Monthly Archives: February 2014

Tokyo (Japan) 2014

Gubernatorial elections were held in Tokyo (Japan) on February 9, 2014. Tokyo Prefecture (officially designated as the Tokyo Metropolis) has a population of over 13.1 million, spread out over the 23 ‘special wards’ of the former core city of Tokyo, 26 suburban cities, one rural district and four sub-prefectures including outlying islands in the Pacific (the Izu and Ogasawara Islands). The Tokyo Metropolitan area includes only part of the Greater Tokyo metropolis, which has a population of over 35 million people spread out over many prefectures, making it the largest metropolitan area in the world.

Tokyo is a prefecture with special powers. Unlike all other prefectures in Japan, Tokyo is administered by single-tier unitary government which combines the powers of Japanese prefectures with powers traditionally devolved to municipal governments. For example, in the 23 special wards, the metro government exercises traditionally municipal powers (waste management, water, fire prevention). Like in other prefectures, the government is built as a presidential system with a directly-elected Governor and directly-elected legislature. The Governor of Tokyo is elected to a four-year term by FPTP, although a new election takes place if the incumbent governor resigns or is forced from office: this gubernatorial election, like the last one in 2013, is a special election. The Governor is the head of the executive branch, which includes government departments and autonomous commissions. The Metropolitan Assembly is made up of 127 members elected to four-year terms, separately from the Governor, by SNTV (the last election was in 2013). The Assembly prepares and votes on legislation and decrees (the governor may also initiate legislation), sets the budget and confirms and oversees gubernatorial appointments. The Assembly, with a three-fourths majority and two-thirds quorum, may vote a motion of no confidence in the governor; in which case the governor then has ten days to dissolve the assembly or he will automatically be removed from office. If a newly-elected assembly after a gubernatorial dissolution again votes a motion of no confidence, the governor is removed from office. One third of registered voters may also initiate a recall vote against the governor, assembly (to dissolve it) and prefectural councillors, they may also initiate a popular initiative to pass or repeal an ordinance. Because of the special powers and expanded autonomy of the metro government, the Governor of Tokyo is considered as one of the most powerful politicians in Japan.

National Context

Japan’s natural governing party, the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) led by Shinzō Abe, returned to power in December 2012 with a supermajority only three years after suffering a historic defeat at the hands of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). After years of a revolving-door prime ministership (six PMs came and went between 2006 and 2012, after LDP Prime Minister Jun’ichirō Koizumi – who had held the office since 2001 – resigned in 2006), politicians’ promises invariably amounting to little and a low-growth deflationary economy, Shinzō Abe’s government has been proving to be quite a change. Although Shinzō Abe’s first term as Prime Minister (2006-2007) is widely regarded as a failure, because he preferred to engage in nationalist sabre-rattling with China, since taking office in 2012, he has been surprising observers and proving uncannily popular.

Abe came out with a bold economic agenda – “Abenomics” – to finally turn Japan’s sluggish economy around. The first two ‘arrows’ of his Abenomics policy included a fiscal stimulus (¥10.3 trillion stimulus package, mostly on infrastructure and public works, to please the LDP’s powerful vested interests in construction) and a shift in monetary policy. In April 2013, the Bank of Japan set a 2% inflation target and launched a program of quantitative easing to reach it. The initial response was quite positive, both from voters and business: consumer and investor confidence is high, the Nikkei stock exchange reached its highest level since 2008, consumer prices increased, the yen depreciated (boosting exports) and economic growth reached impressive levels of 3-4% in the first two quarters of 2013. In July 2013, the LDP (and its traditional ally, the conservative Buddhist New Komeito Party, NKP) won the upper house elections, regaining an absolute majority in the House of Councillors and winning, along with the NKP, 49% of the vote overall. The DPJ, which has been in a state of decrepitude since getting trounced in December 2012, won only 13% of the vote.

After the upper house elections, there was major anticipation for the third ‘arrow’ of Abenomics: structural reforms. The Japanese economy has been bogged down by an aging population requiring ever-higher spending on social security and pensions; protected and uncompetitive economic sectors (agriculture, pharmaceuticals etc); and a tightly regulated labour market (with chaffing rules on staff dismissal, a very high corporate tax). The reforms announced by Abe in June 2013 fell short of expectations, proposing to create deregulated and low-tax zones, allowing the sale of drugs online and creating a third category of contract workers. However, in March 2013, Japan entered negotiations to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade pact which would require Japan to slash its high import tariffs on farm produce and opening up other protected industries. Although there has been significant opposition within the LDP and from its vested interests in agricultural cooperatives to the TPP, the party has been moving along with it and Japanese negotiators have said that they would consider lowering tariffs. The government wishes to check the power of powerful agricultural cooperatives which kept out new farmers, reviewing an old policy on rice cultivation (the gentan policy from 1969, which limits the number of acres devoted to rice, so domestic prices are kept high to benefit farmers and cooperatives; scrapping the policy would make prices fall and compete more effectively at home) and extending the length of part-time contracts. But there has been significant resistance or reluctance to move forward with the reforms: the health ministry and pharmacists blocked the government’s promise to lift the ban on online sales of over-the-counter medicines. In cabinet, several ministers are resistant to change and others disagree among one another over the next steps of Abenomics.

Economic growth slowed to 1.9% (annualized) in the third quarter of 2013 and was low in the fourth quarter as well (1%). Small businesses have been less optimistic than big businesses about Abenomics, and inflation appears to have risen because the depreciated yen makes fuel imports more expensive. To his credit, Abe gathered up the political willpower to move ahead with a planned increase in the consumption tax (loathed in Japan), from 5% to 8% (with plans to raise it to 10% in October 2015). The consumption tax hike, which is seen by the IMF and OECD to be necessary, was decided by Abe’s predecessor, the DPJ’s Yoshihiko Noda in December 2012 right before snap elections took place (at the time, the LDP backed the tax hike in return for a snap election); however, there was some skepticism about whether the LDP would actually do so because Abe had been sending conflicting signals. The last time Japan’s unpopular consumption tax was increased, in 1997, the economy floundered into recession (although the Asian financial crisis in 1997 was as much to blame) and LDP Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto was soon ousted. The issue of increasing the consumption tax, floated by Abe’s two DPJ predecessors, badly hurt the DPJ’s popularity and led to several splits in the party. In October, Abe announced that the tax hike would go ahead, mitigated by a temporary stimulus of ¥6 trillion to offset the tax increase. However, Abe’s calls on businesses to increase employee wages to support consumption fell on deaf hears.

Abe’s plans to turn Japan’s economy around have gone hand-in-hand with a nationalist foreign policy, seeking to reassert Japanese power in the region and challenge China’s rising might (China overtook Japan as the world’s second-largest economy in 2010). Abe has made a number of controversial statements about Japan’s past: his government includes many nationalists critical of Japan’s “apology diplomacy”; in April 2013, Abe questioned whether Japan’s wars in China and Asia from 1931 to 1945 could be defined as “aggression”; in May, a LDP boss said that Abe rejected the verdict of the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal. In late December 2013, Abe became the first Prime Minister since Koizumi in 2006 to visit the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, where the spirits of 14 convicted war criminals are enshrined alongside other Japanese war dead. As was to be expected, China and South Korea strongly condemned the visit and the US expressed ‘disappointment’. The LDP wants to amend the constitution’s Article 9, which outlaws war, to allow for collective self-defense; for the time being, however, the LDP seemingly lacks the parliamentary two-thirds supermajorities in both houses to amend the constitution (which would then be put to a referendum). The LDP’s junior partner, the pacifist NKP, is thought to oppose amending Article 9. Indeed, the NKP’s leader criticized Abe for visiting Yasukuni Shrine, and relations between the NKP and LDP have been pretty bad.

Abe’s government ran into its first major challenge in November 2013, when the Diet passed an unpopular secrecy law which increases penalties for leaking widely defined ‘state secrets’ (presented by the LDP as necessary to strengthen national security, just as China declared a new air-defense zone in the East China Sea overlapping with Japan’s own zone). Under the new law, leaking state secrets will be punishable with ten years in jail, up from one year imprisonment. The LDP’s unpopular legislation sparked protests (orderly and very tame, in Japanese style) against the bill and a coalition of opponents including conservative groups (doctors, dentists), academics and filmmakers. LDP secretary-general Shigeru Ishiba added to the controversy when he compared the protesters to ‘terrorists’, leading the opposition to believe that the LDP will use broadly-defined ‘terrorism’ and ‘state secrets’ to crack down on anti-nuclear protesters opposing the LDP’s plans to reopen nuclear power plants closed down after the Fukushima disaster in 2011. After the secrecy bill controversy, Abe’s approval ratings fell below 50% (to 49%) for the first time since taking office and his disapproval ratings have increased to 30-35%. Nevertheless, these are still excellent approval ratings and the LDP’s hold on power is still unchallenged.

The Tokyo governorship

Tokyo’s governorship has attracted colourful personalities. Between 1947 and 1967, the office was held by conservative politicians backed by the LDP. However, in 1967, in the wake of the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo (and issues related to that) and local corruption scandals, Ryokichi Minobe, backed by the Socialist Party (JSP) and Communist Party (JCP), won the governorship from the LDP-backed candidate. Serving until 1979, Minobe’s administration was interventionist, providing free medical care to the elderly and implementing anti-pollution and pro-pedestrian policies. Upon his retirement, he was succeeded by former Vice Governor Shunichi Suzuki, the candidate backed by the LDP. Suzuki held the office until 1995. In 1991, however, Suzuki was reelected as an independent after the national LDP, led by secretary-general Ichirō Ozawa, refused to endorse Suzuki’s bid for reelection. Suzuki was able to win reelection with the backing of local LDP leaders and the construction industry, which liked Suzuki’s lavish and wasteful spending on large infrastructure (one of the main issues was the construction of a huge new building for the administration in Shinjuku at the cost of over a billion dollars). When he retired, in 1995, he was succeeded by another independent, Yukio Aoshima (a former actor, novelist, screenwriter, songwriter and film director), who ran a low-key populist campaign against a candidate backed the LDP, NKP and JSP. Aoshima won in the context of great political dissatisfaction following the political scandals of the 1980s, the bad economy bred by the collapse of the speculative bubble in 1989 and the LDP’s brief fall from power in 1993. Since then, urban voters, particularly in Tokyo, have become extraordinarily fickle in their vote choice, with no loyalty for any major party and often preferring local independent candidates.

Aoshima, worn down by a poor economic situation in Tokyo and controversies surrounding his handling of homeless persons, retired in 1999. In a very open race, Shintarō Ishihara, a right-wing novelist and former LDP parliamentarian, was elected governor as an independent with 30.5% of the votes. Ishihara defeated Kunio Hatoyama, the grandson of the LDP’s founder and the brother of future DPJ Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, who was backed by the DPJ; Yōichi Masuzoe, an academic and TV personality running as an independent (refusing LDP support); and LDP-NKP candidate Yasushi Akashi. Ishihara held the office until his resignation in October 2012 – he was reelected in 2001 (with LDP support, winning 70%), 2007 (with LDP-NKP support, winning 51% against 30.8% for former Miyagi Prefecture governor Shirō Asano, backed the DPJ) and 2011 (with LDP-NKP support, winning 43% against 28% for former Miyazaki Prefecture governor Hideo Higashikokubaru and the rest for DPJ and JCP candidates). Ishihara, a nationalist known for his inflammatory rhetoric, remained relatively popular as governor and his policies were rather pragmatic. He cut spending and cancelled projects in his first term, but he also created a new 3% local tax on banks’ gross (rather than net) profits, supported Tokyo’s bid for the 2016 and 2020 Summer Olympics (the latter of which was successful) and implemented a groundbreaking cap-and-trade scheme in 2010. But Ishihara mostly drew attention to himself for his nationalist positions and controversial statements. Ishihara opposes Article 9 and has a history of being aggressively anti-Chinese and Korean. In the early 2000s, he drew controversy by talking of ‘foreigners’ being responsible for crimes in Tokyo and using the derogatory term sangokujin in his speech. He visited Yasukuni Shrine on the emblematic date of August 15 several times. In 2011, he said that the tsunami/earthquake which hit Japan that year was ‘divine punishment’ for Japanese people’s ‘greed’. In 2012, Ishihara sought to buy the disputed Senkaku Islands (claimed by China) from their private owners, before the DPJ government did so itself in September 2012. At one point, Ishihara controversially said that women who live after they have lost their reproductive function are “useless” and “committing a sin”. Ishihara resigned as governor in October 2012 to enter national politics as the co-leader of the Japan Restoration Party (JRP), a marriage of convenience between Ishihara and his nationalist colleague, Osaka mayor Tōru Hashimoto. The JRP became the third largest party in the House of Representatives in the December 2012, winning over 20% of the vote in Japan and Tokyo. In 2013, however, the JRP performed very poorly in the Tokyo prefectural elections (8% and 2 seats) and poorly in the upper house elections in July (12% and 8 seats).

A gubernatorial election was held in December 2012 alongside the general election. Vice Governor Naoki Inose, an author and a former adviser to Koizumi known for his economically liberal and reformist views, ran with the backing of outgoing governor Ishihara and the JRP, the LDP, the NKP and the liberal Your Party (YP). Inose promised continuity with Ishihara’s record, focusing on energy (as Vice Governor, he had led the charge to reduce electricity prices by making the metro government the main shareholder in embattled TEPCO) and social projects (proposing to build nursing homes for the elderly). Facing weak opposition, Inose was elected governor with 67.4% against 15% for his main opponent, the president of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations Kenji Utsunomiya, backed the Social Democratic Party (SDPJ), the JCP, small left-wing and anti-nuclear parties. Inose’s main achievement was being in office when Tokyo was selected as the host city for the 2020 Summer Olympics in September 2013. But in November 2013, Inose was put in the hot seat with accusations that he had received an illegal (undeclared) loan (interest and collateral-free) in cash from a hospital group during his 2012 campaign. Under pressure from the Metropolitan Assembly, Ishihara and Prime Minister Abe, Inose resigned on December 19.

The frontrunner and consistent favourite in this election was Yōichi Masuzoe. Masuzoe, who is 65, began his career as a prominent and acclaimed academic, expert and later popular TV personality. Masuzoe speaks seven languages (Japanese, English, French, Spanish, German, Italian and Russian). In 1998, Masuzoe wrote a book about how he cared for his sick mother for several years, criticizing Japan’s system of social security and senior care. The book turned him into a go-to reference on issues of social security, welfare and social assistance – very important in a rapidly aging society like Japan. He ran for governor of Tokyo as an independent in 1999, placing third with 15.3%. With the backing of the LDP’s reformist leader Jun’ichirō Koizumi, he was elected to the upper house (the House of Councillors) in 2001, with LDP support. Like Koizumi, Masuzoe was (is?) something of a maverick, known as an honest and competent expert. He was a strong critic of Prime Minister Abe in his first (disastrous) term, but when Abe was forced to open his cabinet to his rivals in August 2007, Masuzoe became Minister of Health and Welfare. His nomination came on the heels of the LDP’s defeat in the 2007 upper house election, which owed a lot to the health ministry’s admission that it had lost pensioners’ records. His handling of the aftermath of the scandal was hardly a success, given that his ministry failed to match millions of records with their owners, leading the DPJ to demand his resignation.

Masuzoe nevertheless remained one of Japan’s most popular politicians, and in 2010 his name topped the polls on best alternative Prime Ministers. At the time, the LDP was still reeling from its 2009 defeat and had trouble adapting itself to the new job of opposition rather than governing party. In April 2010, Masuzoe left the LDP to join and take the leadership of the New Renaissance Party (NRP), a right-wing party with neoliberal and reformist positions on economic issues. The NRP and its ideological twin (YP)’s aim to become a possible centre-right counterweight to the LDP fell through; in the July 2010 upper house elections, the NRP won only one seat. Following the NRP’s defeat, Masuzoe dropped off the political radar, trying out various alliances.

Masuzoe was approached by both the LDP and DPJ as a potential candidate for the gubernatorial election. Some in the LDP were critical of Masuzoe, not having totally digested Masuzoe’s 2010 defection from the LDP. But the LDP, always looking for a winner, did see in him an electable candidate with both experience and name recognition (the requirements of the local and national LDP respectively), and ultimately supported him in return for Masuzoe resigning from the NRP. He was also backed by the NKP, some individuals in the DPJ and the Japanese Trade Union Confederation (RENGO), Japan’s largest trade union confederation and a traditional supporter of the DPJ. Masuzoe’s campaign focused on local social welfare issues and hosting the 2020 Summer Olympics (like the LDP, he is an avid supporter of the Olympics).

Some of Masuzoe’s old comments were exhumed during the campaign. In 1989, he told a magazine that women were unfit for politics because they menstruate and lacked the physical strength to work 24 hours a day (because obviously male politicians do work 24 hours a day!). Tokyo women on Twitter called for a ‘sex strike’ against men voting for Masuzoe.

Kenji Utsunomiya, an attorney and distant runnerup in the 2012 gubernatorial election, supported by left-wing parties – the Communist Party (JCP), the Social Democratic Party (SDPJ) as well as the smaller Greens Japan and the New Socialist Party. Utsunomiya had run in the 2012 election, on a left-wing platform very critical of Ishihara’s record (particularly on poverty and social issues, but also in his strong support for the Olympics and his attempt to buy the Senkaku Islands). He won only 14.6%, a very distant second place behind conservative candidate Naoki Inose. In this election, Utsunomiya took a strongly anti-Abe stance (he’s notably critical of Abe on the Article 9/militarization issue). His campaign focused on local issues as well, particularly the growing wealth gap, the lack of affordable earthquake and earthquake safety. He remained critical of the 2020 Olympics, opposing the projects to expand the National Olympic Stadium, which had served for the 1964 Olympics. Utsunomiya is strongly anti-nuclear, wishing to decommission all nuclear power plants, but he did not actually make it the core focus of his campaign.

The surprise of the campaign was the candidacy of Morihiro Hosokawa, a 76-year old former Prime Minister. Hosokawa was one of several LDP MPs who defected from the embattled LDP in the early 1990s to form small rival opposition parties (in his case, the small Japan New Party). After the July 1993 election, in which the LDP lost its absolute majority in the lower house for the first time ever, Hosokawa became Prime Minister of a seven-party (anti-LDP) coalition government with his party, other LDP dissidents, the Socialists and the Komeito. Hosokawa’s coalition government had little ideas or visions besides shared opposition to the LDP, as evidenced by a squabble over a discussion of an increase in the consumption tax. It had accomplished little when Hosokawa was forced to resign in April 1994 after it came to light that he had accepted a 100 million yen loan from a trucking company tied to organized crime. Afterwards, Hosokawa faded from the political spotlight and retired in 1998 to take up pottery. He was approached by the DPJ to run in the gubernatorial election, and his candidacy was backed by the DPJ, the sulfurous Ichirō Ozawa’s personality cult (the People’s Life Party) and Kenji Eda’s Unity Party (born in 2013 from a split in the YP).

Above all, Hosokawa’s candidacy drew attention because he was endorsed by another political retiree, former LDP Prime Minister Jun’ichirō Koizumi, who made his political comeback to support Hosokawa and opposed his successor Shinzō Abe’s pro-nuclear stance. Koizumi, since the Fukushima disaster, has adopted anti-nuclear positions (which do appear genuine) but is also said to hold resentment from Abe’s reintegration into the LDP of LDP rebels who had opposed Koizumi’s big postal privatization drive in 2005. Hosokawa’s campaign had a heavy focus on the nuclear issue. Masuzoe’s position on the nuclear issue seems vague (although he was clearly pro-nuclear prior to 2011); outright pro-nuclear positions are fairly rare in Japan these days, although the Abe government supports reopening a nuclear reactor or two (suspended since Fukushima). Hosokawa’s candidacy, perceived as being strong because of DPJ and Koizumi support, led to pressures from the DPJ on Utsunomiya to withdraw from the resign so as to not split the anti-nuclear vote. Utsunomiya declined and faulted Hosokawa’s campaign for obscuring local issues such as poverty.

The fourth major candidate was Toshio Tamogami, the former Chief of Staff of the Japan Air Self-Defense Force between March 2007 and October 2008. He was fired from his military command in 2008 after authoring an essay in which he said that Japan had been drawn into World War II by Franklin D. Roosevelt (manipulated by the communists) and Chiang Kai-Shek. In the same essay, he also asserted that the war brought prosperity to China and Korea and implied that Japanese war crimes were fabricated or at least not such a big deal. After his dismissal, he told a British journalist that, had had he been general in a nuclear-capable Japan in 1945, he would have considered using nuclear weapons against the US. Since 2008, Tamogami has been involved in far-right nationalist groups which advocate that Japan should have the right to collective self-defense and should acquire nuclear weapons. During the campaign, one of Tamogami’s supporters, Naoki Hyakuta, a member of the board of the public broadcaster NHK, declared that the Nanjing Massacre of 1937 never happened (a fairly widespread view in far-right circles). Tamogami was endorsed by the obscure far-right Ishin Seito Shimpu but also benefited from the support of former governor Ishihara (who also ‘doubts’ the Nanjing Massacre occurred) – although the JRP did not officially support Tamogami.

Turnout was low, at 46.1%, due to a snow storm on February 9. It was 16.5% lower than the 2012 election (held alongside the general election, though) and down from the 58% turnout in the 2011 race (which was held on its own).

Yōichi Masuzoe (Independent/LDP-NKP) 42.86%
Kenji Utsunomiya (Independent/JCP-SDPJ-Greens-NSP) 19.93%
Morihiro Hosokawa (Independent/DPJ-PLP-UP) 19.39%
Toshio Tamogami (Independent) 12.39%
Kazuma Ieiri (Independent) 1.8%
Yoshiro Nakamatsu (Independent) 1.31%
Mac Akasaka (Smile Party) 0.31%
Others 0.78%

Ultimately, nobody proved strong enough to challenge and defeat Masuzoe, the early frontrunner whose candidacy benefited from the support of the popular central government and crossover support from some opposition DPJ supporters. Much ado about nothing for the candidacy of Morihiro Hosokawa, despite the heavyweight backing of Koizumi. Hosokawa’s old age, his little contact with Tokyo and his nuclear/national-focused campaign all hurt him in an election which was ultimately mostly fought and decided on local issues. The anti-nuclear vote is quite strong in Tokyo, but it is not an issue which can mobilize a winning crowd in a local election.

