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Costa Rican Democracy’s Silent Alarms

Costa Rica, along with Chile and Uruguay, has long been considered a Latin American outlier, set apart from its neighbors by the strength and stability of its democratic institutions. In 2022, Costa Rica achieved the highest ranking in the Americas on V-Dem’s Liberal Democracy Index, a leading measure of democratic quality, surpassing both the United States and Canada. By this account, the “Switzerland of Central America” retains its exceptional status in a region marred by political turmoil and, pertinently, democratic decline.

This idyllic picture is complicated by a recent report released by Latinobarómetro, a prominent Latin American public opinion poll, which somberly notes that Costa Rica has “entered the list of troubled democracies.” Compared to 2020, the 2023 survey revealed a significant decline in support for democracy, paired with a marked rise in indifference to regime type and explicit approval of authoritarianism.

Rather than presenting a paradox, the incongruency in these assessments emerges as a silent alarm of the precarious state of Costa Rican democracy. While liberal democratic institutions remain intact, citizens are demonstrating mounting disillusionment with a system that, despite its appeal on paper, fails to meet their expectations. In an erosion of legitimacy, Costa Rica’s political system is increasingly seen as disconnected from the working classes, incapable of tackling rising crime rates, and unable to address the economic hardship emergent from the COVID-19 pandemic, all while facing growing inequality and religious animosity.

The inconsistency between the allegedly objective assessment of democratic institutions and how citizens perceive the state implies a fragility in Costa Rican democracy that could prove fatal.

On the one hand, we have a country whose democratic institutions have proven resilient, particularly in comparison to those of other nations and fellow established democracies around the world. Indeed, scholars have noted that Costa Rica is the only Latin American country whose democratic ranking, according to V-Dem, has remained unchanged since the start of the century. By contrast, countries spanning from Chile and Uruguay to El Salvador and Nicaragua have experienced a deterioration in the quality of their democracies.

On the other hand, Costa Rica, too, is showing symptoms of a democracy “on the brink.” To the keen observer, the trends highlighted by Latinobarómetro’s 2023 report hardly come as a surprise. Since the turn of the century, Costa Rica has witnessed a slow but steady decline in voter turnout—reaching its lowest levels since 1948 in 2002 and dropping below 1948 levels in 2014—signaling growing apathy and frustration toward the workings of democratic politics. Moreover, the stable party system, dominant during most of the twentieth century, has been destabilized by an assortment of nascent parties vowing to disrupt a status quo increasingly considered by many to be corrupt and untrustworthy.

The current period of global democratic decline has been characterized by a gradual erosion, often attributed to elected populist leaders who, once in office, devote themselves to dismantling the democratic institutions that enabled their rise to power—a trend that sharply contrasts with the violent military coup-d’états that swept Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s. In other words, the largest threat to democracy is emerging from within, chipping away at the political system until little is left but a hollow shell of its former self.

While this pattern may be emblematic of the current period, it is hardly new. Twenty-three years ago, Argentine political scientist Guillermo O’Donnell observed the subtle nature of democratic decline. “Democracies,” he remarked, “don’t just suffer quick deaths, like an earthquake. They can also suffer, and more insidiously, a slow death, like a house eaten away by termites.”

Latinobarómetro’s report asserts that this “very significant and simultaneous deterioration” of public support for democracy leaves Costa Rica’s political system exposed and vulnerable, hinting at the potential ramifications of a citizenry willing to relinquish its commitment to this form of government. As shifts in voter perspectives and participation patterns unfold, it becomes evident that something ominous lurks behind the seemingly robust facade of the democratic structure.

When the 2019 protests broke out in Chile, many onlookers—including leading political figures and international observers—expressed shock that such a prosperous country could witness such discontent with and blatant rejection of the present state of affairs. Nevertheless, some had heeded the warning signs years before, taking note of the subtle stirrings of increased anger with a political system that appeared unresponsive to its citizenry’s demands.

This is not to say that Chile’s social outburst could have been prevented or even predicted. Rather, it is about the lessons that can be learned from the Chilean case, particularly on the importance of addressing citizen discontent through institutional channels early on. Diminishing voter turnout, rising frustration with democracy, and rejection of established political parties, coupled with growing inequality, have led scholars to observe that “Costa Rica increasingly resembles Chile prior to its historic 2019 social uprising.”

As Guillermo O’Donnell noted long ago, such trends are hard to detect, “but in three or ten years, one wakes up and realizes that democracy has ended.” It is precisely the lack of spectacle, absence of noise, and scarcity of colorful explosion of emotion that “no one does anything” to preserve democracy, the political scientist explains.

Despite the lack of dramatic disruptions, polls like Latinobarómetro, trends in voter turnout, and increasingly tense elections are proof that our democracy is in a vulnerable state. If we take these alarms seriously, we still have time to react to a process of democratic decline happening in real-time— albeit in slow motion.

In the interest of preserving Costa Rica’s high-quality liberal democracy, it is vital that citizens’ concerns are heard and, more importantly, systematically addressed. This requires opening institutional channels through which voters can voice their demands, share their lived experiences, and get involved in crafting solutions. For example, creating mechanisms of democratic participation on the local level, enabling residents to take part in improving infrastructure in their towns and neighborhoods, or rolling out debate forums, informing voters on candidates, their proposals, and political issues. It also requires creating effective public policy that can deliver on its promises to fulfill fundamental rights from safety to economic security.

Though by no means an easy feat, the longevity of Costa Rican democracy depends on our ability to revitalize the delicate bonds between citizens and their state.

This article is the first in a series of pieces on the state of democracy in Latin America written for The Tico Times by Tara Hein, funded by Stanford University. All views are Tara’s own

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