SAN JOSE, Feb 5 — Costa Ricans voted for a new president yesterday in a race upended by debate over same-sex marriage, with leading candidates in the crowded field fiercely opposing gay rights and challenging the country’s traditionally centrist politics.
Polls closed yesterday evening, with initial results expected by 8pm.
If no candidate wins at least 40 per cent of the vote, a run-off election with the top two finishers is set for early April.
Conservative Christian singer and TV anchor Fabricio Alvarado skyrocketed to the top of the 13-person field in opinion polls in the run-up to the vote, after denouncing a January ruling by the region’s top human rights court that called on Costa Rica to give equal civil marriage rights to gay and lesbian couples.
A shift in support towards issue-based politics and relative outsiders has been a shock for some in Costa Rica, which has long offered a moderate two-party system and more stability than other countries in politically volatile Central America.
“I voted even though I wasn’t convinced. I decided to because they said anyone could get to the second round,” Amador Torres, a 65-year old former judiciary worker, said.
The voting was peaceful, with hundreds of Costa Ricans, many waving party flags of red, yellow, green, white and blue, manning stalls in front of polling stations.
The 43-year-old Alvarado, the lone elected lawmaker for the evangelical National Restoration Party, has called last month’s ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights a violation of Costa Rica’s sovereignty and an affront to traditional values.
“We have to stand up to those who want to trample on the family,” he said during the final debate of the campaign. He threatened to pull Costa Rica out of the court, which is based in the country’s capital, San Jose.
Running a close second to Alvarado in one recent opinion poll, conservative Juan Diego Castro, a former justice minister, is aiming to lure voters with an anti-crime platform, as well as pushing for less restrictions on miners and oil companies.
Rival Antonio Alvarez, a banana entrepreneur and candidate for the National Liberation Party, has said that while he personally opposes the court’s decision, he would respect it if he wins.
Among the few candidates who embraced the court’s resolution is Carlos Alvarado, a former labor minister in the outgoing government of President Luis Guillermo Solis.
“I’ve been surprised by the growth of minority parties,” said voter Olman Gomez, 49, a computer network engineer. “It feels like you’re living in another country in terms of politics.”
The candidates, dressed in their party colors, voted early yesterday, with some attending religious services afterward.
Solis, a former diplomat and history professor, won in a landslide four years ago but has seen his popularity fall as an investigation into an influence peddling scandal has unfolded.
He is barred by law from seeking a second consecutive term.
Solis gained international attention when he hoisted a rainbow flag along with the Costa Rican flag atop his office just a week after he was sworn in, as a statement against homophobia.
Parts of Latin America have been moving towards more rights for same-sex couples, with gay and lesbian couples marrying in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Uruguay and in parts of Mexico.
Costa Rica’s 3.3 million voters are predominantly Roman Catholic and most describe themselves as conservative.
“The next president has to get into the difficult issues in the country and not be in fights over religion,” said Ronald Pina, a 45-year-old government worker in the upper middle class Escazu neighborhood of San Jose.
“I vote for someone to govern, not to pray.” — Reuters