When Costa Ricans hit the polls Feb. 5, they’ll be choosing a replacement for Abel Pacheco, one of the least popular Presidents in the country’s history, according to recent surveys.
The unusual head of state, a plain-talking psychiatrist and former television host who entered Casa Presidencial in 2002 with approval ratings so high they made the record books, has suffered a drastic drop in popularity over his four-year term. Will public opinion of “don Abel” have a significant effect on the upcoming elections?
The answer is a resounding yes. According to analysts, along with potential voters The Tico Times interviewed in downtown San José last week, opinions of Pacheco will drive many voters to choose candidates they see as drastically different from the 72-year-old President, and turn other voters off completely.
WHO are the likely beneficiaries? Former President and current front-runner Oscar Arias (1986-1990) may be one, since his strong leadership style stands in stark contrast to Pacheco’s less commanding ways, say analysts. However, according to political scientist Rodolfo Cerdas, the Liberation Movement Party is gaining the most from Pacheco’s unpopularity, since it has consistently opposed the President, particularly when it comes to tax reform. Past collaboration with Pacheco on the part of Liberation, the Citizen Action Party (PAC) and, of course, Unity itself, is electoral poison.
However, Pacheco’s effects Feb. 5 may be most visible in increasing voter absenteeism, Cerdas added.
“Don Abel’s term has been so frustrating and unsatisfactory that it has increased citizens’ distrust in politics and politicians, and has made parties continue the preexisting trend of loss of credibility,” he told The Tico Times. “The people see that they are all the same… and that this bad administration is the result of a political class in crisis.”
COSTA Ricans’ distrust of politicians can’t be attributed solely to Pacheco, whose unpopularity may even be the result of people’s unrealistic expectations of government, according to Sergio Araya, president of the Association of Political Science and International Relations Professionals.
Disapproval of Pacheco’s performance is caused, in part, by “the inability of the state to respond effectively to the demands of the citizenry – demands that are often exaggeratedly high,” Araya said. “There’s an excessive dependence of the people on the political system… They think that the state can perform miracles, can resolve any problem.”
Indeed, polls show that while Pacheco’s ratings have dropped, so too have citizens’ opinions of their government in general. In December, an Unimer poll published in the daily La Nación showed only 21 in every 100 Costa Ricans thought the President was doing a good job, making Pacheco’s rating worse than any of the past three presidents during the final six months of their administrations, but approval for Cabinet ministers was even lower (TT, Dec. 16, 2005). Last year’s Latinobarómetro poll, based on surveys with people in 18 Latin American countries, showed that Costa Ricans’ satisfaction with its democratic system in practice dropped from 75% in 2002 to 36% in 2005 (TT, Nov. 4, 2005).
Those percentages are even lower than Pacheco’s most recent ratings. Of respondents in a recent CID-Gallup poll published by the daily La República, 40% characterized Pacheco’s administration as “bad or very bad,” 32% as “regular” and 28% as “good or very good.”
PACHECO’S skills as a communicator have allowed him to maintain some degree of sympathy from voters despite his unpopularity as a President, Araya added.
“He injects a great deal of familiarity and has very impressive powers of communication,” he said. “He speaks the language of the common people… he’s like a good grandfather.”
Some interviews with potential voters on the streets of San José last week certainly illustrated Araya’s point. While all but one person who spoke with The Tico Times said they disapproved of Pacheco’s performance, most described their leader with a compassionate, even pitying tone.
Case in point: Carla Suárez, 28, a housewife sitting at her father’s newspaper stand outside the Legislative Assembly building. She expressed distaste for politicians in general, but asked her opinion about Pacheco, she sighed and smiled.
“Ay, Abelito, I don’t know what to tell you,” she said, looking into the distance for a moment. “I think he hasn’t known how to govern very well. He needed a lot (more experience) because he’s not a politician, he’s a doctor… He wanted to do a good job, but it didn’t work out.”
Others echoed her words, blaming his performance on bad advice, lack of experience, or a divided Legislative Assembly. A general consensus on Pacheco’s good intentions was widespread.
“He tried to make things better, but he was lacking the people, the team,” said Juan Bernando Córdoba, 36. “That’s what we need: not just the President, but also the team.”
Iris Cruz, 32, who works in a marketing firm, was equally negative about politicians but said Pacheco’s performance was out of his control.
“Bad or good, no one will end up well” in Costa Rican politics, she said, sitting on a bench in San José’s Parque Morazán. “There’s a lot of poverty, not enough jobs, no stability in the country; one doesn’t even know what would make a good presidency.”
WHO will she vote for this year? Oscar Arias. Asked why, she thought, and then laughed.
“Because he’s old,” she said. “Because he has experience.”
This search for experience could play a major role in this election, according to Araya; voters may reason that if they “elect someone who was already in the presidency, this gives them a guarantee of greater certainty,” he said. “A vote for (Arias) is, more than anything, searching for security. The most important factor right now is the fact that he was already President.”
Another important factor in favor of Arias, 65, is the difference between his leadership style and that of Pacheco, he added.
“Costa Rican voting tends to be a bit pendular,” he told The Tico Times. “From election to election, people’s tastes change depending on the performance of the current administration… In 1994, they elected a person perceived as a populist (José María Figueres), and later, in 1998, the people elected a candidate the opposite of all that.” (Miguel Angel Rodríguez, whom Araya described as more reserved than his predecessor.)
“Then in 2002, a more popular candidate (Pacheco) was elected, a leader from the point of view of communications,” he added. It’s likely that the pendulum will swing back this year, according to Araya.
CERDAS, however, said that past association with Pacheco are major liabilities for Arias, as well as the PAC’s Ottón Solís.
“It’s an interesting phenomenon, because don Abel’s bad administration has affected not only Unity, but also Liberation and the emerging parties,” he said. “He hasn’t had a clear path or a coherent policy of alliances with political groups.”
As a result, Pacheco has formed a series of changing alliances, first with PAC, then Liberation – Arias’ brother Rodrigo was once Pacheco’s advisor – and, of course, with legislators from his own party, though that relationship has struggled over the years. Only the Libertarian Movement Party, which opposed the tax plan Arias helped create and Liberation, PAC and Unity all supported, has been able to show a divide between itself and the incumbent leader.
“One of the costs don Oscar is paying is his closeness to Pacheco’s government,” Cerdas said. “One of the reasons the Libertarian Movement is benefiting and showing growth has to do with this situation.”
WILL feelings about Pacheco bring more voters to the polls? Not likely, according to Ivan Molina, a professor of Costa Rican history at the University of Costa Rica.
The last time the country had a very unpopular incumbent President – Rodrigo Carazo (1978-1982) – “basically the (existing) tendency was maintained… about 18-19%,” he told The Tico Times. “Low popularity didn’t affect the turnout. I don’t think it will now either.”
Araya pointed out that a larger process of disillusionment with the political system has increased absenteeism for years. Starting in 1998, absenteeism rose to 30%, far exceeding the average of 18-20% during the previous 20 years, he said.
Cerdas, however, said he expects more Costa Ricans to stay home on election day as a result of Pacheco’s inefficiency, and housewife Suárez said she’ll be one of those people.
“None of the parties convinces me. I don’t believe in any politicians,” she said. “A politician always says the same thing and never meets any of his goals, so it makes no sense to vote for someone who won’t follow through. It’d be better if they didn’t speak and got things done.”