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Socialist Drift Ominous in Costa Rica and El Salvador

By: Gina Kawas - @GinaKawas - Feb 5, 2014, 9:58 am

EspañolAn election season has been underway in the Central American region since late last year, when Hondurans gave one party a consecutive presidential term for first time in their democratic history. That was the recently sworn-in Juan Orlando Hernández of the National Party, which is relatively oriented towards free market policies.

This past Sunday, on February 2, Costa Rica and El Salvador held elections as well — with Marxist and collectivist parties dominating the campaigns and going in as favorites. In El Salvador, the ruling socialist FMLN had Salvador Sánchez Cerén attempting to reach power, and Costa Rica’s Broad Front had the socialist congressman, José María Villalta, as their front-runner.

Costa Rica: Don’t Trust the Polls

Pollsters in the country shaped Villalta as one of the leading candidates, if not the leading candidate. But the results on election Sunday evidenced how the vast majority of polls and public opinion surveys served the interests of political campaigns and candidates, rather than impartial, scientific examination.

The election did mark a milestone in Costa Rica’s democratic history: for the first time the National Liberation Party (PLN) did not win in the first round, and it was only the second time that the results necessitated a second-round runoff.

The big surprise arose from Luis Guillermo Solis. According to polls, he was in line to be relegated to third place, but he ended up achieving first place with 30.95 percent, ahead of Johnny Araya and the PLN’s 29.6 percent and Villalta’s 17.1 percent. The ruling party’s candidate, Araya, didn’t come close to the 40 percent that Costa Rica’s electoral law demands for a first-round victory.

Solís’s charisma definitely played in his favor. He picked up momentum in the last weeks prior to the election, given his charm and people skills, and won the heart of Costa Ricans given his reputation for honesty and transparency. This proves how sometimes the image a candidate portrays counts more than his policy proposals, as voters go for a personality and not so much the ideology promoted.

That being said, Solís did play the campaign game and promise that in his first two years in office he would strive to control public spending, eradicate poverty, and implement measures to streamline tax collection. He also proposed a “social economy” based on solidarity.

The take home insight from the Costa Rican election is that the alternative to the traditional parties prevailed, but fear of radical socialist proposals remains. Costa Ricans like the idea of a party that will work closely with the citizenry and fight corruption, as offered by the Citizens’ Action Party (PAC), led by Solís.

While Chinchilla may have been an afterthought, amidst low levels of popularity and corruption scandals, it is also important to take into consideration apathy and a high the abstention rate. Almost a million citizens did not vote.

With Solís in the head, Costa Rica will probably keep on implementing the same policies with a hint of populism, but that hopefully will let the country continue to be one of the most developed in the region, with high literacy rates (97%) and high economic growth rates within Latin America.

El Salvador: Overt Marxist Holds Dominant Position

As for El Salvador, the competing candidates in the runoff will be Salvador Sánchez Cerén, a former guerrilla of the militia wing of the FMLN, and Norman Quijano, former mayor of San Salvador, from ARENA.

The surprise was that Sánchez Ceren of the FMLN, with 48.93 percent, came very close to reaching the 50 percent-plus-one-vote threshold to win the election in the first round. That makes Quijano’s task to defeat him in the second round, after winning 38,95 percent, an uphill battle.

What probably played against ARENA was the scandal surrounding former President Francisco Flores, with accusations of corruption with the use of funds given by the Taiwanese government during his term in office. Regardless, neither candidate offered strong economic or security plans in their campaigns, much less a solution to the deteriorating fiscal situation.

The risk is that Sánchez Cerén is a much more radical Marxist than sitting president and FMLN member Mauricio Funes. As was was the case with Costa Rica, though, high abstention rates prevailed. Only about 2.6 million citizens out of the registered 4.9 million voted, and that leaves more slack for the runoff.

A Divided, Volatile Region

What does the future hold for these countries and the region as a whole? We can see Honduras and Guatemala with more market-friendly governments in one bloc, then Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Costa Rica in another socialist-oriented bloc.

In the latter countries, we can expect to see the execution of even heavier social programs and subsidies — despite fiscal crises — as this is how populist regimes work. Whereas Honduras and Guatemala can, we hope, offer balance in the region, with more market-oriented and open policies.

Gina Kawas Gina Kawas

Gina Kawas is a Young Voices Advocate from Honduras and a graduate student of Latin American and Caribbean Studies at New York University. She has coauthored the book Freedom for the Entrepreneur, published by ANDI and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation. Follow @GinaKawas.