Ex-president takes lead in Costa Rica vote; runoff likely

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A couple walks to cast their vote at the Liceo de Moravia school voting center during general elections, in San Jose, Costa Rica, Sunday, Feb. 6, 2022. Ricans will choose a new president and National Assembly in the elections that are taking place days after the country's top prosecutor filed papers seeking to lift outgoing President Carlos Alvarado's immunity so he can face charges related to the collection of personal information on citizens. (AP Photo/Carlos Gonzalez)

SAN JOSE – A former Costa Rican president took an early lead in a national election that seemed likely to head to a runoff election in April against surprise second-place contender Rodrigo Chaves.

José María Figueres, who was the country's president from 1994 to 1998, had 27.3% of the vote in preliminary results released by the Supreme Elections Tribunal Monday, with 88% of the votes counted. Figueres is the candidate for the National Liberation Party.

Figueres is nothing if not well-known to voters in Costa Rica; his father was three-time president José Figueres Ferrer, probably the country's most important political figure of the last century.

The younger Figueres has been questioned over a $900,000 consulting fee he received after his presidency from the telecommunication company Alcatel while it competed for a contract with the national electricity company. He was never charged with any crime and denied any wrongdoing.

But Chaves was an unexpected second place, winning 16.7% of the vote for his Social Democratic Progress party.

The 60-year-old, U.S.-educated economist has been accused of sexual harassment by two women during his career as a former World Bank executive. The women accused him of inappropriate comments about their relationships and appearance.

Chaves was demoted by the World Bank before he left. The issue played a role in primary campaigns, but he gained support because of his criticisms of highly unpopular outgoing President Carlos Alvarado.

Chaves served seven months as Finance Minister in the administration of Alvarado between 2019 and 2020, and resigned because of differences over how to manage the country's spending deficit.

There were 25 presidential candidates running in Sunday's race, and because none of them appeared to get at least 40% of the vote, a runoff will be held April 3 between the top two vote-getters.

Figueres and Chaves were trailed by Fabricio Alvarado, who lost to President Carlos Alvarado four years ago, with 15% for his New Republic party. Former vice president Lineth Saborio for Christian Social Unity had 12.4%, and Eli Feinzaig of the Liberal Progressive party had 12.3%.

Costa Ricans also chose a new National Assembly in the elections Sunday, which took place days after the country’s top prosecutor filed papers seeking to lift outgoing President Alvarado’s immunity so he can face justice.

Costa Ricans are frustrated by high unemployment, recent public corruption scandals and another surge of COVID-19 infections. New COVID-19 infections are running around 6,000 a day in the country of five million.

Voting centers were busy Sunday morning as some Costa Ricans tried to beat the typical late day crowds. Lines of voters lasted throughout the day, ad turnout was about 60%. Each person had to wash their hands, wear a mask and maintain distance inside the polling places.

Karla Delgado, a 34-year-old teacher, said the surging infections worried her, but she felt compelled to do her civic duty.

“I think that with a mask and all being well vaccinated, it's worth coming out and participating in the democratic celebration,” Delgado said. “I think the protocols are good and I hope that all of this doesn't increase the infections much.”

“I hoped for fewer people in the morning, because you want to avoid the lines, but from what I've seen a lot of people thought the same and came to vote early,” said 68-year-old retiree Carlos Rodríguez in the capital.

He didn't share his choice for president, but said he hoped there would be some surprises among candidates who hadn't polled particularly well.

“We're going to have to come to vote again in April, I'm sure of that,” he said.