Poll workers watched the clock tick closer to 4 p.m., hoping for one last rush. It was 3:40 p.m. – just 20 minutes before the doors would close – and only 104 of the 339 registered voters had stepped through the gates.
“It’s disappointing that this is a rainy day,” said Guillermo Céspedes, who stood outside the polling station in Guápiles on Sunday. “I think the weather had an effect on voters (and on turnout)…There should be more of a feeling of celebration.”
Looking around at the empty streets, he added, “Maybe there will be more movement in the last hour.”
But that surge never came, and when the doors closed at 411 polls across the country at 4 p.m. on May 31 only 22,950 of the 67,000 registered voters (26 percent) had slid their ballot into the white cardboard boxes provided to receive them.
The showing was not bad for the first primary of the fledgling Citizen Action Party (PAC), said Secretary General Magarita Bolaños, putting a positive spin on the day’s events.
“(The elections) were an accomplishment in the sense that we were able to open 411 tables in voting centers across the country and that we gave the people an opportunity to vote,” she said. “We completed our mandate. If people don’t come to vote…it’s in part our problem because we set up these elections… but it’s also a responsibility of the voters.”
Bolaños said the low turnout is something the party will investigate, but she suspects various factors played into it, including ineffective avenues of communication, the requirement that voters cast their ballots in the localities where they first registered (thereby turning away some people who came to the polls) and a lack of interest.
“There are various explanations, and we have to study them,” she said. “But, in the end, we have a candidate who has been selected through a democratic process.”
Party founder Otton Solís, who came within two percentage points of winning the nation’s presidential election in 2006, captured the most votes in the primary, with 71 percent of votes cast. Epsy Campbell, a former legislator and PAC party president who campaigned on social inclusion, gender equity and environmental sustainability, drew 19 percent of the vote. And latecomer to the elections, businessman Román Macaya, pulled in 9 percent, according to preliminary results.
“I would have liked to have seen more people vote,” Solís said, the day following the elections. “But the people who did vote are mainly local leaders, which means that they are behind this campaign.”
He said the primary elections strengthened the party by drawing more media attention and further expanding its message.
“I always wanted a primary election,” Solís said. “I wanted it four years ago, when I pushed back the deadline (for candidates to file), hoping for another candidate to emerge.”
But no one stepped forward, and Solís headed into the presidential campaign for the second time.
The Political Landscape
For decades, two parties traded the presidency back and forth: the National Liberation Party (PLN), which promoted an ideology of an active, interventionist state, of higher taxes and expanded social programs, and the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC), which promoted free market principles and public policy centered more on Christian doctrine. But since two former presidents of the PUSC were taken to trial on corruption charges in 2004, the party gradually has faded from the political scene.
And the PAC, which came to prominence for its role in opposition to the Central American Free Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA), became the country’s second party in terms of political influence and popularity. Only today the PLN is seen as being to the right of the PAC politically, promoting free trade and reducing bureaucracy, while the PAC has assumed the mantle of championing a stronger role for the state and opposing free market economics.
“My party is The Unity Party (as the PUSC is now known), but I’ll give my vote to Ottón,” said Límon voter Jesús Méndez, as he emerged from a polling station Sunday afternoon. “I see that he can be a great president and bring about change. The other parties did nothing. Liberation? Nothing. The Unity? Nothing either.”
PAC has defined itself as a party opposed to political corruption but in favor of increased dialogue with residents and in support of strengthened protection of local industry.
“I have been fighting neoliberalism and market fundamentalism since I started my public life. I have been fighting corruption since I started my public life. And I have been trying to build a space for dialogue since I started my public life,” said Solís, a man who has long defined the party.
A Challenge from Within
Former legislator Epsy Campbell, a young mother of Jamaican ancestry who grew up in Limón, was the main driving force behind Sunday’s primary election.
She made her candidacy contingent on holding the primary elections, allowing 67,000 party members to decide whose name would be the ballot in February of 2010 – a decision that was made internally in the past.
“The party really needs to be thankful for Epsy because this party was dead before she came around. If it weren’t for Epsy announcing her candidacy, who knows where this party would be?” said Campbell’s husband, Norman Swaby, who presided over the campaign at the polling center in Limón on Sunday.
Surrounded by red-shirted campaign workers, walls plastered with pictures of Campbell and banners strung across eaves, he said people brought a heightened energy to the voting center.
“People seem visibly happy,” he said. “They are coming here with great enthusiasm.”
A month into the primary campaign, businessman and intellectual Román Macaya jumped into the race. Macaya was concerned that the PAC was too focused on eradicating corruption in the government and not paying enough attention to seeking tangible improvements for everyday citizens.
“If we lock this door and talk about ethics all day, we might all go to heaven, but the citizen in the street won’t feel any difference…” he said in an interview with The Tico Times. “The existence of the PAC must be felt constantly on the streets and that means concrete actions, that means legislative proposals, that means negotiating with other political parties to achieve certain goals…” (TT, May 20) The neophyte politician amazed many with his impact on this campaign, but – as the daily La Prensa Libre said – the nomination of Solís “was no surprise.”
Solís, who personifies the party after nine years of working on various campaigns, is the PAC’s choice for Casa Presidencial.
“I am very happy, very motivated,” he said. “And I am ready to go on to win in 2010.”