Costa Rica votes in ex-minister as next president, spurns preacher rival

Supporters of Costa Rica's president-elect Carlos Alvarado celebrate in San Jose following his convincing victory

San José (AFP) – Costa Rica on Sunday voted for a former minister from the center-left ruling party as its next president, rejecting his rival, an ultra-conservative preacher who had campaigned strongly against gay marriage.

Carlos Alvarado, a former labor minister under current President Luis Guillermo Solis, who was barred from seeking a second term, won a convincing 60.7 percent of the ballots in the run-off, electoral authorities said, based on returns from more than 90 percent of polling stations.

“There is much more that unites us than divides us,” he told a cheering crowd in his victory speech, congratulating the defeated candidate.

“My duty is to unite this republic, to take it forward, so it is a leading republic of the 21st century,” he said.

The right-wing preacher, Farbicio Alvarado (no relation), garnered 39.3 percent. He quickly conceded defeat to a crowd of disappointed supporters, thanked God, and congratulated Carlos Alvarado on his triumph.

“We have not won the election, but we can accept this result with our heads held high,” he said.

Costa Rica, a small Central American nation of five million people, had been polarized ahead of the run-off election.

Fabricio Alvarado had surged from obscurity to lead a field of 13 candidates in the first round in February by vociferously slamming moves to recognize same-sex marriage. 

That stance tapped into widespread social conservatism in the country, particularly in poorer rural areas, and the preacher was also buoyed by support from evangelical churches that have proliferated in recent decades.

– Writer and ex-rocker –

Carlos Alvarado, in contrast, had offered a more traditional campaign highlighting several issues — boosting education, reducing the growing deficit, enhancing environmental protections — while incarnating continuity with the outgoing leader.

Pre-election surveys had suggested a neck-and-neck race. But in the end, the result was a clear and resounding win for Carlos Alvarado.

He will take power next month, for a four-year term.

Aged 38, Carlos Alvarado is also a writer, with three published novels, who has a taste for rock music dating back to his university days as a singer in a progressive rock band called Dramatika. He counts Pink Floyd as one of his favorite groups.

He started out professionally as a journalist but left that when he realized that “one has to be involved to change things.”

After moving to Panama because of his wife’s architectural career — and writing a novel there — he returned to Costa Rica to help out on Solis’s 2014 presidential campaign.

After Solis won, he was made social development minister, then labor minister. He stepped down in January this year to make his own tilt for the presidency.

– Deficit challenge –

Being the candidate of the ruling Citizens’ Action Party was both a help and a hindrance, giving him the machinery of a party in power — but also one diminished by a scandal of officials abusing their power and being unable to prevent a rise in violent crime.

Analysts said Alvarado managed to stay a little separate from the government as its reputation slipped, and presented himself as someone who could renew the party.

One of the biggest challenges facing Alvarado as he takes charge will be trying to cut down the deficit, which has ballooned to 6.3 percent of gross domestic product.

To do so, he will have to succeed where his predecessors have failed, in pushing through unpopular measures to increase tax collection.

On gay marriage, he has declared himself in favor, aligning with an exhortation issued in January from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights that such unions be recognized.