SAN JOSE: Costa Ricans headed to the polls on Sunday (Feb 6) to choose a new president from a crowded field, with no clear favourite for tackling growing economic concerns in one of Latin America's stablest democracies.
Voting kicked off at 6am and polls will remain open for 12 hours in this tourism-friendly nation of five million people.
The national election tribunal is expected to announce results some three hours after polls close, but a presidential runoff in April is anticipated.
Often referred to as the region's "happiest" country, Costa Rica is nonetheless grappling with a growing economic crisis.
"Voting is the most important weapon we have to solve problems," said 35-year-old Francisco Zeledon, the first voter in line at his polling station. "We have to solve poverty and create jobs for people."
The ruling Citizens' Action Party (PAC) appears set for a bruising defeat.
The economy has tanked under President Carlos Alvarado Quesada. And the PAC candidate, former economy minister Welmer Ramos, seems to be paying the price for sky-high anti-government feeling, with only 0.3 per cent of people expressing support.
"The ruling party is completely weakened and has no chance" after two successive terms in office, said political analyst Eugenia Aguirre.
"The presidential unpopularity figure of 72 percent is the highest since the number was first recorded in 2013," she added.
It means the country's traditional political heavyweights - the centrist National Liberation Party (PLN) and the right-wing Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC) - could return to the fore after decades of a near political duopoly only recently broken by the PAC.
According to one poll published this month, former president Jose Maria Figueres (1994-98) of the PLN leads with just over 17 per cent of stated support, followed by the PUSC's Lineth Saborio on just under 13 per cent.
"This country has a million and a half people living in poverty and half a million in extreme poverty," Figueres said Sunday. "There is a housing shortage of 160,000 homes. We have never experienced these things in this magnitude."
He said he hopes to accumulate the 40 per cent of the vote needed to avoid a second round, though analysts said the fragmentation of the field meant that was impossible.
Presidents in Costa Rica cannot seek immediate re-election.
PROBLEMS HAVE 'WORSENED'
If no candidate receives 40 per cent, there will be a runoff on Apr 3 between the top two.
Polls show about a third of the country's 3.5 million voters are undecided as they are faced with a choice from 25 presidential candidates.
Unemployment, corruption and living costs are top concerns.
Costa Rica is known for its eco-tourism and green policies: its energy grid is entirely run on renewable sources.
Unlike many of its volatile Central American neighbours, Costa Rica has no army, has had no armed conflicts since 1948 and no dictator since 1919.
But the worsening economic situation has hit confidence in the political class.
Voters under 40 have only known "periods in which not only problems have not been resolved, but they have worsened," university student Edgardo Soto, an undecided voter, told AFP.
Unemployment has been steadily rising for more than a decade and reached 14.4 per cent in 2021.
Apathy and abstentionism are features of Costa Rican elections.
In 2018, 34 per cent of voters stayed away, though participation is technically obligatory.
Polls show evangelical Christian singer Fabricio Alvarado Munoz of the right-wing New Republic Party (PNR) in third spot with just over 10 per cent.
He commands support from the evangelical community, which makes up about 20 percent of Costa Rica's population.
"It has been a physically tiring campaign," Alvarado said after voting, "but we are happy and expect to achieve our goal and win these elections."
In fourth place is economist Rodrigo Chaves of the newly formed centrist Social Democratic Progress Party. The highest-polling left-wing candidate is Jose Maria Villalta of the Broad Front.
"I hope that whoever wins really thinks of the people," said 77-year-old Mayra Sanchez after voting in the canton of Moravia, "and not of themselves."