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Ex-finance minister wins Costa Rica’s presidential runoff despite harassment allegations

Costa Rican presidential candidate Rodrigo Chaves making prayerful gesture
Costa Rican presidential candidate Rodrigo Chaves reacts after marking his ballot during Sunday’s runoff election.
(Carlos Gonzalez / Associated Press)
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A former finance minister who surprised many by making it into Costa Rica’s presidential runoff vote has easily won the election and is to become the Central American country’s new leader next month, while still fending off accusations of sexual harassment when he worked at the World Bank.

With nearly all polling stations reporting late Sunday, conservative economist Rodrigo Chaves had 53% of the vote, compared to 47% for former President José Figueres Ferrer, the Supreme Elections Tribunal said.

More than 42% of eligible voters did not participate in Sunday’s election, however, reflecting the lack of enthusiasm Costa Ricans had for the candidates.

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In his victory speech, Chaves said he received the result with humility and called for unity to address problems such as unemployment and the 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 with supporters. His inauguration is scheduled for May 8.

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Figueres conceded defeat less than an hour after results began to come in. He had led the first round of voting Feb. 6, with Chaves in second place that day, but neither came close to the 40% of the vote needed to avoid a runoff.

“Costa Rica has voted and the people have spoken,” Figueres said. “As the democrats we are, we will always be respectful of that decision.”

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He congratulated Chaves and wished him the best, adding that he continued to believe Costa Rica was in a “deep crisis” and that he was willing to help it recover.

Figueres, who was Costa Rica’s president from 1994 to 1998, represents the National Liberation Party, as did 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.

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Both men waged a bruising campaign that highlighted past controversies.

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 multiple bank employees, made unwelcome comments about their physical appearance, repeated sexual innuendoes and made unwelcome sexual advances. 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 bank’s current vice president for human resources said in testimony “that the undisputed facts legally amount to sexual harassment.”

More than 3.5 million Costa Ricans were eligible to vote, but with many voters underwhelmed by the options, turnout was even lower than the 60% in February.

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Lines formed before voting started at some polling places in San Jose, the capital, while others appeared nearly empty.

Political analyst Francisco Barahona said Costa Ricans’ lack of enthusiasm was the result of the multitude of personal attacks that characterized the campaign.

“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.

“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 added.

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 corruption scandals and high unemployment.

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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 coronavirus cases, but infections and hospitalizations have fallen considerably since.

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