'Outsider' Solis leads in Costa Rica presidential vote

Luis Guillermo Solis, presidential candidate for the Citizens' Action Party, addresses supporters in San Jose February 2, 2014 In a surprise turn-around, Luis Guillermo Solis gained the lead in Costa Rica's presidential election

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With more than 80% of the votes counted in Costa Rica's presidential election, Luis Guillermo Solis of the left-leaning Citizens' Action Party has a one-percentage-point lead.

Mr Solis, 55, edged ahead of the governing National Liberation Party's Johnny Araya, 56, who had led in opinion polls and early vote returns.

If Mr Solis wins in the 6 April run-off, it would be another victory for centre-left parties in Latin America.

He ran on an anti-corruption ticket.

Continuity v change

With 82% of the votes counted, Mr Solis was ahead with 30.9%, followed by Mr Araya on 29.6% and Jose Maria Villalta of the left-wing Frente Amplio (Broad Front) with 17.2%.

Johnny Araya, presidential candidate of the ruling National Liberation Party, addresses supporters in San Jose on 2 February, 2014 Pre-election opinion polls had suggested Johnny Araya was the favourite to win

As none of the candidates has won the 40% of the vote needed for an outright victory, the poll is expected to go into a run-off between the top two candidates on 6 April.

While his first-round lead is very slim, analysts say Mr Solis would be likely to pick up the votes of Mr Villalta's supporters in the second round.

They say Mr Araya's support was eroded by a series of corruption scandals involving his predecessor in office, Laura Chinchilla, and the governing National Liberation Party.

Mr Araya had promised to reduce poverty and to maintain a stable economy.

"We represent the safe road, the responsible road, to maintain political, economic and social stability in Costa Rica," he told supporters as the counting was under way.

But as he lost his early lead he admitted his party had not done enough to distance itself from recent scandals.

"There's no doubt that the result shows that we've not made it clear to the people that we're going to correct [our course], that we want responsible change," he said.

Euphoric

Mr Solis, whom pre-election opinion polls had never shown as a favourite, was euphoric at the surprise turn-around.

Luis Guillermo Solis, presidential candidate for the Citizens' Action Party, greets supporters in San Jose February 2, 2014 Mr Solis and his supporters were ecstatic when the counting started to show him in the lead

"Costa Rica's time has come," he said.

"From coast to coast, the rising wave has become a great tsunami that has washed away traditional politics forever."

The winner of the run-off will replace president Laura Chinchilla, who became the first female president of Costa Rica in 2010.

Ms Chinchilla was barred from running again under the country's constitution, which does not allow presidents to serve for consecutive terms.

Her successor in office faces a deeply divided Congress with representatives from nine parties, none of which has a clear majority.

Analysts say the new president will also have to tackle growing government debt and rising unemployment.

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