Masuzoe’s term, which runs until 2018, will be heavily focused on the preparations for the 2020 Olympics. The LDP government will be able to count on an avid supporter of its lavish and grandiose plans for the Olympics in the metro government. Nationally, while the race was again mostly local, the victory is nevertheless another sign that popular support for the LDP and Abe is holding up fairly well over one year in. For the time being, no party is even close to challenging the LDP’s renewed monopoly on power in Japan. This election saw Koizumi’s return to the forefront of national politics with an anti-nuclear campaign which is also targeted against Abe. It is worth watching what Koizumi intends to do to pursue his anti-nuclear battle further.

Niagara Falls and Thornhill (Ontario) provincial by-elections, 2014

Provincial by-elections were held in the Ontario (Canada) ridings of Niagara Falls and Thornhill on February 13, 2014. These seats fell vacant in September and December 2013 following the resignations of their sitting MPPs, respectively from the Liberal Party and the Progressive Conservatives (PC).


We last discussed Ontarian provincial politics following five provincial by-elections in early August last year, all of which were in ridings previously held by the governing (in a minority government) Liberals. The Liberals lost three of these five seats; one to the official opposition PCs and two to the Ontario New Democrats (NDP). The results were, on the whole, bad news for the governing Liberals, who got trounced in Windsor and London by the NDP. At the same time, however, the PCs did poorly: they had been expected, by the polls, to win three of the ridings on that day, but ended up winning only one (Etobicoke-Lakeshore, in Toronto). The Liberals narrowly and surprisingly held Ottawa South, a riding vacated by former Premier Dalton McGuinty (2003-2013) and the NDP shocked the Tories by winning London West, a riding in which the PCs were the favourites. By failing to live up to expectations, therefore, the PCs were portrayed as net losers of the round of by-elections. Opposition leader Tim Hudak’s fiery, tough and incessant attacks on the Liberals did not connect with voters, despite voter fatigue after ten years of Liberal governments and several major scandals and policy mishaps for the Liberals. On the other hand, the NDP, the third party in the legislature but whose leader, Andrea Horwath, is the most popular of the three party leader, were the major winners of the August by-elections. They handily won a seat in Windsor, a traditionally NDP-leaning area, but also picked up London West, a seat which isn’t as friendly to the NDP. That, combined with the NDP’s high-profile victory in Kitchener-Waterloo (a seat held by the PCs) in a 2012 by-election, further boosted the NDP’s profile.

Since the August by-elections, the provincial political scene has been rather quiet or at least predictable. In September, Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne dared the PCs and NDP to cause a snap election but privately confided that she had little desire to go to the polls in the fall. PC leader Tim Hudak, who has been clamoring for an election since day one, continued hounding on the government but also directed some of his fire to the NDP, who has collaborated with the Liberal government and propped it up on several occasions. Hudak accused NDP leader Andrea Horwath of propping up a corrupt and discredited government, unwilling to bring about change. However, Hudak faced trouble in PC ranks. Following the by-elections, there were local and isolated but well publicized grumbling in party ranks over Hudak’s leadership and isolated demands for a leadership review. Later, Hudak was forced to dump his finance critic, Thornhill MPP Peter Shurman amid a scandal and he removed vocal hard-right ‘maverick’ MPP Randy Hillier from the frontbench.

At the same time, there is a widespread feeling that the Liberals are running on borrowed time. Most think that the government will fall on the budget in the spring (likely in March). The PCs will vote against the budget no matter its contents, while the NDP might prove unwilling to extend the Liberals’ lease on government for the third budget in a row. One issue which is already straining relations between the Liberals and the NDP is the question of new tolls or fees to fund public transit: the Liberal government, promoting upgrades to public transit in Toronto and Hamilton, supports new tolls/taxes to raise revenue; the NDP has warned that they will stand against that. Facing attacks from Hudak in propping up the Liberals since 2012, Horwath recently came out more determined, saying that she is “seeking the job of Premier”. If the government falls on the budget, there would be a spring election, likely in April or May.

In the polls, the parties’ standings haven’t budged much since August. The PCs retain a small but fairly consistent edge over the Liberals, generally ranging from 3 to 7 points. A few pollsters, most recently Ipsos-Reid in November, have put the Liberals ahead of the PCs. The NDP has ranged between 23% and 31%, that is, either a more distant third or in serious contention for second (if not first). The latest poll, by Forum Research (Jan. 25-24), had the PCs up 3 on the Liberals (36 to 33) with the NDP at 26%.

Wynne’s decision to call the two by-elections so quickly is certainly a calculated means for her and the Liberals to test the waters (in two marginal ridings) before an election.

Niagara Falls

Map of Niagara Falls (source: Elections Canada)

Niagara Falls includes the city of Niagara Falls and the towns of Fort Erie and Niagara-on-the Lake in Niagara Regional Municipality. The riding is located at the eastern edge of the Niagara Peninsula, its eastern border being formed by the Niagara River and the international border with the United States. About 65% of the riding’s population lives in the city of Niagara Falls, which has a population of about 83,000. The riding is particularly famous for its namesake; the spectacular Niagara Falls, one of the top tourist destinations in Ontario. The Canadian ‘side’ of the falls have drawn the most tourist revenue, compared to the rather rundown American ‘side’ of the falls. The Canadian city of Niagara Falls has become notoriously kitsch, particularly the Strip-like Clifton Hill with its gaudy and ostentatious mix of wax museums, clinquant attractions and fast food chains. The quaint colonial town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Niagara’s famous wine country and War of 1812 battlefields also draw a lot of tourists.

The seat fell vacant with the resignation of backbench Liberal MPP Kim Craitor in September 2013. Craitor, who was first elected in 2003, cited mental exhaustion and wanting to focus on his health and family upon resigning. However, he’s since indicated that he plans to run for Niagara Falls city council in the next municipal elections in October 2014; he had been in municipal politics for 13 years before entering the provincial arena.

The riding is tough to describe as a whole: it is a major urban area (as a tourist magnet) in its own right, but it is also clearly influenced by the industrial centres along the Welland Canal and St. Catharines (just next door) and Niagara forms the eastern end of a huge, sprawling urban conglomeration including Toronto and Hamilton (the Golden Horseshoe). Statistically, however, the riding sticks out by the importance of the tourism industry.

In 2001 and 2006 (and probably in 2011 as well), the riding had the highest percentage of persons employed in sales and service occupations in all of Canada’s 308 constituencies: a full 34.4% of the labour force worked in sales and service jobs. About 23% of all Canadians are employed in sales and service occupations. Further reflection of the riding’s tourism-oriented nature is found in the top industries (NAICS): in 2011, the single largest industry was accommodation and food services (15.9% of the labour force), followed by retail trade (11.5%), healthcare (9.2%) manufacturing (8.8%) and arts/entertainment/recreation (8.7%). Comparatively, across Canada, only 6.2% are employed in the accommodation and food services industry and 1.9% in arts/entertainment/recreation. Other main occupations in the riding include trades, transport and equipment operators (14.2%), business/finance/administration occupations (12.8%) and management (9.6%).

Niagara Falls (own picture)

Niagara Falls (own picture)

There are few perceptible remnants (statistically) of the area’s industrial past. Although tourism has been important to the region since the late 1800s, the hydroelectric power provided by the falls (and ‘immortalized’ by the large number of dams and electrical installations on both sides of the Niagara River, either shut down or still running) allowed for the growth of a large electro-chemical and electro-metallurgical industries in the twentieth century. Across the river, Niagara Falls (NY) was driven by similar industries. In the 1970s and 1980s, those industries in both Canada and the US shutdown with the recession, deindustrialization and foreign competition. Niagara Falls, ON has weathered deindustrialization far better than Niagara Falls, NY and transitioned into a tourism-driven tertiary economy. Factors helping the Ontarian city included the better view of the falls from Canada (although the experience at the American Falls is quite spectacular in its own right), a favourable exchange rate (at the time), Ontario’s focus on tourism, Ontario’s lower drinking age (19) and the opening of casinos on the Canadian side in the mid 90s (Seneca Niagara Casino has since tried to compete with Niagara Falls, ON’s two casinos).

Perhaps due to wages in the tourism industry, the median household income (2010) was $56,537. 53% of the riding’s population fall in the bottom half of the Canadian population (by income decile); 46.5% of Ontarians fall in those same lower five income deciles. However, the percentage of individuals classified as low income after tax was lower than the Canadian average (13.3% vs 14.9%).

The Niagara region has attracted a fairly large retiree population. The median age of the population was 45.1 (40.6 in Canada); 19.3% were aged 65 or over (14.8% in Canada) and 20% of the total income of the riding’s population comes from retirement and pensions (private retirement pensions, superannuation, Canada Pension Plan, Old Age Security), compared to 13.3% of the total income in all of Canada.

The Niagara Peninsula became one of the first areas in Upper Canada to be settled, by United Empire Loyalists at the end of the American Revolution in the 18th century. Most early settlers were British, but also included German Protestants. Niagara-on-the-Lake, which actually served as Upper Canada’s colonial capital between 1792 and 1797, was founded in 1781. The Niagara region was one of the main theaters of action in the War of 1812, with major battles at Queenston Heights, Fort Erie, Chippawa and Lundy’s Lane. Industrial growth and the construction of the Welland Canal in the nineteenth century led to major European immigration, notably from Italy and Germany. According to the 2011 NHS, 30% of riding residents claimed English ancestry, followed by Canadian ancestry (26.2%), Scottish (19.5%), Irish (18.7%), Italian (16.3%), German (15.7%) and French (11.9%). Overall, over 50% of residents identified British Isles ancestries and ‘Canadian’ ethnicity can be taken, partly, as a descriptor for families who have lived in the region for generations. The Italian-descent population is significant in Niagara Falls (19.4%), while German ancestry is higher in Niagara-on-the-Lake and Fort Erie (about 22%). The single largest religious denomination are Catholics (35.5%), followed by other Christians (11.7%), Anglicans (9.2%) and the United Church (7.3%). 23.2% have no religious affiliation.

The visible minority population is small, only 8.1% are visible minorities (the largest groups are blacks and Chinese) and another 2.4% claim Aboriginal identity.

While largely urban, Niagara Falls’ demographics have little in common with an inner city seat. A high percentage of those aged over 15 are married (57.3%), the vast majority of the housing stock is made up of single-detached houses (73.6%) and are owned (76.9%). While Niagara Falls has seen fairly strong population growth, the majority of dwellings are rather old: seven in ten were built in 1980 or before. In terms of education, 31.4% of the 15+ population have a high school diploma as their highest qualification, 48.3% have some kind of postsecondary certifications and 20.4% have no certificate, diploma or degree. 13.8% have a university degree at the bachelor level or above and 21.7% have a college education.

The provincial riding of Niagara Falls has existed since 1914 and has been aligned with the federal riding of the same name since 1999. Federally, the riding of Niagara Falls was created from Welland (Fort Erie and Niagara Falls were part of the old Welland county) and Lincoln (Niagara-on-the-Lake was part of Lincoln county) in 1952; always centered on Niagara Falls, its borders have shifted northwards (towards Niagara-on-the-Lake) or southwards (towards Fort Erie) before taking its current shape in 2003. Without any confirmation, I would imagine the provincial riding of Niagara Falls have been centered on the city itself with the north and south of the current ridings being combined with parts of Lincoln and Welland county-based seats respectively. Between 1999 and 2007, the southern half of the present riding was part of the riding of Erie-Lincoln, represented by current PC leader Tim Hudak (he currently represents Niagara West-Glanbrook).

Provincially, all three parties have held the seat: the Conservatives (1914-1919, 1923-1934, 1945-1948, 1953-1959, 1971-1975, 1995-2003), the CCF or NDP (Labour from 1919 to 1923, CCF from 1943 to 1945 and NDP from 1990 to 1995) and the Liberals (1934-1943, 1948-1953, 1959-1971, 1975-1990, 2003-2013). Federally, however, the NDP or its predecessors have never held the seat. It has been held since 2004 by Conservative MP Rob Nicholson, the current Minister of National Defence.

The Ontario NDP won the riding in the 1990 Bob Rae landslide, with a nearly 20 point majority over the Liberals. However, Bart Maves, the PC candidate, gained the seat with a 13.7% majority on the Liberals and held it with a much tighter 3.5% majority in 1999. In 2003, Liberal candidate Kim Craitor, a longtime municipal politician, defeated Maves with a 8.8% majority (46.9% to 38.1%). In 2007, the Liberals were reelected with 47.5% to the PCs’ 31.2%; in 2011, the Liberal majority fell to only 1.19% – 35.95% against 34.76% for the PCs, while the NDP, running a strong candidate, significantly improved its vote to 26.3% (it placed fourth, behind the Greens, with 9.8% in 2007).

Results of the 2011 provincial election in Niagara Falls by poll (source:

Federally, the Liberals held the seat from 1953 to 1972 – even in the Tory landslide of 1958 – and again from 1974 to 1979, 1980 to 1984 and 1993 to 2004 – but Rob Nicholson, who had first held the seat as a PC MP from 1984 to 1988 (going down to bloody defeat in 1993), regained his old seat with a 2.2% majority in the 2004 federal election. His majority has since expanded while the Liberal vote tanked; in 2011, Nicholson held his seat with a 29.8% majority and it was the NDP, with 23.5%, which placed a distant second.

In the 2011 provincial election, the Liberals drew their narrow victory from Niagara Falls and, to a lesser extent, Niagara-on-the-Lake. The Liberal incumbent, a former Niagara Falls alderman, won all but a handful of polls in the city. The NDP did better in some older, historically working-class neighborhoods of the city (such as Silvertown) while doing slightly poorer in newer suburban subdivisions; in the federal election, the NDP managed to pick up a handful of polls, again largely in the Silvertown area. But just as the Liberals won nearly every poll in Niagara Falls (the city) in the last three provincial elections; the federal Tories have won most polls in the city in the 2008 and 2011 federal elections. In the north, the wealthier and older Niagara-on-the-Lake is disputed between Liberals and Tories, with little NDP support (the Greens outpolled them in 2007 and 2008), with an edge to the provincial Grits in the last two provincial elections. In the 2011 provincial election, the NDP candidate was Wayne Redekop, the former mayor of Fort Erie. With a favourite son vote, he swept most of the urban polls in Fort Erie. His candidacy also created an interesting north-south dynamic: the Liberals placed third in every poll in the municipality of Fort Erie, where the match was played between the NDP and the PCs. While the NDP appears to have some solid natural support in Fort Erie and Crystal Beach, the Liberals were competitive – at both levels of government – in past elections. One constant in the electoral geography, finally, have been the very strong Tory results in the rural polls outside the riding’s three main towns.

All three major party candidates were Niagara Falls city or regional councillors. The Liberals nominated Joyce Morocco, the NDP nominated Wayne Gates and the PCs nominated Bart Maves, who has been regional councillor since 2010 after having served as MPP between 1995 and 2003. Joyce Morocco ran and lost for the federal Liberals in the 2008 election; Gates ran for the federal NDP in 2004 and 2006. Bart Maves tried to regain his old seat, without success, in the 2007 provincial election. Niagara Falls Mayor Jim Diodati endorsed the Liberal candidate. In the 2010 municipal election, in the at-large election for city council, Gates won won 10,879 votes and Morocco won 9,720. Bart Maves won 13,695 votes in a 7-candidate race for three seats on the regional council (Maves’ uncle is a city councillor in Niagara Falls). A PC website branded Wayne Gates, a former union official, as ‘radical Wayne’, leading to an hilarious Tumblr parody.

Wayne Gates (NDP) 39.44% (+13.14%)
Bart Maves (PC) 36.83% (+2%)
Joyce Morocco (Liberal) 19.39% (-16.5%)
Clarke Bitter (Green) 2.73% (+1.11%)
Tim Tredwell (Ind) 0.61% (+0.24%)
Stefanos Karatopis (Libertarian) 0.43% (-0.03%)
Troy Young (PPP) 0.29% (+0.29%)
Andrew Brannan (Freedom) 0.28%

A last minute poll by Forum Research had shown the NDP’s Wayne Gates leading the PCs 48 to 33, with the Liberals standing a distant third with only 17%. As the poll had predicted, the NDP came out victorious, although it was by a much narrower margin: a 2.61% majority over the PCs. Nevertheless, a win is a win, and Niagara Falls is (yet another) significant victory for the Ontario NDP, the fourth seat they pick up after Kitchener-Waterloo (from the PCs in 2012), London West and Windsor-Tecumseh (both from the Liberals in 2013). Like the three other seats they have picked up, this is the kind of riding which the NDP need to win if they are to win the next provincial election (Niagara Falls itself has been a bellwether seat in provincial elections since 1985).

The clear losers are the Liberals, who, like in the three previous NDP gains in this legislature, suffered huge loses and slipped to a distant third. I’ll come back to what this trend means for the Liberals in my general conclusion. While the PCs performance is nowhere near as catastrophic as that of the Liberals, this isn’t a very good performance for them: they are up only 2 points from 2011 and they’re still lower than their 2003 result (38.1%).

Compared to 2011, the NDP made the largest inroads in the city of Niagara Falls, which it won by about ten points (43-33) over the PCs with the Liberals crashing 20 points to 22% (the NDP gained 18%, the PCs gained 2%). It held its ground well in Fort Erie, even making small gains and winning the municipality with a 2 point edge over the PCs; a remarkable performance given that the 2011 result for the NDP in Fort Erie owed a lot to a favourite son vote for the NDP’s local candidate. The NDP remained a distant third in Niagara-on-the-Lake, which the PCs won by 26 points (50-24) over the Liberals, with the NDP nevertheless up ten points to 22%.


Map of Thornhill (source: Elections Canada)

Thornhill is an affluent, highly-educated and white-collar suburban riding located directly north of Toronto. The riding includes parts of the municipalities of Vaughan and Markham in York Regional Municipality, and it’s named after Thornhill, the most important neighborhood which straddles the border between the two municipalities (formed by Yonge Street).

The seat became vacant on December 31, 2013 following the resignation of PC MPP and opposition finance critic Peter Shurman in an expense scandal. Shurman had received a housing allowance for a Toronto apartment (despite representing the Toronto area), because he moved his primary residence to Niagara-on-the-Lake. In September 2013, following an ‘heated exchange’, Hudak removed Shurman from his job as PC finance critic. Hudak had asked him to repay his expenses, but Shurman refused and got booted from his frontbench gig as a result In December 2013, it was further revealed that Shurman was claiming mileage from his home in Niagara-on-the-Lake to Toronto as an expense, Shurman was forced to resign his seat. Shurman’s scandal was something of a blow for the PCs, given his prominent frontbench role.

Thornhill is a rather special and unique riding. It is one of two ridings in Canada with a Jewish plurality – the other is the Montreal-area seat of Mount Royal (although in both ridings, all Christian denominations outnumber Jews), with 32.8% of residents being Jewish (the highest in Canada). There are no statistics on the issue, but Thornhill is said to have a large Orthodox Jewish population. 24.2% of residents checked ‘Jewish’ as their ethnic origin, making it the single largest ethnic origin reported. There is a large Eastern European, particularly Russian, population – judging by the geographic distribution of ethnic origin answers (in 2006), almost certainly Jews of Russian or Polish descent. In 2011, 12.2% claimed Russian ancestry (probably the highest in Canada) and 9.3% claimed Polish origins; overall, 24.8% of residents identified some Eastern European descent. There is also a fairly significant Iranian/Persian population (4.7%), which may include some Jews of Iranian background.

The visible minority (non-white) population is fairly significant, albeit not particularly high compared to other GTA ridings. In 2011, 36.9% of the population were visible minorities, the largest group being – by far – Chinese, who made up 12.6% of the total population. In the ethnic origin responses, Chinese was the second largest ethnicity behind Jewish (ahead of Russian), at 13.4%. The Chinese population in the riding is heavily concentrated in the portion of Markham municipality, a spillover from the heavily Chinese riding of Markham-Unionville. Other visible minority groups include South Asians (6.7%), West Asian (4.2%), Filipino (3.9%) and Korean (3.6%). The largest non-Jewish white demographic in the riding are Italians, again a spillover from the heavily Italian community of Woodbridge (in Vaughan municipality). 6.5% claimed Italian ancestry and 18.5% of residents were Catholics, the second largest religious denomination behind Judaism (no religious affiliation placed third, with 17.8%).

This diverse ethnic and religious mix means that a majority of the population (50.1%) have a language other than English as their mother tongue. Russian was actually the largest non-official language, spoken as the mother tongue of 10.6% of residents. Other main non-official languages (mother tongue) included Cantonese (4.4%), Persian/Farsi (4%) and Chinese (3.8%).

Thornhill is a very affluent, highly-educated and white-collar suburban riding. The median household income (2010) was $85,332, which likely places in the top 15-20 of all Canadian ridings. 62.5% of residents were in the top five income deciles, compared with 53.6% of residents: even more telling, the only income deciles overrepresented (against the provincial average) in Thornhill were the top three deciles: 44.9% of residents lived in the top 3 deciles (33.6% of Ontarians), including 19.4% in the top decile. No less than 41.3% of residents over 15 have a university degree at the bachelor level or above (a very high percentage, 16.6%, have a degree above the bachelor level), while low percentages have a HS diploma as their highest qualification (21.2%) or have no qualifications whatsoever (11.8%).

The largest industry in the riding (NAICS) were ‘professional, scientific and technical services’ (13.7%), followed by healthcare (10.5%), retail trade (10.4%) and manufacturing (9.1%). The main occupations, however, emphasize the white-collar nature even more: 21.1% are employed in business, finance and administration occupations; 19.3% (a very low number by Canadian standards) in sales and services; 12.8% had ‘occupations in education, law and social, community and government services’ and 12.7% were in management.

The suburban nature is highlighted by family and housing demographics (commuting information in the 2011 NHS was quite horrendous, but the average commute time was 30 minutes, against 20 minutes for all Ontario). There is a very high percentage of married individuals (58.1%), a low percentage of singles (27.9%) and a high percentage of households with children (46%). 87% of households are owned; a majority (55.3%) are single-detached houses, but there’s also a fairly significant number of new condo developments (about 27% of all households per the NHS in 2011) and some high-rise apartments (22.1%, largely along the main arteries). Thornhill is a riding which grew rapidly after the 1960s, as such, most houses (55.9%) were built between 1961 and 1990, and another 41.2% have been built since 1991. As a settled inner suburban area, growth has slowed down somewhat in the past decade, although the riding was still clearly overpopulated at the 2011 census (140,265) and did grow by +6.3% between 2006 and 2011.

