Costa Rica: big election surprises, increased polarisation and eroding governability?

Flags at the Tribunal Supremo de Elecciones (TSE) in San José (Costa Rica). Photo: Tucancillo (trabajo propio) vía Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Original version in Spanish: Costa Rica: grandes sorpresas electorales, mayor polarización, ¿menor gobernabilidad?


The parliamentary elections in Costa Rica, together with the first round of the presidential elections, have opened up a new scenario with some political novelties.


This analysis focuses on the principal results, circumstances and implications of the presidential elections in Costa Rica on 4 February 2018, in which no candidate received the minimum of 40% of the valid votes required to be declared the winner. Therefore, the second round comes at a time (1 April) when the political scene is characterised by some novelties and many challenges (particularly fiscal) for the new government. The results of the parliamentary elections also pose some equally important challenges. Costa Rican democracy remains solid, but it faces some profound dilemmas.


The elections on 4 February 2018 in Costa Rica inaugurated a cycle of six presidential elections in Latin America this year. Normally, they would not hold such importance or interest, but the irruption of a Pentecostal party, which won the first round, and the relegation of the two most traditional parties to third and fourth place respectively, lends them an unexpected significance meriting special attention. Furthermore, because of the circumstances in which this has occurred, marked in particular by a recent decision by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (with its headquarters in Costa Rica) concerning family and marriage.

The elections

The first round of the elections for President, two Vice-Presidents and 57 Legislative Assembly (Congress) deputies was held on 4 February 2018. None of the parties obtained the minimum 40% of the valid votes cast. The results could not have been more surprising. A second round had already been projected for months as inevitable, according to the polls, only with different candidates.

Among the most significant of the surprises are the following two: (1) the party receiving the most votes is a religious party embodying a Pentecostal branch of Protestantism (the National Restoration Party, NRP), with Fabricio Alvarado as its candidate; (2) in second place was the CAP (the Citizen’s Action Party), currently in power and holding very low (even negative) favourability ratings (measured by approval-disapproval of the presidential figure), with Carlos Alvarado as candidate.

The two parties that governed between 1953 and 2014 came in third and fourth place, respectively. The first of these, the National Liberation Party (NLP), maintained the same name and party flag for nine terms (37 years, although not continuous). The second of the two, the Social Christian Union Party (SCUD), had various names, compositions and flags over this time, although it maintained its basic core, and governed for six mandates (a total of 24 years, also discontinuously). In addition, Juan Diego Castro –a criminal lawyer with little previous political experience and incendiary rhetoric– ran as the candidate for the National Integration Party (NIP). He was projected by the polls to be a probable winner, but he received far less share of the vote than expected.

ari43 2018 weisleder fig1 1

The following have been some of the key dynamics of the first round of these elections:

  1. The NRP received most of its support from among voters of lower socioeconomic levels, given the geographic areas that it won. The CAP reconfirmed its status as the strong party of the urban zones and medium-level socioeconomic levels.
  2. The election confirmed the decline of country’s traditional biparty system (dominated by the NLP and SCUD, of social-democratic and neoliberal social-christian tendencies, respectively), but not its death or disappearance, given the results of the legislative election.
  3. The Libertarian Party (of ‘extreme’ liberal tendency) and its leader, Otto Guevara, were overtaken by new political options and failed to elect even a single deputy. The party will likely disappear, and its space will likely be occupied by the new ‘Progressive Liberal Party,’ with a similar platform, but with more pragmatic leaders. This party did not have a notable political debut, however, mainly due to internal issues which affected their campaign launch.
  4. Ideological and even policy issues are losing importance as electorally-defining drivers, as are the familiar traditional political affiliations to which voters have gravitated in national elections since the Revolution of 1948, the origin of what is typically called the ‘Second Republic’. Although it is still too early to assume it might be permanent, the profile of the candidates themselves seems to be gaining importance in the definition of voter intention, although policy continues to count. Ideological positions are increasingly losing out to more pragmatic approaches to daily problems, and to ‘values’.
  5. The election was influenced by ‘events’ (unforeseeable phenomena, or those which take on larger dimensions than anticipated) which emerged during the campaign. One was the so-called cementazo (a presumed fraud and corruption scandal that dominated the campaign for several weeks). The other, even more significant, was the response of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to a consultation presented by the Second Vice-President of the Republic on the rights of persons with non-traditional sexual preferences or from LGBTI groups. The consultation was answered three weeks before the elections. The issue shook up Costa Rican society, taking on enormous relevance and polarising politics and the electorate even more. This significantly affected the first round and will influence the second.
  6. The majority of the polls and tracking surveys reveal that until mid-December the NLP candidate, Antonio Alvarez, remained in first place, with more than 40% of the intended vote needed to win in the first round. Juan Diego Castro of the NIP was in second place. At the beginning of the so-called ‘year-end campaign truce’, Castro was pushed out of second place while Alvarez maintained the lead, although below the 40% threshold. After the decision of the ICHR, Fabricio Alvarado of the NRP experienced a rapid rise in intended vote; but a few days later, Carlos Alvarado of the CAP rose even more rapidly. They ended in first and second place, respectively.
  7. To points (d) and (f) should be added an important observation: the projections based on the polls and surveys assumed high levels of abstentionism (around 40%). In the end, it was less than 35%. To know how important projected abstentionists and ‘undecided’ voters were in provoking such a notable and accelerated shift during the campaign’s final three weeks, would require more granular data and analysis from specialised studies. One such study, undertaken by the ‘State of the Nation Programme’, is an independent effort promoted by the public universities and other public entities. This work concentrates on a horizontal tracking of a group of voters over several months.

