Panama Elects New President

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May 4 Panamanians went to the polls to elect a new president. Despite trailing in all pre-election polls, Juan Carlos Varela of the center-right Panameñista Party won the election with 39% of the vote, seven points ahead of Jose Domingo Arias from the incumbent Democratic Change party. Juan Carlos Navarro of the Democratic Revolutionary Party took 28% and four other candidates received under 1%. Turnout was slightly higher than it was for the 2009 election, up 2% to 76.4%.

Varela, 50, is a U.S.-trained engineer whose family owns Panama’s largest liquor company. Varela served as vice president with current President Ricardo Martinelli in a coalition government that took power in 2009 but split from the coalition in 2011 after refusing to support a referendum to remove Panama’s presidential one-term limit.

Despite not being able to run again, Martinelli was not totally disconnected from the election. Martinelli’s wife contended on the Democratic Change ticket as vice president, defying the constitutional provision that prevents anyone within a fourth degree of blood relation or of second degree “affinity” from taking the job.

Varela’s anti-corruption message resonated among voters, along with his plan to impose price controls on 22 basic food products due to concerns about raising inflation. Annual inflation for March of 2014 reached 3.3%, though inflation for food and drink products reached 5.1%. Furthermore, the president-elect intends to continue with US$15 billion in infrastructure spending, including expanding the new metro transportation system, along with advancing social programs.

The election outcome continues to follow the Panamanian trend of incumbent parties failing to win a second consecutive term, which has yet to happen since the 1989 U.S. overthrow of military-dictator Manuel Noriega.

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