Costa Ricans choose their next president on Sunday in an election seen as a referendum on the future of the 70-year-old political system of Central America’s most stable and prosperous nation.
The election, a runoff, pits José María Figueres, a former president and scion of Costa Rica’s most prominent political family, against Rodrigo Chaves, a former senior World Bank official who rose to prominence by presenting as an outsider amid growing popular discontent with the Latin American political establishment.
Both candidates have been marred by scandals, which contributed to the lowest turnout since the 1940s in the first round of elections, held in February. Only one in four registered voters voted for one of the two candidates in Sunday’s election, fragmenting the party system that has kept Costa Rica out of Central America’s political upheaval but is now seen by most citizens as corrupt and out of touch with people’s daily problems.
Mr Chaves was embroiled in a campaign finance scandal, and he fought to downplay and misrepresent a World Bank sexual harassment investigation against him. Mr Figueres has struggled to shake off corruption charges dating back to his first presidency in the 1990s.
“Costa Ricans are turning away from their political parties,” said James Bosworth, founder of Latin American-focused political consultancy Hxagon. The country, he said, “is going to struggle to solve its problems without this strong political system.”
These challenges include financing Costa Rica’s large public sector and social spending, reactivating its service-dependent economy after the pandemic, and protecting its pristine environment from the effects of climate change.
Voting began at 6 a.m. local time, and election officials said they expected to release preliminary results two hours after polls close at 6 p.m. Opinion polls show a tight race.
Costa Rica State University discovered that Mr. Chaves was narrowly leading Mr. Figueres ahead of the vote. In a poll of just over 1,000 voters conducted by the university from March 24-28, Mr. Chaves led by 3.4 percentage points, slightly above the margin of error of the 3.1% survey.
Mr. Chaves, a US-educated economist, has risen from relative obscurity to leadership in recent months by portraying himself as an outsider who will confront the country’s aloof elites by circumventing traditional democratic institutions. He promised to “return power to the people” by holding referendums on pressing political issues.
To underline his image as an outsider, Mr Chaves repeated in the campaign that his father was the bodyguard of Mr Figueres’ father, José Figueres Ferrer, a leading figure in the nation who built the biggest political party in the world. Costa Rica after leading the winning faction in the country’s brief civil war in the 1940s. Mr. Figueres said on Friday that Mr. Chaves’ father had “never” worked for his family.
Mr. Chaves, 60, returned to Costa Rica in 2019 after 27 years at the World Bank, where he rose to the rank of director as the bank’s senior representative in Indonesia, a major developing economy. He quit the bank just days after he was demoted for misconduct following a sexual harassment complaint brought against him by two female employees.
He dismissed the charges, saying investigators never proved sexual harassment took place, a claim contradicted by the World Bank’s internal court verdict in June, delivered nearly two years after Ms. Chaves from the bank.
And in recent weeks, Mr. Chaves has been harmed by an investigation by Costa Rica’s electoral tribunal into irregular payments that a group of allied businessmen funneled into his campaign. Mr. Chaves said he did not know these funds existed.
Mr Figueres has focused his campaign on attacking Mr Chaves’ relative lack of political experience, saying the country needs a proven administration after years of disruption caused by the pandemic.
But Mr Figueres could not distance himself from his own corruption charges, which relate to consultancy fees he received from a French telecommunications company after completing his first presidential term in 1998.
Mr. Figueres has denied giving preferential treatment to the company during his tenure, and prosecutors who investigated the payments, which took place between 2000 and 2003, have not filed charges. Still, Mr. Figueres’ decision to await the results of the investigation in Europe, where he was living at the time, left a lasting impression of wrongdoing on many Costa Ricans.
Both candidates declined to be interviewed for this article.
Regardless of who wins, the country’s divided Congress and heavy debt load will make it difficult for either candidate to govern effectively and deliver on promises to increase social spending and halt rising inequality and poverty. crime, said Mr. Bosworth, the analyst.
“You’re going to have a cycle where people are increasingly disillusioned with the political system,” he said. “None of them have a popular platform that will be able to live up to expectations.”