SAN JOSE: Costa Rica faces a choice between a right-wing evangelical lawmaker and a former minister from the leftist ruling party for its next president after a first-round weekend election.
The vote on Sunday winnowed a crowded field of 13 down to the two frontrunners, who will face off in the knockout election to be held April 1.
The winner will take the helm of the small Central American country, a significant tourist destination that boasts pristine tropical beaches and is big on protecting the environment.
The politician who came in first Sunday is Fabricio Alvarado, a 43-year-old lawmaker with the National Restoration Party who is also a pastor and a crooner. He took 25 percent of the ballots.
He managed to leap from obscurity to lead the pack by vociferously opposing gay marriage, tapping into voters' social conservatism and adherence to Christian dogma.
The issue has been brought to the fore by an exhortation last month by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which is hosted in Costa Rica, urging Latin American nations to recognize same-sex marriage. Several big countries in the region -- Argentina, Brazil, and Colombia -- already have, but Central America has resisted the trend.
Alvarado's close rival is Carlos Alvarado (no relation), a 38-year-old former labor minister from the ruling Citizens' Action Party who scored 22 percent of the vote. He is promising continuity with outgoing President Luis Guillermo Solis, who was barred constitutionally from seeking re-election.
- Religion played key role -
"There is no doubt religion lifted Fabricio Alvarado, and that snowballed with vehemence after the (Inter-American) court's resolution," said political analyst Jorge Vega.
In his victory speech to supporters late Sunday, Fabricio Alvarado said voters had delivered a clear message that "Costa Rica doesn't want more of the same.... It's for this that I am joining a movement of solidarity, values, of innovation and of genuine progress."
Carlos Alvarado separately appealed for national unity to tackle several challenges facing the country, including in education, the economy, security and climate change.
"The next government must be one of national unity, a government that upholds dialogue, that respects differences, that knows how to transform the country," he said at his party's headquarters.
Sunday's election, which also chose a new legislature, revealed disenchantment with Costa Rica's two main traditional mainstream parties, the centrist National Liberation Party and the center-right Social Christian Unity Party. Neither of their candidates made it through to the presidential run-off.
"The country has changed," said Felipe Alpizar, of the Center for Political Research and Studies at the University of Costa Rica.
"Politically, the country is different, and we must pay attention to that," he said.
Voter surveys by the center showed Fabricio Alvarado got an electoral lift after criticizing the Inter-American Court and suggesting that Costa Rica withdraw from it as he hammered away against homosexual marriage.
Vega noted that the pastor's National Restoration Party had made inroads into rural areas, where poorer segments of the population live, and where unemployment and religious observance are higher.
He said each of the two candidates would now have to woo other parties to their side to amass enough votes for victory, and to ensure a legislative majority to back their agendas.