Calderon Wins Costa Rican Presidential Race : Central America: Populist is elected in third attempt at top office. Ruling party's candidate concedes defeat.


Rafael Angel Calderon, the son of a former president, won Costa Rica's presidential election Sunday over the candidate backed by Oscar Arias Sanchez, the country's beloved pacifist leader.

Calderon, making his third run for the presidency at age 40, used a populist theme to end eight years of rule by Arias' National Liberation Party, despite its record of solidifying Costa Rica's standing as the most peaceful and prosperous nation in Central America.

Arias, the 1987 Nobel Peace laureate, was limited by the constitution to a single four-year term. His approval rating soared to 80% in recent opinion polls but failed to help his party's colorless standard-bearer, Carlos Manuel Castillo.

Castillo conceded defeat four hours after the polls closed, with about a third of the ballots counted. He had 47% of the vote, to 51% for Calderon and the rest divided among five other candidates.

Calderon's Social Christian Unity Party also appeared to have won control of the 57-seat unicameral Legislative Assembly. It led in 29 races, to 25 for Liberation and 3 for splinter parties.

"I am very proud to be president-elect of Costa Rica, not for the title but for the extraordinary people that I will represent," Calderon said in a victory speech to scores of screaming supporters in a hotel ballroom.

Calderon, who will take office May 8, has been training for the job since the death of his father, former President Rafael Calderon Guardia, in 1970.

"He will receive a country at peace and in full economic development," Castillo said. "He had better take care of it. He had better improve it."

The election was the 10th in a row conducted peacefully in Costa Rica since Calderon Guardia tried to upset the result of the 1948 vote and touched off a popular uprising. That led to the abolition of Costa Rica's army and made the National Liberation Party the country's leading political force. The party has won seven of those 10 elections.

Except for a brief tainting by drug-money scandals, this was one of Costa Rica's dullest campaigns. It pitted a pair of two-time losers with scant ideological differences and pale popularity ratings next to Arias.

Arias won the Nobel Prize for promoting a Central American peace plan that, by reducing the war in neighboring Nicaragua, helped him preside over four years of economic growth.

While touting prosperity, his party presented Castillo, a 61-year-old economist of hemispheric renown and a former vice president, as the Costa Rican George Bush, the most qualified man ever to seek the presidency. "We can trust him" was the party's campaign theme,

But Castillo, who lost as his party's nominee in 1982 and 1986, was wooden on the stump. Former President Luis Alberto Monge, a member of the Liberation Party, called Castillo "a bad candidate who would make a good president."

Calderon shed the militaristic stance that cost him the last election to Arias and ran this time as a poor man's champion in his father's populist mold. While avoiding a direct attack on Arias' record, Calderon charged that Liberation was corrupt and trying to set up a one-party state.

According to pollsters, Unity benefitted from a widely held view that Arias' government had not done enough to distribute the benefits of the economic boom. Agriculture, the mainstay of the economy, was hit hard by slumping world prices for coffee and other exports.

To a lesser degree, Arias' party was tarnished by findings of a Costa Rican congressional probe into drug trafficking that prompted several officials to resign. Castillo first denied, then admitted last year, that he had received a 1985 campaign contribution of $2,364 from a reputed drug trafficker--a man he said he didn't know at the time.

Liberation countered by leaking a former Panamanian official's testimony to a closed U.S. congressional hearing that named Calderon as the recipient in 1985 of a $500,000 campaign contribution from Panama's Gen. Manuel A. Noriega. Calderon rejected the testimony as "a dirty smear."

The election confirmed an ideological shift in Central America, where two presidents elected last year, Alfredo Cristiani in El Salvador and Rafael Callejas in Honduras, are more conservative than their predecessors.

Calderon has promised to build 160,000 low-income housing units in four years and exempt poor home buyers from down payments. He also vows to increase food subsidies and other benefits to the poor.

Calderon was born in Nicaragua. After graduation from the University of Costa Rica law school in 1972, Calderon served a term in the Legislative Assembly from 1974 to 1978 and was foreign minister from 1978 to 1982 before launching his unsuccessful presidential bids.

He and his Mexican-born wife, Gloria Bejarano, have two sons and two daughters, aged 8 to 16.

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