Costa Rica election: Why the left is lagging

Three of the four main candidates in Sunday's presidential race tilt toward the right. Among them, front-runner Laura Chinchilla could become the nation's first woman president.

By , Correspondent , Staff writer

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    Laura Chinchilla, presidential candidate for the National Liberation Party, waves to supporters after casting her vote for the presidential elections at a polling station in San Jose Sunday.
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    Ottón Solís, presidential candidate for the Citizens' Action Party, gives a thumbs-up during a news conference in his electoral campaign house in San Jose Saturday. The vote is Sunday.
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    Presidential candidate Otto Guevara, of the opposition Libertarian Movement party, gives a thumbs up to supporters as he leaves a soccer stadium during his last campaign trail stop on the outskirts of San Jose, Saturday. The vote is Sunday.
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The left has always been less powerful in Costa Rica than in other Latin American countries, but it's never been as absent as today.

Three of the four main candidates in Sunday's presidential race tilt toward the right, espousing open markets, lower taxes, and more streamlined government. Among them is a widely-popular Libertarian candidate, who has surged in polls in recent months and at one time called for the privatization of the country’s beloved public health system.

Today's lone left-leaning candidate, Ottón Solís, lost the previous presidential vote by just two percentage points in 2006. Now, he lags in third place, averaging just 14.2 percent of the vote, according to polls leading up to the race. Political analysts say 78 percent of voters will choose a candidate on the right.

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“Where the left has gone in this election is a mystification,” says Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington.

Why the left is lagging

Part of the reason the left is lagging in this race can be attributed to the popularity of outgoing president Oscar Arias, a Nobel laureate from the right-of-center National Liberation Party (PLN) who ushered in the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and most recently was called upon to broker the political standoff in neighboring Honduras. His party’s candidate, Laura Chinchilla, could capture more than 40 percent of votes Sunday, avoiding a runoff.

"We are going to win, and in the first round,” said Ms. Chincilla, who would become the country's first woman president if elected.

The muted left is also due to the surge of Libertarian Otto Guevara, a pro-business candidate who wants to scrap the local currency for the US dollar and is widely being viewed as an alternative to the traditional political classes in Costa Rica.

“There are a lot of people out there that say, ‘I will vote for anyone as long as they aren’t with National Liberation Party,’” says Carlos Denton, president of the San José-based polling company CID-Gallup.

Mr. Guevara, a Harvard-educated attorney, is an attractive choice for those disillusioned with the current administration, Mr. Denton says. “He came on strong, he came on well-funded, and he motivated a lot of [voters].”

One such voter is taxi driver Álvaro Palomo. He had voted for Solís in the 2006 election, but was more impressed with Guevara in this one.

“The truth is that we need change," says Mr. Palomo. "Guevara represents fresh ideas. He’s come in with some great proposals. I think he can really make a difference in Costa Rica. To me, [Solís] has lost some credibility and he doesn’t bring anything new.”

The lure of 'outsiders'

Across Latin America, voters have exhibited a desire to bring in candidates from the “outside.”

“Latin America’s traditional parties are tainted by corruption, blatant clientelism, and cronyism,” says Carlos Guevara-Mann, a research fellow at the Kellogg Institute for International Studies at the University of Notre Dame and an expert in Panamanian politics. “Voters are fed up and hope outsiders will clean up government and straighten out the political scenario."

Last May, Panamanians elected as president Ricardo Martinelli, a conservative supermarket tycoon who touted himself as an alternative to the candidates of traditional parties. Mr. Martinelli replaced center-left Martín Torrijos.

In Honduras, conservative landowner Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo just took over the presidency after left-leaning Manuel Zelaya was ousted from power over the summer. And conservative Sebastián Piñera won the presidency in Chile this year, taking power from Chile's left-leaning alliance for the first time in 20 years.

No ideological shift

But analysts do not say that an ideological shift is under way, particularly in countries like Costa Rica, where political divides are not stark. The far-left in countries such as Nicaragua or El Salvador never found political ground in Costa Rica, a country that has long pitched itself as the democratically stable “Switzerland of the Americas.”

“There are no particular ideological constructs in Costa Rica,” says Kevin Casas-Zamora, former vice president of Costa Rica under President Arias and now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “For most voters, the decision is between more traditional options and emerging ones. It’s the established politics versus those who are critical of the current administration. You can’t see Costa Rican politics through the lens of left and right.”

Who might win?

Chinchilla, who served as vice president under Arias before launching her presidential bid, supports free trade and is socially conservative on issues such as abortion. She had enjoyed a wide lead in polls, but in recent months both Guevara and Solís have gained ground.

Guevara has appealed to those Costa Ricans seeking political alternatives, promising to make the government more efficient and taking a hard stance against crime. His platform, while not easily pigeonholed, is considered to the right of the ruling party.

Solís, of the Citizen Action Party, is on his third attempt to win the presidency. He led the opposition to CAFTA, which was almost scrapped in 2007 with his help, but is considered a “lighter” left than leftists in other countries in Latin America.

Although Solís has narrowed his opponents’ leads, he remains far behind. Still, his supporters maintain that faulty polling may be to blame, and that they stand a good chance of grabbing power.

“Four years ago, the polls said Oscar Arias was ahead by 25 percent,” says Rodrigo Cabezas, a Solís supporter and a founder of the Citizen Action Party. “We knew it was wrong. Come Election Day, the difference was less than 2 percent."

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