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Costa Rica’s Boring Elections Are a Model for the World

No matter who wins, Sunday’s vote won’t make headlines abroad. That’s a good thing.

By , a lecturer in political science at Skidmore College and a doctoral candidate in politics at The New School, and , a doctoral candidate in politics at Princeton University.
From left to right, three of Costa Rica’s presidential candidates—José María Figueres of the National Liberation Party, Lineth Saborío of the Social Christian Unity Party, and Fabricio Alvarado Muñoz of the New Republic party—participate in a debate in San José on Feb. 1.
From left to right, three of Costa Rica’s presidential candidates—José María Figueres of the National Liberation Party, Lineth Saborío of the Social Christian Unity Party, and Fabricio Alvarado Muñoz of the New Republic party—participate in a debate in San José on Feb. 1.
From left to right, three of Costa Rica’s presidential candidates—José María Figueres of the National Liberation Party, Lineth Saborío of the Social Christian Unity Party, and Fabricio Alvarado Muñoz of the New Republic party—participate in a debate in San José on Feb. 1. EZEQUIEL BECERRA/AFP via Getty Images

Central America might be small—its seven countries have a combined population of just over 50 million, on par with that of Colombia or Spain—but the region tends to make the news often and for all the wrong reasons: spiraling criminal violence, international corruption scandals, and democratic backsliding, to name just a few.

But one Central American nation flies below the radar: Costa Rica. On Feb. 6, the country will choose a new president and renew its 57-seat unicameral legislature, the Legislative Assembly. And so far, the race has been refreshingly boring. While leading candidates differ on policy, the country’s democratic institutions work remarkably well. No one is calling for a radical overhaul of the political system. Most importantly, the election itself promises to be free, fair, and uncontested.

Costa Rica’s undramatic elections make it an outlier in the Western Hemisphere. In contrast to recent elections in Honduras and El Salvador, Costa Rica’s election won’t pit struggling opposition parties against autocratic incumbents. No candidate will be banned from running last minute, as in Guatemala’s 2019 elections. Nor will there be scenes of exiled opposition leaders condemning a dictatorship at home, as in Nicaragua’s sham election last year.

Central America might be small—its seven countries have a combined population of just over 50 million, on par with that of Colombia or Spain—but the region tends to make the news often and for all the wrong reasons: spiraling criminal violence, international corruption scandals, and democratic backsliding, to name just a few.

But one Central American nation flies below the radar: Costa Rica. On Feb. 6, the country will choose a new president and renew its 57-seat unicameral legislature, the Legislative Assembly. And so far, the race has been refreshingly boring. While leading candidates differ on policy, the country’s democratic institutions work remarkably well. No one is calling for a radical overhaul of the political system. Most importantly, the election itself promises to be free, fair, and uncontested.

Costa Rica’s undramatic elections make it an outlier in the Western Hemisphere. In contrast to recent elections in Honduras and El Salvador, Costa Rica’s election won’t pit struggling opposition parties against autocratic incumbents. No candidate will be banned from running last minute, as in Guatemala’s 2019 elections. Nor will there be scenes of exiled opposition leaders condemning a dictatorship at home, as in Nicaragua’s sham election last year.

Unlike nations in South America such as Brazil and Colombia, which will also choose new presidents this year, in Costa Rica, populists remain the exception to the norm. And even run-of-the-mill maladies such as gerrymandering and smears against the press, which U.S. audiences know all too well, are out of the question. It is no wonder that the watchdog Freedom House has given Costa Rica much higher marks for civil and political rights than most countries in Latin America—and the United States.


It’s not that Costa Rica’s presidential race is already decided—far from it. Twenty-five candidates are running to replace incumbent President Carlos Alvarado Quesada, who is ineligible for reelection due to term limits, and no one yet dominates the polls. This makes an April 3 runoff vote all but guaranteed, as has been the case in the last two elections.

Alvarado Quesada’s presidency, like the middle-of-the-road campaign that got him into office four years ago, was not known for its extremes. Just 38 years old when he took office, Alvarado Quesada became Costa Rica’s first millennial president and scored victories on environmental protection. In addition to rolling out an ambitious plan to eliminate the country’s carbon emissions by 2050, he expanded Costa Rica’s protected ocean area from 2.7 percent to 30 percent of territorial waters by the end of 2021. Alvarado Quesada also managed a strikingly effective COVID-19 vaccination campaign that has fully vaccinated 71.2 percent of Costa Ricans, as of Jan. 31.

