Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

COSTA RICA: Chinchilla to Join Club of Women Presidents

Daniel Zueras

SAN JOSÉ, Feb 8 2010 (IPS) - Laura Chinchilla of the governing National Liberation Party (PLN) will be the first female president of Costa Rica and the ninth in the history of Latin America.

Chinchilla, who won a landslide victory in Sunday’s elections in this Central American country, thus follows in the footsteps of former President Isabel Perón (1974-1976) and current President Cristina Fernández of Argentina, Violeta Chamorro (1990-1997) in Nicaragua, Mireya Moscoso (1999-2004) in Panama and President Michelle Bachelet of Chile, whose term began in 2006 and ends Mar. 11.

Other women who briefly held the presidency were Lidia Gueiler Tejada, acting president of Bolivia from 1979 to 1980, Ertha Pascal Trouillot, who governed Haiti in 1990-1991, and Rosalía Arteaga, who was interim president of Ecuador for just six days after Abdalá Bucarám was ousted in 1997.

Because she took 47 percent of the vote in Sunday’s elections, Chinchilla avoided a run-off (she needed at least 40 percent to do so).

Although the polls showed she was the front-runner, they gave her a smaller lead.

The former vice president will succeed President Óscar Arias of the PLN, which has social democratic roots but has made a shift towards more neoliberal policies in recent years.

Chinchilla carried all seven of Costa Rica’s provinces, and 80 of the 81 “cantons” into which these are divided.

Voter turnout, which had been shrinking since 1998, to 65 percent in 2006, rose to 68 percent this time around, close to the 70 percent target set by the president of the Tribunal Supremo de Elecciones (electoral court), Luis Antonio Sobrado.

Political scientist Antonio Barrios said it was not extraordinary for a woman to finally be elected president in Costa Rica. “Because of the country’s strong democratic tradition, it could even have been expected to happen earlier,” he told IPS.

Another significant result in the elections was the fragmentation of the single-chamber legislature. Governance will now depend on the parties’ capacity to negotiate and shape consensus.

In the parliamentary elections, the PLN garnered 37 percent of the vote, which means its presence in the legislative assembly will drop from 25 to 22 or 23 seats (out of a total of 57), depending on the final results.

It was followed by the centre-left Citizen Action Party (PAC), with 12 seats; the farthest right party, the Libertarian Movement (ML), with nine seats; and the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC), with six seats.

The big surprise was the Accessibility Without Exclusion Party (PASE), which grew from one to four seats. Three other parties won one seat each.

“The Legislative Assembly will shift to the right,” said Barrios, who expects alliances between the PLN and the ML. “Chinchilla will turn to them out of a question of ideological affinity, before she turns to the PAC,” he said.

At any rate, “a great deal of dialogue will be needed,” and the negotiations will be even more complex than in the current Arias administration, which ends May 8.

Barrios also said Chinchilla would seek out the more moderate PAC and ML legislators.

The PAC suffered a major setback. Although the polls had indicated it would slide to a position as the third-strongest political force, its candidate, Ottón Solís, won just 25.1 percent of the vote, compared to the 39.8 percent he garnered in 2006, when he was defeated by Arias by one percentage point.

His party, meanwhile, earned 17.6 percent of the vote in the parliamentary elections, down from 25.8 percent in 2006.

After three unsuccessful runs for president at the head of the PAC, Solís announced that he would not stand again.

“His decision was to be expected,” said Barrios, who argued that he shouldn’t have even run this time, but should have made way for “new blood and fresh ideas.”

Not only will this country of 4.5 million people now have its first female president, but 23 out of the 57 seats in parliament – just over 40 percent – will be held by women.

However, feminists in Costa Rica were not particularly excited about Chinchilla’s triumph, according to María José Chávez, head of the women’s rights group CEFEMINA.

“She won’t necessarily bring improvements in women’s rights,” she told IPS. “She has already said that the fact that she is a woman means nothing, because men and women are equal. Statements like this confirmed to us that we should not expect changes and results in terms of our demands.”

Chinchilla, a social conservative who previously served as one of Arias’ two vice presidents (2006-2008), is staunchly opposed to the legalisation of abortion, gay marriage and the separation of church and state

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