March 29, 2018 / 5:19 PM / 21 days ago

Photo finish beckons for Costa Rican election fought on gay rights

SAN JOSE (Reuters) - Conservative Christian singer Fabricio Alvarado Munoz is in a tight race with his center-left ruling party rival ahead of a run-off on Sunday to decide Costa Rica’s presidential election, their campaigns driven by dueling views on gay rights.Alvarado Munoz, a 43-year-old former television host, shot to the top of the polls in January soon after denouncing a ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights that month which called for the legalization of same-sex marriage.

Supporters of presidential candidate of the ruling Citizens' Action Party (PAC), Carlos Alvarado, cheer during the last debate before a second-round presidential election runoff in San Jose, Costa Rica, March 27, 2018. REUTERS/Juan Carlos Ulate.

He went on to win the first round ahead of ruling party candidate Carlos Alvarado Quesada, 38, a former minister also known for writing fiction and his student rock band.

“This division, this war that has played out in different ways ... has hit the country hard and the country doesn’t want it,” said Alvarado Munoz during the campaign’s final debate last week, emphasizing his support for traditional family values.

“Your homophobic positions are what have divided the country,” Alvarado Quesada countered at the same forum in which both candidates sought to break out of what some polls show is a dead heat.

Other surveys give Alvarado Munoz, an ex-congressman with the tiny evangelical National Restoration party, a solid lead. However, polls have a patchy record in Costa Rica and most misread the 2014 election.

Alvarado Quesada, who is no relation of his opponent, served in the cabinet of President Luis Guillermo Solis of the Citizens’ Action Party (PAC).

The fight over whether gays and lesbians should be able to marry has overshadowed other pressing issues like a growing budget deficit seen limiting funding for public safety and social programs while crime is rising.

The election is seen as a barometer for the mood in Latin America, where countries that passed laws favoring same-sex unions in recent years hold presidential elections over coming months.

Costa Rica, one of the region’s more prosperous and stable countries, was ruled by a two-party dynasty until 2014 when first-time candidate Solis rode an anti-corruption wave to power.

The unraveling of the old order raises the possibility that a significant number of Costa Rica’s 3.3 million voters will decide at the last minute.

Carlos Alvarado, presidential candidate of the ruling Citizens' Action Party (PAC), attends a live televised debate before a second-round presidential election runoff in San Jose, Costa Rica March 25, 2018. REUTERS/Juan Carlos Ulate.

“The absence of party identification leads to a couple of very unusual conditions: lots of voters who are undecided plus an unprecedented volatility in voter preferences,” said Ronald Alfaro, a pollster at the University of Costa Rica.

TWO COSTA RICAS

The bitter race has laid bare divisions between urban professionals who want political leaders to embrace modernity, and an older, more rural society that favors traditional ways.

Alvarado Munoz has pledged to fight what he calls the “secular state” and “gender ideology,” to eliminate sex education in schools and maintain strict restrictions on women’s access to abortion.

He says he would stiffen penalties for corruption and unleash an “iron fist” against crime, but has said less about budget priorities or anti-poverty measures.

“This is the biggest fundamentalist threat that Costa Rica has ever faced,” said Julia Ruiz, a 36 year-old accountant, while she and her girlfriends tried on dresses inspired by “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a web TV series based on the anti-totalitarian novel by Canadian author Margaret Atwood.

The women plan to wear the dresses as a protest against Alvarado Munoz’s socially conservative agenda.

Alvarado Quesada faces his own detractors, especially those fed up with the unpopular outgoing government.

Slideshow (7 Images)

The candidate has sought to dodge accusations of corruption plaguing the Solis administration by launching a plan to halve the budget deficit, while providing social assistance to the country’s poor and protecting minority rights.

Additional reporting by Alvaro Murillo; Writing by David Alire Garcia; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Richard Chang

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