SAN JOSE, April 6 (Reuters) - A center-left academic who has never been elected to office is expected to easily win Costa Rica’s presidential election run-off on Sunday, after his ruling party rival unexpectedly ditched his bid last month.
Luis Guillermo Solis, a former diplomat, rode a wave of anti-government sentiment over rising inequality and corruption scandals to finish ahead in a first round of voting in February, surprising pollsters who had placed him fourth.
Facing a depleted war chest, his ruling party rival Johnny Araya then quit campaigning after an opinion poll showed him trailing badly.
Solis has promised to fight Costa Rica’s stubbornly high poverty rate while stamping out corruption, an issue that has dogged President Laura Chinchilla’s administration.
“We want to recover that sense of solidarity, of social inclusion, and commitment to the neediest Costa Ricans that has been lost,” Solis, of the Citizen Action Party (PAC), told a press conference on Saturday.
No candidate won the more than 40 percent of votes needed in February to avoid a run-off in the coffee-producing nation known for its white sand beaches, ecotourism and stable politics, paving the way for Sunday’s showdown.
The constitution requires Araya to remain on the ballot and his party continues to campaign, so theoretically he could win.
But voters appear keen to elevate the young PAC to its first presidential victory and wrest power from Araya’s embattled National Liberation Party (PLN), in power since 2006.
If Araya won “it would mean a robbery. My country would go bankrupt,” said Maria Fernando Sanchez, 21, a student at the University of Costa Rica, calling the PLN corrupt.
A prosecutor’s probe into allegations of abuse of authority and embezzlement while Araya was mayor of San Jose made it hard for the former front-runner to distance himself from party scandals.
A University of Costa Rica survey last month showed Solis had more than 64 percent support while Araya trailed with around 21 percent. Within hours, Araya said he would no longer campaign.
But Solis faces hurdles of his own.
Threatened by high rates of absenteeism typical of second-round voting and the looming challenge of a divided Congress, Solis could end up with a weak mandate. His PAC will have just 13 of the 57 seats in Congress.
Though Costa Rica’s growing debt stands at over half of gross domestic product, Solis has said he will wait two years before raising taxes despite promises to boost social spending.
“He’s going to have a government without money, a fiscal deficit of 6 percent, and lots of social spending commitments,” said Jose Carlos Chinchilla, a political analyst and a director at the University of Costa Rica.
Solis also has said he hopes to attract new businesses to set up shop in Costa Rica’s booming free-trade zones, which have enticed the likes of Hewlett Packard.
“We want Costa Rica to present itself as a country that is friendly to foreign investment, offering legal security but requiring compliance with labor laws,” Solis said. (Additional reporting by Zach Dyer; Editing by Simon Gardner and Lisa Shumaker)