Costa Rican National Elections: Immediate Results, Longstanding Challenges

In Costa Rica’s national election on Sunday, where for the first time a progressive party challenging the establishment neoliberal parties remained at the top of all polls until the last couple of weeks, the immediate end result is the need to go to a second round on April 6, as none of the three major parties gained the required 40 percent to win outright.

In Costa Rica’s national election on Sunday, where for the first time a progressive party challenging the establishment neoliberal parties remained at the top of all polls until the last couple of weeks, the immediate end result is the need to go to a second round on April 6, as none of the three major parties gained the required 40 percent to win outright.

One of the main characteristics of this election is that the bi-partisan system was shattered with the emergence of 10 other alternatives parties, both left and right.

Two neoliberal parties, Liberación Nacional (PLN) and Unidad Social Cristiana (PUSC) have shared governing power since the 1950s when the country drafted the Constitution that abolished the army, created the beneficiary state and set in place a democracy and environmental policies that gave the country the stability and prestige it has enjoyed for the last part of the previous century.

However,  as of the beginning of the 21st century the country has been prey of the same neoliberal pressures by corporate globalization, as has the rest of the world. Both the PLN and PUSC embraced these policies despite the rejection of a large portion of society who have come to appreciate the benefits of a social state as a much more enviable alternative to the privatized corporate state.

The polarization grew to the point that back in 2000 social movements, unions, and organizations challenged a government proposal to privatize the telecommunications company known as Instituto Costarricense de Electricidad (ICE). The protest paralyzed the country and a negotiated agreement was achieved without dismantling the national institute.

Then in 2007, the government had to call the first ever referendum about free trade over the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) due to widespread popular discontent over the trade deal. Many people recognized that CAFTA was an attempt to entrench neoliberalism in the country. The deal looked to corporatize the state and the economy through the privatization of all social institutions, the militarization of the country in the name of the drug war, the criminalization of social dissent, and by providing concessions to transnational corporations of the country’s rich natural resources.

The referendum was a “yes” or “no” to CAFTA. “Yes” won by 3 percent, showing that the voters were divided in half, even in the midst of an unequal campaign where state resources were used, a presidential office memorandum called for people not to vote against CAFTA, the country’s mainstream media favored CAFTA openly, and corporate entrepreneurs stood outside of the polls and pressured their workers not to vote against CAFTA.

March against CAFTASince then, the powerful movement that mobilized to reject  CAFTA went back to their communities, work centers, and homes to create local resistance to what CAFTA would bring to their lives and communities.

What followed were 6 years of social upheaval and resistance that has been characterized by the report “State of the Nation” and the highest levels of protest of the last several decades. Oil concessions were stopped, mining concessions were stopped, concessions to sell the national oil processing company was challenged, and concessions to privatize some road systems were stopped.

Meanwhile, scandals due to corruption became so common that during the last two decades the country has taken to court two presidents and a third one has a case that was never cleared in court.

The actual government of Laura Chinchilla is facing multiple cases of corruption that are being processed, while even some of the senatorial candidates in both parties that have governed are awaiting trials for cases of corruption.

The elections

Against this background, the 2014 elections has as its overarching political theme the final “check mate” to the neoliberal bi-partisan control of government on one end of the polarized spectrum, while on the other hand, offers by both traditional parties to recover some of the policies that characterized the previous social welfare state.

In the neoliberal side of the spectrum a third emerging party “Libertario” is practically a Costa Rica version of the US Tea Party. Other smaller emerging parties in the right include four or five conservative fundamentalists, among them religiously-based.

On the opposing side are three parties. One is the Partido Acción Ciudadana (PAC), which since 2000 first challenged the bipartisan system and almost became elected in 2006, losing  by just 1 percent to Liberacion Nacional. It defined itself as a Social Democratic progressive party and emerged out of former liberacionistas (members of Liberación Nacional) who left that party because of its corruption. It became an electoral alternative to other sectors because it challenged bipartisanism and was progressive. Eventually, and due to many divisions, PAC practically became a party that worked in the Legislative Assembly though its elected senators.

