“I would like to begin by directly quoting the words of don Oscar Arias in 1998: ‘They keep showing their teeth as enemies and not debating as adversaries, forgetting that to make Costa Rica the first developed country in Latin America we will have to shed our fear of dialogue,’” Citizen Action Party (PAC) vice-presidential candidate Epsy Campbell said Tuesday at a press conference denouncing ex-President and presidential candidate Arias, of the National Liberation Party (PLN), for refusing to participate in more debates.
Despite his words nearly a decade ago urging debate between two presidential candidates at the time, Arias has not been a fan of the public encounters since he entered the 2006 presidential race. With the election 23 days away, the candidate – who holds a solid lead in the polls – has participated in two debates and said he won’t engage in any more.
In an adamant attempt to change his mind, PAC officials announced Tuesday they are willing to cover the costs of a debate between their presidential candidate, Ottón Solís (ranked number two in the polls), and Arias, if only Arias would say yes.
“The people need to know the proposals and differences between the candidates because Feb. 5 the future of Costa Rica is in play,” Campbell said.
Yet five hours after PAC made the announcement, Solís, along with Arias and two other top candidates, failed to attend a televised debate with eight other candidates.
“I don’t understand, there are candidates who say they want to debate, but then they don’t show up,” said Camilo Rodríguez, moderator of Tuesday’s debate.
“They complain about not having airtime with the public, then we offer it and where are they?”
SOLÍS has for weeks been asking for a one-on-one debate with Arias. While other debates have allowed for exchange between all 14 presidential candidates, PAC officials say the public needs to see a showdown between number one and number two. According to polls, around 45% of voters plan to give their votes to Arias, with around 20% giving theirs to Solís.
The Supreme Elections Tribunal (TSE) requires televised debates to include participation of all candidates in order to provide equal airtime.
However, if a televised debate is paid for by a private party, and not by the television station, it is allowed, Campbell explained. Therefore, PAC officials suggest the two leading parties split the cost of airtime to televise a national debate. If the Arias campaign doesn’t want to pay, they offered to cover all costs.
BUT Arias says, money aside, no way. “Not even if the Pope asked me would I debate with him again,” Arias told the daily Al Día. “People think, incorrectly, that debates change public opinion, and it’s not true. Don Ottón thinks a debate will reduce a 25-point difference. He is being poorly advised.”
Arias has in the past said he would like to converse in private with Solís. He reaffirmed this to Al Día, explaining that a private conversation can result in cooperation on crucial issues, rather than the media circus of a public debate.
Arias continued that “everyone” already knows the Liberation platform and the differences between the two parties.
Fernando Zeledón, a political science professor at the University of Costa Rica, conceded that many older Costa Ricans may not decide their votes based on a debate. However, he said first-, second and third-time voters reflect more on who to vote for and could be well-served by a debate. The professor added that the younger, more energetic Solís, 51, might perform better than Arias, 65.
FIVE other candidates apparently shared Arias’s opinion that Tuesday night’s presidential debate was not worth their time. Besides the leading candidate, the debate did not have the participation of Solís; the Libertarian Movement party’s Otto Guevara, who is ranked third in polls and has also urged Arias to debate with him and Solís; Union for Change candidate Antonio Alvarez Desanti, ranked fourth in the polls; Patriotic Union party candidate Humberto Arce; and National Rescue party candidate Alvaro Montero.
José Manuel Echandi of the National Union Party (PUN) and Ricardo Toledo of the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC) were the only candidates ranked in the polls (virtually tied at fifth and sixth) to participate in the debate, held in the San José suburb of Hatillo and sponsored by an evangelical church and various public television stations.
THE eight candidates who did participate did so in two groups and rotated discussing health, poverty, security and the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA) before a crowd of more than 400 people.
Only two of the eight debating candidates – Echandi and Toledo – support CAFTA, both of whom conditioned it on a good complementary agenda. The United Left’s Humberto Vargas suggested there is “nothing good about CAFTA,” a notion met with applause by the crowd.
Costa Rican Renovation Party candidate Bolivar Serrano suggested increasing agricultural production for local consumption instead of focusing on export.