By Enrique Andres Pretel
SAN JOSE (Reuters) – Costa Ricans went to the polls on Sunday to choose a new president in a race upended by a debate over same-sex marriage, as leading candidates in the crowded field fiercely opposed gay rights that have recently gained ground in Latin America.
Conservative Christian singer and TV anchor Fabricio Alvarado skyrocketed to the top of the 13-person field after denouncing a January ruling by the region’s top human rights court that called on Costa Rica to give equal civil marriage rights to gay and lesbian couples.
If no candidate wins at least 40 percent of Sunday’s vote, a run-off election with the top two finishers is set for early April. Initial results are expected by 8 p.m. local time (2100 ET/0200 GMT Monday).
Hundreds of Costa Ricans, many waving party flags of red, yellow, green, white and blue, set up stalls in front of polling stations early on Sunday, hoping to win over any remaining undecided voters.
The 43-year-old Alvarado, a congressman with the National Restoration Party, has called last month’s ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights a violation of Costa Rica’s sovereignty and an affront to traditional values.
“We have to stand up to those who want to trample on the family,” he said during the final debate of the campaign, and he threatened to pull out of the court as a result.
Rival Antonio Alvarez, a banana entrepreneur and candidate of the National Liberation Party, has said that while he personally opposes the court’s decision, he would respect it if he wins.
Among the few candidates who embraced the court’s resolution is Carlos Alvarado, a former labor minister in the outgoing government of President Luis Gillermao Solis.
Elsewhere in the region, gay and lesbian couples can marry in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Uruguay and in parts of Mexico.
“The next president has to get into the difficult issues in the country and not be in fights over religion,” said Ronald Pina, a 45-year-old government worker in the upper middle class Escazu neighborhood of San Jose.
“I vote for someone to govern, not to pray.”
Running a close second in one recent opinion poll, conservative Juan Diego Castro, a former justice minister, is aiming to lure voters with an anti-crime platform as well as pushing for less restrictions on miners and oil companies.
A high-end coffee exporter, Costa Rica is well-known for its environmental stewardship and thriving eco-tourism sector.
The candidates, dressed in their party colors, went to vote early on Sunday, with some attending religious services afterward.
Solis, a former diplomat and history professor, won in a landslide four years ago but has seen his popularity slide as an investigation into an influence peddling scandal has unfolded.
He is barred by law from seeking a second term.
Solis gained international attention when he hoisted a rainbow flag along with the Costa Rican flag atop his office just a week after he took office as a statement against homophobia.
Costa Rica’s 3.3 million voters are predominantly Roman Catholic and most describe themselves as conservative.
(Reporting by Enrique Andres Pretel; Writing by David Alire Garcia; Editing by Daniel Wallis)