PANAMA CITY, Panama – Citizens here voted this week by an overwhelming majority to elect a white-haired supermarket mogul named Ricardo Martinelli the country’s fifth president since dictator Manuel Noriega was overthrown almost 20 years ago.
With more than 98 percent of votes counted, Martinelli won 60.11% of the vote, the highest percentage ever for a presidential candidate in Panama’s young democracy.
“Today, the entire Panamanian pueblo wants a change,” the president-elect cheered from his campaign headquarters after receiving the news. “Change begins, starting July 1.”
Martinelli will assume office on July 1 after years of record economic growth under current president Martín Torrijos, of the ruling Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD).
Torrijos, son of the military dictator Omar Torrijos, who preceded Noriega and is remembered fondly by many in Panama, has been a popular president, with an approval rating of 57 percent, according to a late-April poll. Yet, Martinelli soundly trounced Balbina Herrera, the PRD candidate, who received only 37.54 percent of the final vote.
Martinelli, who leads the Democratic Change party that joined several parties in the Coalition for Change alliance, will break two decades of bipartisan rule, shared by the PRD and the Arnulfista Party, now known as the Panameñita Party.
The election of Martinelli, the more conservative of the two candidates, also breaks with a trend to the left in Latin American elections.
“I have seen people saying that this represents a turn to the right, but I don’t agree,” said Heather Berkman, a Latin America analyst with the consulting firm Eurasia Group, who has followed the campaign closely.
“People are unhappy with the incumbent party and the economy is going south… It’s really a message more of change rather than a certain ideology.”
Both candidates were widely viewed to be business-friendly, and both campaigns piled on similar promises of improving infrastructure, attracting foreign investment, strengthening education, cracking down on rising crime and lowering food costs.
So how did Martinelli – something of a political outsider from a third party whose bid for president in the 2004 elections only garnered 5.31 percent of the vote – manage such a resounding victory over a candidate from a ruling party with a well-liked president that has achieved record economic growth, finished negotiations for a popular free-trade agreement with the United States and got approval and partial funding for a $5.25 billion expansion of the Panama Canal?
“I think it reflects two main things: the frustration that, despite the continual dominance of the PRD, the party hasn’t improved the livelihood of the average Panamanian … and it is an indication of people feeling the extent of the global economic downturn,” Berkman said.
Panama’s gross domestic product (GDP) grew by 11.5 percent in 2007 and 9.2 percent in 2008, one of the fastest rates in Latin America. But as the booming construction trade and commerce through the Panama Canal have both slowed, growth has plummeted, with Panama’s GDP estimated to grow only 3 percent this year.
Herrera’s campaign was also hurt by lingering memories of her ties to Noriega, as well as a vicious primary campaign against the man who would become her vice-presidential candidate, Juan Carlos Navarro.
“There was an informal agreement between Torrijos and Navarro in 2004 where Torrijos would run for president and Navarro would sit it out and run for mayor.
The agreement was that Torrijos would then support Navarro for president in this election,” Berkman said.
However, early polls in 2008 showed popular support for Herrera, who then ran for and won party leadership in the PRD and announced her candidacy for president.
“Balbina and Navarro really duked it out in the primaries. They said she had links to Chavez, links to Noriega, and tried to portray her as a scary leftist candidate, which really wasn’t true. It also made Navarro look bad because he was running a mean campaign,” Berkman said. “It allowed Martinelli to stay on the sidelines and gather his own alliances and, effectively, they did Martinelli’s dirty work for him.”
Not that Martinelli didn’t receive his share of mud once the general campaign began.
A Powerpoint presentation spread by email throughout Panama alleged that the slightly uncharismatic and odd candidate nicknamed “El Loco” received psychological treatment for bipolar disorder. But the apparently bulletproof campaign denied the allegations and adopted a new slogan: “We crazies are the majority,” which was soon plastered on storefronts, car windows and T-shirts across the country. Balbina, however, had a tougher time shaking accusations against her.
Serving as mayor of a populous district of Panama City for five years under Noriega, Balabina is widely linked to the dictator, who temporarily hid out in her home after the U.S. invasion.