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Conservative rival Varela wins Panama's presidency

© AFP

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2014-05-05

Juan Carlos Varela has been elected Panama’s new president, official results showed Sunday. Varela is a former vice president who became an opposition candidate after falling out with the country’s outgoing leader, Ricardo Martinelli.

Varela, a conservative, won the ballot with 39 percent of the votes compared with the 32 percent garnered by Martinelli’s pick, Jose Domingo Arias, and the 28 percent collected by former Panama City mayor, Juan Carlos Navarro. Under Panamanian law, Martinelli was unable to seek re-election.

Varela, of the center-right Panamenista Party (PP), helped Martinelli become president  in 2009 but fell out with him after Martinelli dismissed him from the foreign minister post in 2011.

“Better times are on the way. There will be an honest, humane government of national unity, a government of social peace,” Varela told Reuters at a Panama City hotel after the election tribunal declared him the winner.

The 50-year-old rum manufacturer, known as a fervent Roman Catholic and member of the conservative church group Opus Dei, ran a campaign largely based around claiming credit for Martinelli’s successes. Some of these included a popular programme giving $120 a month to people over the age of 70 and implementing infrastructure projects such as the Panama City metro.

Martinelli, a supermarket magnate, had been an outspoken supporter of Arias, a former housing minister and a businessman who made his fortune manufacturing ladies' undergarments and whose running mate was Marta Linares – Martinelli's wife.

‘No major policy changes’

The race was expected to be among Panama's tightest. Yet Varela had been running third and scored at least a touch of an upset.

In addition to picking a new president, the country's 2.5 million eligible voters were electing dozens of mayors and members of Congress.

Panama enjoyed blistering growth of 8.5 percent last year, but economic inequality remains a major concern, with about 26 percent of citizens living in poverty.

The country has long traded on its canal, shipping and trade, but is increasingly turning to unconventional exports such as mining, tourism and other service industries, such as catering to expat retirees.

Uneven patterns of economic distribution have only been reinforced during the current boom, and that is unlikely to change.

"Economic growth has benefited a small elite," said Jaime Purcell, a political analyst focusing on Panama's electoral process.

"Regardless of who wins, there is not going to be major (policy) change."

Varela takes office on July 1.

(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP and REUTERS)

Date created : 2014-05-05

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