Right winger Rodrigo Chaves wins Costa Rica presidency as rival concedes

Right-wing former finance minister Rodrigo Chaves will take over as Costa Rica’s new president on May 8 after winning Sunday’s election, ready to oversee the challenge of reinvigorating the country’s struggling economy.

With 96% of the votes counted, Chaves held a nearly 6 percentage point lead in the provisional results over Jose Maria Figueres, the centrist former president, according to the Supreme Electoral Court (TSE).

“I receive with the deepest humility this sacred decision of the Costa Rican people… This result for me is not a medal or a trophy, but an enormous responsibility,” the 60-year-old economist told a crowd of supporters. in the capital. San Jose.

Figueres congratulated Chaves and wished him luck in his concession speech.

“Costa Rica voted and the people spoke. Since we are Democrats, we respect this ruling,” the 67-year-old said.

Unemployment and the economic crisis dominated the campaign between two scandal-ridden candidates relieved not to have their past indiscretions take center stage.

Chaves has already been demoted for sexual harassment, while Figueres has already been investigated for corruption.

But with 23% of the population living in poverty and unemployment soaring to 14% alongside a series of corruption scandals, Costa Ricans seemed more focused on the economy in electing President Carlos Alvarado’s successor.

The vote took place “in peace and quiet”, said TSE spokesman Gustavo Ramon.

Presidential candidate Jose Maria Figueres concedes defeat during a speech after polls closed in the second round of Costa Rica’s presidential election between Figueres and former finance minister Rodrigo Chaves, in San Jose, Costa Rica, Sunday. | Reuters

Chaves will take over from the unpopular Alvarado next month, facing the major challenge of reviving a struggling economy.

Costa Rica has been described as the “happiest” country in Latin America and praised for its political stability, environmental policies and ecotourism.

But the vital tourism industry has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.

Along with Peru, it suffered the biggest decline in employment figures in the region between 2019 and 2020.

“Costa Rican society was not poor, they made it poor. Costa Rican society was not unequal, they made it unequal,” said Chaves, who voted mid-morning at a school in downtown the capital.

“There is no work here”

Voters were very clear about what they were most concerned about: the economy and jobs.

“The next president must change everything because we are very poor. There’s no work here, there’s nothing,” said Ana Briceno, 64, a travel agent in San Jose.

“In recent years with Carlos Alvarado, the situation has been very difficult … so I think the future president must focus on the economy,” said Cristina Aguilar, 32.

Chaves was a surprise qualifier for Sunday’s second round, having finished fourth heading into the February first round.

Representing the newly formed right-wing Social Democratic Progress Party, Chaves topped the most recent opinion polls with more than 41% support, compared to 38% for Figueres.

“We talked about progression and rejecting regression,” he told a news conference.

Supporters of Costa Rica's president-elect Rodrigo Chaves cheer and wave flags during a nighttime rally after the second round of presidential elections in San Jose, Costa Rica, on Sunday.  |  BLOOMBERG
Supporters of Costa Rica’s president-elect Rodrigo Chaves cheer and wave flags during a nighttime rally after the second round of presidential elections in San Jose, Costa Rica, on Sunday. | BLOOMBERG

Figueres was president from 1994 to 1998.

His father José abolished the army in 1948 when he was president.

“We have options to create jobs, which are needed most, and to grow the economy,” he said.

Figueres topped the first round of voting among a group of 25 contenders with 27.3%, ahead of Chaves who had 16.8%.

But they were far from the 40% needed to win.

“Misinterpreted” Jokes

Both men reached this final stage of the election despite the specter of past scandals.

Chaves, who spent six months as finance minister in the outgoing government, was investigated over complaints of sexual harassment made by several women while he was a senior official at the World Bank, where he worked for 30 years.

He was demoted, but not fired, and called his behavior “misinterpreted jokes due to cultural differences”.

Figueres, who represents the centrist National Liberation Party (PLN), was investigated for allegedly taking $900,000 from French engineering firm Alcatel, which admitted bribing officials.

The ex-president, who was working abroad at the time as executive director of the World Economic Forum (WEF), declined to testify in the case in 2004 and did not return to Costa Rica until 2011 when the survey expired.

Chaves’ four-year term will begin on May 8.

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