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Costa Rican centrist set for election win with no rival

Historian and former diplomat Luis Guillermo Solis is set to cruise to victory Sunday in Costa Rica’s presidential run-off election after his sole opponent dropped out of the race.

With an insurmountable lead in the polls, Solis’s challenge is to encourage the 3.1 million voters in Latin America’s oldest democracy to actually show up to cast ballots.

“Go out and vote,” he says over and over again in his final campaign rallies.

As the candidate of the centrist Citizen Action Party (PAC), the 55-year-old opposition candidate was the surprise winner of the first round of the elections February 2.

Solis emerged from last place in the polls to edge out Johnny Araya, the candidate of the ruling National Liberation Party (PLN).

Solis’ popularity continued to surge and by early March a poll showed him with nearly a 45 percent lead over Araya.

Humiliated, Araya dropped out on March 5.

His name remains on the ballot, however, because the constitution prevents him from withdrawing. The PLN, meanwhile, continues to appeal for Araya votes “for dignity’s sake.”

Araya’s resignation deals a heavy blow to the National Liberation Party, which has led the past two governments.

- A third-party president -

With his path wide open, Solis is set to become the first third-party candidate to win the Costa Rican presidency in 50 years.

Power here has traditionally been traded between the social democratic PLN and the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC).

“The time has come for change,” said Solis, who left the PLN in 2005 because of its embrace of neo-liberal policies, speaking in his closing campaign speech.

Solis’s Citizen Action Party, formed to fight corruption and support better income distribution, is only 13 years old.

Faustino Desinach, a 54-year-old photographer, says he hasn’t voted in 30 years but will on Sunday “because I believe Luis Guillermo can straighten the boat.”

Corruption scandals and rising debts and deficits under outgoing President Laura Chinchilla, Costa Rica’s first female president, has weakened the old two-party system.

Assuming that Solis is elected Sunday to a four-year term, he will still have to deal with a politically diverse Congress in which his PAC party is second in strength behind the PLN.

“Solis has raised many expectations. If he succeeds in adopting a different style of leadership, with a greater openness to dialogue, he will have the political space to confront complicated problems,” said sociologist Manuel Rojas.

Political analyst Jaime Ordonez said restoring confidence and uniting the country “will require intelligence, character and great serenity.”

“We have reached a breaking point. Our entire state is designed for a two-party Costa Rica that no longer exists,” he said.

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