Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 344 | Marzo 2010


Costa Rica

Chinchilla’s Victory Seals Twenty Years of Rightwing Politics

Laura Chinchilla won with an electoral campaign that played only to the Right in a country whose political vocabulary doesn’t include the word Right. The fact that she’s a woman didn’t open up any new discourse. The electoral results show institutional weakness, growing social inequality and arenas in Costa Rica in which populist authoritarianism is gaining ground.

Carlos Sandoval García

The morning of October 28, 2009, was a remarkable one in San José. The traffic heading towards the Zapote district was considerably slower than usual. Normally at this time of day most vehicles are heading in the opposite direction. No accident was apparent to justify the delay. In the distance a long line of vehicles could be discerned blocking the access road to the Presidential Building. The vehicles were what are sometimes called “informal” taxis which offer house-to-house service and supposedly don’t pick up passengers on the public streets. The mobilization was an attempt to persuade the executive branch to move the Legislative Assembly bill eliminating such “carriers” to 120th place on its agenda, so there would be no possibility of it being passed. Signs on the windshields of the cars in that long line repeated slogans such as “Sorry, we’re working” and “Operation rice and beans”.

Called out by the Right

The taxi drivers’ organizations call “carriage” illegal competition, among other things because it discourages the use of taxis, which require a specific driving license, use of recent-model automobiles and an obligatory special insurance.

Independent of considerations about the dispute, the most interesting point is that the main protagonists of the pressure aren’t leftists, as is usually the case. They were called out by the Libertarian Movement (ML), a party organization on the right of the Costa Rican political spectrum.

Impoverished sectors driving automobiles nearing the end of their useful life were attracted to a discourse which insists that state regulations—in this case related to public transport—were stopping them from working. On the day in question, the Right convinced thousands of drivers to take to the streets and they did.

A brief account...

Mobilizations of this kind gained force right as the official campaign for the recent presidential elections was kicking off. While the governing National Liberation Party (PLN) won comfortably with 46.78% on February 7, the ML pulled 20.89% of the votes.

These results are a bit surprising to those of us who recall that just four years ago, PLN candidate Óscar Arias Sánchez beat out Citizen Action Party (PAC) candidate Ottón Solís by a 1.1% lead (40.9% to 39.8%), just making the 40% necessary to win on the first round. That year, the ML registered 8.5%, lagging way behind abstentions, which hit 35%.

In October 2007, the first referendum in Costa Rica’s history was held, on whether or not to approve the Central American Free Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA). Again the vote was close: 51.6% in favor of joining and 48.4% against. And abstentions were even higher: 40%.

Chinchilla won comfortably

This year President-elect Laura Chinchilla obtained 46.8% of the votes, 5.9% more than Arias in 2006. Otto Guevara, the ML’s candidate in both elections, won 12.4%, more than he did in 2006. Ottón Solís, who also ran again, won 25.1%, 14.7% less than before. Abstentions, which had risen in the 1998, 2002 and 2006 elections, dropped slightly to 30.85%, less than in the last two elections.

The combined votes for Solís and Guevara totaled less than those cast for Chinchilla alone. The difference in votes between Chinchilla and Ottón Solís, who came in second, is the largest bar the 1953 and 1982 results, when the PLN also won. Comparing the number of votes cast for the PLN with the total valid votes, the PLN obtained its third highest percentage, after those same two years.

The PLN won 24 representatives to the new Legislative Assembly: the PAC 11, one less than four years ago; the ML went from 6 to 9; and the United Social Christian Party (PUSC) went from 5 to 6. The Accessibility without Exclusion Party (PASE), which fights for the rights of people with disabilities, rose from 1 to 4, the leftist Broad Front Party won 1, just as it did 4 years ago, and two religious-oriented parties won 1 each.

Despite the millions invested in publicity and propaganda, most of the electorate didn’t know the majority of those vying
for positions in the Legislative Assembly, much less those who will represent them in the Municipal Councils. The most frequent criticism of Costa Rica’s electoral system is unequal access to political campaigning, which is financed with public resources.

