San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Political Earthquake Changes Landscape

WITH Costa Rica’s quadrennial campaign season under way, analysts agree that the country’s electoral landscape has been completely rearranged by a political earthquake.


Gone is the bipartisan control exercised by the traditional political parties – the National Liberation Party (PLN) and the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC) – that dominated the country for a generation, to be replaced by a multi-party arrangement that presents a much more unpredictable and perhaps more volatile political environment.


“We’ve gone from a bi-party system to a no-party system, in which we have political groups less defined by political positions or ideologies and more dominated by the personalities of political leaders,” said political scientist Carlos Sojo, of the Latin American Social Sciences Faculty in San José. The decomposition of the two-party system will be reflected on the presidential ballot, where an unprecedented 14 candidates will be in the running.


Though changes have been afoot for more than 20 years, many agree the main catalysts for the shift were the corruption scandals unveiled last year. Both the ex-Presidents arrested because of allegations that they accepted kickbacks from foreign companies – Rafael Angel Calderón, Jr. (1990-1994) and Miguel Angel Rodríguez (1998-2002) – were from Unity, as is current President Abel Pacheco, whose popularity has reached record lows in recent polls. These factors may spell doom for Unity, observers say.


Some predict February’s elections will constitute the former burial of PUSC as a major party, and recent polls seem to confirm this, with Unity presidential candidate and legislator Ricardo Toledo barely registering three percentage points (see separate story).


MANY of PUSC’s longtime political and economic backers, traditionally the conservative opponents of the Liberation Party, have gone over to Liberation to back the candidacy of former President (1986-1990) and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Oscar Arias.


“Practically all of the old plutocratic forces in the country, including those that backed (Unity), now back Oscar Arias,” political scientist Rodolfo Cerdas said. However, a number of former Liberation stalwarts have abandoned that party in turn, alleging that Arias’ alleged shift to the right has taken the party away from its original democratic-socialist purpose.


“Liberation has become politically corrupted just as PUSC has become economically corrupted,” said elder statesman Alberto Cañas, a National Liberation Party founder who left the party in 2002 to back the Citizen Action Party (PAC) and its candidate Ottón Solís. Solís, a former Liberation leader who served as Planning Minister under Arias, has repackaged traditional Liberation policies, distancing himself from the scandal-plagued traditional political class. This pitch earned the party 14 congressional seats in the last elections.


Yet another former Liberation leader, Antonio Alvarez Desanti, left the party last year to found the Union for Change and become its presidential candidate. The seemingly well-funded Libertarian Movement Party, which has led the way in blocking a tax reform package in the Legislative Assembly, is running former Unity member Otto Guevara.


The decomposition of the two-party system could mark a historic break from a state of affairs that dates back to the 1948 civil war, which marked the emergence of Liberation as a center-left social democratic political group with aspirations of becoming an institutional party, and a center-right coalition of parties that were able to unite to prevent Liberation from succeeding itself in power in all but two elections.


BOTH major parties are rooted in the collective memory of the civil war, which produced Costa Rica’s most important 20thcentury political icon, José “Pepe” Figueres, three-time President and the founder of Liberation. Figueres expanded the welfare state, placed government at the center of Costa Rica’s development and abolished the army. Liberation’s opponents were either those philosophically opposed to the party or those who had backed the deposed populist patriarch Rafael Angel Calderón Guardia, father of the ex-President now under suspicion of corruption.


Calderón Guardia was a patrician icon who founded the country’s social welfare system and whose insistence on returning to the presidency in tainted elections precipitated the war.


The Calderonistas forged alliances with other Liberation opponents, which became formalized with the creation of the Unity Party in 1984, the same year Costa Rica scrapped the state-oriented economic model in favor of a export-based, market model of development. The creation of Unity culminated in 1990 with the election to the presidency of Calderón, Jr.


WITH the scandals of the last year – including charges that former President José María Figueres (son of don Pepe) accepted money from French telecommunications firm Alcatel – the legacy of ’48 may have finally run its course. The political beneficiary has been Arias, a political icon in his own right for winning the Nobel Peace Prize as author of the plan that brought an end to Central American wars in the 1980s.


“The events of 1948 are a half-century ago. It’s reasonable to expect that in human affairs things will change after so much time,” Arias said in a recent interview.


But another former Liberation leader who left the party this year, political scientist Luis Guillermo Solís, warns that the downfall of the bi-partisan system has made Costa Rican politics especially top heavy, accompanied by a concentration of wealth not seen in Costa Rica for more than a generation.


“There is an arrogance of power developing in Costa Rica’s political class that disdains dialogue with other social actors, like unions, civic groups and environmental groups,” Solís said, adding that in taking control over the National Liberation Party, Arias has shown an autocratic side, becoming “a steamroller.”


ACCORDING to some analysts, angst over the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA) reflects this growing social fissure between the older state-based model and the export oriented, free-trade economic model.


“CAFTA has become a point of political polarization,” said Sojo.


“In a way it’s a struggle between San Pedro (the eastern San José university community, home to the country’s intellectual elite) and Escazú (the western suburb whose booming economy is fueled by the new export model).”


The new power in the ’burbs is causing friction for a large middle class accustomed to the idea of, for instance, being able to buy a house with government  assistance on the combined salaries of a school teacher and an office worker.


“There is a lot of social resentment out there in an ever-more-impoverished middle class,” said Cerdas, warning that this constitutes “a threat to the social compact and the social rule of law that has guaranteed the country’s stability.”


For his part, Arias disputes that ideological shifting in Liberation has taken him and the party to the political right; he says that if there has been a shift in Costa Rica, it reflects a shift on a global scale in a more interdependent world, a situation that obliges Costa Rica to open up economically and keep pace.


During the Cold War, Costa Rica could count on international assistance to keep afloat, according to Arias. Now, however, “we in Central America have been punished for making the peace” – the foreign aid tap is dry, leaving trade and participation in globalization as the country’s only alternative.


Charges that Arias has gone conservative, or neo-liberal in Latin American parlance, don’t jibe with what he told Chamber of Commerce members at a recent meeting.


As at a similar meeting with the Costa Rican-North American Chamber of Commerce (TT, Nov. 11), he voiced his support for increased taxes, despite his audience of business leaders.


“We all live in luxury homes, but we won’t be able to live in them with much security while so many others live in slums,” he said.


CANDIDATE Solís says he doubts Arias’ promises hold much weight. “(Former Presidents) Calderón and Rodríguez also said they would reverse poverty, and look at all the slums that have been growing in the meantime,” Solís said.


“In Spanish we have a saying, ‘el papel aguanta todo’ (everything looks good on paper).” Despite his current strength, Arias may find himself with more resistance as President, Solís added.


Of the charges that he has turned autocratic, Arias said he simply intends to exercise leadership, the lack of which has led the country to fail to reduce poverty for 10 years.


“If don Abel (Pacheco) had been negotiating the peace accords, he’d still be negotiating,” Arias said.


For all the dramatic changes in the local political landscape, the fundamental political forces keeping the country on a centrist political course remains unchanged, Sojo said.


“No conditions exist for a neo-liberal (conservative) political project to take root in Costa Rica,” he said.

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