Fears, efforts, lessons, challenges and hope in the second round of elections
Our country’s 51,100 square kilometers
are home to millions of diverse Costa Ricans
who’ve never been so set against one another
as during the tremendous electoral tension
and now, after Carlos Alvarado’s surprise victory.
We will have to come together again, step by step,
and repair the social fabric shredded by this
intense political and electoral exercise,
facing the many lessons and challenges
of this new stage with intelligence.
Karina Fonseca Vindas
At one of the most critical junctures in our country’s recent history, with its democratic stability at stake, Costa Rica elected Carlos Alvarado as President of the Republic for the next four years in the second round of voting on April 1. His victory followed several months of unspeakable tension, during which Costa Ricans, Central Americans and citizens from around the world waited with bated breath for this unprecedented political and electoral contest’s final outcome.
An ample margin of victory
In the second round Carlos Alvarado Quesada, the governing Citizens’ Action Party (PAC) candidate, faced Fabricio Alvarado Muñoz of the Evangelical National Restoration Party (PRN). With the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) president requesting “humility, generosity and respect” from the winner, the TSE presented the preliminary results with more than 90% of polling stations tallied less than three hours after polls closed. Carlos Alvarado was elected by an unexpectedly ample margin: 60.66% of the votes.
What most expected to be a tightly won election was far from it. Numerous polls had predicted a tie and some projections confidently promised a PRN triumph. Fabricio Alvarado’s party had taken off at supersonic speed in January 2018 following the release of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights resolution regarding homosexual couples’ rights; the most conservative Christian moral imperatives were the cornerstone of their candidate’s plan for government. Paradoxically, that meteoric rise opened up new possibilities for the PAC, which had been seriously damaged by scandals marking outgoing President Luis Guillermo Solís’ government and by the population’s scant recognition of his administration’s real achievements.
Relief and joy,
disbelief and suffering
President Solís will be relieved to turn
the presidential sash over to one of his closest and youngest collaborators. A broad section of Costa Rica’s citizenry uttered a similar sigh of collective relief as a first reaction to the TSE’s anouncement. Those who for months had been living in fear of a PRN government immediately took to the streets to joyfully celebrate that party’s defeat.
Their spontaneous party in the streets of San José was even bigger than those seen when Costa Rica classifies for the world soccer games. In other parts of the capital Fabricio’s supporters couldn’t get over their disbelief: the messianic figure in whom they had confided so much trust and certainty, the prophet who promised them victory, had been defeated.
That combination of joy and despair has not dissipated; the country remains bitterly divided. The many Costa Rica that make up the 51,100 square kilometers of our country and the millions of diverse Costa Ricans who inhabit them have never been so set against one another. Step by step
we’ll have to come together and repair the social fabric torn asunder in this tense and intense political and electoral exercise. A new stage now begins for our country, laden with lessons and challenges we must face with intelligence.
Two thirds of the population over the voting age of 18 turned out at their polling stations for the second-round of voting to decide which of the two Alvarados would lead the country for the next four years. That represents 10% fewer abstentions than in the 2014 elections won by Luis Guillermo Solís, when only 56.5% of registered voters turned out. More voters also showed up for this year’s second round than for the first round, when Fabricio Alvarado took first place, this time apparently favoring the PAC candidate.
On a day as special as Easter Sunday, after a long vacation week in which the candidates’ main concern was that vacationers wouldn’t return in time to vote, such ample participation is a significant detail. Clearly a good portion of the populace made the extra effort to support the PAC candidate, who could be characterized as Social Democratic, and reject the PRN, which they could be forgiven for suspecting might try to create a theocratic government.
“We aren’t who we
thought we were”
This historic moment full of doubts and discord has also served to open our eyes. The past months’ polarization has left bare the heart of a Costa Rica forgotten by the political class. Tatiana Lobo, a well-known Costa Rican writer, expressed it with the question, “What happened to us?” Answering it herself, she said, “What happened is that we aren’t who we thought we were. The voters’ confusion, produced by their disgust with corrupt politicians, suggests that something has surfaced, something buried under a layer of formalities and good manners, under the appearance of tolerance and a tradition of peace.”
While this is true, a look on the bright side of a context that warrants our optimism shows that all we just lived through may awaken in us a new consciousness of being citizens, a more inclusive consciousness that lays claim to the full rights of our whole society.
