With only 10 days left on the campaign trail, the three presidential candidates of Costa Rica’s left-leaning Citizen Action Party (PAC) are participating in near back-to-back debates as they vie for their party’s undecided voters.
Pollsters have pegged party founder Ottón Solís and ex-legislator Epsy Campbell as the top contenders going into the May 31 primary election. Yet Román Macaya, who is new on the political stage, is said to have registered the most new voters to the party, and he could pose a threat to either of the other candidates.
“We have three very good candidates,” said Rodrigo Cabezas, a party delegate who aided in the creation of PAC. He said that no matter who wins, members of his party have reason to celebrate because the primary has given exposure and new status to the party.
“I played witness to two previous conventions when Ottón (as the sole presidential contender) expressed a desire to see more candidates,” said Cabezas, a Solís supporter. “The quality of Román and Epsy as candidates has made this party not only bigger (in the number of registered voters), but also it has given more coverage to a party that has long been ignored.”
May 31 represents PAC’s first primary, and members expect to have a large percentage of their 67,000 registered voters visit polling sites throughout the country.
The PAC’s most formidable opponent is the National Liberation Party (PLN) – a profree-trade, social democratic party – which has been in existence since 1951 and has won six presidential elections.
The Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC), once one of the leading parties and which has won the presidency three times, has faded lately as two of its most important leaders –also former presidents – have been facing corruption charges during the past several years.
“Having several candidates is good if the reasons are the right ones. (It’s) wrong if the reasons are the wrong ones,” Solís told The Tico Times in an interview in early May. “In this case I think the reasons are the right ones, so it is very good for our party.”
The former legislator, government minister and activist against the Central American Free Trade Agreement with the U.S. (CAFTA) is running for president for the third time. He lost the last election to current President Oscar Arias by a mere 1 percent of the vote.
In mid-February, Epsy Campbell, a young ex-legislator and community activist, announced her intention to challenge Solís in the hopes of becoming Costa Rica’s first female president. Campbell, who served as the party’s president for four years, pressured for establishment of the primary, arguing that voters should be able to choose their representative in the final election.
Businessman Román Macaya (see related story, page 2) joined the campaign on March 4. He was inspired by his work against CAFTA and unimpressed with the message of the existing candidates.
Macaya said his primary opponents won’t bring change and “the country really needs a major change right now.”
The three candidates appeared before a roomful of college-aged students at Heredia’s Inter-American University on Monday, where they presented their message in a cordial dialogue that was less of a debate and more of a discussion of a unified message: that unregulated markets will further polarize the country, that corruption in political circles needs to be eradicated, and that the most important investment for the next administration should be in Costa Rica’s educational system.
“The debates have been nothing like what we witnessed between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama (U.S. Democratic Party presidential primary candidates in last year’s election). “In those debates, there was blood,” said Cabezas, adding that the geniality might bode well for bringing the candidates together as a team following the May 31 election.
The 90-minute event drew questions from the student audience about the economy, security and education – three issues that have defined the campaigns to date.
“The university provided us with this unique opportunity to meet people who could potentially be our next president,” said Joaquín Badilla, an architecture student who expects to vote for a member of the PLN but wanted to see what the other candidates offered. “It is an opportunity that few universities have.”
For Badilla, Campbell offers the best choice among the PAC candidates debating that day. “I believe in her,” he said.
Johana Rivera, who is studying media relations, said Solís captured the debate and her vote.
“He is more real than the other candidates, more direct,” she said.
Citizen Action Party
When: Sunday, May 31
Time: Polls are open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Where: For a list of polling locations, visit www.pac.cr and click on Participa
Who: The candidates are businessman Román Macaya, party founder Ottón Solís and former party president Epsy Campbell
The significance of May 31: Contrary to many media reports, the primary was not scheduled on May 31 to coincide with the 55th birthday of its founder. Rather, party members scheduled the primary one week before that of the PLN to capitalize on media attention and try to overshadow its primary election, to be held the following week.