Costa Rica's surprise presidential election outcome (+video)

Solís, who proposed cracking down on corruption and improving infrastructure, came from behind to win 31 percent of votes in Costa Rica's election over the weekend. He's now a frontrunner in the April runoff.

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    Luis Guillermo Solís, presidential candidate for the Citizens' Action Party, speaks to the media in San Jose February 3, 2014.
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An unexpected candidate in Costa Rica’s presidential race surprised voters and the ruling National Liberation Party (PLN) last night, sprinting to the front of a crowded field of 13 presidential hopefuls, and forcing the country into its second ever runoff election, the first since 2002.

Luis Guillermo Solís of the progressive Citizen Action Party (PAC), was still in a distant fourth place in the polls at the beginning of January, but support surged over the past few weeks following a strong debate performance. Mr. Solís has promised to focus on alleviating inequality, improving public infrastructure, and fighting corruption.

“We started this election with 5 percent and we ended with 31 percent of the public’s support,” says Robert Tomás, a Solís supporter at a campaign rally Sunday night.

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“We knew the polls didn’t reflect the scene. We’re going to win in the second round,” Mr. Tomás says.

“I think it’s a wake up call to those traditional parties,” says Eric Olsen, associate director of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Latin America Program.

“[Costa Ricans] are looking for a government that worries about the middle class, poor people, the inequality issues … a pretty strong left of center agenda,” Mr. Olsen says.

“Costa Rica clearly was not looking for a complete redirection but one that looks like it included a strong alternative to what Liberación Nacional has been offering for the last several decades.”

'Tsunami' of change?

At the latest count Monday morning, Solís, a historian and former diplomat who has never held elected office before, remained in the lead with 31.03 percent of the vote. He was followed by ruling PLN candidate Johnny Araya with 29.55 percent. No candidate exceeded the 40 percent needed to avoid a runoff, and the Supreme Election Tribunal officially announced a second round election for April 6.

Leftist Broad Front candidate José María Villalta, who had maintained a strong second-place lead since December, won only 17.13 percent of the vote, and gave a bitter concession speech Sunday night where he told supporters the election was now between “the Right wingers and Right wingers who steal,” referring to Solís and Araya, respectively.

“The wave that rose had turned into a great tsunami that has forever washed away traditional politics,” Solís boasted after news broke that he overtook Araya last night.

Solís has had an uphill fight to explain his social positions in this deeply conservative country. He supports abortion in cases of rape, currently not legal in Costa Rica, and civil unions for same-sex couples without supporting gay marriage.

Faced with a growing fiscal deficit that reached 5.4 percent of GDP and public spending accounting for over 50 percent of GDP in 2013, Solís has said he would prioritize the needs of the country over impressing international financial institutions. He proposes expanding education spending while fighting tax evasion and inefficient government procurement practices at the country’s socialized healthcare system.

A critic of the Central American Free Trade Agreement, Solís has also proposed reorienting the country’s economy toward small and medium-sized businesses to generate jobs with less emphasis on foreign direct investment.

"It's not radical change people are looking for, it's change within a certain structure,” says Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Americas Society. “Solís is seen as an outsider candidate but in reality he's part of the establishment. He's not going to be dramatic change but he might do something differently." Mr. Farnsworth says.

Corruption scandals and allegations that plagued President Laura Chinchilla’s administration drove her approval ratings in 2013 to the lowest in 20 years. After the ruling PLN’s eight years in power, Araya struggled to set himself apart from the unpopular leader.

President Chinchilla herself was embroiled in a conflict of interest scandal when she accepted a ride on a private airplane to attend the wedding of her vice president’s son in Peru.

Araya, the barrel-chested mayor of San José for over 20 years, faces three open investigations for corruption, embezzlement, and abuse of power. Supporters touted his proposed anti-poverty programs, including food stamps, and beautification projects in the city. Detractors charge that he did little else during his time as mayor, while public services strained under a growing urban population during his administration.

"If Araya's elected [in the runoff], he's going to have to make some changes. He has to prove that he's not beholden to everything the Chinchilla administration has done. He's got to show that he's got fresh thinking and fresh ideas,” Farnsworth says.  

Solís’ political career started with the ruling PLN, where he held several foreign affairs positions, including Costa Rica’s ambassador to Panama under the Oscar Arias administration. But he joined PAC in 2005, after it broke away from PLN in 2000.

During a press conference Monday, Solís told a crowd of reporters that he was taking two days off, stepping away from San José.

“I think I’ve earned it,” he said.

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