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Costa Rica's left-right void

Do left and right even exist in Costa Rica anymore?

Women wait to cast their vote at a polling station in the town of Division, south of San Jose, Costa Rica, Feb. 5, 2006. (Tomas Bravo/Reuters)

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — The streets were filled with colors: bold stripes of red and yellow, green and white, red and blue, or just plain red, each representing one of the plethora of Costa Rica's political parties.

But in the end it was the green and white of the incumbent centrist party that prevailed in this month's presidential elections. There would be no political shakeup, no veering to the left, or surprising turns back to the right. There were hardly even political extremes in play.

In a region where political passions run deep and where the split between left and right is often deeply entrenched, Costa Rica’s political nonchalance is something of an anomaly.

Academics have long debated why that is. What makes Costa Rica the so-called “Switzerland of Central America”? Why do Costa Ricans appear so cozy in the political center?

The answers, political scientists and election analysts say, are manifold: the lack of a military; a weak union movement; the inclusion of radical voices. In recent elections, candidates not from the mainstream parties moderated their views to compete.

Beyond Costa Rica’s borders, one needn’t look far for hard-line left-right demagoguery, and elections that contrast with Costa Rica’s recent proud, euphoric political exercise. There was mayhem just north of the border when Nicaraguans voted for their mayors in 2008. In the name of the leftist Sandinistas, gangs blocked the main streets of Managua and launched homemade bombs into the air. Intimidation and violence ruled.

Perhaps most important for Costa Rica was the abolishment of the military 60 years ago in the wake of a bloody 44-day civil war. "The fact that Costa Rica doesn’t have an army has enabled political and civilian forces to make the decisions,” said political sociologist Carlos Carranza. That hasn’t been the case for many of its neighbors, countries that have seen their share of coups, de facto regimes, dictatorships and dubious votes.

Outgoing President Oscar Arias, a free-trade advocate and Nobel Peace Prize winner, has pressed leaders across the globe to follow Costa Rica’s example and eliminate their armies or, at the very least, slash their massive defense budgets. His pitch: Throughout Latin American history, armies have done more harm than good, wielding unfettered control over their own populations. The armed oppression breeds extremism, so the argument goes.

But enduring peace is not the only reason. Neutrality requires taking bold steps to bring radicals into the discussion, which Costa Rican leaders did decades ago. Political negotiations with communist groups in the 1940s brought about such hallmarks of Costa Rica’s social democracy as the labor code and guaranteed public health care.

On the right, the extremist anti-communist Movimiento Costa Rica Libre, which came about in the early 1960s, was permitted to publish articles in a newspaper and hold gatherings in downtown San Jose.

None of these groups garnered much of a following, said Carranza, a professor at University of Costa Rica and National University.