San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Authorities Look to Turn Out the Vote in December Municipal Elections

High absenteeism traditionally has handicapped elections of local officials in Costa Rica, with a mere 22 or 23 percent of the electorate typically turning out to vote.

But now that Costa Rica has committed to decentralization, with 10 percent of the national budget slated to arrive in the hands of municipalities over the next few years, authorities are pushing for a bigger turnout in the December elections.

At a forum Tuesday night at the University of Costa Rica, elections officials said they’ve ramped up communication, hoping to disseminate information about each candidate via the Internet as well as encourage local debates.

“The majority say they don’t vote because they don’t see municipal elections as having an effect; (they believe) their lives will continue the same no matter what happens on Election Day,” said Max Esquivel, magistrate for the Supreme Elections Tribunal. “Our job is to convince them that local elections do have an effect.”

In 2002, a mere 22.6 percent of Costa Ricans cast a ballot in municipal elections, and in 2006, only 23.8 percent turned out to vote. In nationwide elections, by comparison, 68.8 percent voted in 2002, 65.2 percent in 2006 and 69.1 percent in 2010. Absenteeism tends to be higher in the Central Valley and along the Caribbean coast.

While a new Elections Code is expected to enhance municipal elections by allowing for governmental and political party funding of local campaigns, and requires that elected officials live in the district where they intend to run, there are still circumstances that make voter turnout difficult.

“The fact that it’s the first Sunday in December doesn’t help,” Esquivel said, referring to the fact that it’s one week after the aguinaldo (or nationwide Christmas bonus) is paid. “People are too busy spending.”

Another challenge is that campaign funding is typically awarded after an election, leaving local leaders either penniless or steeped in fund-raising drives as they try to get their message out.

But decentralization advocates recognize the upcoming elections as an opportunity to accelerate the transfer of resources to municipalities. At the Tuesday night forum, they pledged to do what they could to increase voter interest and ensure that the 4,989 winners of the December elections (out of 17,000 candidates for local offices) are the most fit to govern.

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