Why Costa Rica's unopposed presidential candidate isn't taking it easy

Ruling party candidate Araya bowed out of Costa Rica's presidential runoff due to lack of campaign funds and support. But opponent Solís is still rallying voters to turn out and give him a solid mandate.

Moises Castillo/AP/File
Costa Rica's ruling party presidential candidate Johnny Araya talks with a supporter during a campaign rally at El Borbon market in San Jose, Costa Rica, Feb. 1, 2014. Araya announced Wednesday, March 5, 2014, that he is dropping out of a runoff election due to a lack of campaign funds and popular support.

After ruling party candidate Johnny Araya shocked Costa Rica by dropping out of the country’s second-ever presidential runoff this week, his opponent and relative newcomer Luis Guillermo Solís is rallying to win enough votes to prove he has the mandate to lead this Central American nation.

Mr. Araya’s surprise announcement Wednesday, when he said he would bow out of the runoff due to a lack of campaign funds and popular support, has sparked debate about whether low turnout at the April 6 election would hurt progressive candidate Mr. Solís’ legitimacy as president. It also had Costa Ricans buzzing about how the National Liberation Party (PLN), one of Costa Rica’s oldest and most influential political parties, would recover after its most embarrassing electoral defeat in its history. 

“With strength of mind, I made the decision to conclude my campaign today for president of Costa Rica,” a stone-faced Araya said Wednesday, following a disappointing showing in a national poll released Tuesday. 
The poll of 1,200 Costa Rican voters showed Solís with a 44 percent lead over Araya. PLN campaign chief Antonio Álvarez Desanti confirmed that dwindling financial resources and poor polling drove the candidate’s decision to drop out.
Constitutionally, Araya cannot drop his name from next month's ballot, and the country’s election authority will hold the election as planned. The one-time presidential hopeful and the PLN, however, will no longer actively campaign. Solís requires a simple majority to win the presidency.

"A good showing at the polls could be a good start for Solís but … [a poor showing] could be a weapon used by his adversaries to say that he entered his presidency weak,” says Rotsay Rosales, a political science professor at the University of Costa Rica.

A party in peril?

Araya served as mayor of Costa Rica's capital and largest city San José for over 20 years, but struggled to escape the shadow of current President Laura Chinchilla’s deeply unpopular administration. President Chinchilla's administration was hounded by corruption allegations, including a highway project riddled with allegations of graft and accusations of violating presidential rules about accepting gifts after flying to Peru on a private jet. Araya’s own campaign gaffes, including underestimating the cost of basic foodstuffs, like a liter of milk, did not help his popularity in polls. 

“People were tired after two terms of the same government and [the government of Chinchilla] was resoundingly rejected by the Costa Rican public,” in the first round of voting Feb. 2, says Constantino Urcuyo, professor of political science at the University of Costa Rica.

“We are going to have to go through a period of rethinking the party, analyze the things we haven’t done well these past years,” like promoting youth involvement and new leadership, said Mr. Álvarez, who is also an incoming lawmaker for the PLN.

Despite the negative attention, the PLN will likely survive the debacle, says Mr. Urcuyo. “A political party that wins nearly 30 percent of the vote and has existed for more than 60 years is not going to disappear over night, but it’s a new game now,” he says. 

The same may not be true for Araya.

"If you pull out of the election because it's perceived that you can't win, your political career is essentially over,” Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the New York-based Americas Society says, referencing other runoff scenarios in Latin America, including former Argentine President Carlos Menem who dropped out of a runoff for re-election in 2003.

'No greater enemy'

Solís has since announced a goal of winning at least 1 million votes in order to shore up any lingering doubts as to whether or not he has the support of the Costa Rican people to govern.

“There is no greater enemy to Costa Rican democracy than absenteeism,” Solís told supporters Wednesday night. “It’s the worst thing that could happen to a president in this country with the oldest democracy in Latin America, that the president not have a popular mandate." 
Mr. Farnsworth says that absenteeism won’t likely have a long term impact on Solís’ mandate, however. "If 40 percent stay home that's a short term concern, but at the end of the day he's still going to be president."

Solís will need strong popular support to wrangle the fractious Legislative Assembly, where the PLN holds 18 seats, more than any other party including Solís’ Citizens' Action Party, which has 13. The legislature is made up of 57 lawmakers in total.

In voting Solís into the runoff last month, Mr. Rosales says that Costa Ricans showed they want a change from the PLN’s export-oriented economic policies and perceived institutional corruption. But, he says, there are still questions about what Solís’ government will look like.

"The people voted for a change but it's not clear the nature, [or] the magnitude, and how that change will come about,” Rosales says.

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