San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

The Race for Second Place

For eight of the nine presidential candidates, the February 2010 election is no longer about first place. Sure, everyone tries to be number one.

But facing the National Liberation Party (PLN) powerhouse and its candidate, Laura Chinchilla, who has yet to dip below a 10 percent lead in the polls, the top slot seems increasingly out of reach for other candidates.

Most candidates have their sights on second place. Their hope is that Chinchilla will take less than 40 percent of the vote on Feb. 7. According to the election code, this would force the two leading candidates into a run-off.

“For Laura not to come in first, there has to be a disaster in her campaign,” said  Alberto Cortés, a political science professor at the University of Costa Rica. “When you are speaking about probability, yes, Laura could lose. Anything could happen.

What is more likely is that the election would be forced into a second round. And, if it goes to a second round, it’s more likely she could lose.”

Luis Fishman, who entered the race late as the candidate for the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC), admitted that his goal for now is to be runner-up to Chinchilla, “By January, we hope to be in second place.”

In a second round, the candidate facing Chinchilla would have a better chance of succeeding, not necessarily because of what he represents, but because he’s not of the PLN, said political analyst Carlos Denton, co-founder and president of the market research firm CID-Gallup.

“There are a lot of people out there who don’t like the PLN,” he said. “And that’s enough to motivate them to vote for the other candidate, no matter where he lies on the political spectrum.”

According to Denton, the PUSC has historically been successful because the party has been able to unite the opposition to the PLN colossus.

When support in the 2006 election for the PUSC collapsed due to corruption scandals, the newly formed, left-leaning Citizen Action Party (PAC) united the opposition.

Their candidate, Ottón Solís, nearly beat the PLN, unexpectedly coming within two percentage points of Oscar Arias in the general election.

For Denton, Solís’ lack of showing in the polls this year is a puzzle. In nearly every poll on the upcoming election, Solís has failed to climb out of the teens.

“What surprises me most is the way Ottón Solís is collapsing,” he said. “This is a guy who came 18,000 votes from the presidency in the last election. Where are those Solís voters going? Are they not going to vote?”

And at the same time that Solís has yet to stir voter response, Libertarian Movement candidate Otto Guevara has climbed into second place, capturing the support of 30 percent of prospective voters in some polls.

If these studies are accurate – and they all seem to reflect the same thing – more than 65 percent of Costa Ricans are aligning themselves with center to right-of-center candidates.

Cortés questions whether voters are choosing Guevara for his ideology or for his flashy campaign commercials.

“Guevara has been very effective in his publicity,” Cortés said. “But I think there is ignorance as to what is behind a candidate like Otto Guevara. I don’t think people know what he stands for. Unfortunately, I think people are behind him because his advertisements have triggered their emotions.”

Despite the relative absence of the left and the surging presence of the right, Cortés said there are many moving pieces in this election and Costa Rica could still be surprised.

“A recent study we did showed that there’s a significant number of the voting base – large enough that it could change the result – that is undecided,” he said. “They don’t know who they are going to vote for or if they are even going to vote. So, looking ahead, we are still on very volatile ground.”

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