Costa Rica, among Latin America’s oldest and best-established democracies, is facing an unusual crisis of confidence on the part of the population in the country’s politicians and institutions. This goes beyond unhappiness with the administration of President Laura Chinchilla (among the least popular leaders in the Americas, according to polls); it is also targeted at the gridlocked legislative assembly, scandal-ridden government ministries and institutions, and bickering political parties. More than anything, the scorn appears directed toward an entrenched and entitled political class that is widely perceived as corrupt, incompetent and self-serving.
While some say that Costa Rica’s political culture hasn’t changed, but rather that its nature is more visible because of an increasingly resourceful and aggressive press (including online blogs far removed from the country’s political and economic establishment) the unhappiness might also be related to concentration of power in the hands of the National Liberation Party (PLN). While the PLN has always been the dominant political force in modern Costa Rica, the recent breakdown of Costa Rica’s two-party system has made matters worse by taking away from voters the option of throwing the incumbents out (which in the case of the PLN, used to occur roughly every third election).
Since 2006, when a series of spectacular corruption scandals (unearthed by investigative reporters) led to the arrest of two of the country’s former presidents—both from Costa Rica’s second political party, the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC)—the PLN has been firmly in control. While shifting coalitions in the Legislative Assembly have sought to temper this dominance, breakdowns in alliances and within opposing parties have only served to highlight the lack of credible opposition. In the last presidential and legislative elections the PLN won easily, while since then, the left-leaning and reformist Citizen’s Action Party and the right-wing Libertarian Party, which came in second and third, have all but disintegrated in the wake of internal divisions and, in the case of the Libertarians, ethical questions related to campaign-finance. The PUSC has enjoyed a mild resurgence in popularity, but is still a far-distant second.
In the meantime, any political suspense that might exist leading up to the next elections, scheduled for early 2014, revolves around the PLN nominee for president. Rodrigo Arias, who served as his brother Oscar Arias’ Minister of the Presidency—and who shares his brother’s sense of entitlement without his list of accomplishments—unofficially but conspicuously launched his campaign for the presidency almost immediately upon leaving office two years ago. His open ambitions have been a thorn in the side of Chinchilla, dividing loyalties within the PLN. His leading rival for the nomination is San José mayor Johnny Araya, who is widely seen as an effective leader and administrator, although also as part of the PLN establishment.
Arias also has control of the party apparatus, evidenced by its decision to advance the date of the PLN’s nominating convention by three months to handicap Araya, who will be unable to fully participate because he is scheduled to serve as host on those dates to the Central American Games. Another reason for advancing the nomination, some say, is to give Arias, if he wins the nomination, greater control over the direction of the final year of Chinchilla’s term.
Such shenanigans have only served to further alienate the electorate, while the government of the hapless Chinchilla has sunk further in public regard because of a string of scandals, which have included her Minister of Hacienda accused of broadly cheating on his taxes while pushing a comprehensive tax reform, and egregious corruption involving public officials and private contractors in the construction of a border road with Nicaragua, among others.
Meanwhile, Costa Ricans—usually enthusiastic about politics—are tuning out, hoping the country’s leaders do nothing to threaten the country’s brisk economic growth. For which, of course, given the public’s foul mood, Chinchilla receives little credit.
Steve Mack is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. He is an environmental consultant and writer, and was the former editor of The Tico Times. He lives in Costa Rica.