Ex-President Rafael Angel Calderón Jr. (1990-94) is canvassing the country in a likely bid for the presidency in 2010, even as he awaits trial on corruption charges that helped bring his party to its deathbed two years ago.
An engaging speaker with an imperious manner, Calderón defended himself and touted his Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC) to about 100 people in Heredia, north of San José, last weekend.
Long a major player in a bi-party political system, PUSC’s popularity plummeted in the 2006 elections after accusations surfaced against Calderón and other party heavyweights.
Now, party members are divided over whether Calderón’s candidacy will revive the PUSC or further its demise.
Xinia Carvajal, the PUSC general secretary who supports and defends Calderón along with much of the party leadership, called his national tour “an act of self-sacrifice for the party.”
But Mario Redondo, a former PUSC legislator (2002-06), said Calderón should not run and cannot win.
“It would not benefit him, or the party or the country if he ran for president with (the trial) hanging over his head,” Redondo said.
Calderón is accused of accepting payment for helping a Finnish medical equipment firm sell goods worth $39.5 million to Costa Rica’s national public health care system.
The ex-president has acknowledged he received $520,000 from Walter Reiche, then president of the pharmacy Fischel, which represents the Finnish firm in Costa Rica. But Calderón, a lawyer, said the money was legitimate payment for legal services rendered.
A trial date has not yet been set.An internal PUSC rule would keep Calderón from running for office because he has spent time in jail. But the party will likely change that rule in the coming months, Carvajal said.
Another PUSC ex-president, Miguel Angel Rodríguez (1998-2002), was arrested in 2004 and later charged with corruption in a separate case. The charges help explain what Calderón called the “biggest disaster in the history of the party” in 2006. The party that year lost 14 seats in the Legislative Assembly, and PUSC presidential candidate Ricardo Toledo received just 3.4% of the vote.
Calderón has spent the last year trying to boost his image and pump life into his party.
Since early 2007, he has held more than 100 meetings with party members throughout the country. Party members have pledged to organize committees on the district level to campaign for PUSC in the 2010 elections.
Calderón’s campaign is as much about galvanizing the party’s bases as it is about promoting his own innocence. His Web site is www.calderon-innocente.org, and at meetings he distributes a 12-page pamphlet that aims to debunk the accusations against him.
The national tour appears to be working. Some 41% of Costa Ricans have a “favorable opinion” of Calderón, compared to 16% in 2004 after he was arrested, according to a March poll by the firm Unimer for the daily La Nación.
Calderón has not yet formally announced his candidacy, but his campaign stops make clear that he intends to run.He will likely win the internal party primaries, Carvajal said.
The party’s 11 mayors issued a press release last month in support of Calderón’s candidacy. The great majority of the party’s National Assembly, which picks the presidential candidate, backs Calderón. Some 1,200 people came to his 59th birthday party last month for a daylong spree of food, music and speeches.
Calderón symbolizes the party’s glorious past as much as its sudden downfall. His father, also named Rafael Angel Calderón, was president from 1940-44 and pushed through social reforms that Costa Ricans still hold dear.He established labor rights and founded Costa Rica’s socialized health care system, known as the Caja, whose ex-president is also implicated in Calderón Jr.’s case.
Calderón Jr., who draws much of his support from low-income voters who did not graduate from college, has echoed his father’s calls for social justice.
“Our work will be to better distribute the wealth in this country,” he told a cheering audience in Heredia last weekend.
Fond impressions of Calderón Sr. brought William Rodríguez to the Heredia speech. Rodríguez strongly agrees with the party’s ideology – using Christian principles in government to promote the public good. Seemingly ambivalent about Calderón Jr.’s candidacy, Rodríguez said he sees no other viable presidential contender within the party.
Rolando said he may form a new party for disillusioned PUSC members, as three of PUSC’s five members of the Legislative Assembly do not back Calderón or the party leadership. A sizable chunk of voters who identify as PUSC are also turned off by the corruption charges, Rolando said.
“They are now waiting to decide what to do,” he said. “We can capture this sector.” Still, Rodríguez is hoping for a PUSC revival. He worries that the National Liberation Party (PLN), backed by 35% of Costa Ricans, could become corrupt if not checked by a second strong party. Support for PUSC has climbed to 17% since the 2006 elections, making it the second most popular party, according to the La Nación poll.
“A country that has two parties, two visions, is healthy,” he said. Calderón, who plans to double his campaign efforts in the coming years, counseled patience.
“I don’t care that we are second now. I care about being first in 22 months,” he said. “A party with 70 years of history in this country cannot disappear.”