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Costa Rica: A woman in charge?

Costa Rica could elect its first female president. Given its progressive laws on women in politics, it's a wonder it's taken this long.

Laura Chinchilla, presidential candidate for the National Liberation Party, speaks to supporters during a rally marking the start of her election campaign in San Jose, Jan. 31, 2010. (Juan Carlos Ulate/Reuters)

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — Laura Chinchilla’s four-year To Do list: Reduce extreme poverty. End the energy monopoly. Tax the casinos to help fund the fight against crime.

Chinchilla (pronounced chinchEEyuh) has consistently led in the polls and a victory in Sunday's elections would make her the country's first female president. She's currently teetering near the 40 percent mark — anything below that and a runoff is in order.

The former vice president falls somewhere around the center or center-right on the political spectrum, and was groomed within the social democratic tradition of the National Liberation Party (PLN). She’s like the Democrats' Clinton or Labour’s Blair, explained Constantino Urcuyo, a leading Costa Rican political analyst and professor at University of Costa Rica. In other words, she can reach out to both sides of the aisle if she needs to.

Chinchilla’s mind matured in left-wing college halls at a time when Costa Rica’s neighbors were crumbling into civil war. During her years in the early 1980s at the University of Costa Rica, Chinchilla wore clothes with indigenous patterns and colors common to the university’s leftist student body, recalled Urcuyo, with whom she studied and later worked as a professor’s assistant.

“She was a very good student who was really concerned about (the world’s) problems and had a restless intellect,” Urcuyo said.

Chinchilla went on to obtain her master’s in public policy at Georgetown University, where she engaged in “heated debates” with the late Jeane Kirkpatrick, said a fellow classmate, Jaime Alvarez. Famous for the staunch anti-communist “Kirkpatrick Doctrine,” the professor had been an adviser to President Ronald Reagan and served as the first female U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Her approach to Central America irked Chinchilla.

Alvarez 50, an adviser at the World Bank in Washington, D.C., said Georgetown was wowed by her intellect. “She’s a lightning rod.”

Today, bearing the PLN’s green and white, the 50-year-old politician is confident she will become Latin America’s newest female president, a growing list recently graced by outgoing Chilean President Michelle Bachelet and Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. Costa Rica’s closest neighbors, Panama and Nicaragua, both have achieved that milestone.

Chinchilla isn’t the first female presidential candidate. But given Costa Rica’s progressive legislation on women in politics, it’s a wonder it has taken so long for a woman to get this far.

By law, women must make up 40 percent of a party's seats in the Legislative Assembly, and by 2014, the law mandates a 50-50 split. That’s well above the world average. As of 2008, women occupied 18 percent of parliamentary seats worldwide, according to the International Women's Democracy Center.

Parties also are obligated to include at least one women on the ballot for their executive branch bids, whether for one of the two vice presidencies or the presidency.