Another is the Partido de los Trabajadores (PT) of a Trotskyist orientation that has kept alive the challenge to the nature of the corporate state. It was founded in 2012 as a political party. It brings to the electoral panorama elements and experiences of the country’s student movement.

The other, the Frente Amplio is a national front that emerged in 2004 as a “socialist, left and democratic political alternative of progressive forces to struggle side by side with communities, social actors, unions and environmentalists to construct a more prosperous, inclusive, solidarious and educated peoples.” It was created by many former leaders of the former communist party in Costa Rica, a historical experience that contributed to many of the social struggles of workers in the country, but ceased to be a political party a few decades ago.

Frente Amplio was the big surprise to many because after two political terms (2006 and 2010) where it had one senator in each term, it emerged in the 2014 elections as the favorite in almost every poll.

The reason for this emergence that has placed it formally (according to electoral results where it achieved 17.14 percent) as the third political force is that it is a political movement that has worked closely with communities and social movements. It is a frente amplio. It is comprised of peoples of those social movements ranging from the feminist movement, the environmental movement, student movements, campesino movements, community organizations, indigenous movements, etc.

It is not an electoral party, it is a “frente” that keeps the struggle in the streets and communities centerfold. Its movements, alongside many others, decided that “enough was enough” and captured the desire of most of society to change the course of politics so that neoliberalism and its champions in elected office stop abusing the power of governing.

Again, as in the Referendum of 2008, a massive, expensive and brutal campaign targeted the so-called “communist”, “Chavista”, “Castroist” Frente Amplio that would destroy everything that Costa Rica stands for in terms of religion, freedom, etc.

Memorandums by corporations calling on their workers not to vote for communism emerged, such as the one by AVON and another by SUBWAY. Companies told their workers that if Frente Amplio won the companies would leave the country. Mainstream media supported the ant- communist campaign.

Following the campaign by Liberación Nacional came multiple efforts to position themselves as political “center” because it was know that so many Costa Ricans are fed up with traditional politics and that they were undecided whether they would vote and who to vote for. Indeed, abstention rocketed to 31 percent, second highest in decades.

Immediately, CNN positioned Frente Amplio as the far left, “tea party” Partido Libertario as far right, and Liberación Nacional as center.

Libertarios tried to occupy that place by modifying its free market discourse and enhancing a religious one.

Partido Acción Ciudadana (PAC) positioned itself as moderate by distancing itself from the accusations against Frente Amplio, and even reproducing them. It also distanced itself from its previous attempts to create an alliance with Frente Amplio.

Frente Amplio defended itself without relinquishing its programmatic and political progressive perspective. Such might be the difference between a party that’s goals is mainly electoral and one that is the expression of a movement that does not play electoral games although it participates in elections.

Immediate results

PAC formally became the first force with 30.84 percent (not enough to win outright) and Liberación Nacional was second with 29.64  percent. A second round will determine the winner on April 6.

PAC has already expressed that it will not create an alliance with Frente Amplio. Without an explicit negotiation of terms, Frente Amplio will not call on its bases to vote for PAC as a united block of votes and instead has stated that everyone can decide for themselves.

Frente Amplio has also stated that its main political work continues to focus on social movements in communities, work centers, and homes.

Meanwhile, Liberación is expected to create pacts with all the other smaller conservative parties.


The complexity of the movement that wants to stop continuity of neoliberalism in government has as much to do with political paradigms about power and movement building in electoral processes, as it has to do with strategies about resisting neoliberalism in creating deep social change.

As of now, in terms of that vision,with the emergence of the Frente Amplio, Costa Rica has finally created a social and political force that has challenged neoliberalism not only in its economic, social and political agenda, but also in the way that politics are practiced to advance change.

Cultural change, personal change, and social change does not come about by undergoing electoral processes in the traditional manner. It requires patience, consistency and grassroots empowerment from the bottom up so that people who want change can see, feel and experience this first hand.

There is hope in Frente Amplio because it has grown as a result of society saying ‘enough’ and it is building autonomous organizations that could possibly change the course of history in Costa Rica.

Maria Suárez Toro is a Puerto Rican and Costa Rican community activista, social media journalist, producer of Escribana.