Panama's voters cast ballots in a tight presidential election

Panamanian voters go to the polls in a tight race to select a new president.

Voters in Panama went to the polls Sunday to select a new president in an unusually tight race where the victor is likely to maintain free-market policies in Central America's fastest-growing economy.

The new president will oversee an ambitious expansion of the Panama Canal that has been plagued by cost overruns, delays and strikes.

More than 2 million people were eligible to vote in the election. They had to choose among seven candidates -- three with real possibilities of victory -- in an election season where outgoing President Ricardo Martinelli has fought mightily, and some say improperly, to sustain his influence.

His handpicked candidate, Jose Domingo Arias, was running neck and neck with two opposition candidates heading into Sunday’s election.

Martinelli was widely criticized for attempting, unsuccessfully, to pull off the kind of constitutional change that some of his leftist counterparts in the region have used to remain in power for successive terms. Martinelli, a right-wing business entrepreneur, was blocked from running for reelection but has tried to make sure that his candidate replaces him.

Arias’ vice presidential candidate is Martinelli’s wife.

The leading opposition candidates are not likely to vary from Martinelli’s pro-business economic policies but are promising to run a less corrupt government. One of the several scandals plaguing the Martinelli government involves possible bribes paid to officials by an Italian defense company.

The other two top-running candidates are Juan Carlos Navarro, a former mayor of Panama City from the center-left Democratic Revolutionary Party, and Juan Carlos Varela of the right-wing Panamanista Party.

Some observers have said this appears to be the closest election since the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama to overthrow Gen. Manuel Noriega.

Special correspondent Cardenas reported from Panama City and Times staff writer Wilkinson from Mexico City.



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