In his victory speech, Carlos Alvarado said something I believe is central to adequately explaining both what we went through and what comes next:
“We cannot speak of a united Costa Rica while such deep inequality persists.” With statements like that and Epsy Campbell Barr’s election as first Vice President, the new PAC administration is sending an incredibly valuable signal of inclusion and opportunities. Campbell is an economist with extensive experience in national politics as a PAC founder and a two-term legislative representative. Moreover she is the first Afro-descendent woman to hold this position in any continental Latin American country. Between Alvarado and her, they position us on the world stage as a diverse country, capable of taking on important challenges in this and in many other realms.
“It’s for Costa Rica”
Now that the electoral contest has passed, with all the furor and intense division it provoked, it’s time to begin to digest what has happened. From our side of the street, we had waved our banners and looked with distress at those who said they wouldn’t vote, at those who joined the solid pro-Fabricio voting bloc out of a kind of religious loyalty, and at those who strangely, given their economic and educational levels, defended the claim that the PRN candidate represented “the change Costa Rica needs,” trying to show that they weren’t motivated by religious or conservative moral imperatives. The attitude shown by this last group, full of men, should be further studied in light of their intense support for the cause Fabricio ran on. Homophobia? Denied homosexuality? Traumatic life stories? Hegemonic masculinity in crisis or emboldened? We are left with many questions yet to be asked.
A series of citizens’ initiatives sprang up in the tense preamble of this key period, with collective, supportive, engaged proposals that managed to break through both indifference and blind faith, wresting away the thousands of votes that ultimately made the PAC triumph possible. “It’s for Costa Rica” was one of the most popular slogans heard in the second round. Many people, especially young ones, were convinced by the idea of voting “for Costa Rica” and in turn they convinced many others to vote.
It’s worth noting three factors that characterized the process, present up to the last moment and with us still. The incredible outcome represents the crash point of a tidal wave whose wake has brought to the surface previously hidden social, political, cultural and economic dynamics—or perhaps they are ones many of us chose not to see before now.
The clout of Evangelical Christians
The first factor is the power the Evangelical faith has in the country. An impressive sector of Evangelical Christians, mainly those affiliated with Pentecostal and Neo-Pentecostal denominations and active in Costa Rica’s most marginalized communities, made it possible for the PRN candidate, Fabricio Alvarado, to set himself up as the figure with the greatest chance of reaching the presidency. This scenario left many dumbstruck.
On February 4, the date of the first round of voting, more than half a million voters, nearly 25% of those who went to the polls, opted for the PRN from among six choices, electing 14 militant Evangelicals, many of them full-time pastors, to the country’s unicameral Legislative Assembly. By their vote they also ratified the PRN’s right to around US$10 million as a political obligation generated by its candidates’ positive result in the elections. They also placed psalmist and ex-legislator Fabricio Alvarado in first place in voter preference, ensuring his spot in the second round for the presidency.
A large part of Costa Rican society was perplexed by these events. For another sector, this unexpected political twist revealed something hidden in its depths.
The forgotten Costa
Rica we didn’t see
This is the shake-up’s most important lesson. There’s a forgotten Costa Rica, impoverished, lacking opportunities, disenchanted with politics and whose civic participation is limited to receiving visits and promises from the candidates of the day, then going out to vote. After that they merely watch from a distance as any shadow of positive change in their lives passes them by.
Many of these people have found comfort in “church community,” listening to a pastor who bolsters them with promises of salvation and announces the Good News due to arrive any day now; the prize they’ll receive in the afterlife, following this life of deprivation that God uses to test them in the here and now.
This “word of God” spoken by preachers is more credible to millions of citizens than the statements of authorities, politicians or activists. Something similar has been happening increasingly in many countries around Latin America.
Both urban and rural impoverished areas of Costa Rica, for years fed a diet of daily sermons and exclusion, became fertile ground for the PRN candidate, who by a stroke of luck saw his popularity take off under the banner of defending the traditional family and rejecting the rights of same-sex couples. As the electoral campaign changed course, we saw for the first time how much influence these Evangelical groups with Pentecostal tendencies had accrued in our country.
An uphill effort
Raising these two banners, Fabricio Alvarado was seen by many as God’s messenger, the country’s savior, the one who would change all that was wrong with Costa Rica. Given the divine mantle he claimed for himself and which his followers laid on him, the effort required of those challenging the Evangelical political onslaught was always an uphill battle.
Examples abound of the inappropriate use of religion by the PRN during the campaign, and of charges against it brought before the TSE, whose feeble reproaches for its use of religious arguments were too numerous to count.
