Panama president's deputy-turned-rival takes early election lead

by Reuters
Monday, 5 May 2014 00:00 GMT

(Updates with analyst comment, updates count) By Christine Murray and Elida Moreno PANAMA CITY, May 4 (Reuters) - Panama's vice-president, running as an opposition candidate, took an early lead in Sunday's presidential election after a campaign in which he took credit for outgoing President Ricardo Martinelli's policies but promised a cleaner government. Juan Carlos Varela of the center-right Panamenista Party (PP) helped Martinelli get elected in 2009 but later fell out with him and has vowed to cut the cost of living and reduce poverty. Varela had 39.06 percent support with votes counted from around 33.6 percent of polling booths, Panama's election authority said. Ruling party contender Jose Domingo Arias had 31.95 percent, while left-leaning former Panama City mayor Juan Carlos Navarro of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) had 27.66 percent. 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 election campaign has focused more on personalities than policy, which is not expected to change dramatically regardless of who emerges as the winner. Many voters voiced dissatisfaction with the ruling Democratic Change's (CD) 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. "I think at this point the trend is clear toward a Varela victory," said Orlando Perez, a Panama expert and politics professor at Central Michigan University. 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. 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 Elinor Comlay, Kieran Murray and Sandra Maler)

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