SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — A former Costa Rican finance minister accused of sexual harassment defeated one of the country’s former presidents in a presidential runoff election Sunday, according to preliminary results from the vote that stirred little enthusiasm among voters.
With more than 96% of polling stations reporting, conservative economist Rodrigo Chaves led José Figueres Ferrer with 53% of the vote to 47%, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal said. More than 42% of eligible Costa Ricans did not vote.
In his victory speech, Chaves said he received the result with humility and called for unity to address problems like unemployment and a soaring budget deficit.
“For me this is not a medal nor a trophy, but rather an enormous responsibility, heaped with challenges and difficulties that we will all resolve,” he said.
“Costa Rica, the best is to come!” Chaves said before celebrating supporters. His inauguration is scheduled for May 8.
Figueres accepted his defeat less than an hour after results began to come in as Chaves continued his surprising surge after coming in second place to Figueres in the first round of voting Feb. 6.
“Costa Rica has voted and the people have spoken,” Figueres said. “As the democrats we are we will always be respectful of that decision.” He congratulated Chaves and wished him the best.
Figueres said he continued to believe that Costa Rica was in a “deep crisis” and remained willing to help it recover.
Figueres, who led Costa Rica from 1994 to 1998, represents the National Liberation Party like his father, three-time president José Figueres Ferrer. Chaves served briefly in the administration of outgoing President Carlos Alvarado and represents the Social Democratic Progress Party.
Both men waged a bruising campaign that highlighted past controversies. Neither approached the 40% of the vote necessary to avoid a runoff in the first round of voting.
Chaves’ campaign is under investigation by electoral authorities for allegedly running an illegal parallel financing structure. He also has been dogged by a sexual harassment scandal that drove him out of the World Bank.
While working at the World Bank he was accused of sexual harassment by multiple women, was eventually demoted and then resigned. He has denied the accusations.
The World Bank’s administrative Tribunal last year criticized the way the case was initially handled internally.
The tribunal noted that an internal investigation had found that from 2008 to 2013 Chaves leered at, made unwelcome comments about physical appearance, repeated sexual innuendo and unwelcome sexual advances toward multiple bank employees. Those details were repeated by the bank’s human resources department in a letter to Chaves, but it decided to sanction him for misconduct rather than sexual harassment.
“The facts of the present case indicate that (Chaves’) conduct was sexual in nature and that he knew or should have known that his conduct was unwelcome,” the tribunal wrote. The tribunal also noted that in the proceedings, the banks current vice president for human resources said in testimony “that the undisputed facts legally amount to sexual harassment.”
Lines formed before voting started at some polling places in San Jose, the capital, while others appeared nearly empty.
Juan Morales, a 68-year-old retiree, voted early to avoid any crowds.
“I hope that everyone comes out to vote today,” he said. “I know that they don’t like the candidates much, but we have to elect a president and voting is to take care of democracy.”
Political analyst Francisco Barahona said Costa Ricans’ lack of enthusiasm was the result of the multitude of personal attacks that characterized the campaigns of both candidates.
“In the debates they only heated things up in personal confrontations, mistreatment of each other,” he said. “They didn’t add depth to their proposals to resolve the country’s problems. The debates didn’t help to motivate the electorate.”
Barahona expected a high rate of abstention because of the general dissatisfaction with both candidates.
“For a lot of people it’s embarrassing to say they voted for one or the other, and many prefer to say they won’t vote for either of the candidates or simply won’t go to vote,” Barahona said.
Figueres has been questioned over a $900,000 consulting fee he received after his presidency from the telecommunication company Alcatel while it competed for a contract with the national electricity company. He was never charged with any crime and denied any wrongdoing.
While Costa Rica has enjoyed relative democratic stability compared with other countries in the region, the public has grown frustrated with public corruption scandals and high unemployment.
In the February vote, Alvarado’s party was practically erased from the political landscape, receiving no seats in the new congress. At the time of that first vote, the country was riding a new wave of COVID-19 infections, but infections and hospitalizations have fallen considerably since.