Costa Rica runoff, 2018: Alvarado (the better one) wins

In Costa Rica’s runoff, Carlos Alvarado beat Fabricio Alvarado. That is a relief. Fabricio ran his campaign mostly around stifling gay rights, and polling had the race very close. In fact, most polls had FA ahead (see the poll summaries at Wikipedia). However, at 60.6% to 39.3% for CA, it was not close at all.

This runoff followed an extraordinarily fragmented first round, in which four candidates had votes between 15% and 25%. FA led the first round, with 24.99% to CA’s 21.63%. The candidates of the two older parties (PLN and Social Christian Unity) came in third and fourth.

Costa Rica’s rules since the current regime was founded in 1949 have required a runoff among the top two candidates if the leader did not clear 40% of the vote in the first round. Because of the country’s historic two-party system (with some additional trailing parties), a runoff was never required until 2002. The party system has changed dramatically in recent cycles. A runoff was narrowly averted in 2006 (winner with 40.9%), and was next required in 2014 (leader with 30.6%, and runner-up with 29.7%, although the runoff contender, from the PLN, quit the race), and now in 2018.

Carlos Alvarado was nominated by the party of the incumbent president (Luís Guillermo Solís), the Citizens’ Action Party. This party has established itself as a major party in that it has passed the test of electing not one, but now two, different presidential nominees. Moreover, it has finished ahead of both of the old parties in two consecutive first rounds and ahead of at least one of them in four straight elections.

The runner-up candidate’s party, on the other hand, is a newer one. The National Restoration Party was contesting only its second presidential election (though it won congressional seats in 2006), and in 2014 its candidate managed under 1.4% of the vote.

The now more fragmented political scene raises the obvious question of how President-elect Carlos Alvarado will be able to govern. The Costa Rican presidency is one of the weaker ones among pure presidential democracies, and as the congress was elected concurrently with the first round, reflects that round’s fragmentation.

The president-elect’s party, Citizens’ Action, has only the third highest seat total in the Legislative Assembly. It won 16.3% of votes and 10 of the 57 seats (17.5%). The leading party will be the old PLN, which won 19.5% of the votes (compared to 18.6% for its presidential candidate) and 17 seats (29.9%). The National Restoration Party finished second (as it did in the presidential first round) with just over 18% of the votes and 14 of the 57 seats (24.6%).  The Social Christian Unity Party won 14.6% and 9 seats. No other party has more than 4 seats, and the total number of parties represented is seven.

Notably, even if he strikes a deal with the PLN, the president will not have quite enough to control the assembly: such a coalition would be two seats short.

The Libertarian Movement–one of the few relatively well established parties anywhere of this family–slipped well back. It will be without seats for the first time since before 1998. (The party won 9 seats in 2010, when its presidential candidate finished third with 20.8% of the vote.)

The election results will pose a governing challenge, but at least the requirement for a second round has led to the better Alvarado being elected.

18 thoughts on “Costa Rica runoff, 2018: Alvarado (the better one) wins

  1. Relief is right: I reacted the same way last night when I first saw the much-anticipated runoff election results. However, while Fabricio Alvarado did not succeed in his attempt to turn the election into a referendum on gay rights in general and gay marriage in particular, we should not lose sight of the fact that he still managed to win nearly forty percent of the vote, and just as important that he not only carried two of Costa Rica’s seven provinces – Puntarenas and Limón – but prevailed in them by double-digit margins.

    Concerning the Legislative Assembly results, I should note that Costa Rica’s subcociente threshold worked to the advantage of the two larger parties in that vote, namely PLN and PREN: had the election been carried out by the regular largest remainder method of PR, PLN would have won just twelve seats (21.1%), while PREN, PAC and PUSC would have won ten mandates each; moreover, there would have twelve parties represented in the Assembly, among them the Libertarian Movement, which narrowly missed reaching the subcociente in San José province by just under three thousand votes.

    • Two Round system provided the consensus candidate, but I would think that most candidates running for office adjust themselves to the incentives of the electoral system, rather than the electoral system to the candidates. Is a two round system with a less than 40% rule a good idea? I think the best system is one where if the candidates are below 50% and within 5% of of each other, then a second round be held.

      • Then other than that, then a plurality should be sufficient, because it is rare for a 2nd place candidate in the first round of a two round election, but I prefer ranked choice preferential voting.

    • Right, I totally forgot about the subcociente system, and was puzzling over why there was such a boost to the two larger parties. That, of course, makes sense.

      And, yes, you are right that it is depressing that such a campaign got 40% nationally and large pluralities in any regions. But, still, relief!

      • My website’s Costa Rica page now has definitive results of the presidential runoff vote held at the beginning of this month. As expected, the final results differ very little from provisional election-night figures, and confirm PAC’s Carlos Alvarado’s landslide victory over PREN’s Fabricio Alvarado.

        As I noted in an earlier comment, one notable outlier was Limón province, where Fabricio Alvarado won by a landslide, in stark contrast with the rest of the country; he also carried Puntarenas province, but by a much smaller (yet still substantial) margin. At any rate, Fabricio Alvarado had already secured a substantial plurality win in Limón province on the first round of voting, and La Nación published a piece about that outcome, available in Spanish here. In essence, according to the article PREN’s success in the province is due in no small measure to the fact that evangelical churches are filling a social assistance void left behind by government agencies.

