Rodrigo Chaves, a former World Bank official who has promised to shake up the political system of Central America’s most stable nation, was on track to become Costa Rica’s new president, according to preliminary election results on Sunday night.
Mr. Chaves, 60, led his opponent, former President José María Figueres, by nearly percentage points after 95 percent of the voting centers reported results, the country’s electoral authorities said about two hours after the polls closed.
Mr. Figueres later conceded defeat, though the final results are expected to be announced this week after the votes are manually certified.
Mr. Chaves returned to the country in 2019 after decades abroad and rose from obscurity in just months by presenting himself as a maverick outsider, skillfully exploiting popular discontent with the Latin American political establishment.
He denounced the country’s traditional political parties, big business and the news media. And he vowed to bypass Congress and other democratic institutions by holding referendums on the important policy issues.
Both candidates were hurt by scandal, which contributed to the lowest turnout since the 1940s in the first round of elections, held in February. Only one in four registered voters cast their ballots for one of the two candidates, undercutting a party system that has spared Costa Rica the political upheavals seen elsewhere in Central America but that has come to be seen by most citizens as corrupt and out of touch with people’s everyday problems.
Mr. Chaves has been embroiled in a campaign financing scandal, and he has fought to minimize and misrepresent a World Bank sexual harassment investigation of him. Mr. Figueres has struggled to shake off accusations of corruption dating from his first presidency, in the 1990s.
“Costa Ricans are turning away from their political parties,” said James Bosworth, founder of the Latin America-focused political consultancy Hxagon. The country, he said, “is going to have a hard time solving its challenges without that strong political system.”
Those challenges include financing Costa Rica’s large public sector and social spending commitments, reactivating its service-dependent economy after the pandemic and protecting its pristine environment from the effects of climate change.
Mr. Chaves rose to the top of the polls in the past month, after polling just 2 percent as recently as August, reflecting the country’s disillusionment with Mr. Figueres’s National Liberation Party, Costa Rica’s oldest and largest political party.
To emphasize his image as an underdog, Mr. Chaves liked to tell voters that his father was the bodyguard of Mr. Figueres’s father, José Figueres Ferrer, a nation-defining figure who built the National Liberation Party after leading the winning faction in the country’s brief civil war in the 1940s. Mr. Figueres said Friday that Mr. Chaves’s father “never” worked for his family.
Mr. Chaves, 60, returned to Costa Rica after 27 years at the World Bank, where he rose to the rank of director as the bank’s senior representative in Indonesia, a major developing economy. He left the bank just days after he was demoted for misconduct following sexual harassment complaints brought against him by two female employees.
He has brushed off the accusations by claiming the investigators never proved that sexual harassment had taken place, a claim that was contradicted by the verdict of the World Bank’s internal tribunal in June, issued nearly two years after Mr. Chaves left the bank.
The accusations did not appear to sway the voters.
Mr. Chaves began clashing with Costa Rica’s democratic institutions even before the announcement of the final results, shaking country’s usually civic elections.
The country’s electoral court in recent weeks said it was investigating the irregular payments that a group of allied businessmen funneled to his campaign. Mr. Chaves said before Sunday’s vote that he did not know those funds existed.
And on Sunday, the electoral court said a strategist for Mr. Chaves’s campaign tried intimidating poll workers by distributing a chain message through WhatsApp that threatened them with jail.
Mr. Figueres had focused his campaign on attacking Mr. Chaves’s relative lack of political experience, which is confined to his six-month stint as the finance minister of the departing president, Carlos Alvarado.
But Mr. Figueres was unable to distance himself from his own corruption accusations, which are related to consulting fees he received from a French telecommunications company after finishing his first presidential term in 1998.
Mr. Figueres denied giving the company preferential treatment while in office, and prosecutors who investigated the payments, which occurred between 2000 and 2003, did not press charges. Yet Mr. Figueres’s decision to wait out the results of the investigation in Europe, where he was living at the time, left a lasting impression of wrongdoing among many Costa Ricans.
“I congratulate Rodrigo Chaves, and I wish him the best,” Mr. Figueres told supporters after the initial results were announced.
Both candidates declined to be interviewed for this article.
Despite Mr. Chaves’s clinching the victory, analysts said, his weak support in Congress, the country’s strong independent courts and weak public finances will make it difficult to make good on his campaign promise to increase social spending to halt rising inequality and crime.
His party will have only 10 of Costa Rica’s 57 congressional seats.
“You’re going to get a cycle where people become increasingly disillusioned with the political system,” said Mr. Bosworth, the analyst. Mr. Chaves, he said, lacks “a popular platform that will be able to meet expectation.”