral landscape, write Evelyn Villarreal Fernández (State of the Nation Programme) and Bruce M. Wilson (University of Central Florida).
This Sunday, 4 February 2018, will mark the 17th time since the end of the 1948 civil war that Costa Ricans will go to the polls to simultaneously elect all 57 members of the Legislative Assembly, the president, and two vice presidents.
Costa Rican democracy is one of the oldest, best-performing democracies in the Americas, but the upcoming election is marked by general disinterest, voter volatility, and two late-breaking events that have displaced traditional campaign issues. These two events, a corruption scandal and an international court ruling, have combined with a process of political dealignment and the consolidation of a fluid multiparty system to significantly alter the electoral landscape.
Decades of dealignment and multipartism
Historically, Costa Rican politics was dominated by two major parties that routinely garnered more than 94% of the national vote. Since 1994, however, no party has won majority control of the 57-member legislative assembly, and parties find it increasingly difficult to garner the 40% national vote share necessary to capture the presidency.
This weakness is compounded by the general instability of party support and increased split-ticket voting, whereby voters back different parties in presidential and legislative elections, for example (see Table 1). The sitting president’s party, PAC, is only the second largest party in congress and has to work alongside deputies from seven other parties.
No clear winner in sight
Thirteen candidates successfully registered with the Supreme Electoral Court for the 2018 presidential election.
A December 2017 poll had Juan Diego Castro, of the emergent Partido Integración Nacional (PIN), as the most popular candidate with just 18% support. The second and third most popular candidates, Antonio Alvarez (PLN) and Rodolfo Piza (PUSC), polled just 14% and 13% respectively. Carlos Alvarado, from the incumbent president’s party, received just 5% support, which represents a major reversal of fortunes for a party that lost the 2010 election by less than 1% and won the presidency in 2014.
But a poll in late January further scrambled the voters’ preferences: evangelical candidate Fabricio Alvarado leapt into first place with 17%, up from 3% the previous month, while the second and third place candidates both lost support.
Enthusiasm for the 2018 election remains low (25%), and the fact that “undecided” voters constitute one third of the electorate has amplified the uncertainty surrounding election day. A second-round runoff is likely.