San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Elections Up In the Air

If recent history can tell us anything about elections in Costa Rica, it’s that

there’s no telling who will be the victor until the ballots are counted.

It can’t be called by the number of flags that flap outside the windows of cars, nor can it be determined by the frequency of campaign commercials on the radio. And, while we’d like to believe that pollsters could paint a picture of what will unfold on Election Day, they, historically have been wrong.

Since election season began, political analysts have been calling the race in favor of 50-year-old former Vice President Laura Chinchilla. The career politician, who’s served as Public Security minister, legislator and private consultant, is the nominee of the National Liberation Party (PLN) – the party with the best infrastructure, the largest campaign coffers and the most years in Casa Presidencial.

She even has the unofficial blessing of current President Oscar Arias, who has seen some of the highest approval ratings in the Americas during his four-year term. When Chinchilla resigned from the vice presidency in Oct. 2008 to initiate her campaign, Arias said that he’d like to see a female president.

Despite early predictions for Chinchilla, Costa Rican voters have a history of surprising the electorate.

Polling companies tried to predict the outcome in 2006 but, in the end, they were off by double digits when left-leaning academic Ottón Solís came within 18,000 votes of the presidency.

In 2002, the election was forced into a second round because neither PLN candidate Rolando Araya nor Social Christian Unity Party candidate Abel Pacheco was able to pull in enough votes (40 percent or better) to reach Casa Presidencial on the first vote. Pacheco won in the second round.

And in 1998, pollsters said Social Christian Unity Party (Unidad) candidate Miguel Angel Rodríguez would win by a landslide, but PLN contender José Miguel Corrales came within 3 percentage points on Election Day.

Elections in Costa Rica are a dynamic process, media expert Francisco Correa told The Tico Times.

“There is a strong tradition here of waiting until the last minute to decide,” he said. “We won’t know the success of the (campaigns) until Election Day.”


A Possible Second Round


For some candidates on the campaign trail, it’s not all about first place. Chinchilla could walk away with the most votes on Election Day, and they’d still be happy.

Their aim is to tip the votes so that Chinchilla receives less than the 40 percent required for an outright win, and take second place. Under Costa Rican election rules, the leading candidate needs to take at least 40 percent of the vote in order to avoid a runoff against the second-place finisher.

“For Laura not to come in first, there has to be a disaster in her campaign,” Alberto Cortés, a political science professor at the University of Costa Rica, told The Tico Times in December. “When you are speaking about possibilities, 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.”

Vying for the second place spot are two very different candidates: a right-wing attorney who pledges to move towards privatizing the economy and a left-leaning academic looking for tax hikes on the wealthy to fund a poverty eradication program.

The two candidates, Libertarian Movement Party (ML) candidate Otto Guevara (right-wing) and Citizen Action Party (PAC) candidate Ottón Solís (leftwing), who trade jokes on the campaign trail about their similar first names, are battling for the same base of undecided voters, despite their polarized ideologies.

According to some political analysts, Costa Rica’s election is not so much about right versus left. It’s more about the established, well-rooted PLN versus the near-majority of voters who want to see something different.

And both Guevara and Solís are targeting those party-less, change-seeking voters.

Guevara has been somewhat of a surprise on the campaign trail. A Harvard-educated lawyer, who at one time called for the privatization of the state’s health care and education systems (he now favors strengthening the state systems), Guevara has amassed unexpected support.

Eduardo Ulibarri, former editor of the leading daily La Nación, says Guevara’s simple messages of lower taxes, tougher security and the reduction of red tape have struck a chord with voters and launched him to within striking distance of Chinchilla.

Then there’s Solís, who already has proven his ability to rally the anti-establishment, change-seeking voters. In the 2006 presidential elections, he came within 2 percentage points of the presidency and, in 2007, his campaign nearly defeated a referendum on inclusion of Costa Rica in the Central American Free Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA).

Born in Pérez Zeledón in southern Costa Rica and educated at the University of Costa Rica and the University of Manchester in England, Solís spent the first half of his political career working with the National Liberation Party, serving as planning minister and as a legislator.