The legislative elections and the new parliament

The system for electing and assigning parliamentary seats is a proportional one, based on the provincial lists of the parties and favouring minority parties (those that cannot elect at least one deputy through a strictly proportional share of the vote). Rather, a seat is awarded to those who only obtained a sub-coefficient (half of a coefficient) of that needed for a seat, before it is given to a party that has already been awarded a proportional seat, even if the remainder of its votes is larger than the other’s sub-coefficient.

The results were: NLP 17 deputies (one less than currently); NRP 14 deputies (up 13); CAP 10 deputies (down two); SCUP nine deputies (up one); NIP four deputies (with representation, once again, after eight years without any); the Republic Social Christian Party (RSCP) two deputies (the party’s first representation in the Legislative Assembly); and the Broad Front Party (BFP) one deputy (down eight).

No group achieved a majority (29) of deputies. The first minority is NLP, holding a plurality. Judging from the results of the parliamentary vote, the traditional bi-party system has not died, but it has been weakened by the appearance of new political forces whose permanence (or sustainability) on the landscape will be determined over the next four years, or perhaps only after the 2022 elections.

The basic rules that guide decision-making in the Congress are:

  1. To achieve minimum quorum for a legal, plenary session of the Assembly, 38 votes are required. The same number of votes are needed to change the daily agenda, in turn essential for giving sufficient priority to a specific bill so that it is debated and voted on. In contrast with other Congresses, the legal quorum is obligatory during the entire session, not only at the beginning or at voting time. It is a weapon of the opposition (or, on exceptional occasions, of the governing party) to block the passage of certain bills, to wield pressure in negotiations, and to wield both ‘political’ and ‘agenda control’. It is a mechanism similar to the US Senate’s ‘filibuster’.
  2. An absolute majority is constituted by a minimum of 29 votes and is required to pass the majority of legislative bills and motions to modify with a complete quorum (57) or when regulation otherwise mandates full quorum.
  3. A relative majority is the condition for passage when the quorum is not complete but sufficient, or when the Regulations do not otherwise require full quorum (and those with at least one vote more win).

Given these rules, to achieve a minimum consensus to pass most legislative bills will require the agreement of a minimum of two partisan factions (relative and absolute majorities, according to the case). To achieve qualified majority (two-thirds of the complete quorum, equivalent to 38 deputies), the parliament will need to group together at least three factions.

All the above demonstrates how difficult has become the exercise of government, particularly with regard to everything that requires legislative approval: central government budgets, passage of new laws (or repeal of current ones), and important appointments, like magistrates for the judicial branch, the Controllers of the Republic, the Defender of Residents, etc. Furthermore, the daily management of the Ministries and the ‘Autonomous Institutions of State’ have also become increasingly difficult (including at state companies like banks, the oil refiner, RECOPE, and the Costa Rican Institute of Electricity). All of this reveals the operational complications of the state, an essential actor in the daily lives of Costa Rican citizens, and more so than in most other Western democracies.

