Costa Rica's centrist ruling party candidate, Johnny Araya, has taken an early lead in presidential elections and is on course to face a tough run-off after a strong showing by two left-wing parties, according to partial results.

On Sunday, Araya, of the National Liberation Party, had 30.6 percent support with votes in from half of polling booths. Luis Guillermo Solis, of the Citizens' Action Party, was in second place with 29.4 percent while Jose Maria Villalta, of Frente Amplio (Broad Front), was third with 17.4 percent.

An April run-off between the top two candidates is required if no single candidate wins more than 40 percent of the vote.

Araya could face a consolidated left-wing vote in the run-off, which could spell defeat for his party.

Campaign promises

Araya, 56, has promised to reduce poverty and has tried to paint his rivals as radicals.

He has also has sought to distance himself from the scandal-plagued current president, Laura Chinchilla, also of the National Liberation Party.

He proclaims his candidacy as "the safest, most responsible option".

But voter anger over government corruption buoyed a challenge from his left-leaning rivals.

Gaffes, such as underestimating the price of milk in an interview, have hit Araya's popularity.

A prosecutor's probe into allegations of abuse of authority and embezzlement while Araya was mayor of San Jose may have also dampened his appeal.

Solis, who previously worked in Costa Rica's foreign ministry, has pledged to improve infrastructure, overhaul the country's universal health care provider and tackle corruption.

That resonated with some voters after Chinchilla sparked outrage by accepting flights on a private jet, despite laws barring public officials from accepting sizeable gifts.

The eventual winner will have to tackle growing government debt that totals more than half of gross domestic product.

Source: Reuters