When the National Liberation Party (PLN) came to a crossroads last week, it hung center, eschewing a road to the left.
PLN, the most popular political party, elected Antonio Calderón as secretary general Saturday in an endorsement of free trade and President Oscar Arias’ administration.
The party’s National Assembly, with 124 voting representatives from across the country, gave 73 votes to Calderón and 41 to his more left-wing opponent, Rolando González.
Calderón, 49, campaigned for the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA), while González, 57, stayed publicly neutral.
Top Liberation officials supported Calderón, including Presidency Minister Rodrigo Arias, legislative faction head Mayí Antillón and San José Mayor Johnny Araya.
Calderón, who will hold office until 2011, is a lawyer and a member of the party’s political board, while González boasts more party experience as a former lawmaker and secretary general.
As secretary general, Calderón will execute the party’s decisions, build party bases and shape the party’s ideology. He will also influence selection of a candidate for the 2010 presidential elections, which PLN has a good shot at winning.
In a recent CID-Gallup poll, PLN garnered the most support of any party. Some 36% of respondents named Liberation as their favorite party, while 15% supported the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC) and 7% backed the Citizen Action Party (PAC).
In a speech before the vote, Calderón said he would assemble a team to win the 2010 elections. He said he will also reach out to the party’s bases and strengthen ties with the executive branch and lawmakers.
Several assembly delegates said they voted for Calderón because the Arias administration backed him, and they did not want to divide the party. Towing the official line also brings practical benefits, said Edwin Castro, an assembly member from Orotina,near the central Pacific coast.
“I have to have a good relationship with the president to achieve good things for my county,” he said.
Delegate Jorge Méndez said he backed Calderón partly because he campaigned for CAFTA, approved by an October referendum in a “really tough” moment for the party.
González would not state his position on CAFTA because he said he wanted to maintain a neutral profile on his radio show, but he said the treaty is “more positive than negative.”
In 2002, González resigned from a sixyear stint as secretary general because the party was in “crisis” after losing two presidential elections and needed a “change in leadership,” he said. The party’s president and treasurer resigned, too.
González worked hard during his term to bring more women, young people and workers to the party, Méndez said. He changed the party’s statutes so that women had to compose 40% of the party’s National Assembly, candidate lists for Legislative Assembly and other party bodies.
During his campaign for a second term, González said he would woo former Liberation members who had left the party over CAFTA and other disputes.
“(González) is with the bases, with the humble folk. By contrast, (Calderón) is with the government, the lawmakers,” said Alfredo Montiel, a delegate from Alajuela, northwest of San José.
Liberation elected René Castro as secretary general as recently as February 2007, but the Supreme Elections Tribunal (TSE) said that race violated electoral rules because it was held four months early.
Lawmaker Alexander Mora held a press conference last week expressing concern that Saturday’s election would not be free and fair.
He wrote a letter to PLN’s internal elections tribunal asking that ballots list candidates’ names in alphabetical order. Mora also asked that the number of voting booths be small enough so that voters could not be identified.
Mora and former lawmaker Roger Vílchez campaigned for secretary general but dropped their candidacy Saturday and backed Calderón and González, respectively.