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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.

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.”