January 20, 2006

Nobel laureate headed for power again in Costa Rica

By John McPhaul

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica (Reuters) - Nobel Peace Prize winner
and Costa Rica's former president Oscar Arias is widely tipped
to return to power in February elections as voters turn to an
untarnished icon after a slew of corruption scandals.

Arias, a 65-year-old free market moderate, has a commanding
lead and all polls show him easily winning more than 40 percent
support, the threshold needed for a first round victory in the
February 5 vote.

Arias says he decided to run for another term to put this
Central American nation back on course after it was rocked by
bribery scandals shaming three other former presidents.

Costa Rica is famed for its lush jungle, top quality coffee
and ecotourism resorts but the disgrace has taken the wind out
of the country's sails.

Arias is Costa Rica's most famous son after he won the
Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for authoring a peace plan that
helped end bloody civil wars elsewhere in Central America.

Support is high for Arias, who was president from 1986 to
1990, because he has not been smeared by the scandals, although
critics slam him as heavy-handed and arrogant.

"For me he is an honest person. He has his companies, but
he governs for everyone," said Ernesto Matamoros, 72, a retired
bank employee who plans to vote for Arias, the scion of a
wealthy coffee family and a lawyer and economist.

Two former presidents were jailed last year for receiving
kickbacks from foreign companies. Another ex leader is living
in Europe and has so far refused to return to face questioning
on similar allegations.

An Arias victory would buck a trend in Latin America, where
leftists have won a spate of recent elections as voters turned
their backs on free market policies.

Arias, who likens himself to former U.S. President Bill
Clinton, backs the Central American Free Trade Agreement with
the United States. Costa Rica is the only nation in the region
still to ratify the so-called CAFTA accord.


Support for Arias comes from voters who like his trade
stance and from his last presidency, when he put Costa Rica's
economic house in order and prompted a tourism boom.

"I'm supporting him because last time he made a good
president," said Carmen Mora, 63, a retiree.

Arias says Costa Rica needs the CAFTA agreement to boost
economic growth rates to 6 percent per year from current levels
of 4 percent. He also wants to slash bureaucracy.

"We need a strong state, not a big state." he said. "We
have a state that is too inefficient, sclerotic, chaotic."

Running a distant second in the race is Otton Solis, a
former planning minister from the Citizen Action Party, who
wants to renegotiate CAFTA.

Critics say Arias seized control of the National Liberation
Party last year by declaring himself its nominee and canceling
a convention where members were to have selected a candidate.

"Arias is a political steamroller," said Luis Guillermo
Solis, a former party member.

If no candidate wins more than 40 percent of the vote, the
top two will go to a second round on April 2.

The next president will replace outgoing Abel Pacheco,
whose government has been overshadowed by the scandals. His
Social Christian Unity Party has fallen apart in the disgrace.