After the 2002 and 2006 elections and the referendum, all of which had very close results, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, which is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, interpreted the new Electoral Code to mean that its duty is to simply scrutinize the electoral documentation provided by the polling places. Exceptions to this are those that have fewer than the three members present, have lost their voter list, have results being challenged or show inconsistencies or differences of two percentage points or less between the first and second place in the presidential race. The clear margin by which the PLN won did not spark major challenges.

Weakened institutionality

Decisive changes have occurred in Costa Rican institutionality over this first decade of the 21st century. In 2000 there was an attempt to privatize the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) through an initiative known as the ICE Combo, but the Constitutional Court declared it inadmissible. A few years later, the same court, which had experienced an important change of justices, endorsed non-consecutive presidential reelection, allowing the reelection of Óscar Arias, who had already served one presidential term between 1986 and 1990. Finally, the laws approved in the CAFTA framework ended the state telecommunications monopoly.

In the 2007 referendum, the very unequal distribution of resources between those sectors supporting CAFTA and those opposing it, as well as irregularities that occurred just a few days before the vote, underlined a weakening of institutionality at the hands of the country’s major power groups. Added to this was the Legislative Assembly’s delay in appointing one of the Constitutional Court justices and its naming of a representative in the current legislature as the new inhabitants’ ombudsperson,, a state authority in charge of guaranteeing citizens’ rights against abuses by either the executive or legislative branch of the state.

The party’s over!

This rightward political turn has been complemented with an increased inequality in income distribution. The Gini coefficient, a parameter showing income concentration, went from 0.37 in 1990 to 0.43 in 2009. As Juan Pablo Pérez and Minor Mora stated in their emblematic 2009 book titled Se Acabó la Pura Vida (The party’s over), published by FLACSO, “as the structural changes were maturing, income tended to be appropriated in greater proportion by those sectors in the upper strata of the social structure.”

The geography of inequalities, which contrasts exclusive residential areas with impoverished communities, is surely the best record of the growth in inequality. The irony is that many people who work as domestic employees, private guards, builders or gardeners in the residential areas, and are thus responsible for the continuity of life in these privileged areas, themselves live in impoverished and crime-ridden communities.

versus conservativism

This weakening of state institutionality and concentration of income hasn’t occurred just in the past decade. It could be said that Costa Rica’s political culture arose from the tension between the modernization produced by service-providing institutions and a public sphere anchored in conservativism.

Costa Rican society underwent major constitutional changes in the 1940s and 50s that led to the establishing of public insurance, telecommunications, electricity, health and higher education systems. This favored access to a better life style for a large sector of the population. These institutions of what could be called a welfare state were accompanied by a political system that consolidated an electoral system legitimated as a mechanism for electing rulers for a good part of the second half of last century.

This consolidation of institutions and of the political system, however, was not accompanied by a similar impetus in cultural policies, in those institutions that produce or support the production of images, discourses and practices, including the media. This is one of the paradoxes of the Costa Rican State that hasn’t received enough attention, so while institutions providing key services for public welfare were consolidated, the cultural institutions didn’t follow the same trend.

The convergence of the elites

If a certain authoritarian continuity existed throughout the last decade, rooted in previous years, what’s new about the present situation? My provisional argument is that the turn to the right experienced by Costa Rican society has intensified in the last decade in both electoral and ideological terms.

At least two traits characterize the consolidation of this turn. On the one hand, the PLN has fused with the interests of big capital. It was previously linked mainly to the PUSC, which has taken a turn for the worse since two former Presidents from that party, Rafael Ángel Calderón Fournier and Miguel Ángel Rodríguez Echeverría, have been awaiting verdicts in the country’s judicial courts.

Investment, above all in tourism and finance, apparently brought together those who in other eras were defined more by their political divergences than their managerial coincidences. The PLN’s campaign promise “Forward” seems to have convinced broad sectors of the electorate as well as important capital groups that had already backed Arias’ candidacy, even while still sympathizing with other parties.

Populist authoritarianism

The second novelty is the ML’s appeal to populist authoritarianism to make insecurity the principal and almost only topic of discussion during the electoral campaign, encouraging hard-line policies accompanied by populist rhetoric. Punitive responses to insecurity complement a discourse that appeals to grassroots self-identity avid for simple answers to complex problems.

