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Costa Rica's Presidential Election Is an Unexpectedly Tight Race

Foto de Ingmar Zahorsky en Flickr, bajo licencia Creative Commons  (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Vote, placing an X in the box next to your choice. Photo by Ingmar Zahorsky on Flickr, under a Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

[Links are to Spanish-language pages except where noted.]

Costa Rica is just a day away from electing a new president, the culmination of one of the hardest-fought electoral races in the country's history. The race is still too close to call, with candidates on the left, centre, and right running neck and neck. It is, without a doubt, democracy in action. 

According to the latest opinion poll conducted by Unimer for the La Nación newspaper, there are three candidates tied for first place: José Maria Villalta of the leftist Frente Amplio [en], Johnny Araya of the more moderate Liberación Nacional [en] and Otto Guevara of the right wing Movimiento Libertario [en].

The data provided by the marketing research firm on January 16, 2014, shows José María Villalta's support at 22.2%, Johnny Araya with 20.3% and Otto Guevara at 20.2%. Given a margin of error of 2.2 percentage points, this is considered—in technical terms—a tie. Of the top five candidates, based on popular support, the next two rank significantly lower than the leaders, with Luis Guillermo Solís (Partido Acción Ciudadana) [en] at 5.5% and Rodolfo Piza (Partido Unidad Social Cristiana) [en] at 3.6%.

Clearly these numbers set off alarm bells in the campaign headquarters of the governing Liberación Nacional party, which has always enjoyed a solid lead with strong numbers. The possibility that there might be a second round had not even occurred to them.

On the other hand, another poll by Cid Gallup for Noticias Repretel, published on January 28, shows Johnny Araya with 35.6%, followed by José Maria Villalta with 21%, Otto Guevara in third place at 17.6%, Luis Guillermo Solis in fourth with 15.6%, and Rodolfo Piza with 6.5% .

These elections have been full of contrasts. Take the case of the Frente Amplio party, labelled left wing and traditionally a minor player, which this time garnered the kind of support even its most optimistic followers would not have predicted; or the case of Luis Guillermo Solis, who has also gained ground in the last two months, with support coming mainly from younger voters; finally, the current situation facing the government has greatly affected its candidate Johny Araya, whose approval rating in the polls has waned, although it now remains steady. 

There is little doubt that these elections will define a generation of Costa Ricans and determine the future of the country in a dramatic way.

Juan Carlos Hidalgo, an analyst covering Latin American politics for the Cato Institute, says:

La de este domingo es quizás la más importante que hemos enfrentado en una generación: el 2 de febrero tenemos ante nosotros una clara disyuntiva: seguimos igual, retrocedemos o avanzamos.

Las redes sociales han servido de caja de resonancia en la discusión política cotidiana. Antes, discutíamos entre familia y amigos. Hoy, nos vemos enfrascados en interminables discusiones con desconocidos sobre una amplia gama de temas.

This Sunday's [election] is perhaps the most important we have faced in a generation: on February 2, we will have a clear choice to make: continue as we have, go backwards or move forward.

Social networks have been a sounding board in the daily political discussions. Before, we talked among friends and family. Today, we are caught up in interminable discussions with strangers about a whole range of topics.

The drop in popularity of current President Laura Chinchilla's government will surely affect the outcome of the election—and mainly her own party, Liberación Nacional. The slogan of almost all the ads run by the other political parties emphasizes the need for change in Costa Rica.

It is also clear that, like never before in the country's history, people are informed, thanks to social media and digital access to the candidates’ political platforms. While both things existed before, they have become tools that the political parties increasingly know how to use. These elections will definitely signal a before-and-after divide in the way politics in the country is conducted. 

Every day closer to the election! How great Costa Rica! We are living history!

The candidates are using social media to issue clarifications, rebut rumours, and provide information on their platforms.

Johnny Araya has been repeatedly attacked for his work in the Municipality of San José, a post he occupied for more than 20 years, where—as he himself observes—despite being accused on several occasions for crimes such as graft and embezzlement, he was never convicted and most of the cases were rejected by the public prosecutor's office.

I am proud of the work I did for the Municipality of San José.

More recently Luis Guillermo Solis has been criticized for his position in favour of abortion in the case of rape and for an apparent alliance with the Frente Amplio, an alliance he has repeatedly denied. 

There is no such alliance with the Frente Amplio, although many people are still gossiping about it.

Otto Guevara has focused his campaign on the creation of new jobs and the reduction in the cost of electricity. 

We can make sure all Costa Ricans live better, have work, and cut the price of electricity.

José Maria Villalta was the candidate who first took a stand against the status quo, a strategy that all the other parties then imitated when they realized how effective it was. 

To avoid business as usual and strengthen democracy, we are the choice to make to remove the Liberación Nacional party from power

The post-electoral scenario is uncertain. Although some candidates argue for the raising of taxes on the “privileged middle class,” favouring unions and rejecting free-trade deals, others argue for greater openness, reducing state monopolies, eliminating the entitlements of public sector employees, and in some cases, increasing taxes. 

The biggest criticism that can be made about all the candidates is the lack of clear ideas about how to solve current problems such as the infrastructure, fiscal deficit, tax evasion and education. All of them raise these issues in their platforms but none provide sufficient details about the means they would use to fight them. This should be a lesson for the next election in four years. 

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