February 5, 2006

Pro-trade Arias slightly ahead in Costa Rica election

By Chris Aspin

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica (Reuters) - Nobel Peace laureate Oscar
Arias narrowly led Costa Rica's presidential election on
Sunday, but it was unclear if he would win a return to power at
the first try or have to face a runoff.

The first official results showed Arias slightly ahead with
41 percent of the votes, just above the 40 percent needed to
clinch a first-round victory

His main rival Otton Solis, a former planning minister, was
at 40 percent after votes from 22 percent of polling stations
were counted.

An Arias victory would 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.

President from 1986-1990, he won the Nobel Peace Prize in
1987 for his efforts to end civil conflicts in neighboring
Central American countries.

Television exit polls gave Arias a wider lead at 45 percent
but Oscar Fonseca, head of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal said
the result did not look so clear cut.

The top two candidates will go to a second round of voting
in April if no one wins more than 40 percent this time.

"At this hour we still don't know whether the president has
been chosen or if his election will be delayed until April 2,"
Fonseca said.

Supporters of both Arias and Solis rejoiced, waving flags
and hooting car horns in the streets of the capital.

Although he backs free trade, Arias criticized Washington
for neglecting Central America since the 1980s, when the United
States sent military aid to stop leftist rebel insurgencies.

"The U.S. government has become more egotistical since the
Cold War. Instead of rewarding us for putting down arms, they
punished us," he told a Mexican radio station.


Costa Rica is home to four million people and is roughly
the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined. It sees itself
as the most orderly country in a part of the world torn by
crime, mass emigration and instability.

But that reputation 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 companies.

"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, 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.

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 and Lorraine Orlandi)