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With friends like these, did Johnny need enemies?

April 8, 2014

Following the surprise suspension of his presidential campaign, it must be admitted that from the beginning Johnny Araya had unique hurdles to overcome as a National Liberation Party candidate. The early frontrunner in this campaign, he nonetheless was burdened with the history that no Costa Rican party has won the presidential election for a third consecutive term. In national politics, familiarity often breeds contempt, and, rightly or wrongly, voters blame the party in power for all of the ills facing a nation. And there has been much for voters to find blameworthy.

This election season, the name of the PLN was little more than a reminder of the last scandal-plagued eight years: from the infamous “La Platina” bridge to the shameful “La Trocha” border road, from Las Crucitas gold mine to Moín Port, and to the suspected wrongdoing and resignations of Fernando Herrero, Francisco Jiménez and Francisco Chacón, the respective ministers of finance, transportation and communications. The past two administrations made it impossible for Araya to garner much advantage from the tarnished name of the once great party of “Pepe” Figueres.

Current President Laura Chinchilla’s historically low approval ratings also affected Araya’s prospects. In September 2012, one poll revealed a 12 percent approval rating for Chinchilla, the lowest in the region and the lowest in the history of Costa Rican opinion polls. The weak economy and rising levels of inequality and unemployment robbed Araya of any advantage that PLN incumbency might have brought under different circumstances.

PLN’s current political godfather, Óscar Arias, didn’t helped Araya either. Arias’ longstanding ambivalence about the ex-San José mayor was evidenced by his support of other Liberation primary candidates in both 2009 and 2013. A recent photo of Arias shaking hands with Citizen Action Party candidate (and likely president-elect) Luis Guillermo Solís caused Arias to clarify for the press that he really did intend to vote for Araya. Really. Truly!

Recommended: Johnny Araya’s concession speech

Even the original don of the PLN, “Pepe” Figueres, seemed to reach from the grave to quash Araya’s ambitions. Araya’s complaint following Solís’ visit to the “hallowed ground” of Finca La Lucha backfired when Figueres’ son Mariano suggested the ideas of his father belonged to all Costa Ricans, and those ideas were best represented in this campaign by the PAC candidate.

To add insult to Araya’s injured ego, the “sirenas” that had not sounded since the death of Don Pepe in 1990 resonated in support of Solís, and Mariano Figueres contradicted Araya’s claim that the PLN had won the vote in Finca La Lucha in the first round. Supreme Elections Tribunal numbers confirm Mariano’s claim, and Araya was denied the succor and support of both the living and dead residents of La Lucha.

In the Legislative Assembly, PLN lawmakers haven’t been much help either. Jorge Angulo, Alicia Fournier, Óscar Alfaro and Antonio Calderón each face accusations of financial wrongdoing, which adds to the corrupt image of PLN. From the never-ending tirades and shenanigans of PLN’s outgoing “peacock-with-the-attitude-of-a-pit-bull,” Fabio Molina, to Silvia Sánchez, the youngest member of the incoming Assembly who appears better prepared to ask if “you want fries with your order” than to serve in the Cuesta de Moras, legislative scandals and outrageous behavior affected support for Araya’s campaign.

In this election year, Costa Ricans were looking for political change, and Araya seemed to offer more of the same. Araya, aware of this, at one point suggested that Solís had spent more time in PLN administrations than had he. Voiced by a consummate political insider who served 22 years as San José’s mayor, who is the nephew of former PLN President Luis Alberto Monge and brother of former PLN presidential candidate Rolando Araya, his accusation sounded absurd. As his bid to be the next president evaporated in a fog of venal corruption, campaign ineptitude, political nepotism, and self-indulgent narcissism, Johnny Araya had to be asking himself, “With friends like the PLN, do I really need enemies?”

Gary L. Lehring is a professor of government at Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts. He is on sabbatical in Costa Rica. Read more of his columns by clicking on the hashtag #Elections 2014.

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