The riding of Thornhill was created at the 1996 federal redistribution, from the division of the rapidly growing old suburban ridings of Markham—Whitchurch—Stouffville and York North. The provincial electoral district was created in 1999 on the lines of the federal seat. The seat has seen very closely fought between PCs and Liberals in the last four provincial election, but at the federal level, it witnessed a fairly sudden and dramatic swing from Liberals to Conservatives. The federal riding of Thornhill was solidly Liberal until 2008: the Liberals won 59% in 1997, 65% in 2000, 55% in 2004 and 53% in 2006. Even in 2006 – Harper’s first victory – the Liberals held Thornhill with a breezy 19% majority over the Tories. In 2008, however, the Conservatives, represented by British-born journalist Peter Kent (the former Minister of the Environment from 2011 to 2013), picked up the seat from incumbent Liberal (Jewish) MP Susan Kadis, with a 9.6% majority for the Tories. The Tory vote increased from 33.7% to 49% in the space of two years, while the Liberal vote fell from 53% to 39% in the same period. In 2011, Kent was reelected for a second term in a landslide, with 61% of the vote and a 37.7% majority over the Grits.

Provincially, the PCs won the seat in 1999, when it was first disputed, with a very thin majority on the Liberals (48.2% vs 47.4%), and while they lost it to the Liberals in the 2003 Grit landslide, it was by a narrow margin: 46.9% for the Liberals’ Mario Racco against 45.2% for the PC MPP Tina Molinari. The seat drew attention in the 2007 provincial election, when it was gained, countercyclically, by the PCs (who lost by a wide margin provincially). PC candidate Peter Shurman (who is Jewish) won 45.9% against 42.3% for the Liberals. In 2011, Shurman won reelection with 46.9% against 40.7% for the Liberals. Unlike the federal Grits, the provincial Liberals put up a fight in 2011: their candidate was Bernie Farber, the former president of the Canadian Jewish Congress.

The NDP has been very weak in Thornhill (even if the Jewish Canadian community, in its working-class days, strongly supported the CCF/NDP or Communists). In the 2011 provincial election, the NDP won 9%, a result which is actually at the upper end of recent NDP showings. In the federal election, the NDP won 12%.

The sudden shift from Liberals to Conservatives has everything to do with the changing political allegiances of the Canadian Jewish community: an hitherto reliably Liberal demographic which has become a solidly Conservative demographic since 2008 (the shift is very perceptible in seats in Toronto and Montreal). Federally, the shift is often assigned to the Harper Conservatives’ strongly pro-Israeli diplomatic stances (while some Liberals have taken more pro-Palestinian positions), which resonate very well with Canadian Jews. Provincially, it is often chalked down to the issue of private/denominational schools: in 2003, the PCs supported a tax credit for parents to send their children to private/denominational schools, and it allowed the PC vote to hold up very well in Thornhill. In 2007, PC leader John Tory famously – and disastrously – proposed to extend public funding to all faith-based schools (the Ontario provincial government funds Catholic schools); while that played disastrously for the PCs in the province, it may explain why the PCs gained Thornhill – for some Jewish parents, especially in the Orthodox Jewish community, access to Jewish schools is a major issue.

At the same time, however, it may also have something to do with a wider shift: many affluent white-collar suburban voters have shifted, fairly dramatically in the long term, from Liberal to Conservatives. Jewish Canadians tend to be like many Canadian suburbanites: socially liberal, but fiscally conservative. Jewish voters, much like those south of the border, are very much allergic to (Christian) religious conservatism, social conservatism or more populist conservative rhetoric. The Canadian Alliance and Reform Party, associated with religious and populist conservatism, did very poorly with Jewish voters (although from poll-by-poll results, it appears the Alliance did fairly well with Orthodox Jews in Thornhill in 2000, presumably helped by a Jewish candidate). Similarly, in the 2011 provincial election, the PCs lost ground (compared to 2007) with more secular Jewish voters in urban Toronto (St. Paul’s and Eglinton-Lawrence), a reaction to Hudak’s populist and right-wing campaign which repelled affluent, urban moderates.

Results of the 2011 provincial election in Thornhill by poll (source:

The map of the 2011 provincial election portrays the riding’s electoral geography well. The PCs were very strong – over 70% of the vote in a handful of polls – in the heavily Jewish areas along Bathurst Street (Toronto’s main ‘Jewish road’ – see a map here) in the Thornhill neighborhood. There were smaller outcrops of PC support in the eastern (Markham) end of the riding, primarily in mixed-Jewish neighborhoods. On the other hand, the Liberals were strongest in non-Jewish areas: areas west of Dufferin Street (more Italian) or between Yonge Street and Bayview Avenue (less Jewish, more Chinese and Iranian). The 2007 election is much the same: the PCs clearly owed their victory to very strong numbers with Jewish voters (again, with numbers over 60-70% in the most Jewish areas) while the Grits won non-Jewish voters. From 2007 to 2011, it appears as if the PC vote in the Jewish areas stagnated while improving in then non-Jewish areas.

The 2011 federal election is a Tory sweep, with many heavily Jewish polls giving over 80% of the vote to the Conservatives. The 2008 map is very similar to the provincial maps from 2007 or 2011, while the 2006 and 2004 maps – Liberal landslides – show a Tory enclave in Thornhill, presumably an Orthodox Jewish area, with the Liberals sweeping the rest (including many Jewish areas).

The PCs nominated optometrist Gila Martow, who ran and lost for Vaughan city council in 2010. On her website, Martow’s biographical blurb includes a well-placed picture of her with Harper and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, both of whom are held in high esteem by the Canadian Jewish community. The Liberal candidate was Sandra Yeung Racco, a Vaughan city councillor and the wife of former Liberal MPP Mario Racco (2003-2007). The NDP’s sacrificial lamb was Cindy Hackelberg, the 2011 candidate.

Gila Martow (PC) 47.96% (+1.25%)
Sandra Yeung Racco (Liberal) 41.50% (+0.58%)
Cindy Hackelberg (NDP) 6.79% (-2.18%)
Teresa Pun (Green) 1.44% (-0.25%)
Gene Balfour (Libertarian) 1.06% (-0.33%)
Erin Goodwin (Freedom) 0.56% (+0.23%)
Kevin Clarke (PPP) 0.52% (+0.52%)
John Turmel (Pauper) 0.18% (+0.18%)

The PCs narrowly held Thornhill, with a margin similar to the 2011 election. As early results trickled in, the Liberals took a narrow lead over the PCs, but as it turned out it was likely the Grit-leaning non-Jewish polls reporting first. Later on, the PCs regained the lead and never gave it back. A Tory defeat in Thornhill (at the hands of the governing Liberals) would have been a serious, potentially fatal, blow to Hudak’s leadership; a victory, even if fairly narrow, allows him to breath a sigh of relief. The Liberals’ decent showing, in sharp contrast to their results in Niagara Falls, shows that the Grits are still a force to be reckoned with in the 416 (city of Toronto) and GTA/905 suburbs. The NDP’s poor result is not surprising if you take into account the propensity for Canadian by-elections to turn into two-party contests in a majority of cases, squeezing out any third party lacking a base and organization in the riding.



Overall, the main winner of these two by-elections was the NDP, which gained Niagara Falls. It was not as extraordinary a victory as Kitchener-Waterloo (2012) or London West/Windsor-Tecumseh (2013), which may or may not indicate that some of the NDP’s momentum has tapered off since then. Yet, all this is still very good news for the NDP and Andrea Horwath. Although Horwath has taken hits from both the Liberals and PCs, and has been the target of PC criticism for ‘propping up’ the Liberal government since 2011, she remains the most popular political leader in the province and for the first time in a long time, the NDP has a good chance of actually winning the next election. The NDP has been riding high in the polls in Southwestern Ontario (home to Kitchener, London and Windsor although not Niagara Falls) and their results in by-elections since 2012 indicate that the NDP are the only threat to the PCs outside of Ottawa and Toronto, even in Liberal-held ridings.

It remains to be seen, of course, if the NDP could repeat the remarkable results of the by-elections since 2012 in a general election. In a province-wide contest, the NDP would focus less heavily on specific ridings (like in by-elections), leaving some local candidates who might receive disproportionate backing from HQs in a by-election to fend for themselves. But the by-elections since 2012 have shown that the NDP are capable of regaining Dipper heartlands (Windsor-Tecumseh) and challenging the Liberals and PCs in seats where the NDP hasn’t usually been a factor in past provincial or federal elections (Kitchener, London, Niagara…): these are exactly the kind of ridings which the NDP need to win in a provincial election if they want to win government.

The NDP’s raw vote across both ridings was very, very close to the 2011 results. But the details show two very different dynamics at work: in Thornhill, a seat which will go NDP only when hell freezes over, the NDP lost 2,128 votes from their 2011 result. In Niagara Falls, where Wayne Gates won, the NDP increased their raw vote total by 2,222 – despite turnout falling by 9,960 votes since 2011. This indicates that the NDP was able to directly win voters who had backed the Grits or Tories in the last election.

The PCs had mixed results, on the whole. There is disagreement as to whether they won (by not losing any riding and by winning the most votes across the two ridings) or if they lost (by failing to regain low-hanging fruit like Niagara Falls and making very limited gains overall), I’d personally lean towards the latter. Holding Thornhill, where the PCs faced a rather serious threat from the Liberals (while still being favoured), is a good result for them insofar as it allows the PCs to breath a sigh of relief. But defeat in Niagara Falls is undeniably bad news for the PCs, which adds on to their defeats in Kitchener-Waterloo, London West and Ottawa South. Niagara Falls was low-hanging fruit for the PCs, who should have won the seat without too much trouble given their lead in province-wide polls, the swings against the Liberals and the federal Conservatives’ success in that seat in federal elections since 2004. It is also, like London West, the kind of riding which Hudak’s PCs need to win in the next election if they are to form government. Hudak, who has a remarkable inability for introspection, preferred to trumpet the meaningless statistic of ‘winning the most votes in the two ridings together’ and blame the Niagara Falls result on ‘unions’ (Hudak’s favourite boogeyman) turning out for the NDP.

The PCs saw their raw vote fall significantly in both ridings: across both, they lost over 10,300 votes. Their gains, in percentage terms, in both ridings were purely by virtue of retaining a good share of their 2011 votes than by any gains directly at another party’s expense. In a general election, the PCs may still win by just getting their 2011 voters again and little else, but they’ll most likely need to expand their base a bit by drawing voters who had backed the Liberals (or, less likely, the NDP) in 2011.

The clear loser were the Liberals – again. They lost yet another seat, after losing three seats in last summer’s five by-elections. What is especially cause for concern for the Liberals is that the disaster in Niagara Falls adds on to the disasters in Kitchener, London and Windsor in the last two years. All this seems to mean that the Liberals are quickly turning irrelevant in ridings outside of Toronto and Ottawa (in the 2013 by-elections, the Liberals held their ground – placing first or second – in the three ridings in Ottawa or Toronto; the Liberals still placed a decent second in the GTA riding of Thornhill). In a general election, the Liberals may very well face a bloodbath outside Ottawa and the 416/905: ridings outside those regions are shaping up, if by-elections are anything to go by, into PC-NDP battles with the Liberals not a factor. Some commentators have said that the Liberals could still be serious contenders for a fourth term in office because of their hold on ‘fortress Toronto’. I don’t disagree with the idea that the Liberals could still be contenders for reelection in the next general election, but I have serious doubts on the solidity of ‘fortress Toronto’. A lot of commentators rehashing that line seem to be assuming that the Liberals face no threat from either the PCs or NDP in the 416 ridings, or that they remain very competitive with the PCs in 905 suburban ridings where the NDP is weak. The latter is probably true; the Liberals will remain the main competition to the PCs in places like Vaughan, Markham, Oakville, Richmond Hill, Aurora and so forth. However, very little proves that Toronto is the impregnable Liberal ‘fortress’ some people present it as. In the 2013 by-elections, the PCs actually gained a seat from the Liberals in Toronto (Etobicoke-Lakeshore) and the Liberals held Scarborough-Guildwood by a narrow margin against serious PC and NDP threats. The NDP has a large potential base in Toronto; it did very poorly in Toronto in the 2011 provincial election, but nothing says that the next election will be just as disappointing for them. The PCs also have the potential to win seats inside Toronto. I would posit, therefore, that the Liberals aren’t particularly safe(r) in Toronto as a whole; in a general election, anything could happen.

It is unclear what impact these results have in the short term, especially as it relates to the likelihood of an early election in the spring. The NDP comes out with a big boost from these by-elections and it might be tempted to finally pull the plug on the Liberals, but from the early rhetoric from Horwath, she doesn’t seem particularly ‘trigger-happy’ and she prefers to present herself as a ‘responsible leader’ who doesn’t talk incessantly about elections. From past experience, Horwath does seem rather reluctant to take the responsibility for provoking an early election. Meanwhile, the Liberals do seem less interested than before in having an early election. In a case of acute spinning, the Liberals said that “a small percentage of people vote in by-elections” and affirm that “a general election will be a different story”. If the Liberals are reading the tea leaves, they might opt to delay an increasingly inevitable defeat at the polls by trying to stay in power for as long as possible. If Wynne was fairly bullish on election night with talk of a general election, other Liberals were on the defensive the next day and downplaying talks of an election (and rumours that the Liberals might engineer their own defeat on the budget).

On the other hand, it is worth noting that the Liberal spin about a general election being a different story is somewhat correct. By-elections are sometimes good predictors, but at best imperfect because of low turnout and the tendency for anti-incumbent votes against the government. It is interesting that the by-election results since 2013 haven’t been lining up with province-wide polling, in which the Liberals remain a fairly strong second not too far behind the PCs. Are the provincial polls all wrong? Are the by-elections showing an exaggerated swing against the Liberals because the Liberals’ supporters are not showing up? A general election will have different and unpredictable dynamics: the Liberals may turn out to be good campaigners who will find what it takes to seriously challenge Hudak and Horwath; but the Liberals may also collapse, if momentum builds around the NDP and leads to Liberal supporters abandoning the Grits for the NDP or PCs (a repeat of what happened federally in May 2011). As things stand, however, the Liberals are in a very difficult position.

Swiss Referendums 2014

Referendums on three matters were held in Switzerland on February 9, 2014. One issue was a mandatory referendum, because it modified the Swiss Constitution and the other two were popular initiatives which were placed on the ballot after they gathered 100,000 signatures from voters.

Turnout on the three votes ranged from 55% to 55.8%, a rather high level in a country where turnout in both elections and referendums is usually below 50% (or barely above).

Popular initiative “against mass immigration”

The popular initiative “against mass immigration” was presented by the right-populist Swiss People’s Party (SVP), the largest party in the Swiss Parliament which is well known for its nationalist and anti-immigration positions.

Contrary to popular perceptions, Switzerland isn’t quite an exclusive cocoon made up of Swiss citizens. In 2012, foreigners made up 23.3% of the Swiss population (about 1.87 million people), the highest number and percentage in the country’s recent history. About 64% of foreigners are EU and EFTA citizens (especially from neighboring Germany, Italy and France or countries such as Portugal); there are significant Serbian (6% of all foreigners), African (4.1%) and Turkish (3.9%) communities in Switzerland. Overall, 85% of foreign residents are European. Additionally, 34.7% of Swiss residents have ‘immigration background’ – including naturalized Swiss citizens and first/second generation foreigners.

Switzerland signed an Agreement on the Free Movement of Persons with the EU (which also applies to EFTA member-states) in 1999, allowing for the free movement and employment of EU and EFTA citizens in the country. Immigration of non-EU/EFTA citizens is strictly limited, with the country largely admitting only qualified professionals and other skilled workers. Swiss companies must prove that they failed to find adequate Swiss or European workforce when employing non-EU/EFTA foreigners. Asylum seekers and refugees are not covered by these regulations.

Immigration has increased significantly since 2008, with the economic crisis. Since 2007, immigration has increased by about 80,000 per year. In 2002, when the agreements on freedom of movement came into force, the Federal Council estimated that there would be about 8,000 immigrants per year – the reality has been 10 times higher. The large number of new immigrants in Switzerland created real problems in terms of housing shortages, overstretched transportation infrastructure creating traffic jams or overcrowded trains and major pressure on jobs, wages and rents.

The situation is made even more problematic by Switzerland’s longstanding tradition of relative isolationism. On the right, there has been a significant emphasis on the protection of ‘Swiss identity’ or ‘Swiss jobs’. This isn’t the first popular initiative dealing with the issue of immigration or the feeling of ‘too many immigrants’. In 1970, an initiative by the far-right National Action which wanted to limit the foreign population to 10% by canton (25% in Geneva) was narrowly rejected, with 54% against. In 1974, a very similar text pushed by the same group, which proposed to limit the country’s foreign population at 500,000, was rejected by a wide margin (65.8% no). Two similar initiatives were rejected by huge majorities in 1977. These first anti-immigration initiatives took place following the first significant surge in the foreign population (in the 1960s and early 1970s). While unsuccessful, the environment created by these initiatives pushed the Federal Council to pass stricter immigration laws which led to a sharp dip in the foreign population after 1975 and until 1990.

Beginning with another National Action proposal in 1988, the 1990s and 2000s saw another wave of anti-immigration initiatives – mostly proposed by the SVP, which at the same time saw its popular support expand significantly, becoming the single largest party in 2003. In 1996, a popular initiative “against illegal immigration” proposed by the SVP was rejected with 53.7% against. In 2000, a popular initiative proposing to limit the foreign population at 18% of the country’s population was rejected with 63.8%. In 2002, a SVP initiative seeking to strictly limit the conditions for the admission of asylum seekers was rejected by a very narrow margin – with 50.1% against. In 2009, a controversial initiative banning the construction of minarets was approved with 57.5% of the vote. In 2010, a SVP popular initiative “for the expulsion of foreign criminals”, which allows for the expulsion of foreigners convicted of serious crimes or having illegally received welfare benefits. The SVP’s initiative was approved by 52.9% of voters. The SVP unsuccessfully opposed the approval of Swiss membership in the Schengen Area (in 2005) and the extension of the Agreement on the Free Movement of Persons to the new EU member states in 2005 and to Romania and Bulgaria in 2009.

This popular initiative “against mass immigration” asked that Switzerland manages autonomously immigration through annual quotas and ceilings (without specifying what the levels would be). This would apply to all categories of foreigners including foreign workers and their families, asylum seekers, refugees and trans-border workers. Employers would need to give preference to Swiss nationals, and the initiative bans the ratification of international treaties contravening these regulations. This would imply the renegotiation or even full denunciation of the Agreement on the Free Movement of Persons with the EU; the Agreement on the Free Movement of Persons is one of Switzerland’s Bilateral Agreements I with the EU and the termination of one of these agreements leads to the automatic cancellation within six months of the other agreements.

The initiative committee blamed the massive increase in immigration for higher unemployment (8% with foreigners), overcrowded trains, traffic jams, rent increases, the loss of arable land, pressure on salaries, ‘foreign criminality’, asylum abuse and a large number of foreigners on welfare. ‘Uncontrolled immigration’, according to the initiative’s backers, threatens Swiss freedom, security, full employment, natural beauty and Swiss prosperity. In presenting the initiative, they stressed that it did not want to ‘freeze’ immigration or terminate bilateral agreements with the EU.

The Federal Council and Parliament recommended the rejection of the initiative. In its official recommendation, the Federal Council argued that Switzerland is dependent on foreign labour and that immigrants contribute to the Swiss economy. Above all, however, they sought to point out that the approval of the initiative would necessarily mean a renegotiation of the Agreement on the Free Movement of Persons (which, according to the government, the EU is unwilling to undertake). A failure to renegotiate the agreement would, as aforementioned, automatically terminate all parts of the Bilateral Agreements I. Given Switzerland’s close economic and trade ties with the EU, termination of the Bilateral Agreements I would have, according to the Federal Council, serious consequences on the economy. The government recognizes immigration’s impact on housing and infrastructure, but argue that they would exist even without immigration and therefore require internal policy reforms rather than ‘administrative obstacles’ and ‘unnecessary annoyances’ entailed by the initiative.

Every major party except the SVP recommended the rejection of the initiative. However, while the Swiss Green Party at the federal level recommended a no vote, the Ticino section of the Green Party supported the yes. The SVP, as in the past, played a lot on sensationalist (but misleading) statistics – for example, a newspaper ad claiming that by 2060, there would be more foreigners than Swiss citizens – based on an exponential growth in the foreign population and a slow growth in the Swiss population. But with the same ‘projections’ playing on stats, we can also ‘project’ that the SVP will be winning 69% in 2060! The SVP also knew how to frame its argument: in a fairly moderate way, claiming that Switzerland could reject mass immigration without endangering bilateral agreements with the EU; and by playing on simple bread-and-butter issues – the nefarious effect of immigration on housing, wages, infrastructure, ‘freedom’ and unemployment (although some studies show that immigration hasn’t had a negative effect on the job market). It also played on deep-seated Eurosceptic sentiments, by using the Federal Council’s arguments on EU reprisals to appeal to opposition to ‘EU diktats’, the ‘European elites’ and a desire to ‘stand up’ to ‘EU scaremongering’ and defending Swiss sovereignty.

Do you accept the popular initiative “against mass immigration”?

Yes 50.3%
No 49.7%

Switzerland 2014 - Mass immigrationb

Early polling had the anti-immigration initiative going down to defeat, but the gap narrowed significantly in the yes’ favour in the final days. The initiative was narrowly approved with a 19,526 vote majority (0.6%). The initiative’s implications are interesting and significant. Like the minaret initiative, the Swiss vote hit a nerve in the EU and has placed the contentious issue of immigration (and limits on immigration) at the top of media attention and public opinion interest in many EU countries dealing with the same issue – France, Austria, Italy or the UK, for example. It has sparked widespread condemnation in the foreign media and many political leaders, with – in my mind – appropriate comments on xenophobic sentiments and the rise of anti-immigration opinion in Switzerland. Regardless of one’s opinion and appreciation on the Swiss vote, it would be best not to give lessons of morality. For example, I have little doubt that France could potentially approve a very similar initiative if such an issue came up in a referendum (a 2013 poll showed that about 70% of French voters felt that there were too many immigrants in France).