Populist authoritarianism links together and translates ideas that otherwise would circulate very little. This is not about a Right promoting neoliberal theses now weakened by the current international economic crisis, but rather promising order through a repertoire of images feeding into the popular expression “what goes around, comes around” or images of a semi-naked young man who has shucked off most of his clothing to avoid being assaulted.

A hard-line argument against delinquents was the Libertarian Movement’s war horse. With a clearly macho slant, the ML has employed a discourse in which it is men who are called upon to defend order.

A hypothesis in Limón

It is no accident that in the coastal provinces of Guanacaste, Puntarenas and Limón, where inequality and insecurity have increased, the ML came in second in the 2010 elections, ahead of the PAC. In Limón, the province where the rate of premeditated murder has increased the most, abstentions were at 45% in 2006 and 38.5% in 2010, a reduction of 6.6%, whereas the national abstention level went down by only 4.1%. In 2006, the ML only won 13.5% in this province. Four years later it won 31.4%, more than its national level (20.8%). It could be hypothesized that the reduction in abstentions was motivated by an increase in votes for the ML, most of all in areas of the country, like Limón, where insecurity is highest.

Stuart Hall published a famous article in Marxism Today in 1979 on Margaret Thatcher’s triumph and the ascent of neo-conservatism in England 30 years ago called “The Great Moving Right Show,” which was translated and published two years later in Revista Mexicana de Sociología. In it he described the nature of populist authoritarianism. Based on Hall’s argument it could be said that this turn in Costa Rica isn’t a reflection of crisis but rather a way to try to legitimize hegemony at a time when the continuity of the country’s social system is risking two of its most valued pillars, according to Latin American parameters: institutionality and less income inequality.

The punitive route

Populist authoritarianism allows sectors with power to present ideological concepts that counter the interests and expectations of subordinate sectors in such a way that they identify with the conceptions of the powerful.

The Libertarian Movement thesis, which insists that punitive policies and no social investment can resolve insecurity, attracts social sectors suffering from a lack of public investment that has, among other things, deteriorated the quality of their children’s public education.

Populist authoritarianism, which tries to substitute a punitive solution for what the welfare state no longer offers, is taking a major tack to the right, characterized by authoritarianism, neoliberal economic policies and the weakening of institutionality. Both populist authoritarianism and this rightward shift find fertile soil in a conservative public sphere that has been relatively untouched by the modernization of Costa Rican institutions.

The ML and the PLN are needed

The ML strongly criticized the candidacy of Laura Chinchilla, calling her the “candidate of the rich.” It demanded that she open up her home, located in one of the most select residential neighborhoods in western San José, when she responded to criticisms in La Nación newspaper about the not entirely clear origin of the money used in her profuse publicity spots. In the last weeks of the campaign, the critiques of the ML’s populist authoritarianism and, above all, of the alleged origins of its funds, weakened the electorate’s acceptation of its slogan “Let’s make a change NOW,” in a campaign very similar to those won respectively by Lobo and Martinelli in Honduras and Panama.

Despite the discourse, the PLN and ML proposals shared certain characteristics at a less obvious level. The elites’ capital accumulation project and the growing inequality that has characterized neoliberal policies and seems to attract business groups of different political persuasions around the new President is producing contradictions that sometimes make the reproduction of the social system seem a bit rocky. Considering accumulation far more than distribution increases insecurity and weakens social and interpersonal links.

The ML discourse arises in response to this scenario. Its campaign is the rightwing populist authoritarian reaction to the risk of a legitimacy crisis resulting trom the extension of social policies that exclude and generate inequality. The electoral campaign was played on the Right’s home ground, an irony in a country whose political vocabulary doesn’t include the word “Right.”

