SAN JOSE, January 31, 2014 (AFP & InsideCostaRica.com) – Costa Rica heads to general elections on Sunday under an unprecedented polarization between right and left, but with a large share of undecided which could lead to a surprise runoff election.
The capital’s former mayor Johnny Araya, of the ruling National Liberation Party (PLN, right), and the young deputy José María Villalta, of the Broad Front (FA, left), waged a close campaign battle that have left them in a virtual tie according to the latest polls.
But hot on their heels are the historian Luis Guillermo Solis of the Citizen Action Party (PAC, center) and businessman Otto Guevara of the Libertarian (right) Movement.
Meanwhile, some 30% of voters remain undecided, and the divide makes it very likely that the country will see a runoff election between two of the candidates on April 6th if none of the candidates achieve at least 40% of the vote.
Some three million Costa Ricans will head to the polls to replace President Laura Chinchilla and to vote for 57 members of the Legislative Assembly which will govern this small Central American country of 4.3 million inhabitants, known for its democratic roots.
In a traditionally conservative country, the surprise of this election season was the rapid rise of the left, to the point of threatening the major parties, especially the PLN, which together with the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC, conservative) have dominated Costa Rican politics for half a century.
Villalta, a 36-year-old lawyer, came into the public eye in protests in favor of the environment and against corruption.
“This in Costa Rica is the most unusual thing we could ever imagine. Villalta is the face of the protest, the young man spits in the face of power in an angry and disenchanted society. This is the reason for [FA's] exponential growth,” analyst Victor Ramirez told AFP.
During the campaign, Villalta was the target of accusations by his opponents, mainly Araya, who called him a “communist” and of wanting to be Costa Rica’s version of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.
“They call me communist because they can not call me corrupt,” Villalta said, adding that he does not want to copy other models but to create “socialism a la Tica” with social justice, democracy and respect for liberties.
The new president, who takes office May 8, will face a fiscal deficit of 5.4% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), a public health and pension system in crisis, and crumbling infrastructure.
Current president, Laura Chinchilla’s government have reached the bottoms of popularity, marked by inefficiency and corruption scandals.
The country has also been unable to reduce its poverty level below 20% for the last 20 years, despite significant economic growth.
Araya, although of the same party as Chinchilla, says he recognizes the current president’s errors, and says he has in his favor a successful run as mayor of San Jose for 22 years. Analysts say the well-oiled machinery of Araya’s PLN could weigh in on election day.
Also not to be ruled out is the undecided and centrist tilt, would could go in favor of a candidate such as Luis Guillermo Solís, who has seen significant gains in the polls in recent weeks.
In a country that abolished its army 65 years ago, security during the elections will be provided by 3,500 police.
Some 2,000 polling stations open at 6am and close at 6pm. About three hours later, election officials expect to have the first results.