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Conservative supermarket tycoon wins Panama vote

Ricardo Martinelli's message of change prevails despite years of strong economic growth.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 3, 2009

President-elect Ricardo Martinelli of the Democratic Change Party waves after casting his vote Sunday during presidential elections in Panama City.

Mariana Bazo/Reuters

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Panama City

Panamanians elected a conservative, pro-business candidate as their new president Sunday – signaling their hope for a new alternative as the Central American nation's once-booming economy cools.

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According to preliminary results released by Panama's electoral tribunal, Ricardo Martinelli of the Democratic Change party, easily won the election with about 60 percent support. He beat Balbina Herrera, the candidate of the ruling Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), as well as former president Guillermo Endara, who lagged far behind.

Voters say they were attracted to Mr. Martinelli, because they perceive him as outside the traditional political system that has dominated Panamanian politics since the US invasion of 1989 that dismantled the dictatorship of Manuel Noriega. They also express hope that the supermarket tycoon will bring his business savvy to the chief-of-staff post and help Panama weather the worldwide economic crisis.

"If he has run such a successful company, he can run the country," says Diana Arosemena, a resident of Panama City on her return home from a polling station Sunday, repeating a sentiment heard throughout the nation. She says he has the experience to cut costs and make government run more efficiently.

Panama's economy grew at 9.2 percent last year, one of the highest rates in the world. But it expected to slow dramatically to 3.2 percent this year. "You won't see the same dynamism," says Felipe Chapman, an economist in Panama City. "It will challenge the next government."

Inflation has been a main concern of voters, who punished the ruling party for not making sure that economic boom times trickled down more. A third of the population still lives in poverty, even though the PRD government of Martin Torrijos put money into social programs. "I am part of the PRD, but my government disappointed me," says Raulino Balbuena, a taxi driver in Panama City. "They promised to solve the problem of public transportation, and five years later it's worse."

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