The initial official reaction by the EU has been negative: in a brief statement on February 9, the European Commission said that the initiative “goes against the principle of free movement of persons between the EU and Switzerland” and that it would “examine the implications of this initiative on EU-Swiss relations as a whole.” The French foreign minister and German finance minister both expressed concern; the issue is particularly important for France, Germany and Italy who have a large number of trans-border workers (frontaliers): citizens of those countries who either live and work in Switzerland or commute to work in Switzerland.

At the same time, the European far-right as a whole is rather giddy about the issue: Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, Heinz-Christian Strache, Matteo Salvini but also Nigel Farage, the German AfD and Norway’s FrP all welcomed the result and would like similar votes in their own countries.

The Swiss Federal Council will respect the result and present legislation to implement the initiative by the end of the year, and immediately begin negotiations with the EU – the initiative gives them a three year period to renegotiate existing agreements with the EU. Many Swiss politicians and their constituents are confident that the EU will not choose confrontation and that some kind of agreement will be found between the two countries. Some feel that, in the long run, the initiative won’t change much: the cantons may gain considerable leeway in setting quotas, allowing diverse and immigrant-heavy cantons (Basel, Geneva, Zurich etc) to set large quotas; the implementing legislation may be challenged in a referendum; international law will still apply and Switzerland will need to abide by it (although the SVP fancies an initiative to make Swiss law supersede international law) and the very drawn out process for renegotiation will allow for adaptation or compromise. If the negotiations were to collapse, however, it would have major economic consequences for Switzerland and the EU: some sectors of the Swiss economy are compelled to turn to foreign labour for lack of domestic labour, many Swiss take advantage of bilateral programs with the EU (Erasmus, for example), Switzerland is closely connected to the EU economy and Swiss participation in EU projects may be jeopardized. Swiss businesses are worried, fearing an overload of administrative annoyances and starting in a disadvantageous position in EU negotiations (the EU will likely demand concessions from Switzerland in case of a compromise).

There has been significant attention paid to the geography of the vote, even in the foreign press which usually ignores electoral geography. The overall geography was not very different from past votes on foreigners/immigration-related votes in Switzerland: anti-immigration votes tended to come from German but also Italian Switzerland – and rural areas – while support for the pro-immigration position came from French Switzerland and urban areas in general. Once again, French Switzerland only gave 41.5% support to the initiative, compared with 52% in German Switzerland and 68% in Italian Switzerland. The strongest support for the initiative came from the Italian canton of Ticino, which voted yes with no less than 68.2%. Ticino, like Geneva (which voted no, with 61%), has the highest unemployment in the country (around 7%, in a country where unemployment is only 2-3%); but the main reason for the canton’s strong support for the initiative is because it has been impacted by significant labour immigration from neighboring Italy. Well-educated but unemployed Italians are willing to cross the border to accept jobs in Ticino – at higher salaries than in Italy, but at significantly lower salaries than Swiss workers. The canton of Ticino has voted against ‘free movement’ issues in the past: in 2009, 66% voted against the extension of freedom of movement to Romania and Bulgaria (38% in Switzerland as a whole); in 2005, 64% voted against the extension of freedom of movement to the 2004 EU entrants (40.6% in the country); in 2004, 62% voted against Schengen (45% in the country); and in 2000, 57% voted against the sectoral agreements with the EU which were approved by 67% of voters. This year, there was little rural-urban divide in Italian Switzerland: 66% approval in urban areas, 69.6% approval in rural towns.

Support for the initiative was also strong in German-speaking rural areas: in the rural communities, 60.7% voted in favour. The very conservative Catholic canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden approved the issue with 63.5%, the predominantly rural (and also Catholic) canton of Schwyz – which often records strong support for anti-immigration votes (it too voted against the Romania/Bulgaria extension, and was the only one to back a 2008 SVP initiative which would have subjected naturalization applications to popular votes in each town) – voted yes with 63.1%. The next highest results in support of the initiative were recorded in Glarus (59.4%), Obwalden (59.1%), Nidwalden (58.8%) and Uri (58.2%). With the exception of Glarus, which has been industrialized over 100 years ago, all the other cantons are peripheral, historically rural and and traditionally poor German Catholic cantons. The cantons of Schwyz, Uri and the half-cantons of the Unterwalden formed the original four cantons of the Swiss Confederation in 1291, were the central part of the anti-centralist and conservative Sonderbund in 1847 and have long been peripheral, isolated, patriarchal and strongly traditionalist/conservative. Glarus, which was historically Protestant and industrialized, proved more open to external influences but it has become conservative in the post-war era. These cantons have often recorded the strongest opposition on votes concerning European integration (EEC membership in 1992), UN membership (2002), immigration but also other issues (abortion, gun control).

The initiative also received strong support in rural and small town conservative areas throughout German areas, for example in the cantons of Aargau (55.2%), Thurgau (57.8%), Schaffhausen (58.1%) and Saint Gallen (55.9%). Far less rural and traditionalist than the original four cantons, these German cantons have nonetheless become – outside of their main urban centres – quite conservative. It passed by a narrow majority in Lucerne (53.3%), Solothurn (54.6%), Bern (51.1%), Grisons (50.6%) and Basel-Landschaft (50.6%). In the cantons of Bern and Lucerne, the initiative was carried exclusively by strong support in rural conservative areas: it received only 39.7% support in Lucerne and 27.7% in Bern. However, for example, in the rural districts of Entlebuch (LU) and Obersimmental-Saanen (BE), the yes won 67.4% and 66.7% respectively. The initiative was also defeated in the cities of Aarau, Baden, Winterthur and Saint Gallen.

In the canton of Grisons, a mountainous and fairly conservative canton, the rather high level of opposition to the initiative might have something to do with the importance of tourism in the canton, which is home to internationally famous high-end ski resorts and has created a fairly high demand for foreign labour (the foreign population reaches 30.6% in the Maloja district, which includes Saint-Moritz). In the Italian-speaking district of Moesa in Grisons, the yes won 71% of the vote – it also won 58% in the district of Bernina, an Italian-speaking valley. It failed in the canton’s main city (Chur) and most major resort towns, including Davos and Saint-Moritz.

The cantons of Basel-Stadt (39% yes), Zurich (47.3% yes) and Zug (49.9% yes) voted against. The first two cantons are anchored by large urban areas, which voted heavily against – in the city of Zurich itself, the yes won only 33.4%. In German Switzerland, there was a very strong rural-urban divide. In German urban areas, the yes vote received only 41% (keeping in mind that, in contrast, it took 61% in the most rural German communities); the yes vote was successful in medium-sized towns (52.9%) and isolated towns (53.9%). The cities, as in every other country, concentrate multicultural communities with more leftist views on issues such as immigration and highly-educated professionals – either wealthier suburbanites (District 7/8 in Zurich) or ‘new middle-classes’ in gentrified downtowns (Districts 4/5 in Zurich) with similar socially liberal views. In Zurich, the initiative was defeated by huge margins both in the very wealthy suburban districts (7+8, 27.7% yes) and the central gentrified areas (Districts 4/5, 21.1% yes); it carried only District 12, a lower-income/blue-collar peripheral district (52% yes). The initiative also lost by significant margins in Zurich’s very wealthy lakeside suburbs (43.9% yes in Meilen district, 46.6% in Horgen district). In Basel, a major economic centre closely connected to neighboring Germany and France (many German and French nationals commute cross-border), the initiative won only 38.7%; it was also defeated in its affluent, well-educated suburbs. The canton of Zug is the country’s wealthiest canton; as a low-tax zone, the city of Zug has become home to the headquarters of many multinational corporations. In the city of Zug itself, the initiative won 43.1% support.

French Switzerland (Suisse romande) was the only region to reject the initiative, with only 41.5% support. It won about 39% support in the cantons of Geneva, Vaud and Neuchâtel; it did slightly better in the Jura (44%) and failed only narrowly in the cantons of Fribourg (48.5%) and Valais (48.3%). In the case of the latter canton, there was a clear linguistic divide: the German-speaking eastern half of the Valais (Oberwallis) voted in favour, while all but one district in the French-speaking western half (Bas-Valais) voted against. In the canton of Fribourg, which has a substantial German minority, the German-majority district of Sense was more heavily in favour (56.7%) than French-speaking rural district, but in that canton the divide was more urban-rural: the initiative failed by a landslide in the city of Fribourg (34.3%) and its suburbs but was successful in rural areas. On the whole, French-speaking Switzerland has been the country’s most liberal region; voting in favour of European integration and choosing the more liberal option on matters such as immigration, identity, abortion or women’s rights.

It is worth noting, however, that there is a strong rural-urban divide in French Switzerland as well. In urban centres, the initiative received only 37.7% support. It won 40.6% in me

dium-sized towns, 42.2% in isolated towns and 47% in rural areas. The cities of Geneva (37.9% yes), Lausanne (32.5% yes), Neuchâtel (31.2% yes), La-Chaux-de-Fonds (39.8% yes), Delémont (32.3% yes), Porrentruy (38.7% yes), Nyon (36.2% yes), Montreux (40.7% yes) and Sion (40.4% yes) all voted heavily against. Opposition was very strong in the arc lémanique, a very affluent urban/suburban area around the Lac Léman from Geneva to Lausanne. The Geneva-Léman region is home to a large number of international organizations and attract a large number of cross-border workers from France; foreigners constitute about 40% of the population in the canton of Geneva and in Lausanne, and 34% in the district of Nyon (VD). In the affluent Geneva lakeside suburb of Collonge-Bellerive, the initiative won only 35%; support was below 40% in most affluent towns in the arc lémanique. On the other hand, support was higher in less affluent areas in the Ouest lausannois and in Geneva’s suburbs; 42.6% in the Ouest lausannois district and 49.1% in the town of Vernier, a poorer suburb outside of Geneva. That being said, plenty of historically working-class and poorer cities in French Switzerland voted heavily against: the industrial cities of La-Chaux-de-Fonds, Delémont and Le Locle all voted against by substantial margins; the French-speaking valleys of the Bas-Valais are no more or less affluent than the German-speaking Oberwallis yet the former voted against while the latter voted in favour by large margins. In French Switzerland, the initiative was only successful in rural areas: the eastern ends of the canton of Vaud, the Jura bernois (in the canton of Bern) and much of the canton of Fribourg outside urban areas.

While the initiative’s victory is a major political success for the SVP, it would not have been successful without the support of voters outside of the SVP’s traditional electoral base. The SVP’s electoral base is, at most, no more than 30%; the core hardline anti-European and anti-immigration electorate in referendums is often 30-35% as well. Like the minaret or ‘foreign criminals’ referendums, this result shows that the SVP’s rhetoric against immigration appeals to a much wider crowd than that which usually votes for the SVP in federal elections. In this referendum, success would not have been possible without significant cross-over support from other parties and independents – including left-wingers. The left-wing argument in favour of this initiative is that the current levels of population growth, in good part due to foreign immigration, are unsustainable in the long-term for economic, social and environmental reasons.

There have been a lot of comments in the media that the regions which voted in favour are those with a low percentage of foreigners while those which voted against are those with a higher percentage of immigrants. This is not entirely the case. This graph (by district) comparing the % of foreigners to % yes for the initiative does show some kind of correlation between a low number of foreigners and stronger support for the initiative – only two districts with a number of foreigners above the Swiss average voted in favour; at the same time, however, many districts with a fairly large percentage of foreigners voted in favour. Based on the data in that chart, I calculated a correlation coefficient of -0.34 (negative correlation between support for the initiative and high percentage of foreigners), but the R² value is only 0.11, so it’s a very weak correlation.

Popular initiative “Funding of abortion is a private matter ˗ relieving the burden on health insurance by removing the costs of termination of pregnancy from basic health insurance”

Abortion rights in Switzerland have evolved gradually. From 1942 to 2002, abortion was only permitted in the first twelve weeks of pregnancy in cases of maternal life and the mother’s health; the understanding of the term ‘health’ evolved from only physical health to cover mental health. In 1977, an initiative to legalize abortion on demand in the first twelve weeks was narrowly rejected by the electorate, with 51.7% against. In 1978, a federal law which continued to classify abortion as an offense but expanding exceptions allowing for abortions (medical and social reasons, rape, fetal defects) was struck down by a wide majority (by the looks of the vote, it displeased both the pro-life and pro-choice camps). Afterwards, the practice of abortion, albeit still legally an offense and strictly curtailed by legislation, was liberalized and the practice was only rarely prosecuted. In 2002, an amendment to the Swiss penal code legalized abortion on demand in the first twelve weeks. In a June 2002 referendum, 72% of voters approved the new law and simultaneously rejected a counter-initiative, which sought to re-criminalize abortion (81.8% against). The costs of abortions are covered, since 2002, by public health insurance.

This popular initiative proposed that abortions be no longer covered by health insurance, on the grounds of lessening the financial burden on health insurance. The text allowed for exceptions, but did not define them. The initiative was supported officially by the Evangelical People’s Party (EVP) and the SVP, although two SVP cantonal sections (Jura and Vaud) called to vote against and some other SVP sections gave no voting recommendations. Certain members of the Christian Democratic People’s Party (CVP) and the FDP.The Liberals backed the initiative. Besides lessening the financial burden on health insurance, the supporters of the text argued that, as a matter of conscience, nobody should be forced to finance abortions against their ethical and moral convictions. Other supporters argued that if abortions were to be self-financed or privately covered, there would be less abortions.

The Federal Council and Parliament recommended the rejection of the initiative. It argued in favour of the existing system, which it says has proved its worth: the number of abortions in Switzerland are low by international standards and have remained stable since 2002 (and decreased with young women under 20); strong support and counseling for women; strict guidelines to ensure quality and safety and the costs of abortions have decreased significantly (it says between 600 and 1000 CHF). The savings which would be incurred by not covering abortions would be minimal: 8 billion CHF in a system worth 26 billion CHF, so only about 0.03% of the total costs of health insurance. The Federal Council also raised concerns about the undefined ‘exceptions’ in the text of the initiative, which, they argued, would lead to patchy case-by-case financing of certain abortions.

Do you accept the popular initiative “Funding of abortion is a private matter ˗ relieving the burden on health insurance by removing the costs of termination of pregnancy from basic health insurance”

No 69.8%
Yes 30.2%

Switzerland 2014 - Abortion

Unsurprisingly, the initiative was rejected by a very wide margin. Only a socially conservative base strongly opposed to abortion voted in favour. Outside of a socially conservative minority, abortion in Switzerland – like in many/most other Western European countries – is well accepted by the population and there is little interest in changing a system which is perceived as working well, as the Federal Council argued.

The geography of the vote was both unsurprising and surprising. Unsurprising because the very few outposts of support for the measure – only two districts and one half canton voted in favour – were rather predictable. The half-canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden, a very conservative, traditionalist and rural German Catholic region, voted in favour – with 50.9%. The district of Entlebuch, an isolated rural valley in the Catholic canton of Lucern, was the only other district to vote in favour, with 50.3%. Although it failed in every other districts, there was substantial support in some more rural districts of the cantons of Schwyz (44.3% overall), Uri (45.3%), Saint-Gallen (42.4%), Obwald (41.6%) and Thurgovia (40.9%). It was in German Switzerland where the measure found the most support, 34.5% overall, especially in German rural areas (41.2%). Swiss German cities were strongly opposed, with only 27.7% support. In the city of Zurich, the yes won 21.1% and in Basel-Stadt it got 24.6%.

In contrast, there was only negligible support in French Switzerland; where only 15.7% voted in favour, with support for the text as low as 10.9% in Vaud and 13.8% in Geneva. Over 90% of voters rejected the initiative in the city of Lausanne and the neighboring (affluent) districts of Morges and Gros-de-Vaud. Even in the French Catholic canton of Jura, the yes won barely 20.3%. Italian Catholics were slightly more supportive, with support for the text standing at 32.7% in all Italian-speaking regions.

1977 popular initiative to legalize abortion on demand (own map)

1977 popular initiative to legalize abortion on demand (own map)

On the other hand, the geography was more surprising because it followed the usual rural-urban and linguistic divides more than the confessional divide, unlike in the past. In 1977, when the initiative which would have legalized abortion failed, opposition was larger overall in German cantons than French cantons (regardless of religion) but the main cleavage was religion: Catholic cantons being very strongly opposed, with Protestant cantons either more narrowly against or in favour if they were urban or French. For example: the linguistically divided but religiously homogeneous Catholic canton of Valais voted no to the 1977 initiative with 82%; opposition was over 90% in Appenzell Innerrhoden, over 75% in Uri, the Unterwalden cantons and Schwyz and over 70% in Lucerne and Fribourg. In 2002, the issue was obviously far less divisive, but it still got significant opposition in the original four cantons, Valais (46% for the yes), Appenzell Innerrhoden (less than 40% for the yes), the rural districts of Lucerne and some Catholic districts in Saint-Gallen and the Grisons. Granted, a linguistic element was at work in 2002, because the Catholic cantons of Jura and Ticino voted in favour with far higher majorities for the yes than German Catholic cantons. But in this referendum, religious differences are harder to catch: on the whole, German Catholic areas were more favourable than German Protestant areas, and it can be seen in the fairly low levels of support for the measure in the Protestant cantons of Glarus (35.8% yes) and Appenzell Ausserrhoden (39.8% yes). But German Protestant rural areas still showed above-average support. The Catholic canton of the Valais had a linguistic element at work in 2002 (German districts were very strongly opposed, French districts either marginally in favour or marginally opposed), but in 2014, it appears as if the only divide in the canton (which rejected the measure with 29% – below average (!) support) was linguistic, with 20-26% support in the Bas-Valais and 43-48% support in the German Oberwallis. In the canton of Grisons, little difference is perceptible between Catholic and Protestant districts (unlike in 2002).

Federal decree on railway financing and development

Switzerland has a large, well developed and heavily used railway system operated by private companies and a state-owned company (the Swiss Federal Railways, SBB-CFF-FFS) which operates the huge majority of lines. However, on many lines, trains are crowded and companies are unable to offer additional trains at rush hours. The Federal Council and Parliament decided to invest in railway infrastructure by combining several federal and cantonal funds into a single permanent infrastructure fund; priority shall be given to investments in maintaining and upgrading existing infrastructure where the demands are most pressing. 80% of the funds in the new fund will come from the existing federal spending for railway infrastructure; about 1 million CHF per year will come from new sources (cantonal funds, VAT, limiting federal tax deductions for commuting). The new law also plans for the long-term development of railway infrastructure, with infrastructure upgrades on major lines and plans to allow for more trains and more space on trains. Because the federal decree modifies the Constitution, it must be ratified by the people and cantons.

The Federal Council, both houses of Parliament and all major parties except the SVP recommended the approval of the measure.

Do you accept the federal decree?

Yes 60.2%
No 39.8%

Switzerland 2014 - RRs

The federal decree was approved by a wide majority. Only the conservative canton of Schwyz, which has long been hostile to government intervention in the economy or a strong central/federal government, rejected the measure, by a tiny margin (49.5% yes). Opposition was fairly significant in the other original cantons of 1291 and Glarus, where the measure won less than 55% support. Overall, German Switzerland was more opposed than French or Italian Switzerland, with 59% support against 69% in French Switzerland and 71% in Italian Switzerland. There was the usual urban-rural divide in all three linguistic regions: German cities voted in favour with 69% on average but rural communities in German Switzerland only barely voted in favour on the whole (51% yes); similarly, in French Switzerland, support increased linearly with the size of the town, from 61% in rural areas to 74% in urban areas. While the main reason for opposition might likely be conservatism, it is worth pointing out that the cantons which were more strongly opposed are those which will not benefit much from the new measures by 2025 (according to a map published in the Federal Council’s document on the measure); the lines which will be improved are those linking major urban areas.

Costa Rica 2014

Presidential and legislative elections were held in Costa Rica on February 2, 2014. The President is elected to a four-year term, not immediately renewable. A presidential candidate must win 40% of the vote in the first round to win, if no candidates wins over 40%, the top candidates go to a second round (on April 6 in this election). The unicameral legislature, the Legislative Assembly (Asamblea Legislativa) is composed of 57 members elected by proportional representation in each of the seven provinces (the number of seats allocated to each province is based on the provincial populations). Elected concurrently to the President, members of the Legislative Assembly serve four-year terms and are ineligible for immediate reelection.

In legislative elections, party lists are closed and seats are distributed proportionally using a quotient and sub-quotient method (no threshold). It is explained in further detailed here.

Background: Costa Rica’s unique democracy and the two-party system

Costa Rica stands out from the rest of Central America. Whereas in most Central American countries, the second half of the twentieth century was marked by fledgling oligarchic democracies, popular challenges to oligarchic elites and – in every country except Honduras – long and bloody civil wars which ended only in the early 1990s, Costa Rica has been a unique democratic success story. It has been the only Latin American country which has consistently been rated as a functioning democracy since 1950, it is the only Latin American country which has been rated as ‘free’ by Freedom House every year since 1973, it had the second freest press in the Americas after Jamaica in 2013 (according to Reporters Without Borders) – even freer than Canada or the US and generally ranks as one of the most democratic countries in Latin America. As a result of democratic stability, Costa Rica also ranks far ahead of its Central American neighbors (except, in some cases, Panama) on socioeconomic rankings such as the Human Development Index (HDI), poverty and literacy.

Costa Rica has long been relatively remote from the rest of Central America, sparsely populated from the outset. It never developed a large black or Indian subservient class, a wealthy landed elite or a powerful oligarchy. Coffee cultivation began on modest, family farms – creating a fairly large agrarian middle sector and urban merchant class, without creating a landless peasantry. The United Fruit (UFCO) established banana plantations on the east coast and it became the country’s main export.

After independence and until the 1940s, liberals dominated the political system, ruling in tandem with the local elites in a traditional oligarchic system. However, politics were generally quite peaceful; the 1889 election saw the peaceful transfer of power from one liberal faction to another, constitutional principles were adhered to and only a single military dictatorship (1917-1919) disturbed the political order. Some presidents were progressive, in the sense that they supported the development of public education and adopted some welfare policies. It was an imperfect democracy, still largely dominated by a small, closed circle of political elites.

