The 2014 presidential elections in Costa Rica: a new wind in paradise?
Last Sunday, Costa Ricans elected PAC-candidate Luís Guillermo Solís their new president. In a surprising turn of events, Solís managed to rupture a string of PLN and PUSC presidencies and thereby became the country’s first president not belonging to a traditional party since the 1949 democratic transition. Up to Election Day itself, opinion polls predicted that Solís would come in as one of the last contenders in this presidential race. Nevertheless, he astonished friend and foe by winning the first round of the presidential elections organized last February. His PLN opponent Johnny Araya thereupon decided to leave a presidential contest he deemed unwinnable – essentially turning the run-off elections organised last Sunday into a single-man race where the centre-left Solís won 77 per cent of the vote.
This surprising presidential election is reminiscent of another remarkable electoral victory: the one of Néstor Kirchner in the 2003 Argentine elections. Like Solís, the centre-left Kirchner – a relative Peronist outsider – managed to come in second to former-President Menem in the first round of the presidential elections. Similarly, Kirchner automatically won the presidency as Menem left the presidential run-off elections after opinion polls predicted an inevitable defeat. As a result, Kirchner started his presidential term with very little popular legitimacy – having received only 22 per cent of the vote. In addition, struggles to form an effective governing coalition marked his first term in office, as Kirchner could not count on a significant part of the traditional Peronist structure for political support.
Can we expect similar difficulties for Solís’s term in office? The first post-electoral news reports immediately focused on the fragmented legislature and traditional party power play that Solís is up against. His PAC won 13 of the 57 seats in the National Assembly and can also count on the 9 seats of the leftist Frente Amplio – leaving the governing coalition another 8 seats short to control the Assembly’s presidency. With the PLN seeking to obtain opposition control over Congress, the PAC depends on coalitional support of the traditional PUSC party to overcome legislative inertia. The outcome of this first round of negotiations will hence determine the effectiveness of Solís’s term in office and his ability to introduce a new wind in Costa Rican politics. To be continued…
A second question that arises is what kind of governance we can expect from this political newcomer. Solís is an academic and has never held political office before. Although the Costa Rican party system is rather institutionalized, Costa Rican parties themselves are often characterized by personalized leadership styles. It is last names, rather than party labels or ideologies, that shape internal political factions and disputes. It does not seem a huge leap to suggest that Solís may hence follow in the footsteps of other leftist presidents such as the afore-mentioned Kirchner, Chávez, or Ortega that all sought to solidify their power by the hollowing-out of formal institutions in favour of personalized styles of leadership. Will we see a similar development in Costa Rica?
Because of recent developments in the PAC, it is my expectation that this will not be the case. When deciding on their candidate for the 2014 elections, a core group of party members invited party founder Ottón Solís to run as the party’s candidate for the fourth time in a row. Their main argument was that voters identified with don Ottón rather than with the party name. Nevertheless, Ottón stepped down because he believed that “the most important thing is that the foundational ideas of the parties come to power and it is not necessarily one person that can bring them there.” I believe that this not only contributed significantly to the PACs image as a party with a different style of politics, but also marked the maturation of the PAC into an organization rather than a group of leaders and followers.
In addition, I had the privilege of interviewing the newly elected president during my fieldwork in Costa Rica in December 2012. When asked his opinion about how the Costa Rican people’s distrust in politics could be solved, Solís told me that the solution lies in transparency and in showing the people that “governing in a democracy means governing jointly with parties that function as intermediaries between society and the authorities.” This centrality of institutions as a bridge between society and government to me is an indication of the importance that Solís puts in changing the system – rather than in circumventing it. Given that 77 per cent of the electorate has put their faith in his hands to combat political corruption and to introduce a new style of politics, Solís may very well prove to be a new wind in paradise.
 If no candidate obtains 40 per cent of the vote, Costa Rican law stipulates that the top-two candidates compete in a run-off election. http://www.nacion.com/nacional/elecciones2014/Solis-sorprende-entra-segunda-Araya_0_1394460637.html