Costa Rican election result hides complex reality

Laura Chinchilla.

By Elena Zeledon, Costa Rica

April 16, 2010 -- Costa Ricans have the highest standard of living in Central America including universal free education and health care and a social safety net of workers’ unemployment benefits and pensions that is the the envy of Central America. However, these hard-won gains are threatened by the capitalist crisis, the implementation of the Central American Free Trade Agreement and other pro-capitalist policies of the governing social democratic National Liberation Party. The NLP won re-election in February with Laura Chinchilla succeeding Oscar Arias as president. What does this mean? Will intensified attacks spark social struggles?

The reality of Costa Rican politics is always more complex than can be summed up in a few simple sentences. Such is the case when analysing the results of the February 7, 2010, election in Costa Rica.

On the surface, the win by Laura Chinchilla, representing the social-democratic National Liberation Party (PLN), can be seen as the maintenance of the status quo and the social-liberal agenda of the social-democratic parties, which finished first and second in the election. But this hides important realities.

The vote represented a repudiation of rightist forces that identified with last year’s right wing in Honduras, which ousted President Zelaya. The election took place in the larger context of the capitalist crisis and its effects on Costa Rica; the rise in social polarisation throughout Central America and its political consequences; and the influence of the Bolivarian movement in nearby Venezuela.

What the election doesn’t reflect is the growing social polarisation in Costa Rica. Chinchilla represents the continuity of social liberalism of outgoing President Oscar Arias. In fact, barely two weeks after the election was held, Arias announced he was signing the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). The treaty was put to a national referendum a little over one year ago, and approved by a margin of less than 1 per cent of those voting. The campaign around the no vote against CAFTA was a better indication of how Ticos (Costa Ricans) view the world.

Chinchilla is Costa Rica’s first female president and as such represents an advance in the political consciousness of the people. Costa Rica has a unicameral national assembly with 57 seats, a president and two vice-presidents, with an appointed cabinet serving as an executive. While there have been several female vice-presidents in the past, Chinchilla’s convincing margin of victory lays to rest the “women can’t win” argument used by the conservative wings of the major political parties, and validates Tico women’s growing participation in the political process.

Her major opponent, Otton Solis, who in 2006 came within 18,000 votes of defeating Arias and the PLN, was this time soundly trounced, gaining only 25 per cent of the vote to Chinchilla’s 46 per cent. Solis served as finance minister in Arias’ first presidential term, during the period of the years of US President Ronald Reagan. The Citizens’ Action Party (PAC), formed by Solis after leaving the PLN, represents a more populist brand of social democracy, repudiating some of the more obsequious social liberal policies pursued by Arias

Electoral analysis

The defeat of the PAC was a result of several factors. Throughout the lead-up to the election, Solis and the PAC trailed not only Chinchilla and the PLN, but also the hard right of the Movimiento Libertario (Libertarian Movement), US-influenced rightwingers who want a wide open market, privatisation and reduced government. The Libertarian Movement’s leader, Otto Guevara, is a product of the US Ivy League school system. Except for the last week of the campaign, when a poll showed Solis in second place, the strength of the Libertarian Movement played into the PLN’s hands. The PLN kept repeating that nobody in Costa Rica wanted a Libertarian Movement government, and if the situation were reversed they would vote for Solis to stop Guevara. This message was taken to heart by a portion of the PAC base and it lost 13 per cent of its former vote, half of it to the PLN.

On the other side of the spectrum, the Libertarian Movement has supplanted the former grand party of the Costa Rican right, the conservative Social Christian Unity party (UP). But between them, the right was able to garner only 25 per cent of the vote.

The social-democratic and socialist parties took about 70 per cent of the vote. Their vote reflects the repudiation of any attempt to turn Costa Rica further to the right. The groups to the left of the PLN-PAC, the Frente Amplio (Broad Front) and Partido Renevador National (PRN), were each able to hold on to enough of their urban base in San Jose to maintain their parliamentary representation of one deputy each.


