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Costa Rica Update: Carlos Alvarado Wins Presidency in Landslide

Carlos Alvarado at victory rally after winning 2018 Costa Rican presidential runoff election.

Carlos Alvarado (Image: the candidate's Facebook page)

April 02, 2018

First on Carlos Alvarado's desk when he takes the reins of the Costa Rican presidency on May 8: work with a fragmented Congress to tackle a burgeoning fiscal deficit—or risk being downgraded by ratings agencies.
In the end, Fabricio Alvarado's star fell almost as quickly as it rose. His most enduring legacy will end up being in the Costa Rican legislature, where the PRN will make up the second-largest bloc.

In the first of Latin America’s six presidential elections in 2018Carlos Alvarado, 38, of the Citizen Action Party won Costa Rica’s presidential runoff in an unexpected landslide on April 1.

After polls showed the former ruling party minister in a dead heat with or trailing Fabricio Alvarado (no relation), Carlos ended up beating the evangelical congressman by more than 20 points, or 60.7 percent to 39.3 percent, with 97 percent of ballots counted. Fabricio conceded the race by 9 p.m. on Sunday and called on his supporters to recognize the results.

 

The runoff happened to fall on Easter Sunday. Although there were questions about if the holidays would depress turnout, voters instead packed highways as they came back early from their beach vacations to cast their ballots in what was, by and large, a peaceful Election Day with historic turnout. In what was just the third runoff in Costa Rica’s history, turnout in the runoff surpassed that in the first round.

This time around, Carlos won the five most populous of Costa Rica’s seven provinces by at least 17 points, including with a whopping 75 percent of the vote in Cartago, where 3 in 4 registered voters went to the polls. Carlos also flipped 2 of the 4 provinces that went to Fabricio in the February 4 first round, most critically Alajuela, which represents a fifth of the population. Carlos also won 78 percent of the expat vote.

Carlos was helped notably by the backing of Rodolfo Piza, who came in fourth in the first round on an establishment party ticket of the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC). The other traditional party candidate and third-place finisher, Antonio Álvarez of the National Liberation Party (PLN), backed Fabricio late in the campaign, while ex-PLN presidents Óscar Arias and Laura Chinchilla declined to endorse either one of the candidates.

Epsy Campbell also made history by becoming the first Afro-descendant woman elected vice president in continental Latin America, she said in an interview. Campbell, an original cofounder of the Citizen Action Party (PAC) and two-term congresswoman, is an economist by training and one of the country’s most enduring public figures of the last couple decades. Campbell will be the first vice president, while community educator Marvin Rodríguez will fill the second vice presidency role. In March, Carlos promised a cabinet that will comprise equal numbers of men and women.

Late last year, few would have predicted the PAC to win the 2018 race: President Luis Guillermo Solís’ popularity was down as the cementazo corruption scandal ensnared members from all branches of government and soured many on the establishment. Solís’ win in 2014 was only the first time in Costa Rica’s modern history that neither a PLN nor PUSC candidate won. But with the PLN and PUSC failing to make the runoff for the first time ever in 2018, ticos faced a stark choice between the progressive Carlos and the evangelical Fabricio.

In the end, Fabricio’s star fell almost as quickly as it rose. After trailing in low single-digits in polls in late 2017, the candidate, who ran on the National Restoration Party (PRN) ticket, surged to the top of the race just weeks before the February 4 general elections on a wave of anti-LGBT sentiment in the socially conservative country, which he won by 3 points. But during the runoff, he proved unable to maintain that momentum, skipping debates and getting in trouble with election authorities. His most enduring legacy will end up being in Congress: while he was the PRN’s lone representative in the 2014–2018 session, on February 4, his party won 14 of 57 seats in the incoming session, the second most of any party. Carlos’ PAC, meanwhile, will have 10.

Carlos will have to tackle a burgeoning fiscal deficit first thing, and will need to do so with a divided Congress. Barring new legislation, the Central Bank projects the deficit will hit 7.1 percent of GDP in 2018 and 7.9 percent next year. The president-elect has pledged to limit government hires in order to lower the deficit to 3 percent by 2022. It takes nearly three years on average for a law to pass Costa Rica’s unicameral legislature. In January, Fitch cited the gridlock when it revised its outlook for the country to negative, writing that the new president “will face challenges of a highly fragmented legislature, which could complicate the creation of coalitions and increase the legislative paralysis and the inertia of the reforms.”

The new administration will be sworn in on May 8 to a four-year term, during which it will oversee Costa Rica’s bicentennial in 2021.