Feb 4 (Reuters) - A protege of outgoing President Oscar Arias could be elected Costa Rica’s first woman head of state on Sunday, though a conservative rival has upped his challenge ahead of the election. [ID:nN04186004]
Polls place Laura Chinchilla within striking distance of the 40 percent of the vote she needs to avoid a runoff, but a late surge by conservative former lawmaker Otto Guevara and gains by centrist Otton Solis have narrowed her lead.
Following are profiles of the three main candidates:
The candidate of the ruling centrist National Liberation Party, Costa Rica’s oldest political movement, Chinchilla has sought to capitalize on her cabinet experience and close ties with popular outgoing President Oscar Arias.
A lifetime politician, Chinchilla, 50, supports economic liberalization and free trade but is socially conservative, opposing gay marriage, abortion and any change to Roman Catholicism’s position as the state religion.
Chinchilla, who was born into a political family, has served in several cabinet posts including public security minister and most recently as one of Arias’s vice presidents.
She has promised to continue Arias’s economic policies, expanding free-trade pacts and courting foreign investment.
Responding to mounting public concern about crime, she has also called for more public security spending.
A Harvard-educated lawyer and founder of the country’s pro-business Libertarian Movement party, Guevara has surged in opinion polls in recent months, winning support from Costa Ricans seeking an outsider candidate.
The former lawmaker wants to take a hard line against rising crime, extending prison sentences and easing gun laws for law-abiding citizens.
Despite Costa Rica’s stable macroeconomic fundamentals, Guevara, 49, has called for scrapping the floating colon currency, which he says is grossly undervalued, and replacing it with the U.S. dollar.
He gained prominence as an ambitious young lawmaker for fighting wasteful spending in Costa Rica’s elaborate public health care and insurance system and has promised to slash bureaucracy if elected.
For center-left opposition stalwart Solis, this is the third attempt to win the presidency for his Citizens’ Action Party. He only narrowly lost the 2006 election to Arias and has narrowed the gap with front-runners in the last weeks of the current campaign.
An economist, Solis staunchly opposes the terms of the Central America Free Trade Agreement, or CAFTA, with the United States, and led a nearly successful attempt to defeat the pact in a 2007 referendum.
He has called for a review of the trade pact and is wary of free trade agreements in general. (Reporting by Leslie Josephs and Robert Campbell; Editing by Catherine Bremer)