A month is an eternity in politics. Today it is difficult to remember when Johnny Araya was actually campaigning to be president. It is even more difficult to remember his parting words and offers of assistance to the Citizen Action Party and Luis Guillermo Solís on the occasion of Araya’s premature exit from the campaign.
While it is easy to see how Johnny’s “absence has made hearts grow fonder” of him, perhaps it is equally important to recall his parting words from those distant days of early March to best determine how trustworthy the National Liberation Party leadership is in their fulfillment of campaign promises, even when those promise were tantamount to the campaign’s dying wishes.
In the final official speech of his campaign, Araya said the PLN was “preparing to exercise a responsible opposition” to Solís’ PAC government as “the historic mission of Liberation surpasses a race for the presidency.” Admitting the lack of resources and time to change the electorate’s view of him and the PLN, he suggested it would be “unethical to use ignoble tactics to change the voters’ perceptions.”
Antonio Álvarez Desanti, Araya’s campaign manager, was equally magnanimous, claiming “the decision of Don Johnny [to leave the campaign] was the decision of a statesman to give his adversary the freedom of time and space to prepare his next government. “ After all, he said, “The [PLN] campaign will evaporate in the coming days. What follows is a mere formality and mere process, and we understand that the election results will be in favor of PAC.”
One wonders how the candidate and his campaign manager could be so wrong about their own political party. This last month has witnessed no respect for the supposed statesman-like decision of Araya to admit defeat and leave electioneering in the past. Nor has the PLN campaign evaporated as Álvarez Desanti promised. The new campaign leadership headed by Bernal Jiménez and a cast of PLN regulars now insist on debates. It usually takes two to tango, and presidential debates without a presidential candidate are quite rare in politics. But the lack of a standard-bearer will not deter the PLN.
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Lawmaker Luis Gerardo Villanueva in a press conference with the new electoral leadership declared that “this is a political campaign – not only a contest between candidates, but also a contest of ideas and programs.” Ideas and programs that PLN lawmaker-elect Ronald González claims PAC is now stealing from them.
Are the ideas and programs PLN wishes to debate those that they could have implemented in the last eight years when they controlled the presidency and the Legislative Assembly? Are the proposals PAC has allegedly stolen from PLN the ones they refused to develop in the last near-decade of their reign? Or are they perhaps the corrupt policies and scandal-laden programs PLN actually implemented to the benefit of a few and at the expense of many?
No matter what subject they would treat, political debates go well beyond the “mere formality and mere process” of a foregone election that Álvarez Desanti promised oh-so-few weeks ago.
Campaign ads also are suggestive of a campaign. Without money to air them, the newest ad for PLN has had to circulate exclusively through social media. Negative in tone, it recalls the PLN’s campaign of fear aimed at the Broad Front Party’s José María Villalta. But in this ad, the target is an expressive Luis Guillermo Solís pumping up his supporters at a campaign rally.
A daughter watching Solís on TV asks her father why he is so angry: “He isn’t angry, he is happy,” says her father. The 32-second spot then shows the PAC candidate calling for an end to the corruption of the past, in Spanish repeatedly shouting, “¡No más chorizo!” When the daughter asks the father why he is yelling this, the father responds, “This is a term he uses when he wants to offend us Liberacionistas.”
Meant to raise the ire of insulted Liberacionistas, the ad certainly seems to employ the very “ignoble tactics” that candidate Araya claimed were beneath him. It also misfires, as it tries to have rank-and-file Liberation members share the blame for the corruption and scandal of their elected officials. Instead of convincing the PLN rank and file that “No más chorizo” is an insult to them, it begs the questions, “Shouldn’t PLN members be insulted by their leadership exercising the resources of the state as if they existed primarily to enrich them personally? Shouldn’t voters be angered by it? Shouldn’t Costa Ricans be as excited as the PAC candidate by the prospect of ending political corruption?”
Unable to be honest during their eight years of victory, the PLN has demonstrated that neither can they be trusted in defeat. Araya’s offer to allow PAC to organize the Assembly also has fallen on the deaf ears of eager incoming PLN lawmakers who, desirously clinging to power, would rather ally with the neoliberals of the Libertarian Movement Party and the members of the Costa Rican religious right than look for solutions to national problems.
A party in disarray, PLN’s leadership no longer knows what their principles are. These values apparently were never represented by their presidential candidate; Araya was so quickly pushed aside and so easily ignored that his advice, appeals and final wishes go unheeded. Neither does the PLN leadership see these principles in their former head of campaign, Álvarez Desanti. His pledges regarding the end of the political campaign were easily trampled by a more power-hungry faction of the PLN in obvious fear that with defeat will come an end to their political largess.
This frenzied turmoil in the last days before voters go to the polls recalls words from the famous Dylan Thomas poem: “Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
It may be more than the death of a campaign voters are witnessing. It may be the lights going out on the aged and infirm leadership of the PLN.
May they rest in peace.
Gary L. Lehring is a professor of government at Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts. He is on sabbatical in Costa Rica. Read more of his columns by clicking on the hashtag #Elections 2014.