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A left-wing candidate looks popular as Costa Ricans go to voting booths

Commentary: The reform platform of the Frente Amplio party is compared to that of former Venezuelan President Chavez, when he came to power.
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A flag of the presidential candidate of Costa Rica's leftist Frente Amplio (Board Front) party, Jose Maria Villalta is seen in a car in San Jose on January 30, 2014. Presidential elections will take place next February 2. (RODRIGO ARANGUA/AFP/Getty Images)

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica—Unless you live here, chances are you probably haven’t heard much about this country’s presidential and congressional elections on February 2.

Costa Rica is a small, politically stable country, with a proud history of fair and open democratic governance. It doesn’t attract much attention in international politics when there is so much turbulence elsewhere to report on.

Its reputation for plain-vanilla politics and governance could be upended, if current trends in the polls hold. The radically divisive and aggressively leftist party of Frente Amplio and its candidate, Jose Maria Villalta, are running strong in the polls and appear to have momentum.

This is notable because most of their goals and plans are a locally spiced blend of communism with a bit of socialism thrown in. Their platform is being compared to that of Hugo Chavez when he first came to power in Venezuela in 1999.

Frente Amplio wants to nationalize industries considered “important,” and curb or restrict imports to “aid national production.” It wants to take over monetary policy and establish price controls for a variety of goods. It wants to redistribute agricultural land. It also is emphatic about renegotiating, or simply voiding, Costa Rica’s free trade agreements – specifically CAFTA with the United States. These proposed changes are explicit in their platform document.

CAFTA was ratified by a national plebiscite in 2007. It is binding, as all treaties are, plus it carries the added weight of popular validation. Villalta and Frente Amplio promise to simply brush it aside because they deem it as not in the national interest.

All of which leads to an interesting question. Do Villalta and Frente Amplio’s standing in the polls mean Costa Ricans are increasingly embracing their own version of Chavismo; a Villaltismo, if you will?

Not quite. As a poll last month showed, more than 90 percent of potential voters do not self-identify as leftists; in fact, 20 percent say they are aligned with rightwing interests.

How is this possible?

To begin, the 36-year old Villalta is a talented politician; he’s energetic, articulate and charismatic. Despite being the only current member of Congress from Frente Amplio, and having only a modest legislative record, he is one of its most popular and well-known members.

Villalta also is facing an electorate with an increasing predisposition to favor new and faddish options. Frente Amplio and Villalta fit that description. The Costa Rican public is expressing weariness over the prospect of a third consecutive Liberacion Nacional government under Johnny Araya, Villalta’s main rival.

A paramount reason behind the perceived public attitude is its inherent pride in the Costa Rican democratic tradition.

Villalta and Frente Amplio deny they are a hard left party and, in fact, have viciously attacked attempts to classify them as such. The backbone of their campaign is a narrative challenging Costa Ricans to prove they are an electorate unafraid to vote Frente Amplio.

This is deeply cynical of course, as Villalta and Frente Amplio well understand. Their playbook is associated with a long history throughout Latin America of failed left-wing experiments. So they avoid the “left wing” label as if it were the plague.

Elections here might be discounted as unremarkable – but they’ve never been unimportant. This is the region’s most stable and peaceful democracy. It is often referred to throughout Latin America as an example to emulate. So if the country elects a party and a candidate like Frente Amplio and Villalta, or even just gives them a forceful showing in the upcoming elections, it will provide a strong boost to hard left parties all around the neighborhood.

One imagines the argument then going, if it happened in Costa Rica why not here? Villaltismo is perfectly capable of becoming Chavismo 2.0.

Federico Delgado is a native of Costa Rica who has worked as a consultant on democratic governance projects with the United Nations Development Program in New York. He holds a graduate degree in international affairs from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.
 

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