San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Wannabe Presidents Get to Work

Three leading presidential candidates from the governing National Liberation Party (PLN) are stepping up their campaigns in what promises to be a vigorous internal fight for the nomination.

Former Vice President Laura Chinchilla, San José Mayor Johnny Araya and former Public Security Minister Fernando Berrocal are canvassing the country to persuade party leaders to support them in a nationwide open primary in June.

Berrocal formally announced his candidacy for the 2010 elections Saturday in the southern town of La Lucha, where he laid flowers at the grave of party founder and three-time president José “Pepe” Figueres.

He also posted two videos declaring his intentions and outlining his platform on

Chinchilla will hold her first formal campaign event tomorrow in the Caribbeanslope town of Guápiles. Local party leaders will eat, socialize, play pickup soccer and hear Chinchilla speak, said Jorge Méndez, a PLN lawmaker helping to plan her agenda.

Araya, who will step down as mayor in January, will open his campaign headquarters this month on Paseo Colón in downtown San José, said his brother, PLN lawmaker Luis Carlos Araya.

In the February 2010 national elections, the PLN nominee will compete against candidates from the leftwing Citizen Action Party (PAC) and the traditionally centerright Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC), as well as an assortment of smaller parties.

For the other main parties, the nomination appears to be less contested. PUSC will likely choose former president Rafael Angel Calderón (1990-94), while PAC will likely nominate its founder, Ottón Solís, who ran for president in 2002 and 2006.

Chinchilla, who resigned from President Oscar Arias’ administration earlier this month, is seen as the president’s favorite. He has said a woman should succeed him, and he called Chinchilla “one of the most valuable women in Costa Rica.”

“I have been witness to the birth of several leaders,” he said earlier this month at a joint press conference. “I have seen leadership in you.”

He added, “I will applaud … every achievement that awaits you. As always, I am ready to help you with anything.”

The electoral code prohibits Arias from openly supporting a candidate. But at least 17 of the 25 PLN lawmakers in the Legislative Assembly back Chinchilla, according to Méndez and Luis Carlos Araya.

At a time when Ticos cite crime and violence as their principal worries, Chinchilla is brandishing her experience as public security minister and minister of justice. Chinchilla will also tout her commitment to fighting poverty, Méndez said.

Chinchilla’s campaign sees Johnny Araya as her fiercest competition. Some 32 percent of PLN sympathizers support Chinchilla, compared to 29 percent for Araya and 3 percent for Berrocal, according to a September Unimer poll published in the daily La Nación.

Araya, an agricultural engineer, has gained national prominence as a San José municipal leader for more than 20 years. He served on the municipal council from 1982 to 1986 and was appointed the municipal executive, then the mayor, from 1991 to 2002, when he won the first-ever popular municipal elections.

In tune with the electorate, Araya called crime his principal concern in an interview with the magazine Poder.

Araya is disturbed by the red tape that ties the executive’s hands and makes the country “ungovernable,” said his brother. If elected, he may call a constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution to fix the problem, Luis Carlos Araya said.

Johnny Araya will formally announce his candidacy when he steps down in January, but he has already begun meeting with local leaders on weekends, his brother said.

Berrocal, who polls poorly within his own party, is seeking to attract disillusioned voters from PAC and PUSC.

“When organized criminals attack a family, they don’t ask if the family is from PLN, PUSC or PAC, if it is leftwing or rightwing,” Berrocal said in a video.

The campaign is also targeting young people who have lost interest in political parties, as well as voters unhappy with Arias’ performance, said José Conejo, an adviser to Berrocal.

“(Chinchilla) is more of the same. She’s Oscar Arias’ candidate,” Conejo said.

Competing with Chinchilla as a crimefighter, Berrocal is highlighting his efforts to crack down on drug trafficking as public security minister from 2006 to 2008.

The electoral battle has already changed the mood in the Legislative Assembly, which typically passes few laws during presidential campaigns.

“We’ve felt some tension,” Méndez said. “But that’s nothing new. We’re in a political campaign. The Legislative Assembly is the sounding board for political life.”

On Monday night, the three candidates posed together for photos at the party’s 57th anniversary celebration.

“I know it’s going to be an intense fight,” said Luis Carlos Araya. “It has to be brotherly, though, so that we can come together in July for the national campaign.”

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