Costa Rica: A woman in charge?

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.

Chinchilla likely will capture votes from a large swath of the population, said Esteban Alvarez, head of the Costa Rica office of regional pollster CID-Gallup. She appeals particularly well to women in the middle to upper class bracket. But not all women have her vote.

Chinchilla hurt her support with feminists when she claimed Costa Rica had her party and former President Jose Figueres to thank for women’s suffrage in 1949. The movement bashed her, saying that right came after a hard fight on behalf of Ticas (Costa Rican women).

If elected, Chinchilla would be put to the test. While Costa Rica weathered the economic storm slightly better than other Latin American countries, it's still hurting. Unemployment officially hovers near 8 percent, the highest rate in more than 20 years, but the black-market jobless and underemployment rates likely are higher. Poverty also is up. Exports dropped 9 percent last year. Construction, manufacturing, real estate and tourism have all suffered.

Compounding the economic woes, Costa Rica increasingly is becoming a favorite stop-off on the region’s drug trafficking route, which experts say has spurred petty crime and upped the murder rate to more than 10 per 100,000 inhabitants, just above the global average.

Under the slogan “Chinchilla: Firme y Honesta,” the PLN is betting Chinchilla’s past experience as vice president and justice minister (2006-2008) and public security minister (1996-1998) will win voters over on the crime issue, which ranks first in polls of Costa Ricans’ greatest concerns.

But having served as vice president during the emergence of a host of such problems, her chief critics — including other top contenders such as the Libertarian Movement’s Otto Guevara on the right and Citizen Action Party’s Otton Solis on the left — rarely miss a chance to hold Chinchilla and the current administration accountable.

In many ways, Chinchilla’s strength is also her weakness: she’s outgoing President Oscar Arias’ favorite to win. Although Arias isn't in the race, Urcuyo said this election is very much a “referendum on the incumbent.”

In a CID-Gallup poll published last year in La Republica newspaper, two out of three Costa Ricans said they were ready for a woman president.

Marcia Corrales, a 42-year-old Tica, attended a recent pro-Chinchilla rally outside San Jose’s bustling Mercado Central, holding a green and white flag. She said, “They say in a macho way that only men can lead. No way. We women can do it too.”