Is it the economy, stupid? A preliminary analysis would have concluded that such a maxim would prevail in Costa Rica’s presidential race: unemployment is high (especially among the youth), the cost of living is one of the highest in Latin America, and public finances are at a breaking point. However, culture wars, in particular same-sex marriage, dominated the debate leading up to the first round of elections held on Sunday. How can this be explained?
From the beginning this was an atypical presidential race for Costa Rica, due to the rise of a right-wing populist candidate who led the polls for many months. With a messianic and authoritarian rhetoric of “rebuilding the country” aimed at a “direct democracy with no parties or corrupt politicians,” Juan Diego Castro, a well-known litigation lawyer and former minister of security, became the candidate of the until then miniscule and irrelevant National Integration Party.
Castro’s phenomenon showed once again something that had become evident during the previous election: Costa Rica, Latin America’s oldest democracy, is not immune to populism. The country harbors several conditions that feed such a phenomenon. There is a tremendous animosity towards the political class, which is perceived as both corrupt and inept. This resentment also affects the media, businesspeople, and the judiciary. The rise of violent crime—2017 recorded the highest homicide rate in the country’s history—and the perception that the authorities are too weak on crime, further feeds the anger.
A widespread corruption scandal, in which the incumbent Solis administration was directly involved, along with the judiciary and various opposition parties, dominated public attention for months and strengthened Castro’s candidacy. Just one month before the election, polls showed him and Antonio Álvarez Desanti, from the National Liberation Party, as the most likely candidates to move forward to the run-off on April 1.