A woman scrolls the electoral list in search of her voting table location during the presidential election in San Jose, Costa Rica, Sunday, Feb. 4, 2018. Costa Ricans voted Sunday in a presidential race shaken by an international court ruling saying the country should let same-sex couples get married. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)

Evangelical candidate leads early returns in Costa Rica vote

February 04, 2018 - 10:03 pm

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica (AP) — Early returns from Costa Rica's presidential election put evangelical candidate Fabricio Alvarado in the lead Sunday night but falling well short of what he would need to avoid a runoff.

With about 34 percent of the ballots counted, Alvarado was winning some 26.3 percent of the vote, followed by two rivals in a dead heat for second.

Agri-businessman Antonio Alvarez of the National Liberation Party had 19.9 percent, and Carlos Alvarado of the governing Citizens' Action Party had 19.3 percent.

If no one in the 13-candidate field finishes above 40 percent, the first two finishers advance to a second round of voting scheduled for April 1.

The race largely focused on gay marriage after a January ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights said Costa Rica should allow same-sex couples to wed, adopt children and enjoy other rights afforded to married couples.

Fabricio Alvarado recently vaulted into first place in opinion polls after he took a strong stance against same-sex marriage, something that about two-thirds of Costa Ricans also oppose.

But with so many candidates running and surveys indicating more than a third of likely voters were undecided heading into the election, prospects for a runoff seemed high.

"I see this as very divided," said Paula Rodriguez, a psychologist who cast her vote in Moravia, on the northeastern outskirts of the capital, San Jose. "I really think nobody knows what will happen."

Political analyst Francisco Barahona told The Associated Press that the gay marriage ruling came as an "external shock" for Costa Rica, a majority Roman Catholic nation with an increasing evangelical population.

Fabricio Alvarado, a journalist, preacher and Christian singer, called the ruling a "sovereign violation" and saw his support balloon in the polls as socially conservative voters gravitated to that stance.

"Our message has already won. We are very happy and we hope we have convinced more undecideds," Alvarado told local media Sunday before the polls closed.

Carlos Alvarado, who is not related to Fabricio Alvarado, was the only major candidate to openly back gay marriage and picked up some support recently from socially liberal voters. Trained as a journalist, he got his start in politics as communications director for Citizens' Action and also was labor minister under current President Luis Guillermo Solis.

Alvarez, a two-time president of the Legislative Assembly and a Cabinet minister under the first presidency of Oscar Arias in 1986-1990, said he opposes gay marriage but backs recognizing certain other rights for gay couples.

Some voters had other issues on their minds. Carlos Morales, who cast a ballot in the Guadalupe district of San Jose, said his biggest concern is that the next president manage the government's deficit without creating new taxes.

"They say the government is broke and to fix that they are going to impose more taxes on us," Morales said. "But I think people here are already living very tightly. Everything is very expensive, and that would hurt us all."

Voters were also selecting the 57 delegates that make up the Assembly.

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