February 5, 2006

Pro-trade Arias wins Costa Rica election – polls

By Chris Aspin

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica (Reuters) - Nobel Peace Prize winner
and former president Oscar Arias won Costa Rica's presidential
election on Sunday and is likely to avoid a second round of
voting in April, TV exit polls showed.

Arias, a 65-year-old social democrat, garnered 45 percent
of the votes, above the 40 percent required for a first-round
victory, surveys for two television channels said.

Otton Solis, a former planning minister, trailed Arias. One
poll gave him 26 percent, while another had him on 37 percent.

Official results were due later on Sunday.

An Arias victory will boost U.S. President George W. Bush's
free trade plans in the region. Arias wants Costa Rica's
Congress to drop its opposition to ratifying a trade agreement
between the United States and Central America, known as CAFTA.

But Arias needs to do well in elections for Congress, also
on Sunday, to be assured of pushing the trade pact through.

Costa Rica's president from 1986-1990, Arias won the Nobel
Peace Prize in 1987 for his efforts to end civil conflicts in
neighboring Central American countries.

He won support for his comeback from voters angry at recent
governments because of a series of corruption scandals.

"People are very disillusioned because in recent elections
we have not been able to elect a good president and because two
former presidents were corrupt," said Lourdes Moras, 34, a
graphic designer who voted in the capital city.

Costa Rica's reputation as the most orderly country in a
difficult region took a battering when ex-presidents Rafael
Angel Calderon and Miguel Angel Rodriguez were both jailed
briefly in 2004 on charges of taking kickbacks from foreign


Costa Rica, a major coffee producer, abolished its army
almost 60 years ago and was stable in the 1980s when its
neighbors were ravaged by civil war.

Many voters looked to Arias, the country's most famous son,
to help restore national pride.

"He has the experience that the other candidates lack,"
said Vicente Martin, 43, a public works employee.

In a telephone interview with Mexican radio before the
polls closed, Arias criticized the United States for neglecting
Central America since the end of the Cold War, when Washington
sent military aid to stop leftist rebel insurgencies.

"Instead of rewarding us for putting down arms, they
punished us," said Arias.

Often accused in Costa Rica of being arrogant, Arias
compares himself to former U.S. President Bill Clinton.

His main rival Solis, 51, a centrist who leads the Citizen
Action Party, backs the CAFTA deal but wants to renegotiate
parts of it.

Leftists have won a string of recent elections in Latin
America but the left in Costa Rica is split into several
factions with virtually no chance of grabbing power.

Costa Rica's long-standing two-party system has been shaken
by the scandals and the Social Christian Unity Party of current
President Abel Pacheco has little support now.

(Additional reporting by John McPhaul)