On February 4, Costa Rica held its presidential election. Thirteen candidates hoped to charm an electorate. Voter turnout was at about normal levels, although 34% of voters stayed home. Political analysts consider the election “atypical,” saying that Costa Ricans felt they could not fully back any of the candidates and, instead, simply chose the lesser of the evils. Previously powerful parties fell as rookie parties rose.

Costa Rica's Presidential Candidates in a debateWhen the voting was over and the ballots were counted, 2 candidates surnamed Alvarado had the most number of votes: Fabricio Alvarado, 43, of the National Restoration Party had 24.8%, and Carlos Alvarado,38, of the PAC (in Spanish – Citizens Action Party) had 21.6%. In third place was Antonio Alvarez Desanti of the Liberation Party, who conceded. Neither of the leading candidates garnered 40% of the votes, as mandated by law to win the election, so a runoff election will be held 2 months later on April 1, 2018.

This election was not about the economy, although some think it should have been. The central government’s debt has grown to almost 50% of the GDP. Many feel that if the problem of government spending is not tackled immediately, economic growth will fall and unemployment will climb from an already high percentage rate.

Instead, the presidential election turned out to be about cultural and religious issues. The front-runner, Fabricio Alvarado, is a former journalist, evangelical preacher and congressman whose campaign platform is “pro-life” and “pro-family.” He was a dark horse candidate up until January 9, 2018. On that date, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ordered Costa Rica to modify its laws to give same-sex couples the same rights that heterosexual couples enjoy, effectively legalizing same-sex marriage. A poll revealed that two-thirds of Costa Ricans oppose the Court’s ruling. The ruling and the popular opinion were “like a godsend” for evangelical candidate Fabricio Alvarado, accordingly to political analysts. Two days after the court decision he went from 3% to 17% support in the polls, replacing the right-wing populist candidate Juan Diego Castro.  Castro had led in the polls for many months after promising to withdraw Costa Rica from the Inter-American Human Rights System.

Enter PAC’s Carlos Alvarado. As the only candidate that welcomed the opinion of the Court, young progressive voters rallied to support him. PAC is the political party that backed current President Luis Guillermo Solis, although Costa Rican law required him to renounce the party once in office (neither can he express his voting preference). But scandals have rocked his administration and weakened the party’s incumbent lead.

The support of the two winning parties was very much drawn along socio-economic lines. Generally speaking, Fabricio Alvarado won in the outlying, more rural districts, while Carlos Alvarado led in the more urban and metropolitan districts. Put another way, the Liberation Party is more blue-collar, and the PAC white-collar.

“The Costa Rican elites have excluded a part of the population, and we now see that evangelical churches have been fruitful, working for more than 30 years with abandoned communities that have educational and labor instability or violent situations,” according to Laura Fuentes, an expert in the sociology of religion and researcher at the National University. “The churches are there all the time, working with their members, and are often connected to an international network that has economic resources. The churches don’t just visit their communities during a campaign. They live there.”

Fabricio Alvarado preaches “prosperity theology” which teaches that success (read: financial) comes with being a good Christian. To me, that is just wrong using religion as a means of political gain.

So, now the two dueling Alvarados have 2 months to tweak and strengthen their platforms. Some analysts fear the campaign ahead will polarize even further around religious matters and leave out pressing “earthly” topics such as the fiscal reform.

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