Until 20 years ago, Costa Rica had craft methods of public opinion to predict the outcome of its elections. People counted the abundant flags on the roofs of houses, on trees in patios or on cars and thus guessed the winner between the two parties that alternated power for 60 years in the most solid democracy in Latin America. It wasn’t hard to get it right. Now everything is different in the political landscape, but Kendall Serrano continues to count flags in the north of the country as another indicator of the electoral climate and believes that Costa Rica will elect a man named Rodrigo Chaves this Sunday, who promises to sweep away the traditional parties and what it considers “powerful groups”.
Kendall, 42,’s method can be helpful, but it has a bias. He lives in the northern part of the country, a region that revolves around a prosperous canton called San Carlos and that has turned to the breakaway presidential candidate who this Sunday faces the most traditional politician in the country, former president José María Figueres (1994- 1998). The agricultural businessman has seen from his almost Texan environment, of farms and crops, the tense closing of an electoral campaign that has ended with high uncertainty due to the narrowing of the margin of voting intention between both candidates, according to the majority of published polls, but that in the northern region they believe has already been resolved in favor of “that gentleman economist.”
The “Economist Mr.” is Rodrigo Chaves, the surprise face that reached the second position in the first round of February 6 and was placed as an alternative to the traditional politics represented by Figueres and his National Liberation Party (PLN). This is the group founded by his father, José Figueres, who ruled the country three times and left a deep mark on the social welfare model that is envied in many countries on the continent and that now receives more and more signs of deterioration. It is the new green and blue flag of Chaves against the green and white flag of the PLN, which everyone knows and many reject as a sign of broken promises or corruption. The mayor of San Carlos, from that party, faces criminal cases for apparent bribes from construction companies. After two decades in office, he was suspended in 2021 and his replacement, from a neo-Pentecostal party, has just joined the rival Chaves. Figueres himself drags old questions of corruption, although they have never reached a judicial process.
For his part, Chaves has no more political past than six conflicting months as Finance Minister of the current government, which he arrived in 2019 for reasons that no one is now able to publicly admit. Just a few months earlier he had given up a 27-year career at the World Bank. At that time, his resume stood out: he has a doctorate in Economics from the University of Ohio, as the candidate emphasizes whenever he can. What did not come to light until two years later were the history of complaints of sexual harassment, which became known when Chaves was already a presidential candidate for a newly created party, Social Democratic Progress (PPSD).
The virus of malaise against politics
With two candidates with such opposite profiles, the polarization, the contamination of the debate and the negative vote are three hallmarks of the contest, explains the Costa Rican political scientist and analyst Eduardo Núñez. “The virus of malaise leads us to make risky bets. If we think that nothing works, we also think that we have nothing to lose by making a change, even though it may represent a threat to the democratic system. And we Costa Ricans are falling into that trap,” he comments, after noting that these trends in other nearby countries have generated major problems.
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This rejection of politics was also reflected in the first round of February 6 in the highest abstention since the 1950s. In addition, 73% of voters have expressed that they do not like either of the two candidates, although there is no no choice but to vote for them. And, whoever is the winner, will have to govern in front of a Congress dominated by opposition groups (the PLN will have 19 seats out of 57 and the PPSD, 10). Faced with this situation, Chaves has said that, if he is president, he will take to referendums the proposals that the deputies hold him back.
The northern zone of Costa Rica is just an explicit reflection of the reasons that have elevated Chaves, the World Bank technocrat who landed in Costa Rica in 2019 after three decades outside the country. Much of the country’s milk and food comes from this rural area. Many of the tourists attracted by nature and volcanoes also arrive here, as well as immigrants fleeing from neighboring Nicaragua. It is a prosperous and conservative area, where the idea is installed that the government, back in the capital, San José, only serves to put up obstacles, taxes, pretexts and corruption scandals, many of which have hit the historic PLN. There is resentment with central politics, discontent among businessmen and a lack of state assistance with the most needy and with the infrastructure they require.