The “tabloidization” of media news

The linkage between authoritarianism and popularism wouldn’t be possible without a favorable context. In Costa Rica’s
case–and in many other countries—an undoubtedly decisive factor has been the boom of “events” as a predominant subject on the media’s agenda. The paradox of modern institutions and a conservative public sphere has been fed in the last decade by the expansion of the “tabloidization” of television, with a pronounced increase in crime and accident reporting as news.
If “national current events” included crime and accident reporting as one of its sections before, this has become the
lead segment throughout this decade. It occupies 15 minutes of the two news programs with the largest audience in the country, the main source of information for a large sector of Costa Rican society as shown by the Human Development Report 2005, published by the United Nations Development Program.

To this is added the growth in the tabloid press itself, above all the Al Día and La Teja dailies, both from the Nation Group, Central America’s main communication group. With a little more than two years in circulation, La Teja sells over 125,000 copies every day. Most of the printed page in both tabloids is taken up with crime and accident reporting, show business and soccer. The image of society that La Teja communicates is a world where there are no institutions, people are individuals without interpersonal or social relationships and life is a succession of unconnected episodes. The last page of this publication has always presented a woman in a bikini and in recent weeks they have been raffling breast implants, presumably to attract more readers.

The thousands of people who read La Teja assume politics as something far off and end up feeling like the objects rather than the subjects of political life. This gives validity to the thesis that ideology becomes hegemonic not only when its points of view are imposed but also when it prevents other points of view about what has happened from being heard. On February 8, the day after the elections, La Teja was saturated with superfluous anecdotes about election day—an example of the profoundly political nature of populist anti-politics.

Populist authoritarianism
has already taken root

With support from the Social Research Institute, the Statistics School conducted a national telephone poll for the Costa Rican University’s weekly newspaper Universidad. The survey’s conclusions give credence to the populist authoritarianism thesis. For example, to the question of whether the country needs an authoritarian leader to resolve its problems, 56% of the responses were either “in agreement” or “very much in agreement.”

Identification with an authoritarian solution has been documented by diverse surveys in the last two decades. Very probably the novelty is that, for the first but maybe not the last time, insecurity has been politicized to the point where it constitutes the main theme of the political campaign, something we may have already seen coming (see envío August 2008).

The populist authoritarianism boom championed by the Libertarian Movement could not have resonated so well without the abandonment of the political center, traditionally occupied by the PLN, which has renounced its social democratic agenda and now identifies with the neoliberal creed. Thus the Right has become the center of the political spectrum. Not even having a woman candidate heading the polls throughout the campaign made it possible to structure a new discourse.

Fearful both of mobilizing macho society against her and of drawing protests from the feminist organizations because she showed so little initiative on women’s rights, candidate Chinchilla remained at the rearguard of her own party’s campaign propaganda. But she did make her opposition to same-sex marriage explicit.

The PAC didn’t pact

If the Right has responded to exclusionary development generating inequality with a repertoire of populist authoritarian speeches, the center’s alternatives contributed little to the political debate in these elections. The Citizen Action Party (PAC)— the most innovative party in electoral politics in the last decade—seems to have abandoned the promise implied in its name. In a country where anti-communism is still a structural dimension of political culture, the PAC is afraid of being labeled “leftist” and hasn’t achieved visibility even with a social democratic agenda, now far to the left of the PLN.

The PAC’s insistence that civic participation is indispensible to the concept of political proposals has been jettisoned, both in electoral participation and in governmental conduct. Its campaign revolved around the figure of Ottón Solís. It expressed no great interest in forging municipal alliances, even though there were nine in this election and could perhaps have improved its performance at the local level.

Although the PAC has shown that inequality is an especially relevant subject and that there is a need for fiscal reform, postponed by the last two governments, this didn’t influence its political agenda. Furthermore, its candidates didn’t seem to form part of the initiatives, groups or movements fighting for the importance of equity as a cardinal element of social life.

Who loves “this” Costa Rica?

The PAC’s slogan, “The Costa Rica we love,” came off as extremely vague and diffuse. The candidates didn’t explain who those who love it are or their principal initiatives to achieve that Costa Rica. Nor—and this is probably the key missing element—did they explain how civic participation will build the “Costa Rica we love.”

