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
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
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. …