In 1940, Rafael Ángel Calderón Guardia was elected president with the backing of the incumbent moderate liberal president, León Cortés Castro. The outgoing President had likely seen Calderón as a pliable novice politician; however, Calderón turned out to be an astute politician, who broke with the dominant ideology of classical liberalism by supporting significant welfare policies, influenced by the Catholic Church’s social teachings and Christian democracy, whereas past liberals had supported laissez-faire capitalism and been rather anticlerical. Calderón, in a bizarre alliance with the Archbishop of San José and Manuel Mora Valverde, the pragmatic leader of the Communist Party, passed a number of progressive social reforms known as the Garantías Sociales (social guarantees). These included the creation of the University of Costa Rica, the Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social (a universal healthcare system for all residents paid for by employer and employee contributions) and the promulgation of a labour code (minimum wage, eight-hour workweek, vacations, right to strike, employee protections etc). Calderón’s policies were popular, but also aroused significant opposition from conservative politicians and the coffee/banana elites. During World War II, Calderón’s persecution of local Germans and Italians in the name of the fight against fascism were criticized.

In 1944, Calderón’s National Republican Party (PRN) allied with Manuel Mora’s communist Popular Vanguard (PVP), and the caldero-comunista alliance’s candidate was elected, defeating former President León Cortés, who had broken with his successor and led the conservative opposition. Political conflict increased, with an undeterred opposition clashing with the president and communist allies. Matters came to a head in 1948, when Calderón, backed by the Communists, ran for a second nonconsecutive term. Aligned against him were three opposition parties: the Democratic Party, the party of former President León Cortés (who died in 1946), the conservative and vehemently anticommunist Partido Unión Nacional led by Otilio Ulate Blanco and the centre-left Social Democratic Party, led by José Figueres Ferrer, an hitherto unknown figure who had denounced Calderón in a radio broadcast in 1942. The three parties united behind the conservative Otilio Ulate Blanco.

Calderón lost the election, but Calderón and the incumbent president refused to accept the new electoral commission’s certification and called on the outgoing legislature, dominated by the caldero-comunistas, to review the result. In March 1948, the legislature voted to nullify the election results on the grounds of alleged irregularities. José Figueres Ferrer assembled a diverse coalition of opponents in a Army of National Liberation; including his ragtag anti-dictatorial Caribbean Legion, conservatives, former fascist sympathizers, oligarchs and the United States. Figueres led an armed rising beginning on March 12, leading to a short civil war which ended on April 24 with the surrender of the government forces and the communists. Communist leader Manuel Mora Valverde had previously agreed to surrender in exchange for guarantees that Figueres would not seek retribution against the communists and would not repeal the garantías sociales. Within days, the communists, Calderón and the outgoing president surrendered and handed power to a transitional junta led by Figueres. He soon broke his promise to the communists and banned the PVP, dissolved the communist union and persecuted the communists. Mora and Calderón both went into exile. Around 2,000 people died in the short civil war.

A transitional junta (Junta Fundadora de la Segunda República), led by Figueres, assumed power. In May 1948, Figueres and the winner of the election, Ulate, agreed that Figueres’ junta would govern for 18 months before handing power over to Ulate. During this time, a Constituent Assembly would be elected to draft a new constitution – which remains in place to this day. Figueres’ junta did not dismantle Calderón’s progressive reforms and in fact built on them: women’s suffrage, creation of a public electricity and telecommunications company, levied a wealth tax on bank profits, nationalized the banks, eliminated racial segregation (the small Afro-Costa Rican minority had faced segregation and discriminatory policies in the past) and – most famously – abolished the military. The junta defeated, in December 1948, a first attempt by Calderón, allied with Nicaraguan dictator Antonio Somoza, to invade the country and overthrow the government. In April 1949, another rebellion, this time led by a conservative minister in the junta, was defeated.

Ulate became President in November 1949, and, while ideologically conservative, did not change Figueres’ reforms – but he did allow private banks to compete against the nationalized banks. In 1951, Figueres founded his own party, the National Liberation Party (Partido Liberación Nacional, PLN) and in 1953, Figueres was elected president, easily defeating Fernando Castro Cervantes, one of his erstwhile conservative colleagues in 1948. Calderonismo and the communists remained illegal; in 1955, Calderón, against with Somoza’s support, unsuccessfully attempted to invade the country and overthrow the government. Figueres increased expenditures on education and housing, increased income taxes on the wealthy and negotiated a new contract with UFCO in which the Costa Rican share of profits increased from 10% to 30%.

The ruling PLN suffered a split ahead of the 1958 elections, with Figueres’ finance minister, Jorge Rossi Chavarría creating his own party after losing the primary to Francisco José Orlich Bolmarcich. In the election, the split of the liberacionista family allowed the conservative candidate, Mario Echandi Jiménez, who had the support of the calderonistas, to win the presidency on a plurality (46%) of the vote. The new president, however, had trouble implementing his agenda of small government and reductions in public spending; in the legislature, Echandi’s party, the PUN, had only 10 seats against 20 for the PLN and 11 for Calderón’s PRN. The main achievement, therefore, of Echandi’s presidency, was national reconciliation: Calderón and his supporters reintegrated the system, and calderonismo effectively became the more conservative rival of liberacionismo (or figuerismo).

In 1962, PLN candidate Francisco José Orlich Bolmarcich was elected president, with 50% against 35% for Calderón and only 13.5% for former president Otilio Ulate Blanco, the oficialista (governing party) candidate. In a regional context marked by the Cuban Revolution, all three major parties – the PLN, PRN and PUN – traded accusations of being communist, the PLN’s social democratic (but anticommunist) ideology being dangerously communist for the right while the PLN played on Calderón’s former ties with the communists. Chico Orlich continued Figueres’ traditional policies: progressive social democratic domestic policies (he nationalized and redistributed unused land of the UFCO) and staunch anticommunist (pro-American) policies internationally.

Politics make strange bedfellows. In 1966, Calderón’s PRN joined forces with his former enemy Ulate’s PUN in a conservative coalition (Unificación Nacional, UN) to defeat the PLN’s candidate, Daniel Oduber. The UN’s candidate, José Joaquín Trejos Fernández, criticized the PLN’s statist and social democratic policies; advocating instead for economic liberalism. In a Cold War context, the PLN was likely hurt by the endorsement of leftist leader Enrique Obregón and communist leader Manuel Mora Valverde’s call to vote against Trejos. In a close race, the PUN candidate won with 50% against 49% for Oduber, but the PLN retained a majority in the legislature. Unlike Echandi, Trejos proved fairly successful in implementing his liberal agenda: he reduced government spending, created a sales tax and controversially granted a bauxite mining concession to ALCOA.

In 1970, former President José Figueres Ferrer, endorsed by his PLN, went up against former President Mario Echandi, nominated by the governing UN after a difficult and tortuous internal process marked by clashes between Ulate’s PUN and Calderón’s PRN. Given the domination of ex-presidents in the political system, a constitutional amendment in 1969 put a complete ban on reelection in all circumstances, but this amendment was not retroactive. Figueres was elected, with 54% against 41% for Echandi and the PLN expanded its majority in the legislature. Figueres did not intend for much controversy in his administration, but in 1972, he was accused of corruption for letting an American fraudster fleeing prosecution in the US reside in Costa Rica and refusing US demands for his extradition. Otherwise, Figueres maintained moderately social democratic policies at home (but, to the dismay of the PLN’s left, maintained the ALCOA concession) and softened the anticommunism somewhat – restrictions on leftist parties loosened, he established diplomatic relations with Moscow.

The 1974 election broke with the trend of anti-incumbency and the two-party system. The PLN remained relatively united behind its candidate, 1966 candidate Daniel Oduber, but a dissident (and left-leaning) faction led by PLN deputy (and Figueres’ rival in the 1970 PLN primaries) Rodrigo Carazo created the Partido Renovación Democrática (PRD) and ran for president himself. The right was increasingly torn apart; the UN ultimately nominated Fernando Trejos, the cousin of former president Trejos. But his own cousin, José Joaquín Trejos, endorsed Carazo while former president Echandi backed Jorge González Martén, an independent right-winger. Attempts to unite the anti-liberacionista opposition proved unsuccessful, and with that, the PLN won with a plurality of 43% against 30% for the UN, 11% for Martén and 9% for Carazo. Former communist leader Manuel Mora Valverde, who had been allowed to return home and form his own party, the Socialist Action Party, won 2% of the vote.

Oduber established diplomatic relations with other communist countries, legalized the communists, raised the banana export tax and threatened the UFCO with expropriation if they opposed the tax. The brewing conflict in Nicaragua began troubling Oduber’s administration, and would come to place major strains on the country during the full-scale civil war in Nicaragua. Politically, the PLN’s back-to-back victories in 1970 and 1974 impelled all the opposition parties, except the Marxist left, to form a common front against the PLN in 1978 – the Coalición Unidad (Unity Coalition). The coalition was made up of former presidents José Joaquín Trejos and Mario Echandi; Carazo’s PRD; Martén’s PNI; the calderonistas, now led by Calderón’s son Rafael Ángel Calderón Fournier (Calderón died in 1970) and a small Christian Democratic Party. Rodrigo Carazo, the PLN dissident, won the primaries with the support of the Christian democrats and Trejos, defeating a right-wing businessman backed by the calderonistas, Echandi and Martén. Calderón Fournier endorsed Carazo after his candidate was defeated in the primaries, but Martén – backed by Echandi – broke with the coalition. The PLN nominated Luis Alberto Monge, a unity candidate who had the support of the bulk of the PLN establishment of the time. Carazo won with 50.5% against 43.8% and the coalition won a plurality of seats in the legislature.

Carazo’s administration faced crisis at home and abroad. Costa Rica had become embroiled in border incidents with Nicaragua; up until 1979, San José provided support for any groups opposing Somoza’s authoritarian regime, an old enemy of Costa Rica. After Somoza was routed in 1979, Costa Rica generally sided with the US against the Sandinistas, and paid a heavy price for the conflict in Nicaragua with an influx of Nicaraguan refugees and Contra rebels ensconcing themselves in Costa Rica. Domestically, Costa Rica was hit hard by the global economic crisis of the late 1970s which caused coffee prices to fall. The government, unable to get the legislature to pass tax hikes, resorted to borrowing and the country ran up a foreign debt of $4 billion. The IMF and the government reached agreement on an assistance package, in exchange for austerity measures, liberalization of the economy (removing price controls, reducing public sector subsidies) and a devaluation of the currency. Carazo failed to comply with the IMF’s demands, leading the IMF to suspend its loan agreement and withdraw from the country.

By the time of the 1982 election, the governing coalition was highly unpopular. Calderón Fournier won the coalition’s low turnout primaries against a candidate backed by President Carazo. In the general election, however, he was no match for the PLN’s Luis Alberto Monge, who was elected in a landslide – 58.8% against 33.6% for Calderón Fournier, 3.8% for former president Echandi and 3.3% for the candidate of the communist Pueblo Unido party. In the Legislative Assembly, the PLN won 33 out of 57 seats.

Monge stabilized the country and Costa Rican democracy suffered perhaps its toughest test. He reopened negotiations with the IMF, in which San José accepted the IMF’s previous conditions plus one – the privatization of several deficit-ridden public enterprises. Compliance with the IMF’s stringent conditions placed great strains on the population and the PLN: the increase in utility prices led to protests, and the government was forced to concede a wage increase to public servants. A lot of his efforts paid off. Relations with Nicaragua worsened, as San José aligned itself with Washington, in exchange for American aid and investment in Costa Rica.

In 1983, the parties of the opposition – Calderón Fournier’s PRC, former president Trejos’ Popular Union (PUP), the Christian democrats and former president Carazo’s PRD – merged into one, creating the Social Christian Unity Party (Partido Unidad Social Cristiana, PUSC). In the 1986 elections, the PUSC backed Calderón Fournier for a second shot at the presidency. In the PLN, a new faction emerged, around Óscar Arias, which opposed the old factions and the old caudillos of the PLN – President Monge and former presidents Figueres and Oduber. Despite little establishment support in the PLN, Óscar Arias won the primaries against a figuerista candidate handily. His campaign, a plea for peace (under the campaign slogan paz para mi gente), was widely seen as a not-so-subtle criticism of President Monge’s militarist policy in the Nicaraguan conflict. Óscar Arias was elected president by a comfortable margin, 52.3% to 45.8% for the PUSC’s candidate.

A two-party system was consolidated, between a vaguely centre-left but largely moderate PLN and a social Christian PUSC, a more enthusiastic supporter of economic liberalism. In Costa Rican terms, the PUSC was closely associated with calderonismo, a term which gradually lost ideological content but is akin to European Christian democracy.

Óscar Arias initiated a peace process with his Central American neighbors, culminating in the Esquipulas accords. The Costa Rican-faciliated peace deal called on the war-torn nations to initiate a cease-fire, engage in dialogue with opposition movements, prevent the use of their territory for aggression against other state and cease aid to irregular forces. The 1987 agreement also called for free elections and democratization in all nations. In good part, it was not enough to fully end the civil wars raging, but it had a major effect in pushing forward the later peace deals which did end the civil conflicts. For his efforts in bringing peace to his regime, Óscar Arias received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987. Domestically, however, Óscar Arias was accused of being a strong supporter of neoliberal policies: for example, he tried to privatize the electricity company, weakened the state monopoly on telecommunication and allowed for the private generation of electricity.

Arismo declined after the end of Óscar Arias’ term in office, with the acrimonious 1989 PLN primary opposing Carlos Manuel Castillo, backed by former presidents José Figueres and Daniel Oduber, and Monge’s nephew, Rolando Araya Monge. Carlos Manuel Castillo emerged victorious. The PUSC’s primaries were similarly acrimonious. Two-time presidential candidate Calderón Fournier originally declined to run again and backed a liberal businessman, Manuel Ángel Rodríguez, in his stead. However, with low polling numbers for any non-Calderón candidate, Calderón Fournier threw his hat back into the race, with the backing of the PUSC’s predominantly calderonista caucus and leadership. Calderón Fournier defeated Manuel Ángel Rodríguez in the primary by a landslide. In the 1990 general election, Calderón Fournier (PUSC) narrowly defeated the PLN candidate, 46.2% to 41.9%. Calderón Fournier’s administration continued the liberal economic policies of the last two (PLN) governments – he reduced tariff barriers, joined the GATT (WTO).

The 1993 PLN primaries were a family affair: it opposed José Maria Figueres Olsen, the son of the former president; Rolando Araya Monge, the nephew of the former president; and Margarita Penón Góngora, the wife of former president Óscar Arias. José Maria Figueres emerged as the winner. In the 1994 election, he went up against Miguel Ángel Rodríguez (PUSC). After a dirty campaign, in which the PLN branded the PUSC’s candidate as a cold and distant neoliberal businessman while the PLN’s candidate was painted as an autocrat and militarist, Figueres Olsen won by a narrow margin – 49.6% to 47.7%.

Figueres Olsen continued the general shift towards liberal economic policies, ending the checking account monopoly held by state owned banks since 1948 and reformed the teachers’ pension fund, causing a long teachers strike. For the left of the PLN, Figueres Olsen and Óscar Arias’ presidencies are seen as betrayals of liberacionista values and right-wards shift in the party. The 1998 election and its outcome would increase resentment at the two-party system, increasingly stale and corrupt. In a context of an unpopular government, the PLN’s supporters nominated a relative outsider, José Miguel Corrales Bolaños, as its candidate (Corrales had already run in the PLN’s 1993 primaries, and had been noted for virulent personal attacks on Figueres Olsen) against Miguel Ángel Rodríguez, who came out strengthened from the 1994 election and had consolidated the liberal and calderonista wings of the PUSC. Miguel Ángel Rodríguez was narrowly victorious, with 46.9% against 44.4% for Corrales. Smaller parties on the left and right managed to win seven seats in the legislature, managing to reduce the combined PLN and PUSC caucuses in the legislature to 50 out of 57 seats (the two parties had 53 out of 57 seats in the 1994 legislature). Yet, by and large, the PLN and PUSC’s dominance of the system remained unchallenged.

The fall of the two-party system and the new party system

That would change with Miguel Ángel Rodríguez’s presidency, which effectively killed the two-party system (derided by critics as ‘PLUSC’). Rodríguez strongly supported neoliberal policies which ran into a wall of significant opposition from the population. He managed to reform the pension system to open it to private participation and granted a concession to a private firm to operate the main port on the Pacific, but his attempts to privatize the telecommunications company were blocked by unions and major protests. With the outgoing president so unpopular, the PUSC’s supporters turned to an outsider in the primaries – Abel Pacheco, a populist TV personality and one-term PUSC deputy, who won 76% of the vote against Rodolfo Méndez Mata, the candidate of former president Calderón Fournier. The PLN was in no better shape than the PUSC, however: the shift towards neoliberalism had been badly taken by a good section of the party, led by the arayistas – the leftist and more traditionally socialist wing led by Rolando Araya Monge, former president Luis Alberto Monge and the mayor of San José, Johnny Araya. Rolando Araya won the PLN primaries in 2001, defeating Corrales.

The 2002 election saw the emergence of a party which would go on to fully kill the PLN-PUSC hegemony. The Citizens’ Action Party (Partido Acción Ciudadana, PAC), a centre-left anti-establishment party founded by former members of the PLN and PUSC and independent civil society activists. The PAC nominated Ottón Solís, a former cabinet minister under Óscar Arias and later one-term PLN deputy between 1994 and 1998, as its presidential candidate. In the first round of voting, Ottón Solís placed a very strong third with 26.2% against 31.1% for Araya and 38.6% for Pacheco. For the first time in the post-1948 republic, no candidate obtained 40% to win on the first round and a second round was organized two months later. In the concurrent legislative elections, the PAC won 22% and 14 seats, establishing it as a strong third party against the much weakened PLN and PUSC – the latter with 19 seats (-8 seats) and the former with 17 seats (-6 seats). The PAC wasn’t the only party to profit from the PLN and PUSC’ loses: on the right, the Libertarian Movement (Movimiento Libertario, ML) won 9% of the vote and 6 seats in the legislative elections.

In the second round in April 2002, the populist Abel Pacheco, running a campaign heavy on personality and low on ideology, was elected in a landslide, taking 58% against 42% for Araya. The first even back-to-back defeat for the PLN threw the liberacionistas into a frenzy, while the PUSC’ victory would turn out to the equivalent of the Titanic’s stern towering out of the water before plunging under.

Pacheco’s own administration was not particularly remarkable in a positive or negative way (although he supported the US war in Iraq, despite Costa Rica lacking an army), but the PUSC was killed by major corruption scandals involving former presidents Calderón Fournier and Ángel Rodríguez. Roughly around the system, former PLN president José Maria Figueres Olsen was embroiled in a separate corruption scandal which further weakened the PLN. Former president Calderón Fournier was accused of corruption and influence peddling in a case related to the acquisition of medical equipment for the Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social through a Finnish loan. In 2008, he was sentenced to five years in prison, a sentence reduced to three years in jail in 2011 (the Costa Rican law apparently allows those sentenced to three years or less to escape formal imprisonment). Other members of the PUSC were also accused of having received bribes from a Finnish medical equipment firm; the Finnish loan had been speedily approved by PUSC legislators and the loan conditions effectively made sure that Finnish company would be the favourite for the bids. President Rodríguez was accused of receiving bribes in three separate cases: over $1 million from the Taiwanese government (perhaps to press Costa Rica to maintain its diplomatic recognition of Taiwan; Costa Rica eventually recognized the PR China in 2007), £1.2 million from a British reinsurance firm in exchange for a contract with the state insurance monopoly and $800,000 in bribes from Alcatel in exchange for a contract. Rodríguez was put on trial in Costa Rica in the Alcatel case, but in 2012 the lower court’s sentence was dismissed because of prosecutor misconduct. Alcatel paid $10 million in settlements to Costa Rica. Rodríguez had been named Secretary-General of the OAS in June 2004 but resigned in November 2004 to face these corruption charges. Former PLN president Figueres Olsen was also accused of receiving $900,000 from Alcatel for consultancy work after his presidency. No charges were laid.

The 2006 elections marked a realigning moment in Costa Rican politics. Firstly, the rules of the game had been altered, in 2003, by the Supreme Court’s decison to strike down the 1969 amendment and allow for presidential reelection after a two term hiatus. Former President Óscar Arias has lobbied extensively since he left office for an amendment to allow presidential reelection, but this was firmly opposed by Arias’ rivals within the PLN – the arayista faction. Luis Alberto Monge called the court’s decision a ‘judicial coup d’état’. This allowed Óscar Arias to make a long-expected comeback as the PLN’s presidential candidate in the 2006 election.

The PUSC nominated Ricardo Toledo, a close supporter of outgoing President Abel Pacheco, but the PUSC was deeply discredited by the scandals involving its two former presidents and Pacheco’s unpopular administration. Instead, the PLN’s main competition came from the PAC, and, to a much lesser extent, the Libertarian Movement (ML). The PAC nominated, for a second time, Ottón Solís while the ML nominated, for the second time, its leader Otto Guevara. One of the issues which polarized the election was the free trade agreement with the US – CAFTA. Arias and Guevara supported CAFTA, but PAC candidate Ottón Solís opposed CAFTA, arguing that it would increase poverty by displacing farmers and workers. Solís vowed to renegotiate CAFTA if he won. Otto Guevara, the candidate of the Libertarian Movement, had moderated the ML’s more radical libertarian positions and moved towards more liberal positions. For example, the ML accepted state participation in education, healthcare, infrastructure and other areas, Guevara accepted public financing for his campaign and the past calls for dismantling government subsidies were dropped. The ML shifted its focus to denunciations of corruption and political cronyism exemplified by the ‘PLUSC’ system; however, it still supported CAFTA and advocated for individual liberties.

The election was extremely close, with Arias winning by a margin barely over 1%. Arias won 42.3% of the vote against 41.1% for Solís. Otto Guevara placed third with 8.8%, matching the ML’s legislative vote from 2002. The PUSC suffered an historic collapse: Toledo placed fourth, with only 3.7% of the vote. In the legislative election, the PLN took 25 seats to the PAC’s 17; the ML held its 6 seats while the PUSC collapsed from 19 to 5 seats in the legislature.