“We have to put
God in government”
Following is a word-for-word transcription of one sermon from among hundreds of examples preached by the PRN candidate. In a video widely circulated on social media, he said, “You might be thinking that we shouldn’t mix politics with the things of God. Let me explain a Biblical text found in Isaiah, chapter 33, verse 22: ‘For the LORD is our judge, the LORD is our lawgiver, the LORD is our king; it is He who will save us.’ Allow me to lay it out for you: the Lord is our judge. Where are the judges? In the judicial branch. The Lord is our lawgiver. Where are the lawgivers? In the legislative branch.
The Lord is our king. What is a king? The figure of the President. Where is the President? In the executive branch. And the Biblical text ends by saying,
‘It is He who will save us.’ The salvation that Costa Rica needs is to put God in government, it is for you to keep in mind the principles and values found in the Bible, the principles and values that God established for His children, when you vote.”
Fabricio Alvarado was unconvincing in nearly every aspect considered necessary for being President. We could write a book of all the blunders, contradictions, weaknesses and negative statements he uttered during the campaign. Yet his faithful voting bloc had no doubt that he was the representative God wanted to govern Costa Rica.
Liberty according to the PRN
If we add to Fabricio’s conspicuous incompetence the fact that he presented his government plan—”version 2.0" as he called it—barely five days before April 1, the solid support he garnered clearly eluded the rational, belonging instead to the world of emotions and the power of magical thinking.
His highly questioned government plan turned out to be a text full of proposals plagiarized from other candidates, with stark allusions that showed PRN proposals clearly inciting authoritarianism. Take for example his plan’s definition of liberty: “A human being is free because he was created in the image and likeness of his Creator, that is, with the attribute of free will. But liberty is not licentiousness; it is characterized by the decision to exercise free will, and for us, that implies the decision to conduct both private and public life adhering to Christian ethics. Liberty is not licentiousness.”
In such a proposal, who determines what licentious practice is? And if someone’s practice doesn’t conform to Judeo-Christian morality, which the PRN emphasizes, does the person lose his or her right to freely form part of Costa Rican society? Many people began to ask themselves just such questions.
The role of the Catholic Church
It still remains to be seen how a series of basic, unsatisfied demands from the most vulnerable sectors of Costa Rican society slowly but drastically devolved, by the force of Evangelical pastors’ burning word, the historic abandonment of the State and the weak role played by the Catholic Church. The latter’s meager presence and limited social action in the poorest communities also explains the Evangelical inroads. The Catholic Church should be more attentive to people’s outcry, putting social justice ahead of the moral precepts that kept it in sync with the PRN’s proposals.
Confronted with a public statement made jointly by the Costa Rican Conference of Bishops and the Costa Rican Evangelical Alliance Federation, TSE authorities stated in a verdict that the document “mixes terms pertaining to electoral political activity and religious expressions in such a way that, when combined, they represent—based on their connotation and impact—a threat to the free exercise of the vote.” The TSE requested that the Conference and the Alliance refrain from similar actions in the future. The Catholic Church lowered its profile in observance of the order, while Evangelicals close to the PRN ignored it, playing key roles in new scandals by manipulating religious beliefs for campaign purposes. These actions were fully investigated and published in the media by the University of Costa Rica in the last days of the campaign.
Another task is understanding Fabricio’s followers
Attempting to explain all this by simply stating that the PRN’s solid voting bloc is made up of the ignorant and the blind is to willfully misunderstand a complex phenomenon we are all responsible for. In a daily context of poverty and abandonment, discrimination and lack
of opportunities, being part of a religious community or a church means so much more than just appealing to Biblical texts interpreted literally, taken out of context or used for personal expediency. Above all it means finding a social group that provides identity, affection, solidarity, emotional support and protection. It also means being taken into consideration, and thus it means dignity.
These myriad feelings slowly transformed into an unshakable loyalty to Fabricio Alvarado, making the other Costa Rica tremble. These feelings will not disappear with the election results.
Another key factor was the favorable public appearance of the PAC candidate. When Carlos Alvarado was announced as the presidential candidate, the electoral environment was tepid and he had few possibilities of aadvancing in the contest.
After stalling between fifth and sixth place in voters’ intentions due to his role representing the worn-out governing party and having to constantly sidestep complaints about the corruption scandals that tarnished the PAC administration, it was impossible to guess that this 38-year-old politician would go so far so fast. It was the abrupt turn of events set off in the campaign by the Inter-American Court’s resolution and by Fabricio Alvarado’s breakneck rise that made it possible.
The lack of the recognition fairly due Luis Guillermo Solís’ government, the harsh criticism of his administration and the blockade against Solís by the most powerful media outlets, which highlighted all his failures over and over again while ignoring his real achievements, was like salt in the wound of Carlos Alvarado’s weak candidacy.