But slow economic growth and corruption remained stumbling blocks and were only exacerbated by the pandemic. The country registered a modest economic recovery of 3.9 percent in 2021, well below the Latin American average of 6.3 percent projected by the International Monetary Fund. Public sector debt expanded to 71 percent of GDP, and unemployment remains in the double digits, at 14.4 percent.

Costa Rica also has contended with an influx of Nicaraguan refugees fleeing the repression of President Daniel Ortega. By 2020, Nicaraguans came to make up 7 percent of Costa Rica’s population. Alvarado Quesada’s government, to its credit, enacted welcoming policies, with Nicaraguans receiving access to K-12 education and health care. Strikingly, this year’s campaigns have moved forward with no hint of xenophobia.

Leading the race, but still polling below 20 percent, are José María Figueres from the center-right National Liberation Party and Lineth Saborío of the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC). Both are representatives of Costa Rica’s traditional political parties, which traded control of the office for the latter half of the 20th century.

Figueres and Saborío mostly converge in their platforms. Figueres was president from 1994 to 1998 and is the son of José Figueres Ferrer, the founder of Costa Rica’s modern democracy. During his presidency, Figueres trimmed the country’s historically large public sector, privatized state-run companies, and opened the economy to free trade agreements.

Although the moves led to a short and painful economic contraction in 1996, by the time Figueres left office, Costa Rica’s economy was growing at a rate of more than 5 percent per year. And while Costa Rica’s public prosecutor has opened several investigations into alleged corruption by Figueres, he has not been tried or sentenced in court like his predecessor Rafael Ángel Calderón, or his successor Miguel Ángel Rodríguez, both of whom were sentenced to five years behind bars for graft (though the former’s conviction later dropped to three years and exempted him from prison and the latter’s conviction was eventually overturned). Now, Figueres has made a comeback by tapping into voter discontent over the country’s economic plight. He has vowed to put “experience above experiments” and push economic growth and job creation.

Saborío is a seasoned politician who was former President Abel Pacheco de la Espriella’s vice president from 2002 to 2006. Her campaign has focused on reforming the public sector to improve Costa Rica’s sluggish economy. Regardless of her ability to make the runoff, Saborío deserves credit for helping to revive her political party, the PUSC. Once one of Costa Rica’s two leading parties, the PUSC broke down after being tarnished by corruption scandals and failed to win even 4 percent of votes in the 2006 presidential election. With Saborío at the forefront, the PUSC now has a chance of making the runoff and recapturing some of its bygone strength.

Polling third is Fabricio Alvarado Muñoz (no relation to the incumbent president) from the conservative New Republic party. Alvarado Muñoz, an evangelical Christian singer and ex-member of the Legislative Assembly, broke onto the national stage in the 2018 election. Like much of Central America, Costa Rica’s evangelical population has ballooned in recent years to some 20 percent as the Catholic Church has lost some of its traditional hold, especially among the poor. Alvarado Muñoz, who styled himself as a fundamentalist vigorously opposed to same-sex marriage (which, at the time, was still banned in Costa Rica), therefore found a receptive base. To the surprise of many, he made it to the second round, capturing almost 40 percent of the vote. Although Alvarado Muñoz still peddles hard-line social conservatism, much of his messaging this time around focuses on poverty reduction. A handful of leftist and centrist candidates trail further behind.

According to a January polls conducted by the University of Costa Rica, roughly 40 percent of the electorate remains undecided, although almost all say they plan to vote on Sunday. Any of the candidates mentioned could make it to the runoff. And there is even room for surprise. After all, weeks before the 2018 election, Alvarado Quesada was polling in the single digits, before a wave of last-minute support made him president.


In many countries, economic stagnation and electoral unpredictability would translate into political instability. Not so in Costa Rica, where democratic institutions enjoy broad-based legitimacy dating back decades.

Costa Rica wasn’t always destined for democratic success. In the 1940s, the country was far from it. Like many of its Central American neighbors, Costa Rica was poor, highly unequal, and economically dependent on the export of just a few commodities, including fruit and coffee. Although Costa Rica had a better record of holding elections than its neighbors and rarely suffered military coups, fraud and post-electoral violence became commonplace. In 1948, allegations of a stolen election triggered a brief but fierce civil war between the government and rebels led by businessman José Figueres Ferrer that could have further dampened democracy’s prospects.

Instead, however, the conflict’s end marked the beginning of Costa Rica’s modern democracy. Figueres Ferrer’s faction won and soon drafted a new constitution that set up an independent election monitor, gave women and Afro-Costa Ricans the right to vote, banned immediate presidential reelection, and abolished the standing army—an uncommon decision for the victors of a civil war. The Figueres Ferrer government also established a 10 percent wealth tax and nationalized the country’s banks, making credit widely available to small farmers. Although Figueres Ferrer’s party lost power in 1958, he and his followers gracefully accepted defeat, setting a powerful precedent for peaceful democratic transition that has persisted ever since.

