San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Araya and Villalta trade blows at presidential debate focused on government corruption

Corruption took center stage Monday night at the latest of several presidential debates, with seven candidates turning questions on the economy, transportation and national unity to a focus on the shortcomings of the current and recent administrations.

Monday’s debate included the top two candidates in polls, the ruling National Liberation Party’s (PLN) Johnny Araya and his progressive rival, the Broad Front Party’s José María Villalta, who took multiple moments to attack each other.

After several candidates had taken swipes at the corruption of the current administration run by President Laura Chinchilla of the PLN, a debate moderator asked the candidates for their proposals to fight corruption, a question submitted from viewers via social media networks. Araya said he would reform the executive office.

“You don’t combat corruption with more laws,” Araya said. “It’s necessary to bring the people closer to the administration, doing more open public management, (being) more transparent. For this reason we support a digital government, which permits citizens to access all types of information on any state institution.”

Araya went on to suggest “citizen observatories” should oversee big-spending projects.

Villalta, fielding the same question, attacked Araya’s reply, starting off with a call to investigate current members of government.

“It’s not citizen observatories, Don Johnny,” Villalta said. “It’s really necessary to have truthful authorities. … The most important thing (is that) we cannot continue to vote for the same people who are responsible for (current) corruption.”

The debate marked a second straight day of hearing candidates on the same stage in downtown San José. With 13 total candidates, the debate hosts, the Supreme Elections Tribunal (TSE), split the candidates into two groups. The first day, Sunday, saw candidates such as Libertarian Movement’s Otto Guevara and Citizen Action Party’s (PAC) Luis Guillermo Solís. Joining Villalta and Araya on Monday was Social Christian Unity’s (PUSC) nominee, Rodolfo Piza.

In addition to Piza, the debate included conservative candidates Justo Orozco of the evangelical Costa Rican Renovation Party and José Echandi of the National Advancement Party. Orozco, who read all of his pre-written answers from a sheet of paper, drew jeers when he claimed to be the best candidate because he is “good at problem-solving,” an attribute he claimed to pick up “as a math teacher.”

Araya also generated quick criticism on social media networks when he linked himself to Liberation founders, saying he’s the same candidate as the ones “who abolished the army.”

Dressed in his traditional white suit, Oscar López, of the Accessibility Without Exclusion Party, which is focused on improving the lives of the disabled, answered in line with his right-of-center views, especially on social issues, drawing little reaction from the TSE crowd or on social media.

Rounding out the stage was Sergio Mena of the New Generation Party, recently formed in 2010, who generated a surprisingly positive response among followers of the debate on Twitter.

“I don’t need to ask for forgiveness for the past. I offer hope for the future,” Mena said. 

Because of the two-hour debate’s crowded field, debate moderators limited candidates to one-minute responses. Candidates took advantage of this format to make platitudes or poke humorous jabs at their opponents. The audience at TSE’s auditorium consisted mainly of groups of party adherents who punctuated their candidates’ responses with applause.

Araya appeared to distance himself from solely being the candidate of PLN during the debate, repeatedly arguing that the next president of Costa Rica needs to unify the country, and that his support extends beyond party lines.

“Right now National Liberation has 24 members of the Legislative Assembly,” Araya said. “There are 30 (lawmakers) who support my candidacy. There are more than 60 mayors supporting my candidacy, because they know that the country needs to be in agreement.”

Villalta took an aggressive approach, reminding the audience of the widespread political disillusionment in the country.

“Many people say that I don’t have experience,” said Villalta, who at 36 is the youngest of the candidates. “But what I don’t have experience in is government corruption.”

Villalta broached the issue of tourism in his rebuttals, saying the current government has impoverished the touristy coastal and border regions by catering only to high-scale tourism and not smaller rural tourism companies.

Piza, who spoke brusquely throughout the night, piled on the characterizations of the current government saying his administration would be different.

But none of the candidates disagreed that more consensus and less political bickering were crucial in the next administration.

Said Piza: “Costa Rica needs to find consensus and a government of national unity.”

Debate TSE 1

Candidates pose before the Monday debate at the TSE in downtown San José. From left to right, Oscar Andres López, José María Villalta, José Manuel Echandi, Johnny Francisco Araya, Justo Orozco, Rodolfo Emilio Piza and Sergio Mena.

Alberto Font

Contact Corey Kane at ckane@ticotimes.net5

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