A deeper analysis of what made it possible for that Alvarado to go from 5% of voter preference at the start of the campaign to nearly 22% in February, entitling him to make it to the second round where he eventually won a landslide victory of over 60%, would require a step-by-step account of the campaign, the actors involved and a broader view of the evolution of the process. Even without getting into this analysis, it’s easy to understand that when the “Christian” candidate began his rise, it set off a timid awakening that soon became a more determined swelling of critical consciousness in a significant part of the Costa Rican population, again primarily among youth, who understood that in such an unusual and alarming scenario, only the PAC candidate would have any chance of avoiding the catastrophe of a PRN entrenched in power.
Carlos represented the
PAC’s new generation
There are other reasons beyond Carlos Alvarado’s good qualities that feed into this hypothesis, although it is important to recognize his abilities and the aplomb with which he endured such a difficult process.
On the one hand, we have to remember that in the first round campaign, each of the other four candidates who were ahead of Carlos Alvarado were shown committing what were at times laughable errors in their public appearances and inappropriate statements in debates, incompetently fielding serious concerns about their ethical integrity, and even defending authoritarian standpoints.
In comparison, Carlos Alvarado appeared as the PAC’s new generation, a well-prepared man with a cool temperament, concrete proposals and a short but distinguished track record as minister of human development, labor minister and executive president of the Joint Social Aid Institute during the Solís administration.
In his appearances, Carlos Alvarado revealed impressive skill in addressing human rights issues. His moderation and his positions, more open-minded than those of his rivals, helped pave the way for him in the first round, leaving him in second place and eligible to compete in the decisive second round.
He was more prepared
In round two everyone knew it was all or nothing. Carlos Alvarado used a very astute social media strategy, giving a key role to his wife, Claudia Dobles, an architect by profession.
She provided a stark contrast to the Evangelical candidate’s wife, Laura Mosco a, strongly criticized when she appeared in a video as a “prophet” shouting a sermon and “speaking in tongues.” That video went viral and caused even more worry among a lot of people. In contrast, Claudia was a breath of fresh air, highly qualified and able to quickly generate a lot of affinity.
The role the social networks played also deserves a separate, in-depth analysis. While their power isn’t unlimited, they did play a significant part, impressively influencing those still fence-sitting between the two candidates, as well as those who said they didn’t plan to vote.
As the string of debates kicked off, bringing the two candidates face to face, the PRN candidate’s weaknesses became harder and harder to ignore. Even when public opinion polls showed him in first place, the debates provided impetus for the undecided and abstainers to start seeing Carlos as a viable option.
Fabricio cancelled several debates, leaving open the interpretation that his team wanted to avoid opportunities for his responses to generate even more embarrassment. Furthermore, his vice presidential candidate, Ivonne Acuña, a pastors’ daughter, was never seen speaking in public and the 14 newly elected PRN legislative representatives were prohibited from giving statements. All of this created a tidal wave of doubts concerning the capabilities of the Evangelical group fighting for the presidency, and quietly tipped the balance in favor of the other Alvarado.
The significance of
mobilizing for human rights
Another influential factor was the strength of the social mobilization and political alliances. We should point out that the slogans of those who joined the “never Fabricio” ranks did not explicitly name the urgent need for a change in living conditions among Costa Rica’s impoverished sectors, where followers of the preacher candidate are concentrated. These areas supported Fabricio to the bitter end: he won the second round in all the most impoverished coastal provinces of Puntarenas and Limón, although even there he was unable to best his principal rival: abstentionism, which was very high in both provinces.
Those that most vigorously took on the defense of human rights, not surprisingly, were the LGBTI community and women’s organizations. Both went after votes for the PAC, motivated by the PRN candidate’s opposition to the Inter-American Court’s opinion in defense of same-sex couples’ rights as well as by his insistent proposal to transform the National Institute of Women (INAMU) into a Family Institute.
Such a change in INAMU would have undermined an institution led by a woman who has the rank of minister for the status of women. Beyond the questioning of its internal management or accusations of inefficiency, INAMU is a key entity for women in Costa Rica, especially those in impoverished areas who most support the PRN, and where the femicide rate is highest.
Although women’s rights and the rights of the sexually diverse community became two major issues driving the campaign in favor of Carlos Alvarado, whom international media called “the gays’ candidate” and now the “human rights President”—which sounds pretty good and should be celebrated—we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that a large portion of the electorate that supports the PRN is in that marginalized Costa Rica, and they feel excluded for other reasons.
