Corruption allegations. Local scandals. Unfinished business. This year’s municipal elections have it all – except, perhaps, voters.
Whether citizens’ concerns about their local governments will bring them to the polls Sunday in greater numbers than in the first mayoral elections four years ago remains to be seen. Some observers maintain the campaigns leading up to this year’s elections – only the second time in history Costa Ricans have been able to choose their mayors – have been marked by increased citizen participation. Certainly some voters can’t wait to make their voices heard, including a group of blind citizens whose lobby for Braille ballots will pay off on Election Day when they cast their votes unassisted for the first time.
However, there’s also evidence to suggest fewer people will vote Sunday than in the 2002 municipal elections, when 77% of the country’s eligible voters stayed home. Even election cheerleaders such as Raul Barboza, of the Institute for Municipal Development (IFAM), seem to pin some of their hopes on factors such as… well, the weather.
“The climatic aspect four years ago didn’t help at all,” Barbazo told The Tico Times this week. “It rained a lot (on Election Day). I hope this year will be different.”
Those interviewed on the streets of the capital yesterday said not even a cloudless sky could entice them to show up. In the latest version of The Tico Times’ highly unscientific San José street poll – which correctly predicted lower numbers than expected for President Oscar Arias in February’s elections – only one person said she plans to vote, and she works for the Supreme Elections Tribunal (TSE).
“I hope people will come and vote, but I doubt it,” said the woman, a resident of Cartago, east of San José, who declined to give her name because of her place of work. “It doesn’t look good.”
Clouds of Complaints
Voters in at least 18 of the country’s 81 cantons face an odd ballot-box scenario: the incumbent candidate faces allegations of wrongdoing.
The highest-profile corruption case involving a candidate is certainly that of San José incumbent Johnny Araya, accused of accepting illegal payments from a landfill management firm (see separate story).
However, accusations of mayoral misconduct extend far beyond the Central Valley.
According to Juan Rafael Salas, assistant secretary of the Supreme Elections Tribunal (TSE), the tribunal’s three magistrates are processing complaints against 22 sitting mayors – 18 of whom are running for re-election. Examples of grounds for such complaints include court sentences against the candidate, or the extended absence of a mayor from his or her post, Salas said.
And that’s just the tribunal. In the days leading up to the elections, other cases have surfaced in the form of lawsuits before the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) and decisions by the Comptroller General’s Office.
In Cartago and Paraíso, east of San José, mayors Carlos Góngora and Marvin Solano of the Libertarian Movement face charges for disobeying previous legal rulings that they deal with community needs. In the Southern Zone, the Comptroller’s Office ruled that former Golfito mayor and current candidate Mauricio Alvarado of the National Union Party (PUN) can’t hold public office for four years because he allegedly made illegal contract payments. The office also asked the TSE to strip the credentials of José Rodolfo Naranjo, mayor of the coffee town of Tarrazú, because he allegedly attended unrelated meetings during his work hours, according to the daily La Nación. In the northwestern province of Guanacaste, incumbent candidate Pastor Gómez, who earlier this year was suspended for six months by a San José criminal court for allegedly violating the law to open land zoned as a park for construction of a strip mall, resigned last week. He is running for re-election.
Even in cantons without allegations against candidates, stories of municipalities falling short in their duties – such as in the northern San José suburb of Tibás, where the lack of garbage collection made national headlines in recent years – are legion. Will these problems inspire people to vote?
“I think it’s going to increase the abstention rate,” political analyst Luis Guillermo Solís told The Tico Times. “If anything, corruption will decrease the lack of enthusiasm.”
Low Profile, Bad Timing
However, Solís said other factors such as lack of awareness about the role of local government, or lack of funding for campaigns, will be even more instrumental in driving down voter turnout. Unlike national elections, when political parties receive state funding for campaigns, the framework for municipal elections includes no such support, resulting in low-budget efforts unless candidates have deep pockets or drum up private donations.
Norma Delgadillo, 62, taking the sun with her mother, Bertha Gómez, 86, in the National Park, agreed that lack of publicity and education, not corruption allegations, is the problem. Both women are San José residents, and neither plans to vote Sunday.
“The opponent always throws up a smoke screen” as elections approach, Delgadillo said when asked about the allegations against San José Mayor and candidate Araya. “Araya’s done good work… But people aren’t made conscious from a young age.”
Victor Mora, 49, a taxi driver from Montes de Oca, east of San José, said he hadn’t heard much about corruption cases involving mayors, but general misuse of funds is a major problem.
“No municipality gets more funds through taxes than Montes de Oca,” he told The Tico Times, referring to the canton’s universities and shopping malls. “But the money goes up in smoke.”
The timing of the elections, just 10 months after the presidential and legislative elections and during the holiday season, also leaves something to be desired, according to Barboza.
“They take place in December, a month when people are thinking about a ton of things other than elections – shopping, Christmas,” Barboza said. “That affected the process (last time).”
Solís called the timing of the elections “the worse world possible,” though he maintains that separating municipal elections from national elections, a change the Legislative Assembly approved in 1998 and put into effect for the first time in 2002, was a positive step. (Before 2002, the country had, instead of mayors, “municipal executives” chosen by the municipal council.)
“It’s a very good idea, but not nine months after the presidential campaign,” he said. “It’s too close to the presidential elections, everybody’s tired… but it’s far enough to make people feel disengaged.”
Barboza said IFAM is drafting bills to move the date of the election so it would take place two years after each presidential election.
A Small Victory
One group that will vote Sunday in total privacy for the first time is the country’s blind and visually impaired citizens.
The Elections Tribunal will ensure all polling stations have Braille ballots – that is, sheets that can be placed over the official ballot, with holes so voters can mark their preferred candidate.
In previous elections, blind voters had two choice: announcing their voting preference aloud to polling workers who’d mark the ballot for them, or taking a family member or friend with them into the voting booth to help them.
Either way, blind voters were faced with a lack of privacy and also a lack of certainty that the person helping them would follow their wishes, Osliam Castillo, a blind musician and member of the Foundation for the Progress of Blind People, told The Tico Times before February’s elections. Then, a small group of blind voters used special sheets the foundation created in an attempt to convince the tribunal to implement them nationwide (TT, Feb. 6).
This week, Castillo said that although he’s worried about the ballot’s format – instead of listing the names or initials of the parties in Braille, like the foundation’s sample ballots, it includes only a number corresponding to each party – he’s pleased that the TSE has made the effort.
The Santo Domingo de Heredia resident, 29, said he’ll vote on Sunday, of course – but doesn’t expect to have much company.
“The municipal elections are always very apathetic,” he said.
Attention All Voters
Any eligible voters with questions or concerns about the voting process, or those who wish to report irregularities at polling stations, can call the Supreme Elections Tribunal (TSE) via its special elections hotline, 800-ELECTOR (800-353-2867), from 7 a.m.-7 p.m. through Tuesday.