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What keeps Johnny Araya awake at night?

February 7, 2014

After a disappointing finish in the first round of the Costa Rican national elections by the National Liberation Party, and the surprise victory of Luis Guillermo Solís, there is much to keep PLN presidential candidate Johnny Araya tossing and turning in his bed.

The knowledge that Araya will face in a runoff the organizational and political savvy of the Citizen Action Party – which ran a brilliant mix of old-school door-to-door campaigning and high-tech social-media use – would be enough to interrupt Araya’s sleep under normal circumstances, but these circumstances are anything but normal.

Anyone who saw Araya’s face when he learned that PAC had overtaken him in the vote on election night knew he would have much rather faced Broad Front Party’s José María Villalta on April 6. But Araya also faces the daunting realization that 70 percent of Costa Rican voters cast their ballots for other candidates, turning their backs on the 21-year veteran mayor of San José. More disconcerting for Araya is that he lost by a huge margin in the province of San José, where the voters know him best.

Yet while seven out of 10 voters chose someone other than Araya, the same can be said of Solís. Only slightly more voters chose him over the others in the election; so, why is he likely sleeping better than Araya? The answer is Liberation’s win-at-all-cost strategy that gained Araya a place in the second round, but now handicaps him there. Relying on the same scare tactics used to narrowly win a 2008 free trade referendum, Araya and the PLN labeled Villalta a communist who would turn Costa Rica into a new Venezuela or Nicaragua. Despite this oft-repeated accusation, Villalta’s Broad Front Party still managed 17 percent of the vote and at least one member of the Legislative Assembly from each of Costa Rica’s seven provinces. PLN’s campaign of fear may have kept Villalta from the second round, but it also ensured that most of Broad Front’s voters likely will rally for PAC in April.

So too will most of the votes of the Social Christian Unity Party. Their presidential candidate, Rodolfo Piza, has made his respect for Solís known throughout the election season, and the conflict-filled history between PUSC and PLN makes it likely many PUSC voters will support PAC in the next round.

Because the Libertarian Movement Party has found affinities with Liberation in recent years, one might expect many of them to now join Araya. Perhaps they will, but after a bruising electoral season complete with daily insults and accusations between Araya and Libertarian candidate Otto Guevara, it is reasonable to assume that at least some ML voters may prefer abstention to a vote for PLN.

Araya can expect little if any help from Broad Front’s 17 percent and PUSC’s 6 percent, and perhaps only half-hearted support from the ML’s 11 percent, making it hard for the ex-mayor to find an electoral majority. This political arithmetic would keep any presidential hopeful from a restful slumber.

But what must really frighten Araya is the realization that his own 29 percent is not a base from which to build, but a castle built of sand. Thanks in large part to the very success of his own negative campaign strategy, Araya now enters a second round not knowing how many of his voters are actually excited and committed to an Araya presidency. Calling Villalta a communist was effective in winning votes for the PLN in the first round. Many who feared a Villalta victory saw Araya as the only alternative who could stop the Broad Front. But that same strategy means that many of Araya’s first-round voters did not vote for Araya, but rather against Villalta. And many will abandon him in the second round now that they see Solís as a viable choice. It is the realization that his own successful first-round strategy has all but made it impossible for him to win in the second round that must keep Johnny Araya awake at night.

Gary L. Lehring is a professor of government at Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts. He is on sabbatical in Costa Rica.

 

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