Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Costa Rica Election: Why the Left Is Lagging

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Costa Rica Election: Why the Left Is Lagging

Article excerpt

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.

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, Otton Solis, 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.

"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 Jose-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 Alvaro Palomo. He had voted for Solis 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, [Solis] 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. …

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