Costa Rica: Status quo routed in poll

April 13, 2014
Frente Amplio activists. The left party increased its representation from one to nine deputies in the National Assembly.

The election of Luis Guillermo Solis on April 6 as president of Costa Rica, with 77% of the votes, represents the end of a historical period and opens the door to unprecedented opportunities for the left.

Solis, representing the Citizens Action Party (PAC), crushed the remnants of the Party of National Liberation (PLN), a party that he once served as general secretary.

One political commentator said of the carnage of the PLN, “this represents the end of the status quo ante for politics”. An analyst for the PAC replied: “Today, the status quo has no status.” She was correct in ways she might not suspect.

Four years ago, after the election of Laura Chinchilla, I wrote: “Chinchilla’s victory was made inevitable by the lack of a clear alternative to the social-liberal policies of the PLN and the lack of a campaign targeting growing frustration with official corruption, Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and its effects on the Costa Rican economy, and urban crimes involving the police.

“The pent-up frustrations with the social-liberal policies felt by many Ticos were not mobilised.”

Frente Amplio

Thanks to the presence of the Frente Amplio (Broad Front ― a party of the left like Greece’s Syriza or the Left Bloc in Portugal), and an accumulated four years of disgust at the corruption, incompetence and neoliberal policies of the Chinchilla administration, the Costa Rican people were presented with a radical political alternative. This totally changed the political conversation and electoral dynamic.

Frente Amplio and the left were the big winners in the election. Frente Amplio increased its representation from one to nine deputies in the National Assembly. Its presidential candidate, Jose-Maria Villalta, who at one time led in the opinion polls for president, finished third in the first round of voting with an impressive 17%.

At one point before the first round, Frente Amplio was polling 22%. But an unprecedented wave of Hugo Chavez and red baiting, plus a mediocre showing in the final national televised debates around an ill-considered “junk food tax”, caused a last-minute switch by many voters from Frente Amplio to the PAC.

Frente Amplio defines itself as feminist, ecologist, anti-imperialist and socialist. For most of the electoral period, its program and propaganda dominated and shaped the political discourse.

As well, the steady growth of the Frente in the polls, and the dramatic free-fall in support for the PLN ensured a level of media coverage that it used to maximum advantage.

The central message of Frente Amplio was that Costa Rica needed a government that would reject neoliberalism.

It pointed to the devastating effects of the CAFTA agreement on Costa Rica: high youth unemployment, privatisation of public assets, destruction of the mixed farming sector, creation of low wage and precarious employment in the “special zones” (maquilladoras), and the spectacular growth in social inequality linked with cuts in the social safety net.

In doing so, Frente Amplio was able to link the PLN wit neoliberal policies and political corruption.

Election campaign

Johnny Araya, PLN presidential candidate and former mayor of the capital city San Jose, was constantly on the defensive. He tried to defend the PLN’s record and at the same time distance himself from the corruption scandals of the Chinchilla administration.

This task was further complicated by the fact that he is also under investigation for corrupt practices while mayor. He was probably the worst candidate the PLN ― torn by internal struggles between various clans ― could have chosen.

Solis and the PAC positioned themselves as the “responsible change” that Costa Rica needed. The PAC was founded by the Solis family as a reaction to the growing corruption and overt neoliberal policies of the Oscar Arias administrations.

The PAC is a more populist version of the PLN. It centred its campaign against corruption and was forced to attack neoliberalism rhetorically as a result of Frente Amplio's campaign.

The other loser was the openly neoliberal Libertarian Party. It is headed by Otto Gueverra Guth, a millionaire businessman and vicious right-wing ideologue with ties to the US Republican right, who had previously finished behind the PLN and the PAC.

This time he was relegated to fourth place, with only 11% of the vote. His dream of being the unifier of the right and the political expression of the national oligarchy was destroyed.

The traditional party of the right, the United Social Christian Party (PUSC), was nearly obliberated. It fractured into two evangelical (Protestant and Catholic) social-conservative groups.

The destruction of bipartisanship ― the alternating governments of the PLN and the PUSC ― represents the end of the social consensus established after the 1948 civil war. It opens a new period of political instability.

Despite the overwhelming vote for the PAC, the composition of the National Assembly and the systemic crisis is producing a string of problems that cannot be solved by the national oligarchy and its imperialist partners. This means the new administration will not meet the expectations of those who placed them in office.

Crisis of capitalist legitimacy

In one sense, the implosion of the PLN and the rise of political alternatives represent the culmination of a process of resistance to neoliberalism that began with the mass movement against the administration of Abel Pacheco in 2000.

This was sparked by his attempt to privatise the Instituto Costaricense de Electricidad (ICE), the national publicly owned electrical and telecommunications company. ICE was one of the largest employers in the country and the heart of the economic state.

This resistance reached its zenith with a march of 100,000 people opposed to the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), an agreement that was narrowly approved in a referendum many opponents feel was rigged.

Resistance was driven by a growing economic crisis caused by neoliberal reforms and practices of successive administrations, by the global economic crisis that continues to deal harsh blows to the Central American economies, and by the change in the class structure of Costa Rica.

The growing dependence on the import of foreign capital, which has developed production in new sectors (biotech, telecommunications, light manufacturing, medicine) has changed the composition and strength of the working class relative to the rural rich and middle peasantry. Agricultural proprietors now represent less than 10% of the population.

At the same time, large foreign investments in agriculture, especially in land for pineapple cultivation in the Valle de El General area of southern Costa Rica, is producing a growing rural proletariat who see themselves as workers, not as farmers with an off-farm income, as they might have in the past.

Add to this a booming youth population (more than 60% of Costa Rica is under 30), which is highly tech savvy and provides the Frente Amplio's base, and you have the recipe for a huge change in consciousness. Part of this was reflected in the rejection of “the parties of the past”.

Continued mobilisations

The past four years provided glimpses of the electoral changes to come. It has been marked by continued mobilisations that show no signs of ending.

The appointment of a right-wing evangelical, Justo Orozco, by Chinchilla as head of the Human Rights Commission sparked a huge protest throughout urban areas. Orozco had openly attacked LGBTI people and said they should have no human rights protection.

The continued attacks on the port workers of Limon as the government tries to privatise port operations there, the ordering of the Organismo para Investigacion Judicial, the detective police, onto the campus of the Universidad de Costa Rica, the attacks on the wages and benefits of teachers and, especially, attempts to undermine ICE and its workforce through outsourcing and privatisation, have generated a succession of struggles.

Most are still unresolved as the weak government of Chinchilla faced internal revolts and thus was not able to impose any definite solutions.

This is the scenario which, after the euphoria of the decisive defeat of the traditional ruling party of imperialism and the national oligarchy has died down, the new administration faces.

The PAC, as a result of the close vote in the first round, will have to rely on the votes of the deputies of Frente Amplio to pass any progressive legislation.

Alternatively, the more likely scenario is Solis will try to corral a portion of the PLN deputies into a longer term “national salvation” pact. If this pact is repudiated by Frente Amplio, it would leave the left as the only voice of opposition to the neoliberal policies that Solis will be forced to continue.

In either case, the next period will be one marked by growing political instability, more open clashes between the classes over political direction, a greater level of militancy and increasing class consciousness by ever broadening layers of workers, especially young workers not burdened by the anti-communist baggage of the past.

[Slightly abridged from Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]

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