The two-party system was dead. One element of it, the PLN, remained standing but it was not immune from severe criticism of its own corruption and complacency. The other element of it, the PUSC, was killed off. The root of the two-party system’s collapse was one of the elements behind Costa Rica’s unique democratic stability: there was little antagonism between the PLN and PUSC, who agreed to peacefully alternate in power and to share the spoils of power. Senior civil service positions were split between the two and the two parties often worked together on major issues. This had the effect of breeding significant corruption and cronyism, blurred ideological distinctions between liberacionismo and calderonismo and an ideological convergence around economic liberalism. The decay of the two-party system allowed for new political actors to emerge, many of them stemming (indirectly and partially) from the PLN and PUSC. On the left, the PAC denounced corruption and, with its economic policies, challenged the neoliberal policies adopted by PLN and PUSC governments. On the right, the ML denounced corruption (and Guevara popularized the ‘PLUSC’ barb against the party system) and was a clearer advocate for liberal policies than the PUSC (which remained too closely wedded to the ideological vagueness of calderonismo for many liberal intellectuals).

The CAFTA issue remained a contentious issue during Arias’ second term. Eventually, it was taken to a referendum in October 2007. The PAC, PUSC, small parties on the left, trade unions, social movements, the arayista wing of the PLN (Rolando Araya) and former presidents Carazo, Luis Alberto Monge and Calderón Fournier all supported a NO vote. President Arias’ administration, the PLN, the ML and the PUSC’s legislative caucus supported a YES vote. In a tight contest, the YES won, with 51.6% against 48.4% for the NO. Otherwise, Arias’ administration continued the liberal policies of the past. Costa Rica was able to escape the 2009 recession quickly, its economy grew by 5% in 2010, the highest of any Central American country except Panama.

Óscar Arias was one of the few presidents to be succeeded by the candidate of his choice. First Vice President Laura Chinchilla, endorsed by the President and arismo (Arias’ faction in the PLN), defeated the mayor of San José, Johnny Araya in a close primary battle. Araya, the nephew of former President Monge and the brother of Rolando Araya, was the arayista candidate – from the party’s left, more supportive of traditional socialism and in opposition to CAFTA (although Araya’s brother and uncle have tended to be the most vocal on those matters). Araya lost to Chinchilla, 41.6% to 55.5%. While Araya endorsed Chinchilla, Rolando Araya and the former president both endorsed PAC candidate Ottón Solís. The 2010 election held little suspense. Chinchilla won handily, with 46.9% against 25.1% for Solís and 20.9% for Guevara. Luis Fishman Zonzinski, the PUSC’s candidate after former president Calderón Fournier was forced by his trials to drop out, won only 3.9%.

In the legislative elections, the PLN won 24 seats against 11 for the PAC (a net loss for both), while the ML gained 3 (holding 9 total) and the PUSC gained one (holding 6 total). With the backing of the small Accessibility with Exclusion Party (Partido Accesibilidad sin Exclusión, PASE, a conservative party for disabled persons’ rights), National Restoration (Restauración Nacional, a small Evangelical party on the right) and Costa Rican Renovation (Renovación Costarricense, another conservative Evangelical party), the PLN has a majority in the legislature. Originally, the PAC, ML, PUSC and PASE formed an opposition bloc which held a majority in the legislature, but PASE defected to the government in a move which smacked of a corrupt bargain.

Chinchilla’s presidency has been unremarkable, but also very unpopular. A wide poll of approval ratings for Latin American leaders done by a Mexican polling firm found that Chinchilla was the most unpopular of all her Latin American colleagues, with only 12% approval. Other Costa Rican pollsters have confirmed her government’s unpopularity. On the surface, there is little which appears as cause for such deep unpopularity: the economy grew by 4-5% between 2010 and 2012, although it slowed to growth of ‘only’ 3.5% in 2013 and is projected to grow by 3.8% in 2014. A favourable investment climate for foreign investment, tourism and strong exports have helped the economy along. The country has been spared the huge increase in violence (often drug-related) which has afflicted Honduras and El Salvador (but also, at a less extreme rate, Mexico, Guatemala and Belize); there was, however, a net increase in the homicide rate from 8/100,000 in 2006 to 11.3 in 2010. But it fell to 10 in 2011 and Chinchilla’s government has generally been recognized as being successful at curbing crime and violence.

In 2010, Chinchilla faced a border dispute with Nicaragua over a small island in a lagoon region. Nicaragua justified its claim using Google Maps, but it was more serious than that: Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega sent troops to occupy the contested island and was seen as drumming up nationalist sentiment over the remote island to shore up his reelection. Chinchilla’s handling of the affair was criticized as naive by her predecessor, Arias. The crisis calmed down and was temporarily resolved in 2011-2013.

Although the Costa Rican economy has been performing well, there is mounting concern about a growing debt and deficit. In September 2013, Moody’s put the country on negative outlook because of widening budget deficits, a rising debt burden and failure to pass fiscal legislation. The country’s deficit has increased to about 4-5% of GDP, because of rapid increase in government spending since 2008 while government revenue has not kept up, and the country’s debt-to-GDP ratio has grown from 24.8% in 2008 to 36.7% in 2013. In 2012, the Supreme Court found the government’s tax plan – which included scrapping the sales tax for a higher VAT and a 15% withholding tax on new companies in the free trade zones – was unconstitutional, forcing Chinchilla to settle for a far less ambitious plan.

This has led some politicians and economists to talk of a ‘fiscal crisis’, and regardless of whether there’s a crisis or not, the government’s economic policies have failed to please its critics to either the left or right. The right claims that the crisis is due to excessive government spending and mismanagement and that increasing taxes would not resolve the matter. The left downplays the importance of the ‘fiscal crisis’, instead emphasizing the country’s rising social inequality and proposing a progressive tax reform. According to the left-wing Frente Amplio‘s 2014 manifesto, Costa Rica’s Gini index has increased from 0.358 in 1988 to to 0.518 in 2012 and, citing the World Bank, claims that Costa Rica is one of only three Latin American countries which has failed to reduce inequality or poverty in 10 years.

The government has also faced scandals. The Minister of Finance resigned in 2012 after the newspaper La Nación reported that he had not paid property taxes, the Minister of Transportation resigned over corruption in a road project and the President faced questions about her use of a private jet to fly to Peru. During her first two years in office, 13 cabinet ministers resigned for various reasons, undermining confidence in Chinchilla’s administration.


The PLN’s nomination was ultimately uncontested.  The contest began in 2012, and originally the field included five candidates: the mayor of San José Johnny Araya; Óscar Arias’ brother and former Minister of the Presidency Rodrigo Arias; former President José Maria Figueres Olsen; Antonio Álvarez Desanti and Fernando Berrocal Soto. Johnny Araya, who has been mayor of the capital since 1998, was the runaway favourite and his overwhelming advantage in the polls – including over his main rival, Rodrigo Arias – forced all his competitors out of the race by January 2013.

Although Araya hails from the PLN’s left – considered the main left-wing opposition to the PLN’s right, incarnated by arismo – his campaign did not stray much from what has been PLN policy in the past years/decades: rather bland centrism, although with some negative references to neoliberalism and language which could be interpreted as critical of Chinchilla and Arias’ administrations. Araya’s manifesto focuses on bread-and-butter issues such as job creation (especially for certain sectors), infrastructure projects, social security and education but also addresses government reforms, especially for local government. Araya talked of replacing the 13% sales tax with a higher VAT, likely set at 14-15%.

Given the unpopularity of Chinchilla’s government and the PLN brand, Araya did his best to distance himself from the unpopular government. At the outset, he even briefly toyed around with the idea of dropping the PLN’s traditional green from his campaign propaganda in favour of blue and red (colours of the flag but also the PUSC). In his campaign ads, Araya ran solely on his record as mayor of San José while not making any mention of Chinchilla or Óscar Arias. In December 2013, former President José María Figueres Olsen joined Araya’s campaign team – but former President Arias and his brother, Rodrigo,

The main party of the opposition, the PAC, had a contested primary in July 2013. Ottón Solís, the PAC’s most famous figure and three-time presidential candidate, announced that he would not run. Luis Guillermo Solís, a former secretary-general of the PLN who joined the PAC in 2008, narrowly won the primary with 35.5% against 35% for his closest rival.

The PAC’s plan highlighted three priorities: fighting corruption, promoting economic growth through a more equitable distribution of the wealth and reducing inequalities (eliminating extreme poverty). Luis Guillermo Solís considers himself a social democrat, and his manifesto reflects that orientation with its relatively moderate centre-leftist language.

To fight corruption, the PAC’s platform proposed to guarantee access to information, strengthening state institutions to make them effective and efficient in the fight against corruption and improving transparency in the hiring process for public servants. Solís’ manifesto talked of promoting economic growth through a development bank providing differentiated loans to small businesses and certain sectors (women, youth), reducing interest rates, reducing electricity rates, defending the ‘interests of national production’ with ‘effective control of free trade treaties’, promoting small businesses and cooperatives, promoting public investment in infrastructure projects generating jobs and greater competitiveness and helping the youth through training, grants and internships. Although Solís opposed CAFTA, he does not see a renegotiation of the treaty as being possible today. His proposals on reducing poverty were vaguer, but included planks such as new schools in poor areas, enforcing the minimum wage law and ensuring beneficiaries of conditional subsidies fulfill the requirements.

Solís’ more detailed platform also listed ‘ten commitments’: developing and improving transportation infrastructure, strengthening healthcare and pensions, safeguarding national agricultural production (food safety and sovereignty), guaranteeing quality academic and technical education (spending 8% of the GDP on education), ‘environmental management compatible with human development’ (stricter land use laws, environmental oversight, protecting water, cost-effective and clean public transit, exploring clean energy), promoting effective public security, promoting culture and sports, defending and respecting human rights, responsible administration of public funds (more progressive taxation, a VAT) and finally measures for women’s rights.

The Libertarian Movement (ML) nominated Otto Guevara, the party’s leader and main figure. With the party’s moderation in recent years, moving away from more radical libertarian planks, it may more accurately be described as a right-wing liberal party – it is a member of the Liberal International, whatever that means. Guevara’s manifesto talked of eliminating unnecessary regulations hindering job creation, facilitating access to financing and capital for job creators, free trade, breaking state monopolies (in certain sectors, notably allowing private electricity generation), defending property rights (‘one of the most fundamental human rights’), attracting foreign investment (using the current zonas francas) and improving infrastructure.

Economically, the ML has familiar rhetoric: controlling inflation, no new taxes (the ML’s manifesto say they ‘impoverish persons and are a confiscation of money from those who produce it’, it wants to keep taxes as low as possible) and reducing public spending (stop the growth of the public sector, eliminate privileges, ban strikes in essential services, reducing duplication, ‘tertiarize’ non-essential services). It supports replacing the current PAYGO pension system with a capitalization system. In a debate, Guevara confirmed supports a flat, 15%, corporate tax (currently progressive between 10% and 30% based on the companies’ revenues). Left-wing candidate José María Villalta correctly pointed out that his tax plan would increase taxes on small businesses.

On the whole, the ML’s philosophy of the state is that of the estado subsidiario (subsidiary state), providing the essential services and guidance and helping those who can’t help themselves (with the objective of promoting self-help). On the issue of poverty, the ML is critical of asistencialismo (which it says breeds clientelism and dependency) and proposes instead to review existing social programs to eliminate waste, and coordinating them with the private sector and NGOs/charities. The ML also emphasizes tough stances against corruption and more transparency.

In a bid to attract former PUSC supporters, the ML candidate took very socially conservative on major moral/ethical issues (moreso than the other candidates): declaring himself resolutely pro-life, opposing same-sex marriage or civil unions and against the legalization of marijuana. Guevara also stated that his party has adopted Christian principles and the social doctrine of the Church, in addition to liberalism.

The PUSC held a primary in May 2013, in which the calderonista candidate, Rodolfo Hernández emerged victorious over the liberal/social Christian candidate Rodolfo Piza, 77 to 23, but Hernández dropped out of the race in October 2013 and Piza replaced him. Hernández, in a letter to supporters explaining his withdrawal, blamed betrayals and intrigues against him in the PUSC and lamented the state of politics. If early polls placed Hernández on a strong footing against Araya, Piza never polled over 6%. His platform showed a Christian democratic orientation: humanism, ethics and morality, social development and democracy.

Of particular interest in the campaign has been the success of José María Villalta, the candidate (and sole legislator) for the main leftist party, the Frente Amplio. Since the 1948 civil war, the left – understood as the ideologically Marxist or socialist left – has always been weak, hardly polling over 3-5% of the vote (although historically the top distant rival to the PLN and the right). The left has been hurt by its illegality (until the 1970s), weak organization, infighting, numerous splits, the polarization of politics until 2002-2006, the PLN’s ideological flexibility and – after 2002 – the rise of the PAC as a viable centre-left alternative. The Frente Amplio was founded in 2004, notably by members of the former Fuerza Democrática, the main left-wing party in the 1990s. The party defines itself as socialist, progressive, patriotic, feminist, democratic, ethical and Latin American; it has cheered on the election of leftist leaders in Latin America – from the ‘radicals’ of the Chávez/Morales/Correa variety to moderates such as Lula/Tabaré Vázquez; and it is a member of the Foro de São Paolo.

Villalta’s manifesto was very critical of neoliberalism – which his party claims is responsible for the increase in inequality and the weakening of the welfare state. The platform focused on reducing inequalities and poverty, ‘saving’ and strengthening social security (the CCSS), public education, infrastructure, popular participation in governance, fighting corruption, a dignified livelihood, protecting the environment and food security and sovereignty (among others). In detail, he promised to improve workers’ rights, promote local small-medium businesses, limit increases in the cost of living, a progressive taxation system to expand the tax base and raise taxes on the wealthiest and opposing privatization. He received press abroad for his promise to renegotiate CAFTA and his opposition to any new free trade deals, a position shared with other candidates including Solís (PAC) but not Araya (PLN) or Guevara (ML). Villalta’s tax plan would increase the corporate tax rate on the biggest businesses to 35-40% (they currently stand at 30% for companies earning more than $183,000), supports a VAT (but progressive and limited at the current sales tax rate of 13%). He also proposed reducing tax deductions for companies and raise the salaries of low-level public sector employees.

Villalta has called concerns about the ‘fiscal crisis’ to be alarmist, arguing that it has been blown out of proportion by neoliberal economists.

The PLN was at the forefront of a negative campaign against Villalta (worried by his strong polling numbers), accusing him of sympathy with Hugo Chávez and Daniel Ortega and of being a communist seeking to implement authoritarian policies. The PLN candidate, Araya, presented himself as the safe centrist option against the dangerous ‘extremes’ of Villalta (on the ‘far-left’) and Guevara (on the ‘far-right). But attacks on Villalta were not confined to the PLN: Guevara proved equally as virulent in debates against him, and private businesses (including Avon and Subway) circulated materials calling on its employees not to vote for Villalta. Ottón Solís, the PAC’s former presidential candidate and PAC candidate for the legislature, came to Villalta’s defense and said that it was wrong to attack him and brand him as a chavista. Villalta decried the ‘dirty campaigns’ as means for the PLN to distract attention from the economic crisis, but Villalta was carefgul to erase references to his more radical past. While he openly declared himself a communist in the past and praised Chávez, in the campaign he stated that his links to Chávez were limited to shared membership with the PSUV in the Foro de São Paolo and he declared himself as the heir to Manuel Mora’s moderate and pragmatic local brand of communism (comunismo a la tica).

In the 1970s, alongside Johnny Araya, Villalta was a member of the far-left revolutionary Movimiento Revolucionario del Pueblo (whose leader was none other than Johnny and Rolando Araya’s brother).

The other candidates were disabled rights advocate Óscar Andrés López Arias for the PASE (he already ran in 2010), José Manuel Echandi Meza, the nephew of former President Mario Echandi (1958-1962), for his Partido Avance Nacional; perennial conservative candidate Walter Muñoz Céspedes for the Partido Integración Nacional; Sergio Mena Díaz for the socially liberal Partido Nueva Generación; 1998 PLN presidential candidate José Miguel Corrales Bolaños for the Partido Patria Nueva; Evangelical pastor and deputy Justo Orozco Álvarez for Renovación Costarricense; Evangelical pastor and deputy Carlos Luis Avendaño Calvo for the Partido Restauración Nacional; and Héctor Monestel Herrera for the Trotskyist Workers’ Party.


Turnout was 68.25%, down slightly from 69.12% in the 2010 election. The preliminary results reported on election night, with 89% of precincts counted, were:


Luis Guillermo Solís (PAC) 30.95%
Johnny Araya (PLN) 29.59%
José María Villalta (FA) 17.14%
Otto Guevara (ML) 11.19%
Rodolfo Piza (PUSC) 5.97%
José Miguel Corrales (PPN) 1.5%
Carlos Avendaño (PREN) 1.35%
Justo Orozco (PRC) 0.8%
Óscar López (PASE) 0.53%
Sergio Mena (PNG) 0.29%
Héctor Monestel (PT) 0.25%
José Manuel Echandi (PAN) 0.22%
Walter Muñoz (PIN) 0.22%

Legislative Assembly

PLN 25.52% (-11.64%) winning 18 seats (-6)
PAC 23.82% (+6.14%) winning 14 seats (+3)
FA 13.08% (+9.42%) winning 9 seats (+8)
PUSC 10.01% (+1.96%) winning 8 seats (+2)
ML 7.92% (-6.56%) winning 3 seats (-6)
PREN 4.11% (+2.49%) winning 1 seat (nc)
PRC 3.97% (+0.18%) winning 2 seats (+1)
PASE 3.95% (-5.22%) winning 1 seat (-3)
PPN 2.07% (+2.07%) winning 0 seats (nc)
PNG 1.25% (+1.25%) winning 0 seats (nc)
ADC 1.15% (+1.15%) winning 1 seat (+1)
Others 3.15% (-1.24%) winning 0 seats (nc)

The Costa Rican election went somewhat unnoticed on February 2, when most media attention abroad focused on the Salvadoran election, because of El Salvador’s more confrontational ideological politics and its tumultuous political history in contrast to Costa Rica’s consensual politics in a stable democratic country. However, it was by far the most interesting of the two Central American battles on that day.

The election took place in a context of record levels of political apathy and discontent. Identification with political parties has declined to record lows, especially with younger voters; there is major dissatisfaction with the political leadership’s performance and behaviour (poor records on issues such as jobs, growth, infrastructure and inequality; corruption); and an increasingly large number of voters have become politically apathetic. Turnout was 81% in the 1994 election, and fell to a record low of 65.2% in 2006. At the outset of the campaign, few voters appeared captivated by the election and there was concern about turnout. However, the campaign proved quite heated and the closely disputed race drew voters to the polls. Turnout was down less than one point from 2010.

One of the main aspects of the collapse of the two-party system in Costa Rica is increasingly electoral volatility and an ever more fickle electorate. Party loyalty is of some, but ultimately little, value. In the last poll of the campaign, in the field from January 20 to 27, 43.9% of voters were undecided or did not intend to vote. When the campaign began late last summer, about 55% of voters were undecided. PLN candidate Johnny Araya, by pure value of name recognition, held a wide lead over his lesser-known rivals in the early polling in August-October 2013 but he still was polling only in the low 20s. In November 2013, left-wing candidate José María Villalta surged into contention as a close second (even first, in two polls) behind Araya – with right-wing candidate Otto Guevara not very far behind. Villalta’s surge was built on an anti-establishment (and anti-neoliberal) message which attacked the traditional political leadership of the country for its numerous failures. Villalta built a strong base on social media and with young voters, and became a refuge for voters fed up with the political system. But voters remained fickle. Anti-PLN voters whose top goal was to dislodge the PLN oscillated between Villalta the leftist and Guevara the ‘libertarian’; anti-communist voters whose aim was to keep Villalta ‘the communist’ from winning power, hesitated between Araya and Guevara.

However, the negative campaigns by the PLN and ML against Villalta had a clear effect on voting intentions. In a socially conservative, politically moderate country, talk of Villalta’s radicalism and fears of his ties to unpopular leftist regimes in Nicaragua and Venezuela uneased many. In this highly volatile situation, another candidate, hitherto lagging behind in the polls, gained the ‘big mo’ and surged into contention: Luis Guillermo Solís, the PAC candidate. Despite representing the country’s second largest party, Solís struggled throughout most of the campaign, suffering from low name recognition. However, Solís made a name for himself in the many debates and on social media. In the last poll (Jan 20-27), Solís placed third with 11.6% (up from 9.5% earlier in January and 4% at the start of the race) – Araya and Villalta remained first, with 17.4% and 14.4% respectively, but were on a downwards trend. Guevara, who was polling a strong third and considered a possible contender for a runoff spot until the very end, collapsed to fourth and 7.3% in the last poll. However, the huge number of undecideds made the outcome unpredictable.

The outcome was indeed rather surprising. Solís actually placed first with nearly 31% of the vote: a remarkable feat for a candidate who had been polling single digits until the final weeks and who was not considered as one of the top three candidates, and a feat which really underlines the country’s electoral volatility. Araya, the only candidate who did not move much during the campaign – because he has a solid, but small, base of about 25-30% of voters who remain loyal liberacionistas – placed second, with 29.6%, a significant blow. Villalta, the left’s favourite, saw his fickle support evaporate (somewhat) on election day and won only 17.1%. It is still a solid result for the FA, which had until then been a very minor force in Costa Rican politics, but comes out of the 2014 election with a much-expanded legislative presence and a promising future. Yet, the anti-Villalta campaign by conservative/centrist politicians and businessmen had its impact; Villalta kept a large base considering the FA’s lack of existing grassroots, but other voters likely strategically voted for Solís, a ‘safer’ (and more moderate) progressive candidate and late anti-PLN standard bearer. In fourth place, Otto Guevara and the ML had a surprisingly bad result: Guevara won only 11.2% (down from about 21% in 2010), while the ML’s legislative caucus shrank from 9 to 3 seats – falling behind the PUSC. The PUSC itself had a better run, recovering two seats in the legislature, but the PUSC isn’t any closer to regaining its spot as the PLN’s main rival.

This election is fairly historic on a number of points. For only the second time in the country’s history, a second round is required (on April 6) because no candidate won over 40% of the vote. The last time a runoff was necessary was in 2002, a watershed election which marked the first blow to bipartidismo in Costa Rica: in that election, Araya’s brother, Rolando, placed second behind the PUSC candidate but failed to get much of the PAC’s support and was trounced in the runoff by the PUSC’s Abel Pacheco. It is the first time that the first-placed candidate is not from a traditional party: that is to say, from neither the liberacionista tradition (PLN) or the calderonista tradition (PUSC). Finally, with the FA’s support, it is the left’s best result in the country’s history.

