Friday, January 31, 2014

Weekend Elections Part II: No Clear Frontrunner in Costa Rica Race

This Sunday, voters in El Salvador and Costa Rica will head to the polls to elect new presidents following months of tight races.  Like the Salvadoran race profiled in yesterday’s post, Costa Rica’s election is a multiple-way contest, albeit a much closer one. In all likelihood, the country will see a run-off election in April, only the second run-off in Costa Rican history.

The race has four main candidates. The top contenders are Johnny Araya of the ruling center-left National Liberation Party (PLN) and Jose Maria Villalta of the left-wing Broad Front (FA), whose campaign has picked up surprising momentum in recent months. As the AFP notes, Villalta’s rise in the polls has led his opponents to frame him as an anti-democratic extremist. Earlier this month electoral officials scolded a number of companies for distributing internal memos denouncing Villalta as a "communist" to their employees.

Also in the running are Otto Guevara of the Libertarian Movement and Luis Guillermo Solis of the center-left Citizens’ Action Party (PAC). Both have considerable support, and a strong showing in the polls by supporters of either can’t be ruled out.

The most recent poll, published Tuesday by the University of Costa Rica’s CIEP policy studies center shows Araya leading Villalta by three points (17.4 percent to 14.4 percent). CIEP has Solis in third, with 11.6 percent support, followed by 7.3 percent for Guevara. However, out of the 800 respondents surveyed, 43.9 percent said they did not support any candidate, a slight increase compared to a previous January CIEP poll.  CID-Gallup published a poll this week excluding undecided voters, which shows Araya in the lead with 35.6 percent of the vote, followed by 21 percent for Villalta, 17.6 for Guevara and 15.6 for Solis. Unfortunately for Araya, this still leaves him below the 40 percent threshold needed to win in the first round and avoid a run-off.

An Unimer poll published by leading daily La Nacion on January 16 showed a statistical tie, with Villalta leading Araya 22.2 to 20.3 percent, and Guevara at 20.2. Interestingly, La Nacion declined to publish the last Unimer poll before the close of the campaign, explaining in an op-ed that it did not want to encourage “ill-intentioned speculation.” The Tico Times claims to have had access to the poll data, which allegedly shows Solis gaining ground by eight points.  

Aside from disenchantment with Costa Rica’s traditional parties (illustrated by the wide and relatively level playing field), Reuters reports the main issues for voters going to the polls appear to be corruption and poverty.  Villalta is campaigning on an anti-corruption ticket, and has promised to raise taxes to fight growing economic inequality. As the news agency notes, Araya has sought to distance himself from current president and fellow PLN member Laura Chinchilla, whose administration has been rocked by scandals, contributing to her ranking as the least popular president in the hemisphere. Whether or not he has done so successfully remains to be seen.

News Briefs
  • A judge in Brasilia has sparked controversy in the country for absolving an alleged marijuana dealer, ruling that Brazil’s prohibition of cannabis is “unconstitutional.” As O Estado de S.Paulo reports, Judge Frederico Ernesto Cardoso Maciel found that placing the drug on a list of controlled substances is unjustified and a violation of individual rights. However, public prosecutors have challenged the ruling, and on Thursday the decision was overturned by a district court in the capital city.
  • The L.A. Times highlights a recent report by PEN International on journalist killings in Honduras. Based on a review of journalist murders in 2012, the study’s authors conclude that those who work in print media see the most violence overall, while those in radio and television have been the main targets for assassination.
  • Recent remarks by Mexican Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam cast doubt on the wisdom of the government’s recognition of militia groups in Michoacan. Milenio reports that, according to Murillo, police have detained two members of “self-defense” groups in the state who told investigators the New Generation Cartel supplied weapons to the militias. More from the L.A. Times. Meanwhile, the Interior Ministry has begun registering the weapons of militia members, according to Animal Politico.
  • Mexican police have announced the arrest of a son of Jalisco New Generation cartel leader Nemesio Oseguera on drug trafficking charges, also accusing him of handling the cartel’s finances.
  • The Associated Press profiles the trend of Venezuelan students looking abroad for opportunities amid economic uncertainty at home. Surprisingly, Ireland has become a top destination in recent years, with Venezuelans now rivaling Brazilians as the largest foreign student population in Irish language schools.
  • The BBC reports that Panama has ordered the release of 32 crewmembers of the North Korean ship seized last year for transporting Cuban weapons through the Panama Canal. The ship’s captain and two other members of the crew will remain in custody.
  • The Center for Democracy in the Americas offers the most comprehensive English-language overview of Sunday’s election in El Salvador, describing the main scandals during the campaign and the biggest obstacles for each party. The briefing notes that while the FMLN is struggling to moderate its image and appeal to middle-class voters, while ARENA is attempting to minimize the damage of internal divisions and high-profile corruption scandals.
  • Following up on Elliot Abrams’ recent op-ed criticizing the FMLN for alleged drug ties, another Bush-era diplomat has weighed in on the election. This time the author, former USAID official Jose R. Cardenas, attacks Tony Saca’s decision to run (thus complicating ARENA’s chances of winning) in a column for the Washington Times. Meanwhile, former U.S. ambassador to El Salvador William G. Walker has a solid rebuttal to Abrams’ column in today’s New York Times, arguing that the United States has nothing to fear from the prospect of another FMLN president.
  • The AP and Spanish news agency EFE look at the “parallel summit” in Havana this week, which took place in the private home of Fidel Castro. The former Cuban president met with at least seven heads of state in the region, as well as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
  • Spain’s El Pais has an interview with former Colombian police commander Oscar Naranjo, in which he gives his take on the ongoing peace talks and discusses his political future. In a move that’s sure to fuel speculation that President Juan Manuel Santos will select him as a vice president, Naranjo told the paper he would accept the offer if he were asked. Meanwhile, the head of Colombia’s Liberal party, Simon Gaviria, has endorsed Naranjo as a VP pick, calling him “perfect” for a post-conflict Colombia.
  • The government of Ecuador has continued its efforts to discredit opposition politician Martha Roldos, once again taking a swing at her attempts to obtain funding for a new media outlet in the country from various U.S. human rights advocates and democracy promotion groups. State-owned newspaper El Telegrafo has published yet another article criticizing Roldos’ proposal as conspiratorial and lacking in transparency, while at the same time it refuses to disclose how it gained access to her private emails detailing the plan.
  • The Washington Post features an editorial on the devaluation of the Argentine peso, which the Post calls the “predictable result” of the economic policies of President Cristina Fernandez. With Fernandez’s defeat in the recent legislative elections last fall, the paper suggests that the country’s political class should take note and steer a different course in the future. 

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