With two months left in Costa Rica’s presidential campaign, opposition candidate José María Villalta, from the Broad Front Party, has placed at the top of polling for the first time since the campaign began, according to a poll published Sunday by the daily La Nación.
Villalta, a 36-year-old lawmaker and relative newcomer to politics, captured between 17 and 22 percent of the intended vote in the most recent poll, while Otto Guevara, of the Libertarian Movement Party, and former San José Mayor Johnny Araya, of the ruling National Liberation Party, tied for second, with between 14 and 19 percent support of those polled.
Only two months ago, Villalta had captured only 10 percent of the expected vote based on polling. Araya had dominated previous polls, topping off at 38 percent of intended voters.
The poll also found that the number of undecided voters has increased in recent months, from 19 to 24 percent. If that trend continues, undecided voters could play the decisive role in determining Costa Rica’s next president on Feb. 2.
The poll was conducted from Nov. 8-20 and surveyed 2,416 people. It had a margin of error of 2.4 percent.
A series of recent events has significantly changed Costa Rica’s electoral landscape, as only three months ago, Araya seemed unbeatable. From September to October, Social Christian Unity Party candidate Rodolfo Hernández solidly held second place among intended voters. But Hernández unexpectedly quit the campaign, citing corruption among his party’s leaders.
According to analysts, Hernández’s exit boosted Villalta’s support among those unhappy with the ruling party and the current administration of President Laura Chinchilla, who has the worst approval ratings in the Americas.
A series of campaign blunders also has cost Araya the lead, analysts say, including an October interview with the daily La Teja, in which Araya had no idea how much a typical casado, or traditional Costa Rican meat and rice dish, costs. Araya said, “₡1,000,” or about $2 – less than half its actual cost. He also didn’t know the average cost of a liter of milk or a kilo of rice, leading many potential voters to believe the former mayor is out of touch with the high cost of living in the country.
Araya’s campaign also has undertaken an effort to discredit Villalta, attempting to link him to left-wing strongmen in the region including the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, Cuba’s Raúl Castro and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega.
Asked about the attacks against him, Villalta told The Tico Times during a recent interview that he viewed them as a sign that the ruling party candidate was growing concerned about Villalta’s increasing popularity among poor and middle-class voters.
In the upcoming elections, Costa Ricans will select a new president, two vice presidents and the entire Legislative Assembly, composed of 57 lawmakers.
A presidential candidate must capture 40 percent of the vote, plus one vote, to be elected, or face a runoff election on the first Sunday in April.