Candidates kick off an unusual Election Day in Costa Rica

April 1, 2018

Polling stations across Costa Rica opened early Sunday for a presidential election that has split the country between an ultra-conservative evangelical preacher and a former Cabinet minister from the center-left ruling party.

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

Most recent polls 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.

Candidate Carlos Alvarado at church on Election Day in Costa Rica, April 1, 2018.
Carlos Alvarado (left) and his wife Claudia attend mass at La Soledad Church in downtown San José on Election Day. Supporter and former candidate Rodolfo Piza (right), of the Social Christian Unity Party, and his wife Annie joined the couple. Roberto Delgado Webb @delgadowebb / The Tico Times

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.

Fabricio Alvarado and Laura Moscoa in Desamparados, Costa Rica on April 1, 2018.
Jonathan Jiménez @jjimenezfl / The Tico Times

A ‘photo finish’?

Carlos Alvarado, in contrast, ran on a broad campaign to tackle the priorities identified by his Citizens’ Action Party (PAC), 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.”

Feinzaig went on to declare that he would vote for Carlos Alvarado.

Winning over undecided or ambivalent voters is key for both candidates.

Rodolfo Piza and Carlos Alvarado in San José, Costa Rica on April 1, 2018.
Rodolfo Piza, former candidate for the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC), embraces candidate Carlos Alvarado outside La Soledad Church in San José on Election Day. Piza's support has been a key element during the runoff campaign. Roberto Delgado Webb @delgadowebb / The Tico Times

“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.

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

Laura Moscoa votes in Desamparados, Costa Rica
Laura Moscoa, wife of candidate Fabricio Alvarado, votes in Calle Fallas, Desamparados. Jonathan Jiménez @jjimenezfl / The Tico Times

Polling is taking place on Easter Sunday, at the end of a four-day holiday weekend. Roads back to the capital San Jose 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.

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