Costa Ricans will elect 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 runoff election 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 himself as an outsider amid growing popular discontent with the Latin American political establishment.
Both candidates have been marred by scandal, which contributed to the lowest turnout since the 1940s in the first round of elections, held in February. Only one in four registered voters on Sunday cast their ballots for one of two candidates running for office, leaving the party system that has kept Costa Rica out of the political upheavals in Central America but regarded most citizens as corrupt and in touch with people’s everyday problems.
Mr Chaves has been embroiled in a campaign financing scandal, and he has fought to downplay and misrepresent a World Bank sexual harassment investigation against him. Figueres struggles to shake off corruption charges from his first presidency in the 1990s.
“Costa Ricans are turning away from their political parties,” said James Bosworth, founder of Latin America-focused political consultancy Hxagon. The country, he said, “will have a hard time solving its challenges without that strong political system.”
Those 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.
The voting will begin at 6 a.m. local time, and election officials said they expected preliminary results two hours after polling stations closed at 6 p.m. Opinion polls point to an exciting race.
The state-run University of Costa Rica found Mr Chaves narrowly in charge of Mr Figueres going to the vote. In a poll of just over 1,000 voters conducted by the university from March 24 to 28, Mr. Chaves led by 3.4 percentage points, slightly above the survey’s 3.1 percent margin of error.
Mr. Chaves, a US-trained economist, has risen from relative obscurity to a front-runner in recent months by presenting himself as an outsider who will confront the country’s aloof elites by bypassing traditional democratic institutions. He has pledged to “return power to the people” by holding referendums on pressing policy issues.
To emphasize his image as an underdog, Mr Chaves reiterated in the campaign that his father was the bodyguard of Mr. Figueres’ father, José Figueres Ferrer, a nation-defining figure who built Costa Rica’s largest political party after he winning faction in the country’s brief civil war in the 1940s. Mr Figueres said on Friday that Mr Chaves’ father has “never” worked for his family.
Mr Chaves, 60, returned to Costa Rica in 2019 after 27 years with the World Bank, where he rose to the rank of director as the bank’s senior representative in Indonesia, a major developing economy. He left the bank just days after being demoted for misconduct following a sexual harassment complaint filed against him by two female employees.
He has brushed aside the allegations by claiming that investigators never proved that sexual harassment took place, a claim that was contradicted by a June ruling by the World Bank’s internal tribunal, nearly two years after Chaves left the bank. , was issued.
And in recent weeks, Mr. Chaves damaged by an investigation launched by Costa Rica’s electoral court into irregular payments funneling a group of Allied businessmen into his campaign. Mr Chaves said he was not aware those funds existed.
Figueres has focused his campaign on attacking Chaves’ relative lack of political experience, claiming the country needs a proven government after years of disruption caused by the pandemic.
But Figueres has not been able to distance himself from his own corruption charges, linked to consulting fees he received from a French telecommunications company after finishing his first presidential term in 1998.
Mr Figueres denied giving the company any preferential treatment while in office, and prosecutors investigating the payments, which took place between 2000 and 2003, have not filed charges. But Mr. Figueres’ decision to await the results of the investigation in Europe, where he was living at the time, left a lasting impression on many Costa Ricans of wrongdoing.
Both candidates declined to be interviewed for this article.
Whoever wins, the country’s divided Congress and heavy debt will make it difficult for both candidates to govern effectively and deliver on their promises to increase social spending and stem rising inequality and crime. said Mr Bosworth, the analyst.
“You get a cycle where people become more and more disillusioned with the political system,” he said. “None of them have a popular platform that can live up to expectations.”