The PLN had a tough election. To begin with, it is attempting to do what no party has ever done in post-1948 Costa Rica: win a third consecutive term in office. More importantly, the PLN’s image has been hurt by President Chinchilla’s unpopular and overall unsuccessful administration – even if Araya did all he could to distance himself from her, admit that the PLN had lost its social democratic essence and promised change and a more ‘social’ orientation. Araya, who comes from a faction of the PLN which has been the arch-rival to Óscar Arias (and Chinchilla, although she is faction-less today), criticized his own party’s past record. But, in good part, his promises of change and a more responsive PLN administration failed to convince voters. He admitted as much himself on election night, when he recognized that Chinchilla’s record had hurt the PLN and said that ‘undoubtedly’, the PLN had not given ‘sufficiently clear signals’ that it wanted to make up for past failings and sought ‘responsible change’.

Araya will face a difficult runoff. Polls show that only 30% of voters want a third term for the PLN, and Araya’s result seems to mean that he likely won those three in ten but little more. Like his brother in 2002, Araya could lose the runoff by a wide margin. Solís is in a position to reap the support of voters who voted for Villalta, Guevara, Piza and other candidates in the first round. While some of those candidates’ more ideological voters might choose not to vote, many will likely opt for the candidate of ‘change’ over that of liberacionista continuity. In terms of formal alliances between the PAC and its rivals, we should probably not expect anything formal. José María Villalta, on election night, said that the runoff opposed two right-wing parties – but, significantly, he distinguished them (without explicitly saying which was which) as the ‘right who steals’ and the ‘right which doesn’t steal’. Some interpreted that as meaning that he was willing to entertain at least an informal deal with the PAC, but others took his statement as a sign of potential difficulties in any PAC-FA deal. As far as Solís is concerned, he has said that his only alliance is with Costa Rica. Neither Villalta or Guevara have signaled any clear willingness to enter into a formal alliance with the PAC (or the PLN obviously).

In an interview with the Spanish daily El País, Solís clearly laid out the reality of the situation: “now there is no other alternative than the PAC or Araya” and “it is continuity […] versus change. It is the continuation of the current economic model versus the reactivation of the internal market. It is ethics against a party which promotes corruption.” We can expect that Solís will be hammering this simple and clear message all the way to April 6: it is change, or continuity with the unpopular PLN. Araya’s message will likely consist of continue promises for change and a better PLN, combined with a focus on him being a ‘safe choice’. On election night, the PLN candidate said that the country was not ready for experiments, improvisation or proposals without teams to go along with them. He also called on the PLN’s supporters to unite behind him, alongside those who wanted to defend the institutions (la institucionalidad), economic competitiveness and more solidarity.

Regardless of who wins, they will need to work with a very divided congress. The PLN remains the largest party in the new legislature, but it holds only 18 seats, or 31.6% of all seats. It lost 6 seats from the outgoing congress, and this year’s total is only one seat above the PLN’s historic low from 2002 (17 seats). The PAC won 14 seats, a good result but not the party’s best result (it won 17 seats in 2006). The main winner was the FA, which came out significantly strengthened: from one seat in the last congress, the left-wing party will now hold 9 seats – again, the left’s strongest presence in its history. The ML was decimated, losing 6 of its 9 seats – ending up with three seats, one of which is held by the ML’s leader Otto Guevara. The PUSC, as noted above, recovered somewhat and will now hold 8 seats. Minor parties will now hold five seats: three to the two Evangelical parties, with the PRC doubling its representation. The PASE, the venal socially conservative (anti-gay) disabled rights party, lost all but one of its seats. The Christian Democratic Alliance, a small local party from Cartago, won one seat.

Results of the first round of the Costa Rican presidential election by district (own map)

Results of the first round of the Costa Rican presidential election by district (own map)

The map of the presidential results by district (the third-level administrative division) show a clear division between urban and rural – taken at the provincial level, a coastal and inland divide. Solís won the provinces of San José, Cartago, Heredia and Alajuela while Araya won the coastal provinces of Guanacaste, Puntarenas (on the Pacific coast) and Limón (on the Caribbean coast). In Puntarenas, the PAC placed fourth (14.1%) – the PLN (34.4%) was followed by the FA (23.1%) and ML (14.7%); likewise, in Limón, the PAC was fourth (14.9%) behind the PLN (29%), FA (22.2%) and ML (18%). Guanacaste was the PLN’s best province, giving 41% to the white and green party against 19% for the FA and 14.8% for the PAC. The PLN placed second in all inland provinces won by the PAC; its worst showing was 25.7% in Heredia, where Solís won 38.9%. A more accurate depiction of the results is painted at the more micro level of the cantons and districts.

In the inland provinces, Solís won on account of his very strong numbers in the urban areas. Taken as a whole, the PAC dominated the Valle Central (Central Valley), Costa Rica’s main urban conglomeration, which includes the capital of San José and the cities of Alajuela, Cartago and Heredia. Araya, despite having been mayor of San José between 1998 and 2013, lost the canton of San José – 29.5% to 35.2%. He did even worse in cantons surrounding San José, indicating he might have received a small boost in the capital. The Valle Central is Costa Rica’s most urban, developed and affluent region. Poverty is lower and HDI values are higher in cantons in the central valley. In the canton of Santo Domingo (Heredia), which has the highest HDI in the country, Solís won 43.4%; in the canton of Montes de Oca (San José), which has the third highest HDI in the country, Solís won 46%. On the other hand, the coastal regions of the country – more rural and agricultural – are poorer. The PLN and the PUSC have been stronger in those coastal provinces, likely because patronage networks are easier to maintain there. In those provinces, I would gather that the ML’s strong showing can be explained by it winning former PUSC voters. However, José María Villalta likely won strong support with poorer rural voters as well.

Unfortunately obscured by the Salvadoran election, Costa Rica’s election proved considerably more interesting (subjectively). Although its impact on regional politics may be lesser, the 2014 Costa Rican election will likely prove rather historic – just like 2002 and 2006.

El Salvador 2014

Presidential elections were held in El Salvador on February 2, 2014. The President of El Salvador is elected to a five-year term by the two-round system, with no possibility for consecutive reelection. El Salvador is a presidential republic in which the President is head of state and government, but the unicameral National Assembly – which, unlike in most Central American countries, is not elected at the same time as the President (it serves a three year term) – holds, in theory, considerable powers over executive appointments, lawmaking and levying taxes.

El Salvador, despite a recent past marked by tragedy, is one of the strongest democracies in Central America. It has a ‘free’ rating from Freedom House, with a free press, religious freedom, freedom of assembly and association and a generally independent judiciary. However, corruption remains a major issue in Salvadoran politics and most corrupt politicians rarely face justice. With one of the world’s highest homicide rates, El Salvador has issues with police brutality and corruption, and the violence has hurt civil society, private businesses and regular citizens.

Historical background

El Salvador’s tumultuous history has followed a path common to other countries in the region. Until the 1870s, El Salvador was highly unstable, with conflicts between Liberals and Conservative caudillos, who, in El Salvador, tended to be the local allies of more powerful overarching Liberal or Conservative strongmen in Guatemala, Nicaragua or Honduras who exercised political influence over the entire region. In the 1870s, the Salvadoran Liberals more or less won, and ushered in the República Cafetalera (coffee or coffee-growers republic). This was the heyday of oligarchic politics: politics were in the hands of the upper classes, economic – and real political power – was in the hands of a small landowning, oligarchic elite of coffee-growers. About 100 families controlled the economy and politics, although for shock purposes, this small upper class circle is often known as the ‘fourteen families’ – allegedly because one family controlled each of the country’s fourteen departments. The government promoted coffee as the monopolistic cash-crop, raised tremendous revenue through import duties on goods bought by coffee sales, developed infrastructure in support of the coffee trade, eliminated communal or individual landholding to facilitate coffee production and ensured that a large mass of impoverished and amorphous peasants provided a reservoir of labour for the plantations. The National Guard, created in 1912, served as the oligarchs’ private armies, maintaining order in the countryside. The oligarchs controlled the government indirectly or directly. Between 1913 and 1927, the presidency was held by the Meléndez-Quiñones dynasty, a powerful oligarchic family.

Two mildly reformist presidents who allowed for more political participation ruled between 1927 and 1931, but any reformism was complicated by the Great Depression and the huge drop in coffee prices it entailed. Rural poverty, nothing new, rose to previously unknown heights. The crisis led to a radicalization in the countryside, where many indigenous natives/peasants listened to radicals. One of them was Agustín Farabundo Martí, a Marxist intellectual closely associated to the Communist Party (PCS). The president, a member of the elite with reformist intentions, was unsure of how to respond – at first he used the club, but then turned softer, allowing the PCS to participate in local elections. In doing so, he aroused the oligarchs and the military, and he was overthrown in a coup in December 1931. The military, under General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, assumed power and would rule the country for five decades.

The PCS launched an armed insurgency quickly thereafter. However, the government had forewarning, and Farabundo Martí was arrested within days. The uprising, the first in nearly 100 years, nevertheless went ahead before the government – in only 72 hours – regained control over the country and unleashed a bloody wave of repression. Between 10,000 and 30,000 people were killed by the government, most of them indigenous. La matanza continues to play a large role in Salvadoran collective memory and political discourse; the contemporary right continues to claim that it was a justified response to a communist insurgency while the left, whose leading party is named after Farabundo Martí, compares the killings to a genocide. 

The military hardly altered the socioeconomic reality of the country: economic power remained firmly in the hands of the oligarchic elite, closely tied to the military. The governments oscillated between repression and ‘guided reform’. Martínez, who ruled until 1944, was a fervently anti-communist autocrat with fascist sympathies, but he nonetheless brought stability and sided with the Allies after Pearl Harbor. Martínez, an eccentric and unpredictable gadfly, had uneasy relations with the oligarchy. A motley bunch of civilian politicians, military officers, oligarchs and businessmen who disapproved of Martínez for various reasons force him out of power in 1944. His military successors promised and went ahead with manipulated elections, which confirmed an unremarkable old-style general in office. He was in turn thrown out of office by young reformist officers in the ‘revolution of 1948’.

The new junta promised and organized new elections in 1950, but instead of handing power to a civilian government, the leading officer in the junta resigned to run for president and the junta organized its own PRI-like party to install itself in power. Nevertheless, the policies were quite markedly different: more social democratic in orientation they emphasized public works, the establishment of social security, improvements in sanitation and housing, collective bargaining and allowed for free union organization. Yet no policies threatened the elite-dominated system (no agrarian reform was even attempted) and radicals were eliminated. In 1956, the ruling military-backed party forced its opponents out of the race and its candidate won 93%. However, by the late 1950s, a decline in the export prices of coffee and cotton and the resultant drop in income and revenue exposed the weakness of the government’s reforms. Responding to the Cuban Revolution and the student activism it inspired at home, the regime abandoned all reformist pretenses and banned dissent. The elite, the middle-class and military felt the president had lost his hand, and he was overthrown in a coup in October 1960. The presence of a known Cuban sympathizer in the new junta led to a conservative coup in January 1961.

A junta officer, Colonel Juan Adalberto Rivera, won the 1962 elections. Rivera was the candidate of the new civilian-led but military-backed conservative ‘official party’, the National Conciliation Party (Partido de Conciliación Nacional, PCN), founded in 1961 by a faction of the reformist Christian Democratic Party (Partido Democráta Cristiano, PDC), founded before the 1961 coup. The PDC was a centrist, reformist alternative founded by urban middle-class and upper-class activists who disliked the right’s ideology of repression and hostility to any reform and the left’s Marxist principles. In the meanwhile, Rivera, who ruled until 1967, was a proponent of the post-1948 ‘guided reforms’, following developmentalist policies – infrastructure development – funded by US aid allocations. Rivera also allowed the opposition to gain a foothold in the Legislative Assembly (by changing the electoral system), in relatively free legislative elections in 1964, the PCN won 32 seats out of 52 but the PDC won 14 seats. José Napoleón Duarte, who would become the PDC’s leading figure, became mayor of San Salvador, an office he held until 1970. Rivera’s interior minister, Fidel Sánchez Hernández, won the presidency for the PDC in 1967, winning 54.4% against 21.6% for the PDC and 14.4% for the leftist PAR, denounced by the right as a communist party.

Conditions remained terrible for the majority of the population. Coffee exports thrived, but the poor suffered – in 1975, about 40% of the poor had no land at all. The 1969 ‘football war’ with Honduras aggravated matters by cutting off the economic ‘safety valve’ provided by illegal immigration of landless Salvadorans to Honduras. Those who returned after the war were unable to resume the kind of farming they had practiced in Honduras and rural employment was scarce. In 1970, a congress convened by the legislature called for major agrarian reform, including land expropriation by the government. Naturally, the PCN did nothing on the issue, and a large victory in the 1970 legislative elections reassured the government. However, the PDC seized on the matter and agrarian reform was at the core of its platform in 1972. The Roman Catholic Church joined in the chorus demanding agrarian reform; the Salvadoran church had called for education, social awareness, the organization of Christian communities in rural areas and denounced both capitalism and communism. Tensions were rising.

José Napoleón Duarte ran for the presidency in 1972, in a coalition of the PDC with two small leftist parties. He promised agrarian reform, but in a measured and moderate tone, stressing respect for private property and nonviolence. The campaign was difficult for the opposition, whose activists were harassed, assaulted or kidnapped by the authorities while the PCN-controlled election board disqualified their legislative slates in six departments. The opposition claimed it won, but on official results, the PCN’s candidate, Colonel Arturo Armando Molina, won 43.4% against 42.1% for Duarte. The PDC boycotted Molina’s formal election by the legislature (in the absence of an absolute majority).

The rest of the 1970s were marked by the opposition’s disillusion with democratic means of winning power. A month after the 1972 elections, a group of young radical officers in the army tried to seize power with Duarte’s reluctant backing, but the coup attempted flopped. Duarte was forced into exile in Venezuela. Molina and his successor, General Carlos Humberto Romero (elected 1977), used coercive means to crack down on rising opposition. In 1970, a PCS faction had established an armed movement, and parts of the radical left were turning to violent means. By the end of the decade, the whole of the PCS had made the shift towards the armed struggle, using methods including kidnappings and assassinations. In response, Molina used the Organización Democrática Nacionalista (ORDEN), a rural counterinsurgency group/paramilitary trained by the US, to wage his anticommunist war. Right-wing ‘death squads’, bankrolled by the oligarchs and recruiting from active-duty or retired military, took matters into their own hands, aiming to liquidate leftist opponents. The 1977 elections, in which the moderate PDC-led opposition was crushed, confirmed that the military-oligarchy elite was in no mood to hand over power.

Young military officers overthrew General Romero in October 1979. The first junta, a mixed military-civilian affair, announced reformist policies, decreed a freeze on landholdings over 98 ha and nationalized coffee export trade. But the junta faced push-back from the conservative factions of the security apparatus. In fact, repression increased and the death squads continued their terror. The Marxist left, meanwhile, aimed to create a state of anarchy to launch a popular insurrection. Within the junta, the defense minister opposed the reformists. A new junta, including the conservative militarists but also the PDC, was formed in January 1980. Political violence, perpetrated by the left, the death squads and the security forces, increased. Ex-major Roberto d’Aubuisson, a former intelligence division chief, denounced a leading PDC activist as a communist and the activist was later assassinated. The liberal members of the PDC resigned from the junta, highlighting the divisions in the discredited party. Duarte, back from exile, joined the third junta.

Duarte’s third junta combined reforms – expropriating landholdings above 500 ha,nationalizing commercial banks and savings and loan institutions – with more repression against the insurrectionist left. The concomitant repression strengthened the militarists and the paramilitaries, frustrating actual reform on the group and aggravating the violent situation. In March 1980, the Archbishop of San Salvador, Óscar Arnulfo Romero, a harsh critic of the military repression and American support for the government, was assassinated – probably on d’Aubuisson’s orders. His funeral-turned-protest became violent, with peaceful regime opponents being gunned down on the steps of the National Cathedral. In November 1980, a prominent reformist leftist politician was killed. In December 1980, four American churchwomen were murdered, prompting Jimmy Carter to suspend a program of limited military aid. The subsequent investigation covered-up the security forces’ role and there was no serious prosecution; but in the meantime, the Ronald Reagan administration had lost interest in the matter. That same month, the militarists in the junta ousted reformist Colonel Majano.

The Marxist forces gradually united, the mass organizations joining the armed guerrillas in the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional, FMLN). In January 1981, the FMLN launched its first offensive, which failed to spark a popular insurrection and failed in its objectives. Nevertheless, the FMLN had established a guerrilla foothold in the country (Chalatenango Department), which was recognized as a legitimate political force by Mexico and France. The US, now under Reagan, took an active interest in the civil war. The Sandinista victory in Nicaragua in 1979 had lent to the urgency; Carter, despite his more pro-human rights orientation, had already been providing limited military aid. Reagan’s administration increased assistance, despite congressional misgivings. Washington came to assume a larger role in the conflict and influenced Salvadoran policy-making.

The army indiscriminately killed over 100 civilians in December 1981 at El Mozote. The leftist guerrillas kidnapped and assassinated mayors and businessmen, destroyed public infrastructure and extorted businessmen.

Reagan, the US Congress and Salvadoran moderates (the PDC) agreed to hold elections to a Constituent Assembly in March 1982. The FMLN’s political wing, the FDR, boycotted the elections, citing fears for the safety of its candidates and demanded that bilateral talks between the FMLN-FDR and government be held before any elections. The election was thus fought on the right, between Duarte’s semi-conservative PDC, clearly favoured by Washington; the old PCN and a new party – the Nationalist Republican Alliance (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista, ARENA), founded by major Roberto d’Aubuisson, the death squad organizer described by the US ambassador as a ‘pathological killer’. ‘Major Bob’, as d’Aubuisson was known, promised ‘another ’32’ – a repeat of the slaughter of 1932. The PDC won 24 seats to ARENA’s 19 and the PCN’s 14. Álvaro Alfredo Magaña, a political independent backed by the PDC and PCN, was elected interim President by the assembly over ARENA’s opposition. The interim government achieved little except drafting the constitution still in use today; its promises for peace, democratization and human rights amounted to naught as the FMLN continued its guerrilla sabotage campaign. The military and paramilitaries continued systematic and widespread human rights violations.

In 1984, Duarte (PDC) was elected president, defeating ARENA’s Roberto d’Aubuisson. Backed by the US, Duarte won 53.6% in the second round against ARENA’s pathological killer of a candidate. Washington hoped that Duarte would implement the long-promised reformist agenda to undercut FMLN support; he did, in part, by redistributing farmland, but he failed to displace the oligarchy. At the same time, the FMLN guerrillas were highly disciplined and deeply entrenched in the zones they controlled. At the same time, the armed forces and paramilitaries/death squads continued their campaign unabated. The US was supplying, in 1983, $205 million in economic aid and $26 million in military assistance; Washington’s entanglement in support of a weak regime in San Salvador was controversial in the US. In El Salvador, US military trainers and government forces conducted search-and-destroy missions, while the FMLN made periodic raids. President Duarte’s austerity policies were unpopular, leading to protests in the capital in 1986.

Insurgency and counterinsurgency led to an economic collapse, with a 28% fall in the real per capita domestic product between 1978 and 1982 and capital flight. It also led to significant changes in the country’s economic structure: as a share of domestic product, export agriculture, the economic basis of the oligarchy, declined sharply, at the expense of commerce and services. The FMLN sabotaged export crops, extracted ‘war tax’ payments; the government’s reforms in the 1980s expropriated about a quarter of all farmland in the country. The oligarchy started drawing much more of their income from commerce and services

In a context of increasing military brutality and death squad rampages, ARENA won legislative elections in 1988 and, in March 1989, ARENA presidential candidate Alfredo Cristiani was elected with 54% of the vote. Cristiani, an athletic playboy with little experience, was originally perceived as a d’Aubuisson puppet. But Cristiani’s control of ARENA signaled a shift in the party: from an extremist and reactionary party funded by the old elite, the ARENA now diversified its support by appealing to middle-classes and the new economic elites. Cristiani’s ARENA faction adopted neoliberal economic policies, was more tolerant of democratic norms and was less closely tied to the agro-export elites. With shifting elite interests, there was greater support for negotiations with the FMLN.

In September 1989, the FMLN and Cristiani’s government met for talks in Mexico, but in November, the FMLN launched a major offensive. The FMLN’s offensive made clear that neither side could hope to win militarily. Negotiations continued at a high-level, but on the ground both sides continued the civil war – death squad brutality remained constant, the FMLN’s indiscriminate attacks, kidnappings and assassinations of civilians continued. In December 1990, what would be FMLN’s final offensive established FMLN’s strength and twisted ARENA’s arm into getting serious about talks. The peace process was pushed forward by ARENA and the FMLN’s political moderation in the face of the unlikelihood of a total military victory for one over the other; the military’s discredit after it killed 6 Jesuits in 1989; the fall of the Wall and the end of the Cold War; UN pressure and domestic demands for peace.

The Chapultepec Peace Accords were signed between the government and FMLN in January 1992. The military was to be reformed, the paramilitaries to be suppressed, a new civilian police force created and the FMLN became a political party which participated in elections. The peace deals also included commitments on human rights, justice, land reform and socioeconomic transformations. A general amnesty was voted in 1993. Over 75,000 civilians died in the Salvadoran Civil War.

ARENA, reformed as a conservative and neoliberal civilian party, dominated Salvadoran democratic politics until 2009. The party moderated quite significantly, although it still embraces d’Aubuisson as their founding father (d’Aubuisson died in 1992 without ever facing justice for his crimes). In the 1994 elections, ARENA candidate Armando Calderón Sol was elected president with 68% of the vote in the runoff against FMLN candidate Rubén Zamora, the brother of the PDC Attorney General who was killed by d’Aubuisson’s hounds in 1980. The PDC won about 17% of the vote, but would thereafter decline as a political force as politics polarized between the rather right-wing ARENA and a still markedly left-wing FMLN. President Calderón Sol continued Cristiani’s neoliberal policies, advocating for privatizations, removing trade barriers and promoting foreign investment. He presided over free elections in 1999, which saw ARENA’s Francisco Flores emerge victorious. Flores continued ARENA’s neoliberal and pro-American policies: he changed the legal currency to the US dollar, authorized the deployment of Salvadoran troops to Iraq and negotiated CAFTA with the US. Dollarization was controversial; the opposition accused Flores of moving without consulting the public and only aiming to please big business (which benefited from reduced interest rates, easier trade and integration in the global economy).

