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COSTA RICA: Last-Ditch Leftwing Alliance to ‘Save’ the Country

Daniel Zueras

SAN JOSÉ, Jan 22 2010 (IPS) - Political forces on the left in Costa Rica have formed a partial last-minute alliance to support Ottón Solís, the presidential candidate for the centre-left Citizens’ Action Party (PAC), in a bid to counter the conservative lead that the polls predict for the upcoming Feb. 7 elections.

The governing National Liberation Party (PLN) has a lead over the opposition Libertarian Movement (ML) that has narrowed to 10 percentage points, but pollsters say it is unlikely that any candidate will take 40 percent or more of the vote, the minimum required to win outright without a run-off election.

The goal of the last-minute leftwing alliance is either to boost Solís into second place in the presidential race, or for him to amass enough supporters to be able to tip the scales if there is a second round between the frontrunners, which would take place Apr. 4, and so exert pressure to neutralise key aspects of the conservative agenda.

PLN candidate Laura Chinchilla has the support of 41 percent of respondants in the latest polls, but ML presidential hopeful Otto Guevara has increased his share to 30 percent. Only 14 percent of respondents say they intend to vote for Solís.

Chinchilla resigned from her position as vice president in the government of President Óscar Arias 13 months ago to launch her candidacy. In September 2009 she had the backing of 63 percent of voters, but her steep slide in the polls – although less marked in the latest survey – leads analysts to predict a run-off election, which has only happened once before in Costa Rica, in 2002.

Formally, the governing PLN is a social democratic party, but it has veered to the centre-right, according to political analysts and dissident PLN sectors, while the ML and its candidate Guevara are openly on the far right of the political spectrum. They propose to limit the role of the state to a minimum and unleash market forces to their fullest extent.

Guevara’s support in the polls, in what is his third presidential bid, has leaped considerably compared to his electoral results in 2006, when he received 8.5 percent of the vote. This has deepened alarm among progressive sectors over the swing to the right seen in the polls.

Solís, also a third time presidential hopeful, came within a whisker of obtaining 40 percent of the vote in 2006, losing to Arias by just over one percent in elections which returned Arias to power after a previous term as president (1986-1990). Solís turned his party, the PAC, into the main opposition force, with 17 out of 57 lawmakers in parliament.

Because of this, the centre-left Patriotic Alliance (AP) and National Integration Party (PIN) decided to back Solís’ candidacy, although at this late stage their own candidates remain formally in the ring and any votes cast for them cannot be transferred to Solís, as the deadline for withdrawing from the contest is past.

The leftwing alliance is effective for the presidential race only, as the two minority centre-left parties are contesting the parliamentary elections, also to be held Feb. 7, independently.

The 10-point common programme drawn up by the alliance includes renegotiation of the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the United States, which is part of the Dominican Republic and Central American Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA) with that country.

The common agenda also aims at improving citizen participation, the defence of the environment, and reforming the electoral law.

A factor that detracts from the alliance is the absence of the second largest progressive force in Costa Rica, the Broad Front (FA), which continues to support its presidential candidate Eugenio Trejos and its own independent programme.

The entry into force in 2009 of the FTA “made unity necessary, in order to confront the right,” Walter Muñoz, nominally the PIN’s presidential candidate, told IPS. Muñoz regards the electoral campaign as “fraudulent”, referring to the polls as well as party financing, some of which is of dubious origin.

“The only way to counter them (the PLN and ML) was to provide a different option,” and that is where this “strategic alliance” comes in, he said.

In Muñoz’s view, the strengthened electoral option Solís now represents will be able to attract support from the social movements that actively opposed the FTA until it was finally approved.

As for Solís, he told IPS in a telephone interview that he was very satisfied with the coalition, which “will have great impact,” and was confident of victory “in the first round.”

The moderate leftwing candidate was dismissive of the polls, which in Costa Rica tend not to reflect what happens later at the ballot box, he said.

Solís recalled that four years ago, when he ran against President Arias, the polls predicted a difference between them of 20 to 25 percent of the vote, but on election day there was only a difference of one percent, equivalent to 18,000 votes.

The candidate emphasised that PAC voters, and those on the left in general, reflect carefully before voting, and he again criticised the management of polls in this country of 4.5 million people, of whom 2.8 million are eligible to vote.

Muñoz admitted that the alliance was a late move, but said it was imperative to react against the campign’s swing to the right, with all that is at stake now for the political and social sectors aligned with the left and centre-left.

He said it was “a proposal to save Costa Rica. We are still in time, because 60 percent of the electorate is undecided.”

Solís said the times the country is living in demand unity, and took a leaf out of the history books to ask himself why the countries who fought against Adolf Hitler’s Germany in the Second World War (1939-1945) did not act to stop him earlier. “That’s the way history works,” he said.

Asked about why the FA did not join the alliance, its leader José Merino told IPS he refused to do so because it involved “only the support of candidates who withdrew,” and recalled that two years ago Solís “explicitly” rejected the idea of participating in a progressive coalition. Even a few weeks ago Solís was not in favour of electoral coalitions, he said.

The FA party leader said that while he respected the initiative, he felt it was “rather irresponsible” at this stage of the campaign to ask a party to dissolve itself in order to support another candidacy. Merino hopes for a growth in support for the FA in the elections, as a basis for consolidating “a real option on the left” that in future might stand a chance of winning the presidency.

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