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Old questions dog candidates in Costa Rica’s final presidential debate

January 28, 2014

In the last debate before Costa Rica decides its next president (or at least whoever will make it to the second round), several leading candidates faced down old accusations and lingering questions.

National Liberation Party (PLN) candidate Johnny Araya was hammered about his two decades as mayor of San José, a post that has won him as many supporters as it has lost him.

Araya seemed uncomfortable as other candidates answered his questions, blinking to the point of distraction for viewers and fidgeting with his glasses and papers at the lectern.

Broad Front Party (FA) candidate José María Villalta pressed him to support a constitutional reform originally proposed by FA to revoke immunity from prosecution for the president and other high-ranking elected officials, to which he agreed.

Journalist Amelia Rueda brought up Araya’s reputation for corruption and the several open criminal investigations against him before asking him if he would renounce his immunity afforded to presidents if formal charges were ever filed.

After dodging the question the first go-round, Rueda insisted and Araya said that yes, he would “categorically” waive such protection from prosecution.

Perhaps most damning was when Rueda asked Araya how he would command the confidence of voters, many of whom “had doubts,” she suggested.

The hard question forced the former mayor to once again defend the legitimacy of his candidacy with just six days before the election Sunday, and he acknowledged that “great effort would be needed to regain the trust in the government.”

Libertarian Movement Party candidate Otto Guevara was hounded about allegations of misuse of public campaign finance funds from his 2010 presidential campaign. Citizen Action Party candidate Luis Guillermo Solís asked Guevara to release information about his private banking accounts to set the public at ease.

“My accounts have been reviewed by the Judicial Investigation Police and they have found nothing. There is absolutely nothing that I regret,” Guevara responded.

Hitting again on campaign spending, journalist Evelyn Fachler pointed to Guevara’s four runs for office having cost Costa Rican taxpayers nearly $8 million in public campaign spending.

Guevara, with his slicked-back salt-and-pepper hair, came off as arrogant and even condescending when he confronted Solís about his support for the option of abortion in cases of rape, shaking his head with a frown while the erstwhile former diplomat became visibly frustrated with his expression.

Several moderators during the debate hosted by Repretel noted that Guevara had moved toward Christian conservative voters, especially through his hard stance on abortion. The move may help him secure disenchanted Social Christian Unity Party supporters looking for a viable alternative to their candidate, Rodolfo Piza, who has consistently come in last place out of the five major parties, but who is often viewed with admiration by older voters.

Villalta continued to bat away accusations of being a “communist,” but struggled to clarify his proposed tax on luxury goods and services. The lawmaker offered only a vague statement that it would affect items that “most Costa Ricans don’t use.”

One thing he did say he wanted to tax was junk food. The Broad Front Party candidate caught flack from his rivals and on social media for suggesting levies on sodas, hamburgers and the Costa Rican bar-food favorite chifrijo, a mix of rice, beans and fried corn tortilla strips with fried pork.

The tax sparked a brief meme on Twitter:

Ticos took to Twitter during the debate, making #DebateFinal one of the top-trending topics during the three-hour program. The hashtag peaked at 3 worldwide during the first half the debate.

 

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