AS HAS happened every five years since the end of the Noriega dictatorship in 1989, Panamanians have voted to kick out their ruling party. In elections on May 4th, they gave a resounding victory to Juan Carlos Varela, a vice-president turned opposition candidate who is a personal nemesis of President Ricardo Martinelli.
Though opinion polls had predicted a tight race between the three most prominent candidates, none tipped Mr Varela as a winner. His victory will be an unpleasant blow to Mr Martinelli, a former supermarket magnate who has presided over an economic boom but who has feuded with Mr Varela since he abandoned the government in 2011 and then accused it of corruption. Mr Varela, who is also rich (he is the scion of a Panamanian rum dynasty), is likely to continue many of Mr Martinelli’s economic policies, but says he will focus on helping the poor and reducing inequality.
With 80% of the votes counted, Mr Varela won 39% of the vote, seven points ahead of José Domingo Arias, Mr Martinelli’s hand-picked candidate, with 32%. Juan Carlos Navarro of the centre-left Democratic Revolution Party came third with 28%.
The Electoral Tribunal declared Mr Varela president-elect and as is its custom, publicly called him on his mobile phone to deliver the news. In a sign of democratic civility unusual elsewhere in Central America, his defeated rivals quickly recognised the victory. Mr Martinelli, however, only grudgingly accepted it, after tweeting repeatedly in favour of his candidate (his wife was Mr Arias’s vice-presidential candidate) and against Mr Varela right up to the day of the vote. Many Panamanians suspected that Mr Martinelli hoped to pull the strings if Mr Arias and his wife won, and some spoke scathingly of his strategy as “a re-election in disguise.”
The president, whose investment programme has helped Panama maintain a decade-long growth rate that is the envy of Latin America (GDP rose 8.4% in 2013), blamed what he said was a hostile media for his candidate’s defeat. Mr Varela, in his victory speech, sought to reach out to the opposition but he repeated his insinuations of corruption in the outgoing government. “Business is over,” he said.
Press reports, publicly ridiculed by Mr Martinelli, that his government received kick-backs on government contracts awarded to people close to disgraced Italian ex-President Silvio Berlusconi, drew much attention in the closing stages of the campaign. Analysts say the enmity between the president and Mr Varela may make for a fraught transition period before the change of government on July 1st.
(Picture credit: AFP)
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