Costa Rica Vote Deadlocked, Ballots Recounted

Officials in Costa Rica are manually counting ballots after Monday's deadlocked presidential vote. The result could impact the free-trade agreement now in place between several Central American countries and the United States. Madeleine Brand talks with Richard Lapper, Latin America editor for the British Newspaper Financial Times, about the election.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand. The image of Costa Rica as the Switzerland of Central America is being challenged in a hard-fought presidential election. The results of Sunday's elections are too close to call, and now, votes are being counted by hand. The candidates are former president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Oscar Arias and a left-wing candidate, Otton Solis.

Richard Lapper, Latin America editor for the Financial Times joins me now, and welcome to the program.

Mr. RICHARD LAPPER (Latin America Editor, Financial Times): Hi. Thanks very much for inviting me.

BRAND: Now, Oscar Arias was the favorite, the frontrunner. What happened?

Mr. LAPPER: Well, basically, Arias got slightly fewer votes then people had predicted but Otton Solis is a bit of an outsider, a left-wing candidate running on a citizen's ticket, an independent ticket, got far more votes than was expected, and as a result, there's only a matter of a few thousand votes between them.

I think what happened, underlying that, is that Costa Rican voters were rather more fed up with two-party politics than we'd assumed.

BRAND: And what's going on in Costa Rica?

Mr. LAPPER: You know, Costa Rica's been racked by two or three quite big corruption scandals affecting politicians from both major parties over the past three or four years. The other thing that's happened is that there's a certain amount of ill-will, I think, amongst many people towards the Central American free trade agreement, which Costa Rica, along with four other Central American and Caribbean countries signed. That treaty's still to be implemented in Costa Rica, and I think that the vote really puts into question whether it will, in fact, come into effect.

BRAND: Where did the candidates stand on that?

Mr. LAPPER: Well, Arias was in favor. Otton Solis was against it. Arias argued, I think, that it's not a great agreement, but it actually is essential for Costa Rica to sign it to keep the kind of jobs it has in textiles and other manufacturing operations that would benefit from free trade access to the U.S.

The contrary argument, which has been emphasized by people like Otton Solis is that the impact this is going to have, or rather U.S. imports, in the agricultural sector and various other areas like pharmaceuticals on local producers, especially local farmers.

BRAND: Well, what happens if Costa Rica doesn't ratify it?

Mr. LAPPER: Not a huge amount. It will go ahead without Costa Rica, at least in the short-term.

BRAND: Many people see that country as relatively prosperous and stable. Has it changed, though, recently? Has it undergone some tough economic times?

Mr. LAPPER: Costa Rica is one of Latin America's success stories over the course of the last 60 years or so. I mean, this is a country that back in the late-1940s abolished its army, and with the money it saved from that financed a pretty successful welfare state: you know, free healthcare and a much more equal society than those to the north: Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala, these places that were racked by violent civil war in the 1980s.

Costa Rica avoided all that, but it's really failed to modernize. They're not growing fast enough. They're not creating enough jobs, and that's really the big challenge that the next president faces: how to try and keep some of these rather attractive pieces of social integration and welfare and so on at the same time as get the economy moving.

BRAND: And we'll find out who the next president is, when? In a couple of weeks?

Mr. LAPPER: Around about the 20th of February is when they're predicting the results of this manual count will come to a conclusion. I think, you know, people think that Arias, who, you know, was president before, in fact, back in the 1980s, will emerge as the new president.

I think it's fortuitous for Costa Rica that Arias is a man of consensus. He's already indicated, in fact, that he'll take into account that the extreme division that the election has show in Costa Rica and if he were to become president in terms of the cabinet he would name, and this is a man who was able to help lead negotiations to end the Central American civil wars with the peace process of the 1980s, he's won the Nobel Prize for that. So he's a man with a pretty good record of negotiation. I think he's going to need that, those talents, really, to take Costa Rice through this.

BRAND: Richard Lapper is Latin America editor for the Financial Times. Thank you for joining us.

Mr. LAPPER: Thank you very much.

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