Ricardo Martinelli wins Panama election, tribunal says

Conservative supermarket magnate Ricardo Martinelli coasted to victory in Panama’s presidential election Sunday, bucking the Latin American trend of recent years that has seen leftists take power.

Panama’s electoral tribunal declared Martinelli the victor after counting 43% of the vote Sunday evening, saying he had an insurmountable lead: 61% to 36% over Balbina Herrera, a former housing minister and ruling party candidate. Herrera’s campaign suffered from a worsening economy, rising crime and disenchantment with President Martin Torrijos.

“Starting on July 1, a change is coming to Panama,” Martinelli told supporters at his campaign headquarters in Panama City.


Promising to make radical improvements in education, transportation and public security, he appealed for unity. “We will govern with the best in Panama,” he said.

Although Democratic Change party candidate Martinelli is a conservative who attended the U.S. Republican National Convention in Minnesota last summer as an observer, his campaign borrowed a page from Barack Obama’s playbook. He promised to redirect Panama’s government and used slogans saying he was the agent of “real change.”

Martinelli vowed to be tough on crime, which polls indicate is a major concern among Panamanians. Violence has risen as Panama has become an important way station for drugs en route to the United States. Cocaine consumption within Panama also has increased.

The win by Martinelli, the U.S.-educated owner of the Super 99 market chain, went counter to victories in recent years by leftist candidates in neighboring Central American countries El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and elsewhere in the hemisphere.

The trend reflects growing anti-U.S. sentiment and disenchantment with free trade and open markets -- the so-called Washington consensus.

Both Martinelli, 57, and Herrera, 54, supported Panama’s proposed free trade agreement with the United States, which was negotiated during the Bush administration but is stalled in the U.S. Congress. President Obama has signaled his support for the deal.

A major stumbling block to congressional approval was removed when Pedro Miguel Gonzalez, who is wanted in the United States in connection with the 1992 slaying of a U.S. serviceman, stepped down last year as president of Panama’s National Assembly.

Although Herrera was an early favorite to win the election, her candidacy was hurt by the global financial crisis that slowed Panama’s economic growth from the booming 9% annual rate seen most of this decade to the 2% expected this year. Joblessness and inflation have risen in recent months.

In a 2006 nationwide referendum, Torrijos succeeded in getting passage of a proposal for a $5.25-billion expansion of the Panama Canal, but analysts say most Panamanians do not yet feel the benefits of the enormous construction project. Business at the Colon free trade zone has lagged, and canal ship traffic, a major economic generator, is down 15% from pre-crisis levels.

Herrera’s bid for office was also weakened by internal divisions in the Democratic Revolutionary Party, the long-dominant party of Torrijos, who is the son of Panama’s late strongman Gen. Omar Torrijos. In addition, news surfaced that her campaign received a $3-million donation from the operator of an alleged Colombian Ponzi scheme.

Herrera won a bruising nomination battle with Panama City Mayor Juan Carlos Navarro. Although the mayor subsequently became Herrera’s running mate, the two often were at odds during the campaign, according to one foreign diplomatic source who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment.

Constitutional law professor Jorge Giannareas of Panama City said, “Navarro tried to discredit Herrera by portraying her as a populist supporter of [Venezuelan President Hugo] Chavez, of whom most Panamanians want no part. The charges were never proved, but it was lethal to any chances of party unity.”

Panama City, the capital, witnessed a construction boom as foreign retirees and investors flocked to Panama to take advantage of liberal immigration, investment and banking laws.

But critics charged that the Torrijos government failed to keep pace with the growth. Panama City traffic is now notoriously gridlocked at rush hour, which hurt Herrera’s candidacy.

So did a scandal involving tainted cough syrup imported from China that killed 200. Victims’ families complain that the government has been slow to compensate them.

Analysts fear that the global credit crisis could affect the Panama Canal expansion, though the canal authority insists the project is on track. Details of any adverse effect could emerge this summer, when the authority awards a billion-dollar contract to build the canal’s new locks to accommodate larger container ships.