SAN JOSE, Costa Rica (AP) - Costa Ricans appear likely to elect their first woman president Sunday as Central America's most politically and economically stable country chooses between a career politician from the ruling party and an anti-taxation Libertarian.
Pre-election polls gave a nearly 20-point lead to Laura Chinchilla, who served as vice president under current President Oscar Arias, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and free-market enthusiast.
"All of this has been worth it. We are going to win, and in the first round," said Chincilla, who rose early Sunday to attend a traditional election-day Mass at the Metropolitan Cathedral.
Sunday's winner needs at least 40 percent of the vote to avoid an April run-off.
Otto Guevara, of the Libertarian Movement Party, emerged as Chinchilla's biggest challenger. He promised to lower taxes, dismantle monopolies and adopt the U.S. dollar as the country's currency.
Otton Solis, who barely lost the presidential election to Arias in 2006, came in third in the opinion polls. Solis voted early Sunday in his southern native city of Perez Zeledon.
If victorious, Chinchilla has pledged to continue Arias' moderate free-market policies that 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.
But critics of the government say Arias catered to big developers to boost the economy at the cost of the nation's fragile ecosystems.
Both Solis and Guevara have portrayed Arias' centrist National Liberation Party as stagnant and ridden with old-school Latin American cronyism.
It was unclear whether the National Liberation Party had the strength to win a legislative majority in Sunday's voting.
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.
If Chinchilla wins, she would follow an increasingly common trend in many Latin American countries: Nicaragua, Panama, Chile and Argentina have all elected women as presidents.
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. "All of us here are going to vote for Laura because she was the only one who visited us and told us her plans and I believe in her."
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