Municipal elections in Costa Rica have become synonymous with high absenteeism. More than 72 percent of voters stayed home during the Dec. 5 local elections, and street celebrations paled compared to the festive atmosphere during presidential elections last February.
Poll workers spent most of Election Day in empty rooms, and supporters of different political parties chatted mostly amongst themselves instead of with voters outside polling places.
“People just don’t attach much importance to local elections,” said Rafael Esquivel, a delegate from the Supreme Elections Tribunal (TSE) who monitored voting at Heredia’s Rafael Moya Murillo School. He described the mood as “cold.”
Even President Laura Chinchilla, attending a summit in Argentina, was unable to vote.
According to the TSE, less than 800,000 voters participated in Sunday’s election, just 28 percent of the electorate. The turnout was a slight improvement from the previous two municipal elections, in 2006 (under 24 percent) and 2002 (under 23 percent).
TSE President Luis Antonio Sobrado described the turnout as “a modest increase, but a significant one at the same time.”
“With the month of December comes distractions such as the Christmas bonus [which most of the country’s workers receive], the change of the seasons and various events related to the Christmas holiday,” he said.
Election analyst Victor Borge agreed that December is a bad month to have municipal elections.
“This is the third time that we’ve had elections in December, and people aren’t thinking about politics this month, they’re thinking about Christmas,” he said.
Borge also blamed presidential elections last February for draining energy from voters. “It’s a short time to get mobilized again,” he said.
Local leaders now need to focus on doing a better job promoting the importance of municipal government. Otherwise, voter apathy will likely continue, Borge said.
For political analyst Carlos Denton, cofounder of the San José-based polling firm CID-Gallup, one cause of absenteeism is that voters have historically downplayed the importance of municipal government.
“Municipal government picks up garbage and cleans parks,” Denton said. “Essentially, you are electing the person who picks up the garbage. People don’t feel like they have much of a stake in that.”
Political analysts say that the main bene-ficiary of low voter turnout was the country’s biggest political party, the National Liberation Party (PLN), which won 58 of 81 mayoral races. Far behind were the Social Christian Unity Party, with eight and the Citizen Action Party with six.
“The PLN has the machinery in all these elections,” Denton said. “They have the organization and the most people knocking on doors.”
While they played a greater role in this year’s election, local parties lack the money to have a significant impact.
“You need money to do politics and the big national parties have it,” he said.
Curridabat’s Siglo XXI party and Escazú’s Yunta Progresista Escazúeña were two exceptions. Both parties lured voters with a track record of service voters approved of. They were the only local parties to win mayoral seats.
“We’ve lived here for 40 years and Siglo XXI is the only party ever to get something done,” said voter Alfredo Brenes, who said he has noticed an improvement in the roads and in the parks.
Campaigning outside the voting station at Juan Santamaría School in Curridabat, Ana Lucia Ferrero, who was wearing Siglo XXI’s blue and yellow colors, said the party has been effective at governing.
“Many candidates view the municipal seats as a trampoline to higher political office,” she said. “That’s not true in our case. All our efforts as a party are focused on our improvement as a municipality.”
Current Mayor Edgar Eduardo Mora, who has wired a park with free Internet access and paved over trouble spots in the town’s roads, was easily reelected with more than 73 percent of the vote.
Still, only 23 percent of voters turned out in Curridabat, and less than 24 percent did so in Escazú.
“Local leaders need to have a campaign to convince people of the importance of municipal government and what they are doing,” Borge said. “Because, right now, people don’t know their mayor’s name or political party. There is a lot of ignorance about local government and this doesn’t bode well for voting.”
The next municipal election is scheduled for February 2016.