By Alexandra Alper and Zach Dyer
SAN JOSE Feb 2 Costa Rica's centrist ruling
party front-runner seeks to fend off a leftist surge fueled by
voter resentment over government corruption scandals and rising
inequality as voters in Central America's second-largest economy
head to the polls on Sunday.
Centrist former San Jose Mayor Johnny Araya is leading on
promises to reduce poverty, while distancing himself from
President Laura Chinchilla's scandal-plagued government and
painting rivals as radicals.
But voter anger over government corruption has buoyed a
challenge from leftist lawmaker Jose Maria Villalta, who also
promises to tackle inequality in the coffee-producing nation.
If none of the thirteen candidates wins more than 40 percent
of votes, as expected, there will be an run-off in April for
only the second time in Costa Rican history.
A winner will have to tackle growing debt that totals more
than half of gross domestic product, as generous salaries and
mandatory education spending weigh on a weak tax take.
"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.
Moody's Investor Service, which rates Costa Rica just a
notch above speculative grade, cut the country's outlook to
negative from stable in September over fiscal concerns.
Villalta told Reuters on Saturday he would seek to address
the problem by combating waste, tax evasion, and lightening a
heavy burden on the middle class if he wins.
"What we want is a progressive reform with greater tax
fairness where those who have more pay more," he said.
A lawyer by training, Villalta, 36, cut his teeth organizing
against the Central American Free Trade Agreement.
He is the only member of his Broad Front party, formed in
2004, to serve in Congress during the 2010-14 term. But he
proposed more than 100 bills, including one to strip high-level
officials of immunity while in office.
That resonated with voters, after Chinchilla sparked outrage
by accepting flights on a private jet, despite laws barring
public officials from accepting sizeable gifts.
Araya, 56, has also promised to tackle the deficit by
limiting public sector bonuses, creating a capital gains tax and
shifting to a value added tax.
The National Liberation Party frontrunner won praise for
public art projects during his 22 years as mayor, but he has
faced criticism for an autocratic style.
Gaffes, like underestimating the price of milk in an
interview, have distanced Araya from equality-conscious voters,
while the national prosecutor's probe of allegations of abuse of
authority and embezzlement have also dampened his appeal.
"(Araya) has done nothing as mayor. He is not qualified to
run a country," said Cesar Diaz Badilla, 33, a call center
But some centrist voters prefer Araya to unknown figures
like Villalta, dubbed by critics as Costa Rica's version of
Venezuela's late socialist leader, Hugo Chavez.
"I'm not for Liberation, but with them we more or less know
what we are getting," said Rafael Vargas, who drives a cab in
Costa Rica's second city of Alajuela. "With Villalta ... another
Venezuela could be waiting for us."