IN a race expected to be a cliffhanger, Jose Maria Figueres Olsen narrowly defeated Miguel Angel Rodriguez for president of Costa Rica Sunday, reaffirming in the process a number of truths about the Costa Rican political system.
One is that Costa Ricans, who boast of Latin America's longest-standing democratic tradition, hold elections without a whiff of fraud or violence. Another is the ``pendulum effect,'' the tendency for voters to throw out the incumbent party. Mr. Figueres's National Liberation Party (PLN), which has never lost two elections in a row, defeated the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC) of Mr. Rodriguez and current president Rafael Angel Calderon Fournier by a 50-48 percent margin.
Costa Ricans celebrate their quadrennial election rite with a pomp and civility unimaginable in more fragile Central American democracies. In San Jose, the capital, speeches and rallies of the election run-up are capped by a week of banner-waving loyalists from the two parties honking at one another and receiving friendly jeers from adversaries.
The festive atmosphere in which the campaign concludes, however, hides the inability of an entrenched two-party system to provide relatively well-educated voters with intelligent political debate and meaningful choices.
This year's campaign, for example, was dominated by the two candidates' old scandals. ``The issues have gotten buried under all the mud that has been slung,'' says a diplomatic observer. The level of invective in the campaign was such that the country's election tribunal banned more than 100 campaign ads from both parties.
Beneath the surface, the issue at stake this year was whether a slightly harder or softer version of Latin American neoliberalism would prevail in the coming four years. Latin American neoliberalism is the IMF-World Bank formula for pruning government of money-losing businesses and costly social programs, opening up to foreign competition and investment, and avidly searching for new export markets.
President-elect Figueres represents the softer variant, at least rhetorically. Though he made a point of wanting to see Costa Rica join the North American Free Trade Agreement, Figueres attacked his opponent as a harsh free-marketeer. He was critical of the outgoing government's policies, which have cut government programs while lowering trade and investment barriers, saying that they increased poverty among Costa Ricans.
The PLN vowed to introduce programs to help victims of economic adjustment, including ``350,000 poor children'' and the nation's small farmers. ``Instead of economic growth measured in percentages without concern for whether it is concentrated in a few hands,'' said the candidate on Feb. 4, ``let us seek a development that's sustainable in terms of human feelings, investing more in their health, education, welfare, and recreation.''
Figueres had reasons for his pro-equality campaign thrust. He is the son of revered former President Jose ``Pepe'' Figueres, leader of Costa Rica's 1948 revolution whose government in the 1950s laid the basis for the model of a Central American welfare state. Though regard for the achievements of the elder Figueres has diminished, ``National Liberation'' is still Costa Rica's dominant party, and its egalitarian ideology strikes deep chords.
Rodriguez peddled a somewhat broader, harder option. A businessman and Berkeley-trained economist who has risen to become one of Costa Rica's wealthiest men, Rodriguez favored deepening privatization in banking and some public utilities.
Incumbent President Calders economic policies gave Figueres a boost. After a rocky start, Calderon finishes his term strongly, with two years of 6 to 7 percent growth, booming exports, and low inflation. But he is also leaving behind a perception of declining public services - despite increased health spending, his administration has witnessed the reappearance of contagious diseases once thought eradicated - and a sensation that things have gotten tougher for the lower 50 percent of income earners. ``Figueres's high-impact campaign, attacking the government for economic problems, and Rodriguez as a neoliberal, was effective,'' says analyst Abelardo Morales.
On his road to victory, Figueres also cashed in on his family name to overcome fallout from his scandal. Educated at West Point (an oddity in a country without an army) in the 1970s and a recent graduate of Harvard, Figueres allegedly participated in the murder of a drug trafficker in 1973 as a young lieutenant in Costa Rica's Civil Guard. Due to an ill-managed slander suit, the issue haunted and nearly destroyed the Figueres campaign.
The Figueres Cabinet will be filled with a generation of young PLN economists, leftists in their university days in the 1970s, who think they can renegotiate Costa Rica's scheduled third structural-adjustment agreement with the IMF, prepared by Calderon. They hope to get a better deal, in particular with regard to privatizing public services.
``Negotiating with the international agencies has never been a piece of cake, but it depends on the quality of the negotiators,'' says analyst Luis Guillermo Solis.
The ultimate objective, Mr. Solis says, is to stem what the PLN sees as a decade-long trend toward the growth of poverty and a deteriorating quality of life through increased and more effective social investment.
The test of the new PLN government will be whether it can achieve this goal within the framework of an adjusted economy, without sacrificing the growth already achieved.
Costa Rica's 1.8 million voters also were choosing a 57-member unicameral Legislative Assembly, but results were not yet available.