San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Panamanians vote in tight presidential election

PANAMA CITY – Voters in Panama went to the polls Sunday to elect a new president amid a seeming consensus in favor of the free market policies of outgoing President Ricardo Martinelli.

The campaign is down to the wire, with polls giving any of the three leading contenders a reasonable shot at victory. Some analysts are calling it the Central American country’s closest presidential race yet.

The frontrunners — ruling party candidate José Domingo Arias, opposition politician Juan Carlos Navarro and Vice President Juan Carlos Varela — all cast their ballots soon after polls opened at 7 a.m.

Four other candidates also are on the ballot. A simple majority is needed to win with the victor taking office July 1.

Long lines formed at most polling stations around the country as voting proceeded peaceably, with no incidents reported. Many people toted water bottles expecting long waits in the midday sun.

In addition to picking a new president, the country’s 2.5 million eligible voters will elect dozens of mayors and members of Congress.

Martinelli, speaking from the presidential palace, urged Panamanians to “vote for whomever you want, but vote.”

The president has been an outspoken supporter of Arias, 50, the country’s former housing minister and a businessman who made his fortune manufacturing ladies’ undergarments.

Representing the Democratic Change party, Arias’ running mate is Marta Linares, Martinelli’s wife.

Navarro, the 52-year-old candidate representing the center-left Democratic Revolutionary party, was formerly mayor of Panama City. He has vowed to crack down on crime and to do more to protect the environment.

Trailing the other two candidates by a handful of percentage points is Varela, 50, a rum manufacturer who is Martinelli’s current vice president, but now is seen as his political enemy.

The two had a falling out after Martinelli dismissed Varela as his foreign minister in 2011, opening a political wound that has yet to heal.

Staying the course

Lawyer and political analyst Ebrahim Asvat said that whatever the outcome of the vote, the country’s course for the next quarter century already has already been mapped out.

Panama will continue to focus, he said, on free market policies that maximize economic expansion — the path forged by Martinelli, who is leaving office with a 67 percent approval rating.

“Panama has made an extraordinary effort to open up its economy, exercise fiscal discipline and none of the candidates is going to veer from that path,” Asvat said.

The country enjoyed blistering growth of 8.5 percent last year, but economic inequality remains a major concern, with about 26 percent of citizens living in poverty.

Panama long has traded on its canal, shipping and trade, but increasingly is turning to unconventional exports such as mining, plus tourism and other service industries, such as catering to expat retirees.

Uneven patterns of economic distribution have only been reinforced during the current boom, and that is unlikely to change.

“Economic growth has benefited a small elite,” said Jaime Purcell, a political analyst focusing on Panama’s electoral process.

“Regardless of who wins, there is not going to be major [policy] change.”

Luis Herrera, a Panama City electrician, said Martinelli has been good for the country, and that he plans to vote for the president’s pick, Arias.

“We can’t go backward,” he told AFP.

“Panama has made great strides these past few years thanks to this government, and I hope that we will continue on the same path.”

Not everyone is thrilled with the status quo, however.

“Whoever wins, I still have to go to work on Monday,” shrugged Manuel Dominguez, a sidewalk merchant who makes his living selling batteries and TV remotes in the heart of Panama City.

Dominguez grumbled about rising prices, even though inflation in Panama is a relatively modest four percent.

“Everything is super-expensive,” he said, adding that he’ll vote for Varela, who has vowed to curb inflation by imposing price controls, a policy commonly associated with the left.

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