Further evidence of the swing to the left in Latin America comes this week with a cliffhanger presidential election in Costa Rica. The firm pre-poll favourite, former president and Nobel laureate Oscar Arias Sanchez, leads by only 2500 votes, or 0.2%, from his left-wing challenger Otton Solis. A manual recount will now be held, expected to take up to two weeks.

Costa Rica, sometimes called “the Switzerland of the Americas,” has for
years been the most stable and economically successful country in
Central America. Many observers attribute its success to the abolition
of its armed forces, following a brief civil war in 1948: no army means
no military coups, and the taxes that would have paid for it can be
used for productive purposes instead. (Why can’t we do this?)

Power has traditionally alternated between two major parties, the
centre-right United Social Christian Party (PUSC), and the centre-left
National Liberation Party (PLN). The party system, however, is
currently in a state of flux: a series of corruption scandals has just
about wiped out the incumbent PUSC; the PLN, Arias Sanchez’s party, has
drifted to the right, and a new populist party, the Citizen Action
Party, has filled the vacuum on the left. Now its candidate, Solis, is
close to snatching the presidency at his second attempt.

If no candidate gets above 40% then a second round of voting has to be
held, but at present Solis and Arias Sanchez are both just over 40%, so it looks as if one of them will win, as The Australian said, “without a run-off, and without a mandate.”

Also voting in the region this week is Haiti,
whose chronic violence and abject poverty contrast sharply with Costa
Rica. The expected winner is Rene Preval, an ally of exiled left-wing
president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Politics in Haiti basically come down
to a clash between rich and poor (The Observer has a good preview here),
and since the poor greatly outnumber the rich it makes sense to bet on
their candidate. But his chances of ending the country’s cycle of
violence appear slim.