A myriad of articles about the recent the Costa Rican elections have proclaimed the country’s “turn to the left.” Perhaps some do this because it is simply too convenient to whip up an article or op-ed about leftist victories in El Salvador and Costa Rica. Or perhaps some are still trapped in the Cold War. But these headlines miss the more salient point of Costa Rica’s elections - Costa Ricans are fed up. And they’re fed up with the status quo.
Given the historically low approval ratings for President Chinchilla, it should be of little surprise that the PLN’s Johnny Araya has struggled in polls in recent months. But the general political malaise amongst Costa Ricans is much bigger than this election cycle.
In writing the most recent edition of our book, Understanding Central America, my co-authors and I report on the significant changes in participation and attitudes among Costa Ricans in recent years. Between the early 1990s and 2010, voter turnout in presidential elections declined 23%. Turnout in the February 2014 turnout was about 68%, meaning nearly one-third of voters simply stayed home. Declining political participation isn’t just limited to voting. Costa Ricans are also reporting lower levels of participation in political party activities and communal activism than in the recent past. In 2012, Costa Ricans were the least active in civil society in the region. Between 2008 and 2012, there was a 16-point decline in system support among Costa Ricans. They also demonstrated a significant increase in what we refer to as “triple dissatisfaction” (low commitment to democracy combined with below midpoint economic performance evaluations and institutional support), which rose from 2% in 2004 to 15% in 2012. Something is wrong in the region’s “exceptional” democracy- and the evidence suggests that it’s systemic, not ideological.
Costa Rica does have some serious issues that drive part of this dissatisfaction, but it’s a mistake to explain this away as shifting ideological preferences. The February 2 vote produced a surprise first-round victory for the PAC’s Luis Guillermo Solís, but I read this as a message about the level of overall dissatisfaction with the country’s “politics as usual” as opposed to shifting support for progressives. In a recent post-mortem on the elections sponsored by the Inter-American Dialogue, Kevin Casas-Zamora pointed out that the left-right vote split is about the same as in the CAFTA referendum. (He also highlighted the need for serious institutional reform, but more on that later.)
It’s time to move beyond the left-right discourse that all too frequently characterizes the analysis of Central American politics if we are to better understand the political dynamics of a region in flux. As the case of Costa Rica demonstrates (and this is true for El Salvador as well), such superficial explanations obscure more than they enlighten.
The sixth edition of Understanding Central America by John Booth, Christine Wade and Tom Walker will be available later this year.