Divided Costa Rica chooses new president

A supporter of the presidential candidate for the National Restoration Party (PRN), Fabricio Alvarado, passes by a banner depicting the presidential candidate for the Citizen Action Party (PAC), Carlos Alvarado, outside a polling station in San Jose on April 1, 2018 during Costa Rica's run-off election
AFP

San José (AFP) – Voters in Costa Rica were deciding Sunday a presidential election that has split the country between an ultra-conservative evangelical preacher who slams gay marriage and a former minister from the center-left ruling party.

The result will determine who rules the small Central American nation of five million people for the next four years. 

Pre-vote surveys suggest a neck-and-neck race between Fabricio Alvarado, a right-wing 43-year-old preacher, journalist and singer, and Carlos Alvarado (no relation), a 38-year-old former journalist who was a labor minister in the outgoing government.

Fabricio Alvarado surged from nowhere in the first round of the election held in February, triumphing over a field of 13 candidates by fiercely criticizing gay marriage.

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights in January urged the recognition of same-sex marriages, setting off a polarizing debate in Costa Rica. The country is both socially conservative and proud of its progressive human rights record.

– A ‘photo finish’? –

Carlos Alvarado, in contrast, ran on a broad campaign to tackle the priorities identified by his Citizens’ Action Party, which has been in power since 2014 under outgoing President Luis Guillermo Solis. 

Those issues include reining in a steadily climbing deficit, boosting education and upholding ecological standards.

In the first round, the preacher won 25 percent of the ballots against 22 percent for the former labor minister — both well short of the 40 percent required to avoid a run-off.

The last pre-election survey in March suggested a very tight election: Fabricio Alvarado was credited with 43 percent support against 42 percent for Carlos Alvarado.

“Neither of the two candidates motivates me sufficiently to give my support,” the head of the small Liberal Progressive Party, Eli Feinzaig, wrote on his social media accounts.

“But, ultimately, one of them has done enough to earn my clear and unequivocal repudiation,” he said, declaring he would vote for Carlos Alvarado.

Winning over undecided or ambivalent voters was key for the candidates.

“The population still isn’t clear on what development model it wants,” a political analyst from the Latin American Social Sciences Institute, Gustavo Araya, told AFP.

“This is a photo finish. It isn’t statistically clear who will be the victor between these opposing platforms,” he said.

Alfredo Bonilla, a 72-year-old voting in the capital San Jose, said he favored the former minister.

“I see that one of the two (candidates) wasn’t very prepared. The other seems to me a person prepared to run the country,” he said.

– Easter Sunday voting –

Some 3.3 million voters were being called to decide the election.

Electoral authorities reported no problems, and fine, sunny weather prevailed.

Polling was taking place on Easter Sunday, at the end of a four-day holiday weekend. Roads back to the capital were choked as many voters drove back home to cast their ballots.

Others had yet to make up their minds.

“Voting is so difficult. The two who are left aren’t to my taste. I don’t know if I’m going to vote. Truly, I’m undecided,” said Ligia Vargas, a street vendor who sells fruits and juice in the main city park.

Solis, who is step down as president after his maximum single-term mandate, tried to bridge the divide exposed by the election campaign.

“I am calling, with all respect, for an end to the hateful displays we’ve been seeing on social networks,” he said as he voted. 

“Once this is over we have to shake hands,” he said.

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