Debates between five candidates in rapidly spoken Spanish and mounting talk of a second round of voting leave the expat community trying to make sense of the Costa Rican presidential race. Facing some disorienting election laws plus a lack of voting rights for most, Gringos often dedicate their attention on the first Sunday in February to the Super Bowl over election results.
But in a country that has one of the highest budget deficits of any in Latin America and continues raising taxes in every direction, many foreign transplants have said they will be anxious to see if the next president can produce any meaningful legislative changes. Some are voicing their displeasure against the Partido Liberación Nacional in particular, hoping to see a shift in Costa Rica’s political paradigm. The party that has had control of Casa Presidencial since 2006 is now being lead by supposed race frontrunner Johnny Araya. But the historic unpopularity of the current president, Laura Chinchilla, could prevent her fellow party member from succeeding her.
“We’ve seen enough from the Arias and Chinchilla regimes,” said dual citizen Jim Twomey, also alluding to former president and Liberación member Óscar Arias.
Twomey, the longtime Santo Domingo de Heredia resident, has the right to vote on Feb 2 and said he is not likely to select Araya, citing the reoccurring problems and need for some substantial change in office. He admitted that it is hard to stay informed with the elections because of the television news and candidate debates being in Spanish, but that he still feels he has an obligation to vote.
Twomey also said his wife, who is a Costa Rican native, has not voted in many years and probably will not vote again for this election. According to data from the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, the country has the lowest levels of support for their government of any Latin American nation and voter participation has dropped in recent elections.
Another resident, Bertram Heyd of Germany, said his stance leans more towards being anti-Araya than favoring any other candidates. “Anyone but Araya,” he said. “I’m hoping it goes to a second round.”
If one of the candidates does not receive 40 percent of the popular vote or more, the election will proceed to a runoff in which votes for the two leaders are cast again April 6. This route looks increasingly probable as recent polling has suggested varying results that all hint to a close finish between at least three of the five still hopeful candidates.
Chris Howard is another transplant with citizenship who has written four guide books that deal with living in and transitioning to Costa Rica. A resident for over 30 years, Howard said most of his local friends and longtime contacts have also said they are looking for drastic reform from the next president, favoring a candidate like Luis Guillermo Solís of the Partido Acción Ciudadana over Araya.
“The consensus from most of my Tico friends is that they don’t want Araya either,” he said. “I think Solís is the one gaining momentum.”
Given Costa Rica’s notable history of political corruption, Howard even suggested that he would suspect some foul play if Liberácion continues with their dynasty. Candidates like Sólis or José María Villalta of Frente Ampio offer alternatives for a public that has voiced its distrust for government officials.
In the expat realm, another major interest lies in the murky law of border passage for perpetual tourists. The law stating that any non-resident must leave the country every 90 days, and this pushes many towards spending a few days in Nicaragua or Panamá. Those who have yet to establish residency wish there was more continuity in the border process.
“The biggest thing from an expat standpoint is that the rules and regulations aren’t very clear,” said Jeff Tucker, who identifies himself as a perpetual tourist. “Sometimes people go across to Nicaragua and on the way back in the customs officials ask for a plane ticket leaving Costa Rica.”
And for those who are residents, the required payment to the Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social has always been a major political issue. Since many Americans possess health care insurance from back home, they don’t see why they must pay hundreds of dollars a month for medical insurance that provides less than their preferred insurer.
Pastor Stacey Steck of the Escazu Christian Fellowship is an eight-year resident who said he wishes that the next president would make the Caja payments a choice and not an obligation. Steck, who has been keeping up with the debates, said he is not confident that any significant changes will be made by whoever prevails.
“There’s so many candidates so it is different from the U.S.,” he said. “But Costa Rican democracy is strong enough to remain the same and I feel comfortable with any of the five who have been in the debates.”
As the candidates have made their rounds in the debate circuit and continue to echo similar proclamations that oppose corruption and promise reduced costs of living, many of those who paid attention to the 2010 election remember then-candidate Luis Fishman, who ran on the slogan: El menos malo es el mejor, which translates to the “the least worst is the best.”
Now the population awaits the final lap for the landslide winner of that election: President Chinchilla, the most unpopular president of the last 20 years. Residents and natives, like Elizabeth Morales Coto, are reminded of how promising the former minister of public security and vice-president seemed.
“Chinchilla used to be a good ministra and she did a lot of good things in government before she became president,” she said. “Now basically she is a muppet.”
This not-so-subtle disdain for current officials is shared by both Ticos and Gringos alike. And they await Sunday as a day that may hopefully install some sweeping changes. Or as Ms. Morales described it when vocally weighing the candidates’ pros and cons: “I just want the person who is going to embarrass Costa Rica the least.”