The first poll of December showed a heated battle between former San José Mayor Johnny Araya, of the ruling National Liberation Party, and opposition lawmaker José María Villalta, of the Broad Front Party, increasing the likelihood of a runoff vote in 2014 in what has become a fiercely competitive presidential campaign.
The poll, conducted by Gallup and the business newspaper La República, showed Araya with 37 percent of the likely vote, while Villalta captured 32 percent. Libertarian Movement Party candidate Otto Guevara had 15 percent, according to the poll.
Gallup’s latest survey brings it in line with other polls in the country, showing increasing support for Villalta. The 32 percent of voters in the most recent poll is the highest number he has received to date. Gallup’s previous poll in late November showed Villalta with 21 percent and Araya with 45 percent.
If no candidate gets more than 40 percent of the vote on Feb. 2, the top two finishers will face a runoff in April. Costa Rica has not had a runoff election since 2002.
Gallup called 2,428 Costa Ricans from Dec. 5-15. The reported numbers excluded undecided voters, who totaled 25 percent of respondents. With their numbers included, Araya’s support dropped to 27 percent and Villalta’s to 22.8 percent. The poll had a margin of error of 2 percent.
In September and October, polls gave the current ruling party’s nominee, Araya, a substantial lead, polling 10 percent or higher than his nearest opponents. A sequence of events have shaken up what was thought to be a shoo-in election for Araya.
In an October interview with the daily La Teja newspaper, Araya underestimated the cost of a liter of milk and a casado, the typical rice, bean, and meat dish of Costa Rica. His mistake fueled criticism that the longtime San José mayor was out of touch with the day-to-day concerns of Costa Ricans. Later that month, Araya’s first television campaign slogan “Hire me” was met with scorn for its vagueness by Costa Rica’s media, and the message that a ruling party battling an image of corruption would seek to be “paid” for public service.
Araya also skipped several presidential debates, creating an easy mark for critics who asked, “Why should we hire you if you don’t show up to the job interview,” according to several comments circulated on social media networks. Araya’s campaign quickly dropped the “Hire me” commercials.
Araya’s top challenger in September, according to polls, Rodolfo Hernández, of the Social Christian Unity Party, quit the race in October, leaving a vacuum for a challenger to fill. Every poll since Hernández quit has put Villalta in second or first place.
Both Araya’s and Guevara’s camps have turned up the pressure on Villalta, 36, accusing him of leaning too far to the left and supporting strong-armed dictators in the region like the late Hugo Chávez, Raúl Castro and Daniel Ortega.
Meanwhile, Luis Guillermo Solís, the presidential candidate of the opposition Citizen Action Party, whose presidential platform appears to be the most comprehensive of the candidates, has been unable to attract attention from likely voters and likely will be eliminated in a first round of voting.