(Adds voter comments, detail from polling stations) By Christine Murray and Elida Moreno PANAMA CITY, May 4 (Reuters) - Panama's presidential election was seen heading for the closest 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 top three candidates within a few points of one another in a race pitting the current administration, which oversaw a multi-billion dollar public works push, against challengers from the left and right. The winner will inherit 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. Waiting in line at polling stations as hawkers sold soda and barbecue, voters were split. "Panama has changed a lot in five years ... I want it to continue changing," said hotel industry student Aurelio Barriga, 21, who said he would vote for the ruling Democratic Change (CD) party's candidate Jose Domingo Arias. 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. Opponents see the CD's Arias as a proxy for Martinelli, whom the constitution bars from running again in 2014. Arias chose Martinelli's wife, who has no formal political experience, as his running mate. 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. "I think he is honest, not like others like President Martinelli, who wants to install his colleague Arias so he can remain in power," said Dimas Cedeno, a Varela supporter, as he leaned out of the window of a dilapidated building in a poor part of the historic quarter of Panama City. At up to $624 a month, the minimum wage in Panama is among the highest in Latin America, but the quarter of the population that lives in poverty is 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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