    • “while Fabricio Alvarado did not succeed in his attempt to turn the election into a referendum on gay rights in general and gay marriage in particular, we should not lose sight of the fact that he still managed to win nearly forty percent of the vote, and just as important that he not only carried two of Costa Rica’s seven provinces – Puntarenas and Limón – but prevailed in them by double-digit margins.”

      What do you mean? Which of the two runoff candidates tried to make it into a referendum on same-sex marriage? Was it Alvarado or the one who won almost 40% of the vote? And why does the vote share matter if it WASN’T a referendum on that issue? I don’t quite understand what you mean by saying one candidate tried to make it the overriding issue but failed, but he (or the other candidate – it’s not clear) still got a large percentage of the vote. The more obvious take would seem to me that if the election was ultimately more about other issues, someone concerned about attitudes towards gays would be *less* concerned about high vote shares for the anti-same sex marriage candidate, because it is less indicative of anti-gay attitudes or the like. So I’m rather confused about your comment, but maybe I misinterpreted something you wrote.

  2. Is there any indication that turnout was depressed by the second round being held on Easter, and whether this might have had some bearing on the result?

    • Yeah, holding the election on Easter is pretty strange. (Sierra Leone did so as well, although only around 20% of the population there is Christian.)

      I would like to know the answer to that question. I did see something on Twitter before the election that suggested the effect could be the opposite–that Fabricio Alvarado’s campaign was encouraging its faithful followers to go to church and then go vote.

      But there was also speculation that many people would be away from home for the Semana Santa and not able or interested in voting.

      The answer may be unknowable, although obviously any Easter church service mobilization failed to get that Alvarado over (or near) the 50% mark!

      • According to the last poll conducted by the University of Costa Rica’s Centro de Investigación y Estudios Políticos – which had the runoff candidates on a dead heat – only 25% of those interviewed indicated they’d be out on vacation during Easter, and just over two-thirds of the latter expressed a willingness to cut short their vacations in order to take part in the runoff vote.

        Carlos Alvarado’s landslide victory left me with the distinct impression that the Catholic vote swung heavily in his favor, and according to an opinion piece published in La Prensa Libre, that’s exactly what happened. Apparently, the Catholic Church hierarchy was tacitly backing Fabricio Alvarado on account of his anti-gay marriage stance, that is until they found out that the latter’s religious mentor – one Ronny Chaves – had made some disparaging remarks about Our Lady of the Angels, the patroness of Costa Rica (in a nutshell, Mr. Chaves belongs to the “virgin-is-really-the-devil-in-disguise” school of thought). Naturally, the Catholic Church was mightily displeased (to put it mildly), but since the Church “could never be a political actor” they had a well-known priest close to the Episcopal Conference post a message denouncing the prosperity gospel touted by protestant evangelical preachers, while making it very clear that the Church was NOT supporting Fabricio Alvarado on account of his positions on “topics of sexual ethics.”

      • The 1848 elections in France – the first direct election with universal (male) suffrage – was on easter

  3. Interesting how it seems that two-round produces narrower margins (between the top-two shortlist and those eliminated) on the first round, yet much wider margins on the second round, than FPTP does on its single round.
    Impressionistically, FPTP races seem to usually mean a 4-5% lead of the first candidate over the second. Whereas some of the much-publicised recent 2R races have two or three candidates all just around 25%, then a 10-digit lead on the second. Is this impression accurate, or am I just focusing on a small data set?

    • Sample size caveats, Tom! In my wider dataset (71 elections),

      order, FPTP, Majority-runoff
      1: 42.6, 43.0
      2: 34.0, 31.4
      3: 15.3, 14.2

      It hardly needs to be said, but these difference are not statistically significant! A key caveat here is that the sample size is necessarily small because election of presidents by plurality is actually not very common.

      The set of cases included in the above totals is pure presidential systems plus semi-presidential in which the presidency is “strong” (as defined in Votes from Seats). Using only pure presidential systems hardly changes the picture, but makes the overall sample much smaller.

      In a narrower slice of the data, Votes from Seats reports (p. 193, footnote) reports that there is a significant difference between the two systems for the second candidate (40.0% vs. 31.5%) but not for the first (48.4 vs. 44.2). This narrower set is pure presidential only, and also only “simple” electoral systems for the assembly. The lesson in this is that the results are quite sensitive to which cases are included, and that tells us that factors other than the presidential election formula are more important.

      Given the topic of the thread this is in, I should also note that Costa Rica and other “qualified plurality” systems are not in the above data calculations, given that they are neither FPTP nor majority runoff.

      In ten Costa Rican elections in the sample, the mean percentages for the top three are:

      In other words, Costa Rican elections have not been very competitive, although this certainly has changed (in first rounds) very recently.

      All the above means exclude elections in which fewer than three candidates competed. If I don’t make that exclusion, and use the sample as defined for the first table above, I get:

      order, FPTP, Majority-runoff
      1: 44.8, 46.0
      2: 36.7, 31.2

      In this slice of the data, the difference across systems for the second candidate is significant (84 total elections).

      What I find most interesting in all of this is that the leading candidate tends to have a higher percentage of the vote in the (first round of) two-round majority systems–probably the opposite of what one would expect. While this trend is not statistically significant, it is consistent. On the other hand, the second candidate tends to do better under FPTP (as presumably is expected), and this trend is sometimes significant.

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