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Thursday, March 23, 2023

If you’re still undecided, Sunday’s presidential debate probably didn’t help

With several presidential debates already behind us and one more to go before Feb. 2 elections, voters might be getting a little winded with the same five candidates reiterating their positions on various issues and displaying general contempt for each other.

Sunday’s debate on TV’s Channel 7, while at times lively, probably didn’t help undecided voters much. Sure, there were the usual barbs about Broad Front Party candidate José María Villalta being a commie without an experienced team and Liberation’s Johnny Araya representing the corrupt status quo, Unity’s Rodolfo Piza’s incessant yelling, and Citizen Action Party’s (PAC) Luis Guillermo Solís’ playing referee-analyst. But if you don’t know for whom to vote by now, it’s likely you may end up deciding in the voting booth.

The 2.5-hour debate focused on some pretty important central issues: Costa Rica’s massive fiscal deficit, poverty and unemployment, and tax policy, among them. And all candidates agreed these are pressing problems the next administration must face head-on. But their proposed solutions somehow seemed to get lost in all the bickering, and comments that should’ve become memorable sound bites petered out as the time clock expired.

“These elections are the most important in the last decade,” declared Araya, the former San José mayor of the ruling National Liberation Party. Voters must choose among candidates of the extreme left and right, he said, who could “threaten social peace” and “provoke chaos.”

Pretty powerful stuff, except Araya’s “camino seguro” mantra lost its punch when he wasn’t able to answer a previous question by PAC’s Solís about why as mayor of the nation’s capital for more than two decades, he had earned a higher salary than the mayors of Madrid and Paris. “I’m not a man of words, but of action,” the former mayor responded.

Araya, who interrupted the other candidates throughout the night, also fell short with his Lloyd Bentsen moment, telling Villalta not to compare himself with José Figueres Ferrer and “other great figures” – a tough sell from a candidate who’s current president has the worst approval ratings in the Western Hemisphere.

And while all five leading candidates agreed it would be imperative for the next administration to achieve national consensus on pressing issues like the deficit, inequality and crumbling infrastructure, there was little indication that would be possible, judging by Sunday night’s brabble. At one point, Araya and the Libertarian Movement Party’s Otto Guevara descended into arguing and finger-pointing regarding who had the most criminal investigations launched against him, complete with documents that no one in the viewing audience could see.

In his closing statement, perhaps Piza had the best advice: “Ignore polls, … choose values. … Who can lead this country best?”

If you’re not yet sure, fear not, there’s another debate next Sunday.

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