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Costa Rica’s Election Polling: Who, When, and Why

By: María Gabriela Díaz - Jan 31, 2014, 8:36 am

EspañolAs the candidates prepare for the polling stations this Sunday, Costa Rican voters appear undecided regarding whom they will vote for in this neck-and-neck race. After the end of an unpopular presidential tenure, a clearer replacement might be expected. However, various polls indicate this is not the case, so all candidates are bracing themselves through the first round of what appears will be a two-step presidential election.

Carlos Paniagua, president of the UNIMER polling firm, told the PanAm Post that “since the presidential elections in 2002, when we needed a run-off to elect the president of Costa Rica, we haven’t seen an electoral process so impressive for the voter as this one.”

The last time UNIMER released their poll results was January 16, and three candidates were essentially tied for the lead: José María Villalta from the Broad Front Party (22.2), Johnny Araya from the ruling National Liberation Party (20.3), and Otto Guevara of the Libertarian Movement (20.2). The 2.2 margin of error led the firm to conclude a technical tie.

However, two weeks ago CID-Gallup also released their own poll, with results widely different from UNIMER’s. According to CID-Gallup, Araya leads the election with 39 percent, followed by Villalta with 26 percent, and Guevara with 18 percent.

What both polls agree on, though, is that the run-off is imminent, since no candidate has the necessary 40 percent of the vote. Esteban Álvarez, manager at CID Gallup, told PanAm Post, “it’s been over a decade since the political spectrum has transformed, going from a bipartisan system to a stage with several political parties, which resemble similar ideological streams but also differ in specific policies. . . . Since then, this hasn’t been a traditional political campaign, there are some emerging figures as well. And with more voter participation, it’s less likely that a candidate will win 40 percent of the vote in the first round.”

Also, the trend in both surveys points to an eventual match between the traditional ruling National Liberation Party and the rising socialist Broad Front.

This scenario has been apparent since December, when UNIMER released their polling results showing Villalta’s increasing support. Panigua asserts, “for the first time in the history of Costa Rica, a left-wing force has reached a level of support big enough to challenge Johnny Araya, or at least make him go to a run-off. It doesn’t seem that any other candidate will overcome these two contenders.”

Who Will Vote?

For this election, there are approximately 3 million eligible voters. Adults between 40 and 65 years old make up for 39 percent of the electoral roll and are the largest age segment among voters. That suggests the election hinges on them, but they have experienced the highest level of abstention in the past. In the last presidential election in 2010, around 31 percent of this group didn’t cast ballots.

Besides the unknown level of abstention, there remain many swing voters. In this regard, Álvarez states that “at this time, there is a high percentage of voters who say they will vote, but haven’t decided yet.” According to the Center for Research and Political Studies, from the University of Costa Rica, the percentage of undecided voters for this election has increased 10 points over a week, reaching 33.4 percent.

Which Road Will Costa Rica Choose?

Even though UNIMER has called the race a technical draw, socialist Villalta’s popularity has skyrocketed in this campaign. His party, the Broad Front, has never had strong support among Ticos. This would be the first time the party of the hardline, anti-liberalization São Paulo Forum has become a serious alternative for voters.

A party that has never ruled the country, nor had more than one representative in the National Assembly, represents pubic discontent with Costa Rican status quo. The proposal for a radical change has paved the way for Villalta to gain some popularity points, and his upturn in the latest polls.

According to Álvarez, “Jose Maria Villalta’s party, Broad Front, represents the people’s concerns, such as a change in the political and economic model. In this regard, he has defined himself as a different choice, and even though his party doesn’t have a high percentage of political affiliation, his candidature and what it represents for this election has become an important factor. In our poll, he has come up as the runner-up for this Sunday’s election.”

Ruling-party candidate Johnny Araya, and former mayor of San José, has had to battle against corruption allegations and campaign on despite his party’s low popularity. Even though his mayoral performance was highly criticized, he has become a major contender for the presidential race. Libertarian candidate Otto Guevara has also faced accusations for using public funds to finance his previous campaign back in 2010.

Regarding the accusations against candidates, Álvarez states, “In matters of debate, their stands have been made clear; the accusations are common in this point of campaign. However, the nearer the accusations are made to the election, the less the population will believe them. The citizens will simply take it as another piece of political chicanery.”

Despite the debates and candidates’ efforts to convince the voters, most Costa Ricans will still make up their minds in the next two days. Either way, the result will also depend on electoral participation. Álvarez expresses, “the efforts to move people to vote on Sunday will probably define the second, third, and fourth place.”

María Gabriela Díaz María Gabriela Díaz

María Gabriela Díaz reported from Caracas, Venezuela, and led the PanAm Post internship program. She has a Bachelor of Arts in political science with a focus in international affairs.