Voters gave Laura Chinchilla their resounding support during Sunday’s primary elections, making it a real possibility that Costa Rica could have a female president in 2010.
According to the latest results, Chinchilla was 13 percentage points ahead of San José Mayor Johnny Araya, who had received 42 percent of the votes (118,296) and even further ahead of former Public Security Minister Fernando Berrocal, with 3 percent (8,336.)
“The election marks a page in the history books,” said Fernando Zeledón, political science professor at the University of Costa Rica. “Women have been legislators, ministers and presidents of organizations (in Costa Rica), but never a serious candidate for president.”
And many pundits tilt February’s victory in Chinchilla’s favor.
Her party – the National Liberation Party (PLN) – stands unrivaled in its popularity, drawing more than a half million voters in Sunday’s primary election that still had ballot counters busy at week’s end.
The Citizen Action Party (PAC), which was the only other political party to hold a primary, did not attract nearly as many voters. Their election the week before, which was open only to party members, drew a mere 22,950.
“(The PLN) has a longer history, more experience and more resources to draw on,” said Zeledón, “which puts them in a stronger position going ahead. But a lot of (Chinchilla’s) success depends on how the campaigns develop.”
Zeledón said that, despite popular belief, a Chinchilla presidency is not guaranteed. She faces two-time presidential candidate Ottón Solís, who founded the PAC, and former President Rafael Angel Calderón of the Social Christian Unity Party, whose father is credited with the creation of the Social Security System and the University of Costa Rica. The Libertarian Movement, which garnered 8 percent of the vote in the 2006 presidential race, also will field a candidate.
San José came alive on Sunday as campaign flags flapped outside the windows of honking vehicles, green and white paraphernalia decorated fences and buildings, and the streets were clogged with traffic at voting centers.
“It’s beautiful,” said Norma Cecilia Castro, as she directed voters to tables in the Liceo de San José school in Barrio Mexico. “There is a lot of voting and the people are happy.”
Pointing to a line of voters 12 deep, she said, “Look at the lines. It’s wonderful.” Miguel Jiménez had voted in Tibas, but accompanied his mother to the polls in Barrio Mexico that afternoon.
“In Costa Rica, (voting) is an important right that we have,” he said. “And we should take advantage of it.”
In Pavas, the lines ran 20 or 30 people long, but that didn’t deter people from waiting.
“It goes quickly,” said voter Alvaro Ovares. .
Other polling stations weren’t as lively.
Voters at the Escuela Metálica next to Parque Espana in downtown San José trickled in sporadically and at times there were lulls of up to a half hour with no voters.
Party leaders were expecting a voter turnout of 400,000, but, as of Monday afternoon, they had collected 593,000 green ballots.
“We are very happy with the turnout,” said Francisco Pacheco, president of the National Liberation Party (PLN), late Sunday night. “The participation of the voters was massive.”
Johnny Araya and Laura Chinchilla had fought a close race from the beginning, and pollsters had predicted that either one could win. However, two weeks before Ticos would flood voting centers, a poll by Unimer published in the daily La Nación put Chinchilla ahead with an 11-point lead over Araya (45 percent to 34 percent).That poll marked a turning point in the campaign because – up until its publication – analysts and surveys had projected a much narrower race between the two candidates.
In prior surveys, CID-Gallup placed Chinchilla at 45 percent to Araya’s 42 percent. And Borge and Associates expected Chinchilla would get 46.6 percent of the vote to Araya’s 41.9 percent.
“Without diminishing or questioning the result of Unimer’s study … this can be the incentive that people need to unite in the movement for change under Johnny Araya,” read a statement that came from Araya’s campaign headquarters the week of La Nación’s poll.
At the polling stations visited by The Tico Times, Araya’s team had organized fleets of vehicles to take supporters to the polls. Loudspeakers blasted campaign songs, and campaign workers distributed preprinted ballots with Araya’s name checked, lest voters forget who they were voting for when they walked into the station.
Yet, as poll workers began arriving at the Liberation Party’s headquarters with plasticbags full of ballots that night, and as the media hounded them for early results, it became clear that the election was favoring Chinchilla.
PLN Names a Victor
On Sunday night at 9:30, after a mere 18 percent of the ballots had been counted, Araya delivered his concession speech in front of an audience of solemn supporters.
“I accept the results and I ask Costa Rica to accept the results,” said Araya, who will return to his role as mayor in two weeks. “Now is a time to unite (the party). …This is not the end of anything, this is the beginning.”
His words were swallowed by the chants of “Laura, Laura” at his rival’s headquarters in Sabana Norte, in western San José.
Displayed on a wide screen in the outdoor patio, Araya’s speech barely could be heard above the celebrating fans, who waved campaign flags and filled the night air with a constant stream of chants.
Chinchilla, who hadn’t been seen since the polls closed, arrived minutes later.
Thanking the people who worked with her on the campaign, she said, “You brought out the aspirations of our citizens…Thank you for your confidence and effort.”
Many attribute her success to the high approval ratings of current President Oscar Arias. Chinchilla served under him as a vice president and, when she resigned in late 2008 to launch her campaign, Arias gave her his blessing.
Chinchilla dismissed the claim, telling The Tico Times, “The president cannot get involved in the campaign because there are prohibitions against it. The Constitution impedes (an endorsement). Yet, he has talked about my character and the leadership I can offer to Costa Rica, and that moral support is very important for me” (TT, May 8).
She said during her victory speech that her plan is to “construct a government based on the work of Oscar Arias.”
But she also pledged to “protect ecological wealth…recover peace and tranquillity… and (work to build) a united and safe country.”
Flanked by her son and tearing father, who served for 15 years as the country’s comptroller, Chinchilla said, “We have many achievements to defend. We have many new dreams (to pursue). The future remains to be written by all of us.”
To watch scenes from the election, visit this article online at www.ticotimes.net