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Ex-finance minister wins runoff to be Costa Rica’s president

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica (AP) — A former finance minister who surprised many by making it into Costa Rica’s presidential runoff has easily won the election and is to become the Central American country’s new leader next month while still fending off accusations of sexual harassment when he worked at the World Bank.

With nearly all polling stations reporting late Sunday, conservative economist Rodrigo Chaves had 53% of the vote, compared to 47% for former President José Figueres Ferrer, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal said.

More than 42% of eligible voters did not participate, an unusually low turnout for the country, reflecting the lack of enthusiasm Costa Ricans had for the candidates.

In his victory speech, Chaves called for unity to address problems like unemployment and a soaring budget deficit.

“For me this is not a medal nor a trophy, but rather an enormous responsibility, heaped with challenges and difficulties that we will all resolve,” he said.

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“Costa Rica, the best is to come!” Chaves said before celebrating supporters. His inauguration is scheduled for May 8.

Figueres conceded defeat less than an hour after results began to come in. He had led the first round of voting Feb. 6, with Chaves in second that day. Neither had come close to the 40% of the vote needed to avoid a runoff.

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Figueres congratulated Chaves and wished him the best, adding that continues to believe that Costa Rica is in a “deep crisis” and he is willing to help it recover.

Figueres, who was Costa Rica’s president from 1994 to 1998, represents the National Liberation Party like his father, three-time president José Figueres Ferrer. Chaves served briefly in the administration of outgoing President Carlos Alvarado and represents the Social Democratic Progress Party.

Both men waged a bruising campaign.

Chaves’ campaign is under investigation by electoral authorities for allegedly running an illegal parallel financing structure. He also has been dogged by a sexual harassment scandal that drove him out of the World Bank.

While working at the bank, he was accused of sexual harassment by multiple women, was eventually demoted and then resigned. He has denied the accusations.

The World Bank’s administrative tribunal last year criticized the way the case was initially handled internally.

The tribunal noted that an internal investigation found that from 2008 to 2013 Chaves leered at, made unwelcome comments about physical appearance, repeated sexual innuendo and unwelcome sexual advances toward multiple bank employees. Those details were repeated by the bank’s human resources department in a letter to Chaves, but it decided to sanction him for misconduct rather than sexual harassment.

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“The facts of the present case indicate that (Chaves’) conduct was sexual in nature and that he knew or should have known that his conduct was unwelcome,” the tribunal wrote. The tribunal also noted that in the proceedings, the bank’s current vice president for human resources said in testimony “that the undisputed facts legally amount to sexual harassment.”

Political analyst Francisco Barahona said Costa Ricans’ lack of enthusiasm, as shown by the low turnout, was the result of the many personal attacks that characterized the campaign.

“In the debates they only heated things up in personal confrontations, mistreatment of each other,” he said. “They didn’t add depth to their proposals to resolve the country’s problems. The debates didn’t help to motivate the electorate.”

“For a lot of people it’s embarrassing to say they voted for one or the other, and many prefer to say they won’t vote for either of the candidates or simply won’t go to vote,” Barahona added.

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.

While Costa Rica has enjoyed relative democratic stability compared with other countries in the region, the public has grown frustrated with public corruption scandals and high unemployment.

In the February vote, Alvarado’s party was practically erased from the political landscape, receiving no seats in the new congress. At the time of that vote, the country was riding a wave of COVID-19 infections, but infections and hospitalizations have fallen considerably since.

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