Steady moderate left in El Salvador and Costa Rica

Patricio Navia @patricionavia

Buenos Aires Herald, January 21, 2014


Moderate leftwing candidates are favourites to win the presidential elections to be held in El Salvador and Costa Rica on February 2. Though in both countries there will likely be a runoff between the top two candidates, the electorate in both countries seems inclined to make a moderate left turn. As it already happened in the presidential in Chile last December, moderate leftwing candidates are better positioned than radical left wingers or right-of-centre candidates. After all, Latin America has experienced more than a decade of sustained economic growth. As inequality remains stubborn, people continue to express their preferences for a government that will keep the same roadmap but will advance in reducing inequality.


In Costa Rica, the candidate of the ruling National Liberation Party (PLN), Johnny Araya, is fighting an uphill battle. His predecessor, President Laura Chinchilla, is very unpopular. What’s more, because Araya is Chinchilla’s political foe, tensions within the ruling party make it difficult for Araya, the heir to a historic political family tied to former president Luis Alberto Monge (1982-1986), to retain the presidency. After eight consecutive years in power, the PLN seems resigned to become the largest party in the opposition. Araya has tried to campaign on a moderate leftwing platform, but because he has inherited Chinchilla’s dismal approval and because of the tensions within the PLN, his campaign has failed to take off. Instead, many of those voters who four years ago supported Chinchilla are now inclined to vote for José María Villalta, the 36-year old candidate of the leftist Broad Front. A lawyer by training and former student activist, Villalta is the sole legislator of his leftwing coalition. A vocal opponent of the US Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), Villalta belongs to a moderate left that feels closer to former Brazilian president Lula than to the more vocal version led by the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez. Running on a close third place is liberal (and cuasi libertarian) candidate Otto Guevara, of the Libertarian Movement Party (PML). In his fourth attempt at the presidency, Guevara has come to lead the right-of-centre political spectrum. Liberal on moral and religious issues — unlike the more traditional and formerly dominant Social Christian Union (PUSC) — Guevara favours free trade and market-friendly politics. Whether Araya or Guevara manage to end up in second place and compete against left-winger Villalta in the runoff, Costa Ricans will eventually elect a president who advocates for moderate and pragmatic views.


In El Salvador, the ruling leftwing FMLN-the former guerrilla group that became a political party in the late 1908s seeks to hold on to power after winning the 2009 presidential election under the leadership of Mauricio Funes, a young television anchorman who attracted moderate voters. The FMLN has now chosen 69-year old Salvador Sánchez, a former guerrilla fighter and current vice-president. Though Sánchez historically held anti-US views and opposed free trade, he has grown increasingly more moderate. Compared to Funes, he does represent a slight shift to the left. But his chances of attaining an electoral majority depend on his ability to retain the moderate voters that brought Funes to power in 2009. The conservative ARENA opposition is trying to recover from the division caused by the resignation of Elias Saca, a former president (2004-2009) who is now running under a new party. The Arena candidate is Norman Quijano, a dentist who formerly served as mayor of the capital city. The division within the right has strengthened the FMLN’s chances of retaining the government. Though Quijano will likely go on to the runoff, the rift that Saca’s resignation has created will be almost impossible to bridge. In the runoff, both FMLN’s Sánchez and Arena’s Quijano will try to attract moderate voters and will likely adopt even more moderate positions. El Salvador will continue making progress with market-friendly policies and, in case Sánchez wins, the government will place a stronger emphasis on social programmes and redistribution policies.


As the world economic cycle makes a transition from high prices for commodities and natural resources to placing more value on technology and industrial goods, Latin American countries will no longer be benefitted by favourable winds in the world economy. That will inevitably force all governments, regardless of their ideology, to shift the focus back to employment creation and productivity gains. Leftwing governments, as those likely to be elected in Costa Rica and El Salvador, will need to combine a focus on redistribution with an emphasis on job creation if they aspire to attain political success. Latin American voters might not yet be aware that tougher times lie ahead for their economies, but they do clearly understand that moderate and gradual reform is the best recipe to attain and maintain the middle class status that many people now see within reach. The new regional leaders that will take power in 2014 will find it more difficult to continue to steer their countries on the route of economic growth, but they will be ill informed if they attempt radical leftwing transformations rather than gradual, centrist and pragmatic reforms.