South/Latin America

Opposition Party Candidate Wins Panama Election

Courtesy: EFE

Courtesy: EFE

The incumbent vice president and opposition party candidate, Juan Carlos Varela, won the Panamanian presidency on Sunday.  Varela has made a run for the presidency in 2009, but dropped out when he was offered the vice presidency by the current president, Ricardo Martinelli.  Shortly after, there was a disagreement between the two and Varela’s role as foreign minister, a second position he was given on top of the vice presidency, was taken away from him for his opposition to Martinelli’s plan to support consecutive terms for presidents.  Since that scuffle, Varela has been a sharp critic of the current president.  Varela is described as a free market conservative and well known in Panama for his family’s rum company.  Matinelli had supported a handpicked successor, but with 60% of the votes counted, Varela led Jose Domingo Arias, the chosen favorite of Matrinelli, with 39% of the vote to Arias’ 32%.  Varela will take office on July 1. 

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Vice President Juan Carlos Varela was declared the victor of Panama’s presidential election Sunday, thwarting an attempt by former ally President Ricardo Martinelli to extend his grip on power by electing a hand-picked successor.

With 60 percent of ballots counted, officials said Varela led with 39 percent of the votes, compared to 32 percent for former Housing Minister Jose Domingo Arias, the preferred choice of Martinelli. Juan Carlos Navarro, a former mayor of the capital, was in third in the seven-candidate field with 27 percent.

Varela, who takes office July 1, dedicated his victory to Panama’s democracy when the Electoral Tribunal’s chief magistrate notified him by telephone of his victory.

The incumbent party has still never won re-election to Panama’s presidency since the United States’ 1989 overthrow of military strongman Manuel Noriega.

Election day began with opinion polls pointing to a tight race among the top three candidates, but none of the major surveys had Varela with a lead. Most gave a razor-thin edge to Arias.

Although Martinelli wasn’t on the ballot, the billionaire supermarket magnate’s presence loomed large during the campaign, with many worried that he would be the power behind the throne if voters chose Arias, a soft-spoken newcomer.

As the race narrowed in recent weeks, Martinelli crisscrossed the isthmus inaugurating hospitals, stadiums and Central America’s first subway while warning the 3.2 million Panamanians that record-low unemployment and economic growth averaging more than 8 percent since he took office in 2009 could be jeopardized if his opponents won.

His use of the bully pulpit drew widespread criticism, as did his decision to place his wife, Marta Linares, as Arias’ running mate on the Democratic Center ticket.

Varela, a 50-year-old engineer, is the scion of one of Panama’s richest families and owner of a namesake rum distillery. He left the 2009 presidential race to throw his conservative Panamenista party’s support behind Martinelli in exchange for the vice presidency.

But the political marriage didn’t last, and Martinelli dismissed him from an additional role as foreign minister in 2011 for refusing to back a plan for a referendum to allow president’s to serve consecutive terms.

Since then, Varela has been the president’s fiercest critic, accusing him of taking kickbacks for a government radar system contract. Martinelli denied the charges.

In turn, Martinelli all but marginalized Varela from decision-making and called the vice president for collecting his government paycheck without doing any work.

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