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Costa Rica and El Salvador elections head to run-off

Both countries are involved in tight elections, and will most likely go to a run-off, say analysts.

On Sunday, voters in Costa Rica and El Salvador went to the polls to elect their new presidents. Races in both countries involved three major candidates, and were extremely tight ahead of time: polls showed no candidate reeiving a majority of votes. With election results in on Monday morning, no candidate broke the election threshold on Sunday – 40 percent of vote in Costa Rica, and 50 percent in El Salvador. As such, run-off elections will be held between the two leading candidates.LBC consulted with Professor Mike Allison, Professor of Political Science at the University of Scranton and author of the Central American Politics blog, on how the elections should proceed, and what can be expected.

El Salvador

In El Salvador, three candidates competed on Sunday to succeed current president Mauricio Funes. Funes,in office since 2009, was the first candidate to win election from the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), a political party borne out of leftist guerrilla groups from the country’s 13-year civil war (1979-1992).

Sunday's election was divided between three candidates. Representing the incumbent FMLN was current Vice President Salvador Sánchez Cerén. He faced Norman Quijano, a former mayor of capital city San Salvador, from the conservative National Republican Alliance (ARENA), as well as Antonio Saca, a former president (2004-2009) who broke with ARENA in 2010, and is running under the banner of the Unity Movement. Election results showed Sánchez Cerén falling just short of the threshold - receiving 48.9 percent of the vote, while Quijano received 39 percent. The two will face each other in a run-off next month.

The race was full of twists and turns. Saca’s candidacy, turning the race into a three-way tie, introduced uncertainty into the election. Allison says polls were inconsistent during the campaign, though most put Sánchez Cerén in the lead. A CIP Gallup poll before the election showed Sánchez Cerén with around 47 percent of the vote, with Quijano receiving around 36, and Saca a distant third, receiving between 14 and 16 percent. The question now is who will be the favorite in the second round. Will that vote may be more favorable for Quijano if he receives Saca’s conservative voters, or will Sánchez Cerén continue his momentum. “Salvadoran politics is historically divided between one-third of voters for the FMLN, one-third for ARENA, and one-third undecided,” said Allison.

What differentiates the two candidates? Sánchez has a reputation for being a more hardline leftist than current president Mauricio Funes. “Sánchez would definitely be in favor of implementing a foreign and domestic policy similar to other countries of the Bolivarian Alliance [a political blog founded by Chávez’s Venezuela],” says Allison. However, Allison also warns that the country has a lot of structural restraints to seeing Venezuela-like changes. “El Salvador is highly dependent on the United States,” Allison points out. “It has a diaspora of almost 2 million people living in the United States – a large proportion in a country of 6 million. That diaspora sends home remittances that equal 16.5 percent of the country’s GDP.” Beyond that, the United States is the country’s largest trading partner, and a major source of public security resources for the country. “Take all of that into account, and Venezuela’s decreased generosity, and the prospect for radical change isn’t quite so extreme.”

Sánchez Cerén has also promised to create jobs, foment small business, and employ a “manointeligente” approach to crime, favoring strengthening the police over the military in combating transnational drug crime. Allison also says the FMLN would be more sensitive to environmental concerns and opposed to opening mining in the country; in 2012 El Salvador’s GDP grew 1.6 percent.

Quijano from ARENA has positioned himself as the free-market, pro-business candidate, and has vowed to attract foreign investment and improve the ease of doing business. Still, Allison says he probably will not change El Salvador’s current economic model much. “Funes has instituted a centrist economic policy with ideas from the center-left and center-right,” says Allison. “He’s instituted a lot of social programs – such as free milk to schoolchildren, and credits to farmers – that would be difficult to get rid of.” Allison says an ARENA president would be less concerned with environmental regulations and open to reopening the country to mining.

On security, Quijano has vowed to implement a “manodura” approach to the drug trade, relying more on military intervention. He has also criticized the gang truce orchestrated in 2011, which is succeeded in dramatically reducing the country’s homicide rate, as a “betrayal” to the country. Allison adds that trials against former ARENA politicians charged with corruption would also be less likely to move forward under a Quijano presidency.

Allegations of corruption have plagued the ARENA in recent weeks. A former president and adviser to Quijano, Francisco Flores, who served in office from 1999 to 2004, was found last week trying to flee to Guatemala to escape prosecution for the misappropriation of $10-$15 million in disaster aid provided by Taiwan after El Salvador’s 2001 earthquake. This comes on the heels of a number of other corruption trials of former leaders; some on the right have dubbed it a “political witch hunt” before the elections – a sentiment not lost on some Salvadorans.

The FMLN hopes that disgust with ARENA’s corruption could help them win the next round.

Costa Rica

In Costa Rica, 13 candidates competed in Sunday's election to choose the successor to current president Laura Chinchilla. However, of those 13, three polled significantly ahead of the rest.

Representing the incumbent National Liberation party (FLN) was Johnny Araya, a former mayor of the capital city of San José, who is competing with José María Villalta of the left-wing Broad Front, and Luis Guillermo Solis of the Citizen Action Party (PAC). Polls varied widely before the election, though each candidate generally saw around 20 percent of the vote – with Araya and Villalta slightly ahead. However, the results of Sunday's election put Solis in the lead with around 30.6 percent of votes to Araya's 29.8 percent. Villalta finished with around 17 percent, and conceded defeat on Sunday.

Chinchilla’s presidency has grown increasingly unpopular since she took the helm in 2009: a 2012 poll by Mitofsky placed her approval rating at just 13 percent – the lowest of any president in the Americas. A July 2013 poll showed that had dropped to just 9 percent. Her presidency has been plagued by a number of high-profile corruption scandals, a failure to pass fiscal reform, growing national debt, and rising crime rates related to the international drug trade.

Given her troubled legacy, all three major candidates focused their campaigns on how they would govern differently than Chinchilla. All three platforms focused on improving the country’s infrastructure, increasing tourism, and cleaning up the country’s capital, says Allison. 

Early polls favored Araya, the candidate from her FLN party and it seemed he would easily win the first round.  The former mayor of San José ran on the party’s social democratic platform, but emphasized how he would govern differently from Chinchilla. Early in the election, Araya gained support from many of the country’s leading politicians, presenting a picture of national unity. However, when Araya stepped down as mayor of San José in July 2013, local press reported he was guilty of many of the sins he criticized Chinchilla for: including inefficiency, corruption, mismanagement of public funds, and government overspending. This cleared the way for his competitors to gain traction, says Allison.

His most prominent competitor seemed to be José María Villalta of the left-wing Broad Front. Villalta was a representative in the Costa Rican parliament and rose to prominence as a fierce critic of Chinchilla. He has been a fierce critic of corruption, defender of human rights, and advocated the country move away from Roman Catholicism as the state religion toward secularization. However, he has also shown himself more open to negotiating with the other leftist government of Latin America, and criticized Costa Rica’s free-trade agreement with the United States, leading some on the right to label him a Communist. “He is certainly more to the left, but he lacks an established base in Congress that would make it difficult for him to advance his platform,” says Allison. 

Solis, a former diplomat, ran on an anti-corruption campaign, a theme that has become very popular with Costa Ricans during numerous corruption scandals in the Chinchilla administration. Like the other candidates, he also promised to improve the country's infrastructure and attract more foreign investment, but promised to also be more environmentally friendly. Solis polled in third place for most of the campaign, but came out in first on Sunday - eking out a small victory over Araya. The two will now face one another in an election in April.

Predicting now which of the candidates will come out victorious in that race is difficult, say analysts consulted by LBC.

This article was modified on Feburary 2.

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