SAN JOSE, Costa Rica (AP) — An evangelical candidate who soared in the polls after coming out strongly against same-sex marriage and a governing party loyalist who favors it led returns in Sunday's presidential election in Costa Rica and were poised to face each other in a runoff two months from now.
With nearly 81 percent of the ballots counted, Fabricio Alvarado had 24.8 percent of the vote and Carlos Alvarado — no relation — had 21.6 percent.
Agri-businessman Antonio Alvarez of the opposition National Liberation Party, who was in third with 18.8 percent, conceded defeat late Sunday and congratulated the two front-runners.
Costa Rican election rules say that if no one in the 13-candidate field finishes above 40 percent, the top two advance to a runoff that would take place April 1.
The race largely focused on gay marriage after a January ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights said Costa Rica should allow same-sex couples to wed, adopt children and enjoy other rights afforded to married couples.
Fabricio Alvarado, a journalist, preacher and Christian singer, recently vaulted into first place in opinion polls after he took a strong stance against same-sex marriage, something that about two-thirds of Costa Ricans also oppose.
Carlos Alvarado was the only major candidate to openly back gay marriage and picked up some support recently from socially liberal voters. Trained as a journalist, he got his start in politics as communications director for the Citizens' Action Party and also was labor minister under current President Luis Guillermo Solis.
With so many candidates, a runoff seemed likely heading into the election.
"I see this as very divided," said Paula Rodriguez, a psychologist who cast her vote in Moravia, on the northeastern outskirts of the capital, San Jose. "I really think nobody knows what will happen."
Political analyst Francisco Barahona told The Associated Press that the gay marriage ruling came as an "external shock" for Costa Rica, a majority Roman Catholic nation with an increasing evangelical population.
Fabricio Alvarado called the ruling a "sovereign violation" and saw his support balloon in the polls as socially conservative voters gravitated to that stance.
"Our message has already won," Alvarado told local media before the polls closed.
Alvarez, a two-time president of the Legislative Assembly and a Cabinet minister under the first presidency of Oscar Arias in 1986-1990, said he opposed gay marriage but backed recognizing certain other rights for gay couples.
"I am the one responsible for the electoral result," Alvarez said late Sunday. "Amid the errors that we could have made, I must acknowledge that I did not see it coming that in three weeks Fabricio could go from 3 percent to 26 percent support. It is something I had never seen in so many years of political life."
Some voters had other issues on their minds. Carlos Morales, who cast a ballot in the Guadalupe district of San Jose, said his biggest concern is that the next president manage the government's deficit without creating new taxes.
"They say the government is broke and to fix that they are going to impose more taxes on us," Morales said. "But I think people here are already living very tightly. Everything is very expensive, and that would hurt us all."
Voters were also selecting the 57 delegates that make up the Assembly.