- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 7, 2006

Nobel laureatefaces surprisecompetition

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — Battered by government scandals, Costa Rica slid further into uncertainty yesterday when a presidential election that could decide the future of a trade deal with Washington was gridlocked.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Oscar Arias, a former president, was tied with Otton Solis, and an electoral official said it could take more than a week before a winner was declared.

With votes from 85 percent of polling centers counted in Sunday’s election, Mr. Arias, a social democrat, was at 40.6 percent. Mr. Solis, who once worked for Mr. Arias as planning minister, had 40.2 percent.

Mr. Arias, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987 for efforts to end civil wars in Central America, was bullish.

“If I win one more vote than him, I am president,” he told journalists.

The country’s best-known son, Mr. Arias, 65, appealed to Costa Ricans angry about a series of corruption scandals.

But the vote was an unexpectedly strong showing for Mr. Solis, 51, a technocrat and former central bank official who said it was too early for claims of victory.

“I think it is a very delicate moment for the country, and we are going to wait until the end, until the electoral tribunal has processed all the votes because with such a small difference, anything can happen,” he told Costa Rican television.

A candidate needs more than 40 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff on April 2.

An Arias victory would help President Bush’s free-trade plans in the region. Mr. Arias wants Costa Rica’s Legislative Assembly to drop its opposition to the trade accord between the United States and Central America, known as CAFTA.

Mr. Solis backs the plan mostly, but wants to renegotiate it. Costa Rica is the only signatory not to ratify the deal.

Mr. Solis said the accord favors Washington too much in agriculture, telecommunications and the environment.

Costa Rica — long a haven of stability in a region torn by civil conflict, poverty and crime — suffered a blow to its self-image in 2004 when two ex-presidents were briefly arrested on accusations of taking bribes from foreign companies.

A third former leader is refusing to return from Europe to face questioning on similar charges.

Costa Rica has one of the highest inflation rates in Latin America, at an annual rate of about 14. percent in 2005. But planned fiscal reforms have stalled.

Investors are worried about stagnant government, said Boris Segura, an emerging-markets economist at Standish Mellon Asset Management in New York.

“Costa Rica has had eight years without a government. We have had two lost presidential terms,” he said.

Mr. Arias did well in the election for the legislature, also Sunday, which could help push the trade deal through, but his National Liberation Party looked as if it would fall short of a an absolute majority in the legislature.

Mr. Arias, the scion of a rich coffee family, ruled Costa Rica, roughly the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined, from 1986 to 1990 when the country stood out as a refuge of peace in a region torn by conflict.

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