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Candidate Fabricio Alvarado of the National Restoration party (PRN) gestures during the presidential election in San Jose, Costa Rica, February 4, 2018. REUTERS/Juan Carlos Ulate

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By Enrique Andres Pretel

SAN JOSE (Reuters) - Conservative Christian singer and TV anchor Fabricio Alvarado held a strong lead in Costa Rica's presidential election on Sunday, after galvanizing the campaign with his sharp opposition to gay marriage, but a run-off vote looked certain.

With results in from nearly 70 percent of ballot boxes, Alvarado had won 25.2 percent, the electoral tribunal said.

His lead was diminishing slightly as more results came in and he is likely to face a run-off vote against the second place candidate, to be held on April 1.

On the opposite side of the political divide, the candidate for the ruling party and a supporter of same-sex marriage, Carlos Alvarado Quesada, had 21.1 percent of the vote.

He overtook mainstream conservative rival Antonio Alvarez Desanti, who had taken second place earlier in the evening.

The 43-year-old Alvarado, the lone elected lawmaker for the evangelical National Restoration Party, shot to prominence during the campaign after denouncing a court ruling calling on Costa Rica to give civil marriage rights to same-sex couples.

"We have won people's hearts," Alvarado said earlier in the day. "Costa Rica knows we will defend its children, we will defend the family. And there is nothing more important than the family."

Alvarado called last month's ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights a violation of Costa Rica's sovereignty and an affront to traditional values. He has threatened to pull Costa Rica out of the court, which is based in the country's capital, San Jose.

Even though Costa Rica's 3.3 million voters mostly describe themselves as conservative, the shift in support towards issue-based politics and relative outsiders has been a shock for some.

"I've been surprised by the growth of minority parties," said voter Olman Gomez, 49, a computer network engineer. "It feels like you're living in another country in terms of politics."

The coffee exporting country famed for its environmental stewardship has long offered a moderate two-party system and more stability than other countries in politically volatile Central America.

Its population is mostly Roman Catholic, but evangelical strains of Christianity have made rapid inroads in recent years, reflecting similar changes across Latin America.

President Luis Guillermo Solis, a former diplomat and history professor, won in a landslide four years ago but has seen his popularity fall as an investigation into an influence peddling scandal has unfolded.

He is barred by law from seeking a second consecutive term.

(Reporting by Enrique Andres Pretel, Additional reporting by Alvaro Murillo; Writing by Christine Murray; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel, Rosalba O'Brien and Jacqueline Wong)

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Reuters