SAN JOSE (Reuters) - The presidential hopeful of Costa Rica's ruling party is seen as the frontrunner in the run-up to Sunday's elections, but analysts say campaign gaffes and scandals dogging President Laura Chinchilla's government will likely force him into a second round run-off against a leftist challenger.
Centrist former San Jose mayor Johnny Araya, running on a pledge to reduce poverty in the coffee-producing tourist haven, pulled ahead of his closest rivals in recent weeks after turning up the rhetoric to paint them as radicals.
Leftist lawmaker Jose Maria Villalta is seen running second, promising higher taxes on businesses to combat growing inequality and curb the country's rising debt, as well as tougher anti-corruption laws, while conservative lawyer Otto Guevara and left-leaning Luis Guillermo Solis are battling for third place.
Araya has sought to distance himself from Chinchilla's administration, which has been buffeted by scandals.
"There are mistakes to correct and we will correct them," Araya said at his final campaign rally in San Jose on Sunday, as supporters waved green and white party flags. "Costa Rica doesn't want extremism, neither from the left nor the right."
Araya has frequently railed against corruption, but is himself under investigation by the national prosecutor's office for alleged abuse of authority and embezzlement.
"People are very much against Araya because he is from the same group as the president," said Andry Viquez, 19, who works as a receptionist at a bed and breakfast in San Jose. "Araya and other candidates running have investigations against them, and that worries the people."
Thirteen parties are fielding candidates in the election and if, as expected, no candidate wins more than 40 percent of the ballots, there will be a run-off vote in April for only the second time in Costa Rican history.
An Araya victory would mean a third consecutive term for the National Liberation Party (PLN), a first for any party since the 1940s, but whoever wins will struggle to legislate in what is likely to remain a divided Congress.
"Frustration is really high right now with the PLN, but there is no credible alternative," said Jefferson Finch, a Latin America analyst for Eurasia Group.
Long seen as a haven of political stability in a tumultuous region, Costa Rica's unemployment has risen steadily alongside a public debt burden that now stands at over 50 percent of gross domestic product.
Infrastructure has suffered from under-investment, while average growth of 4.3 percent per year since 2000 has failed to dent a poverty rate of about 20 percent.
The slender, bespectacled Villalta, the only member of his Broad Front Party in Congress, cut his teeth organizing against the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and wants to scrap immunity from prosecution for top officials.
"Don't be scared of those of us who don't have skeletons in our closet," Villalta says in one campaign ad.
Chinchilla has sparked public outrage by accepting flights on a private jet to Peru and Venezuela, despite laws barring public officials from taking gifts worth more than a small amount. Her first finance minister resigned in a tax evasion scandal.
(Reporting by Alexandra Alper and Julia Symmes Cobb in Mexico City; editing by Simon Gardner, G Crosse)