The surprising results of the first round –especially in the legislative election– present the strange possibility of improving the operability of the Legislative Assembly. Of course, this would imply the formation of complex alliances (temporary, case by case, or permanent?) between three or more parties (for example, the NLP, NRP and SCUP). With the information currently available and given what the polls apparently indicate for the second round (which are congruent with the results of the first round and should be reasonably reliable), this alliance (NLP-NRP-SCUP) could amass 40 deputies, more than the two-thirds (38) required for a qualified majority. It could therefore elect the Legislative Directory, change the daily agenda for debate and pass legislation according to their interests.

Such a possibility is still only theoretical, but already things are moving in that direction. It would assume a significant sense of pragmatism from all parties involved, especially by the NRP, if it wins the second round. Certainly, the NRP should make compromises, especially on family issues, in exchange for coalition support on urgent projects (like the fiscal and tax reforms). There exists sufficient margin for such compromise. But this requires operational and conciliatory skills, something that this until recently marginal and highly ideological (religious) party will need to learn, in addition to all the other skills required to govern the country responsibly.

At the same time, these three political forces will each make their own calculations as to the implications of such an ‘alliance’ for their respective political futures, and for the conditions they should continue to negotiate for maintaining, limiting or dissolving such an alliance. The other parties represented in parliament will also play their cards. A ‘parliamentary alliance’ of the CAP with the aspiration of forming a government –given the first-round results, recent experience, as well as the origin and composition of the party– appears more difficult for now.

The SCUP and NIP have well-advanced negotiations underway with the NRP, although no agreements have yet been finalized. The CAP emerged into political life by pushing aside the NLP (and also the SCUP to some degree). This has been manifested by the electoral processes in which the CAP has participated since 2002. Since then, five elections have been hotly contested between two parties that are both considered to be social-democratic. The recent campaign intensifies this antagonism still further. Although both parties share values and even political platforms, there are strands in each of them that impede collaboration in parliament or government. This makes such an alliance very difficult today, although for some sectors supporting these parties it will be the most desirable. Nevertheless, the CAP will find it very difficult to accept an alliance (even a temporary one) to facilitate governability. But many things could still happen in the second round.

The rules and results of the presidential election


  1. In the first round, the winning presidential formula is to obtain a relative majority of the valid votes (ie, not counting nullified votes), as long as it represents at least 40% of vote. Blank votes are considered valid and count for calculating this 40% threshold.
  2. If no party receives this minimum, the two most voted parties will proceed to the second round. This is what occurred on 4 February. As a result, Fabricio Alvarado of the NRP, along with his two vice presidential candidates, will compete in the second round against Carlos Alvarado of the CAP and his two running mates.
  3. The presidential tickets should include at least one representative of each of the two genders (in any position or order on the ticket).


