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Costa Rica Set to Elect First Woman Pres.

Costa Rica's governing party candidate took a commanding lead when vote counting began Sunday and swept toward an election victory that would make her the first woman president in this Central American nation.

Laura Chinchilla had 47 percent of the votes after a quarter of the ballots were counted. The closest contender, Otton Solis of the Citizens Action Party, had 23 percent. He and the other main rival quickly conceded defeat.

Chinchilla, a protege of the current president, Nobel Peace Prize winner Oscar Arias, campaigned on a promise to continue the government's free market economic policies.

Chinchilla, who served as vice president under Arias, needed 40 percent of the vote to avoid an April run-off.

Solis barely lost the presidential election to Arias in 2006, but many opposition voters went over to tax-bashing Libertarian candidate Otto Guevarra, who had just under 22 percent of the votes.

Solis congratulated Chinchilla on her apparent victory. "She is going to be the next president of Costa Rica," he told supporters Sunday night. Guevarra offered congratulations to "our president, Laura Chinchilla."

Arias' economic policies brought Costa Rica into the Central American Free Trade Agreement with the United States and initiated trade relations with China after a 63-year association with Taiwan.

Critics of the government argued that Arias' administration catered to big developers to boost the economy at the cost of the nation's fragile ecosystems.

Both Solis and Guevarra portrayed Arias' centrist National Liberation Party as stagnant and ridden with old-school Latin American cronyism.

But most Costa Ricans appeared reluctant to shake up the status quo in a country with relatively high salaries, the longest life expectancy in Latin America, a thriving ecotourism industry and near-universal literacy.

Chinchilla, a 50-year-old mother and a social conservative who opposes abortion and gay marriage, appealed both to Costa Ricans seeking a fresh face in politics and those reluctant to risk the unknown.

As a female president, she would follow an increasingly common trend in many Latin American countries: Nicaragua, Panama, Chile and Argentina have all elected women as presidents.

Even voters on the margins of society backed Chinchilla.

Heizel Arias, a 24-year-old single mother who voted at a prison where she is serving an eight-year sentence for trying to smuggle drugs into a jail, said she cast her vote for Chinchilla.

"I voted for Laura Chinchilla because she has promised to fight for women," Arias said. "She was the only one who visited us and told us her plans and I believe in her."

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