San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Lukewarm Elections Put Liberation in Control

If all politics is local – as longtime U.S. congressman Thomas “Tip”O’Neill famously asserted – then Costa Rican politics have a ways to go.

Sunday, when voters chose their own mayors and other local officials for the second time in history, proved to be a very good day for the National Liberation Party (PLN), but a bad day for voter turnout. As predicted, the municipal elections drew only 24.4% of eligible voters from their homes.

Those who did turn out cast their votes for a significant change in the political makeup of the country’s mayors, reflecting trends from February’s national elections.

Liberation, which started the year by winning the presidency, as well as more legislative seats than any other party, continued its sweep by winning 59 of the 81 mayoral seats – up from only 27 seats in the 2002-2006 term – while the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC), which now dominates the municipal scene with 48 mayoral seats, retained only 11.

Ottón Solís, founder and leader of the Citizen Action Party (PAC), was among the politicians who said the abstention rate shows the urgent need for electoral reform.

Though his party gained four mayoral seats, the former presidential candidate said the government should move the election date two years following the national elections; provide public funds for municipal campaigns to create a more even playing field; and allow municipal council members to be elected with the rest of local government posts, rather than with the President and legislators as they are now.

Liberation Secretary General Oscar Núñez, also a legislator, did not return Tico Times phone calls by press time. PUSC President Luis Fishman – who said the elections actually represented “a great triumph” for his party and positioned it as “the biggest opposition force,” since PUSC won more mayoral seats than PAC (which is the second largest group in the Legislative Assembly) and received a higher percentage of the vote than in its dismal February showing – said he agrees the system must be changed. The government should redirect to municipal elections 20% of the public funds available to political parties for national elections, he said.

The nearly 76% abstention rate represented a 1% improvement over the 2002 municipal elections, the first time mayors were popularly elected. (Previously, “municipal executives” were chosen by the municipal councils.)

These figures stand out in a country that prides itself on its democratic traditions, and where the February elections are a nationwide festival of party T-shirts, flags and honking horns. This year’s presidential and legislative elections yielded an abstention rate of 35% – a world away from the abstention rates Sunday, but still the lowest voter turnout in a national election since 1958.

From the 1960s to mid-1990s, voter turnout hovered at around 80% in presidential contests (TT, Feb. 17).

The Libertarian Movement won one seat in Sunday’s elections, and the National Union Party (PUN) won two. The Union for Change party, which was unsuccessful in its presidential and legislative bids in February, won the Montes de Oca race, with former Labor Minister Fernando Trejos taking over the eastern San José suburb. Rounding out the results were three local parties.

Leading the Liberation charge was San José Mayor Johnny Araya, who won a second term by a landslide; the preliminary vote counts showed him with 69.03%. He’s embroiled in a corruption scandal, investigated by the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ) regarding allegations that he accepted kickbacks from a trash management company (TT, Nov. 24, Dec. 1). However, this didn’t seem to rattle voters. Mario Morales of Liberation, accused of accepting an illegal loan from a former executive of the same company, was also re-elected to his post as Mayor of Aserrí.

Several other mayors facing allegations of wrongdoing met mixed fates. Polemic Mayor Pastor Gómez of the northwestern canton of Santa Cruz lost out to a Liberation candidate. A criminal court suspended Gómez earlier this year because of allegations that he allowed a foreign company to build in an area zoned as parkland; he resigned last month but continued campaigning (TT, Dec. 1).

Other incumbent mayors with allegations against them – Cartago’s Carlos Góngora and Tarrazú’s Rodolfo Naranjo, among others – also lost their seats, while others – such as Marvin Solano of the eastern Central Valley town of Paraíso, accused of disobeying legal orders to fulfill community needs – held on to their seats.

Nine women of 45 female candidates won a seat; 23 mayors were reelected; and Erwen Yanán, of San Mateo, Alajuela, became the youngest mayor at 24.

All results are preliminary and were tallied at polling stations; the official manual count began Tuesday and will take approximately two weeks, TSE spokesman Cedric Solano told The Tico Times. A total of 4,951 officials, including district administrators and council members, were elected Sunday, but preliminary counts were conducted only for mayoral races, Solano said – the results of the other races won’t be known until the end of the manual count, tentatively scheduled for Dec. 22.

The new officials are scheduled to take office Feb. 5.

Meanwhile, reforms to revise the funding system and change the voting date away from the Christmas holidays are under consideration in the assembly’s Electoral Reforms Commission, legislator and commission president Fernando Sánchez told the daily La Nación. He said he’d also support a new prohibition on soccer games on Election Day to reduce distractions.

According to Sánchez, all the parties represented on the commission favor the reforms. Though he’s a member of Liberation, he said even Sunday’s victors must work for change, since the high abstention rate “takes away legitimacy from the triumph.” Election Results

For a complete list of the preliminary results of the country’s 81 newly elected mayors, see Tuesday’s Tico Times Daily News page online:


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