San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Abstention Highest in Decades

With so few votes separating the winner and runnerup in the recent Presidential election, 800,000 votes could have made a big difference. But instead of going to Citizen Action Party (PAC) candidate Ottón Solís, National Liberation Party (PLN) candidate Oscar Arias, or one of the 12 other presidential candidates, those votes – 34.6% of the voting population – went to no one, marking one of the highest abstention rates the country has seen in recent history.

Not since the 1950s has voter turnout been so low – it was 35.3% in 1958, according to the Supreme Elections Tribunal (TSE). From the 1960s through the mid-1990s, approximately 80% of Costa Ricans exercised their right to vote, providing the country a source of national pride for decades.

However, in 1998, the abstention rate jumped 11 points from 18.9% four years earlier to 30%. It hasn’t stopped growing since, reaching 31.2% in 2002 and 34.6% Feb. 5.

Analysts say a 35% abstention rate isn’t the worst thing, pointing to rates that reach 50% in developed countries, but said what is worrisome is the fact that it is growing.

“Despite the opening of the political system to new parties and new forms of representation, such as PASE (Accessibility Without Exclusion Party) and the New Feminist League Party… abstention is growing,” said Carlos Sojo, an analyst with Latin American Faculty of Social Studies (FLACSO).

It could continue growing – and producing surprising election results – if efforts aren’t made to bring voters back to the polls, he continued.

Costa Ricans are automatically registered to vote when they turn 18; in this year’s election, more than 2.5 million people could have voted. According to preliminary estimates, neither candidate is likely to receive more than 700,000 votes – just over a quarter of those possible and less than the number of Costa Ricans who didn’t vote.

When abstention rates first skyrocketed, people blamed lack of options in Costa Rica’s bipartisan system. Now that that system is essentially dead and voters have more parties to choose from, the blame is being placed on negative public opinion of the presidency, and “highly negative” public opinion of the Legislative Branch. Rather than being motivated to vote, people are increasingly critical of politics as a whole, and the corruption scandals revealed two years ago have decreased the public’s trust in leadership, according to Constantino Urcuyo, analyst with the Center for Political Administration Research and Training (CIAPA).

The abstention rate was highest in rural areas; in the provinces of Puntarenas, on the Pacific coast, and Limón, on the Caribbean coast, nearly half of all adults did not vote, with an abstention rate of 45%; while in Guanacaste, the rate reached 38%.

Abstention was lowest in the provinces of Heredia and Cartago, at 30%, followed by Alajuela, at 32% and San José, at 33%.

As candidates predicted before the elections, a lower abstention rate meant more support for Solís, while a higher abstention rate meant a greater percentage of votes for Arias. Though TSE officials are still counting, Solís apparently won the provinces of San José, Alajuela and Heredia, while Arias appears to have won Guanacaste, Puntarenas and Limón. The two nearly tied for Cartago. However, this division of provinces can also be attributed to Solís having greater support in urban areas.

Lower voting rates in rural areas are due, in part, to lower income rates, Sojo said. “There is a sense of disconnection from the political system,” he said, adding that residents from rural areas see little change from administration to administration and few solutions to their problems.

Voters in rural areas also sometimes have trouble getting to voting places – which for decades was one of the only reasons for relinquishing the right to vote. “Lack of education” also impedes lower income voters from “understanding the debate of issues” and giving them less incentive to vote, Sojo said.

Comparing Costa Rica’s voter turnout to developed countries is not necessarily fair, he continued. High abstention in developed countries can sometimes indicate overall satisfaction and low incentive to demand change, and elections are sometimes held more often, with politics strongest on a local level. The same cannot be said about Costa Rica.

The analyst suggests reforms to the electoral process – including a more direct way to elect legislators instead of selecting a party’s legislative choices – to inspire more enthusiasm among potential voters.

However, Urcuyo said the close election two weeks ago could be motivation enough. Acknowledging that it is not an objective analysis, he hypothesizes that, with such polarized elections this year, the abstention rate could drop in the future because people realize the value of their vote.


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