Costa Rican Victor Urges Equality at Issue Was Whether a Harder or Softer Version of Latin American Neoliberalism Would Prevail

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IN a race expected to be a cliffhanger, Jose Maria Figueres Olsen narrowly defeated Miguel Angel Rodriguez for president of Costa Rica Sunday, reaffirming in the process a number of truths about the Costa Rican political system.

One is that Costa Ricans, who boast of Latin America's longest-standing democratic tradition, hold elections without a whiff of fraud or violence. Another is the "pendulum effect," the tendency for voters to throw out the incumbent party. Mr. Figueres's National Liberation Party (PLN), which has never lost two elections in a row, defeated the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC) of Mr. Rodriguez and current president Rafael Angel Calderon Fournier by a 50-48 percent margin.

Costa Ricans celebrate their quadrennial election rite with a pomp and civility unimaginable in more fragile Central American democracies. In San Jose, the capital, speeches and rallies of the election run-up are capped by a week of banner-waving loyalists from the two parties honking at one another and receiving friendly jeers from adversaries.

The festive atmosphere in which the campaign concludes, however, hides the inability of an entrenched two-party system to provide relatively well-educated voters with intelligent political debate and meaningful choices.

This year's campaign, for example, was dominated by the two candidates' old scandals. "The issues have gotten buried under all the mud that has been slung," says a diplomatic observer. The level of invective in the campaign was such that the country's election tribunal banned more than 100 campaign ads from both parties.

Beneath the surface, the issue at stake this year was whether a slightly harder or softer version of Latin American neoliberalism would prevail in the coming four years. Latin American neoliberalism is the IMF-World Bank formula for pruning government of money-losing businesses and costly social programs, opening up to foreign competition and investment, and avidly searching for new export markets.

President-elect Figueres represents the softer variant, at least rhetorically. Though he made a point of wanting to see Costa Rica join the North American Free Trade Agreement, Figueres attacked his opponent as a harsh free-marketeer. He was critical of the outgoing government's policies, which have cut government programs while lowering trade and investment barriers, saying that they increased poverty among Costa Ricans.

The PLN vowed to introduce programs to help victims of economic adjustment, including "350,000 poor children" and the nation's small farmers. "Instead of economic growth measured in percentages without concern for whether it is concentrated in a few hands," said the candidate on Feb. 4, "let us seek a development that's sustainable in terms of human feelings, investing more in their health, education, welfare, and recreation. …