Political gurus are holding their breaths and hoping for a higher voter turnout for Sunday’s municipal election. More than 75 percent of the country stayed home during 2006 municipal elections, and politicos fear the same will happen this year.
The stakes are high as municipal leaders expect the central government to cede greater responsibility to local governments in coming years. Costa Rican law now requires that 10 percent of central government funds be transferred to municipalities, instead of the current 2 percent, which is the lowest figure in Central America, according to University of Costa Rica professor Mariela Castro, a specialist in local government (TT, Nov. 13, 2009).
“Voters need to recognize that municipal leadership is going to play a greater role in local development,” said Luis Fernando Maykall, head of the Institute for Municipal Development’s (IFAM) municipal advisory office. IFAM is a government agency established to promote decentralization.
“If municipalities are going to receive more responsibilities, they will have to create better methods of organization, and that requires good management,” Maykall said.
Voter turnout for the 2002 municipal election was 22.6 percent. In 2006, 23.8 percent of eligible voters showed up at the polls. Presidential and congressional elections, by comparison, drew 68.8 percent of the electorate in 2002, 65.2 percent in 2006 and 69.1 percent in 2010, according to the Supreme Elections Tribunal (TSE).
Speaking at a forum at the University of Costa Rica in October, TSE magistrate Max Esquivel said, “The majority [of people] say they don’t vote because they don’t see municipal elections having any impact. [They think] their lives will be the same no matter what happens on Election Day. Our job is to convince them that local elections do have an impact” (TT, Oct. 5).
Elizabeth Fonseca, president of the Citizen Action Party (PAC), is working to underscore the significance of this election to voters. She said, “People still don’t understand the importance of local government in terms of responding to the most immediate needs of the people, and that’s why there is so much absenteeism.”
Several other factors could keep voters away from the polls. One factor is corruption. Last week, the daily La Nación reported that of the 1,008 candidates for mayor and vice-mayor, more than 100 are saddled with some kind of scandal, including outstanding government debts, criminal convictions or administrative sanctions.
Corruption has fueled voter apathy in the past and is a common pretext among Ticos for not voting.
November’s rainstorms may also affect voter turnout, as dozens of roads remain impassable and people might not be able to easily access voting stations. Transportation Minister Francisco Jiménez said crews have been working to ensure that voters get to the polls.
One factor expected to boost voter participation is the large number of candidates running. While the 2002 elections were mostly dominated by two parties – the National Liberation Party (PLN) and the Social Christian Unity Party (Unity) – more parties are registered in the upcoming elections, making the field more dynamic.
“This is the largest number of candidates we’ve run,” said legislator Marielos Alfaro, the newly appointed leader of the right-leaning Libertarian Movement.
The Libertarians are running 54 candidates, and the party is has allied with other parties to back 10 other mayoral candidates. Alfaro said the Libertarian strategy is to campaign early and select high profile candidates in each community.
The left-leaning PAC has 52 candidates on the ballot. They are also supporting 11 other candidates in alliances with other parties.
PAC leaders hope to attract voters who are disenchanted with the PLN, the country’s leading political force, by presenting candidates they say are “pre-screened” against corruption and clientismo (cronyism), PAC’s Fonseca said.
Members of the PLN, which controls the executive branch and most of congress, have tried to run a grassroots campaign, seeking out local issues to set the tone of their campaign rhetoric.
“We want to emphasize that our candidates work for the country, not a political party. We are a party of the people,” said PLN President Bernal Jiménez.
Like the 2006 election, Unity party leaders are hoping this election will be their party’s chance for a revival.
“We see that the way to strengthen our party is by making municipal leaders the base of our party,” said Unity President Guillermo Vargas, referring to a study by the Comptroller General’s Office that shows some of the best mayors in recent years have been from Unity, including Belén Mayor Horacio Alvarado.
The Accessibility Without Exclusion Party, the Costa Rican Renovation Party, the National Restoration Party and the Broad Front Party will also have a larger presence than in years past. New local political parties have also surfaced.
“Before, many people didn’t know who to vote for. They voted for a party color or a flag. Now, with so many parties, they have to know what the candidates are proposing, [and] what their commitment is,” said Maykall, who expects the bigger field to draw more voters.
Overall, there are 15,862 candidates running for 4,989 positions across the country, including 81 mayoral and 162 vice-mayoral seats; 946 for trustee, which is a non-voting representative of a district who presides over the city council, and 3,724 for city councilor, among others.
Municipal leadership has long been characterized as inefficient, corrupt and disorganized. This year, media and voters are putting a significant amount of pressure on political parties to select candidates who can change that.
Yet, party leaders say it’s nearly impossible to ensure that each one is free from corruption, debt or any other condition that would make them unfit for office. That’s where the voter comes in, they say.
PAC’s Fonseca, who represents a party that has made a name for itself with its strong stance against corruption, said it is the responsibility of the voters to weed out unfit politicians.
“We have an internal ethics committee,” she said. “But in each town, people know each other. Voters elect the mayor, so they are the guarantee that a candidate is honorable.”
Corrupt or not, the new system of electing mayors is better than what was in place in years past, Maykall said. Until 2002, mayors were elected by a five-member municipal advisory board in a closed-door process.
“The result of the elections is that more doors are being opened for participation,” Maykall said. “Greater participation contributes to the strengthening and continual improvement of municipal government.”
Maykall said his hope is that voters recognize the growing importance of local leadership and that they come out in droves on Sunday.
“I hope Dec. 5 will be a local and national celebration. May the best win,” he said.