On Sunday, Costa Rica held its presidential election under a cloud of uncertainty. Incumbent Luis Guillermo Solís of the Citizen Action Party (Partido Acción Ciudadana, or PAC) could not run for reelection and, in any event, has been deeply unpopular since his involvement in a corruption scandal was made public last year. Positioning themselves to replace him were a slew of candidates, none of which managed to capture the imagination of the electorate.
During the months leading up to the Feb. 4 election, polls showed an unpredictable three-way race featuring Carlos Alvarado of the center-left PAC, Antonio Álvarez Desanti of the historical powerhouse National Liberation Party (Partido Liberación Nacional, or PLN), and Juan Diego Castro, a boisterous former PLN official who ran his campaign primarily on social media. Behind them were left-winger Edgardo Araya, center-right mainstay Rodolfo Piza, and evangelical firebrand Fabricio Alvarado, none of which were given much of a chance to break through.
Electoral law in Costa Rica dictates that a candidate must receive at least 40% of the total vote to win the presidency. In lieu of a candidate reaching that threshold, the top two finishers must face off in a runoff vote. It was seen as virtually certain that no candidate would reach 40% on Sunday (as indeed none did). The runoff vote is scheduled for Sunday, April 1.
The Costa Rican political and economic establishment clearly preferred Desanti, Piza, and Carlos Alvarado, who stood for the ideological middle and represented well-understood constituencies. The biggest danger to the country’s stability was personified by Castro, who made it clear early on he would run a very different kind of campaign. As the months passed, Castro demonstrated a worrisome willingness to insult his opponents and fudge the facts in speeches and social media posts. He was deemed a “populist” by his opponents and the press and was widely compared to American president Donald Trump. Nobody believed that Castro was backed by anything near to a majority of the electorate, but it was feared that should he reach the runoff stage, he could upend all conventional wisdom.
But that’s not what happened at all. With a shocking come-from-behind rally, Fabricio Alvarado came in first, claiming almost 25 percent of the total vote. Alvarado, who ran on a deeply religious conservative platform, attributed the result to the traditional values of Costa Ricans. Most observers, including Alvarado and his allies, point specifically to the ongoing national debate regarding gay marriage. Many Costa Ricans oppose gay marriage on religious grounds, even as a growing proportion of the citizenry has come to see it as a civil rights issue. On Jan. 9, the Inter American Court for Human Rights declared that Costa Rica must allow for same-sex couples to marry. The backlash was furious and resounding and, many believe, put Alvarado in position to be Costa Rica’s next president.
Alvarado will face similarly named Carlos Alvarado of the PAC (who received some 22 percent of the vote) in the second round. Though the latter was not able to create sufficient momentum to carry him to victory, it is likely that most middle-of-the-road voters will choose him over the more extreme candidate. On the other hand, if Fabricio Alvarado is able to cash in on his religious credentials, Costa Rica will join the rank of democracies around the world with unpredictable outsider presidents.