Monday, May 5, 2014

Panamá: VP Juan Carlos Varela, 50, Wins Presidency, Rivalry with Martinelli Will Continue

According to The Associated Press, Panamanians delivered a rebuke to President Ricardo Martinelli's attempt to continue his grip on power, electing as his successor a former ally turned rival in one of the toughest-fought contests since democracy was restored two decades ago.

Vice President Juan Carlos Varela prevailed in Sunday's (May 4) presidential election with 39% of the votes, compared to 32% for Martinelli's choice, political newcomer José Domingo Arías.

Juan Carlos Navarro, a former mayor of the capital, received 28% to finish third in the seven-candidate field.

Varela, who takes office July 1, 2014, dedicated his victory to Panamá's democracy. Waving the nation's flag at a rally to celebrate his victory, he vowed to put aside the partisan bickering of the past five years and put an end to corruption that worsened under Martinelli.

A free-market conservative, possesses strong credentials. Before breaking with Martinelli in 2011, he was the architect of the government's popular "100 for 70" program that provides a $100 monthly stipend to Panamanians over age 70 without a pension or retirement benefits. 

COMMENT: Although President Martinelli was not among the field of candidates, the billionaire supermarket magnate was ever-present in the election, despite his ignoring the country's campaign rules.

As the race narrowed in recent weeks, Martinelli crisscrossed the isthmus inaugurating hospitals, stadiums and Central America's first subway while warning the 4 million Panamanians that record-low unemployment and economic growth that averaged more than 8% since he took office in 2009 could be jeopardized.

Martinelli's arrogance in violating campaign rules in campaigning by a sitting president drew widespread criticism. Worse, he violated other campaigning mandates by placing his wife, Marta Linares, as Arias' running mate.

Interestingly, never since the United States' 1989 overthrow of military strongman Manuel Noriega has an incumbent party won re-election in Panamá.

Voter turnout was high @ 75%.

Martinelli will have a strong platform from which to battle Varela, as candidates from his Democratic Center party were the biggest winners in congressional voting Sunday, taking an estimated 29 of 71 seats in the Legislative Assembly. 

Varela's alliance won just 12 seats, meaning he will almost have to negotiate with Navarro's center-left Democratic Revolutionary Party, which elected 22 representatives.

Varela, who studied engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, is the a member of one of Panama's richest families, owner of the Varela Hermanos rum distillery. He left the 2009 presidential race to throw his conservative Panamenista party's support behind Martinelli in exchange for the vice presidency.

Yet, the close association between the two men soured quickly as Martinelli dismissed Varela from an additional role as foreign minister in 2011, for refusing to back a plan for a referendum to allow the 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 with Italy's Finmeccanica.

Martinelli denied the charges and in turn marginalized Varela from decision-making, never tiring of calling the vice president a parasite for collecting supposedly collecting a government paycheck without doing any work.

Varela, in a February interview, said he would continue Martinelli's drive to improve Panama's infrastructure, the linchpin of the president's 60% approval rating.

Yet, Varela vowed to boost transparency, reflecting the perception that much of $15 billion spent on upgrades was lost to corruption and poor planning.