UPDATE 8-Leftist Costa Rica outsider leads election, run-off expected

Mon Feb 3, 2014 3:39am EST

By Alexandra Alper
    SAN JOSE, Feb 2 (Reuters) - A left-leaning former diplomat
edged ahead in Costa Rica's presidential election on Sunday,
riding a wave of disgust at government corruption to get within
reach of wresting power from the centrist government in an April
run-off.
    Luis Guillermo Solis, an academic who has never been elected
to office, had a slim lead over ruling party candidate Johnny
Araya despite trailing in pre-election polls and early vote
returns.
    Araya was seen as the front-runner ahead of the vote, but
his campaign was hurt by corruption scandals that plagued
President Laura Chinchilla's administration.
    Solis, who ran on an anti-corruption ticket, won 30.9
percent support on Sunday compared to 29.6 percent for Araya
with returns in from around 82 percent of polling centers. 
    Left-wing lawmaker Jose Maria Villalta was in third place
with 17.2 percent. His supporters could help carry Solis to
victory in the run-off against Araya, although votes from a host
of smaller parties who commanded around a quarter of the tally
on Sunday will also be fought over.
    A Solis victory in the run-off would mark another triumph
for center-left parties which have gained ground in much of
Latin America in recent years.
    "Costa Rica's time has come," Solis said with a wry
expression as his supporters cheered to the blare of music on
Sunday night. "From coast to coast, the rising wave has become a
great tsunami that has washed away traditional politics
forever."
  
    Araya, 56, promised to reduce poverty and painted his
leftist rivals as radicals who are a threat to Central America's
second-largest economy.
    "We represent the safe road, the responsible road, to
maintain political, economic and social stability in Costa
Rica," Araya told flag-waving supporters of his National
Liberation Party after vote returns showed him losing his early
lead.
    Voter anger over government corruption buoyed his
left-leaning rivals, who also promised to tackle inequality in
the coffee-producing nation.
    Gaffes during the campaign, such as underestimating the
price of milk in an interview, distanced Araya from some voters.
A prosecutor's probe into allegations of abuse of authority and
embezzlement while Araya was mayor of San Jose also dampened his
appeal.
    Solis, who cut his teeth working in Costa Rica's foreign
ministry, surged late in the campaign by pledging to improve
infrastructure, overhaul the country's universal health care
provider and stamp out corruption.    
    That resonated with some voters after Chinchilla sparked
outrage by accepting flights on a private jet, despite laws
barring public officials from accepting sizeable gifts.
    "The National Liberation Party has been in power for eight
years, and if it has stood out for anything, it has been its
extreme corruption," said Eduardo Solano, 23, a union legal
advisor.
    The eventual winner will have to tackle growing government
debt that totals more than half of gross domestic product.
    "If they don't do something, then this somewhat negative
trend on the debt could continue and that could have an impact
on the credit rating," said Joydeep Mukherji, a sovereign credit
analyst with Standard & Poor's, which rates Costa Rica at BB
with a stable outlook.
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