Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Why Panama Tilts Right in Presidential Vote

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Why Panama Tilts Right in Presidential Vote

Article excerpt

Throughout Latin America, citizens have been voting for change, and in many countries change has meant left-wing candidates railing against "neo-liberalism" and their country's oligarchy. In Panama, residents are also voting for change in Sunday's presidential election. But unlike in El Salvador recently, where the left-wing Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) won the presidency after 30 years of conservative party rule, or in Ecuador where Rafael Correa won re-election last Sunday vowing to push forward with a "socialist revolution," change here comes in the form of a supermarket tycoon who touts himself as the free-market candidate. Ricardo Martinelli, who created his own political party in 1998 and is running with a coalition of parties, has about 50 percent of voter support heading into the race, according to the latest opinion polls. His win would wrest control from the incumbent, center-left Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD). It would also mark the first time that a third political party has won the head-of-state post since the US invasion to dismantle the military dictatorship of Manuel Noriega in 1989. Mr. Martinelli's first shot for the presidency was in 2004, and he finished in last place with just 5.3 percent of votes. Five years later, his quick rise and overwhelming popularity is a product of media savvy and voter doubt - despite an economic boom over the past few years. Polls show that Panamanians doubt whether the two dominating parties can tackle crime and corruption and improve public services. Although Martinelli has held top government posts in both the ruling and opposition parties, and his coalition includes Panama's main opposition, he has marketed himself as the country's only outsider. "People are tired of the traditional political classes," says Edwin Cabrera, a political analyst in Panama City. "And Martinelli has achieved in his message that he is the real change in the country." Discontent amid solid economic growth At first glance, the desire for change seems somewhat inexplicable here. Panama's economy has been one of the world's best performing, with growth rate of 9.2 percent last year. And even though the world economic crisis has slowed it down, a $5.25 billion expansion project of the Panama Canal is underway and expected to generate tens of thousands of jobs. The country is also eagerly awaiting a free-trade agreement, which it signed with the US. But the PRD candidate, Balbina Herrera, is trailing by some 12 percentage points among likely voters. That discrepancy lies in the fact that many of the issues voters say are important - security, public transportation, health, and education - are perceived to have deteriorated under the PRD leadership, says Mr. Cabrera, even as foreign investment has poured in. Corruption scandals have embroiled the political system, too. …

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