Johnny Araya suspends campaign in Costa Rica

johnny After the February 2 first-round votes in both El Salvador and Costa Rica,  I wrote that even though the Costa Rican vote was tighter than the Salvadoran vote, it was easier to predict that Luis Guillermo Solís would defeat San José mayor Johnny Araya (despite just a 1.3% lead for Solís in the first round) in the April 6 runoff than Salvadoran vice president Salvador Sánchez Cerén (with a nearly 10% lead in the first round) would defeat San Salvador mayor Norman Quijano in the March 9 runoff.costa_rica_flag

Sure enough, while Sánchez Cerén is the favorite to win this weekend’s vote in El Salvador, the bigger news from Central America this week was Araya’s decision to suspend his campaign after a University of Costa Rica poll earlier this week showed the Solís held a staggering 44-point lead over Araya, winning 64.4% to just 20.9% for Araya (pictured above).

Though that poll included a sizable undecided vote (around 14.6%), it showed that Araya had lost ground in the past month — he won 29.6% of the first-round vote.

Facing the ignominy of leading Costa Rica’s most enduring party, the center-left Partido Liberación Nacional (PLN, National Liberation Party) through even more embarrassment, Araya suspended his campaign on Wednesday, with one month to go before the runoff.

The reasons for Araya’s decision were clear from the moment the Araya-Solís race were established — or before:

  • The PLN was vying for its third consecutive term in power, after the return of Nobel Peace Prize winner Óscar Arias in 2006 and Costa Rica’s first female president Laura Chinchilla in 2010.  Chinchilla’s massive unpopularity, however, would have crippled any PLN candidate running for the presidency in 2014.  The PLN, after eight consecutive years in office, has been hit especially hard by corruption and scandal.  Chinchilla’s administration has also faced accusations of uneven economic performance.
  • Araya, though he’s been the mayor of San Jose since 1998, hasn’t amassed an incredibly impressive record.  He struggled throughout 2013 to outline the motivating rationale for his candidacy, and he struggled to demonstrate that he was completely in touch with regular Tico voters.
  • Though Solís left the PLN in 2005, his chief experience in government was his work alongside Arias in the early 1990s to conclude the Esquipulas Peace Agreement that ended many of the civil wars in Central America of the 1980s.  That tied Solís to Central America’s most important president in modern history and Arias’s wide reservoir of credibility — so much so that Arias had to reiterate (half-heartedly) his support for Araya last month.
  • Solís, as the candidate of the Partido Acción Ciudadana (PAC, Citizen’s Action Party), is just leftist enough to steal votes to the left of Araya, without alienating moderate or right-wing voters.  That always made Solís a much stronger second-round challenger to Araya than José María Villalta, the young legislator who rose rapidly in polls late last year as the candidate of the more socialist Frente Amplio (Broad Front).  As the first-round vote began, it had become clear that many Tico voters doubted Villalta had the seasoning, moderation or experience to become president.  No one had such doubts about Solís, despite the fact that the diplomat and academic has never held elected office.
  • But Solís also seemed to be drawing votes from the center-right in the runoff as well, given the broad anti-corruption, good-government platform of the PAC.  In this regard, Solís is now the chief beneficiary of the impassion of Costa Rica’s traditional center-right party, the Partido de Unidad Socialcristiana (PUSC, Social Christian Unity Party), whose 2014 candidate Rodolfo Hernández dropped out of the race in a blaze of indecision and criticism of his own party.  Former president Abel Pacheco, the only living former PUSC president who hasn’t been imprisoned on a corruption conviction, endorsed Araya last month.

Under Costa Rica’s constitution, the runoff will still go on — Araya will remain on the ballot on April 6, so Solís will have to wait another month in order to win the election as a formal matter.  Solís cautioned after Araya’s decision that abstentions on April 6 could undermine the ultimate credibility of his administration.

In his announcement Wednesday, Araya said that he will abstain from further electoral activities, and that he would focus on holding a ‘national dialogue’ over the next month (though he immediately decamped for four days of vacation).

Solís will initially face a divided legislature — in the vote on February 2, Costa Ricans also elected 57 members of the unicameral Asamblea Legislativa (Legislative Assembly).  The PLN remains the largest party in the Legislative Assembly, with 18 seats, while Solís’s PAC will hold just 13 seats.  That means Solís will have to look to the PLN, to Villalta’s more leftist Broad Front (nine seats) or the more conservative PUSC (eight seats) to support his administration’s agenda.

Given Solís’s lightning-fast rise (polls showed him in fourth place just a week before the first round), Solís hasn’t had much time to outline an incredibly specific agenda other than broad principles.

Expect a Solís administration to be slightly more skeptical of Costa Rica’s longstanding neoliberal economic policies than the previous PUSC and PLN administrations, though don’t expect Solís to move closer to the Venezuela-led bloc of socialist Latin American countries.  Expect incremental reforms to make corruption more difficult for future governments.

But just because Solís will now easily win the Costa Rican presidency, don’t expect much of a honeymoon — for at least two reasons.

As described above,  Solís will face a very tough time cobbling together a majority in the fragmented Legislative Assembly.  Given the high expectations for Solís (that will now be even higher with Araya’s withdrawal), he will need legislators from other parties to help him enact any meaningful reform or legislation.

He will also face something of a fiscal crisis, with Costa Rica’s public debt having ballooned to over 35% of GDP under Chinchilla.  That will limit Solís in terms of economic policy — he might well face anger from left-leaning voters if he pursues fiscal contraction, and he might well face investment and financing woes if he ignores Costa Rica’s growing debt.

Photo credit to Pablo Montiel / La Nacion.

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