Voters in Panama gave Vice President Juan Carlos Varela a promotion and elected him as the Central American country’s next president.
Panama’s electoral tribunal declared Varela the winner on Sunday night after deciding that he held an “insurmountable” lead over his main rivals, ruling party candidate Jose Domingo Arias and former Panama City Mayor Juan Carlos Navarro. At the time Varela was declared president-elect, he had 39% of the vote compared to Arias’ 32% and Navarro’s 28%.
Varela won even though the last polls taken in the weeks prior to the election placed him behind Arias and Navarro in the three-way dogfight for the presidency. Yet much like Costa Rica’s presidential race, enough voters were apparently swayed by Varela’s strong anti-corruption platform. In addition, there may have been discontent that if Arias were to win then he would be a puppet controlled by current President Ricardo Martinelli. (Indeed, Arias’ vice presidential pick was First Lady Marta Linares while Martinelli crisscrossed the country over the last few weeks actively campaigning for Arias).
“This government is going to fight against inequality and is not going to tolerate corruption,” Varela told supporters shortly after he won the election. “Better days will come to Panama, with a government that is human, decent and visionary,” he added.
Sunday’s election, which was marked by a peaceful and high turnout, was the latest chapter in the ugly rivalry between Varela and Martinelli. Both were partners when Martinelli was elected to the high office in 2009 but that relationship quickly unraveled:
Relations between President Ricardo Martinelli and Varela who formed a coalition government in 2009 quickly began to disintegrate soon after taking power when Martinelli reneged on a pre-election agreement that would have had Varela as the coalition presidential candidate in the current election, Relations continued downhill, and 26 months after the alliance was formed Varela was sacked as Minister of Foreign Affairs and the alliance split. To maintain control of the Assembly, many deputies were enticed to jump ship, with allegations circulating of bags of money changing hands, and the distribution of sinecure appointments, in one case re-instating the fired daughter of a defector to the post of head of the Cultural Institute (INAC).
Martinelli is not silent when it comes to insulting Varela, whom he calls "bottella" for accepting the salary as vice president but not working. Varela has countered that he donates his salary to charity reports La Prensa.
Martinelli also accused his family business Varela Hermanos - producer of Seco Herrerano - for not paying the minimum wage and sued him for damages for calling him corrupt.Aside from rampant corruption and his fractured ties with Martinelli, the fifty-year-old engineer will face numerous challenges when he’s inaugurated on July 1st. Despite record-low unemployment and strong economic growth under Martinelli, one-quarter of Panamanians are mired in poverty. The expansion of the Panama Canal has been delayed by cost overruns and worker discontent over pay. Lastly, Varela’s political party sits in the minority of the Panamanian legislature after having won only eleven of seventy-one seats.
Video Source – teleSUR via YouTube
Online Sources – La Estrella de Panamá; Bloomberg; Christian Science Monitor; Newsroom Panama; Tico Times; The Latin Americanist