(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.
Neither the centrist frontrunner Johnny Araya nor the young leftist lawmaker Jose Maria Villalta, seen running second, are likely to secure the more than 40 percent of votes needed to avoid an April run-off.
In an eventual second round vote, the earlier votes for a conservative lawyer fighting for third place would likely go to Araya, while votes for left-leaning rival Luis Guillermo Solis would likely go to Villalta.
The following are the election's three leading candidates and some of their key platform positions:
One of Costa Rica's best known political figures, Araya, 56, served as mayor of San Jose for over two decades, winning praise for spearheading public arts projects and expanding a municipal police force.
He has been criticized for failing to improve trash collection and is under investigation by the national prosecutor's office for alleged abuse of authority and embezzlement.
The barrel-chested frontrunner has recovered his lead over Villalta by painting his opponents as radicals and distancing himself from an unpopular government that has been hammered over tax evasion and infrastructure scandals.
* Offer transfers of about $40 a month for an estimated 340,000 Costa Ricans who live in extreme poverty by 2018;
* Replace sales tax with a value-added tax that would tax services in addition to goods to tackle the deficit;
* Limit public sector salary bonuses and impose a new tax on capital gains, and
* Continue to use private-public partnerships to finance badly needed infrastructure projects.
JOSE MARIA VILLALTA
A lawyer by training, the slender, bespectacled Villalta, 36, cut his teeth organizing against the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). He was arrested in 2000 during a protest against changes to the state-run electricity company.
Villalta is the only member of his Broad Front party, formed in 2004, to serve in Congress during the 2010-14 term, leading many to question his ability to get support for bills or fill key appointments as president.
Currently trailing Araya in the polls, Villalta's support surged in December and early January as he channelled voter disenchantment over government corruption scandals and a stagnant poverty rate.
* Eliminate the right of the president and other high officials to immunity from prosecution while in office;
* Strengthen price controls on basic foodstuffs;
* Raise taxes on banks and create a new financial transactions tax and a levy on real estate earnings;
* Replace the sales tax with a value added tax that would cover services with exemptions for health and education, to boost state revenue, and
* Renegotiate labour provisions of CAFTA.
Four-time Presidential hopeful, the dapper lawyer and former lawmaker, Guevara, 53, founded his conservative party in 1994 to challenge the dominant pro-government view held by many Costa Ricans.
An unorthodox libertarian, Guevara has said he opposes gay marriage and abortion to draw support from Christian groups and has labelled Villalta a communist.
One poll earlier this month showed the silver-haired divorcee in a virtual tie with Araya and Villalta, but he now appears to be trailing, mired by allegations of misuse of campaign funds in a prior election.
* Eliminate collective bargaining for public employees;
* Expand free trade zones, reach more free trade agreements to help create 500,000 new jobs;
* Allow the state power monopoly, ICE, to purchase electricity from private generators to reduce costs, and
* Implement a national referendum on dollarizing the economy.
(Reporting by Alexandra Alper; Editing by Simon Gardner, G Crosse)