By Alexandra Alper
SAN JOSE, April 6 (Reuters) - A center-left academic who has never been elected to office is expected to cruise to victory in Costa Rica's presidential election run-off on Sunday after his ruling party rival pulled out.
Luis Guillermo Solis, a former diplomat, rode a wave of anti-government sentiment over rising inequality and corruption scandals to finish ahead in a first round of voting in February, surprising pollsters who had placed him fourth.
Facing a depleted war chest, his ruling party rival Johnny Araya then quit campaigning after an opinion poll showed him trailing badly.
Solis has promised to fight Costa Rica's stubbornly high poverty rate while stamping out corruption, an issue that has dogged President Laura Chinchilla's administration.
"We need oxygen," said Carmen Antillon, a 70-year-old publicist and former ruling party supporter as she exited a school in San Jose where she voted for Solis. "The culture of this government is basically one of corruption."
There were few voters at the voting station shortly after polls opened on Sunday and analysts have predicted a low turn out.
No candidate won the more than 40 percent of votes needed in February to avoid a run-off in the coffee-producing nation, paving the way for Sunday's showdown.
The constitution requires Araya to remain on the ballot and his party continues to campaign, so theoretically he could win.
But voters appear keen to elevate the young PAC to its first presidential victory and wrest power from Araya's National Liberation Party (PLN), in power since 2006.
A prosecutor's investigation into allegations of abuse of authority and embezzlement while Araya was mayor of San Jose made it hard for the former front-runner to distance himself from party scandals.
A University of Costa Rica survey last month showed Solis had more than 64 percent support while Araya trailed with around 21 percent. Within hours, Araya said he would no longer campaign.
Solis campaigned on a pledge to eradicate corruption and help the poorest.
"We want to recover that sense of solidarity, of social inclusion, and commitment to the neediest Costa Ricans that has been lost," Solis, of the Citizen Action Party (PAC), told a news conference on Saturday.
But Solis faces hurdles of his own.
Threatened by high rates of absenteeism typical of second-round voting and the looming challenge of a divided Congress, Solis could end up with a weak mandate. His PAC will have just 13 of the 57 seats in Congress.
Though Costa Rica's growing debt stands at over half of gross domestic product, Solis has said he will wait two years before raising taxes despite promises to boost social spending.
"He's going to have a government without money, a fiscal deficit of 6 percent, and lots of social spending commitments," said Jose Carlos Chinchilla, a political analyst and a director at the University of Costa Rica.
Solis also has said he hopes to attract new businesses to set up shop in Costa Rica's booming free-trade zones, which have enticed the likes of Hewlett Packard.
"We want Costa Rica to present itself as a country that is friendly to foreign investment, offering legal security but requiring compliance with labor laws," Solis said. (Additional reporting by Zach Dyer; Editing by Simon Gardner and Angus MacSwan)