It’s going to be close. For months, National Liberation Party (PLN) candidate and former President Oscar Arias has been predicted as the winner of Sunday’s election, but the latest round of polls released this week reveal that if he does win, it could be by single digits above the 40% necessary to avoid a runoff election on April 2.
While support for Arias fell as much as seven points in the last weeks of January, support for his principle rival Ottón Solís, of the Citizen Action Party (PAC), has shot up five points.
The polls haven’t swayed Arias’ notorious self-confidence.
“If someone is betting on a runoff, they will be greatly disappointed,” Arias told the press yesterday.
The candidate hasn’t slowed his effort to convince Costa Ricans to say Sí Oscar Arias. On Sunday, a sea of green-and-white Liberation flags filled San José’s Paseo Colón during the final Liberation rally. Green-andwhite mini-beach balls bounced around while vendors hawked meat on stick and little Arias dolls on sticks.
Entertainment on four stages was followed by speeches from Arias and his vicepresidential candidates, the words of which were punctuated with sound bites of campaign songs.
Despite these moments of enthusiasm, and organizers’ efforts, the rally was anti-climactic, in some ways reflecting an anti-climactic election. Less than half of the expected 60,000 supporters showed up, and many left early.
Analysts blame political apathy, a maturing voter population and changing party dynamics for the low interest in creating the festival-like atmosphere that once character-ized Costa Rican elections. Most candidates have shunned it altogether, opting for more straightforward campaigning such as door to- door visits and town hall meetings.
Whether this low enthusiasm for festivities translates to low voter turnout among Costa Rica’s 2.5 million voters could be a deciding factor in the election.
Six months ago, analysts said the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA) would be the central topic of the elections. Arias is a strong CAFTA supporter, while Solís has based much of his campaign on a call for renegotiation of the controversial agreement.
Analysts still consider the elections a referendum on CAFTA, but now turn to a bigger picture.
“People have connected CAFTA to what they consider an overall neoliberal vision of Costa Rican development,” said Constantino Urcuyo, analyst with the Center for Political Administration Research and Training (CIAPA).
Equally, the issue of a plan to overhaul Costa Rica’s tax system is not just about taxes, but rather what role the government will play in creating equality among citizens, explained Carlos Sojo, an analyst with Latin American Faculty of Social Studies (FLACSO).
And campaigns against corruption equate on a greater scale to rejections of the country’s traditional parties.
Urcuyo considers the single largest issue to be lack of governablity and leadership, an increasingly common criticism of the administration of President Abel Pacheco (TT, Jan. 20).
“Everyone wants direction and order in their lives, and right now the country doesn’t have it,” Urcuyo said.
Arias wins points here because people know he is capable. His first administration was “more or less good,” and he won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts negotiating Central American Peace, Urcuyo said.
National Liberation emotionally tapped into these memories at its rally Sunday by offering renditions of Arias’1986 campaign songs, including “Paz para mi gente, paz para mi pueblo.”
However, Arias’ past both favors and harms him.
“Some people remember the original sin – the Sala IV decision,” Sojo said, referencing the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) decision that annulled a 1968 constitutional amendment prohibiting Presidents from running for re-election after eight years, as is allowed in the original Constitution.
The decision, pushed by Arias, was highly criticized.
The Poll Story
Until last week, most of the polls put Arias’ lead at 45-49%. But a series of polls released this week dropped that lead to as low as 42.6%. The most drastic drop was revealed in an Unimer poll for the daily La Nación.
Arias fell from 49.6% in mid-January, to 42.6% in a survey of 1,200 voters taken Jan. 27-31. The poll claims a margin of error of 3.6%.
This same poll gives Solís 31.5%, up 26.3.% from last week.
Guevara is the only other candidate to make a mark in these polls, with between 12-15%. The remaining 11 candidates never break 6%, and seven of those don’t even get 1% of the vote in polls.
While the margin of error could put Arias below the coveted 40% mark, the candidate sees it the other way around.
“All the polls have shown us around 45%,” he said. “They are consistent with the polls by Liberation… These fluctuations are completely normal. There will be no runoff.”
Arias acknowledged that people who once supported smaller parties, and are against CAFTA, may now be joining ranks with Solís.
Solís says he has had the support all along.
“This (support) isn’t something that came at the last minute. It has been coming for months,” said the candidate, who has continuously claimed polls were inaccurate. Solís also points at abstention rates that vary in polls from 21% to 39%.
According to analysts, a higher voter turnout could benefit Solís, while Arias is more likely to win outright with a lower turnout.
Solís’ greatest support comes from the educated class, who find representation they haven’t had before in Solís. Forty-one percent of university-educated poll respondents support him, according to an Unimer poll published in the daily La Nación.
“They view in Solís their gladiator,” Urcuyo said. “He is not from a powerful political family. Rather his political path has been through education. So the educated middle class respects that.”
Many people in this sector, particularly in urban areas, feel they are the victims of the fall in Costa Rica’s quality of life and are seeking change, Sojo added.
Meanwhile, Arias’ support is well rounded, although it decreases as poll respondents get more educated and wealthier.
“Arias has the support of the economically powerful of the country, who feel the risk is less with him at the helm, giving continuity to the country’s macroeconomic path.
He also has support from people in the middle class, who respect Arias’s leadership and fear the country could be economically punished by the United States without CAFTA.
Finally, Arias has the support of the lower class, who may be more greatly moved by the past and are better managed by the political machinery of the Liberation party on a regional level,” Sojo said.