Costa Ricans Expected to Elect Nobel Laureate as President

A Nobel Peace Prize winner who supports a free-trade agreement with the United States was favored in pre-election polls as Costa Ricans chose a new president on Sunday. He faced a rival who says the pact would hurt farmers.

Turnout was low nationwide, officials and analysts said, thanks to indifference stemming from scandals involving three former presidents.

"This is a cold election because people are disillusioned with our politicians," said Elena Hidalgo, a 52-year-old lawyer who waited behind three people in an upper-middle-class San Jose suburb.

Oscar Arias, who won the 1987 peace prize for working to end Central American civil wars during an earlier term as president, was expected to win easily.

"Today, we'll make reality what the polls have been saying," Arias said.

A distant second in the polls was Otton Solis, president of the Citizens Action Party, who lost the presidential election four years ago.

The scion of a wealthy coffee farming family, Arias, 65, has pushed for Costa Rica to join the Central American Free Trade Agreement with the United States, arguing it would help revitalize the country's stagnant economy.

Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic have joined the pact.

Arias, 65, also has vowed to improve the country's infrastructure — especially the thousands of pothole-filled roads — and invest more in education and housing.

This mountainous country has a thriving ecotourism industry and relatively high-paying jobs but a 20 percent poverty rate.

Solis, a 51-year-old economist, says the free-trade pact should be renegotiated because it would exacerbate poverty and hurt small-scale farmers.

Costa Rica traditionally has had the region's highest voter turnout, but only about half of the eligible 2.5 million voters were expected to head to the polls, analysts said.

In San Jose, the country's capital, the longest line to vote was at a park where clowns guided hundreds of children to tiny polls for a make-believe election.

"The people are tired of so many unfulfilled campaign promises," said Luis Carranza, a 41-year-old photo shop employee.

Twelve other candidates also are vying for the presidency. If no one wins at least 40 percent, the top two candidates meet in a runoff April 2.

Costa Ricans were also choosing all 57 members of congress, two vice presidents and dozens of city councilors.