El Salvador and Costa Rica: Declining electoral participation

Patricio Navia


Buenos Aires Herald, February 4, 2014


As no candidate received a majority of the votes in the presidential elections in El Salvador and Costa Rica, runoffs will be held on March 9 and April 6 respectively. The expected results in El Salvador — where the leftwing ruling FMLN candidate came just short of a majority — and the somewhat unexpected results in Costa Rica — where the candidate of the ruling centrist PLN will compete against a surprise centre-right candidate — had a worrying similarity.


Turnout was low in both countries. Almost half of eligible voters in El Salvador — a country with a history of violence and weak democracy — and 30 percent of voters in Costa Rica — the most stable and economically developed democracy in Central America — did not cast ballots. Either because people do not perceive the election to be important or because eligible voters do not think their vote has an effect on what policies the next government will implement, the declining levels of electoral participation observed in Costa Rica and El Salvador, but also elsewhere in Latin America, are a worrying sign of the state of Latin American democracies.


In El Salvador, outgoing president Mauricio Funes is significantly more popular than the FMLN, the former guerrilla group that became a political party and reached power in 2009. Despite the lackluster economic growth (two percent average during the past four years), Funes has been the most popular president in the country since the war ended in 1989. The violence caused bystreet gangs — known as maras in Central America — has weakened the government’s ability to provide citizen security. A weak state that is incapable of satisfying basic needs of a large segment of the population will certainly find it difficult to motivate people to be engaged citizens. Not surprisingly, El Salvador has historically had low electoral participation. Yet, turnout declined by 10 percent between 2009 and 2013. If 63 percent of eligible voters participated in the election that brought Funes to the presidency, only 53 percent voted this past Sunday.


The FMLN candidate Salvador Sánchez received 49 percent, just short of the absolute majority needed to avoid a runoff. However, for every 10 votes that went for Funes in 2009, only eight bother to cast ballots for the ruling party candidate in 2014. Salvadoreans continue to support Funes, and Sánchez will most likely win the runoff, but almost half of the eligible voters chose not to participate in the democratic process.


In Costa Rica, the presence of three strong opposition candidates — one to the left and two to the right of the ruling centrist PLN — transformed the first round vote in a contest to qualify for the runoff on April 6. The ruling party candidate was Johnny Araya, the former mayor of the capital city of San José and a member of a family with a long history of political involvement. A foe of outgoing president Laura Chinchilla, Araya sought to benefit from Chinchilla’s low presidential approval.

Though they belong to the same party, Araya could credibly distance himself from Chinchilla, the least popular president in Costa Rica in more than a decade. Araya benefited from the moderately strong economic growth in the past few years (five percent). In a heated campaign, Araya managed to get almost 30 percent of the vote, just short of the 31 percent received by Luis Solís, a centre-right candidate who seeks to occupy the void left by the demise of the Social Christian PSUC.


After a series of scandals a decade ago — that resulted in the imprisonment of a former president from the PSUC — the Costa Rican party system has been unstable. Though several pre-electoral polls predicted otherwise, Solís surprisingly received more votes than José Villalta (17 percent), the young candidate of an emerging leftwing coalition. Historically, abstention in Costa Rica was low, at around 20 percent. However, since the political scandals in the late 1990s, abstention increased to 30 percent. It remained at that level this past Sunday.


Now that the leftwing candidate is out of the race, many fear that turnout in the runoff will be even lower, as leftwing voters who will have to choose between Araya, a centre-left, and Solís, a centre-right candidate, might choose to stay at home.


In recent years, electoral participation has also been on the decline elsewhere in Latin America. The most recent presidential election in Chile had the lowest turnout since democracy was restored in 1990. When the economy is doing well and problems are not critical, fewer people pay attention to politics. However, when people perceive that, regardless of the economic situation, governments of different ideological inclinations implement similar policies, they have little incentives to participate. Why bother to vote if the roadmap will be the same regardless of who wins?


Democracy functions when people vote. However, for people to want to participate, they must be presented with options that offer different outcomes. In El Salvador and Costa Rica, many people chose to abstain because they do not think the country is in crisis or they simply they did not perceive many differences between the options the different candidates offered.