Over time, Costa Rica also built a large and fairly capacious state. By the 1980s, almost one-fifth of Costa Ricans worked in the public sector. Public health care, housing, and education were accessible to most—an anomaly for starkly unequal and then-war-torn Central America. Costa Rica’s relative equality gave democratic institutions broad-based legitimacy and came to underwrite the country’s political stability. Mounting public sector debt eventually led to a 1980s cutback, but Costa Rica to this day maintains broader access to quality public services than most of its Central American neighbors.

Costa Rica’s undramatic elections make it an outlier in the Western Hemisphere.

True, Costa Rica has had its problems with corruption. Besides the embezzlement and bribery cases that sentenced former presidents Calderón and Rodríguez to prison, public prosecutors in 2017 began to unearth evidence that officials from all branches of government had allegedly cooperated to favor a construction magnate close to the government and his imports of Chinese cement. The cementazo, as the scandal is known, has not led to any convictions, but it did lead to the removal from office of a Supreme Court judge, an ex-attorney general, and Central Bank officials, shaking Costa Ricans’ confidence in the justice system.

However, Costa Ricans have historically held the prosecutor’s office in high regard, and these investigations show the justice system is working. By regional standards, Costa Rica is far ahead of the pack. The Capacity to Combat Corruption Index, jointly produced by Americas Society/Council of the Americas and Control Risks, ranked Costa Rica third in Latin America in 2021 for its independent media and high-capacity judicial institutions, behind Uruguay and Chile.

Moreover, Costa Rica’s bribery and embezzlement scandals have involved amounts of public money that look like small change compared with similar affairs in neighboring countries such as El Salvador, where two ex-presidents were charged with embezzling more than $300 million each. Tellingly, when allegations that tied several members of Figueres’s party and campaign to corruption surfaced in late 2021, Figueres kicked out everyone rumored to have been involved. This suggests the social sanction for corruption in Costa Rica remains strong.

Costa Rica’s bedrock of stable, broadly legitimate institutions has meant that even when the country has hit rough patches, politicians and parties have taken the changes in stride. Most importantly, they haven’t turned on democracy itself. In the wake of economic crises and free market reforms in the 1980s and 1990s, the country’s two-party system began unraveling. But unlike in Peru or Venezuela, when Costa Rica’s traditional parties decayed, its democratic institutions didn’t come crashing down with them. Instead, new parties—such as the center-left Citizens’ Action Party (PAC) in office today—had the chance to come to the fore. In this year’s elections, the PAC seems poised for its worst defeat in decades, but there’s virtually no chance that would result in a power vacuum that would put the country in disarray.

Costa Rica’s democracy has defied the odds, yet there’s no reason to take the country’s accomplishments for granted. Following Sunday’s election, parties must come together to agree on a sustainable solution to the country’s sizable public sector debt. Costa Rica’s income inequality is the second highest among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries, a club of rich countries that the Central American nation officially joined in 2021. If left unchecked, that inequality threatens to tear at the very social fabric that has sustained Costa Rica’s democracy. After all, an indebted state, high inequality, and festering corruption scandals have fueled the rise of populist leaders elsewhere.

Yet Costa Rica’s elections will still unfold in a degree of comfort rare for the Western Hemisphere. On Sunday, notwithstanding a spike in COVID-19 cases, voters will head to polling stations to cast their ballots. Hours after the polls close, we will know both which candidates made the presidential runoff and the distribution of seats for the next legislature. Calls of foul play and election fraud will be unheard of: Winners will celebrate, and losers will concede defeat. And the outgoing president will not instigate a violent insurrection if his party is voted out of power. In an era when democracy worldwide is under stress, Costa Rica shines much-needed light on a path forward for other nations.

Correction and update, Feb. 11, 2022: A previous version of this article credited Alvarado Quesada with starting a program to pay small farmers to protect forests. In fact, this program started before he was president, in 1996. The article has been updated to add that Alvarado Quesada has expanded Costa Rica’s protected ocean area.

Lucas Perelló is a lecturer in political science at Skidmore College and a doctoral candidate in politics at The New School. Twitter: @lucas_perello

Will Freeman is a doctoral candidate in politics at Princeton University and 2022 Fulbright Hays grantee to Colombia, Peru, and Guatemala. Twitter: @WillGFreeman

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