In the 1990s, he surrendered his green and- white flag (representing the PLN) and began stitching together the grassroots of his own political party, which became the PAC. His messages of anti-corruption, equal opportunity and citizen involvement resounded with voters and the new party was able to win 32 seats in the Legislative Assembly in 2002 and 2006, enough to lead the opposition against the PLN. But his support was not enough to win either of the presidential elections in those years.

Nor, for most of the campaign, has success in this presidential race seemed very promising for the candidate. Many Solís supporters have seemingly disappeared or migrated to the other side of the political spectrum to join Guevara, according to pollsters, and, in mid-January, banks cut off funding to the campaign because Solís’ presidential prospects looked so dim.

Nevertheless, Solís and his supporters are used to trailing in the polls, and they are far from giving in.

However, if the earlier estimates of pundits regarding diminishing support for Solís are accurate, the question becomes, where are his former supporters?

Ulibarri answered: “There is a certain percentage of Solís supporters who aren’t going to Guevara. They are those who are basing their vote more on ideology.

“But there is another group (of former Solís supporters) that simply wants to demonstrate their disappointment (with established political parties) and their desire to see change. Many of these people will vote for Guevara.”

It’s the candidate who can capitalize on the disenfranchised voter – the voter who would never vote for the established PLN – and who desperately wants change who will have success on Sunday, political analysts say.


An Historical Perspective


Traditionally, the base of Unidad has included those disenchanted by the PLN. Drawing its support from a wide gamut of people, including white-collar businessmen and families from the poorest barrios, Unidad has sent four of its own to Casa Presidencial.

But Unidad has been notably absent from the political scene since corruption charges against its two most prominent leaders were raised in 2004. At that time, party members watched as two of Unidad’s former presidents were imprisoned on charges of corruption.

In the subsequent election, the party lost 14 seats in the Legislative Assembly.

It was a watershed moment.

Costa Rica always had been dominated by a two-party system: a group loyal to the president who founded the University of Costa Rica and was father of the Social Security System (Caja), Rafael Angel Calderón Guardia; and and the other, followers of former President José ‘Pepe’ Figueres, a Costa Rican icon who led the victorious forces in the 1948 Civil War, abolished the army and founded the modern Costa Rican state.

The Figueristas formed the basis of the PLN. Those who subscribed to Calderonismo threw their support in Unidad.

Rafael Angel Calderón Fournier, son of Calderón Guardia and one of the two presidents arrested on corruption charges in 2004, attempted to revitalize Unidad when he announced his presidential aspirations in April 2009. But he was forced to withdraw his name in October, when judges sentenced him to a prison term of five years.

Party president Luis Fishman was left to pick up the pieces that remained of the party.

As the newly nominated Unidad presidential candidate, Fishman launched a massive, nationwide campaign, tagging himself as the candidate who could best fix the security problems. His slightly provocative commercials demanded attention and he turned heads with his self-inflicted label “el menos mal,” or “the least bad.”

Despite his best efforts, political analysts are calling the party too wounded and too fractured to make a difference in the polls. But Fishman, a former vice president and Public Security minister, is convinced his support is out there.

“The polls are not reflecting what we have been living in the communities,” Fishman told The Tico Times in a December interview. “In the communities we are in, which are the most vulnerable, the studies don’t penetrate because they are too afraid to enter. Among these people, we have been very satisfied with the reaction to our presidential campaign.”


The PLN Powerhouse


Laura Chinchilla has been vigilant about not claiming victory too soon. She learned from Oscar Arias, who nearly lost the presidential race in 2006, that she should not allow herself to become too confident.

Her campaign message has been carefully edited and refined, almost too much so in the sense it clouds aspects of her personality.

She’s tried to present herself as a middle-of-the-road candidate who can bring change to the country but, at the same time, maintain the stability and forward progress of the Arias regime.

If elected, Chinchilla – the twice-married mother of a 13-year-old son and who grew up in Desamparados, a working class neighborhood just south of San José – would be Costa Rica’s first female president. It would be an accomplishment Chinchilla she says she wouldn’t claim for herself, but would attribute to the women (and men) who came before her.

Activists have tried to maximize each party’s presence in the streets, polling companies have tried to call it through 1,000- people opinion surveys and political parties have claimed an electorate lead based on conversations in the country’s barrios.

But the only force that can determine the future of Costa Rica is the vote of the 2.8 million citizens expected at the polls on Sunday.

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