Chinchilla’s victory was made inevitable by the lack of a clear alternative to the social-liberal policies of the PLN and the lack of a campaign targeting growing frustration with official corruption, CAFTA and its effects on the Costa Rican economy, and urban crimes involving the police. The pent-up frustrations with the social-liberal policies felt by many Ticos were not mobilised.

On the other hand, the clear repudiation of Guevara’s support for the Honduran military-civilian coup and his friendship with the newly elected right-wing president of Panama provided an outlet in a much distorted way to express the indignation of the Costa Rican people.

As Chinchilla begins to implement the social-liberal agenda using the crisis as an excuse to cut social services and workers’ benefits and to privatise key parts of the Costa Rican economy, the honeymoon will end very quickly. In addition, the growth of the social movements in Nicaragua and Honduras and the escalating social conflicts there will force Ticos to make choices about whether to join the mass movement or to stand aside and let the PLN and the imperialists attack the hard-fought gains of the Costa Rican people.

Costa Ricans obtained these impressive gains through a civil war and a form of social-democratic revolutionary program that included abolishing the standing army in 1948 and maintaining diplomatic political neutrality (as in Switzerland). They are proud of these gains and, faced with the choices the social democrats will soon hand them, they will begin to mobilise to defend their standard of living, despite the election results.

Postscript, April 19, 2010

It is not often that history speeds up the tempo of its movement to prove the prognosticator correct. Since the original story was written, the Costa Rican government has made a hard-right turn in concert with imperialism’s allies in Panama, Colombia and Honduras.

The opening shot was fired by President Oscar Arias, who took direct aim at the heart of the Costa Rican organised workers' movement. Arias, in league with his PLN supporters in the dockworkers' union SINTRJAP and the “independent agency” which operates the port of Moin, on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast, attempted to remove the democratically elected leadership of the union and replace it with his toadies. This was just another, but more serious, attempt by the Costa Rican government to crush SINTRAJAP, which has been leading a 15-year struggle to stop the privatisation of the port, one of the major employers on the Caribbean coast.

In 1996, SINTRAJAP was an integral part of Limon en Lucha, a mass workers' and community struggle which launched a general strike that lasted several months, brought the coast into a situation of dual power and forced the government to deal directly with the Limon en Lucha negotiating committee. In Costa Rica, the Caribbean workers and their allies, the original workers in the banana and cocoa plantations and on the docks, have a tradition of workers' militancy reaching back to the early 20th century. It is thus no accident that Arias, whose term doesn't end until May 1, decided to crush the heart of any potential popular resistance movement there.

This confrontation with the workers has been accompanied by a barrage of neoliberal and repressive operations. At the level of bourgeois politics, the newly elected president Laura Chinchilla has made a pact with the Movimiento Libertario, thus giving her a majority in the national assembly, and providing a coherency to her political projects. At the same time, the government has given the green light to a series of legislative initiatives which will open the way to privatisation of parts of ICE, Costa Rica’s telephone, power and internet publically owned company. Through its control over the constitutional court, it has approved opening up an environmentally sensitive area to a Canadian goldmining firm. This has spawned a movement of activists and militants in the union of ICE workers and environmentalists, which have begun organising a one-day national strike, in the case of the ICE workers, and a mass march in San Jose by environmentalists.

More ominously, however, is the government's attack on the long-held autonomy of university campuses. In the second week of April the government sent in the OIJ, the investigating arm of the prosecutor general's office. This invasion of the campus of the University of Costa Rica, the home of many socialist and community activists, was designed to set a precedent. This invasion resulted in a pitched battle between students, faculty and the OIJ, with the students setting up barricades in front of the law college on the main road around San Jose. This police incursion, over the protests of the university rector, is designed to open the way to using state force against student and faculty militants who act as the organisational and political vanguard of resistance.

There will be resistance. It has already appeared. The challenge facing the revolutionary left is to find ways to link and generalise the struggles, to give organisational forms and political content to the deepening class and social polarisation, to find ways to create a front of national resistance that can build towards replacing the old power with workers' and popular power.

[Elena Zeledon is a supporter of Revolutionary Unity and a member of the Fourth International living in Costa Rica. An earlier version of this article appeared in the magazine of the New Socialist Group (Canada), New Socialist.]