Latin America

Costa Ricans say “no” to a leftist presidential candidate

A centrist and center-right contender will face each other in April runoff

San José (Costa Rica) -
Luis Guillermo Solís (c) celebrates his victory on Sunday, which will take him to a runoff.
Luis Guillermo Solís (c) celebrates his victory on Sunday, which will take him to a runoff.Jeffrey Arguedas (EFE)

Costa Ricans will cast their ballots on April 6 in a runoff election that will pit ruling National Liberation Party (PLN) candidate Johnny Araya against center-right Luis Guillermo Solís of the Citizens Action Party (PAC), both of whom finished top in a tight race in Sunday’s presidential elections.

José María Villalta, the Broad Front’s candidate who was gaining strength in the polls and was the left’s best shot at capturing the presidency in years, only garnered 17.13 percent of the vote and won’t be running in the second round.

It was only the second time in Costa Rican history that no presidential candidate was able to obtain the 40-percent minimum of votes needed to win the election. Official figures on Monday showed that Solís won 30.98 percent while Araya, who just three months ago was favored to win, captured 29.57 percent.

Araya blamed his inability to seize the presidency in the first round on the surging criticism lodged against President Laura Chinchilla’s government.

Villalta campaigned on a platform mimicking many of the social policies introduced by Hugo Chávez

Villalta, who had campaigned on a platform mimicking many of the social policies introduced in Venezuelan by its late President Hugo Chávez, sought to take advantage of the growing discontentment with the Chinchilla administration. Just weeks ago, his meteoric rise in the polls sparked concerns by businessmen and conservative groups, who feared he would bring Latin America’s oldest democracy into the regional realm of leftist nations. More specifically, they accused Villalta of planning to turn Costa Rica into a communist nation – a charge he repeatedly denied.

The 36-year-old deputy tried to convince voters that his proposed policies were much more centrist but members of his own Broad Front party upstaged him with fiery rhetoric that contradicted the candidate’s own discourse.

Despite his poor poll results, the Broad Front party won nine seats in the National Assembly. Villalta had been the only deputy representing his party during this current term.

While most Costa Ricans enjoy a high standard living compared to the rest of Latin America and have solid healthcare, high public education standards and job security, concern over social inequalities has been growing in the past decade. Around 20 percent of Costa Ricans live in poverty while the country’s unemployment rate stands at 10 percent despite a fast-growing economy.

Voter abstention in Sunday’s race was estimated at around 32 percent, a similar figure from the 2010 elections.

Public discontentment with traditional politicians may have helped boast Solís’s popularity. When he began his presidential campaign, he was considered a new face: he had never held any type of elected office and had only been a member of the PAC for eight years. Only one out of six Costa Ricans knew his name.

He stayed above the public debates and rivalry between Araya and Villalta, but within the next few weeks he and his opponent will be looking for alliances with the other parties.

“There won’t be any type of negotiations in the coming weeks that won’t be known publicly. This is the way the PAC has always acted, everything above the table,” he said in his speech to supporters on Sunday.

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