As was seen in the first round and in the polls, Chaves has his greatest advantage in the Alajuela province (to which the northern zone belongs) and coastal areas, as well as among men and young people. Figueres benefits more from the support of women and those over 55 years of age, who are more attached to the traditional system. The central province of San José, the one with the most inhabitants, appeared until the beginning of the week as a disputed area between the two.
The two candidates support the application of fiscal goals committed to in an agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) defended by the current government as an oxygen balloon for public finances, but they have also said that they will seek new terms. Figueres promises a strong leadership to attack unemployment (13%), promote green economies and reduce the fuel tax for one year to reduce the cost of living, which the population sees as the main problem, in addition to legal reforms to allow the extradition of Costa Ricans in drug trafficking cases and so that the State can confiscate assets that it suspects come from organized crime. Chaves proposes a plan that would reward those who report acts of corruption with money and penalize those who do not (“I see theft, I know theft,” he says), as well as a package of executive decrees to make services and basic goods cheaper. But his main offer is to remove traditional politics and its allies. “The party is over,” he reiterates.
Chaves’ speech has caught on, but there are also skeptics. “We already sought a change in 2014 with a party that had not governed and that said it was going to end corruption. They let us down and I really prefer the old familiar, but I understand that people are angry and when you’re angry you do things on impulse,” says RCC, a resident of San Carlos who provides services to agro-export companies, but who prefers not to give his opinion. name so that in his environment they do not know that he will vote for Figueres.
Chaves owes part of his rise from the first round to Pilar Cisneros, a famous journalist from the country’s main news program, who has always strongly criticized the political class and swore not to be part of it until in 2021 she decided to support Chaves and launch herself as deputy, a position she will take on May 1. “One sees that Doña Pilar has been a warrior and she has been an ally of him; one thinks that she can do something with this rooster, ”justifies Kendall Serrano.
With the journalist and the news about the allegations of sexual harassment, Chaves was gaining visibility, which added to an image of a man understood in economics. In the first round, he reached 16.8% of the valid votes, enough to face Figueres. Then more people noticed him. “He speaks well, he looks like a strong man and has character. That sexual harassment… I don’t know, if you think about it, almost all men have done similar things, a lot depends on the woman not accusing you. Nor was it that he raped a girl or something like that, “relativizes Serrano. Opinion polls prior to election day indicate that more men support Chaves, while women dominate the undecided group.
A sector of the population is concerned about these complaints in the World Bank and, although they do not see greater virtues in Figueres, or recognize him as a spent politician, they are inclined to vote for him to prevent “a stalker” from coming to power, as they said International Women’s Day banners. Chaves insists that these complaints are “smoke”, an instrument of the “rogue” press or one more questioning that adds to others about irregularities in electoral financing. “There are no rich people here,” he said excitedly in a harangue before learning about the participation of important businessmen in his campaign. Populist, sexist and authoritarian are other criticisms made by his opponents. Several government teammates in 2020 were consulted and prefer not to comment on him, as well as people who worked on his campaign and separated from his project. “Better be careful, because you can win,” says one of them.
During the campaign, Figueres has repeated like a mantra that voting for Chaves is “a leap into the dark.” “On the other side is the lack of experience, of equipment, of vision. On this side are the democrats of many parties and sectors committed to a safe transformation of Costa Rica, with respect for our Social State of Law, our institutions and our democracy”, he said of his rival at the closing of the debates in the previous week. to the election.
“I will be an honest president,” Chaves countered in that debate: “I am not bringing old teams from the past. My team is my country. With them, for them and for them I will govern. What José María said is what we have heard since the 90s, the same unfulfilled promises, the emptiness in the heart of those who govern for people other than you, ”he said, looking at the camera. And he ended with a phrase that evokes Donald Trump’s campaign: “We are going to be the happiest country in the world again.”
On Sunday night it will be known if the flags in San Carlos were representative of the intention to vote for Chaves or just the sign of a popular feeling of anger that Figueres will have to face when he returns to government three decades later.
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