February 3, 2002

With race close, Costa Rica faces possibility of presidential runoff

                 SAN JOSE, Costa Rica (AP) -- Honking car horns and waving the flags of
                 their favorite candidates, Costa Ricans voted for a new president Sunday in a
                 close election that could force the country's first runoff.

                 Recent polls indicated the three main candidates were running neck-and-neck, and
                 it was likely that none would get the 40 percent needed to become president. If that
                 happens, the two top vote-getters would face off in a second election April 7.

                 Sunday's vote also marked the first time a third party candidate has had a viable
                 shot at the presidency. Otton Solis, who broke away from the country's main
                 opposition party a year ago and announced he was running under the newly formed
                 Citizens' Action party, has been steadily gaining ground in opinion polls.

                 Voting in his hometown four hours south of San Jose, Solis promised to help
                 farmers and fight government corruption -- two of his main campaign themes.

                 "You govern for the people, or you don't govern at all," he said.

                 Solis' message and the emergence of an alternative to the two main parties
                 persuaded 64-year-old Jorge Rodriguez to get up at 5 a.m. to vote -- and serve as
                 an election observer.

                 During Costa Rica's last presidential election, four years earlier, he didn't even
                 bother leaving his house, among a record 30 percent of the 2.3 million registered
                 voters who didn't head to the polls.

                 "Now we have another way to protest," he said of Solis' new party. "It's like I'm
                 being reborn."

                 Crowds began to form at the polls as they opened at 6 a.m., suggesting Costa
                 Rica's tight race and heightened debate had encouraged more voter participation.

                 "It's a reaction to the abuse of the traditional political parties," Rodriguez said.
                 "They just govern for themselves. At least now, even if they win, they will realize
                 that they have to govern for the people."

                 A few feet away, Abel Pacheco of the ruling Social Christian Unity Party waded
                 through a crowd of supporters and ducked behind a cardboard screen that read
                 "Your vote is secret," marking his ballot at a ramshackle school in San Jose.

                 The candidate repeated pledges to unite the country after the election.

                 "That's why I'm here, to defend the people," he said.

                 Despite the close race, candidate Rolando Araya of the opposition National
                 Liberation Party said he believed Sunday's election would produce a new leader.

                 "There won't be another vote," he said. "The people don't want to get the country
                 caught up in the hassles of two more months of campaigning."

                 All candidates have opposed any plans to privatize state-run utilities as well as any
                 free trade agreements that they believe don't benefit the country.

                 In the last poll published before the election, the private firm Unimer gave Pacheco
                 33.5 percent, Araya 29.7 percent and Solis 28.4 percent. The poll's 2.8 percent
                 margin of error meant no candidate could claim a lead.

                 Some 200 international observers will be monitoring the nearly 1,900 voting places
                 Sunday. However, Costa Rica's elections are generally peaceful, with supporters
                 setting up festive booths and playing music outside polling places while helping
                 voters find where they should cast their ballot.

                 "Here politics is like soccer," voter Sandra Morales said, watching children in
                 campaign T-shirts chase each other. "Everything is a party."

                  Copyright 2002 The Associated Press.