Ex-president heads into Costa Rica run-off, ex-finance minister likely awaits

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SAN JOSE, Feb 6 (Reuters) - Former president Jose Maria Figueres comfortably led the preliminary vote count in Sunday's Costa Rican presidential election, with former finance minister Rodrigo Chaves poised to defy expectations to face him in a second-round run-off.

Figueres was seen winning 27.3% of the vote based on returns from nearly three-quarters of polling stations, with economist Chaves pulling past evangelical Christian Fabricio Alvarado to carve out an advantage in second with 16.6% of the tally.

Chaves, a former World Bank official who has forged an anti-establishment reputation since running the finance ministry for about half a year under outgoing Costa Rican President Carlos Alvarado, had been running fourth in recent opinion polls.

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"Chaves has a liberal economic position, is socially conservative, pro-law and order and against the political class," said Rotsay Rosales, a political scientist and head of the National Policy Observatory of the University of Costa Rica.

Fabricio Alvarado of the neo-Pentecostal New Republic Party and runner-up in the Central American country's 2018 election, was running third, garnering support of 15.2%.

To win the first round outright, a candidate had to secure more than 40% of votes. The two leading contenders will face each other in a run-off on April 3. A total of 25 candidates were competing in the first round.

Chaves, who in the campaign rejected accusations he had been censured for sexual harassment earlier in his career, urged Figueres to pursue a dignified discourse in the run-off.

"I have been attacked by few, but very viciously. If I made a mistake, I apologize," he told supporters.

Figueres, who governed from 1994 to 1998 under the centrist National Liberation Party, had been a slight favorite heading into the first round, according to opinion polls.

All 57 seats of the national legislative assembly are also up for grabs. A divided legislature is likely, with local media forecasting Figueres' National Liberation Party (PLN) would win the most seats with 19, but well short of a majority.

Costa Ricans have said they want their next leader to tackle corruption and high unemployment rates during a four-year term.

The electoral tribunal said voting went smoothly across the country and reported a preliminary turnout of about 60%.

In the capital, San Jose, Enrique Romero, a 52-year-old construction worker, said he would vote for Figueres.

"I want things to improve, that the government functions better," Romero said. "The situation is critical. It is not about going back to the past, but about moving forward and learning from experience."

President Carlos Alvarado, a center-left politician, cannot seek a second consecutive term.

About a third of the voters in the Central American nation of about 5 million people had not made up their minds on whom to back ahead of the election, according to opinion polls.

Victor Morales, a 56-year-old who sells flags, was among those who were undecided.

"My business has dropped due to the bad governments we have had," Morales said. "Before, people used to rally to support political parties."

The ruling center-left Citizen Action (PAC) party, which has been in power for two terms, received less than 1% of support in the Center for Research and Political Studies poll.

The national assembly, among other responsibilities, is due to negotiate important financial support from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

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Reporting by Alvaro Murillo in San Jose; Additional reporting by Diego Ore; Writing by Stefanie Eschenbacher; Editing by Chris Reese, Clarence Fernandez, Gerry Doyle and Michael Perry

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