Meanwhile, National Liberation concretized its slogan “Forward” in a system of care that would mean female heads of household could take paid work outside of the home, in work options for young people, in well paid jobs for adults and in decent pensions for those of pensionable age. This is in addition to the present program “Let’s move ahead,” which supports students so they don’t drop out of formal education. Thus, while the PLN joined up with important sectors of capital, it was also capable of solidifying initiatives that appealed to wide sectors of society. Ignoring this could lead us to forget that, in order to legitimize itself, all ideology must be based on common sense. The PLN gave a human face to its neoliberalism.

The 2010 election results show that a third of those who voted for Ottón Solís didn’t vote for PAC candidates on the Legislative Assembly ballot. This confirms something Solís seems to resist recognizing: many of the votes he won were more motivated by the expectation of stopping Laura Chinchilla from winning than by party identification. The PAC support base is a lot smaller than is shown by the presidential vote.

The PAC’s criticism of the polls or the way the media presented it, can’t hide the existence of social sectors that identify with the arguments of the center Right or Right and, probably most importantly, that the PAC has not managed to constitute itself as a political proposal to the impoverished sectors.

The heart is on the left...

The panorama of the center Left is even more diffuse. Despite the enormous effort of the mobilizations against CAFTA, the Left has a very weak presence in the electoral scene. Participatory democracy seems to have gained strength and a mobilizing capacity that isn’t conveyed in the forms of representative democracy. There do not seem to be the conditions to pull together an association of forces that could give progressive answers to the elite’s neoliberal project or to the authoritarian and populist interpretation of insecurity.

An important part of the vote for the Broad Front comes from the urban middle class, above all employees of the State or its institutions. The progressive initiatives emerging in the public universities usually have few links outside of their own milieu. There’s no leftist political culture rooted in the grassroots sectors In Costa Rica. The Left’s union experience has been sporadic since the mid-eighties and is now far removed from the tradition of the greatly reduced, but still active. banana unions.

Despite this there’s a broad constellation of ecological, feminist, ecumenical and communal groups and organizations with great potential but little dialogue, frequently annexed by arguments between particular self-styled leaders. This could partly explain why this sizable constellation works well together around participatory democracy but appears erratic on representative democratic occasions like elections. When elected positions are at stake the internal discrepancies are magnified.

...but the Left is not in the heart

To the disputes between leaderships, sometimes with no great grassroots presence, must be added the challenge
of how to translate into more purposeful initiatives the mobilizations and protests that have arisen and joined together in opposition and resistance to national projects like the privatization of telecommunications or CAFTA. The step from protest to proposal is a still pending task that needs to be nourished from grassroots culture if it is to resound in the daily life of wide social sectors.

A third challenge for this constellation of groups and organizations would consist of how to link up work proposals that not only end up sharing perspectives but can enter into dialogue with the half-politicized sectors and even more importantly with wider social sectors. The latter are usually bombarded by political offers of housing and community improvements during campaign time or otherwise but very often remain as empty promises. In the last election, such clientelism alternated with populist authoritarianism, which promised security and a hard line. Faced with a future as uncertain as today, clientelism or authoritarian discourse found fertile ground and filled a vacuum.

The faces the Left didn’t attract

In mid January, three weeks before the elections, the possibility arose of an alliance between the PAC and two small parties, the social democratic Patriotic Alliance and National Integration. The expectation was that “just as happened in the struggle against CAFTA, many civil society organizations would immediately activate. There would be a snowball effect that, in a matter of days, could change the direction of the election and make mincemeat of the media’s polls,” as one of the people promoting the alliance explained to Informa.tico (www.informatico-tico.com).

Apart from being a late initiative, which the leftist Broad Front did not join, it was more an electoral option than a political alternative. It showed that we’re still lacking initiatives capable of identifying the day-to-day faces of broad sectors of Costa Rican society. Thousands of adolescents were picking coffee during this election campaign period to pay for the expenses of starting classes. Thousands of teachers have to wait months to receive their salaries. Agricultural workers grow the pineapples or melons that identify Costa Rica in international markets, to give just a few examples. But the young boys and girls picking coffee, the committed teachers, the workers and all the other faces taken for granted never appeared on the electoral campaign posters..

