Ex-President Takes Lead in Costa Rica Vote; Runoff Likely

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica (AP) -- A former Costa Rican president took an early lead in a national election that seemed likely to head to a runoff between the top candidates.

José María Figueres, who was the country's president from 1994 to 1998, had 27.7% of the vote in preliminary results released by the Supreme Elections Tribunal Sunday night with 48% of the votes counted. Figueres is the candidate for the National Liberation Party.

There are 25 presidential candidates running and if none of them captures at least 40% of the vote, a runoff will be held April 3 between the top two vote-getters.

Figueres was trailed by Rodrigo Chávez of Social Democratic Progress with 16.6%, Fabricio Alvarado, who lost to President Carlos Alvarado four years ago, with 16% for his New Republic party, and former vice president Lineth Saborio for Christian Social Unity with 13%. Any of the three could potentially face Figueres in the second round of voting.

Costa Ricans will also choose a new National Assembly in the elections, which take place days after the country's top prosecutor filed papers seeking to lift outgoing President Alvarado's immunity so he can face

Costa Ricans are frustrated by high unemployment, recent public corruption scandals and another surge of COVID-19 infections.

Voting centers were busy Sunday morning as some Costa Ricans tried to beat the typical late day crowds. Lines of voters lasted throughout the day. Each person had to wash their hands, wear a mask and maintain distance inside the polling places.

Karla Delgado, a 34-year-old teacher, said the surging infections worried her, but she felt compelled to do her civic duty.

"I think that with a mask and all being well vaccinated, it's worth coming out and participating in the democratic celebration," Delgado said. "I think the protocols are good and I hope that all of this doesn't increase the infections much."

The Supreme Elections Tribunal reported good turnout across the country.

"I hoped for fewer people in the morning, because you want to avoid the lines, but from what I've seen a lot of people thought the same and came to vote early," said 68-year-old retiree Carlos Rodríguez in the capital.

He didn't share his choice for president, but said he hoped there would be some surprises among candidates who hadn't polled particularly well.

"We're going to have to come to vote again in April, I'm sure of that," he said.

Figueres' National Liberation Party was founded by his father José Figueres Ferrer, who himself served as the country's president on three occasions in the 1940s, 50s and 70s.

The younger Figueres has been questioned over a $900,000 consulting fee he received after his presidency from the telecommunication company Alcatel while it competed for a contract with the national electricity company. He was never charged with any crime and denied any wrongdoing.

In addition to voter apathy, turnout remains uncertain because new COVID-19 infections are running around 6,000 a day.