San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Kissing Babies, Chasing Oscar: Election Fever

THE year leading up to the February 2006 elections kicked off in January with former President Oscar Arias announcing his plan to be the National Liberation Party’s presidential candidate. Despite a year of objections to this candidacy by opponents and some members of his own party, by December Arias’ promise to return governability to an increasingly divided government had given the Nobel Laureate the support of nearly half of voters. The other half divide their support among the five other leading candidates: Ottón Solís of the Citizen Action Party (PAC), Otto Guevara of the Libertarian Movement, Antonio Alvarez Desanti of the Union for Change (UPC), José Manuel Echandi of the Patriotic Union Party (PUN), and Ricardo Toledo of the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC).


Arias’ January announcement was met with accusations from members of his own party that he is oligarchic and has sold out to multinational corporations. Various high-level and longtime members of the party left Liberation, criticizing Arias on their way out.


The Liberation departures were viewed by political analysts as further evidence of the end of Costa Rica’s two-party system, also evident in the downward slide of the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC), which, despite being the ruling party, is not even a contender for the presidency in the February 2006 elections.


Corruption scandals have hurt these parties, but so has the trend toward smaller parties based on more common goals and interests.


Along these lines, the New Feminist League Party was launched in March by a group of women hoping to land legislators in the Legislative Assembly and increase gender equality.


Frustration with the current administration surfaced in May when President Abel Pacheco tried to boast about his accomplishments during his annual May 1 speech. Critics said he was living in a false reality and showed no direction for his remaining year.


Recognizing the youth vote as key to victory, the Arias campaign began targeting young people in June with text messages, cell phone calls and ads before Star Wars; however, thousands of recipients didn’t welcome the innovative campaigning, complaining that the cell messages cost them up to $0.05 to retrieve. Students further rejected Arias in July when he was booed off the University of Costa Rica (UCR) campus while trying to attend an interview with the UCR television station. While other candidates had yet to begin their campaigns in June, Arias was already spending more than $20,000 per month.


The Unity Party’s problems came to head in July when political infighting put into question the party’s future presidential candidate. Contender Everardo Rodríguez eventually withdrew his bid for the Unity candidacy, but not until after he accused the party of being unjust in favor of eventual candidate Toledo. In paying his ¢17.9 million ($37,900) registration fee to be a p r e – c a n d i d a t e , Rodríguez used funds he had collected in a piggy bank he had passed around town, the source of which he later incorrectly reported, causing him to be accused of anomalies.


While Unity was torn apart, Liberation showed its cohesion at its national assembly in September during which Arias handpicked 10 of the party’s legislative candidates and greatly influenced the selection of the remaining 19 he believes will win seats in Costa Rica’s 57-member Legislative Assembly. Again facing charges of despotism, Arias said his efficient central leadership is necessary to save Costa Rican democracy.


The rise of small parties has meant an increasingly divided and unproductive legislature, creating a “quasi-anarchy” that leads some to question the efficiency of democracy, Arias said.


The inefficiency of the current assembly was revealed in September when legislators attempted to pass campaign finance reforms that would have more severely punished candidates who accept illegal donations – a rampant problem in the 2002 elections. But legislators had problems passing the reforms because they also entailed reducing the government contribution to party coffers, and no one could agree on how much it should be reduced, despite serious government budget shortfalls. By November it was clear the campaign finance reforms would not be passed before the 2006 elections.


Arias led the polls at the beginning of the year, and he continued to do so at the end – at about 45%. The questions in the coming month are not whether Arias will receive the majority of votes, but rather whether he will receive at least 40%, giving him the presidency outright, or if the elections will require a second round, as they did in 2002 – and whether his party will win a majority in the assembly.


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