There’s no popular democratic alternative to the neoliberal project and authoritarian populist answer in Costa Rica. To build this alternative assumes giving a face to people outside of the political discourse and politics, to those who are just the chorus in the show where the candidates parade.

This challenge involves both representation and participation in building a popular democratic alternative in which frequently wasted experiences of such broad social sectors would enrich comprehension and intervention in the field of potentialities and capacities.

The recognition of this wasted experience presupposes a humble attitude, capable of recognizing the need to listen and dialogue in order to try to bring together the diversity of worlds that characterizes Costa Rican society. Universalizing one’s condition and acting as if the only universe is one’s own has been quite refuted in these elections.

And the analysis of the
outgoing Arias government?

The absence of a popular democratic alternative—or several, not too many or too few—reveals the lack of political memory. In fact, the absence of a balance sheet on the Arias administration is deeply resented. For example, while its environmental proposal was called “Peace with Nature,” frequent conflicts have arisen over water, concessions to ministers’ relatives, open pit mining, etc.

Something similar occurred with the fiscal reform promised by the government following approval of CAFTA and its complementary laws. By the end of the Arias administration’s second year, fiscal reform, one of the public policy tools that would lessen inequality, had been forgotten. Governmental oblivion was to be expected, but oblivion from critical positions is more serious.

Perhaps even more relevant was the neglect of the housing sector because the promise to build 80,000 houses was key to Arias’ close election in 1986. In 2007 it was revealed that Central American Bank for Economic Integration resources earmarked for social projects were used in onerous consultations. Estimated are the current administration has scarcely built a third of the houses planned.

At the end of the campaign, digital support documents were circulated such as “The history of the Arias family,” power point presentations or the documentary “Holy fraud” on how the 2007 referendum was conducted. But it wasn’t possible
to impress on the public sphere the importance of an informed analysis of the Arias administration.
While he PLN’s neoliberal project is concentrating power and distributing benefits to a small sector, it is also showing weaknesses But the opposition has been weaker.

Insecurity and inequality
are missing links

A survey by the University of Costa Rica identifies broad social sectors favoring elements of the authoritarian repertoire, but also shows characteristics of a politifcallhy wasted experience and memory. When asked if the problem of security would be resolved by a better distribution of wealth, 47% “agree” or “very much agree,” while 39.2% “disagree” or “very much disagree.”

While the subject of inequality hasn’t been on either the media or electoral campaign agenda except for some tenuous PAC insinuations, virtually half the population consulted believes there’s a relationship between inequality and insecurity.

There has been evidence since 2004 of a significant statistical correlation between the increase in inequality and the increase in criminality in Costa Rica, as is also often the case elsewhere. It’s an international trend. This is laid out in the document “Security face to face with crime,” prepared by Elías Carranza and Emilio Solana for the “Tenth Report of the State of the Nation Program.” They show that the increase in homicides and property crimes is correlated to the increase in inequality measured by the Gini coefficient. This means that the replies given by those in the University of Costa Rica survey correspond to the findings of this research.

The verification that inequality has increased and that it weakens social links and produces violent societies could be an indispensible reference point to construct a popular democratic alternative to both the neoliberal project electorally expressed by the PLN and in the ML’s populist authoritarianism.

We lost an opportunity

The 2010 elections in Costa Rica could have been the opportunity to praise the mobilizations and political resistance to neoliberalism. Furthermore, Costa Rica experienced an economic crisis last year that also could have been an input into critically considering market fundamentalism. The opportunity was lost and in both electoral and ideological terms, the result seems to be a deepening of the turn to authoritarianism and the legitimacy of the center Right, characterized by political options that will not impede the deepening of inequality and the concentration of power.

Inequality could have become a macro reference point, articulating a proposal of many of the motivations that have energized Costa Rican mobilizations against neoliberal policies. This would have prevented the electoral campaign from being limited to a choice between the Right and the center Right. The election took place on rightwing ground, between the orthodox neoliberalism of the Libertarian Movement and the heterodox neoliberalism of National Liberation, which came out winning. A lost opportunity.

Carlos Sandoval García is a professor at the University of Costa Rica (UCR).

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