Presidential Elections a Surprising Squeaker

December 22, 2006

We just didn’t see it coming.

Many pollsters and journalists, along with presidential candidate Oscar Arias,were caught off guard when Arias, depicted as the assured front-runner throughout much of the 2005-2006 presidential campaign, found himself neck-and-neck with challenger Ottón Solís as the results rolled in Feb. 5.

As a month of manual recounts eventually determined that Arias had won by just over one percentage point – a margin of 18,169 votes, only 0.92% above the 40% minimum necessary to avoid a second round – citizens, analysts and politicians were left to wonder how the surprising nail biter had come about, and what it meant for the country’s politics.

It was clear in the weeks before Election Day that the contest would be close. Support for former President Arias (1986-1990), of the National Liberation Party (PLN), fell by as much as seven points in various polls during the last weeks of January, and support for Solís, of the relatively new Citizen Action Party (PAC), shot up. However, the Arias campaign, which in 2005 had been so confident about its candidate’s victory that it shifted focus to the Legislative Assembly, remained confident.

On Election Day, when supporters of various parties filled the streets with colorful T-shirts and flags, Arias saw his estimated 10% lead over Solís drop to just fractions of a percentage point. According to analysts and pollsters, corruption scandals and major parties’ inability to make themselves stand out have reduced party loyalty in recent years; as a result, many voters made up, or changed, their minds at the last minute.

The Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA), which Arias supports and Solís opposes, was also a major factor. When Arias was named the official President-elect in March, he said he was prepared to address the clear divisions in the country by building “bridges with those who oppose us.”

Despite allegations of election irregularities that emerged during the manual count, mostly from members of PAC, the country kept its calm throughout the entire process.

Voters chose a divided assembly, giving Liberation only 25 seats in the 57-member Congress. PAC won 17 seats, the Libertarian Movement six, and four smaller parties one seat each. The Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC), whose decline was the other big story of the election, went from the leading party in the assembly to a group of only five legislators. PUSC presidential candidate Ricardo Toledo won only 3.55% of the vote.

Crippled by corruption allegations against the two most recent Presidents from the party and criticism of the third, Abel Pacheco, whom Arias succeeded in May, Unity watched its supporters flee to other parties. The Libertarian Movement candidate, Otto Guevara, finished third with 8.48%.

In December, municipal elections were held to choose the country’s 81 mayors and 4,870 other local officials. Abstention, which totaled approximately 35% in February’s elections, reached a whopping 75% –though, believe it or not, that figure represents a 1% improvement over 2002’s municipal elections, the first in Costa Rican history.

Liberation took the day with 59 mayoral seats, and PUSC dropped from 48 seats to only 11; leaders from a wide range of parties, including Liberation, called on legislators to change the date of the elections and increase public funding for campaigns to reduce abstention.

Perhaps the year’s most faithful voters were members of the Foundation for the Progress of Blind People, who made their own Braille ballot covers for February’s elections, saying they were sick of having to express their preferences aloud or rely on a friend in a country where the Constitution includes the right to a secret vote. In December, the Supreme Elections Tribunal (TSE) created its version of the Braille ballots for the first time in the country’s history.

 

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