Costa Rica registered another milestone in her history on Sunday when voters overwhelmingly elected a woman to the presidency.
Laura Chinchilla, a former vice president and twice-married mother, achieved 46.7 percent of the vote, surpassing her closest competitor by more than 20 percentage points.
Standing before a crowd of green and- white clad supporters at the National Liberation Party’s (PLN) victory celebration Sunday night, the 50-year-old longtime politician said, “I want to thank the Costa Rican people who gave me today the most precious of their assets – their trust … It’s up to me to justify that trust every day, by acting with honesty, responsibility, with absolute independence of thought and with my sights set exclusively on the interests of my country.”
Chinchilla told reporters following her speech that she never doubted she would win, but she had considered that a second round might be necessary. Had she received less than 40 percent of the vote – as some polling companies had projected – she would have been forced into a runoff election with the candidate in second place.
“We always saw a small risk, but it was always very small, and it wasn’t that we would lose, but that we’d be forced into a second round,” she said in an upstairs meeting room at the Corobici Hotel, near La Sabana Park. “We thought we would come out above 40 percent of the vote, but not with the percentage we achieved today.”
Battling for second place were two men with similar first names who are situated on opposite sides of the political spectrum.
Both Citizen Action Party (PAC) candidate Ottón Solís, a three-time presidential candidate known for his activism against the Central American Free Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA), and Harvard-educated Libertarian Movement Party (ML) candidate Otto Guevara, a proponent of free trade, free markets and lower taxes, tried to position themselves as the alternative to the incumbent party.
But, in the end, the votes failed to materialize for either one of them and they lost their shot at participating in a second round.
Solís, an economist from the Southern Zone city of San Isidro de Pérez Zeledón, earned 25.1 percent of the vote, and Guevara, reared in San José’s historic Barrio Amón, received 20.9 percent.
“I don’t know what I did wrong,” Solís said in his concession speech before dozens of supporters. “But I will be available for all those in my party. Now, we have to take care of our legislators and other members of the PAC who (have been chosen) to serve in the various municipalities of Costa Rica.”
Solís’ party took a hit in the Legislative Assembly, losing six of its elected representatives, according to preliminary numbers. The winners turned out to be from the ML, which gained five seats, and the Accessibility Without Exclusion Party (PASE), which gained three additional seats. (See separate story.)
The victorious PLN claimed a majority of the Legislative Assembly seats at 23, but that is short of the 29-vote majority needed to move bills easily through the assembly by their effort alone.
The rest of the seats went to the PAC (11), the ML (10), the Social Christian Unity Party (6) and the PASE (4). The Broad Front Party, the Costa Rican Renovation Party and the National Restoration Party received one each.
According to the Supreme Elections Tribunal, more than 1.9 million Costa Ricans voted on Sunday, casting their ballots at polling places where they found their names on long lists outside of school classrooms before joining the voting lines.
Outside, campaign chants, honking horns and wildly flapping campaign flags filled the streets with partisan spirit.
Maritza Arias, who sells lottery tickets in Desamparados, a southern suburb of San José, found herself between stilt walkers and masked characters during a midday celebration for Chinchilla. When she caught a glimpse of the soon-to-be president, she pushed to the front of the crowd to embrace her.
Moments later, after Chinchilla had passed into the polling station, the 49-year-old Arias, whose skin is darkened from long days in the streets and whose shirt was stained, grinned through her tears and said, “It’s a beautiful day for Costa Rica.”
She wasn’t the only one celebrating. Seventy-four-year-old Margarita Fonseca had her hands in the air as she danced to the music of marching bands.
“It’s a party,” she said as she twirled around. “There’s no violence, no fights, just happiness.”
For those supporting Chinchilla, there was even more reason to celebrate as the results began streaming in Sunday night. From the start, results indicated that she wasn’t just going to win. Rather, she would take the vote by a landslide.
“I consider this a great moment for our country,” said 51-year-old teacher Damaris Leiva, who waved a PLN flag at the victory party Sunday night. “It will bring us continuity and, for the first time, we will have a woman president.”
Chinchilla handily won each of the seven provinces and 79 of the 81 municipalities (Sarchí voted Libertarian, while San Ramón went for thePAC. Both towns are in the Central Valley, west of San José). An estimated 69 percent of the voting population submitted ballots.