Costa Rica

Rejecting Politics as Usual

Otton Solis Costa Rica Presidential Campaign
Ottón Solís gets some bad news in San José, Costa Rica, Feb. 3, 2002 (Photo: AFP).

The emergence of a vigorous third-party challenge in Costa Rica’s 2002 presidential campaign heralds a watershed rejection of the political status quo, commentators in the national media concur. It signals that the electorate will demand greater responsiveness and openness from the incoming administration. Citizen Action Party (PAC) nominee Ottón Solís narrowly failed to qualify in the February general elections for the second-round runoff vote in April. But the PAC’s strong electoral showing in presidential and congressional contests means that the dominant Social Christian Unity and National Liberation parties can no longer afford to ignore popular dissatisfaction with the political establishment.

“The PAC opened the doors to a new democracy in Costa Rica,” wrote Jorge Vieto in La Nación (Feb. 8). “The form of governing will no longer be the same; now the citizenry will have far more participation and involvement in transcendent and fundamental decisions for our country....The lesson has been given, and it cannot be ignored by the traditional parties.”

In a commentary published in La Nación (Feb. 6), attorney Pablo Zeledón Flores described the grass-roots third-party movement as “a robust group of Costa Ricans of the most diverse social origins, from all corners of the country,” united in a “generation of transition,” who have chosen “to close the wearying vicious circle of disillusionment and provide a new opportunity for democracy....Resistance to change led us to grow accustomed to the ease of expediency, bribery, patronage, and all the havens of corruption.” Grass-roots mobilization to challenge the political status quo “is not an act of rebellion and protest,” he added. “It is...real and voluntary protagonism for Costa Rica.”

La República observed in an editorial (Feb. 5) that Costa Rican voters also displayed their discontent with the nation’s traditional political establishment by sitting out the February elections in unprecedented numbers, elevating the abstention rate to a record 31 percent of registered voters. “This is a matter that cannot be taken lightly,” La República cautioned. “In other latitudes, the absence of citizen participation opened the door to the worst tyrannies and military regimes. If those are still distant possibilities for us, all the same we run the risk of ending up in the hands of a minority, which taking advantage of the lack of participation, can continue to wield its power and make decisions indefinitely on our behalf—which...can prove as bad as or worse than a dictatorship.”

Some political analysts cite Costa Rican voters’ traditional social and political conservatism as a formidable impediment to political realignment, wrote Tim Rogers in the Tico Times (Feb. 1). John Biehl, a Colombian-based political operative who informally advised the Solís campaign, told the Tico Times that the major parties’ aggressive “fear campaign” against the PAC nominee reflects their continued unwillingness to embrace democratic reform. “With democratic systems collapsing throughout the continent, Costa Rica was the region’s great hope,” Biehl said. “But if the country continues with the same system that allows parties to get rich off power, Costa Rica’s political situation will soon be in the same category as Argentina, Peru, and Venezuela.”