The importance of the
Coalition for Costa Rica
The two key issues of human rights and the fight against discrimination were also used strategically by other social actors in the struggle against the PRN’s ascent. The most visible one is the Coalition for Costa Rica, a group young professionals initially created on Facebook that quickly gained more than 250,000 followers. It presented itself as a diverse space pursuing consensus and common good in a framework of tolerance and respect.
Even though it clearly arose to make Carlos Alvarado’s eventual electoral victory possible, or at least obstruct Fabricio Alvarado’s, it set itself up as
a community fighting parallel to the PAC. It was an astute and crucial decision to insist on an effort to leave political identities to one side, putting Costa Rica’s common good ahead of partisan interests. Local work groups formed under the Coalition’s umbrella: Paraíso Coalition, Nicoya Coalition, San Ramón Coalition and many others, in which thousands of young men and women as well as adults organized with creativity and determination to convince the voters, regardless of their partisan affiliation.
The importance of the
“National Unity” government
In addition to social mobilization, Carlos Alvarado was able to come out the winner of this unprecedented election thanks to a daring twist he risked making by announcing that he would form a “government of national unity.” His primary ally in this gamble was Rodolfo Piza, the presidential candidate of the traditional Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC), who took fourth place in the first round, despite significant voter sympathy. Alvarado and Piza signed an agreement that included issues such as fighting corruption, defending family values, employment, public spending and economic growth, public works and transportation. Moreover a series of figures from other parties, academics, artists and religious groups gave Carlos Alvarado their support in a final sprint for public backers also being run by the National Restoration candidate.
In that battle for backers, Fabricio Alvarado had Antonio Álvarez Desanti, the round-one candidate of the National Liberation Party (PLN), which may have worked against him in the end. The PRN also got support from other members of the PLN, PUSC and other political groups. But many saw them as opportunists who under the guise of strengthening the PRN’s fragile governance structure would really be taking advantage of those very limitations for their own future party aspirations.
Lots of reservations
and one great hope
A new PAC administration will begin on May 8, Carlos Alvarado’s inauguration day. PAC founder Ottón Solís called it “a second chance to repay debts.”
Costa Rica is approaching the bicentenary of Central American independence with a giant challenge ahead of it, and even greater expectations of Carlos Alvarado. These expectations should be lowered a notch or two, considering that the PAC will govern with a diverse and divided Legislative Assembly, likely characterized by an opposition with which it will be difficult to reach important agreements. Will those opposition legislators be able to put their individual interests aside and work with unity “for Costa Rica?” There are a lot of reservations about their willingness to do so.
Alongside these reservations there is also a hope that has grown by surprising proportions thanks to the electoral results. Carlos Alvarado has a responsibility to continue nourishing this hope by leading a government that many are calling historic. It will earn this title if he proves able to make real change in the delicate areas that affect the general wellbeing of the whole population.
First task: Reduce inequalities
More than 800,000 Costa Ricans preferred to gamble on the Evangelical candidate while nearly 1.3 million opted for the PAC candidate, tripling the number of votes he received in the first round, an achievement requiring a collective effort that had previously been unimaginable. This effort has generated hope, but it could ebb away if the new government fails to work intelligently and with dedication.
The national government proposed by the new President requires assembling a multi-party Cabinet as well as the best possible disposition to hammer out consensus and promote the governability of a country that needs to both reduce the many inequalities and generate opportunities for all.
For now, it’s time to celebrate
This positive turn in politics happened on Easter Sunday, the day of Resurrection. There was no better date for awakening the conscience of a good part of the Costa Rican people. We are waking up, mobilizing and celebrating the good news that the human rights of many of our fellow citizens are now safeguarded. But we shouldn’t think that a miracle has occurred, or that a Messiah has saved us. With our feet firmly planted, we must become convinced of our own ethical responsibility and move ahead to strengthen an informed and active citizenry, never again content to remain on the sidelines, but from now on always front and center.
Massive citizens’ participation has given Central America and Latin America resounding proof of what Costa Rica is capable of when faced with great social struggles. We have stood up for Central America. We must now continue to work in and with communities in humanistic, respectful and enlightening development processes, to help people feel that they deserve and can achieve a life with dignity, free of fears and manipulations. We also have to demonstrate that politics belongs to us, expelling the “merchants” from the “temple” of public institutions.
It’s time to celebrate the opportunity we have constructed and finally create new ways of doing politics for everyone, respecting both beliefs and non-beliefs—as long as they are based on ethics, liberty and justice.
Karina Fonseca Vindas is the envío correspondent in Costa Rica.