San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Poll: Costa Rica’s Democracy Struggling

ON Feb. 5, 2006, Costa Ricans will go to the pollsto elect the next President and more than 1,000 otherofficials – but only half think their vote can make a difference,slightly more than that think the elections inCosta Rica are clean, and satisfaction with democracyas a political system is falling fast, particularly comparedto the rest of Latin America.And while several years ago, Costa Rica had someof the region’s highest levels of political participation,that level now ranks among the region’s lowest. Thisapathy emerges despite the fact that only one in fiveCosta Ricans think the country is on the right track.So concludes the latest Latinobarómetro poll, basedon interviews with 20,212 people in 18 Latin Americancountries Aug. 1-Sept. 10. The annual poll revealed struggles in Costa Rica, but showed political challenges in the rest of Latin America as well.TWENTY-SEVEN years after the lastwave of democratization in the regionbegan, slightly more than half of theregion’s citizens believe in democracy andfewer are satisfied with how it is working,according to the poll, which has a marginof error of 3%.Since making the switch from a predominanceof authoritarian regimes to democraticallyelected governments, the region hasheld more than 200 elections. Twelve morewill be held in the next 12 months.Despite this democratic activity, supportfor the political system has remainedat 53% for the past three years, and more orless between 50 and 60% since 1995, whenthe first Latinobarómetro poll took place.Support for democracy is much lower incountries known for political complicationsand long-standing problems, such asGuatemala (32% support), Paraguay(32%), Honduras (33%), Brazil (37%) andPeru (40%).“Building support for democracy ismuch more complex that holding electionsevery couple of years,” explained DanielZovatto, a member of the Latinobarómetrointernational advising council.Considering the ongoing troubles ofthe region, such as difficulties competingin the world economy and continued corruption,“it’s almost a miracle that half thepopulation still believes in democracy,”political analyst Luis Guillermo Solís toldThe Tico Times.“You can see the glass as half empty:there are clear reasons for democracy notbeing more popular. It has to do withresults it provides,” he said. “But you canalso see it half full. We have come out ofauthoritarian regimes. Yes, it has been 20years, but it is still not enough time… Tochange political culture you need at least50 years.”This change has also been hindered bythe prevalence of what Zovatto calls “votary botar” (vote and throw away), throughwhich voters elect a President and later,upon learning about corruption or otherproblems, hold mass protests until theleaders are ousted. A total of 14 LatinAmerican Presidents have been unable tofinish their terms since 1993.STILL, 66% of respondents saiddemocracy is the best system for becominga developed nation, and 62% said theywould not support a military governmentunder any circumstances. That numberjumps to 94% among Costa Ricans.“After 10 years of measuring, aftergood and bad economic moments, aftergood and bad political moments, after continuingwith a more than 40% poverty rateand unequal distribution of wealth… thereis still no support for a classic military government,”Zovatto said.Solís agrees that for the time being, it’strue that countries will not return to authoritarianor military regimes; but only timewill tell whether democracy is in LatinAmerica to stay.He cited Haiti and Ecuador as examplesof places where risk is highest. In Ecuador,only 51% of poll respondents said theywould not support a military governmentunder any circumstance; in Peru andHonduras that number was 48%; and inParaguay fewer than one in three peopleoppose a military government entirely. Haitiis not part of the Latinobarómetro poll.“(U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald)Rumsfeld is working to strengthen CentralAmerican armies; they are all over theplace; they are being strengthened at thesame time leadership is being weakened,”Solís said. “We could have (authoritarianregimes) back at any time.”WHILE support for democracy as aconcept has remained stable, satisfactionwith the system in practice has been morevolatile, because it is partially dependent ongovernment performance. Region-wide, satisfactionwith democracy is at 31%, up from29% last year, after seeing a fluctuationbetween 25% and 41% over the past decade.That fluctuation has been even greaterin Costa Rica – satisfaction has fallen from75% in 2002 to 36% this year. Althoughthe data mirrors the public’s unhappinesswith the administration of President AbelPacheco, as other polls have revealed, it isdeeper than frustration with one President,according to Solís.“The structure of the whole system isfalling apart,’’ Solís said. “We have towatch it: the country has come to a pointwhere we can start going backwards, andreally suffer and destroy half a century ofaccomplishments, or we can go forwardand use our potential and become the leadingforce of social reform.”The latter would take reorganization ofthe national agenda, radical constitutionalchange and decentralization, he said.SUPPORT for democracy in conceptremains strong in Costa Rica, at 73% – thethird highest after Uruguay and Venezuela– but other indicators reveal Costa Ricans’concerns.Only 12% of Costa Rican respondentsthink their taxes are being well spent by thestate. Sixty-seven percent are worried theywill lose their jobs in the next 12 months.Nearly half of Costa Ricans think their parentslived better than they do.Overall, only 31% of Latin Americansthink their countries are progressing.“The problems of the region are deepening,rather than improving. They are particularlytroubling in terms of governanceand the quality of democracy,” Solís said.“In the overall context of the poll, themajor problems identified are the same aswe have been hearing year after year –poverty, social exclusion, oligarchic politicscontinuing to dominate, failed states,and weak rule of law.”

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