Donald Trump both gets a lot of flak and creates a proud identity for himself as a political outsider and former reality star. Off the screen and into the Beltway, he played on this “outsider” characteristic as a way of connecting to voters who felt that they were outsiders themselves; a population completely ignored by the political elite.
In another corner of the world, a former Christian music singer and TV personality is following suit.
Fabricio Alvarado is taking the Costa Rican political scene by storm. Alvarado recently made his way into the second round of Costa Rica’s presidential election. He will face his opponent, an established labor minister names Carlos Alvarado Quesada in the runoff election in the coming weeks.
However, Alvarado’s musical past is not the sole reason why he has suddenly risen to power in Costa Rican politics and received almost 22% of the vote in the last election (Times, 2018).
Alvarado is not entirely new to the political scene- he was a deputy member of the Legislative Assembly representing San José Province beginning in 2014. He is a member of the National Restoration Party (PRN). This past January, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that national governments needed to recognize the rights of same-sex couples. Alvarado is an extremely devout Evangelical Christian and deeply opposed this action. His new-found popularity is due mostly to this opposition.
There has been a recent trend of conservative strain in Costa Rican politics led by the National Restoration Party. The party has unified many Christian and specifically neo-Pentecostal churches leading to a surge of religious actors having a large impact on the country’s democracy and presidential election.
Costa Rica is known for having one of the most stable democracies in Latin America. There are generally multiple political parties and elections are not overrun with corruption and drama. The success of outsiders such as Alvarado is due to the intolerant community that makes up his voter base and is indicative of democratic erosion.
Alvarado claims that the decision made by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights violates Costa Rica’s sovereignty. The sentiment of the PRN is that their country is facing unfair international impositions. In their eyes, the previous administration that made the decision to legalize gay marriage did not act in the interests of Costa Rican citizens. Alvarado believes it is unfair to subject Costa Rica to a law that many countries in the region have not adopted and would cause certain legislatures to make serious institutional changes.
This distrust and distaste for international policies has united many Costa Ricans under the PRN and contributed to Alvarado’s success. Alvarado’s base can be interpreted as a “nativist” intolerant community according to Duke University’s Timur Kuran. In his piece Founts of Democratic Erosion: Intolerant Communities, Kuran defines an intolerant community as a group of individuals that have created a collective ideology and exclude others who do not share in this belief. A nativist intolerant community is “suspicious of economic globalization, technological innovation, cultural change, and cross-border labor mobility” (Kuran, 2017).
This community is based in the belief of fixed cultures and traditions not influenced by outside actors. They are hindered from communicating these beliefs with others if they do not share the group ideals. They often clash in arenas involving social rights such as the legalization of gay marriage.
Alvarado began gaining popularity after he denounced the court’s decision on this matter. His opposition to the gay marriage ruling connected with the group of voters who fall under this “nativist” category. They see Alvarado as a champion of their nation’s beliefs. Their beliefs may be rooted in a distrust of international systems, but is also likely rooted in religious and cultural bias. They have banded together over their commonalities in these arenas and have turned against those who do not share these beliefs, namely the Citizen’s Action Party which they will face in the upcoming election.
These people identify with Alvarado because they understand his outsider narrative. Their government made a decision that cuts across their core political beliefs and does not align with their values. They feel ignored and frustrated that they are not being well-represented. Alvarado has championed this resentment, making the gay marriage ruling his main issue of interest. The PRN heavily supports his decision to have Costa Rica leave the court if he is elected.
This outsider group could prove to be very dangerous for Costa Rica’s democracy. It hardens each group’s position on issues and makes political compromise nearly impossible due to polarization. It creates instability within a regime. And it threatens the culture and values of Costa Rica as a whole by only accepting one set of values as correct and relevant. Alvarado may be an outsider, but his nativist supporters will play a huge role in his path to the inside. The upcoming run-off election will play a large part in determining what ideals Costa Rica will hold and the state of its democracy moving forward.
Kuran, Timur. 2016. “Founts of Democratic Erosion: Intolerant Communities.” Paper prepared for the Bright Line Watch Conference, Yale University.
Malkin, Elisabeth. “In Costa Rica Election, Gay-Marriage Foe Takes First Round.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 5 Feb. 2018.
Mora, Ana Chacón. “The Evangelical Wave Hits Democracy in Costa Rica.” Democracia Abierta, 20 Mar. 2018.
Photo Credit to Arnulfo Franco of the Associated Press via the New York Times, Feb. 5, 2018.