SAN JOSÉ, Costa Rica – The surprising winner of the first round of the Costa Rican presidential election, the evangelical preacher Fabricio Alvarado, and Carlos Alvarado (no relation) of the ruling Citizen Action Party (PAC), will head to a second round run-off vote on April 1.

In 2014, Luis Guillermo Solís Rivera of the progressive PAC was sworn in as President of Costa Rica, replacing outgoing leader Laura Chinchilla Miranda and her National Liberation Party’s (PLN) 8-year hold on the presidency.

Solís Rivera inherited the most stable democracy in Central America but also inherited a sluggish economy, rising inequality and a heightening feeling of corruption and political apathy among the populace.

Indeed, that political apathy continued through this year as the first round of the current election had an abstention rate of 34 percent, the second highest rate in the last 60 years in a nation traditionally used to enthusiastically high voter numbers.

Regardless, the 66 percent who did vote chose Fabricio Alvarado, the evangelical preacher of the right-wing National Renovation party (PRN), and Carlos Alvarado of the center-left PAC as the top two candidates to become the 48th President of Costa Rica.

In the first round, Fabricio Alvarado, the only representative of the PRN in the 57-seat Legislative Asembly for the 2014-2018 period, took first place with 24.91 percent of the vote.

Carlos Alvarado, a writer by trade and former Minister of Human Development and Social Inclusion (2014-2016) and Minister of Labor (2016-2017) under Solís Rivera (whose presidential campaign he headed as communications director), came in second with 21.66 percent.

Antonio Álvarez, a lawyer and businessman, finished in third pace with 18.62 percent of the vote in a poor showing for the PLN, traditionally the largest party in Costa Rican politics who have held more presidential and legislative positions than any other party since the 1949 Constitution that is still in effect.

The party’s fall can be attributed to the fact that years of PLN rule have coincided with a significant growth in the wealth gap in traditionally egalitarian Costa Rica. This was a strange occurrence for a self-described social democratic party but the PLN has been marked by more centrist and even center-right policies while it was in power from 2006 to 2014.

Rodolfo Piza of the center-right Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC) took fourth place with a strong showing of 16 percent, a 10 percent increase from his 6 percent showing he received in the 2014 presidential election.

In fifth place was Juan Diego Castro of the centrist National Integration Party (PIN) with 9.52 percent of the vote and he was followed by the center-right Social Christian Republican Party candidate Rodolfo Hernández in sixth place.

Otto Guevara of the conservative Libertarian Movement Party (ML) finished in seventh place with a disappointing 1 percent, a steep drop for the candidate who finished with nearly 12 percent in the 2014 race.

After a surprising third-place finish four years ago, the left-wing Broad Front (FA) mustered a very disappointing 0.79 percent of the vote through Edgardo Araya. Five other candidates all received votes of less than 0.76 percent.

Going against the grain of the last several elections in Latin America, the pre-election polls predicted the eventual result quite well. The earliest polls were published in mid-2017 and in the month-to-month results published since then, the polls predicted the sharp rise of both Alvarados (as both started out with only about 2 percent support) along with the steep decline of the PLN and PIN candidates (both had support of around 30 percent in early 2018).

Thus, Fabricio Alvarado and Carlos Alvarado will go into the first day of April as the final two candidates in an election that evolved from a multifaceted campaign into mostly a single issue: religion and its role in society.

About a month before the first round of the election, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (based in San José) made its ruling that same-sex marriage is a fundamental right and that it should be recognized if it already is not in the countries that are signatories to the American Convention on Human Rights (the highest regional human rights instrument), which was coincidentally drawn up and adopted, once again, in San José in 1978.

As a result of the ruling, countries that do not recognize gay marriage or same-sex civil unions in any form are expected to change their laws according to the Inter-American Court’s ruling and issue temporary decrees in the case that more time is needed to change the legislation.

The decision in question came from a case actually brought up by the Costa Rican government when it asked the court to rule on a motion concerning property rights and same-sex couples (and allowing transgender people to change their names and genders on official identification documents).

Given the timing of the decision, the evangelical preacher Fabricio Alvarado took full advantage and used the decision of the court, controversial in a country like Costa Rica with a large population of Catholic conservatives, in order to attract voters.

Saying he would ignore the court’s ruling, the PRN candidate testified that his candidacy and party represent the “defenders of Christian values of family and life” while Carlos Alvarado of the PAC said that he and his party would fully adhere to the court’s decision.

As a result, the two men firmly aligned themselves with the conservative and progressive forces in the country, respectively, and in doing so, effectively split the electorate even before the run-off round.

The case for both men is to now extend a hand to the other parties in exchange for their support. Theoretically, both candidates have a equal support when taking into consideration the parties on both sides of the political spectrum so the key will be securing the centrist vote.