SAN JOSE, Costa Rica (AP) — Religious and social conservatives in Costa Rica have found a lot to be objectionable from President Luis Guillermo Solis' government.
A decision to allow in-vitro fertilization. A plan to recognize civil unions for same-sex couples. The publication of sex education guides by the Education Ministry, and the announcement of courses that would include discussion of sexual diversity.
In 2014, less than a week after Solis took office, the rainbow flag was raised over the presidential residence for the first time ever to mark the International Day Against Homophobia.
This week, religious conservatives flexed their muscle at the ballot box. Angered by a ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights telling Costa Rica to allow gay marriage, they helped evangelical candidate Fabricio Alvarado finish first in the country's presidential election and put him in the pole position for an April 1 runoff against a candidate of Solis' party.
"The opinion of the Inter-American Court was just the spark that ignited the powder keg, with the wick already dry and ready to be lit," said Gustavo Araya, a specialist in political communications at the University of Costa Rica.
Alvarado, 43, is the only lawmaker currently in the Legislative Assembly representing his National Restoration Party. Though lacking major party backing, he enjoyed high name recognition, especially in evangelical circles, as a preacher and Christian singer, some of whose songs are listed on Spotify.
He is a journalist by training and is known for his impassioned speaking style. Analysts say his background working for one of the country's main TV newscasts afforded him an ease on the campaign trail in front of cameras and during debates, helping voters to see the relative outsider as a viable candidate.
A backlash had been brewing for some time to socially liberal policies under Solis, which also included Costa Rica's social security institute letting gay people insure their partners just like other couples.
Conservatives slammed the in-vitro fertilization measure, saying discarding unused embryos was an offense to life. The sex education courses provoked a movement with the slogan, "I educate my children myself."
The so-called Christian bloc in congress gained influence by stymieing a plan that sought to recognize civil unions for same-sex couples and winning the election of a pastor, Gonzalo Ramirez, as the body's president.
Tens of thousands flooded the streets of the capital, San Jose, in December to join a "march for life and the family."
"The march ... seems to me to have been an inflection point," Araya said, "because it showed that this issue can summon the people and become a social motivator."
Into this environment stepped Alvarado, whom Araya described as not a pastor preaching from a single pulpit but a charismatic "psalmist" who filled churches with his music.
Alvarado took full advantage of the timing of the gay marriage ruling, which is broadly unpopular in Costa Rica, issuing a full-throated broadside against what he called a "sovereign violation." After polling around 2 percent or 3 percent in December, he surprised the establishment by topping the field of 13 contenders in Sunday's first-round election with 24.9 percent of the votes.
He also benefited with at least some voters from backlash to mockery over a video that was circulated by rivals and spread online. It showed his wife praying and speaking in tongues.
"The disrespect and the jokes that these people suffered caused me to empathize," said Ricardo Alfaro, a professional musician who decided to vote for Alvarado.
He added that he was concerned about government social policies and what their effect might be in schools.
Analysts note, however, that Fabricio Alvarado's ascent also coincided with a decline for the traditional parties of this Central American nation long known for political stability and relative prosperity. Voters are turned off by problems such as corruption, crime and a stubbornly ballooning deficit.
"I think the big picture is continued breakdown of the two-party system in Costa Rica that's dominated the last 60 years," said Michael Allison, a political science professor specializing in Central America at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania. "Perhaps this election has really put the final nail into its coffin."
Electoral authorities have yet to make a formal declaration, but Alvarado is set to face in the second round 38-year-old Carlos Alvarado — no relation. He finished second with 21.7 percent as the candidate for Solis' Citizens' Action Party and openly backs same-sex marriage.
In celebrating his first-place finish, Fabricio Alvarado urged backers of other candidates to join a movement of "national unity" ahead of the runoff. Araya said some conservative groups, business interests and political parties have shown signs of wanting to ally with him.
Regardless of whether he wins, his National Restoration party took at least 14 seats in the next Legislative Assembly, making it the second-largest bloc and giving it a hefty say in the country's politics.
The challenge for Fabricio Alvarado in the second round will be to win votes beyond religious conservatives and offer solutions to other problems, such as the deficit.
But in his victory speech on election night, he stuck to the outsider's message that had gotten him this far: "Costa Rica has made it clear to the traditional politicians: Never again mess with the family, never again mess with our children,"
Allison said Carlos Alvarado's task going forward will in part be to try to pick up some of the disenchanted voters.
If same-sex marriage continues to play a big role in the campaign that could favor Fabricio. But ultimately both may need to convince voters on more nuts-and-bolts issues.
"People are definitely frustrated with the direction of the country for the last several years, the economy, the support for education and health, crime and security issues," Allison said. "Each candidate needs to have a narrative or a plan to tackle all these somewhat longer-term issues, as well as how does the country respond to the Inter-American Court's recent decision."
Associated Press writer Peter Orsi in Mexico City contributed to this report.