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Ex-Treasury Minister Wins Costa Rica's Presidency in Runoff

Costa Rica's former finance minister Rodrigo Chaves speaks to supporters at his headquarters in San Jose, Costa Rica, after winning a presidential runoff election, Sunday, April 3, 2022. (Carlos Gonzalez/AP)

SAN JOSE, COSTA RICA — A former Costa Rican finance minister beat one of the country's former presidents in a presidential runoff election Sunday, according to preliminary results from the vote that stirred little enthusiasm among voters.

With 95% of polling stations reporting, Rodrigo Chaves led Jose Figueres Ferrer with 53% of the vote to 47%, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal said. More than 42% of eligible Costa Ricans did not vote.

Figueres accepted his defeat less than an hour after results began to come in as Chaves continued his surprising surge after coming in second place to Figueres in the first round of voting Feb. 6.

Figueres, who led Costa Rica from 1994 to 1998, represents the National Liberation Party like his father, three-time president Jose Figueres Ferrer. Chaves served briefly in the administration of outgoing President Carlos Alvarado and represents the Social Democratic Progress Party.

Both men waged a bruising campaign that highlighted past controversies. Neither approached the 40% of the vote necessary to avoid a runoff in the first round of voting. The latest opinion polls had put them in a tight contest heading into Sunday's vote.

More than 3.5 million Costa Ricans were eligible to vote, but with many voters underwhelmed by the options, turnout was even lower than the 60% in February.

Lines formed before voting started at some polling places in San Jose, the capital, while others appeared nearly empty.

Juan Morales, a 68-year-old retiree, voted early to avoid any crowds.

“I hope that everyone comes out to vote today,” he said. “I know that they don't like the candidates much, but we have to elect a president and voting is to take care of democracy.”

Political analyst Francisco Barahona said Costa Ricans' lack of enthusiasm was the result of the multitude of personal attacks that characterized the campaigns of both candidates.

“In the debates they only heated things up in personal confrontations, mistreatment of each other,” he said. “They didn't add depth to their proposals to resolve the country's problems. The debates didn't help to motivate the electorate.”

Barahona expected a high rate of abstention because of the general dissatisfaction with both candidates.

“For a lot of people, it's embarrassing to say they voted for one or the other, and many prefer to say they won't vote for either of the candidates or simply won't go to vote,” Barahona said.

Chaves' campaign is under investigation by electoral authorities for allegedly running an illegal parallel financing structure. He has been dogged by a sexual harassment scandal that drove him out of the World Bank.

Figueres has been questioned over a $900,000 consulting fee he received after his presidency from the telecommunication company Alcatel while it competed for a contract with the national electricity company. He was never charged with any crime and denied any wrongdoing.

While Costa Rica has enjoyed relative democratic stability compared with other countries in the region, the public has grown frustrated with public corruption scandals and high unemployment.

In the February vote, Alvarado's party was practically erased from the political landscape, receiving no seats in the new congress. At the time of that first vote, the country was riding a new wave of COVID-19 infections, but infections and hospitalizations have fallen considerably since.