Tight finish seen in Panama presidential election

by Reuters
Sunday, 4 May 2014 21:30 GMT

(Updates with polls close, adds fresh voter comment) By Christine Murray and Elida Moreno PANAMA CITY, May 4 (Reuters) - Panama was seen heading for the closest presidential election finish in decades on Sunday, as the opposition battles to deny outgoing President Ricardo Martinelli a chance to keep an indirect hold over the booming Central American economy. Recent polls put the three leading candidates within a few points of one another, in a race that pits an administration that oversaw a multi-billion dollar public works push against challengers from the left and right. The winner inherits oversight of a major expansion of the Panama Canal, which briefly stalled earlier this year after a row over costs between the canal and the building consortium. The campaign has focused more on personalities than government policy, which is not expected to change dramatically regardless of who emerges as the winner. Many voters voiced dissatisfaction with the ruling Democratic Change (CD) candidate, Jose Domingo Arias, whose running mate is Martinelli's wife and who is seen by opponents as a proxy for the outgoing president. "I think most of the country is against re-election in disguise," said lawyer Pablo Jiustiani, 34, in Panama City's up-market San Francisco neighborhood, shortly before polls closed. Martinelli's five-year presidency has been characterized by strong economic growth but also tarnished by allegations of corruption. A banking and trading hub, Panama is best known for the canal that links the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Accounting directly for 8 percent of gross domestic product, it has helped fuel the fastest growth in Latin America in the last few years. An Arias win would make his party the first to gain re-election since a U.S. invasion in 1989 to oust military strongman Manuel Noriega, who has been behind bars ever since. "You can choose between the representatives of old politics, who always governed for their own privilege, or for those from new politics who can take the country even further," Arias told a packed closing rally on Thursday. Running neck-and-neck with Arias is moderate leftist challenger Juan Carlos Navarro of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), a former mayor of Panama City. Navarro is vowing to improve government transparency after Martinelli had to fend off allegations that the infrastructure contracts he handed out were tainted by corruption. Just behind in third is the Panamenista Party's Juan Carlos Varela, the center-right vice-president. He helped Martinelli to win the presidency in 2009, but the two later fell out. The winner faces the challenge of maintaining buoyant economic growth and ensuring the benefits trickle down in a land where a quarter of the population lives in poverty. At up to $624 a month, the minimum wage in Panama is among the highest in Latin America, but many of the country's poorest are feeling the bite of nagging inflation. The discontent has led to a nationwide construction strike over pay since April 25. That has halted thousands of projects, including work on the canal expansion, much to the annoyance of Martinelli, who is president until July 1. (Additional reporting by Noe Torres; Editing by Simon Gardner, Stephen Powell and Marguerita Choy)

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