Is Costa Rica on the path to evangelical theocracy?

Costa Ricans have declared the evangelist and far-right candidate Fabricio Alvarado the winner of the first round, in elections that have been anything but predictable, Gustavo Fuchs reports.

A woman in a wheelchair votes at a polling station in Heredia. Photograph: Gustavo Fuchs
A woman in a wheelchair votes at a polling station in Heredia. Photograph: Gustavo Fuchs

With a looming public debt crisis, widening inequality and a new record in homicides, Costa Ricans went to the voting booths on 4 February with one thought on their mind: same-sex marriage. Just one month before polling stations opened across the country, Fabricio Alvarado – a Christian singer and candidate of the evangelical Restoration Party (PRN) – held just three per cent support in opinion polls. Today he is the winner of the first round of presidential elections.

He has promised to stop same-sex marriage, to quit the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) and the Organization of American States, ‘if necessary’ to do so. He plans to integrate evangelical pastors into his government and to raise the punishment for abortion.

Fabricio Alvarado will now have to face Carlos Alvarado, former labor minister of the governing center-leaning Citizens Action party (PAC). The latter also registered an unpredictable growth the week before the election, growing from five per cent support in opinion polls a month ago to 21 per cent in the final ballot.

The unexpected result can only be understood within the context in which these atypical elections took place. On 9 January, the IACHR issued its opinion on same-sex marriage and gender identity. The court called upon Costa Rica to modify its laws to extend marriage and the right to determine one’s gender to LGBT people. The opinion, which article seven of Costa Rica’s constitution makes legally binding, caused an uproar amongst religious Costa Ricans opposed to same-sex marriage.

Following the ruling, Fabricio Alvarado stood out from the rest of candidates, claiming he would take Costa Rica out of the court’s jurisdiction in order to ‘defend our sovereignty.’ In his view, as he tweeted below, it is Costa Rican lawmakers, not a regional human rights court, who should have the last word over human rights.

Carlos Alvarado, his contender in April’s second round vote, welcomed the court’s opinion and promised continuity, following the path of the current government. The presidential election then shifted, virtually becoming a referendum on same-sex marriage. The unexpected rise in Carlos Alvarado’s supporting voters are better understood considering that only he and the leftist candidate Edgardo Araya (who recorded just one per cent support in opinion polls) openly favored the court’s ruling.

Notably, these elections have confirmed the end of the two-party system in Costa Rica. The Christian Democrats (PUSC) and the social-democratic National Liberation Party (PLN), which together, nearly uninterrupted, governed the country since 1949, did not make it to the runoff. In the case of the PLN, they obtained the worst result in their party’s history.

Antonio Alvarez – left – stood as candidate for the PLN, while Rodolfo Piza – right – represented the PUSC party. Photograph: Gustavo Fuchs
Antonio Alvarez – left – stood as candidate for the PLN, while Rodolfo Piza – right – represented the PUSC party. Photograph: Gustavo Fuchs

The far-right wins Congress

Beyond the presidential election, the majority of the new parliament’s 57 seats are dominated by the right and the far-right. While the traditional parties – PLN and PUSC – won 17 and 9 seats (respectively), PRN won 14 seats. At least 6 of PRN’s congressmen and women are religious leaders. Some of them have publicly expressed hatred toward homosexuals. Meanwhile, the National Integration party – led by the Trump-like candidate Juan Diego Castro – won 4 seats. Castro openly endorsed Fabricio Alvarado on election night, which could land him a position in Alvarado’s cabinet.

The left-leaning Frente Amplio (FA) party and PAC together hold 11 seats, barely enough to challenge the constitutionality of proposed bills and to cover the legislative commissions.

This result largely reflects a campaign dominated by religious extremism. Rather than confronting it, all parties – with the exception of PAC and FA – modified their tone to cater to the ‘loud religious minority.’

Analysts told New Internationalist that the new congress grants a qualified majority to the right and the far-right and paves the way for almost any law in which PRN, PLN and PUSC agree on.

‘Tacitly, very early in the campaign, most of the political parties subscribed an implicit agreement revolving around the concept of family and traditional values, becoming a more powerful motivation than material or economic issues,’ explains Rotsay Rosales, Doctor in political studies and member of the Center for Investigation and Studies in Politics of the University of Costa Rica.

The media has stood by, not troubled by the tone of the campaign. Twitter has been flooded with memes making fun of prominent journalists and criticizing the quality of debates.

Francisco Robles, Costa Rican researcher and PhD candidate at the Otto Suhr Institute in Berlin, told New Internationalist that the media landscape became notably partisan in this electoral round: ‘The media has been captured by party interests, for example, the daily La Nacion backed Alvarez Desanti (PLN), Repretel (TV station) and La Republica (newspaper) backed Rodolfo Piza (PUSC) while the left and the government did not have any media backing.’

In a country were television is the main source of information for most, the effect of traditional media outlets is decisive. This has fueled an atypical political environment.

