Opposition candidate Luis Guillermo Solis is expected to easily cruise to victory in Costa Rica’s presidential run-off election today, a month after his only rival withdrew from the race.
The constitution bars official presidential candidates from stepping aside in a runoff election, and so voters will still be able to pick Johnny Araya of the ruling right-wing National Liberation Party (PLN) on the ballot.
Even though his election is all but secured thanks to an unbeatable lead, Solis has mounted an intense campaign to get out the vote.
And unlike past elections, much of that effort has taken place online on social networks.
Absent were most of the rooftop flags and the usual street rallies and motorcades that accompany Costa Rica’s typically noisy and colorful election campaign.
However, both the PLN and Solis’ Citizen Action Party (PAC) staged a fierce contest on sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
“The current campaign is the most unusual” since the military dictatorship was abolished in 1949, Cosat Rican Supreme Electoral Tribunal President Luis Antonio Sobrado told a local radio station on Thursday.
However, he said he thought the social network-driven campaign style was going to stick around.
Solis’ communication strategist Carlos Alvarado credited social media with the rapid, surprise rise of the opposition candidate.
“We arrived late in the campaign, with fewer financial and human resources than the other parties,” Alvarado said, referring to the first phase of the campaign, when Solis was just one of 13 presidential candidates and was trailing in the polls.
Without the necessary resources to launch an expensive television ad blitz, Solis’ party opted for a strategy of recording the candidate’s campaign activities and broadcasting everywhere it could for free.
“The process became a kind of reality show featuring the candidate, with his gestures, phrases and conversations with people, virtually unedited, helping develop an image and generating strong public appeal,” Alvarado said.
In October last year, Solis’ Facebook page had 6,000 “fans.”
By December, that number had reached 60,000, and on the date of the first round of voting on Feb. 2, 120,000 people were following the candidate.
On the eve of the second round, Solis can count about 340,000 followers on Facebook. He has more than 31,000 followers on Twitter.
However, Solis is not alone. Even with a retired candidate and a cracked party structure, the PLN has tried to keep abreast of the shift by establishing a large presence online.
Most of its online messages have pointed to the current government’s achievements and those of the party since its founding in 1949.
By going online, the parties are especially targeting young voters, who themselves are playing a more active role in campaigning.
Alvarado said the technical team that developed Solis’ campaign on social networks is composed of people under 25 years old.
If Solis’ victory is confirmed next month, it will complete a remarkable political triumph. A historian by training, polls in January gave him only a 5 percent share of the vote.
His party, formed to fight corruption and support better income distribution, is only 13 years old.