Monday, February 3, 2014

El Salvador and Costa Rica Elections Trigger Runoff Votes

As opinion polls in the run up to yesterday’s elections suggested, the presidential races in El Salvador and Costa Rica will both go to runoff elections.

With 99 percent of the ballot counted in El Salvador, FMLN candidate Salvador Sanchez Ceren received 48.92 percent of the vote, compared to 38.95 percent for ARENA’s Norman Quijano and 11.44 for Antonio Saca of UNIDAD. Because Sanchez Ceren fell just short of the 50 percent threshold needed to win outright, he will face Quijano in a second round vote next month. La Prensa Grafica reports that all three candidates have recognized the official results, though Quijano accused electoral authorities of conspiring against him.

In remarks to the press last night, the conservative candidate said that he had made a strong showing in spite of the “four campaigns” against him: “One by the FMLN, one by President Mauricio Funes with state resources, another by ALBA Petroleos and another by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE).” ALBA Petroleos, a gas company managed jointly by a group of mostly FMLN-governed municipalities and Venezuelan state-owned oil firm PDVSA, has been accused of shady business deals, as detailed in a recent investigation by El Faro.

El Salvador’s second round vote will be held on March 9. The major variable over the next month will be how many of those who voted for Saca will transfer their support for Quijano. Based on the first round results, the ARENA candidate needs all or most of Saca’s support base to beat Sanchez Seren.   

In Costa Rica, the election results were far more surprising. While there will be a runoff vote in April as opinion polls suggested, the first round victor was completely unexpected. According to the official count, 30.87 of the vote went to Luis Guillermo Solis of the center-left Citizens’ Action Party (PAC), despite the fact that polls consistently showed him in third or fourth place. Johnny Araya of the ruling National Liberation Party (PLN) followed with 29.67 percent, while Jose Maria Villalta of the left-wing Broad Front (FA) received only 17.7 percent of ballots. In their public addresses last night, La Nacion reports that Solis told supporters he would work for a “country free of corruption,” while Araya called on members of the PLN to close ranks around his campaign. A map of election results by the paper shows that support for Solis was concentrated in San Jose and other urban areas, while Araya won in more rural cantons.

While the unexpectedly low turnout in favor of Villalta puts an end to speculation whether Costa Rica is on the verge of joining in the region’s “pink tide,” the news was not all bad for his party. The country also held legislative elections yesterday, in which the Broad Front dramatically increased its presence. While Villalta was the FA’s only congressman before the election, his political force will have nine legislators in the new session, which will see a highly fractured Legislative Assembly.

For English-language coverage on yesterday’s elections: the New York Times notes that both votes can be interpreted as referendums on the status quo, the Financial Times and Washington Post both provide solid overviews of the El Salvador race, and  Reuters suggests that Villalta’s support may carry Solis to victory in Costa Rica.

News Briefs
  • In accordance with a controversial media law passed last year, the government of Ecuador has reportedly fined newspaper El Universo for publishing a cartoon which depicted a police raid on the house of an opposition figure who accused the government of corruption. The cartoonist, Xavier Bonilla, has also been ordered to publish a correction of the cartoon. The government maintains that Bonilla’s work “stigmatizes” the work of law enforcement and “does not correspond to reality.” More from the WSJ and EFE.
  • The Associated Press reports on the results of a survey shared with the news agency by a person-to-person exchange company based in Philadelphia, which showed that a large number of visitors to Cuba changed their perceptions about the island after visiting. According to the private poll, 88 percent of visitors said the experience made them “more likely than before to support ending the embargo against Cuba.”
  • In a new poll of Colombia’s presidential field ahead of March elections, President Juan Manuel Santos is leading his competitors with 27 percent support, Semana reports. However, both the fact that he is two points behind “none of the above,” and that 23 percent were undecided, suggest that he has not exactly captured the passion of the Colombian electorate.
  • Colombian officials have arrested Father Oscar Albeiro Ortiz, a Catholic priest who created and headed a right-wing paramilitary organization in Antioquia province. Ortiz’s group, which was active despite the ostensive demobilization of paramilitary groups announced by then-president Alvaro Uribe, was held up by many human rights activists as proof of the demobilization being merely a media spectacle.
  • As the AP notes, popular English-language Venezuela opposition blogger Francisco Toro of Caracas Chronicles has left his blog, saying that the story of Venezuela has gone from one with hemispheric implications to “just a local story of a country gone crazy” after the death of Hugo Chavez. The blog’s most recent post is a critical take on the data and methodology of the Venezuelan Observatory of Violence, which has become for many Venezuela-watchers a valuable source of crime statistics in the country.
  • On Friday, the Wall Street Journal published a fascinating in-depth investigation on criminal control over the avocado industry in Michoacan, the only Mexican state certified to export avocados to the United States.  According to a local group cited by the paper, the Knights Templar cartel makes some $150 million a year extorting avocado farmers and farm workers, in addition to farming the fruit itself on 5,000 acres allegedly stolen from farmers. Analysts have said that the extortion may have contributed to an increase in prices, and some have called them “blood avocados,” comparing the phenomenon to Africa’s “blood diamonds.”
  • On the heels of Argentina's biggest currency devaluation in 12 years, Walter Molano writes an interesting critique of the Argentine political system in the Financial Times. According to the author, the incident has highlighted a major flaw in the country’s political organization: centralization of power in Buenos Aires.
  • São Paulo Mayor Fernando Haddad’s unorthodox plan to address the crack epidemic in Brazil’s largest city has received an endorsement from Folha de São Paulo columnist Helio Schwartsman. In an op-ed piece published on Friday, Schwartsman praised the mayor’s “Open Arms” program for recognizing that “police repression is not the solution to the drugs problem.”
  • Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina has named the members of his newly-created advisory commission on drug policy in Guatemala. Prensa Libre and the AP report that the commission will include a number of academics and policy experts, including Daniel Hearing of Francisco Marroquin University, public policy expert Carmen Rosa de Leon, business magnate Salvador Paiz, security policy expert Carlos Mendoza and Elena Diez Pinto, former director of the Soros Foundation Guatemala.
  • Also in drug policy news, the government of Uruguay has released more about the regulatory specifics of its marijuana law. National Drug Council head Julio Calzada told El Pais last week that while the framework for legal cultivation and recreational use will be up by April, the details regarding therapeutic use of the drug will most likely not be sorted out until the middle of this year, owing to the “greater complexity” of the issue. Additionally, in remarks to Estado de S. Paulo over the weekend the Uruguayan drug czar clarified that the drug would in fact be available to foreigners, though they would have to show that they have lived in the country for over 90 days.
  • The New York Times’ Simon Romero provides a lighthearted look at unusual naming practices in Brazil, which he claims has “evolved into something resembling a competitive sport.”