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On February 4th, Costa Ricans defied predictions by giving Fabricio Alvarado Muñoz from the Partido Restauración Nacional (PRN) the most votes. With 24,99%, he won ahead of Carlos Alvarado Quesada from the governing Partido Accion Ciudadana (PAC) with 21,63%. As no candidate overcame the 40% requirement to outright win on the first round, these two candidates are now facing each other in the run-off election on April 1st. This outcome represents a remarkable reversal of fortunes, as none of the two candidates surpassed 7% in the polls one month before February’s first round election. How did Alvarado Muñoz, an evangelical singer, who puts his religion front and center, come to lead in the polls going into Sunday’s run-off election?

Upending Electoral Fortunes: Same-Sex Marriage

On January 9th, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR), in its Advisory Opinion 24-17, urged Costa Rica to protect LGBTI rights, including the right to equal marriage. While the resolution was received with joy by some, for instance the incumbent government said that it would abide by the Opinion in its entirety, others were livid. Alvarado Muñoz stated initially that, if he were to win the presidency, he would leave the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in order to defend Costa Rica’s sovereignty. He has since then backtracked somewhat, but has not stopped saying he is not willing to accept IACHR interference.

The IACHR’s decision on same-sex marriage gave the presidential race a new twist and completely different dynamic. Public discontent, which initially gave rise to Juan Diego Castro in opinion polls, mixed with opposition to same-sex marriage and provided Alvarado Muñoz with enough votes to win the first round of voting. His party, the PRN, received 14 out of 57 seats in parliament. A remarkable success for a minor party that never before had been represented by more than one legislator. On the other end of the political spectrum, Alvarado Quesada profited from being the only prominent candidate to come out strongly in favor of equal marriage. As such, he managed to line up a larger number of progressive voters, but disapproval of the current government and a 67% of Costa Ricans opposing equal marriage have made it hard to extend his support base.

A Tale of Two Alvarados: The Two Candidates in Comparison

While very different in many ways, both candidates share more than their last name. They are relatively young and inexperienced candidates that defeated more seasoned politicians from traditional parties long dominating politics in Costa Rica. They reached the run-off election spending much less on publicity than some of the losing candidates, a sign of people’s discontent with business-as-usual politics.

Alvarado Muñoz (43) is a Christian singer without an university degree, who worked as a T.V. journalist for eleven years, before becoming a congressman in 2014. He was one of the most inexperienced politicians in the presidential race, but his positions in defense of the “traditional family” and Costa Rican “traditional values and principles” ensured the support of the most conservative sectors of the electorate, especially from the growing evangelical part of the population.

Alvarado Quesada (38) has a more standard CV for a Costa Rican politician. He graduated from the Universidad de Costa Rica and has a master’s degree from the University of Sussex. He has experience in public service and has been Minister of Human Development and Social Inclusion under incumbent president Guillermo Solís. However, as the standard bearer for the party currently in office he has been straddled with the disappointment and disapproval of the current administration, which has been especially pronounced since the coming to light of the “el cementazo” corruption scandal in mid-2017.

What the Campaign Reveals about Costa Rican Politics

The campaign of Alvarado Muñoz has highlighted several dynamics that indicate that something is rotten in the state of Costa Rica, a country long characterized by political moderation and stability, and, also remind of recent elections elsewhere.

First, religion has been placed front and center in Costa Rican politics. Although Costa Rica is the only confessional state in Latin America, it’s constitution forbids the direct participation of clergy in politics. Members of the church are not only forbidden to run for office, but are also prohibited to publicly support or oppose any candidate. Yet, during the first round there were over 100 complains about religious interferences in the campaign. The Tribunal Supremo de Elecciones (TSE), the Costa Rican institution in charge of running the elections, has already condemned the Catholic Church and the Federation of Evangelical Congregations for overstepping their boundaries and meddling in politics. But, this has not stopped Alvarado Muñoz and his followers. It was recently revealed that Alvarado Muñoz held a secret meeting with evangelical leaders, asking for their help for the elections. In the meeting, they requested pastors to ask for “blessings” in the form of donations to the campaign.

Second, political discourse has grown increasingly coarse and conflictual, with dirty tricks being employed and the media being ignored or attacked. When a radio station announced that it had obtained evidence of the above mentioned meeting and would make it public, its website was targeted by multiple denial-of-service attacks and hacking attempts. While the Alvarado Muñoz campaign has denied any involvement with the episode, it has had a contentious relationship with the press for a while. Alvarado Muñoz has sought to evade critical coverage, stating he would only selectively answer pre-approved media questions and ignore others. His campaign has canceled multiple debate appearances, failing to face critical questions and scrutiny. Part of avoiding the press might be that Alvarado Muñoz has been repeatedly exposed for his lack of preparation and thought-out proposals.

Third, Costa Ricans seem ready to embrace a controversial and populist candidate that might not be prepared to govern. When criticism of his electoral platform was voiced, Alvarado Muñoz announced that a new platform would be presented only a week before the election. And, even though Costa Rica is threatened by a looming fiscal crisis the candidate has not presented his economic proposals. Furthermore, Alvarado Muñoz and his allies have appeared to be not fully prepared to represent all Costa Ricans, as they have openly endorsed discrimination and conversion therapy. Francisco Prendas, Alvarado Muñoz’s running mate, has said that their government would not hire any homosexuals to avoid annoying the majority of Costa Ricans. Trying to apologize for those statements, Alvarado Muñoz said that “people who want to abandon homosexuality should have a space where they are attended and where they are restored.”

The Run-Off Election: A Close Call and Lasting Scars

With days to go until the run-off election, Alvarado Quesada is frantically trying to cobble together an alliance strong enough to defeat his opponent. His most important step forward came when he managed to secure an endorsement from Rodolfo Piza, the Partido Unidad Social Cristiana’s (PUSC) candidate who landed the third place in the first round. Further, Alvarado Quesada has worked hard to distance himself from the incumbent government and to present himself as the better-prepared candidate. But neither Alvarado Quesada´s efforts nor Alvarado Muñoz’s mistakes seem to have affected voters’ intentions, as the latter still leads the polls with few days left until the run-off election. Because 15% of voters have not made up their minds about which candidate to support, who will be elected the next president of Costa Rica will be a close call.

What is certain is that at the end of April 1st, someone with the last name Alvarado will be named Costa Rica’s next president. However, each of the Alvarado stand for a very different future direction for the country. Should Alvarado Muñoz win, Costa Rica would join the right-ward shift that has taken hold in many other Latin American countries. Should Alvarado Quesada win, continuity of relative centrist and progressive policies would have to govern with a large conservative opposition. No matter who emerges victorious, the highly contentious presidential campaign has laid bare a concerning level of polarization that might leave lasting scars. Traditionally powerful institutions, such as parties and the press, have been sidelined by direct engagement through social media by outsider candidates feeding on discontent and relying on faith-based, populist and emotive appeals.

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