Alhough 70 percent of Costa Ricans live in the Central Valley, the Feb. 7 presidential election is not going to be decided by the greater metropolitan area vote alone.
Farming towns, beach communities and isolated mountain villages have the opportunity to tip the election in favor of any of the candidates. In fact, some political analysts credit the rural vote for President Oscar Arias’s victory in 2006.
“Recent elections have been won by small percentages,” said Alberto Cortés, a political science lecturer at the University of Costa Rica. “Every vote is important. The countryside is no small part.”
Areas outside the Central Valley typically have been dominated by the National Liberation Party (PLN), thanks to its “organizational abilities”, said Cortés. But Libertarian Movement candidate Otto Guevara is starting to challenge that stronghold with several tours of his own.
The right-leaning, Harvard-educated lawyer – who has surprised many political pundits with his improving poll ratings –is in the middle of a whirlwind, nine-day “rally” during which he will visit 79 of Costa Rica’s 83 cantons.
Libertarian strategy director Roger Retana said much of Guevara’s support comes from these so-called periphery populations.
“In fact, we have had more support outside of the Central Valley than here,” Retana said. “The rural sector has been a population that has been abandoned by the government. They see Otto as the new candidate, as an alternative to the PLN and as a candidate who can improve their quality of life.”
The rural population also has become a fundamental part of the Citizen Action Party’s (PAC) campaign.
“In 2006, we might have won, if we’d had the vote of the rural zones,” said Víctor Morales, campaign operations manager for PAC candidate and party founder Ottón Solís. “So this has become a special focus of ours in this election.”
The challenge for PAC is getting their message to people living in rural zones. “People will not vote for us because of tradition, because their fathers did or their grandfathers did. No, it will be because we’ve been able to convince them of our ideas,” Morales said.
Recognizing their weakness in these areas, PAC launched a forceful campaign to publicize its platform in Guanacaste, in coastal zones and in the northern reaches of Alajuela province.
And, in some areas, it’s worked.
“Here, Ottón Solís will win,” said Oscar Monge, mayor of Aguirre, which includes Quepos and Manuel Antonio, on the central Pacific. “Then Otto Guevara. Then Laura Chinchilla.”
Asked why this is the case, Monge responded that many residents in Aguirre have been influenced by negative advertising, which affects the governing PLN more than others.
“But also,” Monge added, “People here are very machista. They don’t want a woman to govern.”
The gender of the next president apparently isn’t a consideration for the people of Siquirres. According to independent Mayor Edgar Cambronero, “People here have more attachment to her than to the other candidates.”
Playing the Game Outside San José
Cortés said there’s not much difference in the way campaigns are conducted within, versus outside, the Central Valley.
With mediums of communication such as television, radio and newspapers that reach the remotest corners of Costa Rica, it’s not like candidates are conducting two different campaigns, he said.
But Cortés admitted that dialogue tends to be tuned to address issues of local concern when candidates swing through rural communities.
“People want to talk about issues that are affecting their area. Therefore, candidates have to respond to that,” he said. “This is one difference between urban and rural campaigning.”
Laura Chinchilla is appealing to rural voters by talking about her strong advocacy of decentralization and municipal reinforcement, according to Chinchilla’s campaign manager, René Castro.
Solís’ strategists are carrying the message of more employment for rural zones, an issue they’ve been told is a key concern during their visits to the countryside.
Aside from a discourse tailored to those living outside the Central Valley, another difference of rural campaigning involves the rhythm – one that involves town hall meetings and long chats in the homes of citizens.
Ottón Solís’s wife, Shirley Sánchez, noticed this difference during Solis’ first run for the presidency in 2002.
She told The Tico Times in October of last year that campaigning in rural areas “is very different from campaigning in the city.
In the city, if you go knock on a door, you hand the people the brochure and they thank you. And that’s it. In rural zones, you have to start very early and be prepared to spend a lot more time in discussion.”