The evangelical wave hits democracy in Costa Rica

Fabricio Alvarado got through to the second round of the presidential elections, opening up the possibility that Costa Rica may place itself in the hard neoliberal and fundamentalist camp. Español

Ana Chacón Mora
20 March 2018

Source: Nueva Sociedad

This article is being published as part of the partnership between Nueva Sociedad and democraciaAbierta. You can read the original here.


Costa Rica is going through a social and political upheaval as a result of the emergence of a new actor in the political arena: the alliance of neo-Pentecostal churches under the National Restoration Party (PRN), which is competing for the presidency of the Republic with the ruling Citizen’s Action Party (PAC) in the runoff election on April 1st.

This surge of religious fundamentalism could end up changing the course of the country’s centennial democracy.

The results of the first round of the elections on February 4 revealed a scenario in which 34% of the voters failed to turn up at the polls and those who did discarded the traditional parties. The two candidates who made it to the second round both belong to emerging political organizations.

Carlos Alvarado, 38, the candidate of social-democratic PAC, won 21.6% of the votes. Evangelical Pastor Fabricio Alvarado (no relation), 43, the candidate of the PRN, won 24.9% of the votes.

The composition of the vote for both parties was distinctly different. While important sectors of the urban population and a significant number of young people flocked to the PAC, the PRN was supported by a large part of the opportunity-deprived sectors of the population and by the Pentecostal churches’ devotees who have been working hard from the temples to prompt the emergence of a so-far unexpected aspect of the country.

The Tribunal’s lack of rigor in enforcing the electoral law has allowed pastors and preachers to participate in elections.

But how has Costa Rica, a country with a long democratic tradition, come to have as an option with real chances of coming into political power an Evangelical church?

Philosopher and theologian Arnoldo Mora claims that Costa Rica’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) is responsible for the open political participation of churches which have turned into parties: "The Tribunal’s lack of rigor in enforcing the electoral law has allowed pastors and preachers to participate in elections in the recent past: four Evangelical representatives were elected to Congress in 2014 and now, in 2018, they have become one of the two main political forces."

Mora, who is a renowned expert in this matter, adds that "the TSE should have stopped the churches from the very beginning. It should have enforced the prohibitions clauses established in Article 28 of the Constitution and Article 136 of the Electoral Code."

Indeed, Article 28 of Costa Rica’s Constitution prohibits political propaganda which "invokes religion or uses, as a means, religious beliefs". And Article 136 of the Electoral Code extends the prohibition to "any form of propaganda which, using the religious beliefs of the people or invoking religious reasons, encourages citizens to adhere to or separate from certain parties or candidacies."

In the current elections, says Mora, "in thousands of small chapels and temples, pastors have been urging the faithful to go out and vote."

An added factor which explains the current situation is the structural crisis of the political parties in Costa Rica. According to Mora, the fact that "the churches have taken up the role of the political parties" is due to the latter’s mutations.

The relinquishing of their historical social role and their internal and ideological transformations have resulted in a crisis of representation which the emergence of these new actors makes perfectly clear. The rightward shift of the Social Christian social-democrats and conservatives (who were reformists in the 1930s and 1940s) has encouraged this phenomenon.

"There is now some speculation that the parties which used to embody Costa Rica’s two-party system could enter into an alliance which would take Fabricio Alvarado to power", Mora explains.

Thousands of small chapels and temples, pastors have been urging the faithful to go out and vote.

Christian representatives constitute the most conservative bloc in Congress. They can currently develop their own political agenda and press it on the rest. Analyst Alessandro Solís Lerici points out that "the conservative bloc has achieved unprecedented political power. It can impose an agenda in which religious values prevail and it can curb initiatives which contradict their beliefs."


Elections and the ruling of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights

On the global political scene, Jaime Ordoñez, director of the Central American Institute of Governance, claims that "this century is unfolding as an astonishing regression. Far from moving closer to modernity and tolerance, we are witnessing a resurgence of the most obscurantist ghosts". What this is "is a revolt against the Enlightenment, flat out and at full speed", he says.

In an article under the title The Earth is flat and Darwin deceived us all, published by Wall Street International and reproduced by, Ordoñez points out that "this new, multi-confessional counter-reformation aims at undermining the notion of the secular State and other advances, like human rights and the recognition of minorities".

Costa Rica comes to confirm this. Two recent resolutions by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights already put the country's participation in the Inter-American Human Rights System at serious risk. This risk would be exacerbated if the Evangelical party were to win at the forthcoming runoff of the presidential elections.

The resolution on in vitro fertilization, which recognized the right of people who require it and ordered Costa Rica to regulate it, is a case in point. But it is the Court’s ruling ordering the Costa Rican State to equate the civil rights of same-sex couples with those of the rest of the population which transformed the country’s electoral scene.

Protestant churches, neo-Pentecostal Evangelicals and the Catholic Church united against this ruling and formed an electoral alliance to contest the presidency of the Republic. If Fabricio Alvarado got elected, Costa Rica could withdraw from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

Strong opposition to such a ruling was to be expected. But the fact that it came as a surprise at this juncture amplified the social reaction to it and the churches were able to capitalize at the polls the discourse which they have been hammering for decades from the temples against the advances in the recognition of the human rights of minorities and the LGTBI population.


Antagonistic candidates

The current election campaign has some unprecedented characteristics. Mora explains that it is focused on aspects which are "more linked to religion and to its implementation in the field of private ethics – specifically, of sexual ethics.

He has opposed vitro fertilization, sex education, therapeutic abortion and the civil union of same-sex couples.

It is based on the fallacy of identifying family with marriage, when it is well known that marriage is a contract which, like all contracts, can be done and undone".

Fabricio Alvarado’s life story is linked to the church. He is preacher of the Church of Prosperity, a radio and television host and a former member of Congress (2014-2018).

His alliance with neoliberal sectors has been key to block central government projects, such as fiscal policy seeking to balance public finances, and measures against tax evasion (which is a serious problem in Costa Rica). In addition, he has opposed vitro fertilization, sex education, therapeutic abortion and the civil union of same-sex couples - "gender ideology", according to him.

The success of his preaching during the campaign has forced the candidate of the PAC, Carlos Alvarado, to shift the discussion from government proposals to respond, from a civil society standpoint, to the issues driven by the religious sectors. Carlos Alvarado’s history is, of course, quite different from that of the ultra-religious candidate.

He is a political scientist, journalist, writer and musician. He was Minister of Human Development and Social Inclusion and Minister of Labour in the Luis Guillermo Solís Rivera administration (2014-2018) and he has a reputation for being sensitive to the social responsibilities of a modern State. His ability to unite diverse and scattered wills in a tripartite alliance with entrepreneurs and communities is one of his most important assets.

Undoubtedly, these two antagonistic candidates express a new political moment in Costa Rica. Desire for change exists and nobody denies it. The two candidates, who have the same family name but very different ideas, are the youngest of all the candidates who ran in the first round of the elections. But their youth is about the only thing they share.

They differ in each and every one of the proposals listed on their government programs - from measures to tackle the fiscal crisis and promote economic development, to those aimed at facing environmental and educational issues.

So, these elections raise a worrying question: has Costa Rican society, traditionally quite homogeneous, been inadvertently polarized to an unprecedented degree?

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