February 6, 2006

Arias leads by fraction in tight Costa Rica vote

By Chris Aspin

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica (Reuters) - Costa Rica's Nobel Peace
laureate Oscar Arias, a former president who backs a free trade
pact with the United States, clung to a tiny lead in a
cliffhanger presidential election on Sunday,

With results from half of polling stations counted, social
democrat Arias had 40.7 percent of the vote against 40.3
percent for Otton Solis, who was once his planning minister.

Supporters of both men nervously watched computer screens
in their party headquarters as results trickled in.

Arias, 65, had been widely tipped to win, with the only
doubt being whether he would reach the 40 percent needed to
avoid a runoff.

"This is not resolved," Epsy Campbell, Solis' running mate,
told reporters.

"We are going to wait with a lot of patience," said Solis,
a technocrat and centrist for the Citizen Action Party.

A clear 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.

Solis, 51, seeks to renegotiate parts of the pact, which
came into force last month in Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala,
El Salvador, the Dominican Republic and the United States.

Arias needed to do well in elections for Congress, also on
Sunday, to be assured of pushing the trade deal through. His
National Liberation Party looked like it would win the most
congressional seats but without an absolute majority.

Television exit polls had given Arias a wider lead at 45
percent. The top two candidates will go to a second round of
voting on April 2 no one gets 40 percent of the vote.


Arias, the scion of a rich coffee family, won the Nobel
Peace Prize in 1987 for his efforts to end civil conflicts in
neighboring Central American countries.

He ruled Costa Rica, roughly the size of Vermont and New
Hampshire combined, from 1986 to 1990 when the country stood
out as a haven of peace in a region torn by civil war.

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.

Home to four million people, Costa Rica sees itself as an
orderly country in a part of the world blighted by crime, mass
emigration and instability.

But the jungle-clad nation has been stunned by a series of
corruption scandals in recent years.

Former 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.

Supporters 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.

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.

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

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.

(Additional reporting by John McPhaul and Lorraine Orlandi)