Juan Carlos Varela thwarts rival by winning presidency

By | July 23, 2014

Panama election: Juan Carlos Varela thwarts rival by winning presidency © The Guardian 5 May 2014

Vice-president declared the victor with 60% of votes counted, seeing off attempt by outgoing leader to hand-pick successor.

Panama’s vice-president Juan Carlos Varela was declared the victor of the country’s presidential election on Sunday, thwarting an attempt by former ally and incumbent Ricardo Martinelli to extend his grip on power by electing a hand-picked successor.

With 60% of ballots counted, officials said Varela led with 39% of the votes, compared to 32% for former housing minister Jose Domingo Arias, the preferred choice of Martinelli. Juan Carlos Navarro, a former mayor of the capital, was running third in the seven-candidate field with 27%.

Varela, who takes office July 1, dedicated his victory to Panama’s democracy when the electoral tribunal’s chief magistrate notified him by telephone of his victory.

The ruling party has still never won re-election to Panama’s presidency since the United States’ 1989 overthrow of military strongman Manuel Noriega.

Election day began with opinion polls pointing to a tight race among the top three candidates, but none of the major surveys had Varela with a lead. Most gave a razor-thin edge to Arias.

Although Martinelli was not on the ballot, the billionaire supermarket magnate’s presence loomed large during the campaign with many worried that he would be the power behind the throne if voters chose Arias, a soft-spoken newcomer.

As the race narrowed in recent weeks, Martinelli crisscrossed the isthmus inaugurating hospitals, stadiums and central America’s first subway while warning the nation’s 3.2m people that record-low unemployment and economic growth averaging more than 8% since he took office in 2009 could be jeopardised if his opponents won.

His high-profile campaigning drew widespread criticism, as did his decision to place his wife, Marta Linares, as Arias’ running mate on the Democratic Center ticket.

Varela, a 50-year-old engineer, is the scion of one of Panama’s richest families and owner of a namesake rum distillery. He left the 2009 presidential race to throw his conservative Panamenista party’s support behind Martinelli in exchange for the vice presidency.

But the political marriage did not last, and Martinelli dismissed him from an additional role as foreign minister in 2011 for refusing to back a plan for a referendum to allow 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. Martinelli denied the charges.

In turn, Martinelli all but marginalised Varela from decision-making and called the vice president for collecting his government paycheck without doing any work.

A free-market conservative, Varela also has strong social credentials, having been the architect of a popular program at the start of Martinelli’s presidency to provide a $100 monthly stipend to Panamanians over age 70 without a pension or retirement benefits. Read more on: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/may/05/panama-election-juan-carlos-varela-thwarts-rival-by-winning-presidency