Costa Rica Elections: Most Important Issues Not Discussed

Citizens are less than two months away from going to a ballotage to elect a new government without having discussed the country's priority issues, even though some of them require urgent attention and a deep national discussion in order to find a solution.

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By Diego Fernández Montero

Citizens are less than two months away from going to a ballotage to elect a new government without having discussed the country's priority issues, even though some of them require urgent attention and a deep national discussion in order to find a solution. 

See evolution of voter intentions in the chart. 

Of the many urgent problems, the crisis in public finances should be the priority issue. The government spends much more than the income it receives.  In 2017, the fiscal deficit as a percentage of GDP reached 6.2%, a historical and worrisome figure. According to the Central Bank's recent Macroeconomic Program, this deficit will reach 7.1% in 2018 and 7.9% in 2019If we add this to the fact that the country already has high levels of indebtedness (49.2% of GDP in 2017), the scenario is extremely complex, and the best government team will be required to address it. However, in the election to be held this Sunday, February 4, this does not seem to be the issue being discussed with voters or the one that has monopolized the national discussion.

The fiscal deficit is just one of several urgent issues facing the country, and that have been avoided in the current electoral contest.  Also needing further consideration is the issue that the country is moving towards a seemingly inevitable crisis in the pension system. On top of this is the high and persistent unemployment rate, as well as growing inequality. Public safety also comes into the equation. The number of homicides has soared above the level that the World Health Organization already considers an epidemic.  To all this we must add the inability - now  of several administrations - to solve the road chaos, the considerable backlog in public infrastructure, and the absence of reforms that allow for a better functioning of an inefficient state apparatus. However, none of these issues have been addressed with the required depth during the current electoral process and, apparently, it is not these issues that the electorate will use to decide their vote.

The issue that has captured the most attention in the current electoral process has nothing to do with the challenges in terms of quality of life or the development model that should be followed. No. This time the country has got tangled up in the issue of individual liberties, such as the debate on same-sex marriage. An issue that had already shown strong signs of polarization with two mass demonstrations in the country, one in favor of diversity and human rights and the other in favor of the life and values of the traditional family. An issue which the different candidates also used to gain sympathy with one or the other side of the electorate. In the midst of that discussion, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) issued a ruling that determines the approval of equal marriage, which further polarized the electoral discussion on this single issue. The ruling provoked opposition from the most conservative part of the electorate, and as a result a strong increase in support was generated for the candidate who managed to position himself as the representative of that side. In turn, this support subsequently generated a counter reaction of greater adherence to the candidate representing the opposing side.

The electoral polls have revealed how over the last month of the electoral contest, the issue that most influenced voters' choice was the polarization between progressives and conservatives. According to the trend of the last polls, the candidates with the highest growth were precisely the representatives of both sides. However, the polls have also shown a scenario in which it is almost inevitable that a second round of elections will be needed, as it will be difficult for anyone to reach the 40% needed to win in the first round.

The data also shows that there is a high level of uncertainty over who might go through to that second round, as at least 5 of the 13 candidates have real possibilities. It all depends on a mass of undecided voters who will make their choice at the last moment and who will define the outcome of the election.

Given that a second round seems inevitable, what Costa Ricans must choose next Sunday is not their president, but the discussion they want to have as a country for the next two months, and the main actors who will take part in that discussion. In the event that the two representatives of the progressive and conservative camps do go through to a second round, the country could continue to be engaged in the same discussion around same-sex marriage for two more months. A subject that, according to the jurists, the IACHR has already resolved without taking a step backwards, and which, moreover, it is not an issue that should be resolved through the electoral process, much less when it makes the really urgent issues invisible. In that sense, electors have the challenge of deciding to make their vote count for something more than this single issue. What is at stake is much more.

The present electoral contest has now finished the first round without having discussed the great national problems. We will have to wait for the result of the election to find out if there will actually be a second round that allows us to finally overcome this monothematic trap in order to discuss what is really urgent. Voters must demand with their vote the right to choose between different proposals and parties, according to the capacity they show to solve the multiple and very complex challenges facing the country.

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