‘What has been particular is the division amongst the elites themselves […] the different media outlets backed different candidates, which translated into a lack of cohesion,’ Robles added.

And not only mainstream outlets took sides. The influential religious TV station Enlace was decisive in organizing debates and televised masses, pushing religion to the forefront. Televised prayers featured all of the candidates, with the exception of PAC and FA. Moreover, Fabricio Alvarado’s running mate, Ivonne Acuna Cabrera, is the daughter of one of Enlace’s presenters-preachers. The station is tied to the US TBN network and Houston’s Lakewood Church, an evangelical church led by pastor Joel Osteen who’s shows Enlace features, who has been questioned on numerous occasions for profiting from the church (his house alone is worth over $10 million) and his friendship with Donald Trump.

The offices of Enlace network in Pavas, San Jose. Photograph: Gustavo Fuchs
The offices of Enlace network in Pavas, San Jose. Photograph: Gustavo Fuchs

The far-right’s agenda

Even though Carlos Alvarado will still fight for the presidency, his numbers are not looking good. After pushing a conservative rhetoric throughout the campaign, most of the other parties – regardless of their leaders’ positions – are expected to sympathize more with Fabricio Alvarado.

‘We are currently in a context where 70 per cent of the population or more believe that religion is not only important in society, but also in politics,’ explains Professor Rosales.

Furthermore, Carlos Alvarado’s campaign continues to highlight his career in government, clinging on to the legacy of the current Solis administration, which most other parties have targeted in their attacks..

‘There is a perception by large sectors of the population that feel they have already made too many concessions and have not received enough in return […] specially made to those who represent a symbolic threat, like the LGBTI community, immigrants, public servants, and even to the environment itself,’ adds Rosales. The current government is seen as encompassing these concessions.

Supporters of the governing Citizens Action Party (PAC) rallied after the voting finished. Photograph: Gustavo Fuchs
Supporters of the governing Citizens Action Party (PAC) rallied after the voting finished. Photograph: Gustavo Fuchs

The current context suggests that Fabricio Alvarado is set to win the next round, becoming the first evangelical president to rule the nation.

His government plan says very little about how he will solve some of the most pressing issues. However, some key policies have already been announced by Alvarado during debates and interviews.

Arguably the most controversial of them is the elimination of the National Institute for Women which aims to guarantee social and economic rights for women and provides support for victims of domestic violence. Alvarado says his government would replace it with a National Institute for the Family, embodying the religious ideal of ‘traditional family values.’

Furthermore, the candidate has promised to raise penalties for abortion from a maximum sentence of 8 years in prison to 35. Although therapeutic abortion deemed medically necessary is legal in Costa Rica, the country lacks a protocol to implement it, which has kept it de facto illegal. The current government is set to release the long-overdue protocol by the end of its term, promising to become a new focus of religious angst.

A significant battle, which allowed the religious extremists to regroup, was the opposition to sexual education programs in public schools. Back in 2016, religious groups organized arguably the country’s biggest conservative demonstration in modern history. The sex-ed programs introduced students to homosexuality and gender diversity, and they too are likely to be an early target of the new government.

‘I educate my kids,’ read on the t-shirt, became the moto of religious parties opposing sexual education. Photograph: Gustavo Fuchs
‘I educate my kids,’ read on the t-shirt, became the moto of religious parties opposing sexual education. Photograph: Gustavo Fuchs

During his tenure in congress, Alvarado has pushed a bill which would allow churches of any religious denomination to be eligible for state funding. In a country largely Catholic with a very small Jewish minority, Christian and derivative groups – like evangelicals – would mainly benefit from the measure.

In the economic front, the PRN is likely to push a neoliberal agenda, vowing to tackle the growing debt crisis with austerity measures, accompanied by the promise of a future tax reform. More concerning, is the alliance brewing between the PRN, PLN and PUSC parties.

The day after the elections, a leaked audio, recorded by PUSC communications director Gloria San Roman, revealed that the traditional two parties – PUSC and PLN – were ready to collaborate with Fabricio Alvarado, who lacks enough advisers to put together a cabinet. ‘We can provide the experts for him’ San Roman explained in the audio.

Although both parties have publicly denied any collaboration with the evangelical, Professor Rosales sees this alliance as a natural continuation of the relationship these parties have held in parliament. ‘We must not forget, also, that these parties have alliances at a local level, for example, this is how the mayor of San Jose (PLN) got elected.’

For now, most parties have remained cautious in supporting Fabricio. PLN’s candidate Antonio Alvarez has ‘left the door open’ to talks with the evangelical singer.

‘Evangelical churches have begun to occupy the places abandoned by the state […] Today, after three decades of neoliberal reform […] those citizens that are left excluded, forgotten by the state, have lost hope. And when hope is lost, faith is embraced,’ explained Patricia Mora, congresswoman and president of FA, the day after the elections, speaking at the National Assembly.

Fabricio Alvarado’s government will deepen privatization, social exclusion and discrimination. After four years of relative calm – registering almost no strikes or demonstrations – the country’s social movements are scrambling to respond.