  1. In the first round, the NRP received around 25% (505,000) of the valid votes cast; the CAP received nearly 22% (440,000), for a difference of 66,000 votes.
  2. The NLP obtained 377,000 votes (19%) and the SCUP 325,000 (16%). For the NLP, it was the lowest vote ever received in its history. The NIP received 10%. The rest of the parties received smaller or even infinitesimal shares.
  3. The NRP won 37 of the 81 cantons and it took 26 municipalities from the NLP, nine from the CAP and two from the Broad Front. By comparison, in the 2014 elections the canton that voted most heavily for the NRP was Quepos, where it received only 3.9%. It is a canton with relatively few votes. The biggest surprise came on the coasts, which had been bastions of the NLP during the last three elections. Of the 28 coastal cantons, the NRP won 23: it won all the cities of the Limon province, 10 of 11 in Puntarenas and seven of the 11 cities in Guanacaste.
  4. But the winning party not only took votes and territory from the NLP; it also did the same with the CAP, the winner of the 2014 elections. According to La Nación: ‘The current governing party (CAP), lost nine cantons that it had conquered (in 2014). Fabricio Alvarado has seized the big prizes out of the hands of the CAP, against which it will compete in the second round on 1 April. The incumbent was victorious in five of the six cantons with the most electors (in San José, Desamparados, Pérez Zeledón, Alajuela and San Carlos). To the list of cantons with the most voters should be added Cartago, the only canton that the NRP lost to Carlos Alvarado. These are municipalities with more than 100,000 voters which represent nearly of third (29%) of the total of ‘valid votes’.
  5. The second round takes place on 1 April, Easter Sunday for Roman Catholics (still the majority of the population, whether by tradition or origin). This fact, which in other circumstances might be completely irrelevant or merely anecdotal, is very important in this case because of the religious character of one of the two contending parties. On this day, the last of Holy Week, it is very common for a large part of the citizenry to be returning from vacation (whether from the beach, the mountains or abroad). Will this affect the overall vote? Will it affect the distribution of the vote? It is also worth mentioning that for the ‘Pentecostals’ –the dominant branch within the NRP– this holiday is not so transcendentally important.
  6. The NRP goes into the second round with an advantage of more than three percentage points over the CAP, or some 65,000 votes in absolute terms. But nearly a million votes are in play (depending on the ultimate level of abstentionism). These million votes, distributed among the other parties, together with the nullified and blank votes of the first round do appear inclined –even if people do not always vote in a disciplined way for those indicated by their party or ex-candidate– to vote as a block, at least if we judge by the press, the social media and the only poll taken for the second round since 4 February. In that poll, undertaken in the third week of February, Fabricio had a lead of 12 to 13 percentage points over Carlos.
  7. The CAP’s campaign has focused until now on attacking the positions of Fabricio on ‘same sex marriage’ and on his rejection of the response given by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, while attempting to maintain and attract what is typically known as ‘the progressive vote’. Its activists on the social and other media emphasise the danger posed by the NRP to human rights.
  8. Fabricio Alvarado, with his advantage shown in the first round, together with the strong animosity among the majority sectors of the CAP toward the NLP and the SCUP, has been able to attract these voters by moderating his positions and statements on such issues and looking to get closer to some leaders of these parties to reach agreements, or by incorporating representatives from these parties into his campaign team.
  9. Carlos Alvarado (CAP) has also had meetings with leaders of other parties, including publicly with two former Presidents from the NLP and another from the SCUP. It is not yet that publicly known he has met with the three other former Presidents (two from the SCUP and the other from the NLP), but there are rumours that he has.
  10. The Political Directorship of the NLP granted liberty of vote to its militants, given both the delicate issues that had polarized the election and the party’s responsibility as the largest group in the next Legislative Assembly. There is an intense debate, and many wish to influence the bases and the leadership of the party in favour of one candidate or the other, but it is not clear towards which candidate the majority with lean or in what proportion.
  11. The SCUP authorities will announce their official position in the first or second week of March, supposedly once conversations and negotiations with both candidates have finished (especially those with the NRP).
  12. The radio and TV debates will be more influential in the second round. First, this is because there will be only two participants. Secondly, the most important issues in general were postposed in the first round, especially the fiscal deficit (projected to be 7% of GDP in 2018), the tax reform, state action on education, infrastructure, access to and quality of public health and public security –all of which are issues of major interest for the population–. It would be naïve to think that the human rights, family matters and marriage issues will not also be included on the debate agenda. Fabricio will try to take advantage of the voter fatigue with the CAP government, given the dissatisfaction of the majority of the population with its performance. Carlos will have to defend his party and its government, in which he was a minister for several years.


