Costa Rica’s Municipal Elections: What You Need to Know

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Written by Jana Nelson

As Costa Rica approaches its upcoming round of municipal elections this Sunday, it is easy to overlook them in favor of more pressing or glamorous world events, such as the primary elections for the November U.S. presidential election and the debilitating spread of the Zika virus across Latin America. In spite of such potentially overshadowing events, and though it is not a presidential election, Costa Rica’s municipal election, in which mayors will be elected in all 81 of Costa Rica’s “cantones,” holds important implications for both Costa Rican politics, and Latin American politics as a whole.

Here is what you need to know.

The Comeback of Johnny Araya Monge. For 22 years, Araya served as mayor of Costa Rica’s largest and most populous canton, San Jose Centro. Following his premature withdrawal from the 2014 presidential election, Costa Rica’s National Liberation Party (PLN) enacted a four-year ban on Araya, preventing him from participating in any political activities with the PLN during that time. When one door closes, another opens. Banned from being a PLN candidate, Araya joined the Alliance for San Jose Party and is now seeking to take back his role as mayor of San Jose Centro and to stage a comeback in national politics.

Municipal Elections Take Precedence over Cuban Refugees. In preparation for the February 7 election, the Costa Rican government has mandated the use of educational buildings, municipal halls, and churches as locations for polling sites. While usage of such sites would not normally cause any real disruption, Costa Rica’s recent influx of Cuban immigrants complicates the situation. As of January 2016, nearly 8000 immigrants from Cuba were stranded for several weeks in Costa Rica while en route to the United States. According to Costa Rica’s National Emergency Commission, the Cuban immigrants that were displaced from their public shelters during preparation for the election will be transported by bus to new shelters. Recently some of these refugees have be flown to El Salvador and, then, transported by bus to Mexico where they will be able to make their way to the U.S. border, in accordance with an agreement signed by Mexico and five Central American countries in early January.

Change to Municipal Elections in Hopes of Boosting Voter Participation. As opposed to Costa Rica’s general elections, which typically enjoy a high volume of registered voter participation, Costa Rica’s municipal elections have struggled to draw voter interest. Whereas the 2014 general election boasted a 70% participation rate, Costa Rica’s 2010 municipal election netted a mere 28% of registered voters – an improvement in participation from the prior municipal election. In an effort to mirror the voter participation of the general elections, these municipal elections will take place mid-way through the presidential and legislative terms, instead of the same year as the presidential elections. Lawmakers hope that this change will draw more excitement and civic participation than if the municipal election had been held during a presidential election year.

Costa Rica is not often in headlines, but it is a politically and economically stable country amid challenging neighbours. Its mid-term elections are an indication of the presidential elections ahead and its continued ability to take a regional leadership role.

About the author: Jana Nelson joining Speyside, Jana worked for the United States Department of State, where she served as a policy adviser in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs. For the U.S. government, she also worked in the U.S. Senate and at the Pentagon. Before joining the U.S. Government, Jana was a consultant for the Eurasia Group, a political risk consulting firm, and for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a DC-based think tank.