SAN JOSE, Costa Rica (Reuters) - Laura Chinchilla, a protege of Nobel peace laureate President Oscar Arias, won a landslide election victory in Costa Rica on Sunday to become the country's first woman elected president.
Chinchilla, formerly Arias' vice president, has vowed to continue his pro-business policies in the Central American nation, expanding free trade pacts and courting investment.
The center-leftist won 47 percent of the vote, around double the scores of her two closest rivals, who quickly conceded defeat. She will join a small camp of women leaders in typically male-dominated Latin America that currently includes Chile's Michelle Bachelet and Argentina's Cristina Fernandez.
"I am thankful for the good work of the outgoing government and thankful our country is again moving forward and refuses to allow this advance to stop," Chinchilla said after declaring victory to cheers from her supporters.
Famed for its political stability in a turbulent region, Costa Rica is an economic success story in Central America, with an economy based around tourism, manufactured products like microchips, and exports of coffee, pineapples and bananas.
Popular with eco-tourists, surfers and U.S. and Canadian retirees for its lush jungles, volcanoes and relaxed lifestyle, Costa Rica is proud of its six decades of democratic elections and status as one of Latin America's most stable countries.
"This election ... is an affirmation of the development model that has been employed," said professor Alberto Cortes of the University of Costa Rica.
However he noted environmentalists and labor groups may prove stubborn if Chinchilla pushes ahead with unpopular projects begun by Arias, such as allowing open-pit mining to resume after removing a moratorium or an expansion of the Caribbean port of Limon.
FREE TRADE DIVISIVE
Married with a teenage son, Chinchilla is a social conservative who opposes gay marriage and abortion but is also seen as a flagbearer for women in her country. "It's time," said Chinchilla voter Maria Luz Calderon. "I like her ideas."
Chinchilla saw her lead in recent opinion polls narrow as her opponents tried to portray her as a placeholder for Arias.
But the much-decorated peacemaker told Reuters he will bow out of politics when his term ends in May.
Chinchilla's vote total was well above the 40 percent needed to avoid a runoff, but her National Liberation Party fell short of a majority in the legislative assembly, meaning she will have to seek alliances with opposition parties.
Chinchilla was aided by Costa Rica's relatively smooth passage through the global economic crisis. The country dipped last year into its first recession in 27 years but is seen recovering this year.
Many Costa Ricans oppose the free trade pacts she and Arias champion, however. Voters only narrowly approved the region's CAFTA free trade deal with the United States in 2007 and dislike of the pact drew many voters to center-left candidate Otton Solis, a staunch opponent of free trade.
Solis had 25 percent of the vote and conservative candidate Otto Guevara had 21 percent against Chinchilla's 47 percent with 84 percent of ballots counted.
Guevara had gained support after pushing his hard line on crime, promising stiffer jail terms and softer restrictions on law-abiding citizens owning guns.
Costa Rica, which has no army and avoided the Cold War-era civil wars that ravaged its neighbors, is known for its low crime but is increasingly a transit route for drug gangs.
Arias is the country's best-known citizen after being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize during his 1986-90 term for helping to end Central America's bloody guerrilla conflicts.
He was elected to a second term in 2006 but now plans to retire and dedicate his time to his family and reading.