  1. The consultation requested by the Vice-President and the ICHR’s response only three weeks before the first round on 4 February radically changed (in the literal sense) the dynamic and result of the election. If the polls in many countries have recently shown a tendency to be surprised by the actual results, none of them even came close to pointing toward the eventual result of the first round. Additional evidence of this is seen in the difference between the party results in the presidential and legislative elections.
  2. This leads one to question the wisdom of the ICHR and the timing of its response. This will be analysed with increasing perspective over the coming months.
  3. Another consequence has been the marginalisation of some important issues for the citizenry, both in the public and private conversations and debates, and also in terms of the criteria followed ultimately for citizen’s voting decisions.
  4. This same trend continues in the political dynamic leading up to the second round, and it remains to be seen whether other important issues will influence the debate, the voting decisions of the people and the result.
  5. Costa Rica is experiencing a process of polarisation in the public debate and in the behaviour of its political actors, the media and the public in general. Its source can be traced to the protests over the ‘combo’ of the Costa Rican Electricity Institute in 1998,1 the corruption scandals surrounding ex-presidents and other government officials and business people, and the negotiations over and approval of the Central American Free Trade Agreement with the US, which was culminated and successively resolved through a referendum that closely passed. Just when it seemed that polarisation was dying down, the polemic over same sex marriage and other related gender issues seems to have provoked a new polarisation.
  6. Whatever the result of the second round, the country will not be able to avoid facing certain pressing problems, including how to deal with the budget deficit (6.2% of GDP in 2017 and 7% in 2018). The international debt rating on the national debt has suffered a downgrade, and interest rates have begun to rise, but they will probably climb more steeply in the coming months. The delay in reaching a political agreement to deal with these challenges (an agreement which cannot avoid grappling with the issue of which family and marriage forms are acceptable and legal in Costa Rica) will affect economic growth and the distribution of the adjustment burden among the different social sectors. This delay will also affect other central elements of democratic life, including social protest, budget assignations to different government sectors, and the quality of life for citizens.
  7. Although political actors and civil society have encountered great difficulties in reaching agreements on the reform of the state and the fiscal challenge, perhaps the new composition of Parliament and the increasing risk of fiscal (and economic) crisis will help produce ‘a miracle’. The communications media also has tasks and responsibilities in this regard.
  8. Among these challenges –over which there is a consensus with respect to priorities (as reflected in political speeches, the governing platforms of the parties, the reports of specialized national and international bodies, and press articles and opinion commentaries)– the following stand out: better efficiency and higher volumes of investment in physical infrastructure; higher quality of education and health; improvement in public security; a reduction in poverty and extreme poverty; and the need for increasing tax ‘progressivity’.
  9. Costa Rica has strong institutions. The electoral process –above and beyond the methods of choosing deputies or of assigning elected posts in a system that is no longer bi-party, and independent of the need to reform election finance– responded solidly. The results were fast and accepted by everyone; this speaks well of the Elections Supreme Court (ESC), which is nearly a ‘fourth constitutional power’ in the government system.
  10. The Costa Rican economy is one of the most open and diversified of the continent. The Central Bank and its auxiliary supervisory and control organs are independent and effective. This neutralises, to a certain point, the possibility of an economic crisis (mainly external), given the need for an urgent and profound fiscal adjustment, with its inevitable costs. But one should not underestimate the risks implied by the current complex fiscal situation.
  11. The general efficiency of the state apparatus, which is complex and perhaps more decentralised than is necessary, has been a pending task for more than two decades, despite some minor changes. The general system of public procurement should be revised and reformed to align incentives toward the general objective of higher efficiency. The redistribution of public funds, raised by taxes, could ameliorate the profundity of the fiscal adjustment and its short- and medium-term consequences.
  12. I am not optimistic with respect to the possibility that a government will be elected on 1 April, assume office five weeks later and prove capable of an ordered and coherent long-term plan. But such a plan needs to be made and executed –even if with fallacies and shortcomings inherent in it– over the coming four years. The government alone will not be enough, technically or politically. But if the government knows how to harness them, the country does have the human resources and democratic reserves to carry this out.

This election in Costa Rica kicks off a cycle of six elections in Latin America in 2018, and it has already acquired larger dimensions than originally anticipated. It has given some lessons to the entire region. Hopefully Costa Ricans will know how to read well both the results and the entire process. All Latin Americans –and all those who interact in the private, public and academic sectors internationally– and any others with a legitimate interest in the region, should analyse these results and study this case, as the Costa Rican elections hold many important lessons.

Saúl Weisleder
Former President of the Legislative Assembly of Costa Rica

1 The so-called ‘Combo del ICE’ was a legislative bill that included in a single proposed law the reform of both the electricity and telecommunications sectors. Until then a state monopoly (ICE) had existed over the telecommunications sector, as well as over the ‘transportation and distribution’ of electrical energy, with significant limitations on private generation. The ICE controlled this monopoly. In response to this move to debate and approve the reform in a single bill, the public-sector unions, especially those linked to the ICE –the strongest in the country– managed to mobilise university students and other sectors, nearly paralysing the country. After a dialogue mediated by various entities, including the Roman Catholic Church and the Defender of the Inhabitants, some important agreements were reached, including the withdrawal of the legal reform and its substitution with another ‘less drastic’ option but which also ended the telephone monopoly, especially in the mobile phone sector, allowing for various private firms. The reassignment of the broadcast spectrum is still pending.