Why Panama tilts right in presidential vote

Most Latin American nations are electing leftists, but supermarket tycoon Ricardo Martinelli's message of change gives him an edge going into Sunday's election.

A Panamanian boy walks past posters of presidential candidate Ricardo Martinelli in Panama City on May 2. A free-market advocate, polls show he leads ahead of Sunday's general election.

Throughout Latin America, citizens have been voting for change, and in many countries change has meant left-wing candidates railing against "neo-liberalism" and their country's oligarchy.

In Panama, residents are also voting for change in Sunday's presidential election. But unlike in El Salvador recently, where the left-wing Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) won the presidency after 30 years of conservative party rule, or in Ecuador where Rafael Correa won re-election last Sunday vowing to push forward with a "socialist revolution," change here comes in the form of a supermarket tycoon who touts himself as the free-market candidate.

Ricardo Martinelli, who created his own political party in 1998 and is running with a coalition of parties, has about 50 percent of voter support heading into the race, according to the latest opinion polls. His win would wrest control from the incumbent, center-left Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD). It would also mark the first time that a third political party has won the head-of-state post since the US invasion to dismantle the military dictatorship of Manuel Noriega in 1989.

Mr. Martinelli's first shot for the presidency was in 2004, and he finished in last place with just 5.3 percent of votes. Five years later, his quick rise and overwhelming popularity is a product of media savvy and voter doubt – despite an economic boom over the past few years. Polls show that Panamanians doubt whether the two dominating parties can tackle crime and corruption and improve public services. Although Martinelli has held top government posts in both the ruling and opposition parties, and his coalition includes Panama's main opposition, he has marketed himself as the country's only outsider.

"People are tired of the traditional political classes," says Edwin Cabrera, a political analyst in Panama City. "And Martinelli has achieved in his message that he is the real change in the country."

Discontent amid solid economic growth

At first glance, the desire for change seems somewhat inexplicable here. Panama's economy has been one of the world's best performing, with growth rate of 9.2 percent last year. And even though the world economic crisis has slowed it down, a $5.25 billion expansion project of the Panama Canal is underway and expected to generate tens of thousands of jobs. The country is also eagerly awaiting a free-trade agreement, which it signed with the US.

But the PRD candidate, Balbina Herrera, is trailing by some 12 percentage points among likely voters. That discrepancy lies in the fact that many of the issues voters say are important – security, public transportation, health, and education – are perceived to have deteriorated under the PRD leadership, says Mr. Cabrera, even as foreign investment has poured in. Corruption scandals have embroiled the political system, too. And about a third of the population remains mired in poverty.

"There are not enough jobs, and they aren't doing enough for poor people," says Hermelinda de Bourne, a store owner in the old part of Panama City where beautiful colonial homes, many purchased by foreigners, stand in contrast to dilapidated ones crammed with local families.

Ms. De Bourne has always voted PRD, but this year she changed her mind. "They promise and promise, and give nothing," she says.

In many countries these kinds of frustrations have led to the emergence of left-wing leaders. Concern over a lack of employment, for example, drove many voters to the FMLN in El Salvador. In Ecuador, when Mr. Correa was originally voted in 2006, voters were rejecting the corruption of the political classes in favor of an unknown college economics professor. From Bolivia to Venezuela, left-wing leaders have campaigned on a promise to pay attention to the poor for the first time in history.

Ideology doesn't fly in pro-business Panama

In Panama, the left is not as pronounced as in other countries. There is no strong socialist current, and while political divides exist between those who support the military dictatorship and those who don't, the kinds of ideological rifts so marked in the rest of Latin America are largely absent. The PRD, for example, calls itself "leftist" but Orlando Perez, a Panama expert at Central Michigan University, says it's a misnomer.

This election has been absent of ideological debates – as the two leading candidates tend to support free trade policies and favor warm relations with the US. Both say they will improve education, tackle inflation and crime, and pour money into infrastructure to stave off economic slackening.

"It is a business-oriented culture," says Mr. Perez. "Martinelli is seen as a successful businessman. In some countries being a successful businessman is not a good thing; in Panama it is."

But Cabrera says sentiments could change here if the incoming administration does not satisfy voters' wishes for better services. "If this election does not fulfill expectations, I would not be surprised if a leftist figure emerges in Panama like it has in the rest of Latin America in the next elections."

Love him or hate him, Martinelli's rise signals a maturation of democracy in Panama, says Perez. Since the US invasion in 1989, the presidential post has rotated between the ruling and opposition parties. Even though Martinelli heads a coalition, and is perceived as a new political alternative from bipartisanship. "It will be the first victory of a third party in a sense," says Perez, "and represents a continuation of the process of democratization in Panama."

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