Costa Rica's president-elect calls victory a 'revolution'

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Costa Rica's former finance minister Rodrigo Chaves speaks to supporters at his headquarters in San Jose, Costa Rica, after winning a presidential runoff election, Sunday, April 3, 2022. (AP Photo/Carlos Gonzalez)

SAN JOSE – President-elect Rodrigo Chaves said Monday that his runoff victory was a “revolution” by marginalized communities against Costa Rica's elites.

The conservative economist, who was briefly finance minister in the outgoing administration of President Carlos Alvarado, had cast himself as the outsider in the race, noting that his Social Democratic Progress Party had never won at any level before this year.

It was also probably a stance the World Bank veteran could only have taken against his rival in Sunday's vote who embodied Costa Rica's establishment: José María Figueres, a former president and son of a three-time president.

“The newest party, the party with the fewest resources, the party that never was in government, not even in the Legislative Assembly ... ended up winning in a very hard campaign,” Chaves said at a news conference.

“There is a popular outcry to improve the opportunities of those who have benefitted the least,” Chaves said. He credited those communities for carrying him to victory.

But the new president's powers may be strained when he takes office next month by the fact his party will have only 10 of 57 seats in the legislature.

Benjamin Gedan, deputy director of The Wilson Center, commented on Twitter that Chaves’ victory “is consistent with the region’s anti-establishment mood, but runs counter to claims of a new ’pink tide’ of leftist leaders in Latin America.”

With 98% polling stations reporting, Chaves had 53% of the vote, compared to 47% for Figueres, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal said.

More than 43% of eligible voters did not participate, an unusually low turnout for the country, reflecting a lack of enthusiasm for both candidates.

In his victory speech Sunday night, Chaves called for unity to address problems like unemployment and a soaring budget deficit.

A core promise of his campaign was to lower the cost of living for Costa Ricans. On Monday, without providing details, he said he would start with the costs of gasoline, rice and electricity.

His inauguration is scheduled for May 8.

Figueres conceded defeat less than an hour after results began to come in. He had led the first round of voting Feb. 6, with Chaves in second that day. Neither had come close to the 40% of the vote needed to avoid a runoff.

Figueres, who was Costa Rica's president from 1994 to 1998, represents the National Liberation Party like his father, three-time president José Figueres Ferrer.

Chaves’ campaign is under investigation by electoral authorities for allegedly running an illegal parallel financing structure. He also has been dogged by a sexual harassment scandal that drove him out of the World Bank.

While working at the bank, he was accused of sexual harassment by multiple women, was eventually demoted and then resigned. He has denied the accusations.

The World Bank’s administrative tribunal last year criticized the way the case was initially handled internally.

The tribunal noted an internal investigation found that from 2008 to 2013 Chaves leered at, made unwelcome comments about physical appearance, repeated sexual innuendo and unwelcome sexual advances toward multiple bank employees. Those details were repeated by the bank’s human resources department in a letter to Chaves, but it decided to sanction him for misconduct rather than sexual harassment.

“The facts of the present case indicate that (Chaves’) conduct was sexual in nature and that he knew or should have known that his conduct was unwelcome,” the tribunal wrote. The tribunal also noted that in the proceedings, the bank's current vice president for human resources said in testimony “that the undisputed facts legally amount to sexual harassment.”

On Monday, when asked whether his departure from the World Bank could affect Costa Rica's access to the international lending institution, Chaves said it would not and added that he would not be discussing the allegations further.

Political analyst Francisco Barahona said the exchange of personal attacks during the campaign led to a lack of voter enthusiasm for the candidates.

“They didn't add depth to their proposals to resolve the country's problems," he said. "The debates didn't help to motivate the electorate.”

“For a lot of people it's embarrassing to say they voted for one or the other, and many prefer to say they won't vote for either of the candidates or simply won't go to vote,” Barahona added.

While Costa Rica has enjoyed relative democratic stability compared with other countries in the region, the public has grown frustrated with public corruption scandals and high unemployment.

In the February vote, the outgoing president’s party was practically erased from the political landscape, receiving no seats in the new congress. At the time of that vote, the country was riding a wave of COVID-19 infections, but infections and hospitalizations have fallen considerably since.