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Leftist Costa Rica outsider leads election, run-off expected

Reuters | Last Updated: Monday, February 3, 2014 - 12:47

San Jose : A left-leaning former diplomat edged ahead in Costa Rica`s presidential election on Sunday as a strong showing by two leftist parties threatened to wrest power from the centrist government in an April run-off.

Luis Guillermo Solis, an academic who has never been elected to office, edged ahead of ruling party candidate Johnny Araya despite trailing in pre-election polls and early vote returns.

Araya was seen as the front-runner ahead of the vote, but his campaign was hurt by corruption scandals that plagued President Laura Chinchilla`s administration.

Araya may face the prospect of a consolidated left-wing vote in the run-off, which could spell defeat for his ruling National Liberation Party. Votes from a host of smaller parties who commanded around a quarter of the tally on Sunday will also be fought over.

After trailing for much of the night, Solis, who ran on an anti-corruption ticket, took a slim lead with 30.8 percent support compared to 29.7 percent for Araya, after ballots from around 73 percent of polling centers were counted.

Both were well short of the 40 percent-plus needed to win outright.

Left-wing lawmaker Jose Maria Villalta was in third place with 17.2 percent, meaning that the natural combined leftist vote for the left could carry Solis to victory in April.

"Costa Rica`s time has come," Solis said with a wry expression as his supporters cheered to the blare of music.

"From coast to coast, the rising wave has become a great tsunami that has washed away traditional politics forever.

Araya, 56, promised to reduce poverty and painted his rivals as radicals who are a threat to Central America`s second-largest economy.

"We represent the safe road, the responsible road, to maintain political, economic and social stability in Costa Rica," said Araya as he addressed flag-waving supporters shortly after losing his lead.

But voter anger over government corruption buoyed his left-leaning rivals, who also promised to tackle inequality in the coffee-producing nation.

The country`s coffee industry represents nearly 1 percent of the nation`s gross domestic product. It is also the second worst-hit in the region by the spread of the tree-killing fungus roya, which has infected more than 60 percent of the country`s coffee plantations.

Gaffes during the campaign, such as underestimating the price of milk in an interview, distanced Araya from some voters. A prosecutor`s probe into allegations of abuse of authority and embezzlement while Araya was mayor of San Jose have also dampened his appeal.

Solis, who cut his teeth working in Costa Rica`s foreign ministry, appealed to voters by pledging to improve infrastructure, overhaul the country`s universal health care provider and stamp out corruption.

That resonated with some voters after Chinchilla sparked outrage by accepting flights on a private jet, despite laws barring public officials from accepting sizeable gifts.

The eventual winner will have to tackle growing government debt that totals more than half of gross domestic product.

"If they don`t do something, then this somewhat negative trend on the debt could continue and that could have an impact on the credit rating," said Joydeep Mukherji, a sovereign credit analyst with Standard & Poor`s, which rates Costa Rica at BB with a stable outlook.

First Published: Monday, February 3, 2014 - 12:47

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