In 2004, the presidential campaign turned into a highly polarized contest between two ideologically opposed candidates. The governing ARENA’s candidate was Antonio Saca, who supported the governing party’s economic agenda and was the clear favourite of the Bush administration; the FMLN candidate was Schafik Handal, a former PCS leader, who called to renegotiate free trade agreements and building closer relations with leftist South American countries including Venezuela. The US government stated its ‘concerns’ about the impact of a FMLN victory on US-Salvadoran relations. Saca, however, won handily, with 57.7% against 35.7% for Handal. The PDC’s candidate won only 3.9% of the vote.

Saca continued the right-wing economic and foreign policies. He kept Salvadoran troops (less than 400 of them) in Iraq, maintained close ties with the US and  opposed leftist governments in Cuba and Venezuela. Saca’s administration faced economic troubles; Saca somewhat broke with neoliberalism by creating a $15-20 monthly subsidy program for very poor families. The FMLN criticized the government for allegedly failing to respond adequately to increases in the cost of living and basic necessities; he has also faced criticism for political favouritism and sectarianism and corruption. Saca presided over an increase in criminality. Largely because of drug trafficking and gang wars, El Salvador is currently the second most violent country in the world – right after Honduras – with a homicide rate of 70.2 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2011.

The January 2009 legislative elections, a rehearsal for the presidential elections later in the year, were won – by a hair – by the FMLN, which won 35 seats to the ARENA’s 32, with 11 seats going to the PCN, 5 for the PDC and one for the small Cambio Democrático, the successor of the small moderate leftist groups originally allied with the FMLN during the civil war. For the presidential elections in March 2009, the FMLN, more than ever confident of its chances of winning, nominated a moderate social democrat – former journalist Mauricio Funes. His running mate, however, was former guerrilla leader Salvador Sánchez Cerén, considered a radical and anti-American within the FMLN. Funes campaigned on social issues, promising to reduce inequality by raising taxes on the rich and creating better social programs. He said that he would keep the US dollar, preserve El Salvador’s close ties with the US, respect property rights and fiscal discipline. His sole opponent, ARENA candidate Rodrigo Ávila ran a relentlessly negative campaign which sought to tie Funes to Hugo Chávez. Funes won narrowly, with 51.32% against 48.68% for Ávila. He took office as the first FMLN president – perhaps even the first leftist president – in Salvadoran history, marking a key moment in the long-term transition to democracy in the country. However, he also took office with a party suspicious of his intentions and without a majority in Congress.

Taking office in the midst of the economic crisis – the country’s economy shrank by 3% in 2009 – Funes initially adopted a series of populist stimulus measures, including a basic pension for 42,000 seniors, the creation of an education grant and direct propane gas subsidies to consumers. One aspect of his 2010-2011 Plan anticrisis was casa para todos, a project to build 25,000 houses and create over 41,000 jobs in the process. The plan’s results have been described as ‘modest’. In April 2012, Funes adopted austerity policies including spending cuts. Economic growth has been slow, hovering between 1% and 2%. In 2013, El Salvador had the slowest economic growth in Central America.

Some of Funes’ social policies have proven quite popular with voters. One of those is Ciudad Mujer, an initiative of First Lady/Secretary of Social Inclusion Vanda Pignato, which are multiservice centers for women (healthcare, reproductive health, preventing violence against women, economic autonomy, education, childcare).

The homicide rate fell in 2012 and 2013 – 2013 was the least violent year since 2003 – as a result of a controversial gang truce, signed in March 2012 and which has endured since. The gang truce was brokered at arm’s length by the government, which moved some gang leaders to lower-security prisons and promised to create jobs in ‘peace zones’ in return for gangs stopping murders and extortion. The gang truce hasn’t stopped violence – extortion continues and the homicide rate remains high.

Funes has had an uneasy relationship with the FMLN and the private sector. Parts of the FMLN and many leftists criticized him for his moderate positions, modeled on Barack Obama and Brazil’s Lula, rather than Nicaragua or Venezuela, more leftist models held in high regard by a significant number of FMLN members. For example, Funes has opposed joining the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA). In 2009, leaked cables from the US embassy reported that Funes’ aides suspected that the palace was bugged by FMLN colleagues who controlled the intelligence services. The private sector and the right have, on the contrary, found Funes too leftist for their tastes. He was notably criticized for establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba (broken off since 1962) and closing the borders with Honduras following the 2009 coup in Honduras. Despite the harsh criticism from left and right, Funes leaves office with high approval ratings, between 65% and 70%.

There were legislative and municipal elections in March 2012. In a major blow to the FMLN, the ARENA emerged with a narrow plurality of the votes and seats – it won 39.8% and 33 deputies against 36.8% and 31 deputies for the FMLN. The ARENA managed to hold its ground from 2009 despite a high-profile challenge from a moderate dissident faction, the Grand Alliance for National Unity (Gran Alianza por la Unidad Nacional, GANA), led by former President Antonio Saca. GANA won 9.6% and 11 seats; it would appear the main victims of GANA’s creation were the PCN and PDC (rebranded as the National Coalition, CN and Party of Hope, PES, after courts ruled that decrees which had extended their registration after they fell below the threshold to qualify as parties in 2004 were unconstitutional). In municipal elections, the ARENA held the capital (San Salvador). The FMLN’s surprise defeat was attributed to inertia on the part of the leadership, inept management of some municipalities, local disputes and disappointment with the FMLN’s performance.

One oft-cited FMLN mishap was its battles with the Supreme Court: the Legislative Assembly renewed a third of the court’s membership, for the second time in the legislature’s term, a move which was declared unconstitutional and led to a protracted conflict with the court and the anti-government employers’ association (ANEP). Funes mediated the crisis; the new Legislative Assembly elected in 2012 was allowed to renew a third of the court’s membership.

Candidates and issues

The candidate of the opposition ARENA was Norman Quijano, the mayor of San Salvador since 2009 (reelected with a large majority in 2012). Quijano’s platform included calls for less bureaucracy, a more efficient state apparatus, free market economics, social programs ‘without debt’, more transparency and job creation. Quijano vowed to support some of Funes’ more popular policies, such as the Ciudad Mujer, social housing and subsidies. On the issue of criminality, however, Quijano has taken a tougher line: although he initially was vague over whether or not he supported the truce, he has since come out swinging, saying that “after June 1, the party is over”. In an otherwise boring ‘debate’, Quijano came out in support of militarizing public security, including military trials for gang members.

The ARENA, however, is in disarray since losing power in 2009. It has been plagued by desertions, defectors and supporters rebelling against the party’s chafing hierarchy and criticisms that the party continues to see the world in black and white (Cold War) terms. One founding member of the party recently said that ARENA behaved as if the country was still at war. Indeed, anti-communist rhetoric continues to be one of the party’s mainstays and Quijano has presented this election as a battle between democracy (read: ARENA) and ‘socialism of the 21st century’, allegedly incarnated by the FMLN. In 2009, outgoing President Antonio Saca, whose slightly more populist measures were not backed by his party, was expelled from ARENA (allegedly for corruption) and founded his own party, Grand Alliance for National Unity (Gran Alianza por la Unidad Nacional, GANA) with 12 dissident ARENA legislators. While the ARENA managed to win the 2012 election largely on the back of FMLN’s losses with middle-classes and independents, it has already lost its plurality in the Legislative Assembly due to defections. As of today, ARENA’s caucus is down to 28 members (it won 33 seats in 2012).

Quijano is said to have been imposed as the party’s candidate by ARENA’s powerful financiers. They had not liked the party’s 2009 candidate, Rodrigo Ávila, a former police chief. Quijano’s nomination was not a consensus choice and did little to improve ARENA’s declining health. The party’s top financiers brought in, back in May 2013, former President Francisco Flores as Quijano’s campaign manager.

The ARENA has been hurt by corruption allegations. Traditionally, corruption has been the way of doing business for Salvadoran politicians and they made sure that corruption allegations were rarely investigated and safely stashed away. However, Funes’ government presented 164 cases of alleged corruption under ARENA governments to the Attorney General and several former ARENA officials have been indicted in corruption scandals. The most damaging has been ‘Taiwangate’, a scandal directly involving former President Flores. In October 2013, Funes revealed the case without citing names; it was a GANA leader who revealed that Flores was under investigation in the US for money laundering of $10 million. Copies of documents from the US Treasury Financial Crimes Enforcement Network were published in the media.

Flores is alleged to have embezzled $10 million in earthquake relief funds from Taiwan in 2001. Three checks were deposited in his name in a Bahamanian bank account; the checks, part of Taiwan’s ‘checkbook diplomacy’, were written by then-President Chen Shui-bian, currently serving a 17-year prison sentence for bribery and embezzlement. Flores was furious, calling Funes a ‘liar’ and ’emotionally unstable’, but a ARENA leader and coffee oligarch met with FMLN candidates at his home and denounced Flores. ARENA was left reeling: was Flores still in the campaign? Quijano insisted that he was, while other party leaders said he wasn’t. On January 7, Flores appeared before a legislative commission investigating the case – and he was stunningly relaxed. He explained El Salvador’s good ties with Taiwan – El Salvador, like every Central American country besides Costa Rica, still recognizes Taiwan; and said that the amount of money involved was $15-20 million. He explained that, as President, he handed out moneybags to victims of the 2001 earthquake or anti-crime informers, and received checks from Taiwan for his discretionary use. His testimony raised many questions and President Funes said that Flores had acted ‘extra-judicially’. Quijano, for unclear reasons, stuck by Flores, who himself is said to have fled to Miami on January 14.

Quijano’s campaign, whose new éminence grise now appears to be anti-chavista Venezuelan strategist Juan José Rendón (who has worked on many campaigns in the region), said to be an expert in crisis management. However, it appears that Rendón is not actually in El Salvador; Quijano explains that Rendón doesn’t visit socialist countries, while the real reason might be that he would risk extradition to Venezuela, where he is wanted on a 2006 assault charge.

The governing FMLN nominated Vice President Salvador Sánchez Cerén, a former guerrilla leader during the civil war and a member of the FMLN’s leftist ‘hard line’. His running mate is the moderate Óscar Órtiz, the popular four-term mayor of Santa Tecla. The party’s platform, which it says was built with the input of over 310,000 people, is, however, fairly moderate. The FMLN manifesto focuses on ‘deepening and amplifying the changes’ begun by the government, with the major axes being job creation, social well-being, reducing the costs of living, security and environmental sustainability. It calls for more social investments, zero tolerance for corruption, tougher bank regulation and ‘an end to privileges’.

Unlike ARENA, the FMLN’s campaign was smooth, calm, disciplined and united behind the ticket of ‘Salvador and Oscar’. The FMLN, aware that the prospect of a former guerrilla leader with a past propensity for radical statements might make some moderates queasy, has reiterated that it is a moderate leftist party which respects democratic institutions and seeks economic equality, not to ‘destroy the rich’. The FMLN wants to broaden relations with Latin American partners, and it wishes to join Petrocaribe, an oil alliance between Caribbean/Central American states and Venezuela to purchase Venezuelan oil at preferential prices. President Funes supports the plan to join Petrocaribe.

Since 2006, the FMLN has developed a powerful economic base through ALBA Petróleos, a business owned by the non-profit ENEPASA and 17 municipalities (mostly governed by the FMLN), which buys oil from Venezuela at preferential prices. ALBA Petróleos has donated over $10 million to social programs and have established a plethora of services, particularly in rural areas, besides gas stations. Critics charge its leaders with money laundering and anti-competitive activities.

Like Funes in 2009, the FMLN’s campaign has sought to reach out to independent, middle-class voters by drawing professionals, businesspeople, religious leaders and even some members of the economic elites and disaffected ARENA supporters. Antonio Salaverría, a founding member of ARENA and a prominent coffee oligarch, has met with FMLN candidates and spoken of breaking ‘old paradigms’ and ending confrontations.

The FMLN hasn’t convinced everybody. The ARENA continues to claim that the FMLN supports Chávez’s ’21st century socialism’ project and it has alleged ties between FMLN leaders and arms/drug trafficking with the Colombian FARC rebels. In October 2013, U.S. Congressmen Matt Salmon (R-AZ) and Albio Sires (D-NJ), members of the House Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry, accusing Sánchez Cerén of having ‘dubious democratic credentials’. Conservatives in the US have charged that some FMLN members have ties to drug traffickers and Venezuela, and warned that a FMLN victory would be dangerous for US anti-narcotics efforts in the region. However, the Obama administration has not intervened in the election (unlike the Bush administration in 2004), with the US embassy ensuring that it maintained absolute neutrality.

President Funes has said that an ARENA victory would be ‘an unprecedented institutional setback, a return to the past’ and has urged voters to avoid the return of the ‘oligarchic power’ to the country. In most countries, an outgoing president effectively endorsing his party’s candidate would not be a big deal, but in El Salvador and other Latin American countries, it is considered taboo for a term-limited president to directly intervene in his successor’s election by endorsing a candidate. ARENA accused Funes of proselytizing for the FMLN, but Funes said he never called on people to vote for the FMLN.

Former President Antonio ‘Tony’ Saca (2004-2009) is running for a second non-consecutive term in office, this time as the candidate of the UNIDAD coalition, made up of GANA, the PCN (CN) and PDC (PES). His running mate is Francisco Laínez, a former ARENA member who served as his foreign minister between 2004 and 2008. UNIDAD’s platform, promoting Saca’s “leadership, charisma and experience”, supports poverty reduction, fiscal discipline, a good climate for investment and other vague talking points. Saca’s presidency was marked by an unsuccessful ‘iron fist’ anti-gang policy; he know supports ‘no truces or bloodbaths but a comprehensive policy’. The coalition’s manifesto calls for crime prevention, citizen protection, victim support, a volunteer police force and the rehabilitation and reinsertion of criminals.

Saca has been accused of enriching himself during his presidency, moving from the middle-class to being a wealthy property owner. He was accused of, but never charged with, misappropriation of $219 million from a presidential discretionary fund. If Funes has gone after after ARENA’s corruption, he made no accusations against Saca. Funes’ administration has often relied on the legislative support of GANA and the PDC and PCN to pass key legislation, including the presidential budget.

Saca presents himself as a centrist alternative to the ‘extremes’, envisioning to make himself the kingmaker in a potential runoff between the FMLN and ARENA.


Turnout was roughly 53.9% (own calculations), down from 61.9% in the 2009 presidential election.

Salvador Sánchez Céren (FMLN) 48.93%
Norman Quijano (ARENA) 38.96%
Antonio ‘Tony’ Saca (UNIDAD) 11.44%
René Rodríguez Hurtado (PSP) 0.42%
Óscar Lemus (FPS) 0.25%

Source: Tribunal Supremo Electoral (TSE)

El Salvador 2014

Incumbent Vice President and former FMLN guerrilla leader Salvador Sánchez Céren came out far ahead of his main rival, conservative candidate Norman Quijano, in the first round. Sánchez Céren has a ten point advantage over ARENA’s candidate, and came very close to winning by the first round, but both men will advance to a second round ballot in a bit over a month, on March 9.

The contest was tight for most of the campaign, with the FMLN and ARENA both leading in polls. It seems to have changed in the FMLN’s favour following the Taiwangate scandal, involving former ARENA president Francisco Flores – a close supporter of ARENA’s presidential candidate, Norman Quijano. A good number of polls taken in January 2014 showed a turnaround in the FMLN’s favour: the governing party took a clearer, decisive lead in the polls, although ARENA’s support did not collapse. Given the closely fought campaign, the first round results – and the FMLN’s ten point advantage over the ARENA – can be considered quite good for the FMLN. Quijano somewhat disingenuously claimed that the result was a success for ARENA, because it had been waging a war on two fronts: against the official FMLN candidate but also President Funes’ outgoing administration (Funes publicly attacked Quijano several times, aired TV spots promoting his administration’s record with thinly veiled appeals to vote for the FMLN/against ARENA). In reality, ARENA ran a poor and unconvincing campaign which failed to measure up to the FMLN’s stronger campaign.

The ARENA remains the most polarizing party in the country: it has a strong base of determined and loyal supporters closely attached to the party’s conservative and anti-leftist message, but it also has the largest number of equally as determined opponents and critics.

This isn’t to say that the FMLN isn’t a polarizing party: while it likely has a slightly larger pool of loyal voters than the ARENA, there are also many Salvadoran voters on the right who strongly dislike the FMLN. The FMLN has been able to expand its electoral base in recent years by moderating its rhetoric – even Salvador Sánchez Céren, a former communist guerrilla leader with a radical past and former penchant for inflammatory rhetoric, played a moderate campaign which talked of national unity (styled as working for the good of the people) and sought to allay fears of his own radicalism with his moderate, popular running mate (Óscar Órtiz). It has also appealed to a broader clientele than the original FMLN guerrilla base with social programs. Many of its supporters credit the FMLN’s social programs (providing school uniforms and shoes, and daily school meals to poor children, improvement in health care infrastructure, increased public access to affordable medicines, pensions etc) with helping them escape poverty. However, critics consider these programs to be asistencialista (alleviating inequalities and reducing extreme poverty, creating dependency and arguably clientelism) and the author of a UN official behind the local HDI report said that the FMLN administration had continued the old economic model (which he judged immoral).

The FMLN was most vulnerable on the issue of security and crime: ARENA’s Norman Quijano promises a hardline against the gangs (maras) and an end to the controversial truce negotiated between gangs with the government’s blessing, and ARENA claimed that the gangs were supporting the FMLN. The truce has been increasingly unpopular, according to polls.

Former President Antonio Saca, at the helm of a moderate centre-right coalition (UNIDAD), placed a distant third, with only 11% of the vote. Despite ARENA’s many problems, Saca was unable to break the old polarization between the traditional left and right in El Salvador. Both the FMLN and ARENA, contemporary symbols of the old battle between left and right in El Salvador, remain too deeply ingrained in Salvadoran society and politics to be turfed out right now. While it is unlikely that ARENA will dramatically implode in the near future and allow Saca’s ragtag coalition of old moderates and disgruntled conservatiFves to move in, Saca is nevertheless in a strong position as kingmaker in this election.

Saca’s voters will prove decisive to the eventual winner in the runoff to be held on March 9. Although Saca’s voters are predominantly right-wing and a majority of them can be expected to back Quijano in the runoff despite the bad blood between ARENA and the ARENA dissidents, about a quarter of Saca’s voters might vote for the FMLN candidate (according to a pre-election poll), making him the likely favourite at this point. It is unsure what attitude Saca himself will adopt before the runoff. The FMLN has openly stated that it is looking for a pact with UNIDAD, and on election night, Sánchez Céren said that Saca had called him to say that he would work with him in the runoff campaign. Saca denied having offered an electoral pact to the FMLN, and stated that the decision will be up to the three parties which make up his UNIDAD coalition (which is seemingly set to dissolve with the end of the presidential race). One GANA deputy has said that he believes that there should/will be a deal with the FMLN.

A poll on January 14 which predicted a 14-point gap in the FMLN’s favour in the first round, reported that Sánchez Céren held a 6.6 point advantage (46.2% to 39.6%) in a simulated runoff against Quijano. Another poll from that day, which predicted a 9-point advantage for the FMLN in the first round, found Quijano to be ahead – by 4.3%. Another poll, which had a smaller gap in the first round, had Quijano leading by 5 in the runoff but with the gap quickly closing in the FMLN’s favour.

An alliance between the FMLN and Saca (or his coalition’s parties/its main component party, GANA) would facilitate Sánchez Céren’s victory in the second round but would also create the bases of a legislative alliance between the FMLN and the moderate right, which would ensure a smoother passage for legislation backed by the presidency. The FMLN has said that it envisions a pact with Saca as a means of achieving ‘governability’ (governabilidad) of the country.

Quijano has a tougher job ahead of him. ARENA is seeking a vaguely defined ‘grand national accord’ (gran acuerdo nacional) with political actors and ‘sectors of the national life’. He isn’t openly seeking a pact with Saca, but Quijano is obviously seeking to attract the bulk of UNIDAD voters to his fold and says he extends ‘open arms’ to those sharing his ‘principles and values’. Secondly, ARENA’s other priority to make up lost ground is attracting non-voters; because ARENA’s raw vote dropped by about 200,000 from 2009 against only -50,000 for the FMLN, the ARENA is assuming that most of those who didn’t vote in 2014 had voted for ARENA in 2009.

ARENA has said it will be shifting to a more conciliatory, less confrontational campaign. At the same time, though, ARENA is seriously over-dramatizing the stakes of the March 9 runoff by saying that it is a crucial day which will decide the future of democracy (the old ARENA line about a FMLN victory meaning ’21st century socialism’ and authoritarianism).

Sánchez Céren topped the poll in every department except the small department of Cabañas, a conservative stronghold where Quijano won 50% to the FMLN’s 36.6%. Quijano topped the poll in the city of San Salvador, with 48.5% against Sánchez Céren’s 41.8%. However, with strong results in all of San Salvador’s surrounding municipalities (except the wealthy municipality of Antiguo Cuscatlan in La Libertad department, which Quijano won with 60.5%), the FMLN candidate carried the department of San Salvador with 47.2% against 41.5% for Quijano. In Soyapango, a poor and violent suburban municipality of San Salvador (and the country’s second largest city), Sánchez Céren won 49.5% against 38% for ARENA. In the conservative-leaning city of Santa Tecla, Sánchez Céren’s popular running mate/local mayor Óscar Órtiz could not overwhelm the conservatism of the city: Quijano won Santa Tecla with 46.5%.

Sánchez Céren was victorious by large margins in other major cities including Santa Ana (50.9%) and San Miguel (59.8%). He did well in most rural areas, a part of the country where the FMLN has become increasingly strong and displaced ARENA as the main party.

The presidential runoff ballot on March 9 will probably be tighter than the first round, but FMLN candidate Sánchez Céren is likely the early favourite. As such, his likely victory would mark another stage in the Salvadoran democratic consolidation: the election of a former guerrilla leader (on the opposing side in the civil war) to the presidency and a second consecutive defeat in a presidential election for ARENA, which ruled for 20 years between 1989 and 2009.