Laura Chinchilla becomes nation's first female president

Laura Chinchilla’s opponents have accepted defeat in Costa Rica's presidential election, making the ruling party’s centrist candidate the first woman to hold the nation's top office.


AFP - Laura Chinchilla, a social conservative who opposes abortion but wants more help for the poor, became Costa Rica's first female president after a convincing election triumph.

Her main opponents conceded defeat and the 50-year-old ruling party candidate joined thousands of supporters celebrating in San Jose early Monday.

First results showed she won 47 percent of the votes counted, way ahead of her rivals and above the 40 percent needed to avoid a run-off.

Latin America now has five women leaders.

"Thank you, Costa Rica," Chinchilla said in an address in a hotel in the capital. "It's certainly a moment of happiness, but above all of humility ... I won't betray that confidence."

Center-left opposition candidate Otton Solis won 24 percent of the votes counted and right-wing lawyer Otto Guevara garnered 21 percent.

"With a lot of respect, we accept the reality," Solis, who lost to President Oscar Arias in 2006, told his followers.

Guevara congratulated "our president Laura Chinchilla," shortly after.

The opposition had criticized Chinchilla as being a puppet of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Arias. She was expected to continue his policies of promoting free trade and international business ties.

The slight, long-haired graduate of Georgetown University in Washington served as vice president to Arias and is socially conservative on issues such as abortion.

Her National Liberation Party (PLN) bet on her past experience as public security minister and justice minister to win voters over on growing concerns over crime.

The mother of one teenage son has promised to increase grants for poor students, expand the pensions for the poor and open daycare centers to support working mothers.

Although she has vowed tougher anti-crime measures, she also underlined the importance of acting "intelligently" against crime caused by social inequalities.

Balloting took place calmly throughout Latin America's oldest democracy, which has no army.

The abstention rate at 33.43 percent, according to initial results, of some 2.8 million eligible to vote for a new president, two vice presidents, as well as 57 lawmakers and municipal leaders.

The elections again tested the organizational skills of the PLN, which has dominated politics in Costa Rica for the past six decades, and was expected to make gains among lawmakers too.

Chinchilla was also aided by Costa Rica's relatively smooth passage through the global economic crisis, and by support from powerful economic sectors close to Arias.

She follows in the footsteps of four female presidents in Latin America -- in Chile, Argentina, Panama and Nicaragua -- in a nation which has promoted positive discrimination to bring women to political posts in recent years.

Solis, an economist from the Citizen's Action Party, ran on an anti-corruption ticket and had lagged behind Guevara, a 49-year-old lawyer who founded the pro-business Libertarian Movement Party.

Some 200 international observers oversaw the elections in one of the region's most politically and economically stable nations famed for its lush flora and fauna and eco-tourism.

Arias is due to hand over to Chinchilla on May 8.

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