A Shifting Political Landscape

December 24, 2009

The year 2008 was a calm one in politics, according to that year’s State of the Nation report, but storm clouds began gathering as soon as 2009 began.

With an election on the horizon, campaign billboards and posters began dotting the Costa Rican landscape as early as January. By September, candidates had rolled up their sleeves and were firing hard-hitting criticisms of their oppositions’ missteps or unfulfilled promises.

But aside from the campaign, another  important event – one that could foreverchange the political landscape in Costa Rica – marked the year 2009. For the first time in the country’s history, judges sentenced one of Costa Rica’s ex-presidents to a prison term.

And it wasn’t just any president. Rafael Angel Calderón Fournier, son of one of the country’s most beloved presidents, Rafael Angel Calderón Guardia (who founded the Social Security System and the University of Costa Rica), was found guilty on charges of corruption in October. As he removed himself from the political scene in the wake of the trial, some analysts predicted his party, the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC), would soon follow suit.

The PUSC, which has traded presidential leadership roles with the rival National Liberation Party (PLN) since the 1940s and installed more than four of its own in Casa Presidencial during that time, lost much of its voter base in 2004 after two of its leaders (Calderón and former President Miguel Angel Rodríguez) were arrested and carted off to prison on corruption charges. Many pegged their hopes for the party’s revival on Calderón, believing that if anyone could get PUSC back in the political mix, he could.

But with Calderón out of the picture, his replacement – longtime party leader Luis Fishman – had shown little positive movement in the polls by mid-December.

The absence of a strong PUSC presence leaves the PLN’s candidate, former vice president Laura Chinchilla, without a strong challenger for the February 2010 elections. Her candidacy has consistently

claimed more than 43 percent in the polls, with the other eight contenders scrambling for the leftovers.

The only way Chinchilla might be moved out of first place (most candidates have come to accept) is if she were to pull in less than 40 percent of the vote on Feb. 7. This would force a runoff election. In the second round, Chinchilla’s contender would have to unite the opposition in order to derail what appears to be a sure-shot bid to be the next occupant of Casa Presidencial.

Chinchilla, a 50-year-old career politician, would be the country’s first female president. To many, she represents a continuation of the presidency of Oscar Arias. This is viewed positively by most, as Arias enjoys a 73 percent approval rating, the fifth highest rating of any president in the Americas, according to a recent CID-Gallup poll.

Still, analysts say Chinchilla must differentiate herself from Arias in order to have a comfortable lead on election day, as a good percentage of the voting base is looking for change.

With an open seat for the presidency, a recession and security problem to fix and new environmental laws to create, much of Costa Rica’s path in the coming decade will be defined in the next couple of months.

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