Election preview: Costa Rica and El Salvador

Two Central American nations are holding elections on Sunday. Costa Rica will vote for a new president and Congress, while El Salvador (in which the two are out of alignment) will vote just for a new president. In both countries the incumbent president is constitutionally barred from seeking re-election – term limits have held up rather better than in neighboring Nicaragua.

Despite talk of a continued swing to the left, it seems that the most likely result will be that left and right take one each.

Costa Rica is often described as the most successful country in the region, a status intimately linked with the abolition of its armed forces, following a brief civil war in 1948. It typically scores higher rankings for democracy and civil liberties than many richer or more well known places; power tends to alternate between parties in competitive elections.

The two traditional parties are the centre-left National Liberation Party (PLN) and the centre-right Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC). But in recent years the party system has been in a state of some turmoil. The PUSC lost most of its support following a series of corruption scandals about a decade ago, and the PLN drifted towards the right.

Other parties arose to fill the gap: the Citizens’ Action Party (PAC), a left-leaning populist party, which came within a few thousand votes of winning the presidency in 2006; the Libertarian Movement Party, a free-market liberal party, which is now the third-largest party in Congress; Access Without Exclusion, a disability rights party that did surprisingly well in 2010; and the Broad Front, a leftist coalition that is now only narrowly trailing the PLN in the polls.

The last two presidential elections, in 2006 and 2010, have both gone to the PLN, and it has the largest share of seats in Congress (although short of a majority in its own right). But the country’s economy is in the doldrums and incumbent Laura Chinchilla has lost popularity, leaving the PLN looking vulnerable.

A winning candidate for president needs to score more than 40% of the vote; otherwise a runoff election will be held in April (this has only happened once, in 2002). Opinion polls show a tight race between the PLN’s Johnny Araya, who is mayor of the capital, San José, and the Broad Front’s José Maria Villalta. Araya has fairly consistently been in the lead, but not by enough for a first round victory.

Libertarian Otto Guevara and PAC’s Luis Guillermo Solís are not far behind; some polls had shown Guevara reaching the runoff, but his support appears to have fallen off in recent weeks.

Results should be available on Monday at the Electoral Tribunal website. (Its section on past elections, however, seems to have disappeared, perhaps so as not to confuse this year’s voters, so I have largely relied on Wikipedia.)

El Salvador is a more straightforward contest. There are only three serious candidates: current vice-president Salvador Sánchez Cerén, of the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN); San Salvador mayor Norman Quijano, of the centre-right Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA); and former president Tony Saca, representing a centrist coalition including the Christian Democrats as well as his own Grand Alliance for National Unity.

ARENA and the FMLN were the main antagonists in El Salvador’s bloody civil war in the 1980s. Since the conclusion of peace in 1992, however, they have both played their role well as democratic political parties. ARENA won three successive presidential elections in 1994, 1999 and 2004, followed by an FMLN victory in 2009. (William Walker, who was United States ambassador to El Salvador in the last years of the war, puts the war’s legacy nicely in perspective this week in the New York Times.)

The two parties are also evenly matched in Congress, with the centrists holding the balance of power.

Sánchez Cerén holds a solid lead in the polls, but since the threshold for a first round victory in El Salvador is 50% rather than 40%, it will be difficult for him to avoid a runoff.

For all their continued troubles, both countries are good news stories: Costa Rica for its long history of peace and stability, and El Salvador for its remarkable success in cooling the passions of civil war. Let’s hope the good news continues on Sunday.


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