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Johnny Araya lost the vote in San José municipality, where he was mayor for 21 years

February 3, 2014

National Liberation Party (PLN) candidate Johnny Araya still can win Costa Rica’s presidency. His campaign will have two months to swing the tide in his favor before the April 6 runoff against rival Luis Guillermo Solís. But right now it’s hard to figure out which was more incredible: Solís’ unbelievable comeback or Araya’s fall.

Six months ago, the PLN candidate seemed to have this election wrapped up before several missteps caused that lead to unravel. On Election Day, Araya lost the San José canton, even though he was mayor of the district for 21 years.

The Citizen Action Party’s Solís won San José with 35.3 percent of the vote, with 83 percent of precincts reporting. Araya picked up 29.5 percent. It’s not a huge surprise that Solís took Araya’s home turf. The majority of Solís’ support came from the urban Central Valley, which includes San José. But Araya’s poor performance underscores how badly the PLN misrepresented their candidate’s popularity. Despite polls indicating a runoff would be necessary to win the presidency, Araya continued talking like he’d win in the first round, saying before Sunday’s vote he hoped to capture 1 million votes.

When the results came in, it must’ve felt like a gut punch for the 56-yar-old former mayor. When it became clear a runoff was necessary, the PLN’s campaign manager tried to spin the news by saying Araya still was the leading vote-getter. But soon even that small truth evaporated. Early Monday morning, Solís led with 30.9 percent of the vote to 29.6 percent of the vote.

Araya was not the only leading presidential hopeful to underperform in a district he had ties to. Broad Front Party candidate José María Villalta, considered Araya’s most formidable foe entering Election Day, lost his hometown of Montes de Oca in eastern San José. He finished third in voting, in a district that Solís won with 46 percent.

While Solís won the Central Valley, Araya dominated the coasts. The split between rural and urban areas of the country will have to change for Araya – suddenly the underdog – to rally against Solís. With Villalta backers almost certainly converging around Solís for the runoff, PLN campaign managers must know they face a daunting challenge. The most recent poll looking at a potential runoff, supports this.

Ironically, Solís supporters who were often dismayed – it appears justifiably so – with their candidates low poll numbers (a Tico Times projection based on official poll averages showed Solís in fourth place) are hoping the most recent UCR poll proves correct. That poll foresees a Solís victory by almost 20 percentage points.

But a lot can change in two months, or less. Assuredly Solís, who polled no better than third days before the election, already knows that well.

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