Costa Rica leftist seen winning one-horse presidential run-off

Alexandra Alper
Luis Guillermo Solis, presidential candidate of the Citizens' Action Party, smiles during a walk in San Jose
Luis Guillermo Solis, presidential candidate of the Citizens' Action Party (PAC), smiles during a walk in San Jose April 4, 2014. Costa Rica's center-left presidential candidate Solis is expected to cruise to victory in the run-off election on April 6 after his ruling party rival quit campaigning in a bizarre twist last month. REUTERS/Juan Carlos Ulate

By Alexandra Alper

SAN JOSE (Reuters) - A center-left academic with a popular anti-corruption message but who has never been elected to office is expected to win Costa Rica's presidential election run-off on Sunday after his opponent slid in polls and stopped campaigning.

Luis Guillermo Solis, a former diplomat, rode a wave of anti-government sentiment over rising inequality and graft scandals to finish ahead in February's first-round vote, surprising pollsters who had placed him fourth.

Facing a depleted war chest, rival Johnny Araya of the ruling National Liberation Party (PLN) quit campaigning after an opinion poll showed him trailing badly. However, Araya remains on the ballot and his party continues to campaign, so theoretically he could win.

Solis has promised to fight Costa Rica's stubborn poverty while stamping out corruption, an issue that has dogged incumbent President Laura Chinchilla's administration.

"There's been so much abuse of power and the people are sick of it," said 63-year-old street vendor Raul Cabrera, who voted for the Citizen Action Party (PAC), Solis's party. "There are too many people without work."

Few voters turned up at voting stations shortly after polls opened on Sunday and local media footage showed the same was true across the country for most of the morning.

Solis urged those who stayed away to come out and vote.

No candidate won the more than 40 percent of votes needed in February to avoid a run-off, paving the way for Sunday's showdown.

Voters appear eager to elevate the young PAC to its first presidential victory and wrest power from the PLN, in power since 2006.

A prosecutor's investigation into allegations of abuse of authority and embezzlement while Araya was mayor of San Jose made it hard for the former front-runner to distance himself from party scandals.

Despite ending his campaign early, Araya said he would be happy to govern if he were to win the vote.

A University of Costa Rica survey last month showed Solis had more than 64 percent support while Araya trailed with around 21 percent. Within hours, Araya shelved his campaign.

Solis campaigned on a pledge to eradicate corruption and help the poorest.

"We want to recover that sense of solidarity, of social inclusion, and commitment to the neediest Costa Ricans that has been lost," Solis told a news conference on Saturday.

But Solis faces hurdles of his own.

Threatened by high rates of absenteeism typical of second-round voting and the looming challenge of a divided Congress, Solis could end up with a weak mandate. His PAC will have just 13 of the 57 seats in Congress.

Solis has also said he will wait two years before raising taxes despite promises to boost social spending.

"He's going to have a government without money, a fiscal deficit of 6 percent, and lots of social spending commitments," said Jose Carlos Chinchilla, a political analyst and a director at the University of Costa Rica.

Solis also has said he hopes to attract new businesses to Costa Rica's booming free-trade zones, which have enticed the likes of Hewlett Packard.

(Additional reporting by Zach Dyer; Editing by Simon Gardne, Gabriel Stargardter and Steve Orlofsky)